Monday, January 31, 2011

eclectic music

Upon my return from Dresden, I had the fortune to sample a smattering of Ultraschall, a yearly Berlin new music festival produced by Deutschlandradio Kultur and rbb kulturadio. With up to four concerts a day, it was much too big for me to cover completely, but I chose carefully--five total programs, culminating in a triple concert evening last Saturday. This is not your Bang on a Can or Ecstatic Music fest, but the truly hardcore European new stuff: almost unrelentlingly atonal, pushing the boundaries beyond Boulez and Ligeti to the limit. And that limit, most of the time, is Lachenmann.

It also gave the opportunity for the JACK Quartet, a New York group which seems to be everywhere at once, to make its Berlin debut. What JACK brings to impossibly difficult repertoire is what the Juilliard or Emerson Quartets bring to Schubert: a deep, thoughtful sense of conversation. The communication between members, the lightning-quick rapport during a ghostly portamento unison in Chaya Czernowin’s rather drab quartet or the barely-audible whispers of Aaron Cassidy’s Second String Quartet adds an essential visual aspect to the music-making. It gives nothing less than reassurance of the artistry of the composition, of the correctness of the crazily complicated musical language. The theatricality of their gestures is what sells the music. When a scurry ripples through Cassidy’s music, the JACK players convince the audience not only that they are playing those notes exactly where they should be, but also that in the act of composition, Cassidy made the best possible choice in placing each note. It is almost calming sense of deliberateness—that even the most maddeningly avant-garde shrieks and hisses are all part of a rational, understandable language.

All of those skills made Julia Wolfe’s Dig Deep a terribly awesome experience. We got to hear the quartet’s rich, full-bodied sound in all its glory, sawing away at Wolfe’s raw groove. Of the three Bang on a Canners, I find Wolfe the least interesting, but Dig Deep was a relief after five months of minimalist and postminimalist concert withdrawal. Wolfe sets up a tight, typical BOAC groove, and interrupts it regularly with fiddle-like flights of fancy, refined interjections which spin into an intoxicating lyricism towards the end. There’s really no better way to close a concert.

I checked back in with Ultraschall on Wednesday evening for a profile of the German-born British composer Alexander Goehr, a relatively unknown figure whose documents have been recently acquired by the Akademie der Künste archive (where I am researching). The portrait, sponsored by the Akademie, included a fascinating roundtable discussion with Goehr, the brilliant pianist Stefan Litwin, and archive director Werner Grünzweig. Goehr is remarkably charming at 77 and spun stories about his early meetings with Aaron Copland and his role as a young member of the New Manchester Group, a British composer collective including Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle (he remarked that they foolishly thought they were the next Second Viennese School).

The first concert featured a performance of Goehr’s Wahngedichte, a setting of anti-war poems written during the height of the Vietnam protests. Goehr acknowledged that at the time he was more interested in the literature of the poems than their political overtones and quite candidly admitted that a set of classical lieder written in the 1960s has little importance in real-life political discourse. Mezzo Monica Brett-Crowther sang the spare, almost limpid Expressionist songs with a clear, compelling voice emphasizing the suppressed rage of the lyrics, sensitively accompanied by Litwin. Weirdly enough, a delightful film followed, a short BBC feature documenting the premiere of Goehr’s opera Arden Must Die.

With the second concert came Goehr’s more recent works, which were a bit problematic. Since Brass, nor Stone… (2008), for string quartet and percussionist, featured moments of off-kilter jazziness alternating with fits of rhapsody, and a cycle of Kafka songs, Das Gesetz der Quadrille, had a certain bluesy resplendence, with almost Debussy-like harmonies. Each work was enjoyable if a bit lengthy, a problem exacerbated by Goehr’s excruciatingly-long Piano Quintet, one of the more boring works I have heard in recent years. It’s a simple, melodious Romantic thing completely lacking character—Dvořák without the folk tunes. Moment-to-moment, the music sounded great, especially with the refined playing of Litwin and the Pellegrini Quartet, but the quintet lacked any sense of direction, meandering for close to forty minutes. Perhaps Goehr has lost his edge in recent years; I would like to hear more before making a judgment.

