Friday, January 31, 2014


A bit late to the newest iteration of this old party (via Lisa Hirsch). There has been solid slagging all around, but after sufficient hole poking in the "classical music is dead" premise/arguments, the real question that emerges is: why do people love trolling classical music so much?

As much as some people would have you believe, the classical music story doesn't fit so neatly into a story of obsolescence and creative destruction. Classical music isn't the horse drawn buggy or chemical film development--its consumers are purchasing an experience from which they derive psychic satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, and sure, in some cases vindication of some pretty corrupt politics. The point is, culture lives in a world with the laws of supply and demand, but that doesn't mean its bound by the most reductive version of that story.

I mean, this seems like a pretty clear distinction, so why do we get "... is dead" articles instead of "state of ..." articles? I blame liberal self-loathing--the same kind of action that keeps David Brooks in business. The bait operates on two levels. The first is the classic case, the liberal who really doesn't care about classical music (which is fine!) but who occasionally cultivates their inner 17 (or 33) year old ready to throw anything overboard that hints at the establishment or the rich. The second is the actual classical music listener, who, conditioned by years of rightwing conditioning and centrist positioning, secretly questions the legitimacy of their latte-drinking and volvo driving preferences. Denigration of their pleasures and cultural touchstones is the price of living in a blue state after all, so just chuckle politely and take your medicine.

As far as clickbait goes, this can be annoying, but we're all mature enough to suffer a little angst while reading the internet. The bigger issue is that this imaginary debate sucks the air out of real coverage of a sector of the economy and the culture that actually matters to a healthy portion of the culture-interested classes of major cities. Slate readers are the kind of people that live in big cities, peruse the culture pages in their local papers, even cross paths with their music institutions once in a while--but instead of a letting a million Slate pitches blooming about what really makes orchestras sound good we get this tired garbage designed to get readers' goat.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Goerne and Eschenbach play Schubert

After kicking myself for two (?) years for having missed the Matthias Goerne/Christoph Eschenbach Winterreise in favor of choir rehearsal or some other garbage, this evening's rendition of Die Schone Mullerin offered some long-awaited relief. My only live experiences with Goerne thus far have been in the context of large scale symphony concerts. While no doubt rewarding given his always thoughtful singing, these outings have generally been marred by a pushy-shouty edge that just doesn't jibe with that molten voice one knows and loves from his recordings.

Rest assured, nothing of the sort was at issue in the Terrace Theater tonight. Goerne in Schubert, live, in an intimate space, is pure lieder-magic. That special velvety voice surprises again and again with its sound, but its never beauty for the sake of beauty. Goerne delivers these songs with a staggeringly complete level of emotional detail, each coming alive with such varied and specific feeling that the hour plus of music feels like it passes in 20 minutes. What's more, he digs deep into Schubert's complicated psychological portrayal, bringing out the miller's melancholy and passion, but his simmering resentment toward the object of his affection, too. Schubert draws an uncanny portrait of the wrathful "nice guy" that is all too familiar to internet users of today, and Goerne evokes this with disturbing clarity.

There will be some griping about Eschenbach as partner, as his contribution isn't that CD-quality smoothness we expect from recital pianists. He smudges stuff here and there, and some of the more challenging passages teeter dangerously close to breakdown. But I'd take what a lesser-rehearsed Eschenbach serves over the alternative every time. Together, he and Goerne deliver a level of emotional and dramatic consistency between voice and piano that one rarely gets to hear in recitals where the pianist is focused on being the dutiful accompanist. There was a vivid quality to this reading where we usually get one dimension, and that is due to Eschenbach's great musical intelligence and his constant search for those truthful moments that bring us closer to the emotional core of the piece.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

I Masnadieri at WCO

I Masnadieri, Washington Concert Opera, September 22, 2013
Walker; Thomas, Oropesa

Well, thanks to the GOP I have a lot of time on my hands right now so thought I'd go back and finish this post about the first of the two Verdi rarities WCO is doing this season, I Masnadieri, from last month...

