Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Seated Ovation will be taking a two-week break while I head off to Israel on a Birthright trip. In the meantime, the entirety of Die Soldaten in its classic Stuttgart production is available on YouTube. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

mindnumbingly beautiful

Wednesday, July 21 2010
Lincoln Center Presents
Wuppertal Opera

Salvatore Sciarrino, La porta della legge

Hilary Griffiths, conductor
Johannes Weigand, director
Jurgen Lier, set and costume design
Sebastian Ahrens, lighting design
Jakob Creutzburg, video design

Ekkehard Abele, Man 1
Gerson Sales, Man 2
Michael Tews, Gatekeeper

"What if, one day, you were to discover that culture, and the most courageous endeavors, are in vain, and that your country has not reached even a semblance of identity? If you felt you are only watching a mocking charade, what of your life then? This is what is happening to us. Others may drift into decadence, but not our country; it cannot because it lost its rendezvous of ages, that with realizing the very ideal of Italy."
-Salvatore Sciarrino, notes on La porta della legge

I should admit that I did not an ounce of preparation before seeing Salvatore Sciarrino's opera La porta della legge as part of the Lincoln Center Festival on Wednesday night. So upon reading the excellent program notes on the train ride home, I was surprised to learn that this seemingly timeless piece of theater, a gaze into the mindless of bureaucracy, had sharp political overtones. Obviously, any opera based on a text of Kafka ("Before the Law," a short parable from 1914 later worked into The Trial) will have some political content, but I had no idea that Sciarrino intended it as blunt protest. In his notes, Sciarrino despairs the loss of Italy's rich cultural heritage, eclipsed in his lifetime by a parade of governmental decadence and bureaucratic negligence. That his operas are performed not at La Scala but in Germany, France, and New York (remarked upon in the notes) speaks to his concerns about his country's abandonment of stimulating, provocative art. I will not attempt to weigh in on the cultural significance of Italy's current situation, but it does underlie Sciarrino's intent with La porta della legge.

The fact that I didn't pick up on the political content, though, does show how much this opera has to offer--musically, dramatically, and theatrically. In seventy-five minutes, Sciarrino created a virtuosic depiction of Kafka's existential dread, aided by director Johannes Weigand's and set/costumer designer Jurgen Lier's stark imagery. Sciarrino replicates the bureaucratic horrors of Kafka's story with three characters and two and a half scenes. One dialogue plays out, twice through and then half-repeated: a man pleads with a gatekeeper to gain entry to the law (an abstract concept, never explained), and after years of waiting and bribing, finally dies of old age. Because this thirty-minute scene is performed almost identically twice--first through with baritone Ekkehard Abele, then again with countertenor Gerson Sales, and both times with gatekeeper Michael Tews--the essence of the mindnumbing story is actually conveyed through the theater. The audience feels the weight, and wait, of this stifling, slowly mesmerizing boredom.

The inward quality of the opera, with the three (or two? it is never made clear if Man 1 and Man 2, who wish to gain admittance, are separate people or different manifestations of the same psyche) characters speaking in riddles to each other and the audience, evokes the psychological dramas of early Expressionism, like Schoenberg's Erwartung and Berg's Wozzeck. But the sound world is entirely different, a hushed landscape of breathy murmurs. The first scene is dominated by the background hum of a thunder sheet called a lastro, creating a wash of sound; a cello slowly traces glissandi in quasi-lamento fashion, and a flute interjects. Muted brass occasionally flare up, and two grand pianos plink away at pianissimo dynamics. Sometimes, the instruments align with the quasi-spoken, quasi-sung vocals, but often they meander on their own. The effect feels almost electronic, the sum of instrumental timbres creating an un-developing plateau of sound.

