Monday, November 21, 2011

Romeo at LA Opera

OK...going to start digging out of my blog-hole in reverse chronological order.
Saw LA Opera's Romeo yesterday, sans main draw Vittorio Grigolo. The company served up a fun surprise sub though, in Charlie Castronovo, in town for a gala the previous night--he was unfamiliar to me but apparently a big hit in their Il Postino the other year. The reviews made Grigolo sound like a supreme exponent of the lusty Italian Romeo, so I imagine Castronovo's fine French styling and longing puppy-dog looks actually shifted the overall impression from Sonny to Tony quite a bit. Castronovo's lyric tenor has that plaintive edge ideal for Romeo, and never degenerates into anything close to shoutiness, even when the demands of the score get less polite. I thought at times he had trouble cutting through the orchestra, but this seemed to disappear when he stood on the upper levels of the set, so I'm going to tentatively blame the quality of the Chandler pavilion acoustics in the middle of the orchestra. And since you ask, rest assured that the hottniss level was preserved in Grigolo's absence, as Castronovo is also really, really, really, ridiculously good looking and had no trouble popping off that shirt for the bed business (prediction: in 10 years no one even mildly fugly is going to be let anywhere near big time productions of this show).
His costar, Nino Machaidze, has many things going for her--a big formidable sound that is brilliant on top and agile throughout, a generosity with the fireworks throughout money numbers like the poison aria (though choppy phrasing prevented this from being a real home run), and of course, the hotniss. But these are relatively generic pleasures and she never really offered a believable Juliet. R&J is pretty indestructible as warhorses go, but for the final tomb scene to deliver its emotional payload and not just some priddy sangin', we need to really pity Juliet as a vulnerable child meeting a gruesome end. Some judiciously deployed restraint is really all that is required to get there but Machaidze's attempts at coquetry had all the credibility of a courtesan who doesn't think she's fooling anyone (the Penthouse Executive Club midtown tunnel billboard makeup scheme she had going on--see above--did not help things either). There's certainly no disputing she's a charismatic stage presence, but I would like to see her in something that takes more appropriate advantage of her special qualities.
The production transplants the action to the 19th century (in France maybe?), an attempt, as we learned in the preconcert lecture, to better align the work's gothic, romantic themes with the period in which they are at home. But its one of those situations where you suspect the move was really made because 19th century costumes are easier to procure than Renaissance, as none of the rewards of the updating are exploited with too fine a point. The physical production is organized around multi-story skeletal structures that are moved to create different spaces. Useful enough, but the ultimate effect, as it usually is with this trick, is to dissolve any atmosphere that might have been generated. Probably budget-friendly, though. The direction was effective enough, with an appropriately boisterous fight centerpiece. Judgment is reserved on the spotty chemistry of the leads during their scenes together, for obvious reasons.
I'm glad to say Placido's work in the pit was far less distracting than last month's Tosca debacle. No doubt, there's more life to be had in this music under other batons and some showpieces really suffered from the lack of momentum (sorry Stephano the page cover!), but a few coordination hiccups aside, he supported the singers sensitively and without incident.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Washington Bach Consort plays Pergolesi, Bach, and Graupner

A very engaging take on the Pergolesi Stabat Mater from Washington Bach Consort this afternoon (the composer's second most famous work, I believe). J. Reilly Lewis' ensemble captured the driving energy that characterizes many of the work's movements with great verve and precision as well as the often overwhelming beauty that belies the modest forces required. Its easy to see why this is Pergolesi's masterpiece--there is a rich variety to the movements and the emotional communication is immediate and powerful. Also, for those who like their Italian baroque full of decadent, unbearable tension (and who doesn't), it's like suspension city up in this b***h.
Soprano Agnes Zsigovics, performing in both the Stabat Mater and a setting of Vergungte Ruh by Christoph Graupner (a contemporary of Bach) combined a warm, ringing sound with an unwillingness to hold back the kind of firepower sometimes missed in this music. Countertenor Daniel Taylor delivered some beautiful sounds in the upper part of his register and acquitted himself well in the Stabat Mater, but a setting of the same Vergungte Ruh by J.S. Bach was less successful. With the caveat that the countertenor voice is a mysterious thing about which I would not feign understanding, Taylor frequently sounded poorly supported here, resulting in some choppy phrasing and a weak, often inaudible lower register. Indeed, the Bach in general was a bit of a snoozefest.
Scott Detra, organist for the Washington National Cathedral, rounded out the program with a thrilling reading of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor (BWV 542).

Saturday, November 05, 2011

New Siegfried

Some quick thoughts on yesterday's Siegfried HD cast. The movie theatre is very kind to the LePage productions, I think. Among other things, the swooping cameras can get into the trench area between the apron thing and the machine, meaning the awkwardness of the setup is not a constant bother. So take this faint praise for the production with a grain of salt: I think this is the most successful outing of this Ring so far. The audience is asked to endure almost no time with the hideous naked Machine, which I'd wager might almost allow for some suspension of disbelief from the Family Circle. The projections are set for much longer periods, mitigating the "whatsit gonna do next" dynamic that so cheapened Walkure and Rheingold. And elements like final conflagration for the love duet and the deep forest background for Act II were quite lovely (funny how this was the instance in which the videoz most faithfully mimicked the plastic shrubbery of the Schenk, no?)
Which is not to say it is "good". There are still unforced errors aplenty, including, but hardly limited to: the need to over-choreograph Wagner's transition music with stage business ranging from the merely distracting (Siegfried's one-man fire dueling over the Act III scene transition) to the downright boneheaded (the extremely misguided stealing of baby Siegfried in the opening material); the inability to leave well-enough alone when it comes to video gimmickry (I'm not a hater I swear, a little bit of 3D woodbird would have been fine with me, but when things cross into Zippideedoodah territory you've gone too far); the weird fussy staging choices (Wotan's speer is really a poster tube with the runes rolled up inside? And he has to take them out when he talks to Erda? And then Siegfried doesn't bust the speer but the left over metal rod? Wha?); and the refusal to use all these alleged magical powers to solve some of the most obvious staging challenges of the piece ($45M and we get a hilarious talking snake head for a dragon, gotcha). But the biggest trouble is that we still have zero evidence that this Ring has any sort of an aesthetic, much less an interpretive, program in place. We are not witnessing a vision for the Ring; we are witnessing an ambitious but pointless formal experiment in stagecraft.
But these shenanigans were mostly forgiven on account of a winning afternoon music-wise, for which we can chiefly thank last-minute Siegfried Jay Hunter Morris and slightly last-minute maestro Fabio Luisi.
Morris' Siegfried is a joy in a part where "less-awkward than others" is considered a triumph. He brings out the beauty in Siegfried's music in a way rarely heard, lingering lovingly over phrases that often get a bark. He sounded a bit less fresh than on the prima broadcast (because who wouldn't) but still maintained a remarkable level of security throughout, never delving into that danger, danger fake throaty business that is the Siegfried's most common weapon. As if that weren't enough, he credibly portrays Siegfried's naivete and wonder in a way that goes beyond the standard "middle-aged dude bouncing around" delivery. Truly, he had the HD audience eating out of the palm of his hand (his ability to look the part doesn't hurt either) by the end of the show, a feat I'll admit I didn't quite think possible. Here is a Siegfried that is not overshadowed by his colleagues with lesser assignments but is truly the star of his own show. Complaints that his voice is a shade too light for the role, or might be underpowered in house could be valid but also I don't care. JHM is operating at the forefront of research in the field of Siegfried portrayals and should be celebrated for it.
Luisi likewise deserves great credit for his energetic, propulsive reading of the score, the kind of reading that makes one question how this opera could ever get a reputation for dragginess. I suppose he might be guilty of TOO much momentum at times--there are some magisterial moments lost in the fray here.
The supporting men in this dudeliest of operas were uniformly strong. Perhaps Luisi's gentler accompaniment was what Terfel needed, or the Wanderer just lies in a better place for him, but I detected little of the shoutiness that marred his Rheingold and Walkure outings. And where the stentorian authority needed to make those Wotans resonate seemed to escape him, the Wanderer's shadings of regret, humanity, and desperation were beautifully drawn out. Gerhard Siegel has been appropriately praised for his musical singing of Mime, though he perhaps suffered most from the production's lack of a clear concept. Eric Owens and Hans-Peter Konig supplied vocal luxury to spare in Alberich and Fafner.
This was a success for Voigt, though I don't think anyone is unclear about the fundamental discord between where her voice is right now and the demands of Brunnhilde. Still, she seemed to be working very hard to keep things in the right place and it paid off handsomely (moreso during the HD cast than on opening night, where she appeared to be wisely and aggressively cutting her losses). She also seems much more alive to the dramatic demands of the Siegfried scene than the Walkure Brunnhilde, which felt like it never came together beyond a very general level. Vocally, I don't know if the good work here says one way or another how she'll fare with the big Gotterdammerung sing. But acting-wise I'm certainly looking forward to what she does with the part.
P.S. Not that I don't appreciate Renaay's time, but could we maybe transition into having these HD cast intermission interviews done by professionals? There's a whole group of people who get paid specifically to ensure public/recorded interactions are not painful to watch. Hire some of them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Louis Lortie plays Liszt at the Library of Congress

