Sunday, July 31, 2011

thoughts on an experiment

So I definitely made the right choice on Friday. Not only were there five different concerts all worth seeing, as mentioned, but they were also all one-offs: the Poul Ruders opera, the Burgundy Stain session, etc.

Anyway, I went to Gabriel Kahane's and Alisa Weilerstein's concert at Caramoor and I am very glad I did. Full disclosure: I used to work in the Caramoor box office. So I'm not really going to review the concert--Weilerstein's Bach suites, as expected, were excellent, and I love Kahane's songs--but since not much ink has been spilled about their collaborative piece, which received its New York premiere on Friday, I thought it would be worth talking a bit about that.

Kahane wrote Little Sleep's Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight last year as a commission from a couple of patrons--Stuart and Linda Nelson--who asked him to write a piece for Weilerstein. Kahane and Weilerstein have toured around a bit, doing the Bach/Songs/Bach/Sleep's Head thing in a few different cities before making what seemed to be the last stop in Katonah. It's a good idea for a program, though it would also have been interesting to hear them team up on a Brahms or Beethoven sonata (the encore, an arrangement of Kahane's Meritt Parkway for the two of them, made me really want to hear all of his songs arranged for cello and piano).

Sleep's Head is settled uncomfortably--and intriguingly--between song cycle and something else, and it's hard to tell what that something else is. It sets a rather beautiful, somewhat surreal multi-part poem by Galway Kinnel. The cycle alternates between straight songs for Kahane's voice and piano, with cello thrown in, and extended interludes for the two instruments. Everything feels quite fluid, but not without a sense of compositional rigor--the instrumental sections are couched in classical forms (Kahane mentioned to me after the concert the idea of "inadvertent neo-classicism"). The musical language reminded me of the Ives of the Concord Sonata, at once languid and austere. There are some great cello effects, and a couple awesome moments where it's just Kahane's voice and Weilerstein's pizzicato -- including a passacaglia where the pizz lays down the bass and Kahane floats wonderfully on top.

It definitely feels like the first step towards something, a leap into the dark. What I'm interested in--and what interests me about this generation of composers--is how these leaps were made. It's pretty clear that the reason that this piece exists is not out of some genre precedent. Last night I heard a spectacular account of the Brahms Double Concerto, courtesy of Pablo Heras-Casado, Jennifer Koh, Weilerstein, and the Orch of St. Luke's. It is a similarly beguiling idea as Sleep's Head -- a concerto for two instruments? -- but Brahms had as examples the Baroque concerto grosso, the Sinfonia Concertante of Mozart, the Triple Concerto of Beethoven. As one of the first self-consciously classicists, Brahms knew his models. Even if the genesis for the piece spun out of more personal matters (an attempt to reconcile his relationship with Joseph Joachim), it's hard to believe that he also wasn't interested in the piece as a neo-classical project/experiment as well.

If there are precedents for the combination of two instruments and voice in Sleep's Head, you'd have to seek them out, and the links they bear to this work are fleeting at best. The only one that comes to mind are Brahms' Op. 91 songs for alto, viola, and piano, and that's still a wholly different kind of work from Kahane's (and, oddly enough, another spinning-out of Joachim relations).

So even though this isn't spectral or atonal or electronic, it's still experimental, still breaking ground. Kahane is experimenting in the literal sense, delving into a for-the-most-part-unprecedented form, drawing on his training and the artistry of Weilerstein to craft a new piece of music. People who have accepted the false, Hegelian Romantic/Modernist view of musical history--that there's some kind of line of musical progress, where Stockhausen is more progressive than Britten and where serialism is somehow more advanced than tonality--would accept that experimental music only encompasses things that surpass Lachenmann and Sciarrino in hyper-notated effects and hyper-mathematicized forms. That is one road of experiment, but it is not the only one.

Oddly enough, though, the big experiment -- the idea of a piece for voice, cello, and piano -- isn't really the part that lays entirely in Kahane's hands. Those two patrons proposed the idea, and Kahane ran with it. (Not quite, apparently: according to Gabriel, the patrons suggested a sonata and then he came up with the idea for the hybrid) As I've been writing this, I've been listening to Timothy Andres' recomposition of Mozart's Coronation Concerto. It's brilliant and audacious and seems to be the definition of how today's composers approach classicism -- but, as Andres notes, someone else gave him the idea.