We begin with a series of slow gestures, as Man 1 attempts to draw the uninterested gatekeeper's attention. Each small movement, whether a raised hand or crossed leg, feels deliberate, full of rhetorical significance absent from most modern opera stagings. Tension gradually builds as the man debates whether to enter and the gatekeeper procrastinates him; the characters seem to talk at each other rather than to each other, weaving around conflict instead of confronting it directly. Man 1 makes comments divorced from the action: "I am staring at the gate keeper." Sciarrino's vocal writing matches the wavering speech patterns of the characters, divided between inflected spoken word and sudden bursts of operatic singing. The stage is entirely bare except for a set of black curtains, a coatrack, and the gatekeeper's chair, but eventually the curtains slowly give way to reveal a wash of foggy, greenish light. Man 1 and the gatekeeper stare into this Rothko-esque ether, turn away, resume their discussion. Time passes, the man grows old, and before he dies he says the gatekeeper, "Everyone strives after the law, so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?" He replies, "Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I am now going to close it."

In Kafka's story, the text ends with that answer. But, almost directly contradicting the gatekeeper's words, Sciarrino plays out the exact same scene, slightly altering the text and music. The thunder sheet is gone, the green hue beyond the gate is now a muddy blue, a viola mutters the solo cello's passages, and a countertenor asks the same questions of the gatekeeper. By repeating the scene, Sciarrino not only heightens the repetitive nature of the work, but actually goes a step further than Kafka in embodying the terror of bureaucracy. The entrance was assigned not only to Man 1; no individual is special in the eyes of the system, and the gatekeeper lies to fulfill his role of not letting anyone enter. Law is completely closed off to man. Much opera is modeled after Greek tragedy, in which the unstoppable power of fate whisks the characters to their bleak destinies. For Sciarrino, as for Berg in Wozzeck and Lulu, institutions take the place of the mysterious furies and gods: the forces of bureaucracy, arbitrary and soulless, guide men to their doom.

In the final, short scene, Man 1 and 2 quickly cycle through their array of emotions, a summary of their lives at the gate. Creepy video projections of a mass of red doors suggest that they were just two of the many men who requested entry, and a web of pizzicati strings sounds like the ticking of a doomsday clock. Suddenly, the music stops. There is no grand gesture at the end, no explosion of sound or Liebestod, but instead the consummate way to finish off an opera illustrating the absurdity of modern living and the lethality of bureaucracy: an ending without reason.

Friday, July 23, 2010

say you want a (r)evolution

Varèse: (R)evolution, Part I

International Contemporary Ensemble

So Percussion

Musica Sacra

Steven Schick, conductor

There are few composers for whom two normal-length concerts comprise a complete retrospective. Besides Edgard Varèse, the only other one who comes to mind is Anton Webern. How was it possible, in the first half of the twentieth century, for these two men to foment such revolution in so few hours? Varèse's complete works add up to less time than The Godfather, and could be performed in a "marathon" concert shorter than the average Rossini opera.

Monday night's performance showed that, though Varèse may have been responsible for a musical revolution, he was no revolutionary. His music is couched in the aesthetics of his time, drawing on a vast number of influences and filtering them through his outlandish personality. And in those musical moments where Varèse seems to reach to an electronic future which did not yet exist, we catch a glimpse of his musical progeny.

Opening the first Varèse night (alas, I was unable to attend the second, featuring Alan Gilbert's New York Phil) with the Poème électronique, his final work, was a stroke of programing brilliance. Kudos goes to Lincoln Center Presents and their crew for not only conceiving of a smart two-day celebration, but also of giving individual concerts a narrative scope. It is difficult, though, to reconcile Poème électronique's importance as a cornerstone of early electronic music with its actual enjoyability as a piece of music. Varèse provides a series of engaging sounds, isolated from their context: the pealing of bells, a Zappa-esque moan, beeps resembling a hearing test, antiphonal chants. But it is not a convincing sequence, more intriguing as experiment than as music.

