By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 20, 2017
Yodeling, whispering, grunting, even a dollop of Tuvan throat singing — it was all part of Sunday’s never-a-dull-moment performance at the National Gallery of Art by the vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the equally high-octane string ensemble A Far Cry. The two groups showcased new music from rising American composers, from the politically charged work of Ted Hearne to the more ethereal, post-minimalist (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) music of the remarkable Caroline Shaw.
The Far Cry players opened the afternoon with a transcription of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1917 “Visions Fugitives,” a collection of spare, suggestive miniatures for piano. Prokofiev played them occasionally as biting little encores; here, fleshed out heavily for 18 strings and served up as appetizers, they lost much of their delicate “fugitive” quality, coming off as pleasant and unremarkable as chilled shrimp.
That may have been the fault of the swampy acoustics of the West Garden Court, which swallows musical detail mercilessly. But the focus sharpened tightly when Roomful of Teeth took the stage for the searing “You Are Not the Guy,” from Hearne’s five-part exploration of racial and cultural identity, “Coloring Book.” Opening in a bouncy, swing-era style, the a cappella work (on a text describing an arrest) darkened and built in power and intensity — a kind of bitter jauntiness in the face of violence.
While much of Hearne’s music is overtly political, his dense, idea-intensive “Law of Mosaics” for strings (which followed in the second half of the program) focused more on pure music, cutting and knitting together sections from other works, deliberately upending any sense of narrative to explore new paths to meaning.
Hearne’s writing is virtuosic, complex and imaginative — almost to the point of brutality — and A Far Cry played it with fierce dedication. But it was the gentler, more warmly inviting music of Shaw and Rinde Eckert that seemed to most touch the National Gallery audience. Eckert’s yearning “Cesca’s View” from 2009 was built around a kind of melancholy yodeling, and singer Estelí Gomez turned what might have seemed a mere gimmick into a work of sensitivity and grace.
It was the music of Shaw, though, that was the most compelling of the afternoon. A member of the Teeth ensemble (sadly, not there for the performance), Shaw won the Pulitzer several years ago for her relentlessly inventive “Partita for 8 Voices,” and the singers performed its first movement, the Allemande. Effortlessly weaving together singing, spoken words and any number of vocal effects, the work seems utterly natural and unaffected and true, intellectually vibrant and spiritually almost exalting.
And that was true as well for “Music in Common Time,” a 2014 work for voices and strings that closed the program. Opening with a shimmering D chord as radiant as a sunrise, it seemed to darken and slowly unfold through waves of polytonality, using vocal effects (that Tuvan throat singing, at one point) and deceptively simple writing to create an atmosphere of elusive, luminous mystery that never let go of the heart.
Fresh off a brutal travel swing (Paris, New York, Bogata and Washington in two days), the gifted — and presumably well-caffeinated — French pianist Lise de la Salle took the stage at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon for a program devoted to the terrors and joys of love.
A prodigy who made her concert debut at the age of 9, de la Salle has developed in her 20s into a musical thinker of impressive weight, with charm, imagination and a dazzling technique. And while all that was amply evident Sunday, it seemed to take de la Salle a while to settle into the emotional depth of the music. Opening with three transcriptions by Liszt of love songs by Schumann and Wagner, de la Salle turned in big, sweeping readings that, for all their virtuosity, felt rather dry-eyed — declamatory rather than seductive, lush but rarely rapturous, detailed but lacking in tenderness or mystery. Maybe it was just understandable exhaustion. But as love goes, it all felt a bit clinical.
Things warmed up noticeably in Schumann’s “Fantasie” in C, Op. 17, which opens with an impassioned love letter to his soon-to-be-wife, Clara. De la Salle seemed, for the first time that afternoon, to be playing from the heart, bringing emotional subtlety and personality to the work.
But de la Salle’s most impressive gifts — for narrative, dramatic structure and forceful, sharp-edged playing — may have been best revealed in the closing work of the program, Prokofiev’s “10 Pieces From Romeo and Juliet,” Op. 75. A reworking of the composer’s 1935 ballet, it traces the Shakespearean story from lighthearted opening to tragic end, and de la Salle gave it a psychologically astute, often mesmerizing reading. Richly colored, imaginative and emotionally searing (the dark ending tore mercilessly at the heart), it was a striking performance that won de la Salle a standing ovation.
