January Classical Music Preview: Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Barbieri & Barber, and more

Our picks for the best concerts, operas, and classical performances this month.

By: Sudip Bose

Violinist Joshua Bell will perform at the Kennedy Center on January 23. Photograph courtesy of Sony BMG Masterworks.

With January comes a welcome end to nonstop Christmas fare and a sterling lineup of classical music, including the chance to hear some of the most soulful, sublime, and profound pieces ever written: the six Unaccompanied Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach. The best interpretations (I’m thinking especially of Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma, though every great cellist has included these touchstones in his or her repertoire) end up being soul-searching journeys that traverse a wide range of emotion and thought, revealing as much about the artist as about the composer. January 7 at StrathmoreZuill Bailey, a cellist who produces a rich, exquisite tone and who exudes charm and charisma from the stage, plays the Bach suites in an afternoon concert, before joining Piotr Gajewski and the National Philharmonic for a performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 later that evening—a sure test of both physical and intellectual endurance. Gajewski also conducts the National Philharmonic in performances of two other masterpieces of the classical era: Beethoven’s driving, intense Grosse Fuge, and Mozart’s final symphony, the Symphony No. 41, known also as the Jupiter.

Plácido Domingo did his best to popularize zarzuela here during his time in charge of the Washington National Opera, and yet this very idiomatically Spanish form of musical theater—blending music, dialogue, and speech—has never really caught on this side of the Atlantic. Still, it’s an art form well worth exploring, full of the high and the low, tragedy and comedy, and evoking (like little else can) the heady sounds and sights of 19th-century Spain. El barberillo de Lavapiés (The Little Barber of Lavapiés), composed by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, one of the masters of zarzuela, combines a love story with politics and a good dose of satire. The In Series stages the work at Source January 7 through 22 in English translation, ingeniously coupled with Samuel Barber’s ten-minute opera A Hand of Bridge, a light, jazzy work depicting two couples playing cards. It’s a piece many worlds away from Barber’s operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra (the masterful if flawed work that famously flopped after opening the Met in 1966).

Like Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh—legendary violinists who picked up the baton later in their careers— Itzhak Perlman has been assuming the role of conductor with increasing regularity over the last decade or so. His musical tastes seem not to stray from the standard orchestral repertoire, and his concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra January 14 at Strathmore predictably features oft-heard works: Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. Perlman also appears as soloist-conductor in two more iconic pieces: the “Winter” and “Summer” concertos from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

On April 21, 1915, Jean Sibelius wrote in his diary: “Today I saw 16 swans. God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a silver ribbon.” The vision lingered, obsessed him, and worked its way eventually into musical form: a motif of rising and falling chords scored for horns. The so-called swan theme appears prominently throughout the glorious final movement of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5—a grand, restless, sweeping nine minutes or so that slows down almost unbearably at the end, the swan theme manipulated this way and that, becoming dissonant, then consonant, suggesting both terror and beauty, until we get to one of the strangest endings in all of music: six spaced out, shattering chords that do nothing less than open up the heavens. The Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu leads a performance of the work with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center January 12 through 14, featuring soloist Leila Josefowicz. The program also includes five of Claude Debussy’s Preludes, arranged for orchestra by the English composer Colin Matthews, and Steven Mackey’s violin concerto Beautiful Passing. Mackey, a child of 1960s northern California, is fluent on the electric guitar, as comfortable in the world of pop music as he is in the concert hall. He wrote the concerto in memory of his mother, whose dying words give the work its name: “Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing.”

You could paraphrase that old joke about London buses when it comes to Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1: You don’t hear one for ages, then along come two performances in a month. A week after the National Philharmonic concert, the Fairfax Symphony and cellist Sergey Antonov present the work January 14 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, and January 15 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, conducted by the orchestra’s music director, Christopher Zimmerman. Antonov won the coveted gold medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2007. Also on the program: Alexander Glazunov’s Chant du Ménéstrel and Symphony No. 11 of Dmitri Shostakovich, an intense, powerful work whose cinematic qualities can seem to verge on the maudlin.

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817) was one of the founders of French comic opera in the 18th century, and his work Le Roi et le Fermier (The King and the Farmer) proved at once successful and controversial, championed by Marie-Antoinette and performed at the Théâtre de la Reine at Versailles in 1780. Opera Lafayette, founded in DC in 1995 and led by artistic director Ryan Brown, performs 18th-century French operatic repertoire better than just about anybody else. Their period-instrument interpretation of Le Roi et le Fermier is sold out at the Kennedy Center on January 21, but tickets are still available for a preview performance at the Atlas Performing Arts Center January 20—a chance to see the show before it goes on tour to Lincoln Center and Versailles.

