Friday, October 29, 2010

birthday bash

It’s funny how minimalism has been written in the history books. We see it as this seminal moment in post-war, “classical” music history—Steve Reich, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, and Terry Riley breaking new ground in the 1960s and 1970s, paving the way for John Adams and their own later orchestral and chamber masterpieces. But the image distorts when you realize that half of the original four never found a true home in classical music. Young and Riley didn’t join the classical establishment like Reich and Glass did, choosing to remain on the outskirts of the genre and pursuing their own games. Young, unfortunately, has practically vanished from the musical world, his solitude gradually eating away at his historical significance. And Riley continued trucking on, doing exactly what he did in the first place: finding a niche between jazz and experimental music, the same place that In C came from before it became the voice of a new post-classical movement.

So it’s fitting that his seventy-fifth birthday is not celebrated by a Carnegie Hall retrospective or Lincoln Center spectacular. In C’s 45th anniversary last year was—that piece, really, has more to do with classical music than Terry Riley does. Instead, Riley celebrated by doing what any great jazz master would do on his birthday. He played a gig himself.

In collaboration with the legendary George Brooks on saxophone and Talvin Singh on tabla, Riley gave an astonishing concert on Sunday night at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The seven compositions performed wavered between straight jazz and minimalism, with trance-like meditations giving way to conventional solos. Riley played piano and sang in Indian Raga-style, in his ethereal voice, which has only gotten nobler with age. In the first tune, the longest of the evening at around 25 minutes, quick unison passages for his voice and Brooks’ alto seemed to make time slip away. Riley’s delicate piano-playing supplied the structure, with Singh’s tabla dancing around the rhythms, providing ornamentation rather than percussion.

The seamless blend of improvisation and composition—it was impossible to tell how much of each number (no titles were given) was pre-constructed—matched the illusion of timelessness present in all of Riley’s works. Deep drones emerged from the depths of the piano, even in conventional ballads; the pulse of minimalism was inescapable. Besides the occasional piano prelude, none of the three musicians took official “solos,” with the music flowing naturally from section to section, instruments emerging out of the texture briefly before stepping back into the groove.

In the final number, Singh cued an electronic rain effect, and Riley began playing a gleaming piano solo reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient music—ecstatically, unabashedly tonal. Towards the end, Brooks’ sweet saxophone repeatedly traced an uninflected major scale.

In any other context, it could have felt trite, New Age, drearily sentimental. But Riley’s compositions surmount and surpass any cliché: tonality reinvigorated.

Monday, October 25, 2010

young guns

Friday, October 23 2010

Berlin Philharmonic
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano

Messiaen, Les Offrandes oubliees
Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2
Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique

Last weekend concluded the Berlin Philharmonic’s month of debuting young conducting impresarios—Tomáš Netopil (32), Eivind Gullberg Jensen (38), Andris Nelsons (32), and finally Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s (35). Though not the youngest, and not the most impressive, Nézet-Séguin may have been the most anticipated.

It’s easy to chalk up all of Nézet-Séguin’s fame to his relatively young age, good lucks, and charismatic conducting. This past season in the U.S. it seemed like he was the prodigal son, the heir to the Throne of Dudamel—a triumphant Carmen at the Met, a well-reviewed tour with his Rotterdam Philharmonic, and finally his appointment to the grand Philadelphia Orchestra. So YNS’s first experience at the podium of the Berlin Philharmonic almost seems like an afterthought, a confirmation of his already huge success.

But it also gives the ideal opportunity to evaluate the conductor on his own terms. We know that the Berlin Philharmonic can play Berlioz, Prokofiev, and Messiaen with their eyes closed. But when a 35-year-old newbie steps up to the plate, do they open their eyes? And more importantly, do they respond to what he’s doing up there?

The answer was yes, for the most part. After a somewhat sleepy first half, the orchestra warmed to his conducting and played a pulverizing Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz’s lovesick symphonic poem is a young man’s piece and usually benefits from a youthful interpretation. YNS created a sense of effortless flow in the opening Reveries – Passions, a push-and-pull of blissful strings. Each climax was more explosive than the last, the orchestra giving just as much power as they did to Shostakovich last week. YNS’s background with the Montreal Symphony was most evident in Un bal, which glowed with French, buoyant geniality.

