Saturday, January 14, 2012

NSO plays Matthews, Mackey, Sibelius

Saw the NSO with violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu last night, in the DC-premiere of a captivating violin concerto by the composer Steve Mackey composed, Sibelius' 5th, and orchestrations of selected Debussy Preludes by Colin Matthews.
The Mackey piece, "Beautiful Passing," was composed with Josefowicz in mind in 2008. Josefowicz played some of the key themes before the performance and explained their provenance in Mackey's experience of his mother's death. I can appreciate this as a way to get an audience to identify with a new work--its hard to expect even the most open-minded concert-goers to develop much rapport with a complex piece the first time out. Premieres end up being "that new thing" between the overture and symphony. Some framing and a story, live from the musicians or composer, helps ensure listeners walk away with a lasting association, even if they can't hum the tune.
Yet, as Robert Reilly notes here, a work like this should really stand on its own as a piece of abstract music and learning about the "program" in this way can be a bit distracting. For instance, the work opens with a violent contest between wild percussive gnashing in the orchestra and the exuberant, almost desperate violin solo--it ends softly, the violin exhausted, the orchestra at a quiet drone. We are told this is Mackey's mother resigning herself to die, but such information seems so terribly reductive when applied to this rich, evocative music. Words and stories fail, as they should, to describe the experience. While inspired by a specific experience for the composer, the music becomes more universal, in the hearing, transcending its subject matter. Which is all to say, my hope for this worthwhile piece is that it is still played in 10 years but that the majority of audience members without the initiative to check out its history are none the wiser about its context.
Josefowicz was quite stunning in the solo part, embracing the raucous dance figures that reappear throughout with diabolical gusto and imbuing the closing section with a devastating sense of collapse.
After the half was a bravura performance of Sibelius' 5th symphony. Lintu goaded along the rollicking rhythms of the first movement with swift, intense precision, culminating in an ecstatic climax that was hard not to applaud. The winning final movement (I swear to God that theme is ripped off in a tearful Don Bluth-animated animal reunion somewhere) was urgent but suitably majestic. Lintu clearly has that great intangible conducting skill of maintaining momentum while allowing the audience to appreciate the "vertical" harmony and texture in a work. The NSO sounded agile and rich throughout, though some shrillness in the winds and scattered coordination problems in the strings were popped up.
The concert opened with a series of five Debussy preludes, as orchestrated by the composer Colin Matthews, apparently best known for his role in Deryk Cooke's performance version of Mahler's 10th. This may be a personal bias, but I have difficulty seeing the point of these sorts of projects. The Preludes are quintessential creatures of the piano, and, not having particularly memorable tunes, much of their appeal is bound up in the way Debussy's colors play on that instrument. Why one would want to hear an orchestra try its hand is unclear. Moreover, it is exceedingly grating to hear Debussy's music orchestrated in a way that is far removed from how Debussy's orchestral music actually sounds. Not that I would find it particularly worthwhile to hear someone fake Debussy's style, but there is some deep cognitive dissonance in listening to the composer's music via a sensibility far more obvious and schmaltzy than anything we would expect from Debussy himself. Not saying all orchestrations are bad ideas, but it doesn't work for all material.
(And dere's Downey's original take at Ionarts.)

