Sunday, December 05, 2010

Mattila on Marty

If you've ever spent time trolling the Internet for Mattila content, you've probably come across this 2003 interview. Love this little digression on what she finds interesting in Slavic characters, esp. in light of her triumph as Emilia Marty:
CV: You have sung to universal praises a lot of strong and interesting female roles from Slavic operas.

KM: Pardon me for interrupting, but Slavic female characters are weak as well as strong. They are simultaneously weak and strong. What I admire in them is that their strengths and weaknesses can be so openly performed and conveyed and needn’t be hidden or covered by a veil of simplicity, innocence and purity. They do not act as others expect them to. Everybody is able to create decent characters which are extremely boring from a performer’s point of view. It is difficult to create true characters and what I admire in Slavic female roles is the truthfulness of their strengths and weaknesses. There are also various open endings which the audience must sort out when they return home from the opera house, such as in Jenufa. I enjoy this unfinished quality in movies and theatre plays too.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Mattila in San Francisco

Finally getting around to saying a word about the last performance of SFO's splendid Vec Makropulos, as my extended "telework" Thanksgiving has resulted in a lot of karmic retribution in the form of office work (which is surely the cruelest karmic retribution of all).

Mattila as, um, Floria Tosca (hope audiences weren't confused when EM didn't stab anyone).

But first a very special thanks to the SF blogger contingent I got to meet before the show (in attendance were the respective authors of Reverberate Hills, the Standing Room, and Civic Center), all on account of Lisa Hirsch's hosting skillz. Meeting, in person, those regular civilians who have wowed and touched you over the years with their prose is a particularly enjoyable and special phenomenon of the Blogging Period of the Internet Era, I think.

And speaking of special phenomena...

So, until I heard it was happening, the idea of Mattila doing Emilia Marty hadn't really crossed my mind for some reason. My only reference was the Anja Silja DVD, and that kind of thing doesn't really inspire daydreaming about who else would be good in something.

My b.

I think I've read this in every review, but it is such a visceral impression for those who like their Mattila that it bears repeating: this part is an obscenely good fit for her talents. The unifying motives of innocence and penance found in the damaged ingenues of Jenufa and Ka'ta are absent here. Half the time, Marty doesn't know why the fuck she does what she does. After 300 years, she is a clutter of emotions and impulses, a junkyard of wants and reactions. Mattila owns this madness, bringing all the gross schizo stuff celebrated in her Salome to bear on the Second Act sequences. Yeah, and the whole thing is done in this ridiculous harlequin outfit and skullcap. Please future productions, never let her do this in a cocktail dress.

But Mattila's great advantage lies in the number of ways she has of unifying characterization and voice, the number of ways she has of being on the stage. After watching Marty flail against the world, her remarkable turn in the third act, to reject further life, is simple, modest, and radiant. It doesn't hurt either that we get one of the most glorious unbroken stretch of Janacekian lyricism to be found in any of his works, which just happens to lie in the sweet spot of her voice.

It's exciting to think how much more she might grow into the role between now and the New York shows. The chatty first act material is not yet quite natural, I think, and polishing things like this will round out what is already a bona fide triumph.

Great accolades should go to SFO (and the Finnish National Opera) for mounting such a strong production around her. The singing and acting throughout the rest of the cast was very solid, though there was a lot of variation in ability to cut through the full-throated level maintained by the orchestra through many of the chaotic group scenes. Miro Dvorsky made a passionate case for the great Janacek tenor role of Gregor, though I would like to hear someone in the mode of a warmer-voiced Steva type in the part. Gerd Grochowski also stood out as a commanding Prus.

The production is a handsome black and white number with good functional solutions for the three settings, especially the first act law office. As mentioned above, Mattila's costuming is genius--when not in the harlequin getup, she looks normal amazing, particularly the evening gown in the last act.

Finally, we must note the great playing in the pit under Jiri Belohlavek, the same man who made Mattila's last Jenufa run so memorable. Precision of texture, lusty momentum, and great emotional pathos were all delivered as hoped.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

BOAC All-Stars at Strathmore

Had the novel experience of falling close to, if not slightly above, the median age of a Strathmore audience last Thursday, on the occasion of an all-Steve Reich program performed by the venerable Bang on a Can All Stars.

I was in the penalty box for the first selection, Music for Pieces of Wood, which was lame (not the piece, but my missing of it -- and even moreso because it turned out I had my pick of seats in the basically empty sides of the promenade level). The first half was rounded out by the wonderful "New York Counterpoint" for solo clarinet and prerecorded tracks by the soloist. Then the premeire - 2x5 - an appealing piece for rock quintet plus prerecorded tracks. Sounding like a sort of jam session with obsessive compulsive disorder, Reich offers many unexpected and fascinating textures here, from the slow movements hypnotic, bell like electric guitar plucks, to the good times California flavors that emerge and recede through the finale. The amplification had some issues though--the mic'd piano sounded nasty.

The introduction to the electric guitar's less familiar but perhaps more appealing possibilities continued after the half in Reich's "Electric Counterpoint", also for solo instrument and prerecorded tracks--the neat sonic bursts of the guitar bouncing lithely across a crackling landscape. The closer was the well-knownish Double Sextet, which presented the richest, most intricate writing of the evening. I wish I could hear this piece with the full live band, however--while the prerecorded elements of the other works added information and depth, here it seemed to muddy and detract from the more delicate textures of the standard ensemble.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Emanuel Ax at Strathmore

Pardon the radio silence, one gets discouraged from writing things about nice orchestra concerts when brooding over stupid no-good politics. And yet I suppose I really should thank the Dresden Staatskapelle and NSO from saving me from spending last Wednesday and Thursday evenings reading endless conservative takeover horror porn (articles). So good job orchestras, particularly the great, fluid Brahms 2nd from the Staatskapelle and that knockout creepshow Bartok piece from the NSO and guest conductor Xian Zhang (who is a dynamo to watch, PS).

But no use dwelling on the future, the concert season goes on! Last night was Emanuel Ax at Strathmore--who, I missed, I believe, in his last WPAS outing--in a program of Schubert and Chopin. It was a lovely show, and I wouldn't think of complaining, but I'm curious about what drives the staid programming for big time piano recital series. We know that so many of these artists are big champions of the piano literature of contemporary composers and overlooked 20th century composers, and yet year after year its the greatest hits without even the little bit of spinach major orchestras are able to work into the pre-intermission slot in their subscription series. What gives? Do presenters demand the vanilla repertoire for their flagship series? Is the elusive recital subscriber that much more fickle than your symphony subscriber? Do the artists just not feel this is the venue for all this work they are otherwise working diligently to champion through...I dunno...their late nite TV gigs? It's weird.

Oh, but I suppose we'll take Schubert and Chopin if we must. The Schubert half kicked off with the four impromptus of Op. 142. These pieces are such a perfect showcase for the rounded, ringing tones Ax elicits from his piano--to say there are no "rough edges" makes it sound as though the effect is boring or too pretty, but his exacting attention to the beauty of each sound makes the music more real, more present--the spell is never broken. I particularly enjoyed the faster tempo in the opening and closing sections of No.2 (perhaps my favorite of the bunch), which lent a playful, familiar air to what often comes off somber, though the exquisite middle section may not have had a chance to blossom as much at that speed. The real treat of the first half was the Sonata in A Major (Op. 120)--the endless melody of the first movement seemed to sing from somewhere several feet above the keyboard.

For the Chopin half, Ax offered a winning Baccarolle (op. 60), followed by three Mazurkas (Nos. 1, 2, and 3 of op. 59). The Mazurkas are primordial piano music for me, so its sort of hard to be objective, but Ax's readings have a welcome plainspoken earthiness--always excited to get to the dance break and never degenerating into the kind of self-conscious prettiness better meant for other Chopin. Of the two Nocturnes he played, the D-flat Major (C-sharp minor was the other) achieved a particularly stunning suspended-in-time feeling. The last piece was the Scherzo No.2 Op. 31--I'm afraid I find this piece a bit tedious, and not especially exciting as a showpiece (tho it is obviously HARD). Ax brought out a lot of color, but it still felt a bit disjointed. Not sure how you solve that problem. Encores were the "Valse brilliante" and something else ChopinSchumann...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bullet points on Boris Godunov HD cast

In no particular order:
  • The HD cast people really need to chill with the closeups--I get that they want to avoid the impression that any of this is taking place on a stage, but its quite maddening in a production with so much going on to not be able to orient yourself with periodic wide shots.
  • Rene Pape is a great man. That said, this didn't bowl me over the first time. Also, the HD cast is not really his friend. Some part of Pape's reputation is about a silky smoov voice, but its a far cry from a one-size-fits-all-spaces voice. Understanding his volume choices is key to appreciating his portrayal, and the HD cast drastically compresses those things.
  • With her mane of red curls as Marina, Ekaterina Semenchuk bears an uncanny resemblance to Glory, the villain from Buffy season five.
  • Props to all who deserve it for bringing together such a ginormous and strong cast for this. Alexandrs Antonenko (Grigory) is the real deal, rite?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Talich Quartet at LOC

Went back to the Library of Congress for the Talich quartet in a program of Beethoven, Janacek, and Dvorak last night.