Zhou was in town with Music From China, the ensemble he founded in New York in 1984, as part of the Phillips’s always interesting Leading International Composers series. Zhou has earned growing praise for his large-scale works (the opera “Madame White Snake” won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2011), but the chamber works on the program — played largely on traditional Chinese instruments — were no less dazzling in their delicate intensity and epitomized Zhou’s effortless transcending of cultural boundaries.
Take, for instance, “Impression of Wintersweet,” which opened the program. It’s built around a traditional 4th-century folk melody, played on xiao (an end-blown bamboo flute) and zheng (a kind of zither). But floating quietly behind the duet was a modern “shadow” of the music, played on percussion, that made the music seem to echo between the centuries.
Zhou is a gifted musical colorist with deep roots in the natural world, as was clear in the playful dissonances and quick-changing rhythms of “Valley Stream” from 1983 and in the deft sound-painting of “Three Chinese Folk Songs” and “Taiping Drum.” “Mount a Long Wind” was an exuberant, fiery tour de force with an almost orchestral palette of sound, and the natural lyricism that runs through so much of Zhou’s music was nowhere more moving than in “Green,” a sort of vocalise for bamboo flute and pipa.
But Zhou’s most interesting and probing ideas seemed to emerge in “Heng (Eternity),” for small ensemble. Elusive and wonderfully shape-shifting, it seemed to always be on the verge of pulling the rug out from under itself — an endlessly intriguing work from a composer who is starting to win the acclaim he richly deserves.
It’s early on a crisp, clear morning in July — hours before the first tourists will start to arrive — and Dame Emily Naper is walking through the ruins of her old ancestral castle, thinking about butterflies.
“Manorbier is a magical place, the most romantic castle in the world,” she says of this picturesque 12th Century manor on the rugged coast of Wales, which she inherited three years ago. “I collected butterflies and wildflowers here as a girl, and I want to keep it natural. It’s better for the imagination, don’t you think?”
On this gorgeous morning, with the sun turning the high stone battlements to gold over our heads, it’s impossible to disagree. There may be, in fact, few medieval ruins in the world as unspoiled and naturally beautiful as Manorbier Castle. Set on a remote ridge over a small bay, this once-lavish estate has weathered the past nine centuries with remarkable grace, and everywhere you turn are the ruins of a vanished world — a kitchen fireplace large enough to roast an ox, limestone floors worn smooth with time, narrow staircases spiraling up through battle-scarred towers.
It feels forgotten and almost dreamlike here, as if we’d stumbled into a place undisturbed for centuries. And when Naper pushes open a postern door to the outside, a landscape appears that nearly takes my breath away: meadows of wildflowers sweeping down to the glittering sea, with the cliffs of the rugged Welsh coastline stretching off into the distance.
“I may never leave,” I tell her, a little intoxicated by the view. “Well,” she says with a playful grin, “if you’re interested in investing ….”
But much as we’d like to, my wife and I haven’t come to this idyllic spot — the last privately-owned medieval castle in Wales — to buy in.
In fact, we’re here on a kind of pilgrimage. Last year, I’d come across a long-forgotten genealogy of my mother’s family, which traced our ancestors back to a Norman knight named Odo. A leader of William the Conqueror’s invasion of Wales, Odo had been rewarded in 1093 with huge estates along the Welsh coast, and made a Baron. He took the name “de Barri” from a nearby island, built a castle, and settled down to start a family.
And that all led, some 900 years later, to this trip. For Odo de Barri, it turned out, was not only the builder of Manorbier Castle — he was also my 26th great-grandfather, and the man who gave my mother’s family, the Barrys, its name.
So, like anyone who discovers a castle in the family, we decided to go and have a look. And after tracking down the charming Dame Emily, who promptly offered to come meet us at Manorbier (from her, ahem, other castle, in Ireland), we flew to London at the end of June and caught the five-hour train to Tenby, a seaside town in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, just a few miles down the road.
