Monday, February 28, 2011
Courtesy of LPR's Burgundy Sessions which took place in January, Sam Amidon, Doveman, and others performing one of my favorites, I See the Sign
More here and here.
And, with a tip of the hat to Marc Geelhoed, the existential dread of children's TV programming.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Last Wednesday, as part of the massive Berlinale film festival running amok through the city, the Hebbel presented a Schlingensief forum, with friends and colleagues discussing the late director's life and work. The panel, moderated by Berlinale curator Dorothee Wenner, included dramaturge Carl Hegemann, director Matthias Lilienthal, curator Anselm Franke, film critic Georg Seeßlen and architect Francis Kéré. Each presented an aspect of Schlingensief's varied artistic output as well as discussed his relationship with the director.
Seeßlen spoke first, outlining Schlingensief's early film career, in which he connected the "short circuit of trash and art," displaying a joy for combining a seemingly impossible wide variety of influences from Joseph Beuys to Dawn of the Dead. We saw brief excerpts from several films, most notably Talk 2000, a manic, improvised send-up of talk show which actually aired on television (in this particularly clip Schlingensief, dressed as a priest, simultaneously interviewed a porn star and an old German crooner, while the show melted down around them).
Lilienthal discussed his work on the wildly irreverent, hotly political Ausländer Raus! (Foreigners Out!), a spectacle which Schlingensief staged in the heart of Vienna, directly across the street from the Staatsoper. Following the election of the borderline-fascist Freedom Party of Austria in 2000, Schlingensief constructed a brutal parody of reality TV, taking Big Brother as his example: twelve foreign refugees seeking asylum would live in a container for a week, and each day the Austrian public would vote one out of the country. The winner would be granted asylum. It became a huge controversy in Austria, mindboggling tourists and opera-goers along with blurring the lines between art and reality--protesters and counter-protesters had no idea that any of it was parody.
This gives some idea of the chaos
Hegemann talked briefly about Schlingensief and Bayreuth, where he staged his hyper-offensive, legendary Parsifal, which concluded with dead rabbits instead of radiant doves. More interesting was Hegemann's description of Schlingensief's "ready made opera" Mea Culpa, a broad theater piece created after the director learned of his illness. He literally staged his cancer, casting an actor to play himself, and the disease summons him to his death in a manner recalling Don Giovanni's Stone Guest.
Kéré, an architect from Burkina Fasso, concluded with a discussion of the Opera Village Africa, a project conceived by Schlingensief in 2008 as a kind of cultural counterpart to Bayreuth. Schlingensief and Kéré planned a village in Burkina Fasso to be centered around an opera house, which is still under construction today. It is, in the best way, a spiritual opposite of the Bayreuth Festival---its name, Remdoogo, is a literal dialect translation of Festspielhaus. Where Wagner essentially hijacked the town of Bayreuth for his festival (tension between the festival and the town exists very much today), Schlingensief conceived of an opera village in which the theater is the culmination of the project of living, an organic center of community. You can still donate here.
Schlingensief's loss resonates in Berlin. Metanoia, an opera I vehemently disliked in October, was to be staged by him but he died a few days before rehearsals began, taking his theatrical conception to the grave (the collaborators, in an effort to honor his memory, left it partially unfinished). Perhaps an anecdote offered by Hegemann illustrates best the personality of the director. The day after Michael Jackson passed away, Schlingensief, quite ill and only a year away from his own death, made an unannounced guest appearance in his Mea culpa. The result, a bold and irreverent feat of artistry, is below.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Recently-announced 21-year-old Berlin Philharmonic principal clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer shouldn't have too much trouble fitting into his new surroundings...
(Karajan photo courtesy of On an Overgrown Path; Ottensamer photo courtesy of his modeling agency)
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The Berlin Philharmonic has a particular advantage in this department. Beyond the group's considerable conglomerate merits, the ensemble is comprised of musicians who know how to create chamber music within the orchestral fabric. Even the greatest American orchestral players direct their attention exclusively towards the conductor or their music stand. Berliners frequently steal time away from massaging the conductor's ego to forge personal bonds with other sections--a flutist will make eye contact with a clarinetist during a soli passage, an entire cadre of violins will look to the cellos for a tutti.