I suppose I don't attend the right conferences, but I'd be interested in a panel session titled "Did it Make a Difference? Taking Stock of the Liszt Bicentenary," in which key, um, Liszt stakeholders take a candid look at how well the jubilee year of programming has succeeded in its oft-repeated objectives of broadening the repertoire in circulation and mitigating the impression of Liszt's music as mostly impressive but vacuous showpieces.
I imagine a number of those panelists would take a pessimistic view. Sure, some high profile champions (see Hough especially) have been making the case as part of the festivities, but the general narrative in the media must still feel disturbingly noncommittal for the Liszt partisan, along the lines of "Liszt: Shallow Showman or Something More? Eh." The birthday weekend coverage alone sounds pretty discouraging. A. Ross calls the main Times story by Kenneth Hamilton, a "fine, if unsentimental appreciation" but by classical music standards, this kind of merciless even-handedness comes off like a hit piece. Over at NPR, the b-day headline registers as that cruelest of backhanded compliments--nice guy, but the music doesn't have much going for it (as called out by Ionarts).
If the concern is the taste of the general classical audience, these measured, musicologically-minded assessments just aren't going to cut it. What is needed are some new narratives about Liszt that modern audiences can grasp and appreciate. Understanding Liszt as "proto-modernist" is certainly a fascinating current that has surfaced throughout the year (see Pierre Laurent-Aimard's excellent DC recital last spring), though the appeal here may be limited. But Louis Lortie's engrossing show at the Library of Congress this past Wednesday demonstrated he is onto something very different...
Lortie presented Years 2&3 of the Années de Pèlerinage (he has just released a recording of the complete cycle). He gets that this music turns upon a deep, intimate connection between performer and audience--that, to a degree far greater than the other great Romantics, much of Liszt is not fully formed until it is communicated by the artist. This quality might make Liszt's genius harder to grasp in a midi file, but in the right hands, it can make for a magical performance.
In the opening works of the Deuxieme Années (Italie), Lortie seemed to discover each color in the Sposalizio, meandering through its varied facets almost as if playing jazz. The gently martial dance of the "Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa" and the wistful "Sonetto 47 del Petrarca" appeared like childhood songs suddenly and imperfectly recalled.
The second half brought the entirety of the Troisieme Année. This is Liszt descending into the abyss, with brief moments of shimmering respite ("Les Jeux D'eau"). Despite the frequently transgressive harmonic language, that element of deeply personal connection remained. Doing justice to works as black as the "Marche Funebre" and the two "Threnodies" requires an unflagging emotional investment, but Lortie pursued them faithfully.
Recording this music is difficult. I've been listening to Lortie's disc for the last few days and while enjoyable, the discrepancy between concert and artifact is significant. Indeed, this may be one of Liszt's challenges in 2011--the inventor of the modern virtuoso recital naturally created works that live most intensely when they are experienced live in the hands of someone with rare dominion over the piano.
* * *
See Charles Downey's review of the Lortie recital. Also note the satisfying takedown of that Times article from Lisa Hirsch--audiences and critics can obviously have differences of taste about great composers of the past (i.e. Rossini blows) but trying to adjudicate whether or not someone whose music has been consistently played all over the world for the past century plus has a worthwhile musical legacy is an absurd bit of overzealous even-handedness. You don't need to be make it a puff piece, but you do need to report that the vast majority of great concert pianists of the past and present have demonstrated they think this question of whether there's "any good" in Liszt's output is moot.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tosca at WNO

WNO pulled out some big guns for its season opener Saturday (from the looks of it, perhaps the most significant gunshow on offer this season) for a satisfying if not memorable Tosca.
Pat Racette brings considerable assets to her Tosca, though I don't know if she really breaks away from the pack. The voice is certainly a fine fit, and everything seems comfortable, but Vissi D'Arte, for instance, never grabs you the way it did last season with Radvanovsky. Now, its tough competing with a special quality like SondRad, but hey--the game is just more intense when you're trying for something beyond a reliable workaday Tosca. But still--great performance, great voice, and hopefully she will continue to make this attention to WNO a habit.
Ditto for Alan Held's Scarpia. It needs no repeating that Held is a great actor endowed with a voice that is always a pleasure to hear. I don't think I ever hit publish on the review, but let me just add for the record his Met Wozzecks last Spring were a "delight". There are some intriguing aspects to his Scarpia--here's the police chief as robust and handsome, an true perverted aesthete rather than just a lech. His psychological torture of Tosca becomes more acute because we can better believe her resistance to seeing him as a monster, often a foregone conclusion with obviously suspicious characters. This also allows the big "reveal" about what he wants from her to be a more powerful break with the rest of the scene. That said, Held and the production would have to go farther to make this interpretation really pop--instead we we mostly got standard issue Scarpia business but without the full complement of nastiness.
Catapulting a voice with the heft of Frank Poretta's up into Cavaradossi's heights is not an easy thing, but he managed it with a pleasing dexterity that surprised again and again throughout the evening. Just when one was getting comfortable, "E Lucevan le Stella" included a kind of disturbing crack, but he recovered well. Also, some might accuse him of being bit of a ham acting wise, but I'm a sucker for when people do gestures that underline the notes they want you to pay attention to, so we're cool.
As for Placido Domingo's conducting...just...damn. I mean, at least its a useful reminder for folks who only attend professional opera that conducting this stuff is really hard. If the worst of it had just been relentlessly draggy, four-square tempi it would have been *only* dull. But he seems not to have mastered the fundamental skill of anticipating the singers in close-quarters aria work, which, if distracting to the audience, must have been brutal for the singers. What is this conducting racket he has going? Is it like a consolation prize to companies when he can't afford to use a limited vocal appearance on them? Please, dude. I just want to have positive, uncomplicated feelings about you. Stop these shenanigans.
If the old Zefferelli production is the Cadillac of traditional Toscas, this Dallas Opera production is more like a Ford Focus. Yes, everything has four walls and there is a lot of fake stone of various sorts, but its not actually an attractive set. Also, let me throw out a pet peeve with "traditional sets" like this: if you are going to depict a "real" interior, you can't just disregard the basic architectural elements of that interior and think the set dressing will allow it to pass. Case in point--the Act I church has most of the action taking place at ground level, and a balcony overhead which, through some scrim cleverness, is revealed as the altar area for the Te Deum sequence. Yeah, I see how that's a convenient way to do this scene, but is there a church in all of Italy that has the altar suspended on a balcony thing above the main sanctuary area? Little quibbles maybe, but this sort of thing just invalidates the whole appeal of a traditional set, which should allow the audience to lose themselves in a credible facsimile of a real space.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Attila at WCO