The Kennedy Center Chamber Players are always worth hearing, not only for the skill and artistry of the performers (principals with the NSO) but also for the interesting programs they put together. The group’s recital on January 22 features four of Max Bruch’s eight pieces for clarinet, viola, and piano, Op. 38 (with clarinetist Loren Kitt, violist Daniel Foster, and pianist Lambert Orkis); Serge Prokofiev’s D Major Sonata (originally written for flute and piano, made popular in an arrangement for violin by David Oistrakh, and here performed by Orkis and bassoonist Sue Heineman); and the noble Archduke Trio by Beethoven, one of the masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire (performed by violinist Marissa Regni, Foster, and cellist David Hardy).

Marin Alsop conducts a program of warhorses with the Baltimore Symphony on January 19 and 22 at the Meyerhoff HallRavel’s Boléro, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Olga Kern). Alsop also leads an Off the Cuff event dedicated to Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra January 20 at Strathmore. And January 28 at Strathmore, Alsop juxtaposes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (the Pastoral), the composer’s paean to nature (featuring the most visceral musical depiction of a thunderstorm ever written), with Philip Glass’s LIFE: A Journey Through Time. Whatever your feelings about Glass and/or minimalism, this work promises to engage on multiple levels, combining orchestrations of several Glass pieces with projections of photographs depicting the natural world taken by National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting.

Joshua Bell is a throwback to the golden age of violin playing, his unabashed romantic style marked by a sweet, burnished tone, throbbing vibrato, and liberal use of portamento (the slide from note to note used to color a phrase or line). For his Washington Performing Arts Society recital with pianist Sam Haywood January 23 at the Kennedy Center, he performs sonatas by Mendelssohn, Brahms (the tumultuous D minor), and Ravel (with its blues-inflected middle movement), as well as the difficult Ballade of Eugene Ysaÿe, part of a set of six solo violin sonatas written in part homage to Bach.

Pianist Graham Johnson—a renowned vocal accompanist who’s performed with the greatest singers of the 20th and 21st centuries, including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Victoria de los Angeles, Lucia Popp, Felicity Lott, and Elly Ameling—discovered the German lyric soprano Lydia Teuscher after instructing her in a master class. The two appear together in a recital of songs by SchubertRichard StraussSchumannMendelssohn, and Haydn at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater January 26. Teuscher has appeared at the Glyndebourne Festival in England and with the Bavarian State Opera, as well as in concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zürich.

Jörg Widmann is that rarest of classical artists: equally adept as a performer and a composer. He studied composition with two giants of contemporary music, Hans Werner Henze and Wolfgang Rihm, and his work  Armonica, scored for glass harmonica and orchestra and premiered by Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic, will be performed by Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra January 26 through 29, with Christa Schönfeldinger as soloist. The haunting work, filled with beguiling sonorities, offers a stark contrast to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K. 622, which will give Widmann a chance to display his artistry as clarinetist. (Is there a lovelier, more meltingly gorgeous slow movement than that of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto?) The performance concludes with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, the Great C major, a work that recalls the classicism of Mozart while anticipating the great sonic expanses of Anton Bruckner.

I’ve been listening quite a bit lately to Paolo Pandolfo’s arrangements of the Bach Cello Suites for the viola da gamba. Performing these masterpieces on the viola da gamba (the forerunner to the cello, with six strings, frets, and a baroque bow that is drawn across the strings underhand, rather than overhand, as modern-day string players do) transforms them, making them sound familiar yet hauntingly new. Pandolfo, one of the world’s great viola da gamba virtuosos, imbues the suites with a lilting, improvisatory quality, emphasizing their dance elements. He’ll perform these works, along with pieces by C.F. Abel, on January 28 at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium—a perfect bookend to Zuill Bailey’s recital earlier in the month.

Simone Dinnerstein’s astonishing rise to stardom began in 2005 when she rented out the Weill Recital Hall in New York and performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The public went wild. So did the critics. A self-financed recording of the variations followed, which ended up in the hands of the record executives at the Telarc label. To say that the record sold ridiculously well is a massive understatement: Dinnerstein instantly became one of the hottest artists in classical music. How refreshing, however, that she doesn’t rely on mere virtuosity or showboating, unlike so many bland and empty performers these days. She’s a real individual who takes interpretive chances and goes against accepted wisdom—not unlike her teacher, Peter Serkin. Her recital for Washington Performing Arts Society at Strathmore January 29 features music by BachSchumannBrahms, and Chopin, as well as Daniel Felsenfeld’s Cohen Variations , which takes its inspiration from Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne.”