On Sunday night's chamber program featuring members of the orchestra, the attention to detail and crafting music through communication was particularly evident. An unnamed string quartet (including concertmaster Guy Braunstein) blended consummately in Schubert's fragile Quartettsatz fragment just as well as any Emersons or Brentanos. The late Schubert, a work which stretches classical form to its extremes, made for a natural transition into the brittle sound world of Schoenberg's Second Quartet, which hovers on the edges of atonality before finally plunging into its depths. In Schoenberg's early music, we see less the destruction of tonality than its infinite expansion. A fluidity of form, as in the second movement's ghastly little scherzo with its uncanny asides, replaces any sense of governing structure; we are, so to speak, at sea.
Not only did the Philharmonic players provide a stunning and nuanced performance, but soprano Anna Prohaska delivered a show-stopping rendition of the final two movements, lieder after texts by Stefan George. Her ravishing voice suited the Expressionist mood perfectly, floating serene and untethered above the quartet before lunging into fits of rage. Prohaska swayed and shrieked like a woman possessed, embodying the "wind of another planet" which George's narrator breathes; she is still young at 25, but in a few years will make an astonishing Lulu.
After intermission, three of the quartet members returned with pianist Bishara Harouni to perform Mahler's Piano Quartet, a Brahmsian, unfinished student piece. They gave a hair-raising interpretation, with Harouni endowing particular sensitivity to the flickering triplets of the opening theme. The evening concluded with Schoenberg's strident Chamber Symphony in its original 1906 instrumentation, conducted capably by someone whose name I didn't catch (a last-minute sub for an ill Simon Rattle).
If there is a way to make atonality feel natural, it is programming like this. I doubt any member of the audience noticed that the last movement of the Schoenberg quartet didn't have a key signature; it really didn't sound all that different from the Schubert, and certainly not too different from the Mahler. That doesn't mean we have to buy into Schoenberg's self-coronation as the royal heir of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, the founder of a Second Viennese School when the first one never really existed. We can appreciate the fluidity without the ideology and hear the cracks in tonality emerge without adopting the dogmatism which emerged alongside them.
Even the jagged Chamber Symphony felt almost relaxed in the hands of the Philharmonic mini-orchestra, whose warmth rounded out the sharp edges. The enthusiastic applause of a sold-out crowd gave credence to Schoenberg's famous line, "My music is not modern, it is merely badly played."
Sunday, February 13, 2011
After hearing about Spring For Music's fantasy program contest, I pretty much couldn't sleep for days. The entry I came up with, Preach It!, was just one of a number of ideas I've come up with in the past few sleepless nights (Go vote for it!). Brainstorming fictional programs is my lifeblood, and I couldn't stop at just one. A typical music director conducts between ten and fifteen subscription programs each orchestral season. I have designed eleven, five of which are part of a series. Not all the works are for full orchestra; for the Schubert lieder, I wouldn't mind commissioning an arrangement from Adams, Henze, or maybe even Corigliano. Of course, a real season would probably have a lot more repertoire; no conductor could possibly learn this much difficult music. And there would be some commissions, too--I've indicated possible spots for those.
Without further ado, The Seated Ovation Hep Cats Regional Symphony Orchestra, 2011-2012:
Mythologies: A five-part series focusing on myths of antiquity (Orpheus), myths of modernity (Faust), myths of national construction (the Teutonic Nibelunglied, the Finnish Kalevala), and myths of founding fathers (Charles Ives)
My Father Knew Charles Ives
Ives, Five Songs (orchestrated by John Adams)
Carl Ruggles, Sun Treader
Ruth Crawford-Seeger, String Quartet 1931
Timothy Andres, commission
Ives, A Concord Symphony (orchestrated by Henry Brant)
Lisa Bielawa, Double Violin Concerto
John Adams, Doctor Atomic Symphony
Schnittke, Faust Cantata
Pierre Schaeffer, Orphee 53
Louis Andriessen, commission on Orpheus theme
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4
Magnus Lindberg, commission on Kalevala theme
Robert Kajanus, Aino
Kajanus, Kullervo's Funeral March
Hans Werne Henze, commission on Nibelunglied theme
Helmut Lachenmann, commission on Nibelunglied theme
Wagner, Excerpts from the Ring cycle
Staging the Apocalypse: These two programs stare into the face of Armageddon and then speculate as to what might happen after.