Saturday was Lachenmann-fest, a three concert marathon at Radialsystem, each with a single major work by the eminent composer. The works surrounding Lachenmann’s proved just as engaging as those by the composer himself. In the first concert, the Sonar and Bordun Quartets performed Walter Zimmermann’s eerie Fränkische Tanze, a series of antique dances played on glassy harmonics by one quartet (the Sonar), accompanied by an unsettling drone played by another (the Bordun); the almost Ivesian displacement produced a lingering, almost haunting effect. The Sonar players followed with Michael Hirsch’s String Quartet, a twitchy, episodic work of tiny fragments which seemed to build towards something without ever quite reaching it. The ensemble recherche gave a heated rendition of Allegro sostenuto, one of Lachenmann’s classic works, a grand trio for clarinet, violin, and piano. Lachenmann crafts fierce dialogues between the three instruments, delicate gestures alternating with bouts of extreme violence. Frequently, the clarinetist stood to play directly into the piano and the pianist hit the resonator with a hammer or ran a credit card along the strings; somehow the cello escaped unscathed.

This would all seem absolutely nuts if it weren’t for the orchestral concert which followed, perhaps the wildest a full Mahlerian-size ensemble can get. Two works composers Simon Steen-Andersen and Iris Ter Schiphorst, made Lachenmann’s massive, muted orchestral rumination Staub seem rather tame. Andersen’s Ouvertures is a concerto for amplified Guzheng, a plucked Chinese zither which the composer turns into a mindbending web of rhythmical genius, locking in grids of crossrhythms in-between deafening synthesizer meltdowns and orchestral smears. Liu Le, the soloist, seemed to embody the instrument itself, fearlessly embracing Andersen’s wild extended techniques, which elicited the strangest and most exotic variety of sounds I’ve ever heard. Christoph Grund, the keyboardist in Schiphorst’s Dislokationen, matched Le’s intensity, playing amplified piano with one hand and keyboard sampler with the other as gigantic rap grooves blasted in the background. Schiphorst sets up huge backbeats in the orchestra and electronics, with a pulverizing piano part and occasional sample of a rapper screaming something about the motherfucking remix. The Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester Berlin took it all in stride, with conductor Peter Rundel masterfully keeping everything together.

Things mercifully cooled down with the last event of the night: Nicolas Hodges’ solo recital, with music of Brice Pauset and Lachenmann. Pauset’s two sets of Canons for piano, contrapuntal noodling punctuated by moments of crystal stillness, showed promise for the French composer, whose music resembles Boulez without the edge (I did not particularly enjoy the premiere of his monodrama Exercises du Silence at the Staatsoper earlier this month). Lachenmann had the final word with his Serynade, a relatively relaxed piece—no credit cards or hammers here, just frozen clumps of lingering cluster chords, often played by entire elbows rather than just fingers. Serynade is an entrancing work, full of submerged violence and obsessive repetitions, and Hodges gave it a consummate performance, with intimate tenderness and theatrical bravado—a fine send-off to an eclectic but engaging festival.

Edit: Originally I said Steen-Andersen and Schiphorst were Dutch. In fact, Steen-Andersen is Danish and Shiphorst German.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

a weekend in dresden

Dresden is a beautiful and historic city. Though razed in February of 1945 by Allied bombs, it has been gloriously rebuilt in its old style, mimicking the regality of its past. This can be problematic, as George Packer eloquently wrote in a New Yorker article last year. But it is the perfect contrast and counterpart to Berlin, a city so marred by its tragic past and reflective about its deep history that the very architecture resonates with the brutal noise of the twentieth century. So while I have fallen in love with Berlin's grimy glory, a weekend in fairytale Dresden was a much-needed break.