Of course the orchestra, not the conductor, is the star in the Symphonie Fantastique (and, I guess, in all music). The wonderfully blooming English horn duet and sheen of silvery strings in Scene aus champs, as well as the horn grotesquerie of the March to the Scafford, once again demonstrated the ability of the Berlin Phil to make themselves at home in any aspect of any repertory. And the finale was a raucous delight, with a bubbly and maniacal Eb clarinet solo almost stealing all the glory away from YNS and the orchestra. Smartly, the giant bells which toll the witch’s Sabbath were placed on a separate balcony, producing a horrifying effect with the brass solemnly intoning the Dies Irae melody.

Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliees and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto comprised the first half of the program (what are the odds of hearing Les Offrandes twice in one year?). The Messiaen, a spell of still, slowly unfurling melodies, with a riotous interlude, was exquisitely played. But in that Rite of Spring-esque middle section, I got the feeling that YNS was overexerting himself—his wild gestures were not followed by the orchestra. The Philharmonic also seemed to go into an auto-pilot accompaniment mode for the Prokofiev, a generally boring and bombastic showpiece. Again, YNS’s inefficient gestures failed to elicit a compelling performance from the orchestra. Yefim Bronfman, though, was in fine form, his meaty playing matching the powerhouse quality of the concerto—a stupefying cadenza in the opening movement showed the brawler at his best.

The audience went crazy over YNS after the Symphonie, giving the first standing ovation I’ve seen in Berlin, and even calling him back after the orchestra had left the stage. With the richness of the second half, I can’t blame them. But the Prokofiev made clear that he is not yet a fully developed talent—hopefully his upcoming tenure with Philadelphia will be a learning opportunity for both him and the orchestra.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Edit: Wow, this is super embarassing. I spelled his name wrong like 6 times in a row. Corrected---Thanks anonymous commenter.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

the other ring

The beauty of the Ring cycle is no matter how stupendous the production, no matter how highly anticipated the director’s contraption or star-studded cast or overbooked conductor, it always opens the same: the ancestral hum of Eb, a glimpse into the creation of the world. If we are lucky, when the curtain rises after the prelude, we will view something which seems part of Wagner’s time and our own—straddling the century and a half between the work’s premiere and the age of Twitter. Guy Cassiers’ new production of Das Rheingold at the Berlin Staatsoper achieved just that. Not only did it strike a ideal balance between traditional mythology and radical theater, but it also provided a compelling narrative, one which felt distinctly Wagnerian.

I think my ideal Ring hearkens back to long before I was born. Wieland Wagner’s post-war Bayreuth aesthetic dealt with the work in psychological terms, clearing the stage of all but a few props and people, focusing specifically on the relationships between the gods and mortals who duck in and out over four evenings. In a world where a poorly-produced TV show can provide better fantasy than a multi-million-dollar opera or ballet production, it seems much more appropriate to abstract a saga like the Ring, rather than forcing yourself to compete with the likes of Peter Jackson and Industrial Light and Magic.

But the Ring cannot only be abstraction. More than Tristan or Die Meistersinger, the Ring requires a clear decision on the part of the director. The power struggle inherent to the cycle needs to be fuelled by some vision of what power means in today’s society. It can be economics, politics, religion, history, or gold. This is why we hear about the Environmental Ring, the American Ring, the German History Ring.

Cassiers makes a compromise between concept and drama, developing an overarching interpretation without letting it interfere with the course of the events. For Cassiers, power in today’s world is media, or fame—the desire to constantly watch oneself projected on society, expressed through the use of live video. In two of the four scenes, cameras on stage broadcast images of the singers onto a massive projected backdrop behind them. Rather than gaze upon a heap of gold, Alberich stares at his own image in a camera; in a twist of theatrical irony, it is self-love which causes him to renounce love.

Cassiers’ second theatrical device is his use of a troupe of nine dancers, who act simultaneously as props, scenery, and the subconscious of various characters. Their remarkable gyrations, for the most part, did not distract from the main events unfolding on stage, and occasionally add to them. In musical transitions, they provide brief, writhing ballet numbers; in moments of tense conflict, as when Wotan and his wife Fricka argue, they portray the emotions of the characters. It’s a double-edged sword: theoretically, Wagner’s music should be the psychological, oceanic subconscious of the gods. By adding the dance element, Cassiers adds an unnecessary, but often beautiful, layer.

