Friday, August 9, 2013

critic's notebook

...and we're back. Not for long, alas: I spent a great weekend recently taking in a few performances in the Berkshires, and thus have decided to give the old fashioned review thing another go-around. Seated O will probably go dormant again afterwards; I would strongly advise checking my Twitter feed for updates regarding my writing in other places. When the NC concert season starts up in September I'll mostly be attending without reviewing; there's a lot of excellent stuff coming to town, but now I've got a dissertation to write, so it won't be much of a blogging year. And now, without ado:

Thursday, August 1 - Seiji Ozawa Hall
Mark Morris Dance Group and TMC Opera
Britten, Curlew River
Purcell, Dido and Aeneas

There is a weird energy to  music and nature at Tanglewood; they always seem to eerily complement each other. Thus, within a warm and generally pleasant weekend, we had a bleak and wholly appropriate drizzle to introduce the world of Britten and Purcell. Curlew River, a work with which I was previously unfamiliar, is the composer's attempt at merging 1960s music theater with Noh practices. It belongs, I think, to a larger group of postwar/tonal European operas that demonstrate deliberate connections to other cultures and nations -- I'm thinking of Henze's El Cimarròn in particular -- which are better about handling exoticism than previous attempts, but still kind of bad. Mark Morris, properly, drained Britten's drama of its Orientalist symbolism, bleaching exoticism and leaving behind a clever and haunting pageant. The uniformly excellent singers of the Tanglewood Music Center performed Morris's light, simple choreography. Britten's music is acutely eerie -- repeated, corkscrew horn passages, shakuhachi-like flute gestures, and flickering vocal lines that peak upwards, vaguely in the style of Noh singing -- and Morris's staging meshed well. Paper origami and a simple umbrella were transformed into powerful props, as the singer-dancers created the rocking motion of the sea, blew out a sail, and placed paper cranes at the grave of a madwoman's dead son. The TMC instrumentalists played with shocking brilliance.

At one point during Curlew River, a descending, tutti scale is repeated again and again, forming an endlessly unspooling lament, over which the life and death of a young boy is discussed. It foreshadowed, of course, the teary ending of Dido and Aeneas, which complemented the Britten historically and musically. Mark Morris's staging has been better discussed elsewhere, and I am not a dance scholar by any means; but I've long loved his realization of Dido on DVD, and was excited to see it in person. After a year of obsession with The Rite, I was at least somewhat prepared to think about dance. Morris's two-dimensional vision seems to connect backwards to the frieze of Nijinsky's Faun, which accrues further significance in both works' hyper-attention to sexuality. Morris's Dido exudes sex, from the drag gestures of the stomping sailor's chorus, to the loin-directed motions of Dido when she speaks of her pain, to the bawdy humor of the jealous sorceress (Morris's use of the same dancer for Dido and sorceress transforms Dido into a split-personality, a queen who seems to deliberately stymie her own attempts at love). And most importantly, as in the Britten, Morris's staging is incredibly musical -- the gestures of the dancers not only perfectly match the rhythms of the music, but seem to actually analyze it in real time, bringing out moments that one might not hear in the score. Morris acts here like an acute conductor, able to bring out new sounds in an old staple (normally, he actually conducts, though this time around it was handled with aplomb by Stefan Asbury). The TMC players, in the loft behind the stage, played with polished buoyancy; overall the singing was great, though less impressive than in the Britten. Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, featuring the TMC, is this weekend, and I wish I could be there to see it -- if they can do Britten and Purcell this well, I really want to hear Lachenmann and Benjamin.

Saturday, August 3
Koussevitsky Music Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Dutoit, conductor

Morning rehearsal:
-Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps
-Stravinsky, Fireworks
-Dvorak, Cello Concerto featuring Yo-Yo Ma

Evening performance:
-Ravel, Pavane for a Dead Princess
-Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 featuring Lang Lang
-Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe (complete score)

Ordinarily it would not be kosher to review a rehearsal, but two things drove me to basically have to talk about Saturday's morning dress for Sunday's concert (which I couldn't attend): my year-long Rite of Spring odyssey, and the enormously impressive performance that the BSO gave of the ballet. The overall clarity of the playing was astonishing, especially given the outdoor performance and the rehearsal setting. Dutoit crafted a laid-back interpretation, less pounding than motoric. The chug recalled Eliot's comparison of the ballet to "the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels"; the snorting bassoons of the Augurs evoked a factory blowing out puffs of steam. Woodwind solos were eminently lyrical; the fluttering of the Spring Rounds was the sonic equivalent of dancers on pointe.

