Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vec Makropulos at the Met

Karita Mattila made her long-awaited Met appearance Friday night as Emilia Marty, the 337 year old protagonist of Janacek's penultimate opera, and the powerful logic of Mattila in this role was again clear to all. Mind you, that's not to say that Mattila's interpretation is the obvious one or likely to bear much similarity to other readings of the part. In fact, her Marty may be a bit of an acquired taste. As is her wont, she eschews traditional operatic acting in favor of a sort of hypernaturalistic style through which she seeks to convey the raw flesh and blood concerns of her characters.

And so in her Marty we do not get the supernatural ice queen hovering above petty human concerns, but a personality disintegrating before our very eyes, a jumble of impulses and memories, a human vessel collapsing under the weight of its own experience. Marty's line "I haven't been a lady for quite some time" is almost a pathetic statement here--peel back the layers of history and this Marty turns out to be a sad, bewildered creature suffering through life without any of the wisdom she may have once acquired. In the absence of the understanding death imparts to our lives, her capacity to make sense of the world has disintegrated and left her horribly adrift. Mattila's special capabilities as a physical performer powerfully telegraph this restless, thoroughly alien presence, while her vocal performance captures Marty's schizophrenic careening from casual cruelty and vulgarity to kittenish seduction, to the weary, soaring lines of the final scene, the finale an exquisite fit for Mattila's plaintive upper register.

That said, this was perhaps not as straightforward a triumph as last year’s assumption in San Francisco. Mattila sounded less comfortable vocally here than she did in the previous outing, with those beautiful blooming lines marred by an occasional wavering about the pitch and a middle register that was sometimes strained early in the night. The biggest damper, however, was undoubtedly the cluttered, unfocused production which is badly showing its age more than 15 years later.

The actual staging, for which the original director, Elijah Moshinsky, returned, was solid enough, with Mattila largely importing the role as she developed it in San Francisco as the centerpiece, but the production is something of a mess. I can see how this probably seemed like an admirably minimal fit for the show in 1996, but today it feels played out. A huge billboard of a mysterious woman's face lurks in the back of the largely bare stage throughout the show to convey, I dunno, that Marty is watching us? The interiors of the office and hotel room for the first and third acts are awkward spaces dominated by massive slanted plate glass windows and lit in a wan, shadowy fashion that plops them into that uncanny valley of set design where, without any greater purpose, one can never quite reconcile the poor attempt at simulating a real space.

The huge sphinx thing which dominates act II (apparently this time around La Marty is engaged for a run of Aida's, as opposed to the memorable clown get-up from SF which had her in Pagiliacci?) was designed, so I'm told, so that Jessye Norman would have a good spot to park herself for the duration, and it adds an intriguing, creepy character despite forcing some awkward staging. There is a big effect at the end that works pretty well, but at the cost of forcing KM to perform the bulk of the great climactic finale shunted to the front of the proscenium for no apparent reason. Getting the full payoff from Vec Makropulos depends a lot on properly showcasing Janacek's glorious finale--directors must tread carefully with anything that detracts from it, and this production fails to obey that rule.

A strong supporting cast included Richard Leech as an agitated, explosive Gregor, the dissolute hopeful in the estate case whose passion for Marty is particularly problematic given that he is her great grandson. Also notable were the intimidating Prus offered by John Reuter and a Kristina of disarming seriousness from Emalie Savoy.

Jiri Belohlavek continues his dominance of big-time American Janacek revivals in the pit with this production. This is a severely unsentimental reading of this fairly unsentimental opera--Belohlavek supports the talkiness of the score with a raw, choppy energy, driving Janacek's dense textures with abandon.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Death of...Photofinishing

Via Brad Plumer, the top ten "dying" industries in the United States by decline in revenue, industry participants, forecast decline in revenue, and some other stuff (original report here):

  1. Photofinishing
  2. Newspaper publishing
  3. Appliance repair
  4. DVD, game, and video rental
  5. Money market and other banking
  6. Recordable media manufacturing
  7. Hardware manufacturing
  8. Shoe and footwear manufacturing
  9. Costume and team uniform manufacturing
  10. Women’s and girls’ apparel manufacturing

Each of these industries is caught in the maw of some particularly brutal bit of capitalist logic, whether displacement by superior technology (photofinishing, video rental, recordable media manufacturing), shifting production to a cheaper country (apparel manufacturing), or displacement by a better business model (appliance repair). Firms in these sectors don't (or shouldn't) have many illusions about where they go from here--either come up with a different way to use your capital and labor stock to produce something not vulnerable to the trend, pray for some kind of extra-market protection from the government, or...start looking for employment elsewhere.

