Monday, September 1, 2008

Chronicle of July 2008

[Claudia Barainsky, center, in the arms of a pig-faced, tuxedo-clad man in Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten]

July 5

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten. Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY. "Zimmermann’s only opera [was] first performed in Cologne in 1965 and [is] legendary for its challenges. Written in an intricately complex 12-tone idiom, it uses a huge orchestra, including batteries of percussion, and is run through with vocal lines that leap constantly to high and low extremes. Yet the musical demands are not the primary factors that make this work so daunting. Zimmermann took a pathbreaking approach to dramatic narrative in this work, which tells of the downfall of Marie, the winsome daughter of a middle-class merchant of fancy goods, at the hands of a series of lecherous, duplicitous soldiers who flatter her, abuse her and drive her into prostitution. He adapted the libretto from a 1776 play by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz and set the opera in “French-speaking Flanders, yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Contrasting scenes take place simultaneously; there are flashbacks and premonitions. The opera was a realization of Zimmermann’s concept of “pluralistic theater,” which would bring together singing, speaking, screaming, quotations from wildly different musical styles, dance, film and theatrical architecture. He originally wanted Die Soldaten staged in 12 separate acting areas and imagined a space in which the audience could be moved. Yet the premiere took place in a conventional opera house, as did subsequent productions, including one at New York City Opera in 1991. But this staging -- by the director David Pountney, in a co-production with the RuhrTriennale in Bochum, Germany, where it was first presented last year in a space remarkably similar to the armory -- makes possible the scenic fluidity that Zimmermann envisioned. With sets by Robert Innes Hopkins and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, the action is played on a narrow, T-shaped platform. The audience is seated in twin makeshift risers that move slowly on rails down the 236-foot length of the long runway of the T. The impressive Bochum Symphony, conducted by Steven Sloane in a tour de force, is positioned on a series of platforms on either side of the audience seating area. An extra contingent of percussion instruments opposite Mr. Sloane can view him via video monitors. The high-tech set allows the audience to be close to the action as the audience seats flow gently up the length of the runway to the crossbar of the T. The production makes this former military drill hall seem almost intimate. There is one hitch: amplification. Normally I cringe for the future of opera whenever I see a loudspeaker in a house. Not here. There was no way to make the acoustics of the armory work without hooking all the singers up to body microphones. Still, the amplification is subtle. The voices come through with clarity, a minimum of echo and a maximum of richness, even during moments when the orchestra is a visceral force of gnashing harmony, pummeling rhythm and steely intensity. There are episodes of horror in this work, conveyed here with stunning brutality. The soldiers do not seem to be at war. They talk coarsely of women and engage in surprisingly complex discourse on theology and even theater, asserting that plays tell more truth about the world than any sermon. But the futility and barbarism of war are depicted through Zimmermann’s music, especially at the opening and closing of the opera. It begins with a long, turbulent din of buzzing orchestral textures and thick, piercing harmonies over an insistent, pounding drumbeat. It ends with a wrenching scene for Marie, the agile high soprano Claudia Barainsky in a courageous, powerfully sung and pitiable performance. Having been raped and degraded, she wanders the road of a river bank, begging for money from her father, who doesn’t recognize her. At this moment the orchestra segues into a multimedia, aural collage of blaring brasses, shouting voices, marching soldiers, harmonic chaos and what sounds like distant banshee shrieks. In a late scene Desportes (the compelling high tenor Peter Hoare), a nobleman serving in the French Army who has seduced and grown tired of Marie, sends her into the clutches of his gamekeeper, who rapes her. The scene becomes surreal as a row of tuxedoed men with pig-face masks brutalize a series of women in red dresses, depicting Marie in the stages of her degradation. Zimmermann considered the opera a bitter comedy, though that comment comes from a despairing composer who committed suicide in 1970 at 52, For all its atonal harshness, Zimmermann’s score is remarkable for its passages of poignancy and delicacy, beautifully conveyed here through the transparent playing of the orchestra and the tenderness of the singing. There is, for example, the wistful opening scene, in which Marie, writing a love letter to Stolzius (the plaintive bass baritone Claudio Otelli, in an anguished portrayal), a hard-working draper who is courting her, seeks advice on spelling from her doting sister, Charlotte (the appealing mezzo soprano Claudia Mahnke). Zimmermann comes directly from the Germanic 12-tone operatic heritage that produced the masterpieces Berg’s Lulu and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. While deploying a highly systematized approach to technique, he manages to produce an organic score that comes across as visceral and rhapsodic. The musical quotations, whether a consoling Bach chorale, or raucous jazz, are deftly used to blur the boundaries of the dramatic narrative. The action Mr. Pountney and his production team manage to depict on the narrow runways is sometimes amazing, including a scene for overfed, crude army officers bathing in nine adjacent deep tubs while they condemn the morals of women, and a chaotic scene in a coffeehouse where young, randy, drunken soldiers engage in choreographic and homoerotic tumbling. For all the work’s radical dramatic strokes, Zimmermann thought of it primarily as an opera to be sung by well-trained vocal artists. Paradoxically, by relying on amplification, the singers in this fine cast did not have to force, so they could soften the angularities and leaps of the vocal lines. Kathryn Harries as Stolzius’s worrisome mother, Johann Tilli as Marie’s calculating father, Robert Wörle as the officious Captain Pirzel, Jochen Schmeckenbecher as a beleaguered army chaplain and Kay Stiefermann as Field Officer Mary, who also falls for and turns on Marie, were other standouts of this impressive cast. An unfortunate drawback of this ambitious production, which seems to have broken the bank of the Lincoln Center Festival, is that the seating area accommodates fewer than 1,000. With only five performances and top tickets going for $250, not everyone who wants to see it will be able to do so. But those who do will experience a miraculous realization of an opera once deemed unperformable" [Anthony Tommasini, 7/7/08].