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Zuill Bailey plays Bach

Zuill Bailey did the cellist's Iron Man yesterday at Strathmore--a back-to-back performance of all six of the Bach unaccompanied cello suites. His disc of the suites is here.
It's no mystery why people don't run this gauntlet in public more often. After a decade of preparation, a recording under his belt, and a lifetime of performing the suites like any cellist, a live performance is still riddled with dicey moments well outside the realm of "respectable" CD-smooth sound audiences are at least thought to demand. In short, it's a beast, and a very different experience from all those laboratory-created performances swimming around one's head.
Yet thank goodness we have brave souls willing to do it, as it is a very special thing indeed to hear them live. A cherished performance memory for me will always be sitting in the front row at a Bargemusic concert during a frigid winter in what must have been 2001 or 2002 for a performance of the fifth suite by Fred Sherry. Watching Sherry bear-wrestle his cello to the ground to extract this remarkable music was a visceral experience, not soon forgotten.
A traversal of all six in a large venue like the main Strathmore hall is bound to be less captivating, of course. There are some basic endurance issues that give a concert like Bailey's more of a congenial exhibition flavor than a full-throated reading. (Bailey wisely embraced the not-quite-a-normal-recital circumstances by adding a generous helping of charming anecdotes and his own thoughts about the suites throughout.) And of course, this is music of a surpassingly intimate character that is ill-suited to a full-sized concert hall. The atmosphere for yesterday's show was also not helped by a Strathmore sponsor who decided 120 minutes of solo baroque cello music was a clear winner for families and offered free tickets to kids, leading to constant disruptions throughout by bored-out-of-their-minds children.
But all that aside, there were many things to love about the afternoon. Bailey uses his instrument, a 1693 Gofriller cello originally designed to serve more of a bass role in baroque orchestras, to stunning effect, opening up the range of these pieces with a rich, booming lower register (find an excerpt from the CD and check it out). The uptempo dances are earthy, rhythmic, and at times downright raw, reflecting Bailey's interest in emphasizing the forms that inspire the different movements over a more abstract approach. Beauty of tone is surely sacrificed in some places, but this approach frequently pays dividends in exciting, kinetic interpretations. He contrasts these with leisurely, almost indulgent, readings of the slower movements, for instance a stately, intimate Sarabande from the 4th suite and a spectral, haunting Sarabande in the 5th. Special commendation, too, for Bailey's lovely and simple take on the first suite, a carefree reading that brought new interest to these well-trod pieces. He offered the prelude to No. 1 again as his only encore, inviting the audience to reflect on the remarkable journey these pieces represent.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Stuff from last year: Lucia at WNO

More from before the break...After the competent but pedestrian Tosca that opened the season, WNO's Lucia de Lammermoor, in a production by David Alden, was a most welcome second outing. I saw the B cast led by Lyubov Petrova on November 16.
Alden's placement of the opera in a sort of nightmare-Victorian-asylum-type space stands in stark contrast to a lazy Victorian "updating" like the LA Romeo discussed below. Where that production seemed mostly motivated by a desire to spare the audience the spectacle of drippy Renaissance costumes, Alden is deadly serious about stripping away the Lucia's kitsch to get at the social and sexual themes that drove the work's contemporary appeal. The biggest choice is a foregrounding of the Enrico-Lucia relationship--indeed, one might read Enrico and Lucia as the only "real" characters in this production, orphans abandoned long ago in an institution. Both are emotionally stunted, Enrico by his failures and Lucia by Enrico, who abuses and lusts after his sister, then suffers remorse for it. The other characters in the opera are almost figments of their psychoses, Edgardo becomes Lucia's storybook fantasy of a highland protector and a virile reminder to Enrico that he cannot have his sister; Arturo, presented as a literally golden dandy, is Enrico's perverse vision of the self-realized adulthood that eludes him.
All in all this is a rich and provocative production and a model of the kind of regie-lite (genuinely provocative, but not greedy for headlines) interpretation that a company like WNO would benefit from trying out at least once a season. One quibble I saw mentioned elsewhere was the final gesture of the production, Enrico snapping Edgardo's neck after his suicide. Between this and the gratuitous neck snapping doled out to Ulrica in last season's Ballo production, the WNO stage is starting to resemble the less credible kills in a Lethal Weapon movie. Enough already.
But this would hardly have been such a success without a strong, game cast. Charles Downey saw both casts and I suspect his assessment of Petrova as the dramatically richer, if slightly less musically consistent Lucia is correct. Her "Regnava nel silenzio" was not the most promising start, lacking a certain finesse in the phrasing. That was quickly forgotten however, by her committed work throughout the middle acts and a decidedly stunning Mad Scene. Brian Mulligan, as Enrico, was solid vocally but really shone in his willingness to inhabit all the neuroses and desperation demanded by the production. Someone whose name I can't find right now made for a robust and satisfying Edgardo, with good work up and down the rest of the roster. And Auguin back in the pit!

