Saturday, November 1, 2008
Chronicle of September 2008
San Francisco Cabaret Opera presents excerpts from Mark Alburger's Mice and Men. Community Music Center, San Francisco, CA. Repeated 9/6, 12, and 14.
American premiere production of Howard Shore’s The Fly. Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles, CA. Through 9/17. "Given its location, it makes sense for Los Angeles Opera, of all companies, to recruit creative talents from the film industry to try their hands at energizing opera. This has certainly been a priority for Plácido Domingo as the company’s general director . . . With a libretto by the playwright David Henry Hwang, the opera is based on the director David Cronenberg’s 1986 film, for which [Howard] Shore wrote the music. Mr. Cronenberg, working closely with Mr. Shore, directed this opera, a co-production with the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, where the work had its world premiere in July. But despite the inventive staging and all-out efforts of an admirable cast -- especially the courageous performance of the Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Seth Brundle, the obsessed scientist who morphs into the hideous creature he calls Brundlefly -- The Fly is a ponderous and enervating opera, and the problem is Mr. Shore’s music. Mr. Shore’s scores for films like The Silence of the Lambs and, more recently, Mr. Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises evince his indisputable skills, keen ear for harmony and feeling for instrumental color. And moment to moment there are intriguing qualities in The Fly. As the opera begins, the ominous mood is introduced through pungent, elusive and quietly restless chords spiked with prickly dissonance. Film composers, who need to work in all manner of styles, tend to develop suction-cup ears, and Mr. Shore shows off his with music that recalls everything from Berg to Bartok and a swath of classic movie scores. But considering that Mr. Shore has worked on some feverishly intense films, his writing here is curiously tame. Singers exchanging dialogue in winding vocal lines are often accompanied by chords that pass by with strangely metronomic regularity, while a meandering counter-line in the lower strings is tossed in to keep things tense. A large contingent of offstage and onstage choristers portray guests at a party for science writers, boisterous regulars at a pool hall and others. But the choral writing is terribly ineffective. Words are typically set in block chords, with pummeling rhythms . . . . The most exasperating stretches of the score come when Mr. Shore is most somber. Wandering vocal lines intertwine with every-which-way instrumental lines that skirt tonality, while sustained orchestral harmonies provide a static support. With hints of 12-tone rows and Bergian richness, the music shows signs of Mr. Shore’s craft in almost every measure. But it never adds up. It’s as if Mr. Shore had abandoned his cinematic imagination to write a dutifully contemporary opera. Mr. Domingo conducted. The score is outside the realm of the standard repertory works he has mostly led. The performance he elicited seemed fairly assured and texturally balanced. Still, a conductor with real credentials in contemporary music might have made a better case for Mr. Shore’s work. . . . The opera is based not just on Mr. Cronenberg’s film, which was set in the 1980s, but also on the original short story from 1957 by George Langelaan. The setting has been moved back to the late 1950's. As depicted by the set designer Dante Ferretti, the computer in Brundle’s lab that connects the two huge teleports he has invented is a big, old-fashioned thing with knobs, lights and control panels. . . . In the opera we are simply told about Brundle’s eating habits in one of those clunky, offstage choruses, voicing the thoughts of the computer. But the conception of Brundle, at least as portrayed by Mr. Okulitch, has poignant allure. . . . At one point in Act II, Mr. Okulitch, his skin now covered in hideous scales, is suspended by wires. He enters his studio upside down, crawling along a ceiling crossbeam and then slithering head-first down a metal column, singing all the while. This is something voice students are not prepared for in conservatory training. Mr. Okulitch, who has a warm and lyrical voice, sings with conviction, intelligence and volatility. His voice is not large, and he is sometimes drowned out, though that may be the fault of Mr. Shore’s sometimes misgauged orchestration or Mr. Domingo’s conducting. The lovely Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose sings Veronica, the most dramatically pivotal role, with vulnerability, quiet intensity and lush colorings. She too takes risks with her portrayal. Wearing just a slip in an intimate romantic scene with Mr. Okulitch, she writhes with pleasure as he fondles her breasts and strokes her crotch. It’s hard to imagine even a go-for-broke artist from earlier times, like Teresa Stratas, consenting to such a thing. For better or worse, opera is breaking new ground. . . Now and then the music grabs you, as in an extended love duet for Brundle and Veronica. Finally, here are captivating lyrical phrases that flow with halting, elusive restraint, cushioned by bittersweet orchestral harmonies. Mr. Shore has clear strengths as a composer and may have a good opera in him. The Fly is not it" [Anthony Tommasini, 9/8/08].