I often wonder about where the inspiration comes from, and it's a big musicology question. Bernd Zimmermann developed an extremely complex idea of musical time by reading Ezra Pound and James Joyce, but in his writing it's never entirely clear whether he was truly inspired to create these ideas by Pound's conception of time, or whether he had these ideas brewing and found Pound a convenient justification for his new direction. It's usually a mutual process. The classic example of this is Schoenberg, who takes the notion of Brahms being a kind of secret progressive, the underground progenitor for atonality. In reality, yes, Brahms was a forward-thinking composer, but Schoenberg is really just using Brahms to justify his own stylistic leaps in a classical past.

Who are the people who created the set of circumstances whereby we can hear a version of Mozart's Coronation Concerto that is so faithfully irreverent, or a strange pop song cycle/sonata
hybrid? One big answer, I think -- and one that is fairly obvious but not often discussed -- is teachers. Kahane mentions in an interview in the Caramoor program book that the musicologist Rose Subotnik suggested that he apply postmodern literary criticism to music. Subotnik is one of the many great academics who have helped explode the primacy of the Germanic musical canon in recent decades. It's not insignificant that Kahane learned about musical history from a New Musicologist, or that Nico Muhly has written about Edward Said. The composers who Andres or Judd Greenstein studied with at Yale are not the kind of composers who preach a fidelity to a specific style or set of compositional techniques (feel free to prove me wrong). I imagine that, unlike composers going to school in the '60s or '70s, this generation did not learn that musical or global history is something fixed and canonized. They probably learned that it shouldn't always be viewed with a Western eye, too.

And probably one of the main reasons they hate to put terms on what they're doing -- Olivia Giovetti's The New Canon on Q2 is a noble attempt to lock down what's going on out there -- is that they never had to. Stockhausen came up with a million names for his music partly as a defensive mechanism, the same reason why Schoenberg made such a big deal out of twelve-tone music. They wanted to show themselves as both rebels and adherents to a greatness of the past, but also to justify to critics and their predecessors that what they were doing was important, that it could stand with Beethoven in the annals of history. I can't imagine that Kahane had to defend why he wanted to write a musical and not a string quartet; I can't imagine Greenstein having to defend his love for hip-hop. I think we're beyond that ego trip at this point, and polemics have faded away when there's no one left to polemicize against. *Side note: the lack of something to rage against doesn't make music any worse. Most music before Beethoven wasn't about composers fighting stylistic battles or warring against their forefathers.*

So if we're going to throw around a term for what these people are doing, I would suggest (and only suggest! you don't need to use it, I probably won't) postclassic or postclassical. Alt-classical, besides being an abomination on the ears and minds, implies that there is one way of doing classical music, and this is the alternative. That's never been true; even when classical music performance seemed at its most codified, from let's say the 1930s to 1970s, there were many ways to present a concert. Classical music is a set of practices encompassing hundreds of years and tens of thousands of composers. It's not that that new guys are staking out a place that is an alternative to the Avery Fisher or Carnegie, because many of them have or will play there. It's that the way that they approach Classical Music is inherently not-classical -- it is not overly reverent, not worshipful, not dogmatic. They love the stuff, but they don't love it in the scary way that Schoenberg does. They present it as something living, not something that exists in the ether: friends to hang out with, not gods to pay heed to.

Muhly makes an analogy that I can't locate right now -- a version of it is here -- that genre can be seen like a citizenship or nationality. Classical music is where he's "from," but he travels to other places, lives in other places, has a summer home in some places and a winter home in others. This makes perfect sense for a composer who has actually lived in a ton of places, speaks multiple languages, and studied postcolonialism. It also makes sense for a generation of composers who aren't interested in style so much as styles, where the meeting points between classical and whatever else are ambiguous and impermanent.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

judgment day

So: July 29th is cursed. Yes, you heard me, cursed.

About a month ago, I started looking into concerts that were going on in New York when I would be in town. New opera by Poul Ruders at Lincoln Center?