Raphael's Vatican fresco of Attila meeting Pope Leo, part of the series on 1st Millennium Christianity WIN.
For its fall show this past Friday, Washington Concert Opera presented Verdi's Attila headlined by John Relyea and Brenda Harris and an excellent supporting cast.
I missed out on the Muti-led Attilas at the Met last season so this was really my first experience with it. Musically, its neglect is certainly unfortunate--lots of colorful orchestral writing, a string of excellent if not quite top-40 arias, and some thrilling ensemble/chorus numbers. Libretto wise, however, its curiosity status makes a bit more sense. Editing isn't the problem--Attila is all business in banging through its plot points--but rather that the dramatic possibilities of the characters aren't quite realized to the point where they take off.
Attila is really the most interesting and, in a way, sympathetic character onstage. Being a Hun and all, he starts the opera indifferent to anything that doesn't involve pillaging, but is moved by Pope Leo to renounce his plan to sack Rome and ends up making a short-lived truce with the Italians. But, Michael Corleone style, he is pursued by his past wrongs and ultimately gives into and is undone by his thirst for blood and power. That arc also comes with a love story--part of his attempt to be a better barbarian is his love for Odabella, daughter of the general of the town he has just destroyed when the opera starts--but she of course has sworn her revenge and ultimately stabs him. Certainly a lot to work with in the tragic anti-hero department, right? But Attila's best music passes without much in the way of psychological engagement and he is virtually a bystander for Acts II and III until he is unceremoniously dispatched. Perhaps Verdi hasn't quite invented the signature introspective baritone aria that serves his later works so well, or perhaps the sublimated political agenda that runs through the work precludes any stronger sympathy for Attila. Either way, the piece feels like it revolves around a missed opportunity.
The same limitations afflict Odabella's character as well. The setup is clutch: she is introduced with that powerhouse aria about the badassery of Italian women which perversely attracts her father's killer to keep her in his camp. The potential for some internal conflict between her need for revenge and some mutual attraction with her captor is high, especially after we meet her wet blanket of a boyfriend (Foresto). But again, Odabella is largely sidelined after her aria opening the first act (a strong showpiece but emotionally static). These possibilities keep the drama interesting for a time, but ultimately do not move the plot.
* * *
Washington Concert Opera's production, if not quite a homerun on par with their Werther last spring, had lots to recommend it. Antony Walker excelled in demonstrating how much more there is to this score than oom-pah, and shepherded some riveting climaxes with the massed chorus and principals.
As discussed above, an Attila is somewhat disadvantaged by the material he has to work with, but John Relyea still seemed underwhelming. Its a fine voice certainly, and he turned in engaging readings of the main arias, but he lacked the authority required to give Attila much a commanding profile. His voice is probably not ideal for this work, which would benefit from some blacker flavor than his very pleasing instrument delivers. But still, it was a bit casual.
Brenda Harris made the strongest impression of the principals--here is one of those remarkable voices that is just naturally at home at its loudest. On the evidence of that killer first aria, I was a bit concerned that she actually didn't have a viable piano. But those fears were dispelled in her first Act aria, a smorgasbord of chilling effects, which, if not always the priddiest, were deftly executed and made for the evening's second biggest showstopper.
As whiny boyfriend Foresto, Arthur Espiritu brought a sweet beguiling tenor and fine sense of Italian diction and style (as I understand these things at least) that made his multiple arias a musical highlight, even if the drama could benefit from a lot less Foresto. That said, I see where Anne Midgette is coming from here--a sound like Espiritu's is more suited to an Ernesto than, say, a proto-Manrico, and there's certainly an argument to be made that the role should lean heavier.
James Stearns' Ezio (this Italian buddy of Attila's that ends up conspiring against him who also gets a questionable amount of stage time) was a strong player as well, bringing a rich baritone to the role and good command of the role.
Kudos as well to the assembled chorus, who offered the kind of precision that allows one to really take notice of the choral writing.
Next up, Saturday night's WNO opener...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Yuja Wang

Great recital here from last year's Verbier festival courtesy of She plays Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs, the Symphonic etudes, a variety of Scriabin preludes, some Prokofiev, etc. I love what a grand time she seems to have while playing--then as soon as she gets up to bow she can't get out of there fast enough.
Also note that her dresses here would probably also be scandalous if they weren't floor length. That means this whole kerfuffle is about acceptable hemlines. C'mon grandmas. Get over it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Zachary Woolfe has done a great service in digging into the backstory on the Met's shutdown of Brad Wilber's Met Futures page, for fifteen years(!) an invaluable source of information about future Met schedules (also h/t to parterre, of course). Reuters' Felix Salmon, primarily known for patiently explaining stuff about bonds to me, also weighs in.
The Met's pretense was that possible errors on the site somehow gave them the legal whatnot to request he take the site down. As Woolfe's piece makes clear, this is basically a gentle way to say "you are contrary to our corporate directives to control all information and you wouldn't last a second contesting this":
“I don’t know the facts of the situation involving the Met,” the noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said in an email, “but as a general matter the Met has no legal right to control what is said about it unless the material published is libelous or written in a way to suggest falsely that the Met itself is the author. Material in the public domain may freely be described so long as the copyright laws are adhered to and non-defamatory material from sources may be published whether or not it was confirmed.”
I mean, obviously. In what America could a site like that be "libel" while the RNC's press releases circulate freely?
Not that it's a hill to die on or anything--its opera, and there are more important things in the world, etc. But that's what's so gross about it. Here's a site for the hobbyists, for the hard core that don't do the institution any economic favors but nonetheless carry the flame for opera as a great tradition for the listeners, not just the musicians--as an art form too beloved to be contained in the glossy morsels served up by one PR department. Its proof that the enterprise has a "constituency" and not just a subscriber base. And it's part of what makes New York far and away the greatest opera city in North America. (You don't see anyone committing to a Lyric Futures do you?)
But the Met's behavior isn't surprising or unique here--its just another symptom of the increasing dominance of marketing and PR prerogatives among classical music institutions. To the extent that "buzz" is a factor in reeling in an audience, it's nothing the machine can't generate on its own--and the machine can ensure that buzz is delivered in slick luxury packaging consistent with overall branding principles. One would like to be able to make some sort of statement about how an institution treating its most devoted fans like crap can only make for bad business but it doesn't quite wash. Opera's "fanboys" just don't deliver the goods.
But to channel a little Sandow: it's also hard to see how the increasingly hermetically sealed worldview of big-time classical PR, with its inexorable drive to erase all vestiges of a critical faculty in its audience, its flagrant abuse of superlatives, its need to turn the dark, messy, somewhere on the autism spectrum world of classical music into a Louis Vuitton handbag ad--its hard to see how that kind of PR will ever be terribly successful in facilitating new audiences' love for the art. Those who love it will still come, of course--but they'll love it in spite of its packaging.
P.S. Apparently Opera Tattler seems to be keeping up with San Francisco's futures seasons, albeit less comprehensively. Beware!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Re: Porgy

Stephen Sondheim's epic burn on the "Porgy and Bess" production being helmed by Diane Paulus with new material by Suzan Lori-Parks raises some natural pushback about whether Sondheim is getting behind excessive traditionalism here. So it seems appropriate to reiterate what is cool and what is not cool when producing new versions of old plays:

1. Productions supplying an existing text/score with stage business that radically departs from the traditional production: COOL. Here's the space for your Regietheater, your modern dress productions, your severe minimalism--you don't have to like it, but this is a valid way to present an existing play in a new light, draw new inferences, keep things fresh. As long as you allow some leeway with stage directions, there's really no theoretical daylight between a "traditional" version produced 100 years after the fact and a "nontraditional" version.

2. Productions that add/subtract elements of the body of existing text in an attempt to get closer to what they believe is an authoritative/performance friendly version: COOL. Yes, this gets tricky, and people can have heated arguments in good faith about what belongs in an authoritative/performance friendly version of a work. But its just in the nature of work written for the theater that "authoritative" is open to debate. Especially in opera, of course, we also have a long tradition of performance cuts. The current trend towards performing more rather than less of a score is a good one, but where cuts are kept, they are kept out of expedience or tradition, not some larger agenda, and constitute a relatively minor sin.

3. Productions that use substantial elements of an existing text but are unmistakably a new work: COOL. Here's the category for theatrical "mash-ups" of all sorts (provided ludicrous copyright laws aren't an issue).

4. Productions that substantially change the source material but could easily be mistaken for the original: NOT COOL. And that's what this new Porgy production sounds like. Go ahead and create a new play that is "about" Porgy and Bess. Call it "Porgy 2000". Proviso #3 says that's fine. But the whole enterprise of revival has to do with grappling with a text and trying to offer what is worthwhile about a work to a present-day audience. Without the bright line of the Text, the temptation to serve the lowest common denominator of current tastes to leverage an existing brand is too great, and surely that is a recipe for the most dishonest kind of art.

Others have suggested that what's really going on here is Paulus/Parks' attempting to be diplomatic about while softening "Porgy's" undeniably racist trappings for a modern audience. But why not just have that conversation outright instead of criticizing the quality of the work? If "Porgy" has more merit than other racist works of the period that have been justifiably consigned to the dustbin, that should be apparent in a good production. If it doesn't have merit beyond the catchy songs, then do a production that questions and interrogates that content (or do a highlights CD). What's not OK is sending the original material, with all its complexities, down the memory hole, and assuming that you can pass off something more palatable as the original.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Nice to see Michael Kaiser coming out against those who would blame arts organizations' travails on unions and be done with it:
It is absolutely true that when income falls precipitously, as it has for many arts organizations, costs must be realigned. And it is also true that unions, in protecting their workers, fight tooth and nail to maintain their members' standard of living and work environment. That is why there are unions in the first place.

But the key issue is: why has revenue fallen so far for so many arts organizations?