And, of course, an opportunity to hear some great music.
Though lacking the vast musical infrastructure of Berlin, Dresden has a long lineage of musical greatness, with its grand Semperoper house dating back to 1841. The Dresden Staatskapelle is one of those lofty German orchestras which somehow plays with the same rich sound as a hundred years ago, when it was premiering every Strauss opera under the sun; its lineage of conductors includes Weber, Wagner, and the legendary Ernst von Schuch.

Schuch was the focus of one of my odder Dresden adventures, a joint effort between the Semperoper and the DVB public transit system celebrating the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Strauss's Rosenkavalier. Apparently, the premiere (conducted by Schuch) was so hotly anticipated that special trains were commissioned to shuttle opera-goers from Berlin to Dresden; in honor of this, the Semperoper and DVB set up a two-hour tram ride through the city. Participants gathered in the plaza across from the opera house, and a tram drove up blasting Rosenkavalier waltzes, flashing"100 Jahre Rosenkavalier." Milling among our crowd were several actors dressed as opera-goers from 1911.

The actual train tour ranged from fascinating to mind-numbingly boring. I had hoped there might be live performances of Rosenkavalier excerpts, but instead we were treated to interviews with an historian, a dramaturge, a Staatskapelle horn player, and, weirdly enough, the granddaughter of Schuch. Though it was nice to see the city, two hours felt a bit long--but there was a certain weighty grandiosity to riding back into the center of the city while listening to the Presentation of the Silver Rose.

On Saturday night, I attended a small, new production of Dido and Aeneas in the Semperoper's rehearsal space. Directed by Manfred Wei
β, it spins off of an historical fact: the first known performance of Purcell's opera took place at an English girl's school. Weiβ stages the opera as a kind of play-acting among several boarding school students, taking place in a single contemporary dormitory room. It begins with Dido clutching her cellphone, as if having just ended a traumatic phone call (or having received a troubling text). The rest of her friends, five other young women, rush in giddily from having won a sports game; they comprise all the characters, including the chorus, Dido's trusted handmaid Belinda, and the love interest Aeneas.

The dramatic action is conceived as a game among these schoolgirls, who act out the typical tropes of sorority cinema--pillow-fighting, suppressed homosexuality, playing dress-up. In an attempt to comfort Dido, who is having boyfriend troubles in "real life," they enact an imaginary story of love and loss, approximating the horror the evil sorceress with flashlights after lights-out and the fierce storm with the shaking of bedsheets. Though this barrier causes the opera to lose some emotional immediacy and intensity, it gains a fairytale sense of innocence and lightness. Dido's final lament is less a harrowing suicidal announcement than a moment of subdued melancholy: a release and catharsis of the "real life" Dido's emotions.

(copyright Matthias Creuziger)

Despite a weak performance from the instrumental ensemble, a wonkily-tuned string quartet and harpischord, the production was musically sound, with an excellent-voiced Stephanie Atanasov as Dido and a playful but concerned Romy Petrick as Belinda. The reduction to only six voices gave the choruses a buoyancy and clarity, though occasionally the ensemble diction became muddy. As the first opera in the Semperoper's Junge Szene series, designed towards attracting younger audiences, it seemed a success; the small hall was filled with a youthful and energetic crowd.


There is something anachronistically indulgent about hearing Dido's Lament on Saturday evening and Isolde's Liebestod on Sunday. Separated by two centuries, these works somehow still fall within the same genre. Though the sentiment expressed by each woman's apotheosis is the same, the means by which they are conveyed are radically different. Dido weeps in the antique formalities of the cyclic chaconne, framing her sorrow within a bound structure; Wagner sets Isolde free, soaring through the oceanic wonder of the massive orchestra, finding transfiguration in the climactic submersion into the Welt-Atems, the world-breath. Dido's death is personal; Isolde's is universal.