To be honest, we’d never really paid much attention to Wales before this. Tucked between England and Ireland, the whole country is only about the size of Massachusetts, and doesn’t have much in the way of famous attractions. As far as we knew, Wales was equal parts coal mines, Dylan Thomas, and possibly sheep.
But as we waited for Naper to arrive in Pembrokeshire, we discovered that this southwest corner of Wales was both steeped in history and spectacularly beautiful. Surrounded on three sides by the ocean, it has what may be the most dramatic coastline in Britain, and if you’re ambitious enough you can hike its entire 186-mile length along the protected Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Not being that ambitious, we tackled a significantly shorter stretch, but even that was unforgettable; it’s not for nothing that National Geographic ranks this as the second-best such path in the world.
And if hiking’s not your thing, you can go whale-watching off the coast, inspect rare puffins in the wildlife preserves, or try the local sport of “coasteering,” which we were told (before we ran away, whimpering) involves helmets, wetsuits, and “flinging yourself from towering vertical rock faces."
Tenby itself, meanwhile, turned out to be a pleasantly old-fashioned seaside resort with cobblestone streets and pastel-colored Victorian houses, perched almost jauntily on a cliff over the ocean. With great restaurants and any number of sun-drenched cafes to choose from, we could have happily lazed away our week there doing pretty much nothing at all.
But we’d had the good fortune to meet one of the most intriguing people in Pembrokeshire. Marc Treanor, a fifty-something artist, philosopher and genial free spirit, makes a living carving vast geometric “sand circles” into the beaches of Wales. Intricate and immense — they can run fifty yards across— and not unlike crop circles, his creations can only be fully seen from above. And Tenby, with its high cliffside promenades looking down over flat sandy beaches, makes a near-perfect canvas.
So we met up with Treanor on Tenby’s North Beach one gray afternoon for a private workshop, and for the next few hours — using only long wooden sticks, a ball of string, and a daunting amount of concentration — we drew a series of long, intersecting curves in the sand, darkening sections here and there with metal rakes. From ground level, it just looked like a lot of scratches. But we noticed that a crowd had gathered on the cliff above us, and when we finally put down our rakes and climbed up to join them, we saw what we’d created: a gigantic, mandala-like “flower of life” that seemed to blossom out of the sand. It felt like we had tattooed the world.
“Ah, but now comes the best part,” Treanor said, pointing out at the tide. “By tomorrow, it will have all washed away. It’s ephemeral. And that’s what makes it beautiful.”
That philosophy might, in a way, also apply to Wales’ main attraction: its ancient castles. There are some 600 of them scattered around the country — more than anywhere else in Europe — ranging from rudimentary earthworks to restored manor houses, and most have fallen into a state of picturesque, even poetic, decay. The remnants of Cilgerran Castle, for instance, are so mercilessly poignant that they were a tourist attraction way back in the 18th Century, and there are few sights as sigh-inducing as the elegant ruins of Carew Castle at sunset.
That poetry, though, tends to evaporate when you’re being guided around in a herd, and Pembrokeshire’s most famous castles — Carew, the historic fortress of Pembroke, the elegantly-preserved Picton and a few others — are fixtures on the well-worn tourist route, with hordes of visitors trudging through every day.
Those castles are still worth seeing, but it’s far more rewarding to get off the beaten track. So the next morning we navigated Pembrokeshire’s narrow lanes to a tiny, remote village by the sea, walked down a stately drive, crossed over a grassy, long-dry moat and found ourselves, quite alone, at the door of Manorbier Castle.
“Nobody knows we’re here!” Naper cheerfully greeted us, as she bustled around with her small staff, getting the place ready to open for the day.
Given its beauty and spectacular setting, it’s odd that Manorbier has remained so overlooked. First built by Odo de Barri in earth and timber, the castle was rebuilt in stone by his son William around 1140 and expanded over the next two hundred years, to include a chapel, guard towers and barns within the high curtain walls, all of which remain. But after passing out of Barry hands in the 14th Century, Manorbier gradually declined, and by 1630 was being described as “ruynous.”
And little has changed since.