July 6

Summergarden. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. "[The] concert featured the Attacca Quartet, whose members -- Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violinists; Gillian Gallagher, violist; and Andrew Yee, cellist -- earned their master’s degrees at Juilliard in May. In another practice recently adopted at Summergarden, everything on the program received its New York premiere. The first two pieces had something else in common: each called on performers to do more than just play. In a striking moment early in Huang Ruo’s Three Tenses (2005), Mr. Yee whistled a high, keening melody while playing a low drone. Moments later Ms. Schroeder simulated a gust of wind by blowing into her instrument. The collision of past, present and future proposed in Mr. Huang’s program note wasn’t altogether evident, but the vivid, eventful music was no less effective for it. Melancholy smears and glassy whispers in the opening cede to a surging middle section, which ultimately closes with a sudden wilt, as if a plug were pulled. Near the end viola and cello offer a droning wail; the violins resist, fluttering like butterflies in a killing jar, then finally succumb. Spiral X: ‘In Memoriam’ (2007), by Chinary Ung, commemorates Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge, including members of his family. The performers sing in Cambodian and Sanskrit, growl and shout while negotiating Mr. Ung’s meticulous bowing indications and dynamics. Even in the most violent and abrasive passages of this remarkable piece, a poignant melody hovers ghostlike. The Attacca players handled their roles with precision and passion, to deeply moving effect. Folk themes in the Polish composer Joanna Bruzdowicz’s intense String Quartet No. 1 (“La Vita,” 1983), paid homage to Szymanowski, but her dense harmonies and indeterminate counterpoint had more in common with music of a later forebear, Lutoslawski. Matthew Hindson’s Industrial Night Music: String Quartet No. 1 (2003) opened like a roller coaster with two gears: very fast and crazy fast. You could just about catch your breath during a twinkling interlude; then it was full speed ahead to the end" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 7/8/08].