The libretto, from a play by Schiller, doesn't make for a very good opera, but, set to a lot of solid early-mid period Verdi, it is at least bad in interesting ways. It's not that I Masnadieri's forgettable principals have so much more personality than beloved stock characters elsewhere, but here we find them systematically shorn of that choice or relationship that makes for compelling drama. Love interest Amalia stands steadfastly by her man Carlo even though he's rashly started rampaging with the bandits, but up until the surprise stabbing ending, this really seems like the noble choice. Carlo himself seems like a better bet, but his tragedy turns on his shame in joining the bandits, who, with their campy choruses, seem about as threatening as those South Pacific roughs. His failing father, Massimiliano, might have driven home this shame point, but unfortunately they don't have a scene together until late in the play, when a bewildered Massimiliano (having been imprisoned in a tomb by the evil brother) doesn't even recognize Carlo as his son. As for that evil brother, Francesco, we get three acts of unmitigated mustache-twirling and then, out of nowhere, comes a compelling monologue about dreams of hell signifying some sort of burgeoning guilt, but our window of interest is long past. It makes one appreciate the skill with which a piece like Trovatore takes similar raw materials but delivers an immortal potboiler instead.

The evening's Carlo, Russel Thomas, offered the evening's greatest vocal attraction--a big swashbuckling sound that provided pleasure throughout Carlo's solid if not terribly memorable numbers. Only real point of reservation were some unrefined sounds in his piano singing. Lisette Oropesa was perhaps the best known name onstage given her growing list of Met roles (though I think I've only heard her Woodbird via HD). The sound is distinguished and highly controlled with a bit of astringent edge, capable of blossoming wonderfully in the top of the voice. She made handy work of the role's coloratura components, though more admirable than effortless. Mind you, its hard to imagine Amalia's cumbersome opening aria, written as a showpiece calling card for Jenny Lind, coming off much better.

WCO offered a fine array of lower-voiced men to round out the cast, all of which deserved praise, including Scott Hendricks as villain Francesco, Hao Jiang Tian as the unlucky father, and a short but memorable turn by Solomon Howard as the priest who denies Francesco absolution.

Maestro Antony Walker made an excellent case for many of the work's constituent parts, particularly the ensemble closing the first act. The WCO orchestra followed him dutifully through some ambitious tempi that really showed off the momentum Verdi creates, marred only by a few brief moments of fuzziness for the strings. While the choral parts ultimately tend to detract from the overall thrust of the drama, high props must be given to the group assembled here, particularly the men, which kept the precision and musical values high through a great deal of material, including a particularly challenging extended a cappella chorus.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Because the Night...Tristan at WNO

Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, September 18, 2013
Auguin; Theorin, Storey, Bishop, Rutherford, Schwinghammer

Well, DC's love affair with Phillipe Auguin shows no signs of abating if this past Wednesday's Tristan und Isolde (the second outing of this run) is any evidence. Auguin and the WNO received probably the biggest applause of the evening and it was well deserved, too. Again and again, Auguin found that Wagner sweet spot, maintaining a constant momentum while never noticeably shortchanging that critical stillness where needed. The WNO orchestra sounded gorgeous throughout, save, oddly, some pitchiness on a few of the solo violin parts.

The production, from Opera Australia, is straightforward but handsome, keying primarily off the first act's ship deck but abstract enough to serve for the other locales. There is a water feature, which is nice, but the finest moments came with some of the lighting effects, which brilliantly illuminate the monochrome set at choice moments, for instance, a spectacular sunrise for the end of the Act II duet. The blocking is restrained, allowing a focus on the music. The staging of the prelude, however, in which Isolde enters with Tristan early on, only to nap through the next 7 minutes or so, seemed like the worst kind of counterproductive prelude staging, where the audience was teased with enough stage action to distract from the music, but then given nothing of substance to make it worthwhile.

Deborah Voigt's cancellation had a happy ending, as the DMV got another chance to hear Irene Theorin, one of the heroes of WNO's memorable/infamous Gotterdammerung: In Concert several years back. She duly dominated Act I, with a thrilling conclusion to the curse narrative. Others may excel in sheer beauty of sound, but Theorin's solid, passionate sound ensured the big moments of Act I soared as intended.

While the orchestra remained in top form, the Act II duet was less successful vocally, with both Theorin and her Tristan, Ian Storey, encountering balance issues with the pit. Where Theorin's challenges seemed most likely a bit of miscalculation, Storey's limitations felt more fundamental. At forte, within a limited band, he turns out a great sound in a sort of rough and tumble Clifton Forbis mode. But getting traction on the delicate piano dynamics of the duet was a challenge. Getting this passage to fulfill its potential in real time always seems tremendously improbable, and this performance was no exception--significant effort notwithstanding, the magic didn't really click until shortly before the final climax. Baritone Wilhelm Schwinghammer offered a compelling Koenig Marke to close the Act. (Wagner skeptic friend at 2nd intermission: "That was the best part! At least he had some good points to make...")