Sounds promising (although what is up with that libretto?).

Ooh, Gabriel Kahane and Alisa Weilerstein at Caramoor, too?

Awesome. Probably the two best-looking things in the NY area for the second half of July.

Aaand, they're on the same night.

But that isn't all! As I investigated other venues -- in search of other potentially-interesting things to fill out the evenings that aren't July 29th -- I began to detect an eerie pattern.

Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman, at Le Poisson Rouge, doing one of his Burgundy Stain Sessions? As in, this kind of thing?

Oh, it's July 29th.

Well, at least there's the International Keyboard Festival in town -- what's the best thing they've got going on this summer? Marc-Andre Hamelin, recipient of an NY Times profile this weekend, doing not just Liszt, but Berg and Stockhausen? This guy?

Well, it's a two-week festival, I'm sure it's not... wait. It's July 29th.

At least there's some interesting stuff going on at the Stone, even if they don't have AC. New Albion is in residence? Pauline Oliveros is doing a concert, and it's on the 28th? Phew. And Sarah Cahill's giving a recital? Her of the pianistic brilliance?

With a new Paul Dresher piece -- that sounds even better!

But ah, of course: July 29.

Finally, I check Q2's new New Music Calendar, a compendium of all the new stuff going on in New York. Nothing too interesting, except, what's this? Ted Hearne, the guy who did such a heck of a job on those Katrina Balads?

The July 29th phantom creeps up again, but this time he is defeated! Q2 lists it as the 29th, but apparently it is actually tonight (if only I knew about it sooner, and it weren't 95 degrees).

So, to conclude: five concerts on July 29th along with one that pretended to be on July 29th. Please, New York institutions, try to spread it out next time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"klassische musik"

A picture of the Air Berlin flight magazine's listing for their classical channel. An undiscovered Britten manuscript, perhaps? (a Billy Budd medley?)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

some departing thoughts

So: today is my last day in Berlin. Here are some slightly random departing thoughts; I'll probably have some more.

What The Classical U.S. Can Learn From Germany:

I can't be sure how much of a difference it makes to have young, attractive ushers working at concert halls and opera houses. But it makes a difference; not being hounded by elderly volunteers, like in the States, is great. And it automatically makes the concert-going experience feel youthful and lively. Of course, when you have young people, you have to pay them; and Germany charges 2 Euro for a program, so I imagine that's where they make up the difference. I'm not sure this isn't a bad idea (though I think we would have a very tough time convincing Americans to suddenly start paying for program books)--it would encourage people to spend less of their concert-going time reading instead of listening.

What The Classical U.S. Probably Can't Learn From Germany:
*The Infrastructure

My mind is constantly boggled by the sheer amount of stuff devoted to classical music here. I would estimate that around a third of the many posters filling the U-Bahn and train stations advertise classical music—sometimes the sketchier “Prague Chamber Orchestra of the Republic of Prague”-type stuff, but often the radio orchestras, opera companies, and occasional new music festival. Several times I’ve actually found out about a concert from seeing a poster and gone to it (something which never happens in the U.S.). And at every concert I go to at the Philharmonie or Konzerthaus, there are at least five or six people handing out fliers or brochures for other venues and concert series. Who are these people? Who pays for this? It’s a bit stupefying (and useful, too: one of the things handed out free, a small magazine whose name escapes me, lists all the concerts in Berlin in a given month and actually has interesting interviews and criticism).

I really don’t know anything about how funding works here, how much of each orchestra or organization’s budget comes from the state, so I have no idea how much of this startling infrastructure is because of a government commitment to the arts. But it all seems to guarantee that even the more outlandish concerts are close to sold-out. I’ve yet to see a Berlin Phil concert with the hall less than 5/6 or 7/8 full; every single concert with their music director sells out far ahead of time, even when he’s conducting Boulez. New music festivals draw a large and diverse audience; chamber concerts filled with mostly Schoenberg works, the kind of evenings that, if attended, would be coughed out of existence in New York, often sell out (and are filled with the older people who hate this kind of thing in America). Nothing really seems to get the crazy marketing push that the New York Phil will do when they’re programming Lindberg or Ligeti. People show up for world premieres and seem to genuinely enjoy them.