The question to discuss, then, is how does revolution hold up over time? I think of the opening chords of Beethoven's First, a series of harmonic ambiguities which in 1801 were considered an audacious way to begin a symphony. Today, we can appreciate this fact, but it is not what makes the sequence compelling. We are drawn to the succinct writing and the instrumental colors---we hear the ambiguity, but not what made it daring. Similarly, it is hard for me not to appreciate Varèse's poem merely teleologically, as an important step towards Stockhausen and the electronic soundscape of the 1960s. The chuckles from the audience during a series of bleeps and bloops confirmed this; today, sounds that resonated powerfully in 1958 seem less to have anticipated Stockhausen than to have anticipated Pacman.

In a kind of Proustian flashback, the concert segued directly from the late Poème to Varèse's earliest surviving work, the limpid art song Un Grand Sommeil Noir (1906). By beginning with the end before launching back to the beginning, the programmers endowed the rest of the concert with a dramatic thrust. Soprano Anu Komsi's dark, full singing projected Varèse's vocal writing, which echoes Fauré in its fluid, eloquent Frenchness; Mika Rannali provided supple piano accompaniment.

Varèse created an explosive trilogy of works in the early 1920s, demonstrating his command over small and colorful ensembles of instruments. Hyperprism and Integrales, the latter two of the three, are hard-edged, tightly composed works for shrieking winds and wild percussion. In Hyperprism, Claire Chase's pure, cutting flute solos (reminiscient of shakuhachi), as well as piquant duos of piccolo and clarinet, showed off the composer's cunning use of woodwnds. The raging progression of Integrales, an onslaught of noise punctured by moments of eerie quiet, grasped the ears and refused to let go. Offrandes stood as an interlude between the two, a series of lither snarls, and Anu Komsi inflected Varèse's somewhat-conservative vocals with gusto. Through all three, Steven Schick conducted with fierce precision.

As the first electro-acoustic piece on the program, Ecuatorial (1934) proved strange in more than one manner. Varèse creates a mass of atonal organ, two screeching cello theremins (which oddly resembled Guitar Hero guitars), wailing brass, and stormy percussion. Finally, after I nearly forgot that the piece had a part for bass-baritone, Alan Held intoned the primitive Spanish text. Though it is a prayer, it sounded more apocalyptic than soothing, and Held brought out the primal elements of the words. In both the prayer and the instrumental parts, Varèse invokes ancient mysteries, utilizing hyper-modern textures to illuminate a prehistoric world. The primitivist elements occasionally felt a little silly, though, and the acid-jazz sound of the theremins somewhat distracted from Held's forceful voice.

Dance for Burgess, Varèse's 1949 attempt to compose something like popular music, was a brief, Ivesian delight, refracting the sound of a Broadway band in a danceable swirl of timbres. It, as well as Etude pour Espace, could not have been performed without scholar and former pupil of Varèse Chou Wen-chung's excellent editing and orchestration. The Etude, with its use of microphones and spatial placement of speakers, develops an ethereal allure through extremely low brass growls, a chorus mumbling nonsense syllables, and sudden moments of schmaltz. Occasionally, the overlapping chant of Musica Sacra resembled Reich's Tehillim. Entrancing harmonies surrounded Anu Komsi's falsetto screeches, and a sensational final chord finished the spellbinding work.

The modernist solo flute repertoire is a vast body of work; Debussy opened the doors with his Syrinx in 1913, and Eliott Carter continues to hold them open today. Varèse's Density 21.5 is an integral part of this tradition and his only solo instrumental work. It consists series of expanding gestures, foreshadowing Berio's Sequenzas and drawing on a gamut of extended techniques. Claire Chase gave it a consummate, captivating, and athletic performance, with steely slap tongue and an incredible severity of attacks---she, more than any other flutist performing today, seems to have internalized the ferocity required for this music.