It is not the fault of union members that we are selling fewer tickets or raising less funds. We can blame a terrible economy, lack of arts education in our schools, substantially lower government grants at every level and new forms of entertainment that compete for the time and resources of our audiences for much of the reduction in resources available for arts organizations. A recent study, for example, found that contributions for the arts fell much farther during the recession than had previously been expected.
There sure has been a disturbing amount of union-bashing in the last year or so. Not that one isn't allowed to disagree with specific unions' actions or policies, mind you--these are fallible institutions seeking their constituents' interests like any other, and any specific case will have multiple perspectives. What's distressing are the kneejerk suggestions that have nothing to do with a specific case but just generally assume collective bargaining practices are incompatible with economic reality.
The implication here is that union workers have been able to extract, and refuse to give up, salaries so unreasonable that they are a major impediment to institutions' financial health. Hence all the unseemly public dissection of middle and upper-middle class incomes and pundit handwringing over whether some other citizen "deserves" their morsel, a frequent note in the debate around public employees in Wisconsin as well as the orchestra performers in Detroit.
But this is just acquiescing to what anti-labor conservatives would have us believe: that workers are are entitled to no more than how the "market" prices their labor. This may sound good in econ 101, but in the real world negotiations do a much better job of ensuring workers get their fair share. Amidst capricious labor markets, stagnant wages, and persistent unemployment, its a bit alarming that so many are ready to believe unions have outlived their usefulness.
Update: Lisa Hirsch drops some truth bombs about some of the classical institution crises du jour in this post right here. Also see today's podcast from Andrew Patner.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

More Liberals and the Arts

CAP's Alyssa Rosenberg delves into the issue of whether the arts should do more to align themselves with progressive politics (and by extension the Democratic party) to shore up a more durable position from which to protect its funding. She sees the appeal of this idea, but also wisely points out the costs:
But powerful outside groups have had to use hot pincers to obtain much of the support labor and women’s organizations have obtained from the Democratic lawmakers, and still experienced dramatic contractions of labor rights, union memberships, and abortion access. Throwing in with a political party may get the arts community access to machinery and infrastructure—but it would require arts organizations to build formidable new organizations and fundraising capacity to earn a seat at the party table, much less a favorable slot in the list of Democratic priorities.
The cultural sector in America possesses nothing akin to the organizations these other causes use to translate supporter dollars into lobbying might. And while there are an endless number of enlightened notions precious to progressive Washington, only the ones that line up along some angle of money and constituency actually precipitate action and taxpayer dollars.
That aside, how likely of a fit are the arts for progressive politics? Rosenberg calls it a "tough sell" because progressives, despite their best intentions, still have a hard time sticking up for controversial art, a big roadblock given conservatives' undimmed enthusiasm for culture war stunts.
But I think this underplays the real challenge: that liberals have serious misgivings about whether even the non-degenerate arts warrant government funding. Certainly there is a large swathe of liberals (who probably intersect with public television and radio contributors) that consider arts funding a virtuous use of taxpayer dollars. We observes this milieu, compares it to the narrow-minded, anti-intellectual strain of conservative zealotry now (still) ascendant, and assumes that liberals must be on the side of culture and by extension whatever government can do for it. But that fight is really about free speech and cultural tastes (i.e. letting people express themselves vs. being a reactionary asshole); it tells us very little about how different political persuasions feel about government's role in subsidizing the arts.
So in the interest of figuring out where liberal-minded people really come down on that question, I submit four concerns/suspicions that a lot, if not the majority, of liberals probably have about government funded sponsorship of the arts:
  1. Arts subsidies have some fundamentally anti-populist features. This is the protest one hears against government support when aligned with bastions of "high" culture--that the government shouldn't be in the business of supporting culture that is experienced by relatively few people or culture that, despite subsidies, still charges for entry.
  2. Unsubsidized culture is satisfying enough. If you don't mind largely excluding a few sectors (i.e. classical music), it is the case today that a liberal-minded person in a big city can live a highly fulfilling cultural life without ever consuming (or more importantly perceive that they are consuming) a piece of art that has received any direct government subsidy.
  3. Arts subsidies' effect on societal welfare is weak to nonexistent. After 40 years of fighting a rearguard action against conservatives who would drown government in the proverbial bathtub, liberals are highly protective of the narrow but unimpeachable space in which justified government action exists. As an economic welfare enhancing activity, the arts may well have some value, but it falls somewhere below the already dubious value of state-sponsored sports stadiums and well short of preferred investments in infrastructure, health care, etc.
  4. Arts subsidies go to works without redeeming social/political content. This is sort of the liberal counterpart of conservatives' anger over taxpayer dollars spent on "degenerate art"--a sense that, if the people are going to fund art, then it should at least advance the peoples' aims. More fundamentally, it is a rebuke to the (not unfounded) concern that governments sponsor art in order to perpetuate the dominant culture.
Save perhaps for #3 and probably #4, you'll recognize these as points that Greg Sandow makes frequently. What arts (and especially classical music) inclined folks need to confront is that he's not playing a classical music provocateur when he channels these ideas, but as a liberal trying to reconcile his enthusiasm for the arts with his gut reactions.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Follies at the Kennedy Center

Big caveat: I am a Follies virgin as far as a staged production goes--listened for years, read my share, etc., but suffice it to say this is going to include a lot of half baked speculation of what Follies "should" be. Fair warning and all.
Its not a huge mystery why this show is problematic. The central story of Ben and Phyllis and Buddy and Sally--the now-tortured couples who met thirty years ago while the women were chorines in the last days of the fictional "Weisman Follies"--requires the highest caliber acting if it is to be believed amidst the book's flimsy framework. And then there is the massive score that demands its army of supporting players deliver the pastiche songs with such a range of particular shadings that the probability one production will get them all right approaches zero. And, perhaps most troublesome, the production numbers can't just coast along on empty dazzle, how they are presented and their effectiveness are integral to the success of the show.
The current Kennedy Center production, directed by Signature Theatre's Eric Schaeffer, does well on point 1, not so good on point 2, and quite strongly on point 3. And when it is firing on all of these cylinders--as it might more frequently in a less fallible world--it is truly a thing of terrible beauty.
Even by Sondheim standards, the four principals in Follies each has a daunting acting challenge. Among these, Sally, the 49-year-old living out a 19-year-old's fantasy world, is surely the heaviest lift, and Bernadette Peters follows her down the emotional rabbit-hole fearlessly. This is the Sally the book really asks for--damaged goods from the start and often an unlikable wreck, even as she breaks your heart. On the whole, this is a very successful interpretation, set back only by the fact that BP looks more spectacular than any downtrodden housewife has a right to. Also, the Act I numbers, particularly "Too Many Mornings", are clearly a bitch to sing, but they may lie in an especially unfriendly portion of BP's voice and she has not quite figured out how to navigate them successfully.
The slightly weak link among the principals is Ron Raines' Benjamin Stone. Raines brings a fine, strong voice to the part that makes Ben's numbers a lot more attractive than when done by an older voice (i.e. John McMartin on the OBC). But its also difficult to take his travails seriously--rather than a man thoroughly broken by the evening's end, this Ben doesn't seem to fully believe the claims to agony coming out of his own mouth.
Jan Maxwell's Phyllis and Danny Burstein's Buddy are recommended without reservation. Her "Could I Leave You" and his "God-Why-Don't-I-Love-You-Blues" (hon. mention to "The Right Girl") are probably the finest instances of the Sondheimian art on view in this production, each delivered with a blistering, spot-on intelligence.
On the second point: Can I make a somewhat glib blanket statement about the problems with the supporting cast? Older actresses may not be old enough to make Follies work properly anymore. The haunting magic of the show is rooted in a central conceit that is just a little bit grotesque: elderly people inhabited by the ghosts of their former selves to the point where they, and the audience, can't quite tell where the person ends and the ghost begins. The idea is that as we age we must learn to cope with our accumulated spectral pasts--the protagonists of Follies are pointedly middle-aged to explore the problems of succumbing too early to those ghosts against the backdrop of the older performers who may be in closer communion with them. But the dramatic effect of this contrast doesn't really take off when everyone onstage resides in that robust, perpetual middle-age which we now take for granted.
For instance, Linda Lavin sings"Broadway Baby" here as though she has no plans of quitting show business any time soon. Lavin sounds and looks great (in a classy purple cocktail outfit), and gives a stirring performance of the song, but that's just the trouble. "Broadway Baby" isn't a feel good showstopper to demonstrate the actress has "still got it"--set properly in the context of the show it should have clear pangs of discomfort, where the key lyric "Maybe someday/All my dreams will be repaid" is poignant and dark (though the degree to which the character delivering it is in on the irony may be ambiguous).
Unfortunately, this is largely the MO for all of the Act I character numbers, not least of all a very unconvincing "I'm Still Here" sung by Elaine Page. Schaeffer stages them as cute crowd-pleasers and the audience is duly pleased, but the thread of loss, wistfulness, delusion, and gritty determination that should run through these sequences and define the mood of the show is rarely found.
That leaves the final leg of the Follies three-legged stool: the production numbers. And on this count the Kennedy Center production does very well. "Mirror, Mirror" is an early success. A largely faithful recreation of Michael Bennet's original choreography (so I gather), the interplay between the ghost dancers and the aging stars is complex and fluid, producing the unnerving effect of the boundaries between past and present being crossed.
The main event--the Loveland sequence in which the leads' intractable emotional mess is transfigured into a half hour musical theatre extravaganza--is an acid delight from beginning to end, a winning spectacle that rivets your attention with its blend of bravado and emotional nakedness. The one weak link may be Peters' "Losing My Mind". She offers a devastating, emotionally fraught performance in line with the characterization she has marked out, but it feels out of step with the fantasy of "Loveland", where the characters are supposed to be burrowed into characters within themselves until Ben's epiphany breaks the spell. "Losing My Mind" should be Sally as wounded chanteuse, not Sally as wounded housewife.
Update: Just in case it's not clear, that IS a recommendation to go see the show. If it isn't quite the elusive unicorn Follies one dreams of, it is nonetheless a very serious, rewarding attempt to grapple with the show and one that invests the level of resources necessary to present a legitimate full-fledged production. Not to be missed if you love Sondheim and can manage (it closes June 19th)...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Get comfortable