Ending the World
Strauss, Four Last Songs
Brahms, Symphony No. 4
Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Requiem for a Young Poet
After the Deluge
Wagner, Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung
Christopher Rouse, Der Gerettete Alberich
Elliott Carter, What's Next
Richard Strauss, Metamorphosen
And a couple loose ones:
Preach It! A Musical Sermon (see rationale and vote here)
Steve Reich, It’s Gonna Rain
Richard Wagner, Parsifal: Good Friday Spell
Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata BWV 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen
John Adams, Christian Zeal and Activity
Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Ich wandte mich und sah an alles unrecht, das geschach unter der Sonne
An Awesome Program - Pretty much just that.
Schrecker, Chamber Symphony
Busoni, Piano Concerto
An Awesome Program, 2
Kaija Saariaho, Du cristal
Nico Muhly, Seeing is Believing
Queering the Pitch In response to Greg Sandow's ridiculous claims that classical music could not support a similarly gender- and sexuality- charged program, or even a program which connects art and social history, as the recent Hide/Seek exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery; named for the seminal study of LGBT music.
Franz Schubert, Selected lieder on texts of August von Platen
Poulenc, Les Biches
Britten, Death in Venice Suite
Karl Szymanowski, King Roger
Saturday, February 12, 2011
I went home and checked out my Mahler 3 recordings--New York with Boulez and Bernstein and San Francisco with MTT (okay, I don't have that many Mahler 3 recordings; sue me)--and none have the glissandos; the two notes are just played slurred together as one phrase. Poking around on the internet, I turned up this post, where you can listen to what the glissando sounds like. Apparently Mahler wrote for the Viennese oboe, capable of glissing, but the modern French oboe "lacks" this ability. As a woodwind player, though, I'm familiar with the insistence that various techniques on various instruments are "impossible." Usually, they're impossible until someone ends up actually doing them, and then all the naysayers look a little silly.
I turned up this article by Teng-Leong Chew, which goes into further detail on Mahler's glissandi methods. Mahler's instructions--hinaufziehen, pull up--suggests a gliss, but he doesn't write a line between the D and F, as glisses are traditionally notated.
This repeating two-note motif is also labeled Der Vogel der Nacht, and Chew's article, after research by Constantin Floros, suggests that the night bird is answering the alto's question, "Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?" (What does the deep midnight say?). The oddity of the glissando sound would mesh with the eerie mood of the music, representing the bird call itself.
Not all conductors have caught on to this, but apparently Abbado, Chailly, Rattle, Benjamin Zander, and, possibly, recently Boulez (anyone have his Vienna recording to check?) have recorded the gliss. Zander, in a zany blog post, documents how he got his English hornist to match his oboist's gliss by dismantling an instrument and plugging its holes with plasticine. I don't know what Mayer or the Berlin English horn player did.
So why isn't this being done in America? It might have something to do with differences between American and German reeds. For such a small gesture, it might not seem that relevant. But with such a considerable, and very hearable, difference, and one that theoretically is in line with Mahler's original intent, it seems like the Chicago Symphony should step up to the plate.
Double-reeders, feel free to chime in with any information or speculation.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
That flow was one of arch-Teutonic Romanticism, embodying the worship of nature which epitomized 19th-century German art. The short Brahms work alternated broad, melancholy horn calls with the spellbinding singing of women of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, their voices hovering in the style of Renaissance polyphony. Stefan Dohr's natural, vibrato-less horn playing only added to the ethereal effect, evoking the hunting horns omnipresent in Romantic iconography. Rattle immediately transitioned into the forest whispers of the Elfenlied, which draws its text from Schlegel's translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Anke Hermann, a pixie-like soprano, blended darkly into the sound of the echoing Frauenchor.
