Sunday, January 1, 2006

Chronicle of November 2005

November 2

Premiere of Philip Glass's Symphony No. 8, plus his Symphony No. 6, by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, directed by Denis Russel Davies. Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, NY. "Glass's most glamorous projects these last 25 years have been operas, which he has composed plentifully and on virtually every conceivable subject, from historical figures to science fiction. But Mr. Glass has been building up his symphonic catalog as well, largely through the encouragement of Dennis Russell Davies, a conductor who has championed Mr. Glass's music since the early 1980's. It wasn't until 1992 that Mr. Glass wrote a work he called a symphony, and that was a tentative step: he based that first effort on themes from David Bowie and Brian Eno's Low. But as anyone who knows Mr. Glass's work will attest, once he cottons onto something, he keeps at it. . . . To fill out the program, Mr. Davies and company, as well as the soprano Lauren Flanigan, offered Mr. Glass's Symphony No. 6, a work that Mr. Davies and Ms. Flanigan introduced at an American Composers Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall in 2002. Symphony No. 8 shows the distance Mr. Glass has traveled since his early 'additive process' works. In those scores, winding lines would be literally repeated many times, then gradually transformed through the addition of single notes or short phrases. The three-movement Symphony No. 8, though, is about virtually continuous change. Its basic materials are pure Glass: the rhythmically repeated minor chords, the arpeggiation and other signature moves are all there. But the chromaticism that has crept into Mr. Glass's music since Koyaanisqatsi (1982) is now more extreme, and more fluid, as well. And once a theme is stated, it immediately morphs into something else, with barely a single repetition. Changes in texture are constant as well. Indeed, the great attraction of this work is the unpredictable orchestration. Every section has a moment (or a few) in the spotlight; there is even a lovely flute and harp variation in the melancholy second movement. Symphony No. 6, a setting of Allen Ginsberg's 1978 poem Plutonian Ode, comes from a different universe. A symphony though it may be, this is Mr. Glass at his most operatic. Ginsberg's angry, searing text being what it is -- an excoriation of the war industry, mainly -- Mr. Glass set it to intensely dramatic and overtly virtuosic music, much of it in soaring, fortissimo soprano lines that leap around the voice and spend plenty of time in the highest reaches. There were moments when its demands clearly taxed Ms. Flanigan. But she brought to the score something more than perfect pitch: an electricity that made her gripping, emotional reading impossible to resist. Mr. Davies created an electricity of his own, drawing a warm, rounded sound from the orchestra's strings and winds, and ample energy from the brass players and percussionists, whom Mr. Glass keeps busy in both scores" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 11/4/05].

November 16

Benjamin Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream given by Juilliard Opera Center. Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York, NY. "[The production] achieves . . . balance through the richness of the performance and the inventiveness of the staging. Moreover, seeing the opera performed by a young and eager cast works wonders, especially in the story line involving the two Athenian couples who are so muddled in their passions even before Oberon, the king of the fairies, interferes with his herbal potion. The emotional torment these characters go through seems volatile and impulsive when the roles are sung, as they are here, by intense, gifted and attractive student singers. . . . Britten's powers of evocation are strongest in this alluring score. Oberon, a countertenor (here Randall Scotting, an impressive guest artist) and Tytania, a coloratura soprano (the agile and bright-toned Erin Morley), sing in grandiloquent lines that recall English Baroque opera, but with wayward chromatic turns and spiky modern harmonies. When the rustics present their bungled version of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, Britten deftly parodies bel canto opera, complete with a mini-mad scene for the heroine. To conduct, Juilliard brought in David Atherton, an acclaimed Britten interpreter. . . . Atherton draws some lithe and colorful playing from the orchestra, and the chorus of fairies sounds ethereal" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York, 11/18/05].