The Talich's Beethoven (No. 6) had a light, appealing bounciness to it, but I'm afraid I need something more to get me going about this piece. Why not serve up an all-Janacek first half and let DC hear both quartets 1 & 2? Do we really need to bait a FREE concert that only music lovers are schlepping to with such well-trod material? Did they feel an all-Czech program would pigeonhole them? Grumble. Anyhow, it was perfectly nice.

The Janacek quartet was a treat indeed. For anyone who knows the operas well, it is wonderful to hear those distinctive Janacek-ian harmonies emerge in these pieces. But the string quartets are a step beyond the operas in their inventiveness and interest in new sounds. Folky elements enter not as melodic material, but as disjointed fragments alongside passages of jarring noise. The Talich's take played up this inventiveness I think--rather than the propulsive energy I've heard elsewhere, the leisurely pacing, warm tone, and attention to detail allowed one to soak up the shifting, surprising environments Janacek creates. There are visceral and emotional thrills to be had in this piece that were not played to the hilt here, but the alternative was a more fluid and cerebral reading that fully inflamed one's sense of injustice at how rarely it gets programmed.

The Talich reserved their most profound investment for the Dvorak G Major Quartet (Op. 106) after the half. Making a solid case for the level of commitment necessary to ensure these works don't degenerate into static priddiness, they highlighted the many distinct textures in Dvorak's writing while maintaining a steady core of rich, generous, warmth--like strings with a molten chocolate inside. If Dvorak isn't always played like great Brahms, as I think it was here, well it should be.

The encore was more Dvorak featuring the viola of Vladimir Bukacs, whose clear, consistent tone was a standout throughout the evening. Special props are also warranted for the the exciting agility of Petr Prause's cello.

Other takes: Joe Banno in WaPo...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Two Mahlers

The Gergiev show that has been tramping up and down the East Coast this month landed at the KC last night for a Mahler 8 with his Mariinsky Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society, the Children's Chorus of Washington, and others.

I love me some good Gergiev, and was totally game for wherever he was going with this. While the first part had some thrilling climaxes (and really, how can you get 300 professional musicians to play in coordination as loud as possible and not have some thrills) it didn't come together for me. Too often the textures were muddy and the momentum unfocused, with aimless stretches that felt like they were trying to balance predictability and survival with the music making. Having been in choruses during a few such massive operations, the together but middling sensation is familiar, but of course doesn't really create the conditions for an inspired reading. Gergiev likes to play it close to the edge, but the prospect of losing control of this most freight-trainish of movements may have inhibited even him.

The virtues of Gergiev and orchestra were much more evident in Part II--unabashed old-movie-score-pathos in the strings; an exciting ruddy brass sound that doesn't just dig deep, it excavates; and an unflagging attention to the drama and heart of the piece--like Bernstein after an all-night Stoli-fueled bender.

The vocal ensemble was pretty strong, with tenor August Amonov the standout in his passionately sung Part II solo work. The women brought some nice Slavic flavor (loved deep-voiced mezzo Zlata Bulycheva) but individually were a bit underpowered in relation to the orchestra, with the possible exception of Lyudmila Dudinova (UPDATE: Ok, I'm pretty sure I can't figure out the name of the soloist I'm trying to indicate here and I don't know the 8th well enough to figure it out, so...dark-haired one third from stage right, with a lot of material about 2/3rds of the way through Part II: you sounded good).

The choirs sounded tremendous. Any ensemble deserves a lot of points just for showing up and wrestling successfully with this thing, but there were moments where the vocal forces distinguished themselves, to be sure. The opening of the Chorus Mysticus was a model of controlled, finely blended piano singing, not an easy effect to achieve in such a large group, and the result was quite magical.

More reviews: Tim Smith...Anne Midgette...Downey (who is having none of that)...

***

Haven't had a chance to write about it, but I had my first opportunity to see Eschenbach as NSO director last Friday, in the second installment of the the Mozart 34/Mahler 5 program that concluded his Fall run. While I haven't been terribly diligent about attending NSO shows the last few years, I think that's about to change...

The consolation Mozart was very nice (it was supposed to be an all-Mahler program)--I was especially struck by the orchestra's sensitivity to the precise articulation Eschenbach called for--though its a bit hard to keep one's mind on Mozart when you know you have Mahler in store. (Sorry.) There was the usual defensiveness in the program and the nice post-show talk Eschenbach participated in about doing the piece with the regular ol' orchestra with only modest reductions. Eschenbach had a funny story about a letter from Mozart to his father in the 1780s where he is all jazzed about seeing some freaky big orchestra, so take that HIP facscists. I mean, I don't REALLY know how bad the situation is--maybe Eschenbach went home to find some threatening note on his doorstep festooned with catgut--but all the HIP backlash backlash seems like a bit of a straw man these days. And PS, can you think of anything more tragic than the major symphonies of the world starting to up the quotient of Mozart and Haydn in their programs again?

But anyhow, the MAHLER. In my aforementioned limited experience, this really is the best thing I've heard the NSO do. The orchestra delivered a wonderfully vivid, transparent sound, complemented by very high caliber solo work. Eschenbach's Mahler is thoughtful and intimate. He devotes loving attention to the lyrical moments, drawing them out of the din with great clarity and poignancy. He also has a penchant for creating an effect whereby passages sound almost suspended in time, allowing one to discover and linger in Mahler's eclectic sound worlds.

One could get used to this...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

English Concert at the Library of Congress

You know what? People who badmouth the federal government can suck it. Because: A) Social Security, B) volcano monitoring, and C) last night the Library of Congress hooked up a killer free show with the English Concert, led by Harry Bicket and ft. Rachel Podger and Alice Coote.

The chamber selections--Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in D minor ("La Follia"), Violin Concerto in D Major ("Il Gross Mogul"), and Cello Concerto in C minor--were stunning, totally in love with the dancing rhythms of these pieces and the glory of the sound of the solo string instrument.

Can we talk about Rachel Podger for a sec? Save for the Ionarts notice that got me interested, I didn't know her before but am now mildly obsessed. The woman is a completely sensational performer--the audience was clearly ill-prepared for the disarming immediacy and personality she brings to this music and applauded with abandon. Part of it is surely how she works that baroque violin--those modern instruments make Vivaldi all FM smoothness, but this sound is unprocessed, not afraid of hitting a few speedbumps, and very, very direct and exciting.

Jonathan Marson, soloist for the cello piece was also splendid. Podger, Marson and the band clearly relish Vivaldi's mastery in building unbearable tension; and, when this group finally breaks that tension, like in the lush treatments of the "free-jam" sections in the trio, the release is overpowering.

Coote, who I've never heard live before but enjoyed in the Met Hansel n' Gretel bcast, was probably least effective in Monteverdi's "Lamento d'Arianna". The content was interesting--the only surviving fragment of Monteverdi's opera on the Ariadne story--but there was maybe a little too much OPERA going on for the material at hand. A selection of songs by John Dowland, accompanied by William Carter on lute, were beautifully read, perfectly pitched to illuminate the emotional resonance of the poems. The Handel selection, an oratorio on the Lucrezia story, is a small masterpiece, culminating in a spectacular sequence on Lucrezia's suicide. The full splendor of Coote's rich mezzo was most on display here and made for a powerful climax. Put on a copy of this and listen for the incredible passage where Lucrezia talks about the knife in her breast and her melodic line undergoes this disintegration at once painful and sensual--Coote was on fire. The EC band throughout was a dream of sensitive, urgent Handel playing--must have the Messiah they did under Pinnock in the late 90s.

Check Downey's review here.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Voigt in D.C.

Surely the perfect antidote to a spate of neither-here-nor-there Ballo's is a ballsy, cathartic Salome. If the new revival at WNO isn't quite in the league of Salome's that make you forget your name and moral compass, it's nonetheless a rich and effective reading from an excellent cast and new music director Phillipe Auguin.

