Monday, June 20, 2011

tempelhof etude

Lisa Bielawa's Tempelhof Etude, an excerpt from her upcoming Tempelhof Broadcast, premieres in Central Park tonight. Bielawa, one of our best living composers (I would nominate her Double Violin Concerto for one of The Top 20 of the 2000s), wrote about the project for the Times recently. Alas, I am in Naples now, and won't be living in Berlin in fall 2012 when the full work is performed at the massive Tempelhof park -- a former Nazi airport converted into a massive site for biking, walking, kite-flying, barbecuing, and, occasionally, raves (A&P, weirdly enough, hosted a big one recently). Above is a picture from the fall; kites above the runway.

Friday, June 17, 2011

final phil report

Once in a while you get a concert which raises the question: “How did they sell that?” But, somewhat miraculously, the hall is almost full, the orchestra sounds great, and the audience seems more than pleased to hear some music they’ve almost certainly never heard before—and probably won’t hear again.

That was last weekend at the Philharmonie. The Berlin Philharmonic, beginning to wind down their season, played three works of which you’re lucky to have ever heard : Stravinsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm, ich her”, his Requiem Canticles, and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied. Each benefited from the vigorous conducting of Vladimir Jurowski, a relatively young maestro who already seems heir to podium wizards like Gergiev and Muti (the hair says it all).

In 1956, having reinvented his style by incorporating latest fashions of serialism, Stravinsky essentially recomposed a Bach organ piece as a set of tricky variations. A Bach chorale floats through the brass and chorus and reduced strings and woodwinds unfurl plinky canons. It is the most bizarre Stravinsky I’ve ever heard, and maybe the worst: though I imagine the intertwined counterpoint looks good on page, it is utterly puzzling to listen to, a rigorously-organized chaos of crystalline melodic lines. Jurowski conducted with insight and knowledge of the score, but still couldn’t make any sense of the weird little piece.

The haunting Requiem Canticles followed—the apex of Stravinsky’s late style. In the canticles, Stravinsky trims the fat off of the Requiem tradition, reducing the grandeur of the death masses of Mozart and Verdi to something of a skeleton. We have a vaguely primitive Dies Irae, the eerie trumpet calls in the Tuba Mirum, the groaning sobs of a solo alto in the Lacrimosa—a distilment of the essences of each sequence of the mass. The vocal numbers are bookended by a bone-jangling prelude and an unsettling postlude, in which bells, vibraphones, and a single, droning horn form a kind of musical shudder. The Philharmonic sounded phenomenal and the Rundfunkchor Berlin was in fine form, providing strong rhythmic muscle.

Mahler’s Das klagende Lied, a heavily-revised student work, closed the evening. It is essentially a fairy-tale cantata, spinning out a German story of forest mystery and tragedy: the closest the composer ever came to writing an opera. We hear constant anticipations of Mahler’s later works—much of the music was recycled into the Second Symphony—and the orchestral passages are much more effective than the vocal ones. The style of storytelling recalls Wagner and even Weber but with duller vocal writing, and the soloists (mostly excellent, with mezzo Iris Vermillion as a standout and Christine Schäfer oddly disappointing) narrate the events without seeming to engage in them. Mahler is at his best in the enchanting, silvery choruses and innovative use of divided orchestra, with Ivesian brass and wind groups floating in from offstage. Jurowski held the work together deftly, ignoring the impulse to over-Mahlerize and maintaining an impressive balance between vocalists and orchestra, both on-stage and off.


Last night brought more unlikely Stravinsky to the Philharmonie—the composer’s Four Russian Peasant Songs, piercing arrangements of folk tunes for four horns and women’s choir which exhibit all the tell-tale signs of Stravinsky’s engagement with Russian lore, with vigorous chanting in mixed meters. The brief songs formed part of a particularly Russian-flavored program courtesy of new music master Peter Eötvös, the Hungarian Stockhausen protégé equally adept as conductor and composer. But this was not the heavy, “soulful” Russian interpretations of a Gergiev or Mravinsky. Eötvos brought a startling clarity to Mussorgsky’s warhorse Night on Bald Mountain, with Stravinsky-like sharp cutoffs and especially pungent brass, reining in the composer’s more outrageous climaxes. It was a mixed success: never before did Night on Bald Mountain so vividly anticipate the modernist experiments of the 20th century, but never before did it sound so lifeless—the cleanliness somehow dispelled the music’s heaving romanticism.