Finally, Deserts, the longest work on the program, brought the evening to a close. It is an alternation between Varèse's typical instrumental chaos (although, written three decades after the works of the 1920s, demonstrates significantly more refinement of orchestration) and cadenzas for tape. The ear-cleaning roars of the electronics sounded portentous in their clangor, but the work dragged on too long. After two hours of Varèse, my ears became dulled to his musical rhetoric, and I could no longer appreciated the genius of combining fifteen instruments to mimic the sound of a freight train colliding with a skyscraper. And as in Poème électronique, some of the ideas in Deserts seemed to outpace their medium, and the electronics felt somewhat unsatisfying. The final moments sounded almost dirge-like, a soft sigh of strangeness before the tumultuous applause.


Not only was the concert mostly awesome, but it pointed to a number of interesting solutions to the "problem" of classical music. As everyone claws at ideas for the future of the medium, this performance (like Varèse's music) seemed to be broadcast back from that bright future. In a coming post, I will talk about the idea of selling classical concerts as "events," and why that makes the difference between a decrepit, coughing audience and an engaged, youthful full house. But something else came to mine as well: rather than conscripting a reduced version of the New York Philharmonic for the first night, Lincoln Center Presents chose to combine smaller, specialist ensembles for these performances. Many cities will probably lose the capability to sustain major orchestras in the coming decades, and we may see concert halls used less as residences for house bands than as venues for touring groups like ICE and So Percussion. The technique of combining two groups to form a kind of avant-garde Jefferson Starship may become an important model as well--rather than breaking down a large orchestra (as in, say, the NY Phil's Contact series), the ideal solution may be to construct one from smaller ensembles.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

three days at tanglewood part 3

July 9-11, 2010
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Mozart, Serenade No. 6
Violin Concerto No. 5
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting
Pinchas Zukerman, violin

After two meaty programs of Mahler and Beethoven, one wouldn't think that the Boston Symphony would spend a Sunday blowing their brains out with Strauss. One would be wrong. This isn't any old summertime classics festival: this is Tanglewood, the progeny of Serge Koussevitsky, the home of serious summer music. To begin a weekend in July with Mahler's Second and end with Strauss's Heldenleben is a challenge unto itself, and to execute it with such ease is truly extraordinary.

Ultimately, though, Sunday's program was the most disappointing of my weekend. The highlight came first with a tightly rustic performance of Mozart's Sixth Serenade, written for a handful strings and timpani. This wisp of a work features a slightly odd alteration between solo quartet and ensemble, a throwback to the high Baroque concerti grossi. Frühbeck endowed it with a lovely buoyancy, and Malcolm Lowe's light, airy violin fit the music like a glove.

If only Lowe had continued as a soloist through the rest of the program's first half. Pinchas Zukerman represents the worst kind of ambassador the classical world has to offer: the boring virtuoso. I cannot remember the last time I heard a critic praise Zukerman, who has played the same repertoire the same way at least since I've been alive. Although Zukerman has retained his trademark sweet sound and solid technique, he had not a single thing to say in Mozart's best violin concerto. It was bereft of musical ideas, without an ounce of spontaneity, and only interesting for the orchestra's elegant performance. His saccharine tone is tolerable for a short period of time, but no matter how great the music, it is difficult not to grow tired of such a monochromatic musical palette. The whole time, especially during his utterly perfunctory handling of the a la Turka fireworks of the last movement, I couldn't help but wish that the BSO had drawn upon their own concertmaster for the concerto.

Luckily, the BSO played their hearts out for Ein Heldenleben, the perfect music for a lazy Sunday afternoon. They almost made me like the piece, a considerable achievement. Strauss's sheer arrogance in the work is palpable throughout, and it represents perhaps the paramount example of when his tricky relationship between personal hubris and musical expertise tilted towards the former. It starts off well, with a dark-hued and Beethovenian opening. Strauss's gift for orchestration creates an almost organ-like sound, a teeming orchestral machine pulsing with life, which the BSO rendered in full Technicolor.