Oh lord. Well, clearly the brave new world of balance sheet repair in our classical music institutions is going to involve more B'way and pops, if the recent reports from Philadelphia and the WNO are any indication.
I think most people would agree that schmaltzy arrangements and, as Downey puts it, "half-ass Broadway" are two pernicious trends which our civilization could do with less of (not that whole-ass Broadway indicates a professional show with all the trimmings mind you, just that ulterior motives like hoodwinking people into the opera house tends to make for bad theatre). Without too much tiresome wringing of hands, though, I'm interested in what these strategies really accomplish.
In WNO's case, they haven't done anything yet of course, and even then it's not the end of the world--more prestigious companies have gone down that road and a forgettable musical production here and there will be easy to ignore or muddle through (FZ, I will go if you do Sondheim but I'm not sitting through a poorly staged Showboat). But nonetheless there's something to quibble with in bringing up musicals and "accessibility" in a conversation about new directions for a financially challenged opera company. As far as I can tell, lots of people are accessing the WNO despite its persistent stinginess with tickets under $50--the problem isn't poor attendance, but rather the murkier problems of an inadequate donor base, poor financial planning and excessive operating costs. Yet readers will see "WNO considering musicals to dig itself out of its financial hole" and come away with the tired old narrative that classical music needs to increase its appeal by...not offering classical music. So go and do it if you like, but let's be clear that 1) it isn't a response to some massive unsatisfied demand, and 2) it doesn't really belong on a list of exciting "new directions" for an opera company.
Whatever the merits of its bankruptcy, the Philadelphia Orchestra sales situation is clearly more dire, and so my question here is non-snarky--I can see where pops shows do well on dedicated occasions and as special alternative programs, but what has the experience been with expanding these seasons? Is there a large untapped audience for listening to Star Wars in the concert hall that will keep showing up if you keep feeding them new shows? How often does a new pops concertgoer show up at a regular symphony program? Again, honest questions, though I will say that making the Philadelphia Orch do medleys or whatever seems a lot crueler than using the KC opera house to put on a show (perhaps owing to some unexamined opinions about the relative scrappiness of singers vs. elite instrumentalists).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Werther at WCO

Washington Concert Opera offered a very fine presentation of Massenet's Werther Sunday--a work which I'm sorry to say I was relatively unfamiliar with beyond some assorted Youtube clips, a review here and there, and the occasional fits of snark it seems to inspire. And indeed, the first two Acts really don't do too much more than hang a lot of balls-out tenor writing on the fairly static and unmoving story about how Werther is a total bummer. But the revelation in Acts 3 & 4 that his love for Charlotte is not unrequited makes things far more interesting. Sorry, Werther fans, if this should be obvious--it's very possible Massenet is dropping this plot all through Act II and I just failed to pick it up. But regardless, the drama that comes into focus in the second half is unexpectedly taut, and by the end, quite moving.
In fact, I found Werther much more emotionally direct and engaging than Manon, where one's sympathy for the central character suffers a lot by the end on account of the relentless slut-shaming. Clearly Werther has a better time in Europe these days, but I was surprised to find it loses out to Manon by a hefty Margin judging by the Met Opera Database scorecard--a whopping 257 to 73.
Mind you, that discrepancy may have something to do with the relative paucity of leading men who can make Werther an event in America's diva-oriented opera culture. And so it was the WCO audience's good fortune to have Giuseppe Filianoti, in superb voice, bring his Werther to GW' Lisner's Hall this past Sunday.
I last saw Filianoti live in 2005, during his spectacular run of Lucia's at the Met, and since then, the heartbreaking story of his battle with thyroid cancer has read like the script to one of those tearjerkers about a young gifted opera singer facing adversity, finding out who his real friends are, and ultimately returning in triumph (why can't we have this? why?). I've heard some broadcasts in that period that definitely revealed his challenges, and indeed, the Rigoletto's that just wrapped up at the Met may have demonstrated that he is not entirely out of the woods if caught on the wrong night.
But forget that noise. Filianoti's Werther was a thing of triumph through and through. After the slightest hint of a warm-up period, he locked into form, offering page after page of ardent, thrilling vocalism--indeed, until costar Jennifer Larmore got some real stage time in Act III it was more or less a matter of impatiently waiting for Filianoti to shuffle on morosely from stage left and open that golden throat. More than just the unique beauty of his sound, though, Filianoti possesses some of that old time magick I mention from time to time. His sheer commitment raises the stakes of everything that happens onstage.
Oh, there were a few quibbles--the high A that closes high B towards the end of the second Act (h/t Downey...that'll teach me to be fancy) didn't work out so hot and, unless I was misinterpreting some death noises, his stamina flagged a tad at the very end. Also, and I may be wrong about this, but I suspect his open Italian vowels may not have played well with the French at a few points, producing some off-message sounds here and there. But again: quibbles.
Filianoti had a great partner in Jennifer Larmore, who I don't think I've ever seen before. Her moody, back-to-back arias at the beginning of Act III demonstrated her capability to create a stunning range of colors with her by turns airy and dark-hued mezzo. Throughout the second half she matched Filianoti in passion, realizing Charlotte's tortured frustration and pity for Werther with biting intensity.
The rest of the cast was strong as well, particularly Joelle Harvey's skillful, big-voiced presentations of Sophie's difficult coloratura material and Timothy Mix's thoughtful Albert. Antony Walker led a fine performance in the "pit" from the WCO band, bringing a lot of gravity and transparency to the effects Massenet uses to build the emotion behind his story, and making the pretty parts plenty pretty, too.
Update: Here's Joe Banno in the Post, and Downey's take is here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

NSO in NIELSEN! and also perhaps Beethoven and Sibelius I guess

Had a chance to hear Nielsen's 4th symphony live last night--the first performance, the program tells us, done by the NSO since 1985, which is decidedly f'd up. Because upon hearing it one is left with little doubt that Nielsen's symphony is a completely remarkable piece of music, and that its tremendous impact really must be experienced live.
Nielsen is a master of many things--of suspense, of ecstatic climax, of dazzling harmonic invention--but to think the 4th symphony is only fireworks (and dueling timpani!) is wrong. It is also a work of Brahmsian melancholy and deep introspection. It's a work that reminds us why we go to the symphony.
How it is still relatively unpopular in this country should be a great mystery (nice rundown from A. Ross here). Nielsen's appeal to the Kennedy Center audience was palpable, the electric energy of the "Inextinguishable" far more than they had bargained for with the sedate first half pairing of one of those national-flavored tone poems by Sibelius and the Beethoven 4th piano concerto (played with much fleetness but frequent unpleasantness of tone by Nikolai Lugansky).
As led by Thomas Dausgaard, the NSO played the Nielsen with fearless abandon, clearly reveling in its novelty and its challenge. Our (my) experience with the Nielsen 4th is limited, of course, but its hard to imagine anyone walking away from this NSO performance with less than a desperate hunger to hear more Nielsen on American programs.
The last time I looked at the seating chart, coverage looked fairly grim, though the house was respectable on Thursday night. For those of you considering attending tonight (Saturday) what with the discount tix and all, you should obviously do it--you won't see another NSO concert this exhilarating for a while...
Update: Anne Midgette spends a lot of time on the flaws of the Beethoven, but does have this to say about the Nielsen:
It’s a piece that grabs you by the throat and leaves you flattened, culminating with a pitched battle between two full sets of timpani, positioned at opposite sides of the orchestra, that evokes nothing so much as trench warfare (the piece was written during World War I) [...] Dausgaard couldn’t get the orchestra to play with all the finesse one might have wished for, but he got a lot of blunt force out of them, and muscled the concert back into the realm of the viscerally exciting where it had begun.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Paul Appleby at the Kennedy Center