While not ideal for Act II, Storey acquitted himself admirably in the great Act III sequence for Tristan, providing his scarred, granite voice providing a durable, effective vehicle for Tristan's madness. James Rutherford contributed a particularly sympathetic Kurwenal. Unfortunately, the castle invasion sequence ended up being a bridge too far for this intimate production, with clumsy handling of the scores of knights. I'm sure there's a production out there that gets this right, but how refreshing would it be to have this moment staged as a spasm of really cathartic violence instead of a string of slightly doofy opera fights? Great closing Liebestod from Theorin.

A winning night overall, and what a delight to start the season with something meaty rather than, say, warmed-over Tosca!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wagner Bicentennial Peeps Diorama

Stop what you are doing and go vote for our Die Walkure-inspired peeps diorama on the Washington Post website:

For the record, Chereau, Wieland Wagner (an anti-peep diorama), and Zambello (for some local flavor) were considered as other jumping off points, but the team reached a compromise to not be complete nerds, and we went with kitschified Schenk.

Vote early and often!

Update: A few more pics, full gallery here. Here's Wotan waiting just off stage to lay the smack down on Peephilde...

The orchestra...

And still hanging around beneath the stage are some of Nibelungen, and just offstage above is a very melancholy looking Peep-glinde...

And here's some more detail of the audience:

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Manon Lescaut at WNO

So, before I get into the show itself, I must admit to being an in-house Manon Lescaut newbie. While seeing the thing staged didn't exactly make me a convert, I definitely have a better appreciation for where its virtues lie, especially when the indomitable Pat Racette was making the case.

Her success was perhaps slightly tempered by a somewhat middling cast around her--one was more or less biding the time til she opened her mouth again--but surely a success nonetheless. The part sits beautifully in her voice, and the audience sat in rapt attention at the delicate shading she brought to each of the big moments, not least of all her "Sola, Perdutta, Abandonnata." That said, there's certainly room for her to take the character deeper--there isn't too much breathing space between flighty and somber in that second Act, and Racette hasn't quite thread the needle on how to make the whole thing click, while the desperation of Act III was credible but not quite distinctive yet.

Her Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev, delivered a big beefy sound where it counts, but inconsistencies plagued the rest of his performance. He had an awfully rough time getting started, and once there still managed to frequently slip into muddy intonation and choppy support. A limited bag of FX and sense of nuance also meant the arias were pretty static. Though credit is due for his work in Acts 3 and 4--his palabale anguish and ringing upper register made for a fine partner to Racette and the Le Havre/Louisiana desert sequence resonated in a way that the Act II reunion did not. (Though to my newbie vantage point, this scene feels generally problematic, with the audience poorly set up to sympathize with the lovers in the absence of any other material showing Des Grieux and Manon in love, something Massenet's iteration does quite well.)

Musical values were reinforced by Philipe Auguin in the pit, who delivered a warm, precise reading of the score and brought the best out of the WNO band. As his sophomore year draws to a close, Auguin's presence on the podium continues to guarantee an evening of high musical interest.

This revival is the work of director John Pascoe, who also brought us the fall's very effective Don Giovanni--unfortunately both dramatic and aesthetic sensibilities feel muddled here. Making sense of the 19th century values that drive the Manon story is a challenge for thoughtful modern productions of either of the great settings, and with obstacles like the leaden coquetry business in the first Act, this challenge should not be underestimated.  Yet these questions are really central to how the work is presented: how should we engage the "fallen woman" narrative? What does our sympathy for Manon and ostensible identification with Des Grieux mean? How do we understand the character's choices relative to the male authority figures which shape and bind her path at every step?

Pascoe doesn't offer many clear ideas on these fronts, but rather seems to actually dig in around a deliberately non-inquisitive reading. Take for instance the cloyingly nostalgic device of a Disney-enchanted-castle size piece of parchment paper upon which Des Grieux' narration from the original novel appears, which splits apart to reveal each scene, and sometimes closes halfway to frame one of the key arias (props where due--the last is an effective choice). Watching Puccini's great personal statements for Manon delivered, literally, through the prism of Des Grieux' pen is the kind of setup another production might have a field day with, but alas, I think here we are supposed to take it at face value.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New Parsifal at the Met

Caught the final night of the new Met Parsifal last Saturday and will add my voice to the chorus that has rightly praised this production's thoughtfulness and superior musical virtues. After the debacle of the LePage Ring, the Met really needed to prove it could still do right by Wagner, and with this show, they have unquestionably shown that they can.