The problems begin with the second section, depicting the adversaries of "the hero." If it wasn't particularly obvious that the hero is Strauss, and the adversaries are his critics, then just wait for the parade of self-quotations in the later sections. Strauss takes the Romantic notion of the composer-as-hero, pioneered by Beethoven, a step too far. In the twisted, banal counterpoint of the "adversaries," Strauss is too literal---it is flawlessly programmatic but musically uninteresting. When I saw the fourth Harry Potter movie, five or six years after reading the book, I was disappointed in how little sense it made: because everyone in the audience knew the plot, the director focused on big action setpieces and left out any sense of cogent storytelling. Strauss does something similar, writing music that is artistically unsatisfying without a knowledge of the programmatic "events."

Through subsequent sections, the kitchen sink effect manifests itself, and Strauss's panoply of orchestral effects and hyper-Romanticism are overwhelmed by the sheer density of stuff. The piece brims over with ideas, but Strauss develops none clearly, instead insisting on his simplistic, triumphant narrative. The most ridiculous moments come in The Hero's Works of Peace, a fragmented, silly series of snapshots from Strauss's earlier works: self-quotation as self-glorification.

Frühbeck brought the same stern presence to the Strauss as he did to Saturday's Beethoven, and in some ways the performance seemed better than the piece itself. Although it wasn't the best way to conclude the weekend, it did show that the BSO, strictly musically speaking, may be in better shape than any other American orchestra. As Levine's relationship with the orchestra wavers, we can be confident in knowing that the Boston Symphony can still deliver.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

three days at tanglewood part 2

July 9-11, 2010
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven, King Stephen Overture
Piano Concerto No. 3
Symphony No. 5
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting
Gerhard Oppitz, piano

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is one of the odd conductors whose name I had kept hearing, but could never associate with an orchestra, style, or repertoire. I had never seen him live before Saturday, and can't say I've ever heard one of his recordings. I'm pretty sure I used to get him confused with Miguel Hartha-Bedoya, before I realized RFdB is a few decades his senior.

It was my loss, because Frühbeck led one of the most thrilling accounts of Beethoven's Fifth I have ever heard. Since starting this blog I have reviewed a wealth of Beethoven orchestral performances, most recently portions of the Chicago Symphony cycle and the New York Phil's Missa Solemnis. de Burgos' command of the Fifth, though, swept aside all of those concerts: this was the towering Beethoven, the Beethoven of the wild hair and scowl, the one who (apocryphal or not) heard the knock of fate at his door.

Whereas Haitink, leading the CSO, made an impressive Fifth through his architectural conception of the work, Frühbeck transcended this idea: he created an interpretation of the Fifth as a completely unified narrative, achieving grand drama without sacrificing an iota of structural integrity. In his fierce conducting, Frühbeck merged the seemingly opposed aesthetics of directors like Haitink who value pacing and musicians like Tilson-Thomas who strive for moment-to-moment emotional impact.

From his forceful thrust in Beethoven's stabbing opening gesture, Frühbeck stirred up a musical frenzy, with volleys of sound ricocheting through Koussevitsky Shed. His conducting was less about keeping clear or steady time than galvanizing the orchestra to play like their lives were at stake. In the massive fugue, for example, most conductors typically draw out the intertwining counterpoint. But for Frühbeck it was all about capital-P Power: each entrance comprised part of a tremendous musical battle, an assault of sound. The key word for the performance was momentum---Frühbeck used the colossal end of the first movement as a kind of springboard to the Andante con moto, following through the final chord to maintain propulsion of tempo and narrative.

Frühbeck sustained this musical presence through a regal Andante, producing a blaze of sound in the final recap of the majestic theme. Without waiting for pause between movements (Tilson-Thomas's lethal mistake in the Mahler), he launched into the mysterious scherzo. The BSO horns, clearly used to Levine's stentorian command, blared out at full blast, and the basses tackled their devilish scales with startling strength. In a final coup before the glorious finale,Frühbeck managed to not only control an impressively soft transition, but actually get even softer to emphasize the gigantic crescendo.