July 20

Tanglewood Festival: Festival of Contemporary Music: Carter's Century. Lenox, MA. The Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood usually brings together composers of many stripes in a concentrated jamboree of new and recent works, punctuated now and again by a venerable modernist classic. This year’s festival, which started on [July 20] and runs through [July 24], is different. To celebrate the life of Elliott Carter, who turns 100 on Dec. 11, the Tanglewood Music Center -- Tanglewood’s teaching arm, which runs the festival -- is devoting this year’s programs entirely to his music, presenting 47 works in 10 concerts, along with panels, interviews and a video screening. . . . There is another crucial difference. James Levine, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a devoted fan of Mr. Carter’s, cares deeply about new music and has removed the wall that has long existed between the orchestra and the festival. He has taken on the directorship of this year’s installment, and he spent two years assembling the programs. He planned to conduct several concerts as well but withdrew because of his kidney surgery this month. His absence deprived the student musicians of an inspiring force, but the festival itself was not derailed. Oliver Knussen and Stefan Asbury, both experienced Carter conductors, added some of Mr. Levine’s conducting tasks to their own, and a handful of the center’s student conducting fellows picked up works as well. The resulting performances by the center’s students, faculty members and guests have been up to the current international standard: they let listeners focus on the poetry in Mr. Carter’s music instead of its difficulty. Mr. Carter can still be surprising. A new work, Sound Fields (2007), composed for the festival, does away with almost everything you expect in a Carter work. Counterpoint, sharply contrasting dynamics, tempos, and coloration: all gone. This work is about shifting densities, from single notes to thick textures, and is scored for a homogenous string ensemble that plays entirely at a calm mezzo forte. Think of it as Mr. Carter’s Adagio for Strings, with a nod to [La Monte Young and] Morton Feldman. Mr. Asbury conducted the work twice on Sunday evening (it lasts only four minutes) before giving a performance of the grander Variations for Orchestra (1955), which, as in Mr. Levine’s recent readings, was so bold, supple and rich-hued that you could almost mistake it for neoromanticism. . . . Independent ensembles also crop up in Mr. Carter’s concertos, several of which were played . . . . In the Double Concerto for Harpsichord, Piano and Two Chamber Orchestras (1961) . . . the solo instruments -- with Ursula Oppens playing harpsichord and Charles Rosen, piano -- dueled it out alone and as parts of the opposing ensembles. Mr. Knussen made the ensembles’ often incompatible meters sound as if they fitted together naturally. But the most striking aspect of Mr. Carter’s concerto writing is his insistence that the soloist and the ensemble share the spotlight (and the difficulty) equally. In the Clarinet Concerto (1996), the soloist, Thomas Martin, moved among widely placed instrumental groups, each eliciting a different kind of clarinet color and phrasing. Erik Nielsen, an already accomplished conducting fellow, led that performance with decisiveness and assurance, a quality he also supplied in a vital account of Dialogues (2003), with Nicolas Hodges playing the dazzling solo piano line" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/23/07].

Summergarden. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. "All featured music performed by members of the New Juilliard Ensemble, with some combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano. . . . The sometimes raucous debate of the British composer Daniel Giorgetti’s Dialogue for Violin and Piano (played in the second half of the program) penetrated through the heat and noise with a conversation in the highest register of the two instruments. With violin pizzicatos, piano staccatos and muted piano strings, it sometimes sounded like an angry couple shrieking and slamming doors, before a violin cadenza full of whining slides heralded a reconciliation. Much of the one-movement Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano by Valentin Bibik, a Ukrainian composer who died in Israel in 2003 . . . opened with a melancholy cello line, eventually building to an intense middle section before fading out to a (barely audible) introverted conclusion. . . . [In] the tango-inspired Hipermilonga for violin, clarinet and piano, by the Argentine-American composer Pablo Ortiz[, . . . e]nergetic, jazzy riffs alternated with sultry interludes, with soulful clarinet solos played elegantly by Sean Rice. The other performers . . . included [Joel] Sachs on piano, the cellist Elizabeth Lara and the violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron, who all played with conviction. . . . Each of the three sections [of Ricardo Lorenz's Compass Points] was written in a different location and reflects the composer’s state of mind and circumstances at the time. The first movement, composed in Umbria, Italy, offered a sultry canvas with passionate violin interludes. The second -- both melancholy and defiant, with languid clarinet riffs -- was written in Bloomington, Ind., as a tribute to the pianist and composer Robert Avalon. The frenzied, driven dance rhythms of Scherzarengue, the last movement, evoke a busy period in the composer’s life when he moved to East Lansing, Mich. . . . Homage Leroy Jenkins by the American composer Elliott Sharp, [was] a rhythmically intense tribute to Mr. Jenkins, the jazz violinist who died last year, with a ragalike, hypnotic pulse" [Vivien Schweitzer, 7/22/08].