Gustav Mahler’s sprawling, 80-minute Symphony No. 8 ("Of a Thousand”) scored for a massive orchestra, two choruses and nine vocal soloists. Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA. "Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a vibrant performance of this ecstatic and metaphysical work . . . on a balmy night. . . . [I]t was refreshing and moving to hear the piece at one of the world’s largest amphitheaters before an enthusiastic audience. . . . Both this facility, which opened in 1922 but has gone through several renovations since then, and the scene this concert generated were fascinating. . . . The Los Angeles Philharmonic offers a summer series, and there are also concerts by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The seating area can accommodate 18,000 people, and some seats are in small boxes where makeshift tables can be set up for a picnic dinner. . . The Mahler performance attracted 9,128, according to the Bowl’s tally. In the park outside the Bowl before the concert, the mood was festive, with snack bars, restaurants and musical groups . . . . To make the immense stage and seating area feel more intimate, there are two enormous video screens on either side of the proscenium, carrying close-up images of the performers and, on this night, English subtitles to translate the Latin and German texts. . . . Salonen led an urgent, sweeping and nuanced account of the score. The piece was dubbed the 'Symphony of a Thousand' by the agent who arranged its 1910 premiere in Munich, conducted by Mahler. For that first performance Mahler assembled a roster of choristers and orchestra players that numbered just over 1,000. But he disliked the nickname and the 'Barnum & Bailey methods' used in promoting the work, as he wrote at the time. . . . Mahler might have been touched by the populist trappings of this concert and the sight of thousands of people enjoying dinners of roasted chicken, pasta, salad and wine, and then turning their attention to a symphony that juxtaposes the sacred and the secular, eternal life and eternal love, as Mahler described it. . . . Salonen had a more manageable roster of performers: the 100-member Los Angeles Master Chorale (Grant Gershon, music director); the 75-member Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director); the Philharmonic, 122 players strong; and the 8 vocal soloists, for a total of 305. . . . Mahler recalled in an account of the work’s genesis that he composed it in, for him, an astoundingly short burst of creative inspiration, mostly in 1906. “I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me,” he wrote. There is little trace of the tortured, bitterly ironic Mahler in this work, perhaps his least convoluted and most openhearted symphony. Mr. Salonen’s performance managed to convey the piece as a whole, as a cogent entity. While the sudden emotional shifts of the music came through, both the passages of ruminative quiet and the tumultuous outbursts, so did the compelling narrative arc. . . The soloists were excellent: the sopranos Christine Brewer, Elza van den Heever and Stacey Tappan; the altos Nancy Maultsby and Elena Manistina; the tenor Anthony Dean Griffey; the baritone Alan Held; and the bass John Relyea. And Mr. Salonen seemed elated by the audience’s ovation. . . . [These] are his last concerts at the Hollywood Bowl as the Philharmonic’s music director: he steps down next spring, at the end of the season" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/10/08].
Robert Ward's The Crucible (after Arthur Miller). Dicapo Opera Theater, New York, NY. "The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s searing play about the 1692 Salem witch trials -- an allegory about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and anti-Communist witch hunts -- was only eight years old when Robert Ward completed his Pulitzer Prize-winning operatic setting, in 1961. And with the Kennedy era just dawning (brief as that dawn turned out to be), the McCarthy era was still fresh in the national memory. The Dicapo Opera Theater’s spare but powerful revival of Mr. Ward’s score . . . was enough to make you nostalgic for that fleeting moment when new theater and new opera were socially relevant and could make common cause. It remains a powerful work. The McCarthy hearings may be nearly six decades behind us, but orthodoxies of all kinds continue to be corrosive. Mr. Ward’s work, with a libretto by Bernard Stambler, requires a large cast of townswomen, their husbands, a couple of preachers, a slave and a judge, as well as the young girls who, with a variety of unhealthy motives, denounce the women as witches. It is, mostly, an ensemble opera: the real beauty, tension and drama are found in crowded scenes, where characters with conflicting agendas create a rich, fast-moving vocal fabric. Even in the second act, a long confrontation between John Proctor and Abigail Williams, his former mistress and his wife’s accuser, the solo writing for the characters is more like an expansive duet than a series of arias. Throughout, Mr. Ward’s orchestration is vivid, rhythmically vital and melodically eclectic, with folkish vocal settings intertwined with a gently angular modernism. Pacien Mazzagatti’s conducting mined these characteristics astutely. Robert Alfoldi’s production, with its minimal sets by John Farrell and Puritanically colorless costumes by Sandor Daroczi, accomplishes much with little. The symbolism of the shallow pits in which much of the action takes place is clear enough, and white face paint gives the townspeople a ghoulish look: the accusers, the accused and the judges are all spiritually dead. The singing was uniformly strong, with Zeffin Quinn Hollis and Lisa Chavez working in tandem as a pained, sympathetic John and Elizabeth Proctor; Marie-Adeline Henry as a strikingly powerful Abigail, more misguided than malevolent; and Katherine Keyes as a rich-voiced Rebecca Nurse, the moral pillar of the piece. Michael Bracegirdle was a magnificently imperious Judge Danforth, and in smaller roles, Lynne Abeles (as Mary Warren), Matthew Lau (Rev. Hale), Nicole Farbes-Lyons (Tituba) and David Gagnon (Rev. Parris) contributed ably to Mr. Ward’s intense mosaic" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 9/12/08].