“It was like the Titanic when I first came here,” Naper told us, over a cup of tea in the courtyard. She’s made necessary repairs, cleaned up the gardens and and developed ways to boost income (castles are insatiable money pits), from opening a small cafe, to hosting weddings in the chapel, to presenting evenings of opera in the open courtyard. But she has little use for the guided tours and elaborate displays of her competitors, and Manorbier remains refreshingly low-key. Visitors can roam the castle freely on their own, soaking up the atmosphere and letting their imaginations be their guide.
And Manorbier has one more feature that, we were about to find, makes it perhaps the most distinctive anywhere. There’s an unobtrusive 19th Century cottage inside the castle walls which Naper rents it out by the week, and it’s usually booked years in advance. But the cottage had come open just as we arrived, and Naper, to our delight, told us we could take it for the night. We would have the entire castle to ourselves, she said, putting the key into my hand.
So after a stroll on the nearby beach and dinner in the village, we walked back to Manorbier in the summer twilight to reclaim, if only briefly, the long-lost Barry castle. And for the next few hours, as the shadows deepened around us, we wandered through the silent ruins alone. We sat in the huge, crumbling hall where my ancestors had lived their lives, lingered in the chapel where they had prayed, and climbed an ancient tower to look, as they would have, out over the darkening sea.
It was, as Naper had said, magical. And when the stars finally came out over the crenellated walls, we said goodnight to the ghosts we’d conjured up, took a last look around, and went into the cottage to dream.
IF YOU GO:
Pembrokeshire is easy to get to from either England or Ireland, and Tenby is a perfect base for exploring. We took a circular route, flying into London and taking the five-hour train to Tenby the next day. We returned home via Dublin, taking the ferry from Pembroke to the Irish port of Rosslare, then a train north to the capital. Makes for a great trip.
London: The Arts Club
40 Dover Street, Mayfair London W1S 4NP
020 7499 8581
It's worth going to London just to stay at The Arts Club, in the heart of Mayfair Elegant, luxurious, and incredibly hip, this iconic club has been around since 1863, and a top-to-bottom renovation several years ago has made it perhaps the best hotel in town. Drinks in the courtyard and dinner at the superb Brasserie made for an unforgettable stay.
Dublin: The Westbury Hotel
Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland
353 1 679 1122
It was our first trip to Dublin, and the gorgeous, centrally-located Westbury Hotel, just off lively Grafton Street, was a perfect base for exploring the city.
Both elegant and friendly, with a superb new restaurant called Wilde, the Westbury left little to be desired. Highly recommended.
The historic Welsh seaside resort of Tenby offers everything from surfing to whale-watching, or just strolling its ancient cobblestone lanes. Don’t expect fancy; Tenby is a relaxed, down-to-earth place with plenty of comfortable family hotels and great seafood. Great for families.
The Park Hotel
North Cliff, Tenby
South Pembrokeshire, SA70 8AT
+44 018 34 84 2480
We loved the old-fashioned Park Hotel, with its unbeatable views of Tenby. Set on a verdant cliff about a ten-minute walk from the town center, it’s comfortable and loaded with personality. Rooms run $160 to $250 in season.
Plantagenet House Restaurant
Quay Hill, Tudor Square, Tenby SA70 7BX
+44 01834 84 23 50
Housed in the oldest building in Tenby (parts of it date back to the 10th Century) Plantagenet House was a real find, with world-class cuisine and an old-world atmosphere. The imaginative, locally-sourced entrees run $26 to $50, with most starters about $10.
3 Crackwell Street, Tenby SA70 7HA
+44 1834 84 96 36
For coffee or light lunch with a great view over North Beach, this awesomely hip cafe is the place to hang out. Try the amazing cappuccino (about $3) and Greek lunch dishes ($10 to $16).
PLACES TO SEE
Pembrokshire’s medieval castles offer a compelling look into its fascinating, turbulent and romantic past. There are about a dozen of them within an hour of Tenby worth seeing, including:
Manorbier, Tenby SA70 7SY
+44 1834 87 00 81
Manorbier Castle isn’t the biggest castle in Wales, but it may be the most captivating. Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, March through October ($7.50 admission). Plan to spend a day there; after exploring the ruins, you can stroll down to the beach for a picnic, or hike the magnificent coastline. The 12th Century church of St. James and a neolithic stone tomb called the King’s Quoit are also within easy walking distance.