Marco Arturo Marelli's production embraces this sense of the universal, crafting a fine blend of the abstract and the real. Though now fifteen years old, the staging is still riveting. The entire opera is set on a pivoted square, creating a condensed geometry; narrative is pitched forward through slowly shifting lighting, which casts different emotions in different hazes of color. Individual details evoke powerful sentiments: in the first act, tall panels surrounding the square swing away to reveal a painted, gently rocking seascape, enhancing the sense of unease on which the drama rests. There is a sense of blissful timelessness, echoing the stark limitations of scenery and dramatic lighting of Wieland Wagner's post-war Bayreuth productions.

This is the first Wagner production I have seen live which actually heightens the dramatic tension of the work. When Tristan and Isolde drink their love potion, Marelli smartly has them drink together from the same dish, instead of the usual awkwardness of exchanging a goblet; the moment is accompanied by gorgeous rays of color, breathtaking glowing pastels projected onto transparent sheets which enclose the lovers from the outside world. The mood of the second act is ecstatic, with the lovers almost claustrophobically sealed off from the world. When they decide they can only be together in death, the deep blues of the set fade away into darkness, and the screen surrounding them becomes a completely opaque cube: they are totally fortified from light, and thus life. When Brangäne, in the final, torrid moments of the duet, sounds her warning, the stage suddenly rises, the square tilting upwards and upsetting the lovers' careful balance. The jealous Melot, in an almost-too-obvious metaphor, actually breaks down their curtain with his sword, and King Marke emerges in a shaft of light. When Tristan throws himself on Melot's sword, the entire stage is bathed with light---the outside has fatally ruptured the darkness of the union.

Act III takes on a mythic and mystic portent, with the still-raised square transformed into an endless, dirty staircase. Tristan lays in the center on a bed of rumpled white sheets, in a vaguely Christ-like position. The image is immediately powerful, a theatrical epiphany of the kind one usually sees in history books but which never seems to make an impact on stage--unlike, say, the Berlin Staatsoper Magic Flute, which takes its cue from from Schinkel's haunting designs but in the act of bringing them to life transforms them into kitsch. Marelli's third act Tristan stands as operatic iconography, an image both frozen and alive.

The strong cast on Sunday night didn't hurt, either. Katarina Dalayman has almost perfected her Isolde (I saw her in the role at the Met a couple years ago in Barenboim's debut), though she still occasionally shrieks instead of sings. Christa Mayer sang a nuanced Brangäne, Christoph Pohl a vicious but noble Melot, and Matthias Henneberg a strong Kurnewal, though it took him most of the first act to find his voice. Liang Lai's Marke struck a regal pose, his voice well-suited for the king's molasses-like sorrowful languor. The only weak link was, understandably, Leonid Zakhozhaev, filling in last-minute for Stephen Gould as Tristan, but you really can't fault someone for singing a shaky Tristan with only a few days for preparation. Unfortunately, despite the gorgeous sets and overall concept, the acting was rather weak, with little to no chemistry between Tristan and Isolde--an essential problem when a production becomes this old and the director is no longer supervising.

Obviously, the real dramatic force in Tristan is the orchestra, and the Staatskapelle was, well, Wagnerian. They have the ability to play a seemingly-infinite legato, stretching far beyond bar lines or divisions of measure, in which each individual phrase breathes within the context surrounding it. It is a creamy sound; a touch of brass vibrato in the prelude, for example, added an almost overwhelming warmth to the texture. Ascher Fisch conducted with flowing majesty, especially in the opening to Act III, which he treated with understated menace.

On a sad note, the opera house was barely half-full for Sunday's performance. I spoke to a woman sitting next to me who had been seeing Tristan at the Semperoper for fifty years, and remembers when every performance would sell out. It seems that even in its most historically rich homes, classical music still needs to be shaken up.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011

cloud city

The first time I saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis, I dozed off about halfway through. It was an impressive film, clearly an historically important and influential film, but not an expressive one. I was not captured or drawn in by Lang's work; a bizarre DVD edition with a soundtrack looping the first movements of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Debussy's String Quartet, though providing some wonderful Brechtian moments, didn't help much.