Douglas Geers's Calling: An Opera of Forgiveness, whose libretto is based on Wickham Boyle's A Mother’s Essays From Ground Zero. La MaMa E.T.C., New York, NY. "In the first scene, “Blue Sky,” singers enter the bare stage area from throughout the theater, intoning the words of the title over a tremulous accompaniment. . . . A tense undercurrent in the music builds to a sudden whine from Mr. Geers’s computer. As faces turn upward, sounds cease, and overhead lights go out. The cast is frozen in silhouette against a somber, blue-lighted backdrop. After an extended silence the vocalists stagger into motion, to fumbling lines on violin and cello. . . . Geers’s music, a tonal vocabulary punctuated with fidgets and squeals, aptly conveys contradictory moods, though it seldom asserts a character as personal as that of Ms. Boyle’s words. Several scenes feature the wordless chants and sighs characteristic of much post-Philip Glass opera. In the Apartment, in which the mother and father debate retrieving their younger daughter from a school near the towers, verges on musical-theater melodrama. In Empty Socket and The Clean Up, family members and relief workers declaim lines rather than singing them. A small ensemble, positioned to one side of the stage area and conducted by Hiroya Miura, played with polish and confidence. Another conductor, Carl Bettendorf, helped to coordinate the vocalists from a seat near the opposite wall. . . . Minor rough edges aside, “Calling” admirably translates Ms. Boyle’s singular observations of horror and hope into a genuinely touching theatrical experience" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 9/15/08].
San Francisco Opera premieres Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter’s Daughter, with a libretto by Amy Tan. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA. Mr. Wallace and Ms. Tan essentially wrote the piece in tandem, scene by scene. Their work involved several trips to China over three years, immersing themselves in the music of ethnic minorities and observing village funerals and weddings. The concept of the opera took on a more mythical dimension when the Chinese-born director and choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng became involved. And David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, who commissioned the work, also had a hand in shaping it. . . . And whatever anyone’s reaction to the piece (I had mixed feelings), it is certainly a work of total theater. Mr. Wallace incorporates aspects of Chinese music, including Hong Kong film scores, into his Western contemporary classical style. The music is so bound to the libretto, visuals, choreography and special effects that it is impossible to assess the quality of Mr. Wallace’s score on its own. It took him nine months, but Mr. Wallace convinced Ms. Tan, who was hesitant about the project at first, that her generational story of three Chinese women who are all, in different ways, searching for their voices, cried out for music. The main character is the American-born Ruth Young Kamen, who lives in San Francisco in the 1990s, married to Art Kamen, whose two daughters from a previous marriage resent their ethnic stepmother. Ruth works as a ghostwriter. So she is used to submerging her voice into that of her clients. Her immigrant mother, LuLing, is disgruntled and controlling, filled with unspoken resentments, yet tenaciously connected to her daughter. In childhood LuLing worked as a laborer in an ink-making studio in a village outside Beijing. She has long spoken with equal measures of reverence and guilt about the woman who reared her, Precious Auntie, the daughter of a renowned bonesetter, who mended broken limbs and collected precious dragon bones, as they were called, relics carved with sacred inscriptions or ground into potions for healing. Though LuLing grew up thinking Precious Auntie was just her nursemaid, she discovers that this facially disfigured and mute woman who communicates through grunts and hand gestures is actually her mother. In the novel Ruth learns the truth by reading LuLing’s diary. In the opera Precious Auntie first appears as a surreal and entrancing ghost, leading Ruth back into her mother’s youth in the 1930's. The mezzo-soprano who sings Ruth, Zheng Cao, symbolically becomes her mother during these pivotal flashback scenes, a conceptual twist more operatic, if also more melodramatic, than the novel. But the device allowed Mr. Wallace, Ms. Tan and the production team to enhance the work’s mysticism. This is a story about the pervasive impact of family history on an individual. And music is very handy for tapping into subliminal emotions. But the opera’s mystical dimension is overblown. The prologue, set in a timeless void, begins startlingly with the wonderfully reedy braying of two suonas, Chinese instruments that resemble oboes. Imagine the jazzman Steve Lacy evoking ethnic Chinese music with his wailing soprano saxophone. But when the three main characters -- Ruth, her mother and her grandmother -- appear and begin singing an ethereal trio amid billowing, ghostly stage fog, the vocal lines meander and the orchestra gets stuck in repetitive eight-note ostinato patterns, with thick-layered sustained harmonies quivering above. . . . Mr. Wallace’s. . . best-known wor [is], the 1995 opera Harvey Milk . . . [B]y immersing himself in Chinese music, he seems to have given a fresh, pungent jolt to his musical voice, at least in the score’s most effective episodes. He . . . let the Chinese sources influence him without directly quoting anything" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/14/08].