We saw Debbie V's Salome's in Chicago a few years back, and I think its safe to say her Salome is more secure and exciting today than it was then, which was a pretty high standard already. The key money music was positively thrilling, with Voigt bringing the big rich pealing sounds we all know and love. Naturally, there is a bit more "negotiation" today as compared to her former peaks of effortlessness, and there were a handful of rocky moments in the high soft business (her middle seemed to carry poorly too, though this may be partially Auguin's fault). Her portrayal also remains on the efficient side: her motivations are clear in the moment but she never quite grasps the longer game necessary for a truly devastating Salome. But "settling" for this level of commitment and sheer vocal splendor ain't much of a chore.

Rest of the cast was pretty strong. Daniel Sumegi's ruddy-voiced Jokanananaaan captured the terror of the character and was also deliciously LOUD. Doris Soffel's vampy Herodias delivered a truly musical reading of that oft-shrieked role. Sean Panikkar gets the requisite "oh what a nice sounding Narraboth" mention.

If anything though, it was the pit that set the musical standard for the evening. Auguin led a sweeping account, long on majesty and grace, and the band played with great authority.

The production isn't much to look at. From the press photos I couldn't figure out if this was the same Zambello Salome Voigt did in Chicago, or if it was an entirely new production, which seemed unlikely. Turns out it's the Chicago production--Jokannanan with dreads, check; garish O'Hare tunnel to Terminal C lightshow, check; massively unimaginative dance of the seven veils, check--but WNO couldn't afford the sets. So the nondescript desert-flavored business in Chicago has been replaced here by a manhole cover on an empty stage surrounded by shimmery shower curtains plus maybe some arches in the back that you can't really see. That's it. I could probably move the whole thing in my car if you let me do a couple of trips. It is being billed as a "new production" replete with Zambello actually in house for a curtain call, but "reheated" would be more accurate. Ragging on WNO for lame productions when they are in dire financial straits feels mean, but it would be nice to see them embrace the situation and get creative, rather putting up distractingly half-hearted stuff like this. (BREAKING: Anne Midgette's generally enthusiastic review is here--seems WNO disputes the earlier report that it was a cost issue, and that the Lyric sets just didn't fit in the KC. Either way, the result was bleh--I mean, its Salome, the physical production just needs to get out the way, but throw us a bone.)

All the more a pity because the staging does have some striking moments. The Jokanaaanan preaching to Salome section was particularly tender and moving, especially given Sumegi's uncompromising characterization. I also loved Salome addressing the "I will now kiss your mouth Jokaaanan" speech directly to the horrified Herod/Herodias, a choice which emphasized what is surely one of the best instances of sticking it to your parents ever.

A lot more performances left--tonight a BUNCH of the upper tier was empty, which seems like a scandal of some kind. Go git a ticket.

UPDATE: See Downey's review at DCist here, including an amazing DV-as-character-on-True-Blood shot from the curtain call...

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

New Music Director Madness

Great news for WNO: Philipe Auguin, celebrated leader of last year's Gotterdammerung anti-spectacular spectacular, is taking over as WNO music director. My praise for that show is here, and here's a positive mention in the '06 incarnation of the Wilson Lohengrin; Charles Downey's coverage here.

As Anne Midgette has noted, the company seems to be on the fence about whether it is to continue to aspire to the tier of American houses with a claim to international interest, or whether it is going to be a solid regional enterprise. Sure, some of that has to do with the amount of A-list talent they can muster, but it's a lot more about the degree to which the company seems to have a distinct mission and artistic personality. And that has a lot to do with leadership--leadership which, for the WNO, has seemed in absentia for the last few years.

I don't have the history to really judge Domingo's tenure--but as an audience member, the broad impression was more "PR goldmine + guaranteed chance to hear him" than compelling vision. Sounds like Fricke deserves a lot of credit for getting the orchestra to where they are today (which is a very good place to be) but the low-profile twilight of his tenure has also surely contributed to the general sense of drift.

So, in sum, the introduction of Auguin and the promise of a discirminating and steady hand for the company's musical fortunes is a very exciting turn indeed, and another reason to get stoked about tomorrow's Salome!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Random Cosi Watching

A: man, roschmann is so cute
J: what was she in?
A: i bought this random cosi dvd
A: that is like cosi via boeing boeing
A: and she is all tiny in these 60s getups
A: like this:



J: cute!
J: I think she's excellent
A: huh
A: Ferrando just wrote an "F" on Dorabella's boob
J: heh
A: i'm thinking that's going to come back
A: Gugliemo is going to be all "lemme see those tits...the F!"
J: haha
A: the young-ish evil preppy sexy Don Alfonso is fun in this
A: the dorabella kind of looks like Patsy

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Double Bill from the In Series

Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and Bolcom's Casino Paradise, the two one-acts offered by the In Series Friday (perfs are done now), both operate in that fertile "American operetta" terrain. To lovers of musical theatre in all its forms, there's something so appealing about this combination--the musical is freed from the stultifying limitations of the song n' book format while the opera gets to revel in a degree of literacy and playfulness with language that it rarely achieves. It's hard to compare these works with the often leaden libretto of something like AmTrag* (New York has changed you? Otay...) or the dreadfully opaque Dr. Atomic** and wonder if the latter pieces weren't translated into English from some other language.

Tahiti's heart is a drama of marital dissolution that succeeds on an insightful libretto and Bernstein's wonderful score. There's a lot of anti-suburban snark around that emotional core that one hopes sounded fresher and less mean-spirited back in the day, but this is done cleverly and with such a nice grasp of the styles it riffs that you can't hate it. The sung dialogue scenes and the big centerpiece number are both particularly memorable. One can imagine more vocal beauty being brought to bear on the score, but the sensitive readings turned in by leads Grace Gori and Will Heim were more than sufficient to make the piece successful. Here's that big number from a BBC production:



The scrappy delights of Casino, which cribs styles and stock characters from wherever they can be found in the service of a nutty satire about a tycoon and seaside town that falls for his ill-fated Casino, were well served here in a tight, inventive staging. Special shout-outs to Scott Sedar's charismatic tycoon and the finest vocalism of the night from Jase Parker (they tycoon's son) and Brendan Sliger (as a townsperson).

*Which I generally liked a lot and wish they would bring back, despite that knock.

**Which I do not forgive.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New Rheingold

To start with a caveat, it's not very fair to judge a Ring production on its Rheingold. Perhaps in a high-konzept outing you can glean some good information about whether the gimmick has some basic validity or not, but in a traditional interpretation, you don't get to audit any of the climactic moments which tell whether a staging is capable of complementing and enhancing the emotions at the Ring's heart. Because it is Rheingold. And Rheingold is kind of boring. Wagner is probably rolling in his grave at the thought that opera companies' routinely produce his "teaser nite" on its own and then make audiences wait months or years to get to any of the red meat.


Jumbotron LePage, as yet unbooed. Turn back Robert!


That in mind, I think the jury is still out on the new Ring staging on the evidence of last night's Rheingold. It's not bad or offensive by any means (the booing, at least according to my booing philosophy was totally unwarranted), but the dearth of coherent ideas should raise concerns that the staging is gambling on isolated visual ideas that don't add up to much. A selected list of my quibbles:

1. The "character" of the set machine is unclear. The set works best when it successfully mimics a setting, particularly in the Nibelheim scene, in which it is heavily disguised by a projection, and the much advertised "stairway to Nibelheim" setting. During the long sequences in front of Valhalla, however, the machine is constantly adjusting to accommodate different entrances and such, including a needlessly busy Freia-burying sequence. Is the moutain side moving around on its own or what? There needs to be SOME discipline imposed on the set elements for visual coherence, here it just seems like they felt the twisty business wasn't getting enough of a workout.

2. The set machine is ugly. While there are sequences where the "moveable blank set + amazing projections" really comes together, like the afore-mentioned Nibelheim scene, without these disguises it looks like a bunch of big pointy grey shapes. It reminds one of nothing so much as the kind of "mountains" a high school would build that didn't have the wherewithal to make papier mache mountains happen. If a major selling point of this Ring is technical wizardry and beauty, it needs to be said that long stretches are pretty dismal to look at.