Little did I know I was really only experiencing half of the film--less than half, actually. Viewing the restored edition of Metropolis last week, with an added twenty minutes of recently-discovered footage, certainly added to the experience. What turned an intellectually-engaging-but-not-emotionally-compelling film into a powerful, rapturous, blazingly artistic evening was the live performance of Gottfried Huppertz's score by the Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester Berlin.

Huppertz perfectly conveys the uneasy balance of Metropolis's futuristic city, flawlessly transitioning from Wagnerian, late-romantic idyll to churning machinery music evocative of Weimar-era Hindemith. His music heightens the intensity of individual moments--glances exchanged between characters taken on hidden meanings, layering subtext to Lang's cinematography. Though it occasionally approaches schmaltz, the excess feels appropriate, a natural portrayal of the excesses of a decadent society on its last legs, tilting towards apocalypse.

An exchange between the industrialist Fredersen and his rebellious son shows the power with which the music and film intertwine. After Fredersen expresses his disinterest in the plight of the maligned workers who toil under the city, Lang shoots an innovative perspective--only the back of the father's head is visible, as his son looks directly at the camera in horror--the kind of shot for which Lang is rightfully proclaimed the father of modern cinema. Huppertz adds the emotion: music of doom-laden authority, expressing the power etched on the cold face we cannot see.

In the second half of the movie, Huppertz begins weaving the classic Dies Irae motive into the orchestral texture, the film suddenly acquiring the pitch of a race towards Armageddon. We see statues of the deadly sins, a grim reaper wielding a scythe, and the Totentanz of both the worker's violence and the voluptuous gluttony of the high-rolling life up above, which Huppertz depicts with muted brass and saxes--we are not far from the 1920s Zeitopern of Krenek and Weill. As the movie hurtles towards cataclysm, it becomes more and more emotionally wrenching; the moment when Fredersen watches the city he built drained of light takes on a sense of the mythic.

The Rundfunk Orchester played with shocking control given the relentless pace in the music, only (understandably) beginning to sound fatigued towards the end. Frank Strobel, also a musical advisor on the reconstruction on the film, conducted with passionate intensity, giving a breadth and lilt to the music and allowing Huppertz's score to flow naturally while avoiding the Micky Mousing sense that each music and filmic moment synced up exactly.

After the inevitable final conflict, good will awakens between workers and industrialists, with super-saturated, surging, almost overwhelming music accompanying a procession to the church. With the added footage, the film clocks in about the same as Rheingold. The comparison is apt: the final processional of both works embodies their tangled relationship between myth and reality, utopian Valhalla and underworld Nibelung, the Eternal Garden and the wrath of the machine.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

the case against alan gilbert

Despite the near-unanimous praise of Alan Gilbert in all the media outlets who still write about classical music, I have heard consistent grumblings about him from a variety of musicians. After last week's big news that Gilbert would be taking over the conducting program at Juilliard, I spoke to a friend of Seated Ovation and asked that friend to comment on the news. I am a Gilbert fan, though I've only seen him conduct once; my friend, as you will see, is not. This guest post will remain anonymous for obvious reasons. I have posted my friend's response unedited except for a couple tiny fixes.


Last Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Alan Gilbert would be replacing James DePreist as director of conducing and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School. It will be the first time that a music director of the New York Philharmonic will also be teaching at Juilliard. The Times reported that this new connection to the Philharmonic will mean his conducting students will be attending required rehearsals, meeting with orchestra members, and having possible internships at the Philharmonic departments at Avery Fisher Hall. Juilliard is clearly hoping that this connection to the New York Philharmonic will create an environment similar to what the Curtis Institute has with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Although Juilliard is across the street from the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the New York City Opera, and many of these ensembles have large amount of Juilliard alumni, they have never enjoyed an official relationship between any of these organizations and their musicians.