American premiere of Iannis Xenakis’s "sharp-edged, otherworldly" opera Oresteia. Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York, NY. "Xenakis composed the core of the work as incidental music for a staging of that Aeschylus trilogy in Ypsilanti, MI, in 1966 and recast it as a concert suite in 1967. In 1987 he expanded it significantly, adding a long Kassandra section for bass and percussion. And in 1992 he added the finale, La Déesse Athéna (which is sometimes performed separately). What was heard at Miller was the first American performance of the final version. But given how compressed Mr. Xenakis’s gloss on this complex ancient story is, you get the impression that if he hadn’t died in 2001, he might still be adding to it. The 1987 and 1992 additions fill out considerable stretches of the story, which begins at the close of the Trojan War and touches on Agamemnon’s return with Cassandra, the captured daughter of the King of Troy, as well as the murder of them both by his wife, Clytemnestra. The matricidal vengeance taken by Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, is mentioned in passing, and the work ends with Athena’s establishment of mortal justice and her conversion of the Furies into the more benign Eumenides. Possibly because the work began as incidental music, a familiarity with the Aeschylus plays is presumed. It isn’t absolutely necessary: Oresteia works powerfully on its own terms. But having some background helps. The libretto alludes fleetingly to important events that are not otherwise discussed or enacted, and it must seem bizarrely cryptic to anyone who doesn’t know the story. In truth, Oresteia is less an opera than a hybrid oratorio and ballet. The choruses convey much of the drama in a highly stylized, changeable language that at first has the rhythmic and melodic character of church chant and later takes on a freer, more idiosyncratic accent that, combined with the text in ancient Greek, conveys a modernist’s vision of a starkly elemental, nuance-averse ancient ritual. The only solo vocal music is in the Kassandra and “Déesse Athéna” sections, and they are as idiosyncratic as can be: in the first, the bass switches between his natural voice and falsetto to produce a dialogue between Agamemnon and Cassandra; in the second, he sings as the goddess Athena, leaping between basso depths and falsetto heights: why limit a goddess to the vocal range of a mortal woman? Wilbur Pauley, the soloist at Miller, gave a vital account of these sections, with magnificent support from David Schotzko, the percussionist. Mr. Schotzko had plenty to do through the rest of the score as well, where the percussion is prominent in an ensemble of woodwinds, brass and a single cello. Mr. Xenakis’s scoring is ruggedly dissonant, with harsh quarter-tone chords, sliding sitarlike cello lines and screaming clarinets and oboes describing the tensions only hinted at in the spare libretto. The orchestral music also goes a long way toward describing the action, which is brought to life not by the singers, as in a conventional opera, but by six lithe dancers. Luca Veggetti, who directed and choreographed the production, found a fine, expressive balance between fluidity and jaggedness, modern sensibility and imagined antiquity. Pascal Delcey’s projected artworks, which melted into one another on a screen to the side of the stage, offered similar juxtapositions. With Steven Osgood conducting, the International Contemporary Ensemble and the three choirs — a men’s chorus, a women’s chorus and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City — performed the music with ample polish and not the least restraint. Mr. Osgood and his musicians understand Mr. Xenakis’s quirky, vibrant writing, and they make it exhilarating" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 14/08].
Memorial Event for Jorge Liderman: Tropes V (Jackie Chow, piano), Tiempo Viejo (Florian Conzetti, percussion), Aires de Sefarad(Matt Gould, guitar and Beth Ilana, violin), Antigone Furiosa (film clip), and Swirling Streams (Berkeley Contemproary Chamber Players).
Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA.
Movado Hour. Pavel Muzijevic, Robert Spano, Tomas Sherwood, and Charles Sette in a program including John Cage's In a Landscape (1948), George Crumb's Music for A Summer Evening (Makrokosmos, Volume III), and Steve Reich's Clapping Music. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, NY. "This is a side of Cage you don’t hear often, and you would be hard pressed to identify it as his work. Its textures are gentle, rippling, vaguely Debussian, with simple melodies weaving through a tissue of arpeggiated, diatonic noodling. How odd to think that as a young composer, Cage wrote music that could today be mistaken as the New Age meandering of George Winston. "Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Settle took the floor -- the large studio in which the Baryshnikov Center offers its concerts doesn’t have a stage -- for a performance of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music (1972). This is a classic of Mr. Reich . . . , when he was exploring the complex patterns created by two musicians performing a simple line (in this case a clapped rhythmic pattern) . . . . Short of someone’s messing up (these players didn’t), not much changes from one performance to the next, but the web of rhythms that Mr. Reich’s techniques produce never grows old. The program’s main work, the only one that involved the full roster, was Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), George Crumb’s 1974 evocation of a rarefied, magical atmosphere. Mr. Crumb asks much of his percussionists and keyboardists: the pianists produce both plain sonorities and harpsichordlike, plucked sounds, and the percussionists move from conventional instruments to slide whistles blown into the piano and spooky vocalizations. Mr. Crumb’s writing ranges from delicate to explosive, from simplistic and childlike to densely chromatic. This is a score awash in contradictions, as his works often are. But Mr. Muzijevic, Mr. Spano, Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Settle played it with a convincing power and subtlety" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 9/15/08].