The final movement was sheer force, with loud but balanced brass and soaring strings. Where most interpreters render the march-like theme crisp and taut, Frühbeck made it broad and especially long, an unusual move which felt right. Even in the triumphant, long-winded coda, interrupted by sporadic applause, Frühbeck kept giving more and more. When the entire audience burst into clapping as he held the last note, it somehow seemed appropriate: the natural ecstatic response to such concentrated drama.

And the rest of the concert was remarkably good too. The King Stephen, a completely unmemorable overture, benefited from the orchestra's attentive brass and lucid strings. Gerhard Oppitz's crisp, light keyboard playing matched nicely with Frühbeck's conducting in the Third Piano Concerto, a work not really in C minor. It opens with the simplest possible glean of a minor key, an arpeggiated triad, before embarking upon a surging major-key exposition. The BSO imbued the lengthy orchestral itnroduction with an engrossing mix of colors, brimming with nuance. Through the first movement Oppitz's playing retained a dignified and graceful touch without relinquishing the weighty presence which Beethoven demands. In the stormy cadenza, with its moments of Hammerklavier-esque ingenuity, Oppitz produced a virtuosic splendor of sound.

This splendor continued through the Largo, as Oppitz made Beethoven's exquisite aria sing with delicately tender chords accompanied by the BSO's silvery hush of strings. In the finale, Oppitz emphasized jagged accents and flicked off grace notes easily, embracing the Mozartean Sturm und Drang moments while retaining a clarity of rhythm and articulation. The concerto ends with a coda in C major, but the work lacks the affirming transformation we see later in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies (or Mahler's Second, for that matter)---it is a playful turn to a bright key, in a piece that abounds with light pleasures.

Next up: Mozart and Heldenleben

Monday, July 12, 2010

three days at tanglewood part 1

July 9-11, 2010
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Mahler, Symphony No. 2
Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting
Layla Claire, soprano
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Beethoven, King Stephen Overture
Piano Concerto No. 3
Symphony No. 5
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting
Gerhard Oppitz, piano

Mozart, Serenade No. 6
Violin Concerto No. 5
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting
Pinchas Zukerman, violin

My weekend in the Berkshires was bookended by massive German works of late Romanticism/early modernism, with a creamy center of Beethoven and Mozart. A three-day visit to Tanglewood guarantees a ton of music and any engaged listener gets a healthy diet of the orchestral repertoire. In high school, my two summers at Tanglewood exposed me to all of the staples--your Jupiter Symphony, your Bruckner Four, your Daphnis and Chloe. For a young listener unfamiliar with these warhorses, it's a complete immersion in a new world, an opportunity to meet the classics face to face.

But it's a different experience four years later, now that I have a sense of hardened knowledge of the so-called orch rep. Rather than soliloquize about how incredible it would be to see a performance of Mahler's Second, I hoped that it would beat out the excellent one I heard a few months back. Or that my third Beethoven's Fifth this year would be worth the thirty minutes of my time. Or that I wouldn't fall asleep during the dreaded Heldenleben. Luckily, most of the performances were quite good, especially given the impeccable playing of the BSO.

Let's start with Opening Night. At first I thought it would be a minor feat, as a fairly inexperienced critic, to compare two Tilson-Thomas Mahler Seconds with different orchestras (I heard him conduct it with the SF Symphony in March). With the same great conductor and the same great piece, how different could two performances be? I assumed I would comment lightly on differences in the string sounds of SF and Boston, the quality of the choruses, the acoustics of Carnegie Hall versus the Koussevitsky Shed. Instead, Friday night's concert proved a point which seems to keep coming up in discussions I have about San Fransisco's music director: MTT's approach does not work with every orchestra.