This all sounds fantastic for Juilliard. They now have a high profile conductor as their orchestra director who is also currently music director of the New York Philharmonic and has direct access to what the Philharmonic musicians can offer students. There is only one problem: Juilliard in their search for an orchestra director completely avoided the fact that Alan Gilbert has had a terrible time conducting Juilliard students so far. Positive opinions about Gilbert's conducting among students are rare and most students hope to avoid his concerts in the future.

The first time Alan Gilbert came to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra was in November 2008, in a concert of the third symphonies of Beethoven and Bernstein in Avery Fisher Hall. The first rehearsal was a complete disaster. Most of the time, preliminary rehearsals for concerts with famous conductors are done with the resident conductor George Stelluto, but Alan Gilbert decided to show up to the very first rehearsal and was appalled at the level of playing. By the end of the rehearsal, he declared that the orchestra “didn't know the fundamentals of orchestra playing” and stormed out of the room once the rehearsal time was up without a decent “See you next rehearsal.” Juilliard, apparently embarrassed about the incident and hoping to fix whatever went wrong, had to hold a meeting among its orchestra members in a dance studio to talk about why Gilbert was so upset. It had to have been the students' problem.

But the conditions did not improve in subsequent rehearsals. Gilbert's behavior at times bordered on acting like a bratty child when he couldn't get what he wanted out of the orchestra. Gilbert had to show that he was in charge all the time. Every instrument had to be micromanaged by him, no woodwind solo could make it by without Gilbert's input. It often came down to leading musicians through passages note by note and instructing them how to play, as if they were completely clueless. Gilbert's insistence that all musicians look at him as he conduct seemed like an obsessive preoccupation that he couldn't let go of. Gilbert's opinion was that if you're not looking at the conductor, it's impossible to play with the other musicians around you. When the orchestra musicians strayed back to their music it often ended back with Gilbert declaring "I'm sorry, but you're just not doing what I want". It didn't seem to matter that the boy choir in Bernstein's Kaddish symphony averaged around the age of 8, because he also managed to hound on them for not looking at him too. Instead of the collaborative process between conductor and ensemble, Gilbert wanted to make the performance about himself.

So many of the comments that Gilbert gave to the orchestra would be totally unacceptable in a professional environment. How can a member of a string section be singled out and embarrassed in front of the whole orchestra by the conductor in today's professional environment? Or how can it be tolerated when Gilbert said that some of the musicians "had their heads up their asses"? One would hope that he doesn't act the same way to the New York Philharmonic musicians. Is it because it's the Juilliard Orchestra that it's tolerated (and not only tolerated, but rewarded with a position)? These are, after all, some of the people Gilbert will be conducting in orchestras someday. The students left feeling that he was overly controlling and rude.

One positive thing that can be said about the final result was that the orchestra played with a technical precision that is often lacking in student performances. But it was done out of duty and because of the verbal abuse that Gilbert handed out to the students. There was no love of playing in the performance. Perhaps this is similar to what Edward Seckerson in the Independent was talking about when he reviewed Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic on tour in 2010, saying they "merely brought themselves... it wasn't enough"... or the review by Barry Millington in the London Evening Standard of the same concert that said the "New York Philharmonic is stuck in their comfort zone". It was not an invested performance.

It's possible that Gilbert doesn't feel confident about his future at the Philharmonic. He's currently in his second of five contracted years with the Philharmonic and by taking the Juilliard position he might be hoping to become more of a permanent fixture of Lincoln Center. Or if the contract is not extended, he could focus on teaching at Juilliard. Management is changing at the Philharmonic since Zarin Mehta is retiring and it's uncertain what changes might occur. Despite what the press seems to say about Gilbert's programming, audiences are not very receptive to works such as Magnus Lindberg's Kraft, where a significant amount of audience members left before the work was played. The same goes for the Contact series, where most of the Philharmonic's audience would have rather seen the Philharmonic play the Messiah taking place at the same time. It's not that these works shouldn't be played or heard, but they appeal to a niche market and the administration of the New York Philharmonic is concerned with selling out concerts on a regular basis. Running an orchestra is financially difficult. Another problem is that Gilbert is still only known by name for most classical listeners and what his conducting is like is generally not known. His only commercial recordings are of Christopher Rouse's symphonies and Mahler 9 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and based on the schedule on his website his guest conducting appearances are few and far between. The Philharmonic may feel pressure to get a bigger name that people know in the future.