This all acted as giant upbeat to Mahler's Third, itself a vivid description of the delights and sorrows of nature. The first movement illustrates the awakening of Pan and summer, but summer takes its time to wake up. The opening is less of a march than an extended, grotesque trudge, with tremors of summer and sickly-sweet textures gradually emerging over the fog of brass. Just when summer seems to have finally arrived, the music sags back into a second groaning march, with a burnished trombone moaning a languid soliloquy. Though it roughly resembles the traditional opening sonata form of a symphony, the thirty-minute movement is a series of loose episodes, with sweeping summits and strange little bubbly moments. With the polished brass and sensational woodwinds of the Philharmonic, individual effects came off brilliantly, and the strings literally threw themselves into the music, producing a round but furious sound as they swayed with Rattle's conducting.
The next two movements, swirling dances which depict the flowers of the meadow and the animals of the forest, evoked the restless twilight shimmer of Wolf's Elfenlied, with the posthorn solo of the scherzando (played heroically by Tamas Velenczei) directly recalling the earlier horn passages in the Brahms. In the mysterious Nietzsche setting O Mensch, the Phil produced that incredible, nearly inaudible string pianissimo which only they can do, elegantly balanced under Nathalie Stutzmann's silky alto. The women's choir and boy's chorus of the Staats- and Domchors Berlin gave crisp merriness to the penultimate movement, a choral setting of a joyful text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
Finally, Rattle unleashed the langsam finale, the first true slow movement in the composer's oeuvre. In Rattle's hands, it became an ecstatic sigh of relief, at once pensive and comforting, punctured by searing climaxes of almost demonic energy. In those final moments, when the full mass of the orchestra resembles an organ, with dual timpanis pounding away, one can glimpse Mahler's sublimation of man and nature into religious ritual, what he aptly titled "What Love Tells Me."
Over the past few months, I have figured out why I like Simon Rattle so much. There are a wealth of conductors whose recordings cannot fully convey their enthusiasm, and Rattle belongs to their numbers. Not only does he exude a certain indescribable charisma in live performance, but the very act of watching him conduct---the individual gestures with which he shapes phrases, and the unseen details he physically draws from the score---better elucidates the music. His Mahler provides a classic example of his gifts. Mahler's Third requires the impossible combination of rigorous pacing and sweeping drama--each moment needs a sense of the grandiose, but the individual moments cannot eclipse the huge structure.
Modern Mahler interpretation can be broken down into two categories:
Appoach A: The Tilson-Thomas approach. Every climax is the climax, creating a perpetual state of now. Every colossal surge of sound obliterates the past surges while eliminating the potential to anticipate the future surges, a roller-coaster ride of constant exhilaration. But Mahler’s music requires the past and future---broad themes and rolling orchestral flourishes constantly reference each other, bouncing across each symphony’s tremendous form. The very concept of progressive tonality, from which a symphony evolves from C# minor to D major (as in the Fifth), demands structural integrity and architectural vision. With Tilson-Thomas, you can't see the forest for the trees.
Which brings us to Appproach B: the Haitink approach. Conductors like Bernhard Haitink, James Levine, and to an extent Pierre Boulez conceive of Mahler as an elaborate architecture, shaping each movement to build towards the next, suppressing individual climaxes in order to unleash a full fury in the most heightened moment of the symphony. They erect ornate cathedrals, with individual details forged to draw attention to the whole structure. This works perfectly for Bruckner, a composer whose music is excruciatingly boring when a conductor gives every fortissimo equally climactic weight. But an ornate cathedral cannot punch you in the face. The first movement of Mahler’s Second loses its earth-shaking force because Haitink holds back until the finale; he loses sense of the moment in the overall build.