Philosophically, this is not the kind of Rite I prefer. I sympathize more with the Taruskin idea of attempting to get back to the primitivist, dangerous, Nicholas Roerich-esque Rite; the one that Gergiev and the Mariinsky deliver on a good day. But I can't deny how good this kind of Rite sounds. The fact is that the shimmering landscape that orchestras like the BSO deliver at their best is the Rite of today, the result of a culture of excerpt perfection (if you graduate from any conservatory, you have probably mastered the hardest parts of The Rite).

So why not make the most of it? Why not create the controlled frenzy that an orchestra composed of perfectionists can deliver? The downside is that this Rite does not accrue the same violence over its thirty-minute span that it can in a different approach; the upside is that you can hear everything, and it all sounds amazing. The former can at times be revelatory, at others dull; the latter, in this case, was thrilling.

Fireworks acquired a strange energy following The Rite; it's often dismissed as post-Rimsky orchestral fluff, but its opening polyrhythms somehow sounded more uncanny than those of The Rite (it is, after all, much less of a classic). Yo-Yo Ma gave an impassioned, technically brilliant performance of the Dvorak, but the perfection that he has accomplished in his career often lacks illumination; I wanted to hear something new, or weird, but I didn't. And hearing The Rite as an opener, alas, cast a long shadow over the rest of the morning.

The Rite actually cast a shadow over the evening, as well; after encountering the lucidity with which the BSO could play it, I was particularly looking forward to their Daphnis. It delivered. Dutoit's approach, again crisp and relaxed, gave the sensual music the effect of a series of waves that never quite crested. The approach felt entirely natural, as if the orchestra were simply poring forth sound. But all the musicians -- from the ecstatic singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to the muscular basses of the Danse guerrière to the languorous flute solos throughout -- were supernaturally attuned to the feel of Ravel's music.

The BSO's Pavane was equal to its Daphnis. The problem of the evening was the Beethoven -- or, rather, Lang Lang's performance. I'm not a big fan of hating on Lang Lang, though I've done it before/ Too much anti-LL criticism is couched in a smug, nationalist superiority that tilts towards racism. Lang Lang's technique is great, and I often love the bright, expansive sound that he gets out of the instrument.

The problem for me is the uniformity of that tone; I want to hear more kinds of sounds from his playing. I kept wishing for him to puncture his uniformly rich timbre with dryness, brittleness -- something to disrupt the flow, to draw attention to particular musical ideas and make me think about Beethoven anew. After around twenty minutes -- the First Piano Concerto is a very long piece for what it is, and seems much longer when given this kind of One Size Fits All performance -- Lang Lang's tone became monotonous. Many who criticize the pianist's Beethoven and Mozart tend to harp on the idea that his playing is better suited to Chopin or Liszt, setting up this false dichotomy between the solemnity and intellectual rigor required for the former and the virtuosity for the latter. The issue for me is not that Lang Lang's Beethoven lacks some kind of German solemnity or Teutonic searching -- I really don't think that's something required for every Austrian piano concerto out there -- but that it lacks interesting ideas overall.

And honestly, it is deeply upsetting when a terribly enthusiastic audience just goes nuts after a mediocre performance. Thus the name of this blog.

The weekend of TMC and BSO was a reminder of the enormous faculties of orchestral musicians. These are the folks that should really be profiled by major newspapers. Their lives are interesting, and the playing remarkable.

Footnote: Bang on a Can Marathon!
Alas, I could only sample the BOAC summer marathon at Mass MOCA, sandwiched briefly between morning and evening BSO on Saturday. I heard a great performance of Julia Wolfe's Fuel for strings, which fuses the twitchiness of Shaker Loops with the acerbic sonic clouds of Xenakis; it is an entrancing work, alternating between trembling Romantic gestures and fierce extended string techniques. Bill Ryan's brassy Drive was also well-played, with engaging rhythmic sputters and a killer backbeat, though it lagged somewhat towards its end.

Onyx, a work by the late Eleanor Hovda -- a composer with which, I admit, I was completely unfamiliar -- was startling in comparison to what came before, a respite from the relentless drive. Strings tremeloed softly, with quizzical little effects popping up in the winds. In Lachenmann, the accrual of extended techniques is deliberately alienating; here, weird slap-tongues and breathing sounds drew the listener in. A furious climax, in which the bodies of the string instruments were wildly shaking, dissolved into a spectral mist that lingered for the rest of the weekend.

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