[Pink Floyd in the 1970's: Rick Wright, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, David Gilmour]
Death of Rick Wright, of cancer, at 65. London, UK. "[He was] the keyboardist whose somber, monumental sounds were at the core of Pink Floyd’s art-rock. . . . Wright was a founding member of Pink Floyd, and his spacious, somber, enveloping keyboards, backing vocals and eerie effects were an essential part of its musical identity. . . . [Syd] Barrett’s whimsical, asymmetrical songs and the band’s fondness for experimental sounds placed it at the center of London’s underground psychedelic movement in the mid-1960s. 'Music was our drug,' Mr. Wright once told an interviewer. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in 1967 and yielded pop hits in England, but LSD use and mental illness made Mr. Barrett so unstable that he left Pink Floyd in 1968. He recorded two solo albums; Mr. Wright and Mr. Gilmour produced the second one, Barrett, in 1970. Mr. Barrett died in 2006, at the age of 60. Pink Floyd’s late-1960's and early-70's albums mingled pop songs with extended pieces, like the 23-minute Echoes, which begins with single notes from Mr. Wright’s keyboard, on 1971’s Meddle. On the 1969 album, Ummagumma, which includes solo studio recordings by each band member, Mr. Wright’s four-part Sisyphus encompasses a majestic dirge with tympani, a piano piece that moves from rippling impressionism to crashing free jazz, a clattery interlude for keyboards and percussion, and a mostly elegiac improvisation with organ, guitar, tape effects and birdcalls. With The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd reined in its improvisation, came up with a concept album about workaday pressures and insanity and established itself as an arena-rock staple. The album stayed in the Billboard Top 200 album chart for 741 weeks. . . . But there were conflicts within the band. Mr. Waters, who had increasingly taken control of Pink Floyd, reportedly threatened not to release The Wall unless Mr. Wright resigned his full membership in the band. Mr. Wright quit, only to tour with Pink Floyd in 1980-81 as a salaried sideman. He does not appear on the band’s 1983 album, The Final Cut. After that album, Mr. Waters left Pink Floyd for a solo career, declaring the band a “spent force creatively.” Amid lawsuits, Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Mason regrouped under the Pink Floyd name; Mr. Wright rejoined them for the 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell in 1994. Mr. Wright, who was married three times, is survived by three children, Benjamin, Gala and Jamie; and one grandchild. In interviews in 1996, Mr. Wright said he had not spoken to Mr. Waters for 14 years. Mr. Wright played keyboards on Mr. Gilmour’s 2006 album, On an Island, and went on tour with Mr. Gilmour’s band. Pink Floyd’s 1970s lineup reunited briefly at the Live 8 London concert in Hyde Park on July 2, 2005, performing four songs before sharing a hug" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 9/15-16/08].
Music on Macdougal, with Sequenza21, in a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of Minimalism, including Terry Riley's In C. Players Theater, New York, NY. "[M]any new-music historians, date minimalism to La Monte Young’s String Trio, composed in 1958 . . . . Joseph Kubera, the pianist, played two works -- both called Piano Piece (1958, 1960) -- by Terry Jennings, a friend and colleague of Mr. Young’s. They are minimalist in the sense that their textures are spare, with notes and chords played softly separated by long silences, in which a listener savors the decay of the sound. Yet Mr. Jennings used 12-tone rows and dissonances: from that perspective, these pieces have more in common with Webern than with Mr. Riley and company. [Steve] Reich and [Philip] Glass were represented by works composed in 1967 that show the different approaches each took to this new musical language. Mr. Reich’s Piano Phase — Russell Greenberg and Mike McCurdy gave a focused, energetic reading on marimbas — is one of several works in which Mr. Reich has two players beginning in sync, gradually moving out of phase and then coming back together in the final bars. . . . If phasing was Mr. Reich’s engine of choice, Mr. Glass’s was additive process, a technique in which repeated figures slowly take on (and later shed) extra notes and phrases. That was the point of Piece in the Shape of a Square, an intensely contrapuntal flute duet given an athletic, graceful account by Elizabeth Janzen and Jessica Schmitz. The second half of the program was devoted to a taut, if occasionally woolly, 30-minute performance of Mr. Riley’s In C, performed by an ensemble of conventional strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and keyboard. Both admirers and detractors of minimalism might consider this: In the last four years, In C has probably had more performances in New York than any individual Beethoven symphony, and it will have an all-star performance at Carnegie Hall in April. But after . . . [beginning], no two performances sound alike" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 9/18/08].