The cast speaks for itself, bringing together some of the finest exponents of these roles available today. Kaufmann's unique baritone-flavor tenor brings a very different color to the music than the traditional blazing heldentenor sound, which aligns nicely with the bleak sobriety of the production. Pape's Gurnemanz is pretty much the gold standard, of course--listening to that unceasing outpouring of lush legato you can only pity whoever has to eventually step into his shoes. Dalayman was loud and awesome, as is her wont, even if Act 2 didn't quite catch fire the way it did last time with Waltraud.

But the revelation of the evening, at least for me, was Peter Mattei's Amfortas. Mattei's rich, urgent sound and beautifully precise realization of this part has, I think, permanently banished Thomas Hampson as the default Amfortas I hear in my head, and for that I thank him (and no, I don't really mean that as a burn on Hampson, whose Amfortas is a reminder of all the good things about him and very few of the bad, but it's just been way too long since I got excited about Amfortas, you know?) To boot, Mattei offered a searing physical performance the likes of which one rarely sees in the opera house, a testament to both his acting chops and the direction.

As for the production by Francois Girard, it gets some big things very right and at least one thing pretty wrong--a success to be sure, but a qualified one...

In Girard's vision, the grail knights inhabit a barren world devoid of any nature or sustenance, indeed of any evidence of the divine save for the magic spear and goblet talismans anchoring their bleak outlook. The knights spend most of Act I hunched in a tight, insular circle, a symbol not of equal brotherhood but of society feeding on itself incessantly. Moreover, while there are more women than usual in this grail zone, they are pointedly segregated upstage, suggesting that the all-male society of the grail is more a symptom of its sickness than its purity. These are simple gestures painted on a simple setting, but Girard deftly evokes a sense of utter spiritual deprivation.

Given Parsifal's affinities with science fiction, one is tempted to see this wasteland as a post-apocalyptic landscape or some other exotic locale. Yet Girard tells us plainly that the world presented on stage is a metaphor for our shared society. As the prelude begins, we see a black reflective surface dimly displaying the auditorium, which lifts to reveal the cast in rows mirroring the audience in their seats. Sure, the pat "these characters are...YOU" moment can be heavy-handed, especially when introduced as a reveal to stoke some point of cognitive dissonance. But the intention is honest here--simply informing the audience of the parameters of the interpretation presented.

The problem really lies with Act II, which places Klingsor and the flower maidens in a shallow pool of blood somewhere below the parched grail landscape, and is meant to represent a journey into the actual wound of Amfortas. Zerbinetta at Likely Impossibilities has an incisive critique of the situation here:
Parsifal is a confusing work, sure, but it has some central themes that are pretty clear: the knights have been tainted by sensual temptation. Redemption can only come from a pure fool (Parsifal), who first needs to learn compassion. He becomes a sexual ascetic after refusing Kundry’s seduction. So Girard’s idea of inverting this demands some serious intervention in the portrayal of seduction as the source of the knight’s problems as well as Parsifal’s awakening to asceticism, something that he does not do.
OK, this is going to get a little real, but I would go even further and argue that the images Girard plays on by staging Act 2 "in the wound" actually makes for a disturbing affirmation of the work's most retrograde tropes. By staging Kundry's seduction in a pool of blood, on a pristine white bed which grows progressively soiled with blood, Girard has realized Parsifal's rejection not just as a rejection of lust in the name of empathy for Amfortas, but as a moment of visceral body horror. Following this logic, Amfortas' wound is the "wound" all women have, the wound from which all sin originates, and the font of unnatural blood that serves as the evil counterpart to the blood Jesus shed on the cross to redeem man from that sin.

Now, in another production, one might be inclined to read this as an attempt to reveal and reject those tropes, as meta-commentary on the disturbing gender politics which run through how Parsifal is constructed and received. But I'm skeptical that that level of commentary is in this production's DNA. It seems more plausible that the no-doubt inspired gimmick of going INSIDE THE WOUND was too good to pass up and the full ramifications of that choice were never really reconciled with the more subtle ideas that the topside acts play around with.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don Giovanni at WNO

Late to the party on this one too, but WNO gets retroactive props for the Don Giovanni it presented in its second foray of the season. I know it's a bit unfair to compare Anna Bolena's pretty tunez and reasonably interesting characters with the unending parade of WIN that is Mozart's masterpiece, but let's hope it is this production, and not the prima, that is the harbinger of things to come this year.