Somehow, Rattle flawlessly combines these two approaches. Rather than hold back smaller moments in favor of the great climaxes, suppressing fortes to bring out fortissimos, he layers energy upon energy. The sense of scaled, long-term structure exists, but Rattle builds excitement on top of excitement: the smaller climaxes retain their kick, and the massive ones shake the floors. Each apex seems to be the largest possible until the next one, and the energy constantly builds without losing the overall architecture. It's impossible to tell where these reserves of energy come from, but they come, and it works. The trees are there, the forest is there, and the cathedral punches you in the gut.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
I paid a final visit to the reindeer at the Hamburger Bahnhof yesterday, who come Monday will be shipped back to the North Pole, or wherever they came from, when Carsten Höller's Soma exhibit closes. There is either some funny business going on, or reindeer change color seasonally, because I definitely don't remember seeing a white one on any of my last visits (this was trip number six, I believe). A Guardian article offers some more insight into the "experiment", as well as a gem of a quote from Höller regarding the hallucinogenic mushrooms which half the reindeer are being fed:
"They're very unpleasant...And you throw up. The first four times I tried it, I became comatose. Then you wake up, throw up, and you don't know where you are, or how long you've been asleep. The sixth time, I started to chant like a Tibetan monk."
Sounds like it's time for a collaboration with La Monte Young.
Also closing this weekend at the Hamburger Bahnhof is Some Scenic Views, an exhibition of video art by Philipp Lachenmann (yes, there are two Lachenmanns). I usually lack the patience for video installations, but I was entranced by his SHU (Blue Hour Lullaby), a short loop filming the California Correctional Institutional in the Mojave. The video shows the prison from a distance, framed in an austere, beautiful desert landscape; though the film is sped up to show a full day in twelve minutes, the effect is that of slow hypnosis.
As day turns to night, tens of twinkling stars appear in the sky, and the viewer gradually realizes that they are moving, and blinking. Lachenmann has spliced the prison shot with film of airplanes in approach to runways in Los Angeles, New York, and Frankfurt, producing a majestic, almost science fiction-like imagery. Of course, there is the political subtext of the static prison in juxtaposition with the mythic sense of freedom in flight. But a curator's note points out the work's relation to Caspar David Friedrich, which is apt. SHU conjures less the politics of imprisonment than the subject tackled by Friedrich in his paintings: the skewed relation of man and nature, an uneasy balance of isolation and repose.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Orchestral programming is my fantasy baseball. Or at least I think so, because I’m not entirely sure what fantasy baseball is. So when the New Big Three announce their seasons, I pay close attention. Whether or not the big orchestras of L.A., Chicago, and New York are the best in the country, they are currently the most newsworthy. New York and L.A. are announcing their third years with new music directors, and Chicago will soon announce its second season with Muti, assuming that everything pans out.
I hope that L.A. and Chicago bring it, because New York did not. The momentum of the past two seasons, artistically and thematically, seems to have ground almost to a halt. It seemed like Gilbert's first two seasons were just the beginning of a attempt to shift the New York Phil's programming away from the 1920s-1950s codified overture/concerto/symphony or overture/ audience-unfriendly new piece/symphony towards something grander and more befitting of the cultural heritage of Lincoln Center. But this coming season looks like conservatism masked as cutting-edge.
For starters, a list.
World Premieres: 5 (by Neikrug, Corigliano, Lindberg, Lunski, Robin-who-is-not-me), 3 on regular programming (non-CONTACT)
U.S. or New York Premieres: 2 (Ades, Jarrell), 1 on regular programming
Relatively new pieces: 10 (2 Lindberg, Gruber, Stockhausen, Schnittke, 2 Boulez, Glass, Stucky, Henze), 7 regular programming *I may have counted this wrong
In the ongoing 2010-2011 season, the total of works performed by the NY Phil by living composers is 17. Next year, including recently-deceased composers (Stockhausen, Schnittke), that number is...17.