Cassatt Quartet, celebrating Joan Tower’s 70th birthday with one of three concerts at Thalia Theater. Symphony Space, New York, NY. "[E]ach [concert] includ[es] a work by Ms. Tower as its centerpiece, with a score by a younger composer before it and a standard repertory piece after it. The idea is to put Ms. Tower’s music in context, and in the opening program, on Thursday evening, her dark-hued, violently driven Night Fields (1996) was surrounded by the premiere of Libby Larsen’s Quartet: She Wrote (2008) and the shimmering Ravel Quartet (1904). Introducing her work, Ms. Tower said that she almost called the piece Nightmare instead of Night Fields but changed the title because she thought Nightmare was too heavy. . . . Ms. Larsen’s engaging quartet was inspired by a staccato passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses about a young woman: 'On solitary paper she writes. She thinks. She writes. She sighs. Wheels and hoofs. She hurries out.' What Ms. Larsen said she sees in this fragment, and wanted to capture in her piece, is the moment when ideas coalesce — when Joyce’s 'she' knows what to write. That’s a lot to capture in a string quartet; or maybe it’s too little, given that this magical moment comes in a flash. In Ms. Larsen’s piece it turns up at the end of the first movement. The rest is narrative. Even the introspective third movement, How She Felt, paints a melancholy, turbulent inner portrait. In the finale Ms. Larsen affords her protagonist a moment of emotional liberation; a tense opening passage gives way to a blues section and then, by way of a pizzicato cello line, a more free-spirited, jazz-tinged ending" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times 9/21/08].
Steven Stucky's August 4, 1964, to a libretto by Gene Scheer, based on events in the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Dallas, TX. "A haunted tenor voice will . . . lament that a terrible war was based on a hollow threat, and that millions might have died because of a 'mistake.' . . . The Dallas Symphony Orchestra wanted a grand piece of music to commemorate Lyndon B. Johnson, born 100 years ago, and it may have gotten more than it bargained for: a 70-minute oratorio with implicit reverberations about another war propelled by faulty intelligence, prosecuted by another Texan. The work . . . is based on a single day in Johnson’s presidency, and it joins a genre of classical music rife with worthy intentions and inherent risks: compositions that address current or recent events. On that date Johnson told the American people that North Vietnamese forces had attacked a United States ship in the Tonkin Gulf, prompting retaliation and precipitating the resolution used to justify the Vietnam War. The report turned out to have been false -- a result of mangled and probably falsified intelligence relayed to the president -- although an actual attack had occurred two days earlier. Robert S. McNamara, Johnson’s secretary of defense and an architect of the Vietnam War, later acknowledged that the August 4 attack had not occurred and said that if Johnson had known, he would not have ordered the retaliation. 'Had we known it was a tragic mistake,' sings the tenor portraying McNamara, 'Had we known on August 4th, 1964, we were not attacked. / Had we known we would not have ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam. / Fifty-eight thousand U.S. dead. / Three point seven million Vietnamese dead." But that is not the only historical resonance of the piece . . . . On the same day as the Tonkin Gulf incident, Johnson was dealing with a more immediate tragedy: the discovery of the bodies of three civil rights workers who had been murdered in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, James E. Chaney and Michael H. Schwerner. The killings helped galvanize support for Johnson’s civil rights agenda, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which forced Southern states to ease the path of blacks to vote, more than four decades before the nomination of a black man for president. Using a collage of excerpts from Johnson’s official diary, transcripts of Oval Office telephone conversations, speeches and contemporary news reports, Mr. Scheer has woven the incidents together in a libretto presenting a nuanced view of a complicated man. It combines Johnson’s greatest and worst legacies and portrays him as noble and bitter, compassionate and bellicose. The characters are Johnson (Robert Orth, baritone), Mr. McNamara (Vale Rideout), Mrs. Chaney (Laquita Mitchell, soprano) and Mrs. Goodman (Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano). The Dallas Symphony’s new music director, Jaap van Zweden, conducts. In interviews past and present officials of the orchestra, Mr. Scheer and Mr. Stucky all said they had been aware from the outset that the work drew a parallel between two wars, Vietnam and Iraq, and two presidents, Johnson and George W. Bush. But they studiously played down the political issues. 'I think we should all, as citizens, reflect on the reality of what’s going on, and this may help,' Mr. Stucky said. 