WNO offered some exceptional Mozart several years ago, in the Figaro directed by Harry Silverstein*, and this production shares many of that outing's virtues: strong singing, a charismatic ensemble, and direction that gets the human scale and humor of Mozart's comedies just right (for the purposes of this good-feelings review, let's forget the irretrievable lameness of last year's Jonathan Miller Cosi).

Directed by John Pascoe, this Don Giovanni makes a strong case for the Donna Elvira-led interpretation, portrayed here by the great Barbara Frittoli. Mostly clad in a sort of superhero get up comprised of tall boots, trenchcoat, and corset, the production foregrounds the tension between Elvira's clear agency as an individual and her lingering attraction to the Don--a complicated mix of sexual desire, sympathy, self-sabotage, and self-sacrifice. Basically, it's Don Giovanni as proto-Buffy**, though the older work is definitely the darker one. Whereas Buffy's tortured love for her vampires turns on the status of their souls (complicated in the case of Spike by his "mimicry" of a soul due to the chip in his head), Donna Elvira can't be so sure. Mozart and DaPonte's Don never reveals the slightest shred of a soul--he is utterly un-self aware, almost an animal. Elvira's love for him is entirely her own invention, yet the deepest, most heartfelt demonstration of feeling in the entire opera--we are left to to wrestle with the fundamental irrationality of her actions as well as our empathy. A throwaway gag in this production, that Elvira is actually carting around the Don's child, was clever but served as a distraction from this richer point.

Fine portrayal aside, Frittoli's voice is perhaps not what it was in her recent prime. Her first appearance, "Ah, chi mi dice mai," was compelling but not entirely comfortable, though thankfully this seemed to be a warmup question--by the time "Mi Tradi" rolled she was in exquisite control. The strength of the women in the cast continued with Megan Miller's Donna Anna, who brought a lot of excitement to the role's considerable demands. Finally, we had the wonderful Zerlina of Veronica Cangemi, who, despite a bit of a rough start with that brutal entrance, turned in sexy, beguiling renditions of both "Batti, batti and "Vedrai, carino" that were a highlight of the evening (could have done without some excessively vulgar business assigned to Masetto during these numbers). Regarding the men: Ildar Abradzakov delivered just about everything one needs in a Don, from lusty virtuosity in the patter numbers to the requisite bear-croon in the seduction songs. The other standout was tenor Juan Francisco Gatel, offering nuanced, finely crafted versions of "Dalla Sua Pace" and "Mio Tesoro," while driving home Don Ottavio's earnest dullness (Gatel's relatively small size besides Megan Miller's statuesque profile in glamorous evening dresses seemed a fitting look for this pair).

WNO music director Phillipe Auguin was a welcome sight in the pit for this production, and quickly banished thoughts of a somewhat routine overture with a beautifully felt performance that allowed his singers to make the most out of their respective turns.

*Somehow I missed this at the time, but back in the day I was in the children's chorus for a string of operas he directed for DePaul University's music school!

**Sorry, don't fight it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Anna Bolena at WNO

And no, I did not miss Anna Bolena, though it is gone now. For the record, Radvanovsky did not disappoint in arguably the starriest turn of a WNO season resting heavy on its diva cred. Her distinctive sound is always a pleasure in my book, and that built-in sob she has is a natural ally for Donizetti. Unfortunately, the whole thing never managed to catch much fire thanks to a variety of shortcomings that outweighed some not inconsiderable positive qualities.

Perhaps the first mistake was not allowing for some regular cuts in the opera (specifically in the final scene for the tenor, so Downey tells us). Not saying the whole uncut business couldn't be compelling (different strokes and all that), but it would require more dramatic firepower than this cast or production had at its disposal. Radvanovsky, despite her musical virtues, is not always a dynamic stage presence, and coming at the end of a long night, her priddy but static final scene had the audience restlessly casting about for someone to enter with the axe already. When Anna Bolena feels considerably longer than the intermission-less 4.5 hours I spent in Einstein on the Beach the following evening, ur doing it wrong.

Sonia Ganassi, whom we enjoyed quite a bit in Werther last year, was a standout among the rest of the cast, with a flexible, urgent sound that provided a Seymour that was a worthy counterweight to Radvanovsky's Bolena, though the potentially explosive duet scene stopped somewhere in the neighborhood of admirable. Mezzo Claudia Huckle also shone in the trouser role of Smeton, the court musician who pines after Anna.