3. The production makes odd choices about the stagecraft problems it wants to solve. The floating staircase descent to Nibelheim scene, for instance, while cool, is not something you're really dying to see acted out. Wagner pretty much tells you what he wants the focus to be in the incidental music by including all those cool anvil sounds. Why go to town on a boffo piece of stagecraft that can only end up competing with what's there? And then, in the following Nibelheim scene, instead of coming up with some great solution for the always-problematic Alberich transformations, they just default to having Alberich duck under the stage and trotting out a big snake tail prop, a bit of jokeiness totally out of character with the rest of the production.

So I'm going with a provisional conclusion that, while the production team has created some innovative stage elements that are both impressive and tasteful, they haven't been able to bring them together in the service of a seamless vision. Nor have they been able to sufficiently refine those elements to the point where they complement the opera rather than draw attention to themselves.

The Ring deserves boffo stagecraft, to be sure, but it also deserves a degree of consistency that allows the viewer to focus on the presentation as a whole. This Ring is erratic in doling out the inspiration, leaving some stretches over-nourished and others starved.

We'll see how Walkure goes.


Some of these people are famous.


Anyhow, onto the actual sangin'.

Bryn Terfel had some strong moments as Wotan, but I'm questioning how good of a fit this is for his voice. I certainly thought it was a good idea on paper. Everyone likes Bryn Terfel singing those nice English art songs, who wouldn't want that swell voice singing "Der augen leuchtendes paar"? But daydreaming about Wotan's five minutes of ballad makes one forget about the other 8 hours of heftier fare. Maybe the other shows will treat him better but I suspect Terfel's instrument is at the limit of how light of a baritone can legally carry the Wotan label. And it showed--Terfel frequently sounded like he was pushing the sound out. It didn't sound UNpretty, but you were constantly aware of his agitating to be heard.

This bolstered the general impression his Wotan made, which is way far out on the smarmy jerk end of the spectrum. With those long greasy locks covering his face and a sort of hunched, ambling gait that underplays his height, he cuts a decidedly swarthy figure for a deity. It will be interesting to see where he goes with it in Walkure, but the base note definitely seems to be Wotan as frustrated, desperate, none-too-bright, thug.

Stephanie Blythe was awesome, as usual, and the house went crazy for her at the curtain calls. Silver lining of sitting in Fam Circ row ZZ: the beautiful acoustics up there transport Blythe's voice with thrilling immediacy. I feel like maybe we're friends now.

If anyone dominated the proceedings, though, it was Eric Owens' masterful Alberich. This was the most memorable characterization of the evening. If the default Alberich interpretation flows from the slapstick business in the opening scene, Owens' performance flowed from the curse scene. Which is as it should be, I think. Watching a performance like Owens' leaves no doubt Alberich is the most interesting character in Rheingold--while Wotan and the rest are still dominated by simplistic motives of greed and fear, Alberich makes choices, displays real self-awareness, and serves as our window into the rich mutli-faceted characters that emerge in the later operas.

Levine performed to a rapturous reception. When was the last time an opera conductor anywhere in the world has achieved a relationship of such boundless love and loyalty from his audience? Anne Midgette wrote something a little while back wondering if we should lament the shortened tenures of today's maestros. I was skeptical, thinking that classical music organizations are simply reflecting the general trends in executive leaderhip, and how can we really gauge the extra value that tenure adds anyhow? But you can't deny what a remarkable thing Levine and the Met Orchestra are, nor that they make the most exciting big-time music in New York, hands down. The pit did not disappoint this evening, at times putting to shame the mixed-bag stage business above, at times gently cajoling "hey there friends, we're playing THE MF'ING RING CYCLE DOWN HERE just so's you don't forget." Levine and this orchestra manufacture awe like its their freakin' job.

Sigh. Back to work.

Priddy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Verge Ensemble at the Corcoran

Saw the first concert of the Verge Ensemble's season at the Corcoran this afternoon. Great playing by the ensemble members, though I found the program a mixed bag.

There was a lot to like in the first half. David Smooke creates a rich and involving sound world in his Hazmat Sextet (listen about halfway down the page here)--a kind of impromptu Rite of Spring carried out by the birds of an unidentified planet. The second offering was a video set to a sound design created by Ken Ueno (animation by Harvey Goldman), a mesmerizing sort of essay on the violent properties of bubbles (watch it here)--the unsettling sounds Ueno creates evoke violent, fundamental processes replicated across natural, mechanical, and human experiences. The last piece on the first half was Another Face, by David Felder, a dazzling turn for solo violin describing the psychological anguish of duality (excerpt here), which was played with great skill and depth by Lina Banh.

I'm afraid I need to put on my Philistine hat for a discussion of the second half pieces by Wesley Fuller and Eric Slegowski--both of which I found fairly tedious. Fuller's (phases/cycles for viola and computer) pitted the violist against an electronic track in a series of back and forth interactions, all painstakingly documented in the program notes and motivated by various weighty allusions. The description gave the piece a sort of playful cast, but there was little playfulness or wit in evidence--indeed, there seemed to be little interest in directly engaging the audience to understand the properties of the dialog as constructed. An interesting "experiment" if you will, but without a lot of interest for non-scientists.

The Slegowski piece (Resonance), a trio for wind, cello, and piano, suffered as well from higher aspirations. I have no doubt the plan announced in the notes--"an overarching form of expansion and contraction...movements connect with one another on both a micro- and macro-structural level...an organic evolution that characterizes the work in its entirety"--was executed as promised, but for practical purposes the work felt like an endless procession of anonymous little phrases, here fast, here slow, now soft, now loud, at once overwrought and meaningless.

To be taken with a grain of salt, as I have difficulties with works like this, but they always strike me as conceptual art works that bear only a passing resemblance to chamber music. I would actually be quite curious to hear these two in some kind of installation setting, but the traditional concert format seems like a terrible vehicle for works which don't offer many rewards for intensive, purposive listening.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ballo at WNO

A second-hand Ballo production with a star no one is dying to hear does not exactly a splashy season opener make. But on the plus side it: 1) wasn't Barber (which last year kept me out of the opera house til November) and 2) was really a very solid effort, if not quite exhilarating.

The production, which comes from Colorado or something, is, um, efficient. Everything's been moved back to Sweden as originally intended before censors made Verdi set it in Puritan New England. The scenes at court, which are dominated by this back wall of big whitewashed tiles and a deteriorating ceiling, kind of look like they take place in a subway station. Those basic wall and ceiling elements shift about and have a go at suggesting the other settings (witch hut, brooding moors, Renato's house) but it is never much to look at. The excellent lighting, however, has a very distinctive Nordic shadowiness, and and goes a long way towards salvaging the meager raw materials.

When Licitra's voice is firing on all cylinders, his Riccardo has the most juice of anyone onstage. Hearing barn-sized voices ringing out in the KC opera house just doesn't get old and he's got that natural pro's charisma to boot. Unfortunately, the overall package is marred by bouts of unfocused sound, some inelegant planning (Riccardo's arias are hard, yo), and pitchiness here and there.

After that, Tamara Wilson as Amelia was probably the standout of the evening. The sound is taut and attractive and very exciting throughout, with only a bit of strain on top to contrast with the ease everywhere else. She doesn't quite have the knack for milking the big numbers in a way that makes them showstoppers yet, but that can't be too far off.

Milking issues were a problem in Renato's material as well. Here's a very strongly sung portrayal by Luca Salsi, authoritative, rich, etc., but when we got to the big Act III number where you want that great Verdian moment of heartbreak amidst the thunder, they kind of plowed through it.

Elena Manistina's scene-stealing Ulrica also deserves a shout out, though putting the action back in Sweden forces one to spend that entire scene thinking about how this random native witch lady ended up in Sweden in the first place. And how she deals when it gets really cold.

Daniele Callegari handled things nicely in the pit for the most part, I think (judging orchestral prowess in middle period Verdi is not a strong suit, I'm afraid), though a number of the ensembles were dicey where they should have been thrilling and climactic. Also, just as a public service announcement, sitting in the orchestra on the extreme right under the balcony makes the orchestra sound really canned in that space.

Opening night at WNO is naturally a more sedate affair than the paparazzi-mad decadence of Met, but we were bummed at the total absence of famous-for-DC sightings, which may indicate either a disturbing lack of opera enthusiasm from the current administration or weird DC hangups about going to a gala on the dread 9/11. Come on people, if it's an elitism issue, just remind reporters that they had to perform Gotterdammerung IN FRONT OF THE CURTAIN...