'I certainly don’t want it to be seen as a statement about the present, because it is so much about the past too.' The Dallas Symphony said that the Bush family had not been invited, and that Johnson’s two daughters had declined to attend. But others connected with the Johnson administration were expected in the audience, the orchestra said, along with officials from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, which cooperated with the project. One historian given a copy of the libretto said he found the juxtaposition of the two issues 'weird.' But then, 'it must have been weird getting his mind around two such different crises happening simultaneously,' said the historian, Edwin E. Moïse of Clemson University, who wrote a book about the Tonkin Gulf incident. 'There’s a reason he looked like an old man when he got out of White House,' Mr. Moïse said. 'The strain must have been terrible.' August 4, 1964 raises other questions. Classical music in recent times, especially in this country, seems less potent than other art forms as a means of challenging the status quo or making political commentary. But there have been powerful recent additions to the genre, including Steve Reich’s Daniel Variations, inspired by the 2002 murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. The Dallas work serves as a reminder of both the pitfalls and the value of such ventures. Too much relevance can lead to political schlock, like bad Prokofiev, or cornball (if sometimes endearing) hagiography, like Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. For the creators too much topicality may distract from the goal of making a piece of art that will endure. Mr. Stucky said he had not thought of the work’s political implications as he was composing. 'If you’re put in the position of writing polemical music or agitprop, you’re not likely do a good job,' he added. 'I was concentrated on writing the best piece I could.' . . . Mr. Scheer pointed out that the McNamara lament, which occurs late in the piece, came about largely because he and Mr. Stucky felt that the tenor character did not have enough lyrical material. It also provided a sense of redemption for the character. In the short term, topical works like August 4, 1964 at least provoke conversation, and the attention that classical music institutions crave in a pop-ruled YouTube world. . . . The man behind the idea of commemorating Johnson was Fred Bronstein, who was president of the Dallas Symphony until he moved on to the St. Louis Symphony six months ago. Mr. Bronstein said he had not seen the libretto and pointed out that the creators were given free rein about subject matter. The only stipulation was a piece for chorus, orchestra and four soloists to commemorate Johnson. When asked about modern parallels, Mr. Bronstein answered indirectly. 'History repeats itself,' he said. 'How this war is judged, time will tell.' For Mr. Stucky the task was daunting. He is a much sought-after composer, a Cornell University music professor who receives regular commissions from major orchestras. The New York Philharmonic is giving the American premiere of his Rhapsodies, which it commissioned, on the same night as the August 4, 1964 performance. Mr. Stucky will be in Dallas. But he said he had not written for chorus and orchestra since high school, which he attended in Abilene, Tex. His family moved to the state from Kansas when he was 10, and Mr. Stucky attended Baylor University in Waco. The Dallas Symphony liked the Texas connection. . . . Mr. Scheer, also a songwriter, has collaborated with Tobias Picker on works including An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera, and with Jake Heggie; their Moby-Dick is to be presented at the Dallas Opera next season. . . . 'Gene stumbled on this fact that we could encapsulate those two sides of America in the ’60s on that single date,' Mr. Stucky said. 'That was a brilliant stroke.' . . . Mr. Stucky said he had made a mental checklist of what not to imitate: Lincoln Portrait, Britten’s War Requiem, John Adams’s Nixon in China. He described the musical grammar as somewhere between tonal and atonal, with an extroverted quality. Johnson’s lines are slower and more lyrical; the McNamara music tends to be faster, more nervous. When the chorus sings a text based on Oval Office diary entries (“7 a.m. Awake and up. 7:05 a.m. Breakfast. At 7:15 did exercises.”), the music is “strongly pulsed,” he said, with minimalist tendencies. . . . Stucky said that attentive listeners might catch a ghost of the civil rights anthem 'We Shall Overcome' [Daniel Wakin, 9/12/08].
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, in a program of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Jimmy Lopez's Fiesta!, and Ottorino Respighi's The Pines of Rome. Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, TX. "López, 29, is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Although Mr. Harth-Bedoya, in introductory remarks from the stage, called Fiesta! a 'miniature symphony,' it actually represents a genre with an even older tradition, a virtuosic suite of dances giving refined expression to popular idioms. Mr. López proves himself expert in orchestration" [James Oestreich, 9/22/08]
Death of Connie Haines, at 87. "[She was] a peppy, petite, big-voiced singer with a zippy, rhythmic style who most famously teamed up with Frank Sinatra as lead vocalists with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, then went on to a prolific career of her own" [The New York Times, 9/25/08].