So I’m not sure if there’s a “lesson” to be gained from all that. You can’t shift a musical culture to that degree. The sense to which Germans feel that Germany is the home of classical music—the omnipresent statues of composers, the monolithic concert halls integrated into Berlin’s cityscape, the common knowledge of random tidbits of new music trivia—is something totally unique. I’m not sure if the interest in the new exists outside of a progressive city like Berlin, but it does seem that Germany does not have as much of a high culture crisis (or an invented high culture crisis) as the U.S. Yes, the German media occasionally laments the lack of youth interest in classical music, but it’s mostly hot wind in comparison to the much more tangible problems in America (they also lament the incapacities of a government much more functional than ours).

I’ve talked about it before, but I think the key demographic which we lost in the U.S. was the 30-to-45 crowd. We can now market the New York Phil to young people hip to Ligeti; it might be too late to attract subscribers from the generation who grew up listening to ACDC, with The Beatles as high culture (the oldest generation, who still swear by classical music and make up that graying audience, grew up listening to jazz, with Toscanini as high culture; and I’m not attempting to make a highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy here, I’m just riffing on listening habits). I get the feeling that young, wealthy American parents—the people who would be the subscriber and donor base in the future—don’t see classical music as an essential part of their cultural diet.

Germany, or Berlin at least, doesn’t really seem to have this problem. There is a full gradient of ages, from the students to the young-wealthy-and-hip to the not-quite-middle-aged up through the very, very old (who do a very impressive job of not coughing); no demographic really seems missing. Again, I think this is an age-old infrastructure thing: the audience will renew itself.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Today marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Arnold Schoenberg. Above, his enchanting 1921 arrangement of Christmas music. Below, a brief clip of the 1974 ceremony in his honor at the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, with comments by Ronald Schoenberg and violinist (and Schoenberg's brother-in-law) Rudolf Kolisch.

The last thing he said, on 13 July 1951, was: "Harmonie."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

two girls, and a boy

Photo (c) Paul Green

Peter Eotvos’s 1998 Three Sisters is a remarkably effective opera. Though I have seen plenty of new operas this year, Three Sisters was only the third on “the big stage”: Joneleit’s Metanoia in the fall, Two Boys, and now this. Throwing an opera up in a full-size theater brings with it a different set of expectations as well as a different set of difficulties, and I only had passing familiarity with Eotvos’s opera before, having listened to the recording and glanced at a synopsis. But Three Sisters, in Rosamund Gilmore’s lucid production, immediately sucks you in, providing an engaging, and often wrenching, hundred minutes.

Eötvös bases his opera off of the Chekhov play, a somewhat-meandering tale of a family who grew up in Moscow but has spent their recent years in a small, isolated town; they aspire to return to the big city, but fail. The Russian libretto, by Eötvös and Claus Henneberg, completely reorganizes Chekhov’s work into three “sequences,” each of which focuses on a member of the family: the child-like Irina, the failed professor Andrej, and the adulterous Mascha (though the play revolves around the three sisters, Eötvös chose to focus on the brother Andrej over the eldest sister Olga, who acts as the batty matriarch in the opera).

Eötvös’s big change is that each of the sequences, essentially scenes, takes place outside of time, thus eliminating any sense of chronology; we often see the same events, like the breaking of a clock, occurring multiple times in slightly different ways. The effect is of a hiccupping timeline, with the destabilization of the bourgeois household a constant, cyclical presence, rather than a gradual linear process. Characters fall in and out of love, have affairs, celebrate their birthdays, but we’re never quite sure when we are, creating an enchanting, almost fairy tale-like dizzinesss.

The uneasiness of the drama is fully supported by a wheezing, intriguing, and often gorgeous score. Eötvös opens the opera with the three sisters sing a heaving, thick trio over the haunting sound of an accordion. With two separate ensembles—a small group in the pit, with different individual instruments representing and accompanying different characters, and a full orchestra on-stage behind the action—Eötvös creates compelling spatial effects, with trembling orchestral waves and eerie clockwork rhythmic patterns. Scurrying instrumental licks and uncanny timbres echo Boulez, but with a more heightened sense of operatic tension. The vocal writing is inventive and sounds extremely difficult, especially the shrieking of a drunken doctor (boldly sung by Rouwen Hunther). Much of the work is reminiscent of Zimmermann’s Soldaten, from the fragmented narrative to one passage featuring the rhythmic clinking of dishes.