Update: Kagan was there and we missed her?!?!? Arg!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Throwdown

After reading Greg Sandow's complaints about that Heather Mac Donald article about classical music's golden age with the usual tongue-biting, I decided it wasn't worth the energy. But I feel compelled to link to Mac Donald's thorough rebuttal. (h/t Adaptistration who has links to all the posts)

(Just to be clear, Mac Donald is really an awful conservative hack on her usual beats of policy and cultural politics. Go to her archive at the Manhattan Institute, choose an article at random and just wait for your blood to boil. And yes, her article is clearly motivated in part by some wearisome bone-picking with postmodernism or 'identity politics' or whatever they think is destroying the country from the inside out.)

I will resist the urge to reargue her case, but will point to one illustrative passage:
As evidence of decline, Sandow weirdly offers the fact that a Spohr concerto for two violins sold 7,000 CDs in five months. Is he crazy? How many of us have ever heard of the Spohr double violin concerto, much less heard it performed? I unashamedly confess ignorance. If Spohr were apprised of these sales figures, would he say: Gee, how disappointing, only 7,000 CDs sold? Or would he say: What an unpredicted bonanza for my work, put in the hands of magnitudes more listeners than ever heard it during my lifetime, and who can now play it not just once, but over and over?
Which is to say: defining "success" for the classical music enterprise right now is pretty hard. Nonprofit organizations, donor funded organizations, the music recording industry, live performance, people with job security, and specially trained professionals have all been taking their lumps in recent years, and that puts classical music at the crossroads of a lot of negative forces. Its unclear what classical music will look like in ten years, and key elements of the landscape of the last 50 years will continue to disappear.

One the one hand, and especially from Sandow's business consultant's perspective, we might look at this enterprise in flux and blame its participants, ask why they insist on hurting themselves and tell them to get ready to swallow some bitter pills for the good of their bottom line. I get that. From this perspective, Mac Donald's article is like telling the horse and buggy makers that they should be really proud of themselves for perfecting the craft of buggy making and never mind that auto-mobile over there.

But Mac Donald is looking at this from the perspective of music lover rather than widget analyst. As someone who knows that classical music is a living institution subject to the whims, triumphs, and maladies of the society in which it exists. But who can also marvel at the fact that, after this century's endless cultural and technological upheaval more people than ever before (yes, that's in absolute numbers) are in love with performing and listening to and immersing themselves in the music of the past.

In public policy one must learn that, while projections are important, they should be taken with a grain of salt. History is rarely so mechanical as an Excel spreadsheet: small unanticipated shifts in one trend have huge effects elsewhere; the past does not perfectly predict the future; values and cultural norms have a way of reasserting themselves over unflinching budget numbers. Disturbing audience demographic shifts are clearly something to be cognizant of, and will potentially have a big role in what that "success" looks like in the future for classical music. But that doesn't imply we should summarily dismiss the evidence in front of our own eyes for classical music's enduring appeal, or rashly change the thing real people like now into something we think this projected future audience will like down the road.

That's not why we got in the game, baby.

Monday, August 16, 2010

September Dreamin'

J: yo
J: how is it?
J: with the sausage
A: S'ok
A: All dumb corporate orientation today
A: It is hard to swallow after a while
J: serz
J: like sexual harassment policy and stuff
A: "Firm values"
J: sick
J: "I'll show you my firm value"
A: Haha
A: Lots of stuff about excellence in servicing your clients
A: I ended up getting an opening nite rheingold ticket
A: The rest of fall was sold out by the time I got there
J: oh!
J: nice
A: And I don't really want to wait til may or whatever
J: where are you?
A: On a shuttle to the metro
J: no I mean, where are you sitting
J: hah
A: Oh heh
J: I'm in Washington DC jackass
A: Like 3 rows from the back of FC on the extreme right
A: Pretty brutal
J: yeah we're totally in fam circ row H
A: Ah well
A: Hopefully the giant slinky or whatever will still register
J: it'll be a taste of slinky
A: Maybe its more like a big horizontal jenga
J: oh that sounds right
A: LePage: "for this ring I was inspired by party games of the early mid nineties..."
J: "but will remain always faithful to Wagner's timeless score"
J: "Uno!"
A: Ha
A: "Beaten and disgraced by his own progeny, truly the god must...draw four."
J: hah

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Stuff I did week before last: Lulu/Pollini

Sigh...never got around to posting on the fine week of music last week, but for posterity's sake...

I made an executive decision to miss this awesomeness in DC for Lulu at the Met (the first matinee...oh, and I guess my family was there and stuff). And while I am still jonesin' bad for a hit of that sweet sweet Brewer earmagik, I was very happy to "do the deed" and get rid of this nagging Lulu virginity I've been harboring.

It's really just such a fantastic piece of music. While I felt Wozzeck (in the last Met outing) was wonderful musically, the drama feels subsumed by the symphony at times. Lulu on the other hand is all flesh and blood, with Berg's spectacular orchestration supporting moment after moment of pure OPERA.

The cast, as noted, was universally fine. Marlis Petersen sounded great and pulled off the trick I think must be central to an effective Lulu--maintaining that air of amoral cruelty right up until the excruciating pathos demanded by that horrific final scene. JMo towered over his scenes as Schoen and JtR, and Gary Lehman's massive tenor made for a consistently exciting Alwa. Luisi's conducting frequently "made clear" the beauty of Berg's score.

Good sign o' the times moment: in the fourth act, when the "humans are godforsaken animals" theme is extended to a bunch of 19th century financiers at a party screwing each other over on some stock market BS, there were HEARTY laughs from the audience. Choice laff line was something like: "We're bankers, we know what we're doing."

***

Maurizio Pollini was on at the Kennedy Center the following Wednesday, and those who know about that dutifully gathered to participate in the communal brain pleasuring. The program was all Chopin: played, not as wistful memories, but as something approaching modern art in immediacy and formal power. Pollini teases these pieces apart like a surgeon, separating muscle from bone so that one can see how they lie together.

Sometimes his manner can seem a bit cruel with slighter tissue. The simple mechanism of a mazurka in the first half could feel harangued by his probing treatment. But Pollini's interpretations reward those willing to play a deeper listening game--the effect at its best is cumulative rather than acute, an architectural beauty only fully appreciated when the last girder is snapped into place.

Oh, but give the man a substantial subject for dissection--the Sonata No. 3 which dominated the second half of the program was nothing short of transporting. His project--finding truth through the structure, emotional power through clarity, is clearly as vital as ever.

As Downey points out this was a somewhat disjointed program, a mixed bag of Chopin replacing the apparently planned complete Preludes + all Etudes in the second half. But just in case there's any confusion, we will take what we can get.

Just for kicks, here's Pollini on opera:
He closely examines the sources of pieces he plays. Chopin, he pointed out, changed the voicing of the final chords of the Second Ballade four times.

"He was seeking perfection in every detail," Mr. Pollini said, fingering the different chords on the hotel coffee table. Was he the same way, Mr. Pollini was asked. "I'm not exactly like this, certainly," he answered. But he gave a clue about his attitude later, saying he did not go much to opera. "There are too many elements," he explained. "You are rarely satisfied. But if it succeeds, it is something absolutely phenomenal."
Sounds about right.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Figaro at WNO

As others have already noted, WNO has turned out an immensely pleasing Figaro revival (I saw it Tuesday with the A-cast). This is a production focused on emphasizing the opera's vast appeal and, watching such a natural, well-conceived staging (kudos to director Harry Silverstein), it is hard to believe this magical piece of musical theatre ever produces anything else. But getting 200 year old humor right is not easy (witness every godforsaken Barber production) and finding a production that avoids wallowing in the endless hit parade while meeting the piece's musical demands is something to value indeed.

The mood was evident from Patrick Fournillier's downbeat on a madcap, rollicking reading of the overture, and he proceeded to keep things moving at a healthy clip, which was clearly catnip to the enthusiastic cast.

Now, it must be said, despite the considerable fun of Teddy Tahu Rhodes' SexyCount TM, it sacrifices something in the plausibility department. There's something to playing the Count as a sort of hapless Don Juan, but the discrepancy between his station and dissolute behavior is an important tension. If he just comes off like a rich 28 year-old d-bag, it is hard to be very perturbed by this. Moreover, it makes sympathy for the Countess less easy to come by--you married this jerkstore who's at least a decade younger than you, what did you expect? That said, Rhodes clearly has a great stage presence and to my ears was the most exciting vocal thing happening onstage. One of the musical thrills of the evening was hearing his warm, resonant baritone cutting through the ensembles.