Now, I doubt they have a category for "classical music performance"--and if they do and its actually no. 13 on the list, then I'll eat this post--but I suspect not. The takeaway here is simply that death of classical music handwringers taken to scolding folks for having their heads in the sand might want to consider the fact that the "classical music" sector doesn't line up very neatly with the cut and dry cases above. Issues such as changing generational tastes and shifting donor composition are no doubt critical and deserve to be at the center of continuing dialogue. But jumping to the conclusion that an industry needs to "make a different widget or look for new jobs" is not something one approaches lightly, obviously. And it seems awfully difficult to make the case that an emerging trend like "middle aged concert goers may not be showing up for classical music at the rate of the previous generation" should warrant the same instant conclusions for classical music that a trend like "all of your customers now have a box in their house that does exactly what your store did but cheaper" warrants for Blockbuster.

So why do some people insist we act otherwise? What good is supposed to come of that?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rachel Barton Pine at Wolf Trap

And for the finale to last week's concert mini-marathon, we saw violinist Rachel Barton Pine at Wolf Trap, with Matthew Hagle on keys, in a program of sonatas of Mendelssohn, Villa Lobos, Strauss, and a relatively new work for solo violin by the composer Mohammed Fairouz.

Pine (random disclosure: we went to the same church in Chicago growing up) can be a nearly overwhelming performer, but is also capable of great restraint and good taste as needed. Hence the contrast of the program's first half. The hugely appealing Mendelssohn Sonata in F Major was light-filled and unfolded with a disarming casualness--one only missed some comparable lightness in the piano, which seemed a bit heavy at times with coordination suffering in a few of the nimbler passages. The piece which followed, the Villa Lobos Sonata No. 3, might have arrived from another planet. Pine made a persuasive case for the sonata: digging deep for the anguished, meandering line of the first movement, always on the edge of a nearly unbearable tension; finding a skittery energy in the dark humor of second; and utterly captivating in the driven, extravagant, ultimately exhausted third. Heger was a formidable partner here, contributing some simply explosive playing in the finale.

After the half (and some nice banter with the artists that is apparently a feature of this series) we heard a relatively new sonata for solo violin by the composer Mohammed Fairouz, a commission written for Pine. This is the first I have heard of Fairouz (not that that counts for much), but he boasts an prolific and varied output, including an opera performed at Zankel Hall earlier this month. The Sonata, for its part, is a hugely rewarding work, and well tailored to Pine's talents. The slow movements, including the standout 3rd, dedicated to the uprising in Egypt, and moving 5th, conceived as a lullaby to Pine's new daughter, demonstrated a great talent for lines of unexpected but exceptional beauty. A second movement, incorporating fragments of Arabic melody, had some moments of thrilling virtuosity but was perhaps the least distinctive of the set.

The last work was Richard Strauss' Sonata in E flat. As with a lot of old-skool Strauss, it has a skillful decadence, but a sense of late romantic bloat casts a bit of a shadow over the whole thing. Pine and Heger offered an admirable account though, with lots of opportunities to revel in her sumptuous tone, and a barnstorming finale.

For encores, Pine demonstrated her considerable talents in non-classical genres, with a sort of virtuouso metal/blues rendition of, um, "Sweet Home Chicago" and a hushed, languorous "Summertime."