Rosamund Gilmore’s new staging is a coup, not only matching Eötvös’s vision but enhancing it—the kind of production where the scenic elements further bring out those of the music. Movement is at the heart of the production, with numerous passages where the entire cast suddenly grinds to a halt, then hiccups forward, then freezes again: a stop-start pattern which echoes Eötvös’s musical trickery. A bed hangs from the ceiling, and one of the sisters sits on it as two soldiers swing it back and forth, a witty evocation of love divided. The characters often seem like chaotic marionettes, staggering around the stage as if pulled by strings in no particular direction. The set is a dilapidated gray, with the stage orchestra under a large cupola, and various Russian tropes scattered throughout—a rocking chair on top of a wall, a violin on a stand, bowler hats everywhere.

If the smart staging and sharp music wasn’t enough, a brilliant cast sealed the deal. There wasn’t a single weak link, not an easy task given the devilish, virtuosic music. The two Staatskapelle ensembles, conducted by Julien Selmkour and Joachim Tschiedel (I can imagine that conducting simultaneously for something like Gruppen is difficult; how insane must it be to do for an entire opera?), have never sounded better. This was my first evening at the Staatsoper’s new music INFEKTION! Festival, with Henze’s Phaedra and Hosokawa’s Matsukaze coming up: I can’t imagine a better kick-off.

Friday, July 1, 2011

two boys postgame

Nico Muhly's Two Boys at the English National Opera
The Washington Post, 6/24/2011 (in print on 6/27/2011)

I can't stop thinking about Two Boys! Not just the opera itself, which made a powerful effect. But the reviews of the opera, the process out of which the opera came, the role of opera in our century and what a bankrupt argument it is to talk about the role of opera in our century. And the fact, most importantly, that opera has been anything, from revue to Singspiel to Einstein on the Beach to Gesamtkunstwerk to bel canto to intermedio, and can be anything, from Infinito Nero to Anna Nicole to L'amour du Loin.

There are many, many great operas being written today; they just aren't always making it to full-size opera houses. This season alone, I have heard tremendous new(ish) works by Sciarrino, Stockhausen, Haapanen, and Ronchetti (the best of the bunch)--and I'll be hearing promising new stuff by Henze, Hosokawa, and Eötvös soon. The fact is that the successful way to make a new opera is not to commission a big piece for a big hall. Though I wish the Met commissioned twenty or thirty new operas and put them all in their repertory, the best new operas are mostly monodramas or smaller works--a handful of singers, a handful of new-music specialists, a carefully-guided theatrical team to create a set of visuals to best compliment the music. In a smaller hall, on a smaller scale, everyone is relieved of the crushing expectation of having to make history, of having to finally write "The Great American (or Whatever) Opera," and that is where magic happens.

It seems that Two Boys' greatest hitch was the expectations surrounding it, the so-called "hype" inflated by the very people who then said the opera didn't live up to it. Its other hitch, for me, was that it doesn't quite hit upon what I think is Nico Muhly's best skillset as a composer. I hold that Muhly's best music comes out of deep, organic collaborations -- his relationships with musicians like Valgeir Sigurðsson, Sam Amidon, Nadia Sirota, and others. I wrote an entire fifty-page thesis on this a little while ago, and I think what is so compelling about the triptych of works on Mothertongue, and also some of the music on Speaks Volumes (especially Keep in Touch), is that they present a different idea of what a composer can be. Though Muhly is ostensibly booked as "the composer" in those pieces, with his name on the cover of the album, the works feel much more open-ended: a composer starts it and someone else finishes, with others adding their voices along the way.

Valgeir's compositional voice (as producer) is omnipresent through both Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue; I can't imagine enjoying a piece like Keep in Touch if it were played by a violist who wasn't Nadia Sirota; and The Only Tune simply can't be done without Sam Amidon. It's a move away from the egotistical, quasi-Romantic vision of the composer as Master (or, in the cult of German genius, the composer as Hero) -- Muhly acknowledges within his music that his does not have to be the only voice; there are other people just as intelligent and creative who can play in his musical landscapes.