July 21

Tanglewood Festival: Festival of Contemporary Music: Carter's Century. Lenox, MA. "[Stefan] Asbury drew . . . eloquence from his players . . . in several of [Elliott] Carter’s works for multiple ensembles that play simultaneously but independently: the Triple Duo (1983), a zesty study in gamesmanship and humor for three pairs of instruments; Syringa (1978), a vocal score in which a John Ashbery poem and an ancient Greek text (sung with an appealing clarity and emotional heft by Kristen Hoff, a mezzo-soprano, and Evan Hughes, a bass-baritone) are juxtaposed; and Penthode (1985), in which a melody evolves slowly and with ample decoration as it travels among five groups of four instruments each" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/23/07].

July 22

Tanglewood Festival: Festival of Contemporary Music: Carter's Century. Elliott Carter's In te Distances of Sleep, Mad Regales, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Figment I-II, Caténaires, Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux I-II, and Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord. Lenox, MA. "Of the vocal scores performed later in the festival, the most compelling was In the Distances of Sleep (2006), six refined and at times movingly dramatized Wallace Stevens settings, heard in a ravishing performance by the mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey[, . . . whose] velvety tone and an intuitively supple phrasing took these pieces straight to the heart. It was a performance likely to have disarmed anyone who still regarded Mr. Carter’s writing as harsh or impenetrable. The same program included Jo Ellen Miller’s bright-hued account of A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1976) and Mad Regales (2007), a new work for vocal sextet in an updated madrigal style. Mr. Carter rarely looks to the musical past, but the madrigals edge in that direction. So did another work on Tuesday, the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (1952), a classic in which the brittle tone of the harpsichord hints at a Baroque sensibility within a modern harmonic setting. . . . Among the other solo performers, Kathryn Bates, a cellist with a beautifully rounded sound, made the uneasy balance between lyricism and drama in Figment I (1994) and Figment II (2001) sound organic, as it should, on Tuesday afternoon. Also memorable on that program were a high-energy performance of the chromatic, perpetual-motion Caténaires (2006) by Sandra Gu, a pianist; and a fluid rendering of the contrastingly sharp- and soft-edged sections of Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux (1985) and Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux II (1994) by Brook Ferguson, flutist; Brent Besner, clarinetist; and Nick Tolle, marimba player. " [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/26/08].

Lincoln Center Festival: Laurie Anderson's Homeland. Rose Theater, New York, NY. "Anderson tried on a basketful of murky perspectives like so many pairs of sunglasses . . . . She affected wry detachment in one moment and astral wonderment in the next. At times her coolness cloaked tremors of panic. As a narrator she was not only unreliable but also mercurial, and often splintered as if through a prism. Ms. Anderson was presenting Homeland, her latest words-and-music opus, a version of which Nonesuch will release next year. And in a sense she was working in her signature mode, confronting a tangle of issues -- from the political to the existential to the metaphysical -- in terms that suggested elegy along with satire. A scattering of votive candles on the stage underscored a funereal atmosphere, and so did Ms. Anderson’s echo-treated violin annotations and organlike synthesizer hum. The subject of Homeland is manifold, and at 90 minutes it’s a bit too much of a ramble. Ms. Anderson sounds more curmudgeonly than clever as she takes aim at billboard-size underwear advertisements -- talk about broad targets -- and a culture steeped in self-improvement. She was less arch on topics like the dislocation of identity, adopting a quasi-mystical tone on the sections called Transitory Life and Bodies in Motion. It was probably no accident that the spookiest moments were also some of the loveliest. . . . Near the close of the concert, an expected guest stepped onstage: Lou Reed, Ms. Anderson’s longtime partner and, as of a few months ago, her husband. Lending guitar and vocals to a piece called The Lost Art of Conversation, he brought welcome fire and unruliness into the mix. But the framework was Ms. Anderson’s, and her message was unsparing: Love, like anything else, can be the byproduct of delusion" [Nate Chinen, 7/24/08].

Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein, including many from West Side Story, performed by pianist Bill Charlap and singer Kurt Elling. 92nd Street Y, New York, NY. "Bernstein, especially in his score for West Side Story, which dominated the concert, created some of the most operatically ambitious music ever composed for Broadway. Emotional extravagance, swirling urban color, Latin American fireworks -- in other words, flamboyant ostentation -- are its hallmarks. . . . Charlap was joined by Peter Washington on bass, Kenny Washington on drums, Brian Lynch on trumpet, Jimmy Greene on tenor sax and Joe Gordon on alto sax. Except for the guest pianist Ted Rosenthal’s rollicking Wrong Note Rag, Bernstein’s exuberance was discreetly tamped down, the songs treated as impeccably worked-out think pieces removed from their theatrical origins. Instead of conjuring familiar lyrics and the star-crossed passion of Tony and Maria, the concert considered Bernstein’s still-fresh fusion of pop, bebop, and Afro-Cuban jazz" [Stephen Holden, The New York Times, 7/24/08].

July 23

Tanglewood Festival: Festival of Contemporary Music: Carter's Century
. Elliott Carter's Concerto for Orchestra (1969). Lenox, MA. "The Concerto for Orchestra is Mr. Carter at his most involved and intricate, and there aren’t many conductors who know it as thoroughly as Mr. Knussen, whose copy of the score is copiously annotated with everything Mr. Carter has told him about his intentions, as well as corrections of misprints and a carefully highlighted guide to the main themes, which dart from instrument to instrument. In the performance on Wednesday evening, the work lived up to its reputation for being big and noisy (in a good way), but with a dramatic core and themes that sang with a beguiling sweetness. . . . Even in an expansive festival like this, gaps were inevitable. Little of Mr. Carter’s early music was performed. And of his five string quartets, only the second (from 1959) was on the bill. That work . . . was given a reading so fluid you would hardly have guessed that it was once considered brutally difficult. Such was often the case here: the Tanglewood Music Center’s students are virtuosic and fearless, and all through the week they attacked this music with evident enthusiasm and professional polish. . . . In the Second Quartet, Stephanie Nussbaum, the first violinist, played the extended cadenza with the warmth and nuance you would expect in a Kreisler piece, yet with ample modernist grit when the score veered in that direction." [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/26/08].

July 24

Death of Norman Dello Joio (b. 1/24/13), at 95. East Hampton, NY. "[He was] a composer who achieved wide popularity in the mid-20th century with a proliferation of essentially tonal, lyrical works . . . Dello Joio wrote dozens of pieces each for chorus, orchestra, solo voice, chamber groups and piano, as well as scores for television and three operas. Church music, the popular tunes of the jazz age, and 19th-century Italian opera were all influences on his style, which could be both austere and colorful. In defining his musical approach, Mr. Dello Joio cited the advice of a teacher, the composer Paul Hindemith, that he should never forget that his music was 'lyrical by nature.' That meant, 'Don’t sacrifice necessarily to a system,' Mr. Dello Joio said on his Web site. 'If it’s valid, and it’s good, put it down in your mind. Don’t say, ‘I have to do this because the system tells me to.’ No, that’s a mistake.' He said he took the advice to heart, and jokingly called himself an 'arch-conservative.' A strong spiritual bent emerged in his composing, and the story of Joan of Arc became a major theme. He wrote an opera called The Triumph of Joan, which he withdrew after a student performance in 1950 at Sarah Lawrence College, saying he was dissatisfied with the work. In its wake came The Trial at Rouen, a new St. Joan opera written for television. He revised it for the New York City Opera, under the title The Triumph of St. Joan, and later derived a symphonic piece from the first version. Mr. Dello Joio said he was first drawn to the subject by a children’s book on the lives of the saints, which he found in an organ loft at age 12. 'The timelessness and universality of Joan as a symbol lay in the eternal problem of the individual’s struggle to reconcile his personal beliefs with what he is expected to believe,' Mr. Dello Joio wrote in a 1956 article in The New York Times. 'Daily, for ages, she has challenged men to have her courage.' Mr. Dello Joio won awards throughout his career, gathering a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for his piece Meditations on Ecclesiastes for string orchestra and an Emmy in 1965 for a TV series, The Louvre, on NBC. He also wrote works for ballet; Martha Graham choreographed a number of them. The jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw commissioned a concerto from him. Mr. Dello Joio taught variously at Sarah Lawrence, the Mannes College of Music, and Boston University, where he was a dean of the School of Fine and Applied Arts. He also helped to establish a program at the Ford Foundation that placed young composers in residence in high schools. Mr. Dello Joio was . . . reared in New York City. His father was a vocal coach, a church organist, and his first keyboard teacher (He recalled that he used to see Metropolitan Opera stars arrive in Rolls-Royces at his house for coaching). At 12, he was substituting for his father at the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Manhattan. By 14, he was organist and choir director at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church on City Island. He also studied organ with his godfather, Pietro Yon, who was the organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He studied composition at the Juilliard School and with Hindemith at Yale and the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood. Mr. Dello Joio’s first marriage, to Grayce Baumgold, ended in divorce. In 1974 he married Barbara Bolton, who survives him, along with his sons, Justin Dello Joio, a composer, and Norman Dello Joio, a champion equestrian jumper; [and] his daughter, Victoria Dello Joio, a martial arts master teacher" [Daniel J. Wakin, The New York Times, 7/27/08].

