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)...