Alan Gilbert is exactly the type of conductor a young musician should not play with, because the way he rehearses will make them hate playing in orchestra. There is no element of having fun playing with Gilbert the way there is with conductors such as Nicholas McGegan or Bernard Haitink, who both recently lead the Juilliard Orchestra in inspiring concerts. There also seem to have been much better choices home in New York: for example, George Manahan, the conductor of the New York City Opera who has conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in the past with much success, would have made a fine choice. James Conlon, another favorite among students, has also expressed interest in becoming the director of orchestral studies at Juilliard, but apparently Juilliard is not interested. The same goes for Otto-Werner Mueller, a great conductor for young musicians and Gilbert's teacher who formerly conducted at Juilliard and Curtis and now is exclusively at Curtis. But Juilliard went for Gilbert because he's music director of the New York Philharmonic. The connections and the publicity are too good to pass up, so who cares about the students?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Nordic heat

Wednesday, January 12 2011

Berlin Philharmonic
David Zinman, conductor
Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Anders Hillborg, Cold Heat
Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 2
Nielsen, Symphony No. 5

If I have waxed poetic about the Berlin Philharmonic in the past, it's with good reason. I have yet to be disappointed by a concert, and the musicians maintain such a high standard of playing that it will be difficult to listen to anything else in the future without being a little disappointed. This season, though, seems somewhat off. Normally the principal example for thoughtful and inventive programming, Simon Rattle's Philharmonic has taken a year-long break from innovation.

Although I credit the orchestra and management for livelier programs than the average American orchestra, this season's overall program lacks focus. There are only five works by living composers in the entire 2010-2011 programming; three are world-premieres, but only one is being lead by Rattle himself (I heard the premiere of Rodion Schtschedrin's brash, unmemorable Symphonic Diptych under Gergiev last month). Martin Hoffmann, the orchestra's new managing director, writes in the season brochure that the two big themes of this year are Mahler and Russian music. You can get away with saying that Finnish music, or South American music, or even Scandinavian music is a theme--but Russian music? That's a cop-out. And as much as I have loved the Berlin Phil's Mahler performances so far, and look forward to the next four symphonies, pretty much every orchestra in the world is in the midst of a Mahler cycle right now.

Rattle's got some great pairings for each of the Mahlers--Wolf and Brahms with the Third, Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete with the Fourth, Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary with the Fifth, and Berg's Three Pieces with the Sixth. But that doesn't compare to the genius juxtapositions of a few seasons ago, when he put together works by Adès, Kurtág, and Lindberg next to the late Mahler symphonies.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I haven't reviewed the Philharmonic in the past month because I haven't had much to say. Well-led concerts by Paavo Järvi, Gergiev, and Dudamel were highly-polished but uninspired--which is why it felt much better to hear a world premiere and a less-frequently-encountered masterpiece on Wednesday night.

Let's start with the masterwork: Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony, a brilliant titan of a Fifth. Like Sibelius, Nielsen circles around the edges of what we anticipate from the symphonic narrative, constantly defying our expectations, teasing the ear with climaxes before suddenly pulling away. The Fifth's broad, all-encompassing two movements could almost stand separately on their own: each contains a fully-developed emotional arc.