His Countess, Virginia Tola, turned in a fairly sedate performance relative to her colleagues that at times verged on the nondescript. The voice has an appealing strength and urgency through the middle despite a sometimes unpleasant edge, but peters out at the top, with pitch issues on some of the big moments. But all of that equivocation was promptly forgotten for the duration of her "Dove Sono" which seemed to suck all the air from the room, as it is wont to do in the right hands.

Veronica Cangemi's Susanna was a great deal of fun--she works the Despina angles hard where others might try to keep things straighter and more sympathetic, but it really is a better character this way. Vocally there were some quibbles, including a failure to hold her own in the ensembles where Susanna's soaring lines are so key. But, as with Tola, she went out on a high point, offering a sensitive and beguiling "Deh Vieni".

If less consistent than Rhodes, Michèle Losier's Cherubino was certainly the other vocal standout of the evening, bringing all the ardent passion one wants from this role, if not the exalted levels of mezzo creaminess one finds in the finest readings. The rest of the cast was uniformly strong, particularly: Ildar Abradzakov's polished Figaro and Victoria Livengood's bawdy, hilarious Marcellina, which could be too broad depending on your taste, but never crossed the line to vulgar or distracting.

The crime is not doing Figaro too much, but doing it in a way that anyone could leave bored and unfulfilled. Figaro is like comfort food and haute cuisine all at once--a delicate balance, to be sure, but one that, successfully achieved, leaves one's heart full and one's head swimming. So let's not phone it in, OK? More of what this production has going is a good start.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Jenny

A: there is this jenufa in english from the 70s on sirius right now
A: it took me like 15 minutes of listening to realize this
J: oh?
J: I still wish they called the English version "Jennifer"
A: ha~!
A: inflected je-NI-fer
A: ?
J: no, just plain old Jennifer
A: je-NIIIIIII-fer
A: the women are totally unintelligible
A: this is with Astrid Varnay as Kostelnicka
A: creepy...one forgets that Laca is totally just talking about her cheeks the entire end of the first act before he cuts her
J: “Larry"
A: ha
A: and Steve
J: "Steve"
A: Aunt Connie?
J: hah
J: that one doesn't really translate as it's basically like "Deacon"
A: right
J: "Evil Stepmom" is the same number of syllables
A: ha
A: just sung really fast
A: evilstepmom
A: Jon Vickers is a bit much as Steve
A: tho maybe we're just too used to pretty douchey Steves
A: as opposed to scary douchey Steves
A: i want to see a live Makropoulos case
A: how is that going to happen
J: come to SF with me in November
A: oh?
A: oh mattila in san francisco!
A: done
A: i am so there for that

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Jack Quartet at Library of Congress

The monastery of Sainte_Marie_de_La_Tourette.


A strong show by the Jack Quartet, a group of Eastman grads specializing in contemporary and new music, at the Library of Congress last night. The program was works by Jeff Myers, Matthias Pintscher, a premiere by Caleb Burhans, and a REDONCULOUS Xenakis quartet.

The opener, Jeff Myer's "Dopamine", operates in a unique space tonally, creating (through tuning I think) these not-quite-dissonant-not-quite-vanilla harmonies that dance uneasily around various solo figures. Toward the end, they converge in great masses of alternative chords and the effect is quite brilliant. You can listen to it on his myspace page here.

Pintscher's "Study IV for 'Treatise on the Veil'" is one of those pieces I find out of place in a regular concert setting. To the unprepared ear (perhaps all ears) it is almost completely without structure. An endless soundscape of demonstrations of the different noises the violin can make, both on its own and with certain augmentations added by the musicians. It could very well be an interesting sound world, but I can't help but feel it might be better explored in the freedom of a gallery space or something similar. In concert, on first hearing, one tries to interrogate it with the concentration one accords other things one hears in that space, and this approach offers pretty meager rewards with such a piece.

After the half, we heard the premiere of a gorgeous piece called "Contritus" by Caleb Burhans. So, sometimes watching new music, I wonder about whether the space exists for something like the generous feeling one finds in, say, Brahms--that kind of unabashed wisdom, feeling for the human condition, what have you. One the one hand, its an essentialized sentiment, and hard to square with a lot of the advances in the "research program", for the best in large measure, but on the other hand--its a question of how well music fulfills some basic human needs.

Burhans' new piece meditates on guilt via three sections organized around prayers of contrition. Not suffocating and terrifying guilt, but, I think, as a sort of beautiful humility before God. The piece is constructed from small figures, multiplying deliberately in pure, vital harmonies. At its climax, the swoon of the strings cuts deep and disarms, resolving in a slow fade out and reverent silence. It is a piece that wants to convey deep emotions, and does, through a deeply persuasive musical logic. I hope to hear it again.

And then there was the Xenakis, specifically the quartet "Tetras". I thought I had heard Xenakis live before, but now I'm doubting that, because I think I'd remember. Here's a little excerpt of him talking about his music out of A. Ross' Rest is Noise:
"The listener must be gripped...and--whether he likes it or not--drawn into the flight path of the sounds, without a special training being necessary. The sensual shock must be just as forceful as when one hears a clap of thunder or looks into a bottomless abyss."
Done and done, buddy. It is indeed primal--but not in the animal sense: in the chemical, rock formation, lava vs. atmosphere sense. It is the performance through humans of deeply unhuman processes. Today, when we think about how to portray such elemental forces, our minds go to a recorded artifact. Imagine the possibilities of technology to create strange, unsettling sound worlds that shock and surprise us. Yet Xenakis has humans doing it, choosing how to create it, in real time, WITH VIOLINS. And bizarrely, I suspect that this is the vehicle which produces the deeper effect of alienation, of disjuncture, of "sensual shock". The act of watching other humans force these noises into the world--and I'm sorry, but the Jack Quartet players just fucking outdid themselves here--resonates more deeply and personally than a disembodied recording.

I dunno if that made any good sense but that's where I am trying to get a handle on what I heard earlier.

Anyhow. Excellent program and performance.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Eternal "Concert Halls are Too Offputting" Debate

Crossposting a long comment I wrote on Greg Sandow's blog, since, well, content is content...

Sandow's original post is here, which was followed by comments that people, especially the young, are loath to replete shrinking classical music audiences because the concert hall is too restrictive and doesn't allow for enough audience expression.

* * *

I guess I just find it hard to believe that anyone who is likely to actually be interested in classical music is being kept out of the concert hall because of these petty prohibitions. At some point you have to want to sit through 40 minutes of Beethoven, not just try to endure 40 minutes of Beethoven by distracting yourself with your phone and intermittent clapping. And if you don't want to sit through it then why should you have to? Look, if the goal here is to trick people to get some extra butts in the seats and massage hurting orchestras' revenues, that's a business decision and you gotta do what you gotta do. But that's a conversation for business development departments or something, not for people interested in broader questions about how to best serve music they love.

On who has the etiquette rules, I made careful to specify "not in a bar". I like going to bars, and I like to hear music in bars, and I think that these efforts to do chamber music in bars and bar-like venues is great. I'm hoping to finally get to a show at Le Poisson Rouge the weekend after next and am very excited about it. But it's a different etiquette because its a space with multiple purposes. And while it's great for some things, it's kind of hard to fit the CSO in most bars, not to mention major dance and theater, which have similar if not identical etiquette. I was at that CONTACT show that had Nico's pieces in it, and I agree that the Harris theater is a big hulking space far better suited to opera or dance than the kind of intimate, personal chamber music they were doing, and the atmosphere was stilted. Presenters can always do a better job of choosing an appropriate venue. But the point is there are different levels of appropriate interaction in each that would feel out of place in another.

It goes to the heart of why Sandow's comments sometimes feel problematic to me, i.e. this example Sandow uses above with a New Orleans jazz band inspiring dancing through the street. Putting aside his misleading example of the Bernstein performance, which obviously is a special case of history and moment, why should an everyday Beethoven 9th performance and an everyday New Orleans jazz band performance be experienced the same way? Why must we force those people dancing in the street to do it to Beethoven or vice versa? Can't we just let them have the real thing?

I think we have all this anecdotal evidence of younger audiences being disproportionately attracted to groups like Bang on a Can because THAT IS WHAT THEY LIKE. It doesn't make them particularly interested in hearing Schubert art songs. So let people listen to Bang on a Can at their desired volume. And if that means in 20 years, there are fewer Schubert recitals given, then that’s how its going to be. I feel pretty confident that there is enough of a critical mass of people who will still love to perform and listen to Schubert that we're not facing some kind of Schubert extinction. But when it is performed, let people listen to it the way people who love it want to listen to it. Let them enjoy the quietness and delicacy of Schubert's melodies in some kind of recital space, unamplified, and don't force them or the performers to interrupt their concentration for people getting up to go to the bathroom or a round of applause every 3 minutes.