November 18

Sound Insights: Seeing Debussy, Hearing Monet, with David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "[T]he program was an attempt to uncover the parallels between the music of Debussy, here the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Jeux, and the paintings of Monet, here the artist's Morning on the Seine series and his later Water Lilies . . . . The obvious approach when comparing Impressionism in painting and music would have been to focus on the big picture, in a sense, and to point out that both Monet and Debussy employed hazy textures, blurry colorings and impressionistic imagery. Mr. Robertson chose instead to focus on specifics. For example, he discussed the concept of reflection in the work of both creators. He described Monet's series depicting the same bend in the Seine, painted at different times of day in different atmospheres, to a theme and variations form in music, and showed how the same clump of trees gets reflected in the water in wondrously different ways in the different paintings. He compared this effect to the opening theme for solo flute in Afternoon of a Faun, which seductively squiggles between a C sharp and a lower G. With the aid of the orchestra, he showed how in a series of crucial moments when that C sharp is sustained, Debussy reflects it in the watery pool of the orchestra with precise and exactingly different harmonies. Mr. Robertson had people all over the hall nodding in comprehension as he shifted between projected images of the paintings, orchestral examples and, finally, riveting performances of both Debussy works. He is a brilliant lecturer who spoke at length without notes, but also a delightfully quirky character with deadpan comic timing" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 11/21/05].

November 19

David Robertson conducts St. Louis Symphony in Morton Feldman's Coptic Light and Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Carnegie Hall. "David Robertson, who recently began his tenure as the conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, demonstrated his skills at a whole range of things a music director must be able to do if American orchestras are to thrive at a time of daunting challenges. . . . [H]e showed his technical and interpretive mastery at conducting both a cutting-edge contemporary score, Morton Feldman's cryptic Coptic Light, and a touchstone of the repertory, Mahler's Lied von der Erde. He gave evidence aplenty of his skills as an orchestra-builder, for the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony seemed more engaged and inspired than I have ever heard them, and the orchestra sounded just great. Finally, Mr. Robertson proved himself a natural teacher, someone who can explain and illustrate complex musical matters in ways that general audiences can get . . . [with] some helpful spoken comments before performing Coptic Light (1986), a mesmerizing Feldman score inspired by the composer's encounter with Egyptian tapestries. In this 30-minute work, the music evolves in calm, slow, inalterably quiet spans of quixotic harmonies and motivic fragments. If not much seems to happen on the surface of this piece at first, as played here you soon detected a multitude of minute variations of sounds and mini-events. Mr. Robertson aptly praised the score for it curious mix of 'lush sound and austerity.' The evening ended with a bracing, lucid and unsentimental account of Das Lied von der Erde. The tenor Stuart Skelton brought youthful determination to his singing, though vocally he was not fully up to this taxing music. The golden-haired, golden-voiced mezzo Michelle DeYoung sang with affecting beauty and floods of sound throughout. So far, it seems that things could not be going better for Mr. Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 11/21/05].