New York Festival of Song, in music of Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom. Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY. "[W]ith the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth (Aug. 25) celebrated far and wide, it made sense for the festival to open its 21st season with a hefty sampling of Bernstein’s songs . . . . Even so, Bernstein did not have the program to himself. . . . [T]he focus shifted to William Bolcom, who turned 70 in May, and whose music has a stylistic omnivorousness -- as well as a sense of humor -- similar to Bernstein’s. For the occasion the festival’s two pianists and directors, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, assembled a cast of six singers, who performed together and separately, in a program shaped with dramatic flair. On the Bernstein half, ensemble pieces from the orchestral cycle Songfest framed selections from Arias and Barcarolles and a handful of theater works. It took the singers a few moments to find the right tone. Renée Tatum, a mezzo-soprano, applied an operatic intensity to Dream With Me that seemed wrong for this sweetly modulating outtake from Peter Pan, although Ms. Tatum’s personalized phrasing kept her account compelling. William Sharp’s theatrical approach to The Love of My Life, from Arias and Barcarolles, seemed miscalibrated as well, but he brought greater subtlety and suppleness to the introspective Seena, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The heart of the Bernstein segment was a group of songs from Wonderful Town. Alex Mansoori, the tenor, gave a lively, smartly characterized performance of 100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man, and, with Sari Gruber, the soprano, a comic but sharply focused reading of Ohio. Ms. Gruber also moved easily between the comic spoken sections and the more deeply felt verses in her elegant performance of The Story of My Life. Mr. Bolcom’s music moves with a suave assurance that serves comic and dramatic impulses equally well, and he has an extraordinary facility for weaving the harmonic accents of blues and jazz into more formal and complex structures. Songs like How to Swing Those Obbligatos Around, sung zestily by Rebecca Jo Loeb, and the darker Otherwise, which Ms. Gruber sang, seem simple on the surface but are rich in surprising melodic turns. The most effective pieces were calling cards for two of Mr. Bolcom’s operas. From McTeague, Mr. Sharp gave a deftly characterized account of the retributive Jehosophat, and Ms. Gruber brought a mad eroticism to Golden Babies. And Mr. Mansoori gave an acidic reading of The Establishment Route from Casino Paradise. To close the concert the festival ceded the stage to Mr. Bolcom and his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, for a brief cabaret set. As fine as the younger singers were, Ms. Morris’s superb way with a phrase in . . . Bolcom’s Over the Piano was a master class in comic timing" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 9/25/08].
Soprano Karita Mattila returns to portray the title character in Strauss’s Salome, a revival of the modern-dress Jürgen Flimm production created for Ms. Mattila and introduced at the Met in 2004. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "Mattila’s emotionally intense, vocally molten and psychologically exposed portrayal four years ago made her seem born to this daunting role. And yes, during her uninhibited and kinetically choreographed performance of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” she shed item after item of a Marlene Dietrich-like white tuxedo costume until, in an exultant -- and brief -- final flourish, she twirled around half-crazed and totally naked. Expect the same this time" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/17/08].
Michael Tilson conducts the San Francisco Symphony in an all-Leonard Bernstein program to open the 118th season of Carnegie Hall. New York, NY. "On paper the gala program raised doubts. Segueing with hardly a break from the ebullient Broadway star Christine Ebersole singing I Can Cook, Too from On the Town to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the elegiac, intensely somber Meditation No. 1 from Mass seemed a risky idea. But Mr. Thomas knew what he was up to. The program kicked off a citywide festival, The Best of All Possible Worlds, to honor the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. More than any other composer of the 20th century, Bernstein embraced a wide range of traditions: classical music, musical theater, jazz, Latin American dance and more. And Mr. Thomas, a Bernstein protégé, born to a Southern California family that thrived in Yiddish theater, shares his mentor’s multifaceted interests and skills. Beginning with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1961), played complete, Mr. Thomas announced that this was not to be just a feel-good evening. The performance he drew from the San Francisco Symphony, which sounded great on this night, was the freshest, most incisive and respectful account I have heard of this undervalued score. There was plenty of jazzy energy and swing. But for Mr. Thomas, playing in a jazzy style does not mean loosening up on rhythmic execution. Riffs and rhythms were dispatched with a relaxed incisiveness. In the snappy Prologue and the restless Scherzo sections, the playing was crisp, lean and brassy. Mr. Thomas did not let a drop of sentimentality seep into the string playing for the soaring lyrical lines in Somewhere. He brought out all the intriguing subtleties of this score, for example, the ascending inner voices that crisscross the descending melodic line in the gently insistent Cha-Cha. And in the finale, which reprises the tragic conclusion of Somewhere, Mr. Thomas balanced the pungent chords so precisely that this passage seemed as harmonically inventive as anything in Stravinsky. . . Then, with the orchestra playing examples, [Thomas] took the audience through some specific passages in the work we were about to hear: excerpts from A Quiet Place, Bernstein’s 1983 opera. I keep waiting for a production of A Quiet Place to reveal this work as a great overlooked American opera. These excerpts did not provide that epiphany. Still, there are inspired touches in the music that was presented, especially the quietly ominous orchestra. . . Again, the mood shifted suddenly. [Dawn] Upshaw was charming in What a Movie, from the one-act 1951 opera Trouble in Tahiti, and Mr. Hampson gave a compelling account of To What You Said ..., a setting of a Whitman text, from Songfest, with Mr. Ma playing the poignant solo cello part magnificently. There was more. Five Juilliard School students portraying the roughneck Jets did a kinetically choreographed and delightful performance of Gee, Officer Krupke from West Side Story. The evening ended with Ya Got Me from On the Town. All of the soloists took part, each singing a verse, including Mr. Thomas, who proved an engaging, breezy and stylish singer. Can you imagine Lorin Maazel singing to his audience at the New York Philharmonic? [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/25/08].