As far as the men are concerned: I assume I heard Georgian tenor Shalva Mukeria in the role of Percy since there was no B-cast and I don't recall an insert (I saw the 9/21 show), but I'm having a hard time reconciling the general praise elsewhere with what I heard--a respectable but pedestrian voice for most of the evening, certainly a notch below the tenor obtained for Lucia last year, and one which ended up demonstrating significant strain by the time the final prison aria rolled around. Points for Oren Gradus, as Henry, for being the only one onstage who seemed to really throw himself into the staging choices--vocally he was solid throughout but his honey-less tone is a bit of a chore in this music.

But the chief strike against the evening was the production, directed by Stephen Lawless. There were thoughtful elements here--I was down with the balconies of spying courtiers, though not sure if the allusion to the Globe in the set design was clever or just convenient--but on the whole it was fairly hideous. The vast expanses of cheap unfinished looking wood, liberal use of antlers, and wan, unfocused lighting evoked nothing so much as a 5th generation Williamsburg bistro several weeks before opening. Yikes.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Jupiter Quartet at the National Academy of Sciences

After a two year hiatus, the magical auditorium in the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue is presenting concerts again, starting with today's program of Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms from the Jupiter Quartet. The ceiling of the auditorium, a giant shell composed of 240 separate panels which maximize sound distribution (more at the link) makes for an incredible chamber music venue that preserves the warmth and immediacy of the instruments with remarkable clarity throughout the hall. The only problem now is the criminally meager season of concerts available to the public--what the frack do we need to get a piano up there already?

The Jupiter offered a charming romp through the lead-off Mozart (K. 575). This is the kind of playing that makes me reconsider my general apprehension about live Mozart chamber music--simple (or so it seems) and casual, yet utterly seamless, and still controlled and fast enough to maintain a sense of urgency. Especially in the final Allegretto, where the players trade lines in an increasingly intricate sort of game, the Jupiter demonstrated the joys of Mozart played with almost an improvisatory sensibility, never succumbing to that dull heavenly metronome business, which is death. A stunning performance of the Bartok first string quartet followed, a rich, aching Lento followed by a muscular Allegretto, and the whirlwind finale, where we finally get a view of that unmistakable Bartok sound.

The Brahms in the second half (the String Quartet No. 1) was, as usual, something of a letdown. (Maybe its me?) The group seemed to be having trouble getting the balances right to bring out the interplay between voices that gives the piece its structure, and for long stretches we just got a lot of Brahmsian-sounding mush. The Brahms-pummeling tendency was not as strong in the Jupiter as it is in some folks, but it wasn't entirely absent either, and the relentless speed made it hard to tell whether the final impression was enlightenment or just exhaustion. Points for beautiful work in the Poco Adagio movement, though.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Shadows and Prog

If you haven't already, you really ought to read Dave Weigel's 5 part rumination on the movement that was progressive rock in Slate. Besides many fun anecdotes about the genre's crimes of absurdity, the story Weigel tells about prog's ultimate rejection and marginalization seems useful for our purposes here. Prog was, after all, the great attempt to use the materials of rock in the service of music with "classical" ambitions--a rejection of the 3 minute pop song in favor of composed, large-scale formats, greater rhythmic and melodic complexity, and subject matter that delved into abstract and spiritual concerns. Moreover, prog often explicitly aligned itself with the classical tradition--Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's debut LP includes substantial material from Bartok, Janacek, and Bach. In the 1970s, these references weren't so foreign to British (and American?) teenagers and 20-somethings.

Weigel lays some blame for prog's mainstream demise at the feet of prog itself, for tempting self-satire as bands sought to outdo themselves in weirdness and inaccessibility, and some more at the homogenizing tendencies of the music business, which eventually realized it didn't want to be in the business of providing FM real estate to the occasional half hour transcendental opus. But he also points to the viciousness with which rock tastemakers turned on the genre in favor of the primitive sounds of punk. Punk's own merits aside, prog seems like a clear victim of a pop chauvinism which classical enthusiasts are sure to recognize.

Now before anyone gets upset, let me emphasize that I'm not trying to get into some old pop vs. classical nonsense, and anyhow, no one beats the last several hundred years of the Western classical music establishment in the chauvinism department. But rock music does have a peculiar self-limiting hangup here, and one that seems cruelly at odds with both the natural maturation of artists' ambitions to try bigger, more challenging things, and audiences' interests in being challenged themselves. Let's just say there's a reason the "rock opera" stubbornly abides as an aspiration, no matter how the forces of cynicism and coolness may disparage it...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Debating "indie-classical"

If you haven't seen it already, Maura Lafferty and Nico Muhly are having a nice civilized exchange about the utility, justice, etc. of the term "indie-classical." Nico's response (here, to Maura's defense here) focuses on what is lost in reducing art to facile categories, and touches on the deleterious effects this can have on composers tempted to internalize their assigned genres.