Every time MTT comes to town, the inevitable comment that various orchestras (especially the New York Phil and the CSO) dislike him crops up. Whether or not it is actually true is difficult to ascertain, since it's not the kind of thing you read about in the New York Times, and the opinions of various disgruntled orchestral musicians do not always add up to a cogent argument. That said, after hearing him conduct the CSO and BSO, and the SF Symphony twice, it's clear that the San Fransisco musicians play much better with his conducting style than either the Chicago or Boston orchestras. From the opening notes of Mahler's Todtenfeier, that brash funeral march which begins the symphony, the disconnect between what MTT conducted and what Boston played was apparent.

Though MTT's slashing movements and podium dances should have yielded sensational results, they did not. The visceral nature of the opening gesture was lost in favor of a precise, almost-fossilized series of notes. Boston's tight ensemble control and lushness rendered the second theme a halo of sound---their silky, refined strings sustained the moments of peaceful tranquility before plunging into the depths of the funeral rites. MTT's baton seemed to probe those depths, but the orchestra had no interest in his fiery interpretation---at times, it felt more like Levine's Mahler than Tilson-Thomas's. An extended, borderline-comedic pause between the first and second movements (oddly, MTT played it for laughs) broke the spell of Mahler's music (Mahler calls for a five-minute break, and a three-minute one with lighting changes and chit-chat doesn't seem to do it justice). The BSO played the second movement as a lithe, graceful dance, with much more polish than MTT's home orchestra, especially in their round, precise pizzicati.

In the Fischpredigt scherzo (a musical version of St. Anthony's sermon to the fish), a stew of winds and percussion set the swaggering pace, and MTT's conducting seemed to align with the orchestra's playing as he brought out the music's folksy charm and klezmer-inflected rhythms. But what truly distinguished this performance from SF at Carnegie was the quality of the vocals. Stephanie Blythe sang the first Urlicht I have actually enjoyed in a live performance, proving that the movement truly needs an opera singer to compete with Mahler's orchestra. Her warm, mellow mezzo voice soared over the orchestral panorama while simultaneously encapsulating the intimacy of the music. She declaimed "Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott" with operatic drama and a heightened sense of the spirituality of the text. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus produced a magnificent blend of colors in the spectacle of the finale (soprano Layla Claire also made notable contributions to the beauty of the sound).

Towards the end of the Resurrection, as the chorus, soloists, and orchestra built towards their grand climax, MTT finally went all out. Rather than attempting to shape the sound, he reveled in it, basking in Mahler's exultation with arms raised triumphantly. The musicians finally seemed to click with him, looking up from their stands and realizing it wasn't Levine leading. The final moments were fully engaged, packing the emotional punch the rest of the symphony lacked. Though MTT will probably never succeed Levine at the BSO, it seemed for just a second that he could.

Parts two and three of my Tanglewood reviews coming up later this week.

Friday, July 9, 2010

peter not-so-grimes

On my way out the door, I can't help but post this awesome link. Pliable, host to everyone's favorite cantankerous and immensely informative On An Overgrown Path, saved a boy from drowning off the coast of Britain. An amazing feat, and even better because it ties him directly to one of his frequent blog subjects, Benjamin Britten.

Afterwards, Pliable gave interviews to a number of media sources, and Seated Ovation got exclusive video footage of the hero describing his harrowing experience:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

into the wild

I will be off to Tanglewood this weekend, to hear MTT's Resurrection and some other Boston Symphony stuff with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos. While I'm gone, go see Corey Dargel's show at Galapagos on Friday and Norma at Caramoor on Saturday. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

more mild than leise

Stumbling around on Netflix's instant watch, searching for something to pass the time, I came across this gem:

Yes, folks, this is a genuine Tristan und Isolde animated family film. I debated whether or not to watch it, but after reading these comments, how could I not?

Now, to review: apparently it has a happy ending, and there's also a "total random musical scene." To not at least check these out would be journalistic, musical, and scholarly neglect on my part.