I'm not saying that no composer has ever done something like this before, but Muhly's approach feels fresh and invigorating. I don't subscribe to the model that says that great new music must be "progressive" or "experimental," pushing supposed boundaries in some supposed way (these are antiquated facades of Romanticism disguised as modernism), but Muhly's collaborative works are his best because they feel so new and different. Whether or not they are good because they are progressive, they are, for me, the direction in which I would want Muhly to progress.

I'm not sure how much that kind of collaboration took place, or could have taken place, with Two Boys. It's evident that Craig Lucas and Muhly worked together about as closely as a librettist and composer can, but the composer-performer relationship is a different beast from the composer-librettist relationship, and an entirely different beast from Muhly's composer-performer relationship in his collaborative works, which is more like a composer-performer/composer relationship (try to follow me here). There's a reason why so many composers turned to Literaturoper in the 20th century, taking spoken plays directly as their librettos. It's not so much that there are no good librettists anymore, but that it's difficult for good composers, in a century when composers have significantly more rights than Mozart or Rossini ever did, to cede that kind of control over their musical dramas (It's also worth saying that the days of Mozart and Rossini were also the days when people did not consider that a composer's first opera had to to stand in the Hall of the Mountain King with Wozzeck and Peter Grimes and Tristan -- those Halls did not yet exist). Muhly is better than most about ceding control, and I think that Lucas's libretto is quite clever and suitable for the opera, but something hiccuped a little bit along the way.

And "along the way" is an important part of this whole thing, because the process that this opera went through--whether it emerged stronger or weaker because of it--sounds like the standard protocol for any new opera we'll see grace the Met stage. A commission, multiple workshops, an out-of-town premiere: essentially a multiyear process even though the bulk of the opera was probably written in a much shorter amount of time. This is not a bad thing: we do not want to see the Met's "big commission" fail on a big scale. I would much rather have this extended, probably somewhat torturous, process take place than see Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna fail on a massive stage (let's face it, it was not just rejected by Gelb because it was in French) and watch it quickly shuttled away after a few partially-sold performances and hear everyone declare the Met's commissioning project a dud. Gelb has been careful and crafty about this. The fact that the Golijov and Torke commissions seem to have evaporated into the ether just vindicates his attitude. We cannot trust a great composer to turn in a great work on time, and huge credit to Muhly for not only finishing Two Boys on deadline, but also continuing to write commissions and other music for just about everybody with an instrument. He is also a composer who is more than happy to edit, a clear prerequisite for anyone going through this process (I imagine his work with Glass gave a clear model for this).

What was fascinating about reading all of the twenty-plus reviews of Two Boys was seeing what each critic thinks makes, and doesn't make, a successful new opera. I don't expect a classic to be erected on the spot, and it is ridiculous to think that Muhly's first opera would be his best. What is most promising is that we already have another one on the way--Dark Sisters, premiering in New York in the fall--suggesting that there exists the potential for composers to once again be like Mozart or Verdi, with dozens of operas to his/her name. No, Apollo et Hyacintus is not the greatest work of art, but we don't just Mozart solely on his first opera just as we don't judge Beethoven on his first symphony (but we do judge Beethoven, as an opera composer, on the basis of his singular, flawed Fidelio. Thus, we disparage Beethoven as an opera composer, whereas we don't diss Britten for Paul Bunyan or think of Verdi as the somewhat-gifted composer of Oberto).

Unfortunately, we don't have the infrastructure, or the intoxicating interest in the new that the opera world of the 18th and early 19th century had--what was actually less of an interest in the new than a lack of caring about the old -- which allowed Rossini to dash off 39 operas for a dozen different houses and retire at age 37 (he had already written 30 or so by the time he was as old as Muhly is now). But Muhly is prolific and people are eager to hear his music. It is entirely possible that we may have to wait twenty years, and even twenty operas, before we hear Muhly's equivalent to Don Giovanni. It's probably worth the wait.