November 25

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sings Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs, on a program with Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine. Symphony Hall, Boston, MA. Through November 28, New York, NY. 'With great relief I can report that Ms. Hunt Lieberson performed . . . looking radiant and sounding wonderful. Though she had to pull out of some high-profile events this past year, including the premiere in San Francisco of John Adams's opera Doctor Atomic, she made a point of singing Neruda Songs, a co-commission of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony, at its premiere in Los Angeles in May. How could she not? Every phrase of Mr. Lieberson's new work seems to have been crafted with his wife's beautifully earthy voice and keen expressive instincts in mind. . . . . Lieberson's 30-minute score, a setting of five sonnets by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, deals with, to paraphrase the composer, different faces of love: the pure appreciation of love; its joy and mystery; the anguish of separation; the volatile back and forth between passion and contentment; the inevitability of parting through death. Perhaps because of the subject matter, Mr. Lieberson's richly chromatic harmonic language, despite arresting swatches of atonality and pungent dissonance, is grounded, almost tonal, and deeply melancholic. Though the colorings are lush, the textures are lucid. Ms. Hunt Lieberson, who speaks Spanish, provided her husband essential advice about setting the Spanish text with idiomatic naturalness. The work evolves in long-spun lines of ruminative lyricism. For the most part, the orchestra alternately cushions, empowers, consoles and agitates the vocal lines. For example, in the first song, as the soloist sings of being alive with love, the orchestra envelops the melodic writing with sultry shimmerings and a wistful tune for a lazy clarinet. For me, the only misstep in this haunting work comes in the first half of the fourth song, when the passion of love is evoked and bossa nova maracas gently rattle in the orchestra. It seems too explicit, too obvious a touch. But the fifth song, on the inevitability of death, provides an overwhelming conclusion, with an aching yet ennobled melodic line and astringent yet beautiful harmonies sustained by tremulous strings and reedy winds. . . . One moment she would send a phrase soaring with plaintive intensity and dusky sound, and the next she would plead with her lover not to leave, sounding pale-toned, breathy and painfully human. When the final song ended in a whisper, she held the spell and did not break character. It seemed like half a minute before the audience intruded upon the silence and began a prolonged standing ovation for the performers and the composer. . . . In the Mahler, Mr. Levine revealed inner details and intricacies you seldom hear, while never hindering the symphony's bucolic spirits and overall shape. In the final movement, the soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, substituting for Dorothea Röschmann, who was ill, brought her angelic voice to Mahler's disarmingly innocent portrait of heavenly life" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 11/26/05].

November 27

Earl Wild plays his own compositions, three days after his 90th birthday. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Earl Wild [is a] a former staff pianist for NBC television, who composed, arranged and played music for Sid Caesar's Caesar's Hour in the mid-1950's and wrote crowd-pleasing novelty pieces, like Variations on an American Theme ('Doo-Dah'). . . . In certain elitist quarters, Mr. Wild has never been forgiven for his early work in radio and television, his nonintellectual approach to music and his refreshingly nonchalant virtuosity. During his stint on the piano faculty at the Juilliard School in the late 1970's and early 80's, he must have chuckled over some of the fledgling virtuosos who wore the blood-and-sweat effort of playing the piano like a badge of honor. Everything about his technique and music-making is relaxed, free and easy. . . . His discography contains more than 70 recordings, with 35 concertos by, among others, Menotti and Xaver Scharwenka, and the 'Spellbound' Concerto by Miklos Rozsa, best known as a film composer. His recording 20th- and 21st-Century Piano Sonatas, released in 2000, offers meticulous and surprisingly insightful accounts of sonatas by Barber, Stravinsky and Hindemith as well as his own harmonically crunchy Neo-Classical Sonata, composed in that year. Read through Mr. Wild's résumé and you come across unusual facts. He was the first pianist to give a recital on television, on NBC in 1939. In 1960, he conducted Puccini's comedy Gianni Schicchi at the Santa Fe Opera on a double bill with Stravinsky, no less, who conducted his severe one-act opera[-oratorio] Oedipus Rex. Mr. Wild is particularly proud of his 1965 recordings of Rachmaninoff's four piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the dynamic Jascha Horenstein. He had an instantaneous rapport with Horenstein, as he recounted in an interview in New York shortly after his July recital. 'We recorded those five works in five days, one per day,' he said. 'We had a single rehearsal of each piece, then we recorded it, playing it right through. It was a joy.' Mr. Wild has no apologies for making cuts in the Rachmaninoff Third, which he deems too long for its own good. The current penchant for restoring cuts 'gets to be a pain,' he said, adding, 'It's very easy to blab things.' Rachmaninoff, he noted, typically took those cuts when he performed the work. 'You have to remember that if the composer decides to take a cut, he's right,' he said. 'Even if he's wrong, he's right.' Besides, he added, 'a piece should say what it has to say and then get off the stage'" [Anthony Tommasini, 11/27/05].