Towards the end, he seems to hint that this state of affairs may be more or less necessary, and good thing we have professionals who are interested in doing it. Boundaries are important, of course: civilized people in adult conversations should clearly avoid talking to each other like walking press releases (unless you're in DC where that just means you have your shit together). But marketing doesn't deal with individuals, it deals with People. And People, unlike individuals, respond to, if not the lowest, then certainly a lower common denominator. Figuring out how to artfully play to that in a way that gets the message to people you want to be reaching is just a fact of trying to spread things to any audience that numbers in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But that bigger debate really goes beyond the narrower question of what rankles about "indie-classical," i.e. the term is not about describing how a certain type of music sounds, but about situating a product within a matrix of Stuff White People Like. Maura makes a case for indie-classical as a way to align new music with the same aesthetic of authenticity and anti-corporatism that drives our insatiable desire for, among other things, heirloom tomatoes and stuff on Etsy. And while there is certainly an appealing logic to this, is new music really going to find a home as aural wallpaper for discriminating hipsters? It seems like you might move a few CDs at the unwitting margin with this strategy but you're not likely to generate the kind of loyal fan base that keeps coming back because they actually like the stuff.

So yeah, "indie classical" sucks, but not because it is a crime to engage in some expedient oversimplification for PR purposes. Nico's own fleeting attempt at this in his response--to paraphrase, "Elizabethan choral  goes minimalist"--might sound a bit cheap relative to what he actually works on, but hey, you obviously want to ensure that anyone intrigued by that phrase is getting marketed to real hard, right? No, "indie-classical" sucks because it is a copout, a lifestyle marketing term when what we need is a way to describe the actual music in a way that a receptive audience gets the message.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What is even up with Peter Gelb right now

Erg...I have been out of the loop for the past 48 hrs and missed the boat something fierce on this hasty, misguided business and its equally swift retraction. I like Brian's commentary at Out West Arts here--its a bit dramatic to call Gelb's move "censorship" given Opera News' symbiotic relationship with the Met. The bright lines around conflict and censorship expected of criticism in a regular news outlet don't quite apply.

No, this misfire isn't about crushing one's right to voice one's dissent about the Machine's shenanigans; its indicative of a more insidious trend: the ever-growing dominance of PR logic and its friction with the tacit agreement that more honest dialogue about the arts can only be in the best interest of better art and, especially, better consumers of art. Something like opera criticism exists in print not so much by virtue of its irresistible business model, but, as in the case of Opera News, because opera enthusiasts, critics, and institutional interests have made a space for it where space could be found, and because they believe criticism is a necessary part of the broader artistic enterprise.

But that kind of space doesn't fit very well into the PR paradigm of the world, where message discipline is the paramount concern, and contrary, unpleasant voices are only OK insofar as they are nonthreatening--otherwise, they are risks to be mitigated. This may be a bothersome trend in politics or business, though clearly we don't have much choice in the matter anymore. It sure would be nice, though, if we could keep the hackery to a dull roar in our more genteel pursuits.

Update: Lisa has been all over this, of course, and has a good list of links to coverage...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Samson at WCO

And for the final leg of the weekend, we had Washington Concert Opera's spring show: a Samson et Dalila featuring Frank Poretta (a last minute replacement for the originally scheduled Brandon Jovanovich), Michelle DeYoung, and Greer Grimsley.

Poretta was seen recently in Washington, as Cavaradossi in the generally competent run of Tosca's that opened the WNO season, for which he received a somewhat lukewarm reception, though I liked him quite a bit. I want to call him a meat n' potatoes tenor, but in a good way. His basic sound is sturdy and muscular, and he doesn't go in for a lot of polish that would fuss it up. Sure he'll try a fancy pianissimo effect here and there where called for but it usually doesn't work out. Sometimes he goes through a bit of a gruff period and you just have to wait it out. But he almost never fails to make the big thrilling sound where it counts, and it is all the more thrilling for sounding like it is connected to a real human being. Those qualities make him a great fit for Samson, which benefits from tenors that sound like they're bolted to the floor (see also my last Samson, the granite-voiced Clifton Forbis in 2006--is he out at the Met now? What happened to him?). Especially given the minimal preparation time he surely had (and you could tell there was some Olympic-quality sight reading going on in the longeurs of Act I) this was a fine contribution.