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Stuff from last year: Dark Sisters

So anyways: way on back in early November I saw Dark Sisters (i.e. the other Nico Muhly opera, about polygamists in a splinter Mormon sect, with libretto by Stephen Karam). Reviews of this first run (it returns in Philadelphia in June) were, shall we say, very cautiously supportive and littered with a non-insignificant amount of commentary that had more to do with a canned meta-narrative (good for you classical music! sort of!) than the work at hand, but for my part I was pretty taken with it.
Here is a work that is really invested in using the possibilities of opera to support modern theatre, a marriage that seems so ideal but is rarely consummated. Works like "An American Tragedy" (though clearly I would go if they put it up again) seem disturbingly dominant in the major league new opera landscape, when the target demographic is making events out of pieces like "Nixon in China" and "Satyagraha" that look a lot more like the kind of straight theatre being made by interesting folks everywhere except the opera house. But I believe I was just bashing meta-narratives, wasn't I, so...specifics:
The score is an intimate and ever rewarding player in the piece--not just an extension of the characters' transient emotions but a manifestation of the illusion that surrounds and isolates them, the presence of the moral and religious code (patriarchy, yo) that structures the way they see the world. The heretical thoughts of Eliza, the rebellious wife at the center of the story, are tied to dissonant motifs that challenge the sweet, narcotic atmosphere established for the sister wives.
I dunno, maybe that sounds obvious, but the effect is deeply immersive, and realizes the central emotional tenet of what the piece is trying to convey about these women: to understand why they stay in lives that appear so dreadful means understanding not just how they are trapped, but how they feel comforted and tied to this world that is deeply ingrained in them. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the piece is Armela's plaintive aria halfway through the first Act, in which she encourages Eliza to abandon her wayward thoughts to ensure they will be together in heaven. And yet, while doing a tremendous job of creating sympathetic characters in these women (as opposed to just victims) it also shows their cruelty and capacity to close ranks against their "sisters" under threat of offending their husband.
My chief quibble is with the pacing of the main narrative story about Eliza's decision to defect from the family. When, in the final scene, Eliza's daughter rejects her in favor of the sect Eliza has abandoned to save her, there should be more of an emotional punch, but it comes too quickly. I would almost prefer an ending with less resolution--perhaps a split scene where we see the daughter attending the funeral juxtaposed with Eliza coping with her strange new life on the outside.
Rebecca Taichman's production is mostly very strong, with a simple, arresting set evoking the red dirt of the desert, and the powerful recurring motif of the sisterwives' dresses stained with its dust providing memorable images. If anything, Taichman's staging abandons its abstract strengths too readily--I can imagine straightforward set pieces like the television interview with the sisters (in which a screen in the "studio" displays footage of the sisters being filmed real time while they sit on the opposite side of the stage) easily accommodate and in fact profit from less literal staging choices.
Though if I could make one big request of the staging--lose the video, k? Clearly, the scene is a television interview, and the temptation to use onstage video strong it is. But I can imagine a raft of different configurations that would increase the impact of this segment, and none involve the deadening, alienating effect of onstage video. Someday I would like to see a video gimmick done in such a way that the real-time feed looks something like the kind of real-world studio quality feed that is being portrayed, but until then it just evokes awkward home movies and it sucks.
I'm shortchanging the cast, but only because all the reviews two months ago were uniform in their praise. This was a first-rate group of singing actresses (and actor) and it was great to see what they were able to do with the very ample opportunities the score provides for distinctive statements by the key wife characters.