The evening was wrapped around the world premiere of Eötvös’s Cello Concerto, with the composer’s compatriot Miklós Perényi as soloist. Loosely based on the Baroque concerto-grosso form, in which a consort of instruments alternates with a main ensemble, the work draws on both Perényi’s brilliant virtuosity and the tandem efforts of the entire Berlin Phil cello section. The concerto opens with Eötvös’ trademark ricocheting, somewhat-comic gestures, with percussionists clapping drumsticks together and sharp motives zooming through the orchestra. Eötvös exhibits the same kind of quirky relationship to tradition as Ligeti, with fierce Bartók pizzicatos (when the strings snap, instead of pluck), snatches of Transylvanian dances, and thumping eruptions of brass and drums both avant-garde and folk-like. Though technically assured and cleverly orchestrated, the music felt a bit empty: only in propulsive, acidic finale, with Perényi sawing away, did it fully engage.

Eötvös saved the best for last: the Coronation and Death scenes from Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov. The Philharmonic vividly created the engulfing orchestral fog which opens the coronation (and which shows up in the finale of Pictures at an Exhibition) and the antiphonal offstage bells seemed to recall the spatial effects of Eötvös’s concerto. Italian Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was thoroughly badass even when he wasn’t singing, the embodiment of threatening regality—his tender but powerful voice perfectly captured the czar’s pained pompousness. The guest Slovak Philharmonic Choir sang with a stirring thickness (I’ll try not delve into national clichés and say that they sounded “heavier” than other choruses). Though the orchestra never quite dove in to the music, the death scene still retained its beautiful horror, especially in the aching moment when Boris intones, “I am still czar”: a last denial before the end.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

score choice awards

Dear Reader(s),

I am in need of your help. I discovered an awesome used book store a few blocks from me--where I recently purchased scores for Hindemith's Cardillac and Mathis der Maler for 2.50 Euro each (and the complete Brecht plays for 5 Euro). They apparently have no idea they are sitting on a treasure trove of scores, which were tucked away behind the counter. Here's the thing, though. I'm moving back to New York (and then down south) in a month and don't have the suitcase space to take back too much stuff. So I made a list of all their interesting big scores--things that I probably couldn't find in the U.S. for cheap--and need to decide among them. If you were to pick 2-4 of these, which would you go for? I'm seeking A) good music B) things that aren't easy to find the States.

Most of these are operas, a couple are oratorios or weird other things.

Smetana, Prodana Nevesta (The Bartered Bride)

Prokofiev, The Duenna

Delius, Messe des Lebens (Mass of Life)

Hans Stieber, Till Eulenspiegel

Otto Nicolai, Die lustige Weiber on Windsdor

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet

Weismann, Die pffifge magd

Gottfried von Einem, Dantons Tod

Franz Schreker, Der Schatzgräber

Jörg Widmann, Gesicht im Spiegel (really random; only a score of the third scene)

Handel, Jephta

Pfitzner, Von Deutsche Seele cantata

Pfitzner, Das Christ-Elflein (with its most hilarious plot)

Joseph Haas, Die heilige Elisabeth oratorio

Pfitzner, Der arme Heinrich

Felix Weingartner, Dame Kobold (didn’t even know Weingartner was a composer?)

Hans-Heinrich Dransman, Munchhausens letzte Luge (I have no idea what this is)

Siegfried (yes, Siegfried) Wagner, Der Bärenhäuter

Violeta Dinescu, Hunger und Durst (looks potentially interesting?)

Smetana, The Secret

Smetana, Der Kuβ

Carl Maria von Weber, Silvana

Dvorak, Geisterbraut and Rusalka

Flotow, Martha (of Joyce fame)

There were a few other less obscure things--Wagner and Verdi operas, Bach passions--which shouldn't be hard to come by in the U.S.

Right now I'm leaning towards the Pfitzner stuff and the Schreker.

Anyway, comment if you have suggestions or tweet at @seatedovation

Here's the overture to Christ-Elflein, which is actually quite pretty. Met Christmas revival?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

german sun

Apropos of nothing, a few pictures of spring and summer in the city.

A man reads in the shadow of Soviet monumentalism, at Treptower Park.

The nightmarish cast of Robert Wilson's Lulu (which didn't quite turn out as planned)

Richard Serra's The Drowned and the Saved, tucked in the former sacristy of the St. Kolumba Church (now a brilliantly-curated museum) in Cologne

In the courtyard of the Beethoven House in Bonn

Last weekend, the Hebbel Theater, bastion of the Berlin avant-garde, re-opened the dilapadated Luna Park, a Soviet-era amusement park, to the public. There were sound installations and rides, but the real intrigue came from seeing the remnants of East Berlin's more glorious years.

A potent metaphor

In a strange move, the bouncy castle takes the form of the Titanic (not part of the original park).

Lohengrin has seen better days.