What sold this Rheingold for me, though, was less the dancers and concept than the character struggles and stage action. Each scene seemed perfectly handled, with a unique atmosphere which flowed easily into the next. The curtain rises on the three Rheinmaidens on a bare stage, with two large walls behind them. Rippling, colorful video plays on the walls, and the faces of the maidens begin to appear on them—two stationary cameras on stage broadcast directly onto the backdrop, as they cavort. With sparkling, vibrant dresses and actual water to frolic in, the Rheinmaidens stood out as particularly nymph-like, making the contradiction with Alberich all the more evident. The rich-toned Johannes Martin Kränzle made a fearsome Alberich, playing the part for pathos rather than laughs—a dwarf in conceit but not in stature. A gold beam of light represents the Rheingold, but the real treasure is Alberich’s discovery of the cameras. Enchanted by his own face given massive dimensions, he steals the gold, setting in motion the course of events which bring about the twilight of the gods.

The transition to the gods’ home brings about the first introduction of the dancers, who slink around the stage and make whip-like motions to accompany the raging music. Cassiers and scene designer Enrico Bagnoli keep the set simple, with only one projected wall (displaying a glowing moonscape) and a giant, Doctor Atomic-style white ball hovering in the air. In the pivotal confrontation between Wotan and Fricka, in which angry wife berates husband for neglecting his familial duties and abandoning his contracts, dancers pantomime their feelings. It led to a couple poignant moments, as when the male dancer wrapped himself around Fricka as she lamented after Wotan’s disregard of “Liebe und Weibes Wert,” but added a certain Brecht-ian defamiliarization, an excuse for the singers not to act because the dancers supplied the inner conflict.

The quarrel in Nibelheim between Wotan, the trickster Loge, and Alberich provided the best example of Cassiers’ overall concept—a small platform sits in the middle of the stage, covered with video cameras. Behind the platform, a security footage-like screen displays the action at multiple angles, almost pornographically self-obsessive. Wotan’s entrancement with the technology, as he gazes upon his own face (and power), drives his theft of the ring and treasure. Unfortunately, the idea seems to fall apart in the final return to the home of the gods—the cameras are completely absent, and the only motivation for Fasolt’s and Fafner’s battle over the Ring seemed to the physical object itself (in a horrible Michael Jackson twist, represented by a bejeweled glove).

Even when the concept didn’t hold up, though, Cassiers’s dramatic clarity and stunning imagery more than made up for it. His portrayal of Erda, hanging in the air with an infinitely flowing dress evoking Klimt’s Hope II, was especially haunting. Rather than marking the god’s final entrance into Valhalla with a Technicolor light-show, Cassiers provided a much more potent image: a slow procession behind the final backdrop, a stony projection of Jef Lambeaux’s relief Temple of Human Passions.

Though no one can replace the majesty of René Pape, originally cast as Wotan for this Ring, Hanno Müller-Brachmann carved out a convincing portrayal, with a commanding and resonant voice, especially in his final, stirring monologue. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka, though lovely, was overshadowed by Anna Samuil’s gorgeous-voiced, unassailable Freia, soaring above the orchestra. Stephan Rügamer, as Loge, was a devilish delight, with a splendid, hued voice. He convincingly treated the stage as his playground, stomping around irreverently in the water after his kindred made their ascent into Valhalla, and even stopping the curtain from descending in the final moments of the opera.

The intimacy of the relatively small Schiller Theater, the Staatsoper’s new home for the immediate future, helped the voices but somewhat hindered Daniel Barenboim’s electric conducting. His Staatskapelle sounded subdued, more accompanist than equal partner, but this is also the nature of Wagner’s orchestration in Rheingold—only in Die Walküre does he begin to explore the possibilities of the orchestra as the true agent of the drama.