For a unique experience, stay in Manorbier’s fully-equipped cottage, which gives you the entire castle to yourself in the evening. It sleeps 12 and goes for $4,160 per week in the summer, and about half that in winter. But book early — it’s popular.
Pembroke, Pembrokeshire, SA71 4LA
+44 01646 68 15 10
The most important castle in Pembrokeshire, Pembroke Castle is open year-round (summer hours 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, adult admission £6.60) and is heavy on exhibits, special events and re-enactments of medieval life. A great place to bring kids.
Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire SA62 4AS
+44 01437 75 13 26
Open from mid-March through October (10 am to 5 pm, admission $12.50), the 12th Century Picton Castle is wonderfully well-preserved, and furnished with 18th Century antiques. It’s also home to one of the most beautiful gardens in Wales, a fine restaurant, and — awesomely — a world-class collection of antique lawnmowers.
Carew, Tenby SA70 8SL
+44 1646 65 17 82
The 13th Century Carew Castle is a stunner, with a rich history and elegant setting — it’s built on the site of an Iron Age fort — and should be on everyone’s castle list. Open March to October, admission $7.00.
NON-CASTLE-Y THINGS TO DO
If you’re castled-out (it happens), hike at least some of the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coastal Path for some fresh air and the most stunning views in Britain. Or drop by Tenby’s harbor to find a huge range of fun, affordable boat trips, including deep sea fishing, whale watching, and outings to nearby islands. The picturesque Cistercian monastery on Caldey Island is a popular destination for day-trippers.
For a more offbeat experience, spend an afternoon with the artist Marc Treanor creating a mysterious “sand circle” on one of Pembrokeshire’s beaches. He’s great fun to hang out with, and offers private workshops tailored to your group. Contact him via his website, www.sandcircles.co.uk.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 11, 2016
The world of baroque music — with its courtly manners and faint aroma of wig powder — may have seemed, in the past, like a rather staid place. But a slew of adventurous and hard-charging new ensembles has changed all that, and few have been more exciting than the Venice Baroque Orchestra, which brought its vivid and incisive playing to Dumbarton Oaks on Sunday night.
The evening was devoted largely to Vivaldi, and the focus on a single composer — featuring fully six of his concertos — might have become a little wearing on the ears. But from the opening notes of the Concerto in G minor, RV 577, the 18-member ensemble, under the direction of Andrea Marcon, found almost limitless worlds of drama and color to explore.
Playing on period instruments, pitching a pleasantly astringent string section against the plaintive warble of oboes, the woody, dove-like cooing of recorders, and the delicate underpinning of harpsichord and theorbo, the ensemble’s Vivaldi ranged from riveting to flat-out explosive. There’s a wildness in Vivaldi’s music that makes it so exciting, a sense of barely controlled fury in his huge, cascading waves of sound. But there’s also a heart-breaking vulnerability at its core, and the Venice players balanced them to perfection.
Although the focus was on Vivaldi, the ensemble also dispatched Handel’s stately Concerto Grosso in B-flat, Op. 3, No. 3 without incident, and it turned in a wonderfully deft and playful reading of Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 4. But the most spectacular playing of the evening came in the arrangement of two works by Vivaldi and J.S. Bach by Anna Fusek, one of the group’s recorder players. Playing a sopranino recorder known as a “flautino,” Fusek turned in a virtuosic tour de force, soulful in its central Largo movement and almost impossibly agile in the closing Giga, which seemed to approach the velocity and weightlessness of light.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 21, 2016
You’d expect a group calling itself Sandbox Percussion to take a playful approach to music — and you’d be right, as this New York-based quartet proved Sunday in a sophisticated but seriously fun afternoon of contemporary music at the Phillips Collection. Focusing on works written, more or less, last week by composers the group knows and works with, Sandbox brought out the immediacy, lack of pretension and high-end playfulness that seems — thankfully — to be revitalizing the world of contemporary music. And their jaw-dropping virtuosity made it all seem like . . . well, child’s play.