Tanglewood Festival: Festival of Contemporary Music: Carter's Century. Lenox, MA. "In a 2003 letter to Elliott Carter included in Carter’s Century, an exhibition of photographs, scores and letters . . . James Levine outlines an ambitious plan to transform the Boston Symphony Orchestra into a first-rate Carter ensemble, with all the composer’s major works in the repertory. He has made good on that promise: better than good, really, having also commissioned a half-dozen works from Mr. Carter in the four years he has been the orchestra’s music director. . . . [T]o judge from the Carter program it played in Seiji Ozawa Hall . . . as the finale of the Festival of Contemporary Music -- a five-day, 10-concert celebration of Mr. Carter’s centenary, programmed by Mr. Levine -- the ensemble has thrown itself fully into the task. The concert was one of several Mr. Levine had planned to conduct before he was sidelined by kidney surgery, but Oliver Knussen and Shi-Yeon Sung, one of the orchestra’s assistant conductors, deputized for him to superb effect. Ms. Sung opened the program with Three Illusions (2002-4), a set of studies that concentrate on the constant transformation of timbre rather than the development of themes. And with James Sommerville as the soloist, Ms. Sung led the Horn Concerto (2006), a work that had its premiere in Boston last season. Mr. Carter’s characteristically taxing horn line has the instrument buzzing around its lower reaches and singing chromatically in the meatier part of its range. Mr. Sommerville, the orchestra’s principal hornist, played this difficult score with remarkable virtuosity and assurance. Mr. Knussen’s half of the Boston Symphony program included Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-96), three character works that, though roped together after the fact, work well as a 45-minute symphony with an arresting, plangent slow movement. But a greater joy was the Boston Concerto (2002), which shows off an orchestra’s component sections in much the same way the pivotal Concerto for Orchestra (1969) does. . . . If orchestral music was the heart of this festival (25 of the 47 works were for large ensemble), Mr. Carter’s vocal and chamber music, as well as the many solo pieces he has composed in recent years, were well represented too. . . . Carter, in an onstage interview . . . said the student performances were among the best he had ever heard. . . . [Stephanie] Nussbaum brought . . . expressive and coloristic range to Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi (1984) and Rhapsodic Musings (for Robert Mann) (2001). . . . [Brent] Besner’s performance of Steep Steps (2001), with its perilous leaps of a 12th, was a highligh . . . For five days, this festival was a kind of parallel universe, in which only Mr. Carter’s music was heard, in two concerts a day, with audiences packing the hall and shouting . . . when Mr. Carter took his curtain calls. More crucial, it offered a magnificent overview of the variety of Mr. Carter’s compositional interests, from the complexity of his works of the 1960's to the relative accessibility of his recent scores. It touched on his early attraction to neo-Classicism and his more recent fascination with texture on its own terms. And it examined the many engines that drive his music: the polyrhythms of multiple ensemble pieces, the restless melodies that bounce across an ensemble’s timbres and the natural, speechlike rhythms of his vocal works, for example. If you’re going to devote a festival to a single living composer, this is the way to do it" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/26/08].