Vocal Arts DC presented up n' coming tenor Paul Appleby with pianist Steven Blier last night, hot off his run in the Luisi-DiDonato-Urmana Ariadnes at the Met, where he is in the Lindemann Young Artist Development program (you want buzz? at least one parterre chat room lurker called out his Brighella during the b-cast last week).
Appleby boasts a warm, very fresh sounding tenor of moderate weight that is always appealing and frequently striking. In this rewarding program of off-the-beaten-path songs, he also demonstrated a wide ranging musical intelligence. Steven Blier, his voice coach and collaborator (nice profile by Justin Davidson here), served as a robust and fascinating partner at the piano, if the balance was perhaps a shade more competitive than I find ideal.
The opening set presented three unfamiliar Italian songs from Verdi, Mascagni, and Pedrotti. These were hard to dislike, given their natural fit for Appleby's voice and his engaging sense of Italian style. Yet, perhaps a casualty of their lead billing, his sound was also frequently unfocused and and a bit careless. The following two sets, songs by Zemlinsky and Roussel, were the meatiest of the program, and Appleby made a persuasive case--particularly in the anxious eroticism of the Roussel numbers.
Perhaps the strongest selections opened the second half, however--Latin American songs by Carols Guastavino, Carlos Lopez-Buachardo, Pixiguinha, Piazzolla, and Villa Lopez. Here Appleby offered an exquisitely controlled and seductive sound, as well as thrilling climaxes, as in the penultimate showstopper, Villa-Lobos' "Samba Classico". I find, when listening to vocal recitals, that the degree to which I ignore the translations can be a sort of perverse indicator of how well things are going: I can assure you I have basically have no idea what's going on in these Latin pieces.
Unfortunately, the American songs which closed the program were decidedly less successful. The one art song in the set, "Evening Song" by Griffes, was overstuffed and forgettable (not entirely Appleby's fault, to be sure). In the remainder, jazz/standard selections by Gershwin, Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and Thelonious Monk ("'Round Midnight" with appended lyrics) Appleby fell short of the crucial test for opera singers doing pop/rock/what have you: whether a reasonable person can forget they would rather be hearing a native pop/show interpreter doing the song. Appleby's voice didn't stop sounding great, of course, but his interpretations are as yet contrived--jazz/pop affectations artfully arranged rather than attempts at real communication.
Things did not improve in the two somewhat indulgent encores--a rather twee rendition of Bruce Springteen's "Fire" and a take on Paul Simon's "American Tune" that substituted generic pop dramatics for that song's haunting humility.
Update: Here's Downey in the Post with a mixed review (though not so bad as the title implies).

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Iphigenie at WNO

WNO pulled out the big guns Friday for an Iphigenie en Tauride that was no doubt the most significant musical presentation of the season (not to downplay the many fine qualities in other recent shows, mind you). I've managed to see it twice before, in that celebrated Met Wadsworth version with Domingo, Graham, and Paul Groves, and the '06 Lyric run with Graham and Groves (which I remember as total dullsville production-wise though apparently I had some kinder words for it at the time)--but I'd venture that this outing made me appreciate anew what an incredible work it is. Some superficial flaws aside, this WNO revival makes an excellent case for the taut drama, involving psychology, and disarming music of Gluck's work. As Charles Downey's preview notes, this is a work that thrives the closer it gets to the sensibility of the Greek drama at its source. Where those afore-mentioned productions sometimes traded in heavy melodrama at the expense of clarity, the WNO production does a fine job of letting the plot unfold on the strength of the characters' own motivations and intelligence, and allowing the audience to really engage with the play.

Racette, in a role debut, sounds glorious in this music, if some of the trickier transitions are as yet a bit clumsy and the top thins a bit. This is a more thoughtful, reserved Iphigenie than Susan Graham's desperate refugee--the stern, almost desensitized authority Iphigienie must project in her public capacity clearly contrasted with her private anguish. The second act was gripping throughout, though I think she has room to dig deeper into the possibilities afforded by Iphigenie's arias in the first act, which were beautiful to listen to but somewhat perfunctory.

Shawn Mathey's Pylade turned in a fine first act, including a soaring "Unis dès la plus tendre enfance" (trans. "Oreste, I am totally gay for you"). He remained pretty committed through the second act (I imagine it is tough for most people not to seem just a bit aloof next to his stage bro), though vocally seemed to hit an increasing number of rough patches and was working awfully hard for it by the end. At his best he delivers a warm passionate sound, and his middleweight (vocal) size is a solid fit for the part, even if I find myself wanting something heavier at times.

And of course, Placido Domingo is onstage. I mean, there's just no getting around the fact that hearing him live continues, against all odds, to be one of the greatest gifts you can give to your ears (love this old Sieglinde post from the 2005 Met Walkure's intimating that the dark arts are at work). But even more than that, one pines for the immediacy of what he does with that big wonderful voice. On a stage of sensitive method actors, Domingo is old-school Hollywood--there's little chance of him disappearing behind Oreste, or Lohengrin, or what have you, but that doesn't mean what he's communicating isn't true. His tortured bravado, and the sad tender moments between him and Racette were the dramatic highlights of the evening.

As noted above, the dramatic action between the principals was well choreographed and communicated, and included some striking visuals like the red fabric representing the altar in the finale and the "blood" pursuing Oreste during his great monologue, though there were also a number of needlessly artsy/fussy moments. As choices go, the first act ballet was one of the more intriguing bits, a creepy interlude performed by four dancers in bathing suits and disco mirror caps plus a guy on hoof-like shorty stilts.

Before the half, the physical production flirted dangerously with the sort of unappealing hodgepodge concept we've been seeing a lot of here. But the second half brought enough successful moments to temper, if not entirely reverse, that assessment. The set is your basic "abstract antiquity" theme which, if somewhat static, gets the job done, and things vastly improved after the shiny black terrazzo wall that dominated the first half was retired. Costuming was a kind of lazy nondescript modern dress, trenchcoats for principals, sequined smocks for the chorus--you fill in the blanks. This sort of aesthetic muddiness doesn't really detract from the overall impact, but doesn't do it any favors either.

Oh and PS, if you are seeing the production, do note the whole aria Pylade does by the light of Marcellus Wallace's briefcase...

Update: Here's Anne Midgette's Post review...and Downey weighs in at DCist...and here's Tim Smith.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Aimard plays Liszt, Scriabin, Berg, Wagner

Had the chance to hear Pierre Laurent-Aimard live for the first time Thursday evening at the 6th and I synagogue. I know calling someone's approach "clinical" can imply you are accusing them of being a robot pianist, but it's really a compliment here, I swear. Aimard's masterful refinement of tone and color allow him to create insightful, intense readings full of precise detail.
Hearing Wagner's non-operatic music is always kind of disappointing in an interesting way (the Siegfried Idyll and to a lesser extent the Wesendock lieder excepted, of course). Aimard's placement of his Sonata in A Flat Major between two Liszt pieces (La lugubre gondola I and Nuages gris) brought those impressions into high relief. The takeaway: while in no way bad to listen to, Wagner's small bore pieces come off more or less like a Wagner-highlight CD, lots of unbearable priddiness and heaving, but very little of the magic that makes people really like Wagner. But played with Aimard's severe commitment, Liszt's pieces start to sound a lot like what Wagner's should, and what makes his operas so great--the sense of suspended time, the visceral power of the smallest detail, the reliance on overwhelming atmosphere rather than statement. The other two highlights of the first half was Berg's Piano Sonata No. 1, from which Aimard extracted many beautiful moments, and Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 9, the "Messe Noire". Aimard plays Scriabin with little of the ephemeral, shadowy flavor to be found elsewhere, but what is lost in mysticism is gained in clarity.
The second half was devoted to the Lizst B Minor Sonata--my second hearing this Spring after Kissin's March recital. Where Kissin brought forward the Sonata's emotional sweep, Aimard seems wary of layering too much sentiment on top of this beast, and seemed most at home in its blackest most terrifying moments. Also, the finale was ridiculously impressive. No encores after that, though the audience certainly tried...
Update: Here's Charles Downey and Joe Banno in the Post...