Let's have more trust in the judgment of people who seek out the performance of music because they love to know how they want to experience it. I suspect anything else is an exercise in futility.

P.S. This agony over the clapping thing has got to stop. It’s a useful convention because the audience doesn’t know how a conductor/ensemble/etc. wants to handle a transition between movements and it’s just the nature of the beast that we let it be their prerogative to shape a performance. We give them the freedom to let a quiet movement settle or drive right into the next. Also, it ends up adding a lot of time to a concert with a bunch of movements. The only people who are “concerned” about it are those who act like this one piece of practical performance etiquette is a grave personal affront. We live in a society predicated upon venue specific etiquette, why can’t people accept that this is the etiquette for this particular interaction? I don’t get it.

* * *

A final point: I hope the part about Bang on a Can and loudness doesn't come off dismissive. Disproportionate interest among contemporary audiences for contemporary music is obviously the world we want to live in and they are creating really exciting and interesting music. Yeah, it probably means some restructuring in the Schubert industry, but Schubert will be OK. My point was just that we shouldn't force the appropriate performance practice of one onto the performance practice of the other.

Later: Dur...small correction: that commenter on Sandow's blog was referencing a comment Nico Muhly made about the NY Phil's new music series. I mixed that up with the MusicNOW series the CSO does that I saw Nico in the other year (I think I imagined it with a similarly aggressive exclamation point). Anyhow. The Harris Theater is still kind of a sucky venue for chamber music.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Christopher Maltman at the Austrian Embassy

A lovely recital by Christopher Maltman last night, with Graham Johnson at the keys. Maltman's voice is extremely beautiful, to be sure, but his first priority is really conveying the dramatic meaning of these pieces, and in that he succeeds quite brilliantly. Yes, he does that baritone lieder singer thing where his loud dynamics sometimes push into this coarse hollow place that gets overused and is grating. But I think maybe that's just my issue with the medium, since everyone (except Goerne, natch) does it.

The program was a really unexpected and surprising mix of, uh, settings of Goethe by 19th century Austro-German composers. But you know, parameters like that and you've got to pick some interesting stuff. So among the numerous Schubert selections we got a fascinating setting of an excerpt from Faust in which the singer shifts between Gretchen, the evil voice tempting her, and a chorus (how awesome would a Schubert composed one-man Faust opera be??? #fantasylieder); two mythological pieces, the beautiful "Ganymede" and the epic "Prometheus"; and the delightful "Der Fischer". In the sheer Schubertian beauty department, Maltman offered up both the "Wanderers Nachtlied(er?)", an incredibly restrained, haunting "Meeres Stille", "Wilkommen und Abschied" and more.

We also got the setting of "Erlkonig" by Carl Loewe (though they couldn't resist doing the Schubert as an encore), and Loewe's delightful setting of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", taken at an appropriately dazzling speed. The regular program closed with two completely beautiful knockouts: Brahms' "Dämmerung senkte sich von oben" and Loewe's "Lynceus der Türmer, auf Fausts Sternwarte singend".

Not that Goethe needs the shout-out, but it is remarkable to think about how a single artist provided 19th century romantics with inspiration for basically every aspect of their emotional/aesthetic imagination. Bleakest despair, check. High (but genuine) Romantic Schmaltz, check. Medieval fantasies, check. Magic and faeries, check. It's all in there.

But Maltman clearly thrives on this variation, and reminded the audience that done properly, interpreting these songs requires truly rarefied storytelling skills. I'm not great at extracting the details of accompanists' contributions to recitals but I will also note that Johnson's fine playing shone particularly in the wonderful piano writing in the Wolf selections.

Update: Link to Charles Downey's take in the Post...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mitsuko Uchida at Strathmore

Had my first chance to hear Mitsuko Uchida live last night at Strathmore in a deeply affecting performance of Mozart and Schumann.

To grasp for a word, there is something so internal about this playing. One feels as though there is no gesture, no effect designed solely to appeal to the listener in the concert hall. Not that speaking to the audience is a bad thing, of course, but I think wrapping your head around her approach means understanding how everything she does is to serve an internal emotional logic in the music.

Accordingly, the opening of the Mozart A Minor Sonata was neurotic, frantic, desperate. The forward momentum, save for those blessed, haunting echoes in the main theme, nearly tripped over itself, devolving into masses of clotted chords in the denser sections. But of course this frenzy resolved into the Andante, and some of the most enlightening Mozart I have heard in a long, long time. Uchida shies away from Mozart as a deliciously balanced, finely humming machine--instead she seeks a clarity of statement almost embarrassing in its immediacy.

In her Davidbundlertanze, it was easy to muse on how this reading must get very close to how Schumann sought to truly portray the inner life of the heart and mind, each miniature singing with completely authentic ecstasy, melancholy, what have you. Though at times one grew restless for perhaps more structure to guide things overall.

And then after the break, the Fantasy in C Major. I love this piece so dearly, and to hear it played with an honesty and conviction that never left one feeling something had been compromised or left to expedience was just...really, really awesome. The third movement was especially fine--the opening sequence, earthbound, circling around itself, unable to to find any light, then suddenly and completely disarmed by a theme of raw naked longing, utterly incapable of being anything but itself. I think there may have been some note slips in the nastier sections (which were still exhilarating), but these mattered not at all to the overall impression.

Surely spent from such an evening, the sole encore was simple, purifying Bach.

P.S. Charles Downey's WaPo review here...

P.P.S. What was up with the riff-raff in the grand tier the other night? The parody level extent of inappropriate coughing/candy unwrapping/KLEENEX UNWRAPPING/whispering would have been hilarious if it hadn't been so frigging annoying. It was like date night at the Met but with adults who should know better. Let's get it together, people.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rachmaninoff, Chaikovskii, Auerbach at Kennedy Center

Denis Matsuev has some serious ideas about Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. He sees it not as the Second Symphony with piano accompaniment, but rather as a Prelude of massive size with orchestral connective tissue. He sees it as a work of sometimes unbearable momentum, and at other times of heart rending stillness. And he has the technique to back up these ideas--a hugely satisfying use-your-paw-to-press-the-note-down-as-far-as-it-goes sound that cuts through the orchestra like there's a whole "piano" section, exceeded only by a beguiling sensitivity that unabashedly steals your heart.

In short, after taking a lot of heat for schmaltzing up the Concertgebouw's program on Monday, I think its safe to say that Rachmaninoff has redeemed himself in DC's eyes.

The NSO, under the direction of James Gaffigan (any relation to this guy?) played with delicacy and distinction in many moments. But at other times, they seemed to turn Matsuev's crisp, driving sets into gluey, halting picks (volleyball metaphor FTW!). Not that its easy to maintain momentum over those expansive themes, but one wonders at what could be achieved with an orchestra matching the brilliant agility Matsuev was serving up.

Matsuev responded to ecstatic applause with this showpiece, providing me with cheesy encore #2 for the week. I mean, it's his right and all, but after being so blown away by his Rachmaninoff I was really jonesing for some more information about what he could do with, you know, teh serious music.

The opener was a fascinating piece called "Requiem for Icarus" by Lera Auerbach. There were passages that came off a bit clumsily in the NSO's hands, but the overall impression was searing and direct, particularly the chilling final section.

After the half was Chaikovskii (love that bad-ass spelling) #4. Quibbles in the first half be damned, this was an exquisitely executed performance from the NSO. The allegro was played with glorious, tense precision, giving way to a second movement of disarming simplicity of expression. I don't know what to say about that plucked business in the scherzo, but the finale was an all cylinder tour de force. Gaffigan has a keen sense of phrasing that feels at once driving and deeply intuitive.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Concertgebouw!

Well, much to my chagrin, I didn't get to see the Concertgebouw on my trip to Amsterdam a few months ago, but was able to save some face tonight seeing them at the KC Concert Hall, courtesy of WPAS.

The first half was the Sibelius violin concerto with violinist Janine Jansen, and I liked it fine. That said, it was a bit domesticated. I'm listening to the Heifetz/CSO record I have of it now, and there's something sort of desperate and sad that was missing in Maestro Jansson's very beautiful and thoughtful reading. For her part, Jansen brought an exciting hard-edged tone and brilliant skill to the solo. But mostly I think I just wanted more Concertgebouw than the concerto could serve up.