July 25

Karol Szymanowski's King Roger performed by Bard College. Annandale-On-Hudson, NY. "King Roger [was] first performed in Warsaw in 1926 . . . . EMI Classics released a rapturous recording in 1999, with Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role. . . . There was enormous anticipation for this rare staging of Szymanowski’s mystical opera, which tells of a 12th-century Sicilian king undone by a blasphemous and alluring stranger: a shepherd who espouses a doctrine of sensual pleasure. The cast, performing in the original Polish, included some compelling Polish-born singers as well as the impressive Wroclaw Opera Chorus. . . . Szymanowski’s rapturous, thick-textured, lushly colored and harmonically elusive score presents formidable challenges . . . . Since his death at 54 in 1937, Szymanowski has hovered on the margins of the repertory, ready to break in, and may finally be doing so. King Roger is arguably his most ambitious and personal work. As a young man Szymanowski banded together with other composers to encourage progressive trends in Polish music. On his own he immersed himself in German modernism, especially the music of his beloved Richard Strauss, and also Debussy and Ravel, Scriabin and Stravinsky. King Roger, with a libretto by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz loosely based on Euripides’s Bacchae, grew out of Szymanowski’s life-altering travels to Italy. As can be gleaned from the memoirs of his close friend the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, Szymanowski did not really cover up his homosexuality, a brave choice at the time. King Roger could be taken as a morality tale about being true to one’s nature. The Christian king is rattled when a charismatic shepherd arrives proclaiming a creed of beauty and eroticism, like some 1960's free-love guru. The king’s subjects, including his queen, are enthralled. Bolstered by his adviser, an Arabian sage, the king vows to subdue the intruder. But the stouthearted and self-contained king is drawn helplessly into the shepherd’s realm of the erotic. During a climactic bacchanal the shepherd is revealed to be Dionysus. At the end, though transformed by his experience, the king invokes the sun -- the world of Apollonian reason -- now balanced by desire. The opera, in three acts, runs 85 minutes and is performed here without a break. It opens with an enthralling choral scene depicting a church ritual. Choral incantations with hints of Asiatic melody weave through a mystical haze of almost timeless, shimmering impressionist harmonies. . . . King Roger, portrayed by Adam Kruszewski, a stentorian Polish baritone, looks like a sci-fi character sporting an incongruous gilded breastplate. Iwona Hossa, an earthy soprano, plays the queen, Roxana, a surreal creature with a white cotton-candy hairdo. The shepherd, the tenor Tadeusz Szlenkier, appears as a Christlike figure with flowing brown locks, his arms almost always raised as if bestowing nonstop benedictions. All three gave idiomatic, vocally secure performances of difficult roles. Ms. Hossa gave a disarming account of the long scene in Act II where, in plaintive, harmonically nebulous music, she pleads with her husband to forgive the new prophet. Mr. Szlenkier navigated the shepherd’s high-lying, arduous vocal lines. . . .Conducting this unfamiliar opera would have been challenge enough, but [Leon] Botstein preceded it with a performance of Szymanowski’s Harnasie, a 1931 pastoral dance, choreographed by Noémie Lafrance. The story, drawn from Polish legends, is about a reluctant peasant bride who falls for a highland robber. I did not know this expressionistic score . . . . On balance I am grateful to Mr. Botstein for presenting the inspired and overlooked King Roger" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 7/28/08].