The afternoon opened with stark simplicity: Steve Reich’s 1973 “Music for Pieces of Wood.” The work is as spare as its title, played with mallets on four small boards held by the players. But as the simple pulse it opens with is gradually extended, layers of rhythmic patterns build and shift against one another, growing with a kind of clockwork into an immense, implacable and deliriously expanding cathedral of sound.
A work by Sandbox member Jonny Allen followed — the rolling, bluesy “Sonata” was captivating, with a sensuality rare in percussion music. But it was Andy Akiho’s “LIgNEouS1” — for which Ian David Rosenbaum on marimba was joined by the Amphion String Quartet — that revealed some of the afternoon’s most colorful imagination (and bravura playing). From its scherzolike third movement (which was played first; it’s a work in progress) to its elegiac second and driving, wildly intense first movement, it was clear that Akiho commands a vividly imagined sound world of exceptional depth and scope.
The four Sandbox players returned to form a circle around chimes and a bass drum for “Extremes,” an intricate work by Jason Treuting, one of the founders of the illustrious So Percussion ensemble. David Crowell’s “Music for Percussion Quartet” came next, contrasting the jangled rhythms of New York with meditative, shimmering sounds drawn from the composer’s time in Alaska.
The afternoon closed, as it began, with Reich. Sandbox played the composer’s iconic “Drumming (Part 1)” with such infectious vitality that an august audience member (94 years young, we were told) leapt to his feet for an impromptu jig in the aisle — a totally appropriate response. A roaring standing ovation brought Sandbox back for an encore, Akiho’s lilting “Karakurenai.”
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 13, 2016
The Library of Congress is famous for showcasing the world’s best chamber music groups — its concert series at the Coolidge Auditorium is one of the District’s must-hear events. But the Library is also a quiet champion of new music from living composers, and on Friday night, those roles came together in a performance by the New York-based Talea Ensemble, featuring four new cutting-edge, strikingly original works, three of them commissioned by the Library itself.
The evening opened with “SynchroniCities,” by Talea co-founder Anthony Cheung. Described by the composer as a “personal sonic travelogue,” this 2012 octet proved to be a playful, quick-witted work, deftly tying the external world of sound to Cheung’s own internal cultural landscape — a probing, fascinating piece, awash in vibrant colors and as charming in the ears as in the brain.
Harder to cozy up to was “Wild Romance,” for soprano and eight players, by the inventive Greek composer George Aperghis. Jabbing and stabbing, driven by staccato bursts of sound and an anxious, unsettled energy, the work seemed to chase elusive shadows and then flee from them in terror. (Which, yes, does sound like some romances.) Soprano Jane Sheldon turned in a stunning performance of this often scorching piece, the only work of the evening not commissioned by the Library.
Julian Anderson’s “Van Gogh/Blue” is, you will not be surprised to hear, inspired by the paintings and letters of the iconic painter, and it’s as radiant and light-filled as anything Van Gogh ever painted. Tracing the course of a day in the countryside — from a rapturous evocation of early-morning light to a wild dance under a torrent of stars — it’s a vivid work, steeped in Anderson’s own distinctively meditative approach. Luminous playing from clarinetists Marianne Gythfeldt and Rane Moore — who moved gradually from the stage to the back of the hall, as if echoing the arc of the sun — added to the cosmic dimensions of this fine new work, heard in its U.S. premiere.
The music of Brian Ferneyhough — a composer inevitably linked with the love-it-or-hate-it “New Complexity” movement — can be daunting even to the most adventurous ears. And his “Contracolpi” (heard here in its world premiere) is, indeed, a rigorous and exceptionally complex new work. But it’s also jaw-dropping in its sonic imagination — a gorgeous cascade of elegant surprises, poetic to its molecules and absolutely riveting from first note to last. It’s probably unwise to declare a new work a masterpiece on only one hearing, but never mind: This is a masterpiece. Kudos to both the library and the Talea Ensemble, which played the work (and everything else on the program) with verve and immaculate virtuosity.