The Rachmaninov Second Symphony after the break did not disappoint. So, maybe Rach Symphony II is not the most cerebral piece. Maybe, like 'Party in the USA', one could accuse it of basically being "all chorus." But as a tour calling card that makes me want to abandon my job and apartment and just go live in the sound the string section makes? Yeah, its pretty freaking good for that purpose. I mean, I'm not a huge Second Symphony connoisseur, but I just can't imagine how one plays the piece better than this. The lyric money lines, which, as mentioned, come like ever 20 bars, were time and again just pure plush brainfreeze gorgeousness.

But not cheap, you know? The Concertgebouw is able to achieve that thing it seems great orchestra string sections are able to with remarkable consistency: that sense that the lines are really 'speaking' as when played by great soloists. Mind you, I've never played in an orchestra, so the whole thing is kind of voodoo magic to me, but I know when an orchestra gets beyond the earthbound "here is the melody we are playing it nice" level and it is a magical, exhilarating sensation. Is it an absolute fidelity to phrasing across players thing? In any event, the Rachmaninov really spoke this evening, in all of its big wet earnest glory.

The encore was cheesy (if impressive). Enough of cheesy orchestra encores. Why can't they roll like pianists and come up with something in the familiar but classy/unexpected favorites vein?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

And now, the Naxos bobsled team...

A: UM
J: yes....?
A: have you ever heard of how in seoul in 2004 when they lit the torch they lit all these doves on fire??
J: no!
A: uh
A: start this video at like 4:30
A: er
A: 4:20
A: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgAXCAWQUic
J: ok waiting for it to load
J: whoa
J: I mean, they had to know that was going to happen
A: koreans are hardcore
A: "yes, pigeons will die...what of it!!!!"
J: do you feel like watching an intense Waltraud Liebestod in extreme close-up?
A: sure i do
J: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvRlZndM70Q
A: lots of people dead in that tristan
A: ah
A: its the guy who did that salome i saw in amsterdam
J: oh...
J: well the rest is just Waltraud in extreme close up
A: ha
A: oh man
A: she kicks so much ass
A: that is the best
J: she really gets into it
A: i want to see her in a production of "Sunset Boulevard"
J: totally!
J: that lead up to and the actual moment of that last huge loud note....amazing
A: and then that funny kind of grimace on the very last note
J: yeah....oh, that note.
A: kind of a dick move on wagner's part
J: Stemme gets it in the one I found online
A: rarg
A: i think i bought tix for somethign else the night of the 20th
A: i may need to bail on it to see her tho
A: are you excited for olympics
J: oh man
J: yes
J: though my figure skating crush did not make the team
A: who is that?
J: http://ryan-bradley.com/photos_podiums.html
A: oh cute
A: dommage
J: dude listen to how perfect this is
J: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xo_9PAnuFmA
J: just from this past fall
A: i want to get into ski + shoot this time
J: oh good one
A: wow
A: that is great
A: she is the real deal yo
J: I mean
J: 2011 we're flying to SF for a full cycle
J: you know she's doing all the Brunnhildes
A: got to be
A: i will totally sit through more Crackerjack Ring for that goodness
J: oh totally
J: I will say though....I wouldn't stress yourself about coming up for the Ariadne
J: she's SO wonderful
J: but
J: the Bacchus BLOWS
J: I went back last night
A: ew
J: and so it ends with a real thud
A: that sux
J: and I think Kathleen Kim is not all that
J: she's fine
J: but def not wonderful
A: that dark flavor in stemme's voice is so killer
A: like, yes, I'll take a little coffee with my cream, thanks
J: I want to hear her whole Isolde so bad

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Clothes War-Horses

Rupert Christiansen comments on a column Opera Chic has written about conductors' wardrobes:
Offstage, it doesn’t matter what a performer wears; onstage, however, it regrettably does. We are meant to go to a concert to listen rather than look, and ideally how musicians are clothed should have no bearing on the sound they make. But the brute fact is that understated elegance inspires confidence in the performer, while ugly, ill-fitting and garish outfits (still the norm in our concert halls) make one sub-consciously doubt the wearer’s competence. And it matters too in terms of popular preconception and prejudice: a shiny, baggy suit or a Primark evening dress promotes the notion among the trend-conscious young that ‘classical music’ is terribly cheesy and uncool.
Really? I mean, it's all well and good to gossip about classical performers' wardrobes--the clothing of rich and classy people is interesting as always. But people not attending classical music because of the sometimes-dumpy dresses? First, anyone who is lukewarm on the whole concept of classical music is probably not paying for seats anywhere near close enough to get a good look at the outfits. Renaay just looks like a big sequin from the cheap seats at Carnegie Hall no matter what she has on. Second, if the performer and the music isn't doing anything for you in the first place, its hard to imagine you'd want to come back for the great outfits. I'm afraid this is another one of those variables that people can have fun thinking and talking about but has no effect whatsoever on the attendance side of the equation.

That said, while the impact of outfits is questionable, there's clearly a lot going on with appearance where performers' body types are concerned. Whether this is all in programmers'/artistic directors' heads, or whether people are now attending the Met in droves because of all the thin people plastered on bus steps (or is it just increased visibility overall?) is an open question, and has clearly real effects on who we end up seeing on stage.

Friday, February 05, 2010

BTW

So, I did see Radu Lupu at Strathmore last week, but it was one of those concerts that is kind of hard to write about because I didn't feel I was really in the proper space to appreciate it. But you know, posterity and all that, so I shall say a few words.

Obviously, Radu Lupu kicks ass. There is that beloved Brahms CD of course, and then I saw his Debussy which was ridiculous. This program was Janacek's In the Mists plus the Appassionata, plus Schubert (the Sonata in A Major) after the half. It was great to hear the Janacek (yay!) live--I seriously don't get why his piano works and those of Poulenc are not programmed more often. But it was nice here.

I found the Appassionata problematic. I would never characterize Lupu's approach as "precious"--"genius of coloring" is more appropriate--but he seems to have sacrificed some of the work's momentum for the sake of pursuing those gorgeous colors. The resulting experience, while fascinating in places, was less than satisfying. But maybe it was just me.

The Schubert suffered a bit from the same syndrome but was much more successful, particularly his spectral reading of the slow movement. And then there was the encore--one of those famous Intermezzi--and all the magic came flooding back. Brahms' chords in Lupu's hands are not assemblages of notes, but single, bottomless sounds. As Alex Ross says in that review--it's as though Lupu's piano is a different instrument entirely...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Capuçon-Angelich Trio at the French Embassy

You know how sometimes you go to chamber music and you wonder if you've forgotten how to enjoy it? Well, the snowy Capuçon-Angelich Trio show at the French Embassy tonight was not one of those occasions.

The program was Haydn (the "Hungarian" trio) and Shostakovich (the trio No. 2 in E Minor) before the half and Brahms (the trio in C Major of 1882) to close. I was searching for a word to describe this delightful, disarming Haydn, and the best I could come up with was "plainspoken"--which sounds kind of lame, yes, but there was something so forthright, so honest about the declamation of the piece, if you will, and particularly the violin of Renaud Capuçon. Haydn is so often reduced to the sensitive, but precious--this felt like Haydn had something to say.

The Shostakovich was the highlight of the evening, I think. What to say about this chilling, jaw-dropping, ecstatic performance? This trio understands what it is to imbue a piece with character. That is, they can traverse a fairly wide range of idiosyncratic perspectives without appearing gimmicky. And it is done with so much confidence, so much joy at finding out what makes the music tick and playing to that idea with fearless yet precise abandon, that it does not feel inconsistent. The blistering, desperate Allegro non troppo evoked a sort of dueling banjos suicide pact played by drunken peasants. The Largo was conceptual art--strange and terrifying harmonies floating in space. The finale--Death delighting in a perverse, funky little tune he has invented and getting entirely carried away with it.

As for the Brahms, well, maybe I am too picky about Brahms. The performance here had many very beautiful things and moments of real introspection, and it was miles better than the last Brahms chamber music I heard, the quintet which closed the otherwise stellar Marlboro concert last fall. But for my ear they still fell back too easily on those scourges of Brahms performance: over-emoting and the pervasive mezzo forte. I think to play really successful, interesting Brahms, one must have to go into it playing with restraint, and then double it. There is so much passion, so much heave and sigh in the music already, that anything more strikes a false note. Still very enjoyable and played with commitment, but not as much to savor as in the readings of the Haydn and Shostakovich.

Hope to see more of them in the future...

Update: A positive assessment from Charles Downey is up here...