That said, you can put up a small defense for giving Tristan a happy ending. First of all, it's not Wagner's story exclusively, and its transformation into myth gives it the same leeway that all mythology gets in translation. Remember, Jacobo Peri's and Giulio Caccini's Orfeo "operas" of 1600 ended with Orpheus rescuing Eurydice and the two living happily ever after. And let us not forget that Prokofiev's original version of his Romeo and Juliet ballet ended with the lovers 100% alive, until Soviet censors told him to change it (more on that here). Myths retain their vitality through changes, most gradual but some significant.

And, one could argue that, like the Ring, Tristan und Isolde does not actually have a "tragic" close. Tristan's agony is ended by his death; Isolde sings her Liebestod and the two are whisked away to be together. The final shimmering resolution of the drama's infamous chord symbolizes a love made perfect, one that could not abide in their imperfect reality.

Nowtwo lovers dying probably isn't a happy ending by second-rate Disney standards. So let's see what happens in this thing.

It opens with an excruciating prologue with some kind of cat beast setting the scene, outlining the basic story for a flying pack of fairies ("What, I'm telling it my way, okay!"). It's also in horrible quasi-3D reminiscent of this travesty.* I skipped around after that--didn't see any boat, just more fairies, a talking horse, giant venus fly traps, that wise-cracking cat thing, and, naturally, a dragon (which Tristan fights?).

Luckily, I found what you're about to see. There have been a fair share of complaints over the past hundred and forty-five years about the Wagner's Act II duet. It's just a little too long, some say (I'm not one of them)---too much time for just two people to wax poetic about their love, without much in terms of stage action. What if you could cut that down to forty seconds? Because that is the extent of Tristan & Isolde's musical wonderland (warning: the rest of this clip is in Greek, making it even more annoying).

Anyway, in the end King Mark gives up his throne to Tristan ("I can't be King! I don't know how!" "You'll learn as you go, Tristan"), and decrees that Tristan must marry Isolde. The furry cat thing, which is apparently Puck, narrates with a few closing thoughts and alludes to a sequel--there's even a quick chord resolution which almost sounds like the end of Wagner's version. And then, I kid you not, a giant venus fly trap eats Puck. In the final lines of Tristan und Isolde, Isolde sings of the rapture of dissolving into the universal Weltatem. In Tristan & Isolde, a blue cat quips "I'm going to smell for days."

We can only hope that ACD will weigh in.

Next up: Wall-Edämmerung

*If you want to gouge your eyes out, watch the first five minutes of that (hat tip to my girlfriend Halie for introducing it to me).

Friday, July 2, 2010

steve's suave shirts

I saw the new French documentary on Steve Reich, Phase to Face, at the Jacob Burns last night. Although there were a few anecdotes I hadn't heard before, as well as some nice footage of Bang on a Can performing 2 x 5, it was fairly underwhelming. The short length (52 minutes) and focus exclusively on speaking with Reich himself did not illuminate much about the composer, just giving a brief overview of his classic works. I'm not sure why director Éric Darmon didn't bother to interview some of Reich's contemporaries, fellow performers, or any of the vast number of musicians influenced by him, although I guess I understand the appeal of just following Reich around for a while.

The truly fascinating part of the documentary was a gradual epiphany of the kind which happens in the best works of minimal music---small details accruing into a revelatory whole. In this case, though, it was not music: about halfway through the film I realized that Steve Reich owns like ten different versions of the same shirt. It was literally all he wore in the entire film.

It's this double pocketed thing which you can see here in white:
And a side-shot in dark green:
There were about 5 more of these in different shades of tan, brown, and green. Impressive stuff--and not once was he without his baseball cap. And to top it off, Reich wore one in his post-game interview with John Schaefer! It was awesome.

Here's the trailer for Phase to Face, which doesn't quite do justice to Reich's shirts, though it does have some nice footage of 2 x 5

Steve Reich, Phase to Face from SensoProjekt on Vimeo.

(Coming up next: La Monte Young's shoe collection and Terry Riley's beard)