In the first movement, though, that arc is mostly elusive. Fleecy serenity flows into gunmetal militarism, but always tempered with a certain uneasiness--Nielsen's narrative constantly eludes us, each moment of glory becoming tangible only in hindsight. Towards the end of the movement, a majestic, overlapping chorale percolates among strings and brass, with sputtering percussion accompaniment--what could only be the heroic apex. Suddenly, though, the sputter disappears, all instruments step into a glorious, radiant sync, and the true summit becomes visible. It's a strangely beautiful moment in a symphony of strange beauty. David Zinman crafted a mysterious but vivid interpretation, aided by the Phil's velvety strings and stellar woodwind solos.

The Nielsen had its Nordic counterpart in Anders Hillborg's Cold Heat, given its world premiere. Cold Heat has the same kind of gleam as the works of Nielsen and Sibelius, but with a bit more wildness. Hillborg treats the orchestra as a massive organism, with tectonic plates of pulsing sound. A percussion rampage in the middle of the work seems to recall Thomas Adès's Asyla, and the rippling strings and quasi-avant garde woodwind licks resemble the spectral Romanticism of Magnus Lindberg's more recent works---perhaps why, though I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it, I felt like I had heard it before.

If only Shostakovich hadn't interrupted the flow between Hillborg and Nielsen. The composer's second cello concerto is a meandering, angsty work overburdened by the typical Shostakovichian gestures, which here serve more as signposts than as actual emotional signifiers. Yo-Yo Ma, oddly enough making his first Philharmonic appearance in fifteen years, gave as much polish and verve to the piece as possible; the quality of his playing soared over the quality of the music. Ma and Zinman proved excellent partners, finding a chamber-like balance between orchestra and soloist.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

finding wagner in berlin

So as the rest of the world explodes over the madness that is the New York Times re-affirming all the bad stereotypes of classical music, I thought I would finally get around to posting some pictures that I took in October. I recently unsuccessfully concluded a fifteen week attempt to get internet hooked up in my apartment , finally caving and buying a mobile surf stick -- something I should have done months ago. Anyway, it will make blogging easier, especially since I won't have to sit next to terrifying crazy people at the library while Seated Ovating.

Strolling around any German city, it is impossible to ignore the overwhelming presence of classical music. Berlin is not Bayreuth, or Leipzig, or Weimar. Bach never lived here, Liszt never lived here, Wagner never lived here, Beethoven never lived here, Mozart never lived here. But that doesn't keep them from naming streets after Schubert, U-Bahn stops after Wagner, and parks after Mendelssohn (okay, he did live here). Exploring the massive Tiergarden last year, I stumbled upon a gigantic statue of Mr. Wagner himself, one of the most epic memorials I have ever witnessed, so big it was impossible to get a single good picture of the whole thing at once.

The statue was created by Gustav Eberlein from 1901 to 1903, a time during which Wagner's spirit loomed over the still-young imperial Germany. It was commissioned by Ludwig Leichner, an opera singer turned cosmetic entrepreneur (you can still buy his stuff!).

The best part of the statue, though, is that it's not just Wagner up there: we get his entire mythos. It's a fun little game to walk around the statue and see if you can name all his creations (well, not really his creations). I thought I did quite well, but I actually failed pretty miserably.
I was positive this was Wotan, what with him holding his hand over his eye. But Wikipedia says (the only source I could find on this) that it's actually Tannhäuser.
I initially thought this was Walther from Die Meistersinger, but it is actually Tannhäuser's Wolfram von Eschenbach.
Is it that crazy to think that this would be Act 3 Tristan and Isolde? I guess, because it's dead Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Nobody tell AC Douglas that young people can't properly identify Gesamtkunstwerk characters on sight.
Finally, I got one right: Alberich stealing the Rheingold from a Rheinmaiden.

A stroll over to Museum Island and the Alte Nationalgalerie turns up some more Wagner.
Lorenz Gedon's 1883 Wagner bust.
Franz von Lenbach painted a few Wagner portraits, as well as one of Cosima.

Filled with all of Wagner's favorite candy shops.

Finally, Wagner's own subway station and Platz. The composer's final words, according to his wife Cosima, were, "When they build an U-Bahn station for me, make sure it looks like a cross between Tron and a dead bumblebee."