July 28

The New York Times announces the death of the cassette tape. New York, NY. "There was a funeral the other day in the Midtown offices of Hachette, the book publisher, to mourn the passing of what it called a “dear friend.” Nobody had actually died, except for a piece of technology, the cassette tape. Hachette’s audio department recently held a “funeral” for cassette tapes; an invitation is above. While the cassette was dumped long ago by the music industry, it has lived on among publishers of audio books. Many people prefer cassettes because they make it easy to pick up in the same place where the listener left off, or to rewind in case a certain sentence is missed. For Hachette, however, demand had slowed so much that it released its last book on cassette in June, with Sail, a novel by James Patterson and Howard Roughan. The funeral at Hachette -- an office party in the audio-book department -- mirrored the broader demise of cassettes, which gave vinyl a run for its money before being eclipsed by the compact disc (The CD, too, is in rapid decline, thanks to internet music stores, but that is a different story). Cassettes have limped along for some time, partly because of their usefulness in recording conversations or making a tape of favorite songs . . . . But sales of portable tape players, which peaked at 18 million in 1994, sank to 480,000 in 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The group predicts that sales will taper to 86,000 in 2012. 'I bet you would be hard pressed to find a household in the U.S. that doesn’t have at least a couple cassette tapes hanging around,' said Shawn DuBravac, an economist with the Consumer Electronics Association. Even if publishers of music and audio books stopped using cassettes entirely, people would still shop for tape players because of 'the huge libraries of legacy content consumers have kept,' he said. As long as people keep mix tapes from a high-school sweetheart up in the attic, Mr. DuBravac said, there will still be the urge to hear them. 'People have a tremendous amount of installed content and an innate curiosity when coming across a box of tapes to say, ‘Hey, what’s on these?’' he said. The tapes started to really take off in 1979, the year that a radical new cassette player -- the Sony Walkman -- was introduced . . . . The heft of the early Walkman -- slightly smaller and lighter than a brick -- is comical by today’s wispy iPod standards, but during the Carter administration it seemed sleek. Nowadays, listening to music on cassettes is a dying pastime. . . . Last year, only 400,000 music tapes were sold, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of all physical and digital music sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. In 1997, the figure was 173 million, and that was when cassettes were already getting a drubbing by CD's (The iPod wasn’t introduced until 2001). 'I would not expect to see a revival of cassettes like we’ve seen in the LP market,' Mr. DuBravac said. While vinyl records have always been prized artifacts for their devotees, the plastic cassette tape has little sex appeal. Such was the case for the eight-track format as well, which was popular in the late 1960's and 70's. It died relatively quickly with the advent of cassettes because eight-tracks were not widely used for personal recording . . . . While the chances of finding cassette players in a dorm room today are slim, they are still available for sale: on Amazon, Sony alone offers 23 tape players, from the Walkman to boomboxes. Popping a cassette in the car tape deck is also passé. Only 4 percent of vehicles sold in the United States during the 2007 model year had factory-installed cassette players, according to Ward’s Automotive Yearbook. As recently as the 2005 model year, 23 percent of vehicles had them. Given that the median age of a car in the United States is nine years old, said Alan K. Binder, the editor of Ward’s yearbook, it is most likely that the majority of the 200 million cars and light trucks on America’s roads have cassette players . . . . Cassette tapes’ tendency to hiss -- and to melt in the summer and snap in the winter -- turns off audiophiles. But for audio books, the cassette is an oddly elegant medium: you can eject it from your car, carry it home and stick it in a boombox, and it will pick up in the same place, an analog feat beyond the ability of the CD. Cassettes accounted for 7 percent of all sales in the $923 million audio-book industry in 2006, the latest year for which data is available, according to the Audio Publishers Association. While many publishers, like Random House and Macmillan, stopped producing books on cassette in the last couple of years, there are holdouts. At Blackstone Audio, which produces cassette versions of its roughly 340 annual titles, Josh Stanton, the executive vice president, said there was still demand from libraries and truckers, who buy them at truck stops. But he could forecast only that his company would produce cassettes through 2009. Recorded Books, whose authors include Philip Roth and Jodi Picoult, still issues cassettes of all its titles, roughly 700 a year. Retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble have essentially stopped ordering them, but libraries have been slower to abandon them, said Brian Downing, the company’s publisher. The Web sites of Barnes & Noble and Borders, however, indicate that they still offer some cassettes, though publishers say the stores’ buyers have expressed little interest in ordering more in the future. At some point, the cassette will go the way of the eight-track, Mr. Downing acknowledged, and his company will publish only in other formats. 'I would guess it would be pretty much gone in three years,' he said" [Andrew Adam Newman, The New York Times, 7/28/08].