Michelle DeYoung, also seen recently as Judith in the Eschenbach/Goerne Bluebeard's Castle from earlier this year, was the other original attraction for the program, after the absent Jovanovich. Looking the part rather spectacularly in a turquoise satin number with purple silk accent sleeves/sashes, she spun a glamorous and sensual Dalila with a rich plummy tone just hinted at in her Judith. "Ma Coeur..." a favorite from my primordial days of opera appreciation, can handle a bit more rawness and urgency onstage, but one would have a hard time beating DeYoung for sheer beauty and decadent, over-ripe texture.

Greer Grimsley, whom we have not heard  before, offered a high priest that can only be described as dastardly. This is a unique instrument: a bass baritone of great black depths and unwavering power and consistency. I very much want to hear his Wotan now (especially to cleanse the palate after all of Terfel's shouty faux heftiness), though with the deep impression he made here I fear I may never shake the vision of him as mustache-twirling villain. Kind of like how once Michael Madsen cuts that dude's ear off in Reservoir Dogs you never again believe him as, say, the "dad" character.

There is definitely a lot of chorus in Samson, though it has never registered as particularly interesting as opera choral music goes. That aside, the WCO's chorus did a fine job capturing the varied colors of the anguished Hebrews and the carefree Dagon worshippers. Maestro Antony Walker did his usual superhuman conducting duties at the podium, keeping the whole machine in check, bringing together some memorable climaxes, and, especially in the case of the third Act ballet, driving the band to feverish heights almost through sheer force of will alone. Rough edges here and there marred the overall success only somewhat, including spotty solo work and instances where Saint-Saens' orchestral colors came off middling and thin.

Update: Here are Downey and Midgette.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Werther at WNO

WNO kicked off its last production of the season Saturday night with an elegant and musically distinguished Werther. We heard the opera live for the first time last year in Washington Concert Opera's winning concert presentation, featuring a triumphant Giuseppe Filianoti. That was something of an eye opener for me--I have always found Manon a bit stilted and in danger of coming off like a pedantic 19th century after-school special, by contrast Werther is an emotionally intimate work with great moral ambiguity and sympathy at its core.

For this production, WNO is offering a major league Werther in Genoese tenor Francesco Meli. Contrary to his bio (time for an update, dude) he is NOT appearing in the new Vegas themed Rigoletto at the Met next year but IS indeed going to be in the DiDonato Maria Stuarda (his Met debut was in the 2010 Rigoletto run). His is a great, unapologetic chunk of voice, most easily at home in a booming forte but shot through with enough ping to make everything go down smoothly if not always with a great deal of finesse. There is some other baggage--Acts I & II suffered from a lot of unnecessary swooping for effect and a congenital habit of staying just behind the beat. I think this was supposed to be Werther's "sad voice" but it was mostly just tiresome, and he thankfully cooled it a bit as the evening went on. Like his compatriot Filianoti, he also has a penchant for the big stage gesture i.e. throwing himself at regular intervals onto benches, door frames, the floor. I don't mind this sort of thing so much, but it did inspire some inappropriate titters from the audience (stage direction which had him way too mobile during the death scene did not help matters).

Sonia Ganassi contributed a passionate Charlotte--her exquisite, cool focused tone an excellent fit for an Act III monologue that tended to bring out Charlotte's great pity for Werther. Andrew Foster Williams offered a robust, menacing Albert, with an ample, ramrod baritone. Emily Albrink offered a solid if not terribly distinctive Sophie.

The production, originally from Opera Australia, is lightly updated to circa a drab, conformist small town 1950s 1920s. Presenting the town and its characters with more familiar cues is a particularly effective choice. Werther's tragedy is about more than one misguided soul, he is also a casualty of the bourgeois society that can't abide his transgression in loving Charlotte and his alienating depression. Charlotte refuses him not only out of duty, but out of fear of sharing his fate, embodied in Albert's threatening presence. Acts I and II share a versatile set which suggests both exterior and interior, beautifully registering the change in season. The Act III and IV sets turn inward and lose the openness of the first half, first in the oppressive white living and dining room of Charlotte's house, a reflection of her empty marriage to Albert, and then in the dirty flat where Werther takes his life.

Emmanual Villaume led a warm, masterful account of the score in the pit, carefully shading his tempi to bring out emotional nuance while never letting things sag. That said, he seemed to pull some punches on a few of the climaxes where one might prefer more go-for-broke milking.

Update: And here are reviews from Downey and Midgette.