Pine played the Castleton festival Sunday as well, subbing a Piazzolla piece for the Fairouz sonata, though it doesn't look like there was any coverage of either given the serious competition for critic ears over the weekend. DC gets another chance in January when she'll be at the Phillips collection playing a program of Pagannini's caprices.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Quatour Diotima at the French Embassy

Quatour Diotima presented the contemporary side of their Washington double bill at the French embassy Thursday night (the "hits" side took place at the LoC last night, though I was not in attendance). The evening featured very recent works by Oscar Bianchi, Ramon Lazkano, and Ana Lara, capped by Ligeti's second string quartet.

The Bianchi and Lazkano works which comprised the first half had much in common--use of microtones, raspy harmonics produced by playing near the bridge of the instruments and high up on the strings, and, oh, just about any other sound effect a hollow wood box strung with steel can produce. I won't claim I could pick them out of a lineup on a second hearing, but the Bianchi seemed the more compelling at the time, providing a structure which allowed one clearer insight into the formal program. The Lazkano was deliberately less structured, seeking to describe, in the composer's words "...a flat and plane map surface, a motionless time, fluid and stagnant routes and transitions associted with eroded, crumbly and unsteady sounds..." Fair enough.

If I sound a bit standoffish, its because I find works like this highlight what seems to be a particularly troubled thrust in contemporary music: these are not works of music so much as they are aural conceptual art pieces. They appeal almost exclusively to the listener's analytic faculties, and not at all to the visceral responses (in all their ecstatic and subtle forms) which constitute our experience of music as commonly understood. And yet, unlike the art movement with which they align, they are limited in both their mode of presentation and materials by the fairly narrow parameters of the inherited tradition of western classical music. It begs the question, what profit is there in this line of composition? Does the musical frontier really lie in the abuse of instruments thought up in the 16th century to produce something which, more than anything, evokes the common horror movie soundtrack?

The Lara work which opened the second half largely played on the same harmonics textures, though to greater musical effect. A meditation on friends that have died, the piece opens with sonic chaos resolving to a throbbing drone, punctuated here and there by piercing overtones.

And then we had the Ligeti second string quartet, composed more than 40 years prior. Here we got clear, powerful gestures: the study of different tempi in pizzicati, the variation in timbre on the same pitch, akin, the quartet suggested, to painting black on black. Without the diminishing returns of the more recent works, Ligeti seemed to cover many of their most important points, leaving one somewhat skeptical about where this branch of the musical avant garde goes from here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Antonacci Sings Faure, Hahn, Respighi at the Kennedy Center

I must admit that I was only dimly aware of Anna Caterina Antonacci prior to her current "Best Kept European America" tour, which, following a deliriously praised show at Alice Tully over the weekend, culminated in a stop at the Kennedy Center last night presented by Vocal Arts DC.

The hype is to be believed.

A series of French songs by Faure and Hahn opened the program, providing a showcase for her rather unique sound. Its appeal is partly a function of a remarkable consistency throughout her range, but also its variable character--a cutting, at times bitter edge alternates with moments of gentle sweetness. While elegantly sung and a pleasure to hear, by the eighth or ninth outing, these were verging on the nondescript.

And so I found myself quite unprepared for the revelation that took hold upon the program's transition to the more character driven Italian songs that filled out the remainder of the program.

Starting with a series of wry, picturesque Hahn songs about Venice and moving through highlights including Respighi's Cinque canti all'antica and Tosti's Quatro canzoni d'Amaranta, Antonacci demonstrated a nearly preternatural communicative ability. Every line she sings, even in material largely unknown (to me at least) and sometimes decidedly marginal, comes alive with an irresistible intensity and purpose. Truly, she possesses that most precious of qualities in a singer--to have voice follow text, rather than the other way around.

Encores were topped off with a disarmingly earnest rendition of "Moon River" (which I note was not given in New York--DC, you have a reputation).

Her collaborator, Donald Sulzen, proved an ideal partner for her gifts. The sensitivity and nuance with which he followed Antonacci's subtle shadings of tempo and character (seriously people, like Avatar-style) allowed him to manage that ever challenging balance of making a robust impression in the piano while appearing effortlessly complementary to the singer.

See more: the Ionarts review, Tommassini's rave from last Sunday that all the olds in my elevator were talking about, Zachary Woolfe's preview, a delightful old school Parterre page that is still apparently her top hit on Google.