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The cost disease and classical music

Here's Greg Sandow on the "cost disease" afflicting symphony orchestras:
The principle -- generally accepted by economists -- is simple enough. Suppose you're a company that manufactures things (or, these days, contracts to have them manufactured). As time goes on, the manufacturing process gets more efficient. Productivity rises. So you spend less money to make more widgets.
This happens more or less through the entire economy. So we all (very generally speaking) get richer. (Obviously, I'm leaving out such factors as glaring income inequality, which normally I care a lot about.) Because we're richer, we can have things we didn't have before. Computers. iPhones. More sophisticated cars. More varied clothes and food. We take these things for granted. They're part of our lives. We expect to be paid enough so we can buy them. Which, if we work for a company that shows increased productivity, isn't hard for our employers to do.
But some big players in our economy get left out of this. These are institutions (very typically nonprofits) that don't show productivity gains. Orchestras, for instance. It takes just as many musicians to play a symphony now as it did 50 years ago. Or hospitals. Or universities.
Orchestras, in fact, are less productive than they were, because (see above) they need larger staffs, for marketing and development. And so orchestras fall behind the rest of the economy. Their costs keep rising, just everybody else's do. Just like General Electric, or Ralph Lauren, they have to pay higher salaries than they used to, so their musicians -- and the people on their staff -- can buy computers, and nicely varied food.
A nice summary of the notion, as articulated by its main proponent William Baumol in a 1966 book and subsequent papers, can be found here.
There's something seductive about this idea: a nice graph pops into one's head in which the cost line mercilessly rises past the income line, something like those graphs of Medicare spending if we don't get our shit together fast.
But some things also seem fishy. Like, just how long does this cost-death take, anyhow? Private symphonies and opera companies in some semblance of their modern administrative forms have been around for at least 150 years. Compared to other horror stories of obsolescence by productivity (banister carvers and carriage whip makers anyone?), that seems like a pretty balmy fate. Also, the crux of the cost disease argument seems to come back to the idea that industries which cannot improve the unit productivity past some point are doomed--once you can't reduce staff or increase product volume any further, rising wage costs mean you're dead in the water. Yet we seem to be surrounded by business models that would also fail this test, like any independent urban restaurant that is predicated upon the labor that goes into food production and service, rather than the simple distribution of increasingly cheaper foodstuffs to a larger audience.
Tyler Cowen touches on many of these issues in a 1996 critique of the "cost disease" notion here, focusing on a couple of key points:
1) In economist speak, the "cost disease" hypothesis posits that substitution effects swamp income effects, i.e., the desire to switch away from the low-productivity symphony sector to a higher productivity substitute dominates decisions. But a scenario where increased incomes cause individuals to consume more of the symphony sector, even if it is more expensive, is no less plausible.
2) Why should we assume that the symphony orchestra and other performing arts organizations are fundamentally incapable of increasing their productivity? Baumol's example which Sandow repeats--it still takes the same 50 dudes to play symphony x it did in 1780--seems far too narrow a way to conceive of the musical services a modern arts organization is capable of rendering with the technology available to distribute their product. Recordings, and recent developments in live broadcast, are the obvious innovations, of course. But consider as well the ways that modern travel and communications allow the most modest string quartet to tour the globe. Even the ubiquity of large modern concert halls represent advances in distribution.
3) Finally, Cohen argues that the "cost disease" hypothesis ignores improvements in product diversity and quality and illuminates nothing more than rising nominal costs. Today's orchestra has a few hundred years of extra repertoire to offer relative to that 1780 orchestra, and large improvements in the quality of performance that create real additional value for orchestra consumers--value that can't be easily compared to the 'value' gleaned from cutting the timpani section.
Obviously, performing arts organizations are having a hard time of it right now, and I'm not saying that any of these things are a silver bullet or "prove" that everything is alright. But the cost disease idea and its predictions of inescapable economic annihilation for the performing arts seem just a bit too convenient for those who indulge in classical music pessimism. Blaming the current troubles on theories about the economic exceptionalism of arts organizations rather than understanding them in the context of the larger economy seems counterproductive.
Update: Matthew Guerrieri has a great post on the "cost disease" here (and kindly links to the above)...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The New Walkure

So…about that Walkure premiere last Friday. Not a home run, music wise, but a lot going for it:

Voigt confidently meets the role’s basic demands (this premiere should really silence the shrillest doubters) and, for sheer vocal appeal, is clearly in a superior class than your Gasteens and your Watsons. But if her top notes can still capture that steely purity, further down the staff things grows hollow and pinched. More problematic was the fact that her reading Friday was fairly pedestrian; passages meant to bloom with careful dynamics came off as secure but blunt. Hopefully this is attributable to needing some time to grow in the part (and the run) and not a sign that the level of security she achieves comes at the price of the finesse that really makes the part exciting. Her Brunnhilde wasn’t quite as superficial as fall’s dramatically flat Salome’s in DC, but the overall impression just isn’t terribly authoritative as of yet.

As expected, Terfel is much better served by the Walkure Wotan than the Rheingold one. While that coveted “deity timbre” is clearly not on the table, and the spectre of barkiness can never quite be dispelled, his interpretation offers some undeniable pleasures, like a bitter, haunted Act II monologue and a melting “Der Augen Leuchtendes Paar” that reminded everyone why his casting seemed like a good idea in the first place.

Kaufmann and Blythe are the principles that really deliver without reservation. My small quibble with Kaufmann is that his Siegmund has lots of potential for a great portrayal but would benefit from a bit more freedom and lacked something in the seduction department (Jimmy wasn’t doing him any favors in the pit, mind you). That said, if you see him don’t say anything because with that remarkable voice he should clearly be owning Met Siegmunds for the next decade or so. Blythe is a total pro in this music and offers the complete Wagnerian package—her booming Fricka combined spine-tingling sound with jumbo-sized doses of spite and indignation (I was up against the wall in Fam Circ and could hear her rattling the paneling). Westbroek’s Sieglinde sounded excellent in the first Act but was apparently ill—her fancy cover was Margaret Jane Wray who drove things home with little missed.

Hearing the Met Orchestra play this music with all their exceptional precision and warmth is always a privilege, though Levine turned in a somewhat subpar performance on the heels of his riveting Wozzecks. The problems, as others have noted, were most pronounced in the first Act, which never really managed to catch fire as it should. One can take slower tempos in Act I, of course, provided the payoff is a richer experience of the score, but Levine’s heel-dragging was carried out in rigid four-four time, largely smothering any opportunities for the sensuality and abandon called for. Acts II and III picked up substantially, but I still could have used a little more feeling and sweep in the big Act III moments.

* * *

As far as the production goes: sorry, but I’m out. I wanted to be a good sport about this new Ring, and last night’s Walkure made a much bigger effort than the fall’s Rheingold, but it also proved just what a mess the thing is.

To go back to basics: an opera production follows a certain aesthetic or conceptual frame in order to highlight and enhance intellectual and emotional aspects of the piece in question. In some productions, your Chereau Bayreuth Ring for instance, the visual language helps to articulate a fairly specific interpretation (the industrial revolution setting driving the audience to consider the political and historical currents in the Ring). In something like the New Bayreuth productions of the 50s, severe aesthetic parameters encourage a dialogue with the Ring's past productions and challenge the audience to appreciate it anew without all the baggage.

Even the hyper naturalistic Schenk Ring is far from “neutral” in its production values—it delivers emotional impact by heightening the romantic use of nature that permeates the piece (e.g. Wotan is like an awesome mountain, Siegfried’s puberty is like a sunrise, etc). Its claims to authenticity are as much a konzept as anything, engaging the audience in questions about whether an “authentic” representation brings us closer to or narrows our experience of the piece. And, of course, whether “authentic” is even a worthwhile or possible goal.

The aesthetic of this LePage ring is: “making the big set machine look like whatever we can manage, hopefully pretty”. It is an anti-production, a production without an idea in its head, and unified only by the constant desperation to pull off pleasing looking things within the meaningless parameters of its physical materials. Its most ambitious claim is simply that it can be done—that it will live up to vague promises to astonish. The experience of watching it, waiting Gollum-like for the meager thrill of a spinning plank or fleeting sparkly graphic, is intellectually deadening—an astonishing conclusion to reach while watching a piece so rich with dramatic and intellectual possibility.

Yes, on the surface it seems to be going for some of the same territory as the Schenk production, and there are some nice looking bits to be sure, particularly the trees/snow setup for Siegmund’s opening run through the forest. But any gestures in this direction are just a convenient way to provide some cover for its empty soul. No one really aiming to present beauty and nature onstage—implying an experience that is seamless, elegant, and inspiring to look at—could justify mounting a production which routinely asks the audience to watch the unadorned planks in all their horrible nakedness.

With the needs of the machine reigning supreme, it is perhaps not surprising the extent to which the normal considerations of stagecraft are sacrificed or neglected in this production. The machine generally constricts the singers’ playing space to 10-15 feet between the raised apron and the whirling planks of death, and within this narrow band they are choreographed with a shoddiness embarrassing for such a major stage. Key blocking moments (i.e. the final Brunnhilde/Wotan moment) are played clumsily and have little emotional impact; elegant solutions of routine staging challenges (i.e. how to make Brunnhilde’s getaway at the end of Act II mildly plausible) are simply not attempted (she stares at Wotan’s back for 90 seconds from two feet away before slowly gathering her things and walking off).