Oddly enough, it was the portrayal of the two giants which stole the show. Rather than attempt horribly grotesque, stilted Halloween costumes, designer Tim van Steenbergen clad them in simple black suits. Massive shadows behind the backdrop gave the two their colossal presence, but it was the acting of of Timo Riihonen as Fafner, and especially the sensational Kwangchul Youn as Fasolt, which made them truly larger-than-life. Typical productions dress the brothers up in so much make-up that it’s impossible to tell one from the other; they become one character, their individual personalities lost in the mess of attempted fantasy. Cassiers drew out the individual characters of Fasolt and Fafner. Youn came across as the younger, inexperienced, talkative brother, making Riihonen’s silence seem all the more threatening. When they finally turn on each other, and Fafner murders his brother, it was the most thrilling moment in the entire opera—a heartbreaking betrayal. The red beam of light which emits from Fasolt’s body, and which remained present until the end of the opera, made the violence palpable, and served as a reminder of the bloodshed which drives the inner drama of the cycle.

(all photos copyright Monika Rittershaus)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

awkward but awesome

Saturday, October 16 2010

Berlin Philharmonic
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Baiba Skride, violin

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto
Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 8

Though Shostakovich’s Eighth is far from his best symphony, in the hands of Andris Nelsons it became a brutal masterpiece. The Latvian conductor brims with wild podium contortions, but of a different sort than Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas. Where those two shine with charisma, their every move an extension of their extroverted personalities, Nelsons possesses something more demonic. His hunch and cadaverous outstretched arms propelled Shostakovich’s music with a fierceness which seems to burn from within the score. Bernstein imposes his personality onto the music, crafting official Lenny performances; Nelsons digs out the inner grit of the music and manifests its spirit. He makes motions that are off-putting but remarkably effective, evoking the awkward intensity of the great Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Written in the midst of World War II, Shostakovich’s Eighth mimics the fighting spirit of his Leningrad Symphony, draws on some of the stony belligerence of the Fourth, and points ahead to the dark lyricism of the Tenth. But unlike those three, it is unfortunately unbalanced—only the first half of the hour-long piece, divided into five movements, fully engages. The opening movement achieves the classic Shostakovich long-range, methodical build-up from eerie near-silence to psychotic loudness. The Berlin Philharmonic, who can play the most astonishing pianissimo I have ever heard, reveled in the contrasts, going from a haze of soft strings to a volcanic eruption of noise. The rattling sonic booms towards the end of the movement reminded me just a little bit of my good ol’ CSO.

After the drama of the beginning, though, the rest of the symphony just seems like stock Soviet Shostakovich: the grotesque, bitter quasi-scherzo; the badass super-fast movement; the circus ruckus of a finale. Nelsons was the saving grace, pushing the limits of volume on the orchestra and creating a compelling narrative even when the composer tended not to.

Berg’s Violin Concerto comprised the first half of the program, in a radiant performance by fellow Latvian Baiba Skride. Skride vividly captured the intense range of emotions required from the soloist—from the brittleness of the opening, through the hesitant Viennese lilt of the middle, to the introspection of the quote from Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug.” She made an excellent partner both for Nelsons and the members of the orchestra, often turning towards the concertmaster and finding her voice within the ensemble—especially appropriate for a piece which resembles chamber music more than virtuoso showpiece. Her sweetly singing rendition of the andante from Bach’s A-minor suite for violin made a poignant encore.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

opera at your own risk

As mind-blowing, life-changing, and transfiguring as classical music is, there are a few emotions it cannot convey. The customs of the concert hall and opera house do not allow for certain opportunities which other genres of music, and other forms of art, can. One of those is danger.

Iggy Pop cuts himself on stage with glass; Marina Abramović watches someone hold a loaded gun to her head; Nam June Paik instructs the performer to creep into the vagina of a living whale.* It’s an artistic thrill that comes out of the fierce violence in punk rock and performance art of the 1970s, one which I never thought could be matched in something as uniform and urbane as opera—until Saturday night’s double-bill of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot and Salvatore Sciarrino’s Infinite Nero at the Staatsoper.

A few minutes before show time, patrons were let into the theater’s workshop, which had been transformed into a sort of installation. Chairs were scattered around the floor, walls of TVs were set up in the corners, and at the center of the room stood a massive cardboard box. Taped to the outer walls of the box were various German newspaper clipping and diary excerpts. There were a few peepholes available, immediately creating a sense of Lost-like mystery: what’s in the box?