The measure of artistic programming is not in how many new pieces your season has, but it's a start. More problematic is that Gilbert seems to be ceding any attempts to create intellectual programs which match newer music smartly with the classics. Last season we got Sibelius and Lindberg, which just works. This year, we'll have Lindberg with Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, or with Prokofiev and Bartok. These aren't clever pairings, they're concessions to the overture-concerto-symphony format. I am sick to death of potpourri programs which sandwich the new between warhorses, making everything sound worse than it actually is.
And then one of my pet peeves. The Mahler symphonies are alone! When you play Mahler 2, and Mahler 6, you have the perfect opportunity to pair them with shorter pieces. It can create terrifyingly engaging results. I'm glad to see Ades's Polaris with Mahler 9, but what about those other two programs? Yes, Mahler 6 will fill up your whole program, but we should demand more out of Gilbert's Phil than what we are getting in every other city in the world.
CONTACT! also hasn't gained any ground; if anything, it's still shifting away from the promise it offered in its first season. Not only has it remained a paltry two programs, but Gilbert has conceded one of them to David Robertson. Robertson is a brilliant conductor, but CONTACT! should really be Gilbert's opportunity to offer something to the city. And bringing in IRCAM opens up the whole American composers vs. international composers can of worms. This is something I've brought up before, and I'm not sure of the answer. On the one hand, I would love to see the Phil program a Nico Muhly, Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli CONTACT! concert. But you can hear all those composers' music in the city already, on a fairly regular basis. Certainly there is no shortage of Muhly on the streets of Manhattan (isn't he bopping around Brooklyn or something?). There's not a whole lot of IRCAM action rampaging around New York.
So do we remain faithful to America and perform music which we might be able to hear elsewhere in New York, or do we import things that are all over Germany and Paris but missing at home? Put it this way: I am in a city now that plays hardcore modernism all day, every day. I would kill for some New York downtown stuff at the Philharmonie. So maybe importing isn't such a terrible thing, if it adds a bit of diversity and comforts the homesick ex-pat.
Back to the Phil: What of our guests? Frank Peter Zimmermann, an engaging violinist with a killer Ligeti concerto, is being brought in not for that but for the usual fare of Bach, Beethoven, Berg, and Dvorak. I don't entirely buy David Zinman's Beethoven festival, which promises the PR nonsense of bringing "the listener as close as possible to the composer's original conception as performed by a modern orchestra" (Richard Taruskin would have a field day with that), and pairs the symphonies with apparently thematically similar works--concertos by Hartmann (yay!), Barber, and Stravinsky.
Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta return to placate the old folks; I'm excited for Kurt Masur's Shostakovich 13; and, finally, Philip Glass gets to make his debut with the Phil. I'm not entirely sure why orchestra members are needed in addition to the Glass Ensemble to perform Koyaanisqatsi, but whatever.
Another concern: This year will mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The New York Phil, Lincoln Center, and an anonymous New York family commissioned John Adams to write On the Transmigration of Souls in the wake of the attacks, and it was premiered a year later. The orchestra made a recording with Maazel, and the piece went on to win multiple Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize. It is almost insane that they didn't perform it on the fifth anniversary of 9/11; how could they miss the opportunity now? Their season doesn't start until September 21, but it would be a profound statement to open their gala with that work. Or even to do a free memorial concert for victims' families on 9/11. Right now the best we've got is this Corigliano commission in late September/early October, which already sounds treacly ("a setting of meditations on war and peace"? paired with Dvorak 7?).
Of course, there is plenty to look forward to. I'm excited to see that Gilbert will be taking up the violin in performances with the orchestra and in chamber concerts, an opportunity I imagine we haven't seen since the Bernstein days (and a comparison I'm sure Gilbert is happy to make). And the finale of the season, the massive undertaking of Gruppen, Boulez's Rituel, and the ingenious additions of the Act I Don Giovanni finale (in its theatrical simultaneity, a precursor to Stockhausen) and The Unanswered Question. But this season we got two epics--Kraft and the upcoming Cunning Little Vixen. So why only one large undertaking in 2011-12? (Touring probably will take its toll.)
I'm still retaining optimism about Gilbert's Phil. Let's not forget, after all, that Gruppen's last New York performance was in 1965.