Also, the lighting is bad—for long stretches the singers look like they are being illuminated by the Met’s work lights. Even when things are a tad more deliberate, the lighting design does little to evoke the dramatic locale or moment. Consider the Valkyrie horse gimmick: so, yes, the Valkyries each “ride” a plank that bobs up and down kinda like a big horse head. But that’s it. They are bobbing up and down on a uniform brightly lit set that does nothing to evoke a night sky or horses or whatever. The point of this “coup-de-theatre” is not to bring to life this improbable moment onstage—it is to “inspire” the audience to clinically examine the bobbing motion, determine it is like horses, and applaud. Theatrical illusions are supposed to awe by persuading the audience that extraordinary things (helicopters landing, cats flying tires, etc) are happening onstage—LePage’s Ring defines illusion down.

Another complaint: even more so than Rheingold, this Walkure features a number of moments in which one fears for the safety of singers or extras. That’s not to say they are sacrificing singers’ safety for the production—I’m sure everything is on the up and up—but it points to how the design team’s concerns lie with creating apparent thrills rather than real visceral excitement. Audience members may be impressed that you hung someone upside down 30 feet in the air, but if done poorly they don’t actually enjoy it. Take the final scene on the rock: stunt double Brunnhilde is shuffled to the top of the machine, gingerly laid down (attached to some kind of invisible harness) and then very slowly lifted to be upside down and vertical, to get the effect of the audience looking down on top of the mountain, with the whirring planks doing a poor imitation of fire on all sides. By the end of the whole clumsy set up, shown in excruciating detail with little sense of surprise, the audience is simply glad that not-Voigt hasn’t fallen to her death.

But I’ll stop there. I have no problem with a “traditional” Ring, and certainly not a “traditional” Ring that tries to get where it is going with novel means instead of papier-mâché boulders. But there needs to be a destination—some vision for the 17 plus hours of the Ring that gives it a life or meaning that could never be achieved on a concert stage. The disturbing thing about LePage’s Ring is that it isn’t derived from any vision for the Ring, but a narrow vision for a spectacle which isn’t even very spectacular.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Urban Arias III: Glory Denied

Before saying a word about the final Wozzeck performance at the Met last Saturday, I just want to give a shout out to Tom Cipullo's "Glory Denied", the last installment in Urban Arias inaugural season, which I neglected to review after the fact.
Suffice it to say, this was a great way to send off the first round of what promises to be a very enjoyable institution for DC. The piece, for a quartet of singers and chamber orchestra, deals with the story of Jim Thompson, the longest held Vietnam POW, and his wife, Alyce, who left him for another man during his captivity, and is a fine example of the dramatic and musical possibilities of the form. The cast led by Michael Chioldi in a commanding performance, made a strong impression as equal to both the dramatic as well as musical demands of the piece, while the orchestra under the direction of Robert Wood achieved fine balance with the singers without sacrificing the many interesting details in Cipullo's score.
If I could register two quibbles, they would be Jim's bitter aria on his return to a changed country--I'm sure one day the rhyming list of postwar cultural touchstones will be acceptable again but for now its hard to take these things seriously when it just puts "We Didn't Start the Fire" in your head. Here the gimmick seems too glib and out of place with the otherwise earnest, plainspoken libretto. Also, Urban Aria's otherwise efficiently and elegantly staged production suffered from a stream of intrusive, poor quality overhead projections. I get that this is tempting when dealing with quasi-documentary material, but it just never works, people.
Anyhow, looking forward to seeing what next year's season will be...
P.S. For a more detailed discussion of the opera, see this Parterre review of a Chelsea Opera production from the fall.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Urban Arias II: Green Sneakers

So, second evening at Urban Arias, for another piece by Ricky Ian Gordon entitled "Green Sneakers", was decidedly less successful than the first installment, though certainly a well put together production.
The show's problems largely have to do with Gordon's piece itself, a very personal meditation on his partner's death, and honest and serious work that is nonetheless limited by a fundamental mismatch between the content he draws on and how he executes it. The trouble isn't the music--Gordon's musical language here, call it "sentimental Britten" (I mean that in a nice way), is perfectly engaging on its own terms. But unfortunately it is a limited way to convey the dramatic material he is working with, a series of scenes from the period leading up to and following his partner's passing.
I'm afraid there's no way to do this without a lot of bad generalizations, but here goes. The musical language of opera and its derivatives communicates a lot of things well--desperation, ecstasy, what's on deities' minds--a result of opera's closer alignment to abstract music. Opera's strength, first and foremost, is direct communication via music (for this reason, opera librettos can suck pretty hard and not impair the overall effectiveness of a work). Does that mean dramatic content isn't important in opera and we'd do just as well to listen to Traviata with everyone singing solfege? Of course not. But the content exists more to signify a dramatic corollary to the music than engage us directly in its language and details, in the manner of a play.
Which is all well and good, but not very ideal when it comes to communicating highly specific, contextual emotions, like say, the mixture of resentment and pity that derives from being in a stupid mall shopping for athletic wear for your terribly sick partner when you really need to get back to rehearsals for the show you have opening, to take one of the poignant episodes Gordon describes. The image of this scene, not the music, is what is what is primarily memorable, and turning operatic firepower on that image just results in a lot of bluster where there should be simple, effective clarity. Fortunately, we have a whole art form that is attuned to just these situations: the modern musical theater song.
Now obviously there is a wide gray area between these "opera" and "musical" archetypes where the actual art gets made, so I'm not saying that the painful details of Gordon's work would be better expressed through showtunes or crappy imitation rock songs. But on the grand spectrum of drama + music, Gordon has chosen a position that is too abstract for the familiar, intimate details he has gathered, details that a style with greater focus on text and the accessible, specific emotional gestures of modern musical theater writing would excel at bringing forward.
I know there is a lot of baggage wrapped up in these claims and I really ought to go back to office work, but I'll mention one revealing moment near the end of the piece that cemented my thinking: Gordon's character sits at the piano and plays a scrap of piano melody that hews closer to a musical theatre sound than anything we have heard so far, and the emotional impact of the piece seems to click into place immediately, and makes us realize just how emotionally inert the rest of the piece had been up to this point.
Baritone Ian Greenlaw, who sang the role of Gordon's character, offered a likeable stage presence and warm baritone well-suited to the conversational style (although he strained noticeably at the upper end of his range). But in a story like this we need some sort of coherent personality to engage with emotionally, and in large part due to the issues described above, he simply never registered as a credible character. The dramatic effect of this is offputting, as the confessional details of the monologue become information conveyed by a third party, rather than the testimony of a specific person the audience can identify. The Adelphi String Quartet provided a reading of strong Gordon's score that demonstrated a lot of musical interest.
Excited to check out the final Urban Arias installment, "Glory Denied", on Sunday!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Urban Arias I: Orpheus

Imma be late to the party on this one. Saw the last perf of the inaugural show of a very exciting new development: a company called Urban Arias devoted to presenting chamber opera (mind you, this should not prevent anyone from naming their urban demographic-targeted romance novel the same).
So, it probably gets old when reviews of chamber opera always start with some fawning about the joy of hearing big time voices in lil' spaces, but for people who live in places where the motherlode of their operatic experiences occur in auditoriums that could credibly host professional basketball tournaments, the necessity of small-scale stagings like this "Orpheus and Euridice" by Ricky Ian Gordon needs to be acknowledged.
Gordon's piece, for soprano (Euridice), clarinet (Orpheus), and piano is distinguished most by the exquisite writing for its constituent parts--Elizabeth Futral's aching soprano and the remarkable emotional range of Todd Palmer's clarinet weave about each other and combine to thrilling effect. Gordon inhabits the unassuming musical language he lays out with great skill--but is this derivative or lightweight (Midgette makes note of such sentiments here)? One grows tired of interrogating every tonal piece of new music for whether it is sufficiently "hardcore", or *gasp* "Broadway". Suffice it to say that I think Gordon has very little interest in cheap musical appeal in this piece and every commitment to creating something that is both enriching and honest.
Experiencing Futral up close was a delight. This was a very fine vocal performance, but I was particularly struck by the quality of her overall characterization. I know there's been talk about opera singers' acting skills recently. But to some degree, the kind of acting available in a theatre or movie just isn't possible for opera singers, who must work through their voices and through gesture rather than characterization. But Futral demonstrated her ability to give both a compelling vocal performance and the kind of physical acting critical for a production like this.
Moreover, the stage direction (by Kevin Newbury) achieved precisely the level one hopes for in a work like this--understated in accordance with the modest forces but confident and inventive in its stage craft.