On multiple TVs, an actress read off descriptions of various roles she had played, gradually getting angrier. Finally seething with rage, she exploded, and Davies’ music started: mad-cap, almost cartoonish, with hooty clarinet and galloping string cross-rhythms, but also visceral. A small ensemble, sharply conducted by Arno Waschk, played from a raised area, obscured by a curtain. It was hyper-theatrical, with invisible mezzo-soprano Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir wildly embracing her demented vocals, TVs playing video of the singer juxtaposed with random footage, and that puzzling box. Davies’ 1974 theater piece is an Anglo Erwartung, a monologue tracing the madness of an Australian bride who, left at the altar, wears her wedding dress until her death thirty years later. In his staging, Michael von zur Mühlen updates the setting to the present, turning the bride into a media-obsessed, deranged stalker. Though he sacrificed some of the text to make the concept work, it made for a remarkably appropriate adaptation.

The dramatic heart lies in the middle of the work, in which an accumulation of musical effects creates a dreadful paralysis. The piano see-saws between two chords, metronomes tick and tock, creepy bells sound, and the mezzo screeches “Here comes the bride!” in a guttural roar. As we watched her video-likeness pick up a razor, there was an immediate sense of danger, unlike anything I have ever experienced in a work of theater. The room became the embodiment of her madness: the audience trapped, victim to a chamber of horrors.

In the final section, stagehands came to the center of the room and removed the walls of the mystery box. Inside, of course, was Sturludóttir, still singing, with smeared red lipstick and a blonde wig, sitting in the dingy studio apartment we had been watching in the video. In a moment of absolute disgust (and maybe the only misstep of the production), she yanked a blackened baby doll out of her loins, put it into a shopping bag, and threw it away. Picking up an electric screwdriver, she held it near her head, pondered death, and then walked into the audience.

A brief pause barely gave barely enough time to process what we had just seen. In the few minutes before Infinito Nero, I watched a second young mezzo-soprano be duct-taped to a wooden panel, splayed out in the image of Christ on the cross. That panel was then suspended from cables dangling on the far side of the room, and the opera began.

Sciarrino’s music hovers on the edge of imperceptibility, a landscape of tiny pops, slaps, and wheezes—the imitation of distant electronic sounds with acoustic means. He sets to music the ramblings of Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, an Italian noblewoman who went insane and became a quasi-prophet. The vocals are infrequent but significant. Mezzo Sarah Maria Sun quickly and intensely mutters words in a kind of sing-song patter, an opaque oracle. Two well-dressed actors emerge from the audience and slowly prepare rituals of worship around the suspended mezzo: painting their bodies blue, stripping off her boots, and then painting her bare feet.

Her worshippers paint on her, “Zu fruh von uns gegangen!!!” (“Gone from us too soon,” the German equivalent of R.I.P). Things turn particularly uncanny when they whip out rubber penises, attempt to fornicate with plants, and crawl around on all fours, dragging paint all over the floor, and then don nun’s hoods. At the end, when the music reaches its most climactic point, though still hardly above a whisper, one of the men climbs a ladder in front of the mezzo and chops off his penis, dropping it to the ground.

In this staging, Sciarrino’s opera becomes a fierce indictment of organized religion: the acquisition of a prophet; the establishment of a brotherhood (first one man paints his face, then the other); the quasi-sexual squabbles between the priests; the final, violent act of celibacy. Clearly, the Catholic Church is put under scrutiny—a vision not necessarily in line with Sciarrino’s original intent, but one with which the Italian liberal might agree.

Both mezzo-sopranos sang with incredible skill, attention to detail, and range. The music, though, felt like only one aspect of a consummate theatrical work. It was one of the very, very rare events I have attended where I felt I was witnessing significant, an evening part of a larger cultural history. The dissolution of boundaries between audience and performer, common to spoken theater of the last century, heightened the experience beyond any ordinary opera staging. At the heart of this dissolution was the shock of urgency: a palpable sense that the performance witnessed was one which could only happen once, because it was too dangerous to happen again.

(all photos copyright Thomas Bartilla)

*OK, pretty sure that last one has never been performed.