Monday, December 1, 2008
Volume 15, Number 12
Work-in-Progress, November 3, 2008
Lively Dead State / Mark Alburger
Circus Tango / Mark Alburger
Calendar for December 2008
Chronicle of October 2008
Illustration / Bernard Rands - As All Get Out
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
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Years ago when visiting Bruges, Belgium, I didn't get any sense that the locals were fretting over the characterization of their fair city as Bruges-la-Morte (The Dead City of Bruges), the title of Georges Rodenbach's 1892 novel. If there are any lingering 116-year-old resentments, they can be laid to rest in the San Francisco Opera's lively presentation of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), based on the Rodenbach.
Concert and film composer Korngold and his 1920 smash-success opera both fell out of favor in the intervening years, but are on a course of revival, and this co-production -- first given in 2004 at Vienna and Salzburg and presented now from September 13 through October 24 at the War Memorial -- makes a persuasive case.
The music is wonderful: a colorful post-Puccinian, Straussian score tinged with New Viennese danger (though the composer and his co-librettist, music-critic father were clearly not of the Arnold Schoenberg / Alban Berg camp). Not that the initial story or stage action seem promissing.
A man ("Paul" -- changed from "Hugues" in the Rodenbach -- is it a co-incidence that Erich's father's pseudonym was "Paul Schott"?) pining for his dead wife for how long? Get over it! A woman, beautiful of voice and visage (Emily Mcgee as Marietta) appears, who is the living image of the departed (Mcgee doubling as Marie), and he fails intially to go for her? In the words of one of the Pink Panther movies: "What, are you blind?" "Yes!"
The set (original production by Willy Decker) and singing save this early scene (Act I, actually), with a simple set of stark chairs on a violently raked stage, under a looming white ceiling, backed by black graffiti-stewn walls and graced with a giant reproduction of John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer (1890, the first of numerous manifestations of this painting throughout the evening). To this, add the shining sonics of Torsten Kirl (Paul), Mcgee, and Lucas Meachem (as Paul's friend Frank), and there was not much to complain about, aside from the languid pace.
But then the action and fever perk up in Acts II and III, to really match the always high level of the music. From a series of strange, moving blue rooftops, to alarming catterwonky shifts of the Sword-of-Damocles ceiling -- the visuals matched the continuing, imaginative, unfolding surprises of the sounds and story line.
Among the most amazing visual moments was among the most effect portrayals of a staged dream state that has been seen: an exact double of the dreaming Paul and his room unfold upstage, and a team of ghost-white actors is presaged by the appearance of balloons one-by-one suddenly appearing upstage.
This was true German-style, surreal decadence that the Germans do so well. Yet as depraved and sensual-sexual as it all was, somehow it almost all kept within the realms of good taste (well, maybe the crucified maid Brigitta [Katherine Tier] scene was a bit over the top). The shocking strangulation of Marietta with the locks of the dead Marie connected with the recent John Steinbeck Mice and Men SF Community Music Center production, and the "turns out it was all just a dream, after all" conclusion made for a still-ominous denouement.
As the Gary Snyder character (Japhy Ryder) in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums said, "Comparisons are odious." But this was opera on the big stage that was arresting and ultimately, in retrospect, engaging from beginning to end, with staging that was astounding (without being pandering) yet somehow essential and spare. There is seeming nothing that Conductor Donald Runnicles and Costume Supervisor Kristi Johnson cannot do in bringing a show fully into its splendor, and a good time was had by all in this uncommonly living City of the Dead.
Here's a little song,
But it won't last long.
Don't judge a Stravinsky by its size. Oakland Opera's recent production (October 23 to November 2) of Igor Stravinsky's Renard (The Fox) (1916) made a compelling case for this c. 15-minute often-overlooked mini-masterpiece.
Written during World War I, while the composer was a high-class refugee in Switzerland, the work is a mixed-theatre piece for two tenors, two basses, and chamber orchestra (flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, clarinet/Eb clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, two horns, percussion, cimbalom, and string quintet. OO slimmed and altered the ensemble somewhat, with one horn, trombone (in exile from Histoire du Soldat, the larger companion piece earlier in the evening), piano (intriguingly John Cageianly prepared-tack-piano altered), and strings limited to violin and bass (again from the Soldier's Tale), in an ingenious rescoring by pianist Skye Atman.
True confession. When my daughter was a babe in arms, I used to play this composition (along with many others) to see if a growing set of unprejudiced ears would take to 20th-century classical sounds. Evidently it worked. She used to shout, "Play the fox and the chicken, Daddy!"
And what's not to like, certainly from an engaging Oakland Opera -- from the rustic, splintered opening march; through surreally stylized musical violences (OK, I skipped some of the details when my daughter was listening to it in the days of yore); to moments of beauty and high camp. The singers sing from the pit (or, in this case, the raised platform in back) and have no one-to-one correspondence with the acrobat/actor/dancers/mimes on stage. Not only did this assist in distancing Stravinsky from his operatic upbringing (his father was an opera singer at the Mariinsky Theatre for 26 years), but it allows for onstage machinations far beyond what could be reasonably expected from bel canto vocalists.
While Ballet Russes's 1929 revival, choreographed by Michel Fokine, was said to have been "ruined chiefly by some jugglers [Sergei] Diaghilev had borrowed from a circus," here the big-top elements added to the visceral excitement. Breona Noack's Fox found her scaling two strips of cloth and doing a joint-defying split, her legs in an outstretched line ten feet above and parallel to the floor. David Hunt's Rooster spasmodicaly strutted to a finale comfortably aloft on an outstretched rope, again well-suspended above the stage.
Add to this the lithe, smiling contributions of Erin Shrader (Cat) and Jodie Power (Goat), and quite possibly among the sexiest baby chicks and foxes (Christie Welter, Abigail Munn, Artemis Anderson, and Sarah Moss) that one is ever likely to encounter, decked out respectively in feather pompom bustiers and furry brassieres -- a definite multimedia spectacular (although for once at Oakland Opera, no projected visuals beyond supertitles, which was just a fine situation). The libretto, Stravinsky's Russian own, based on Russian folk tales from the collection by Alexander Afanasyev, was translated into French by C.F. Ramuz, English by Rollo H. Myers, and co-credited in the OO's program booklet to Robert Craft -- a neat trick, since the latter was not born (1923) until after the piece's 1922 premiere.
And the singing? Oh yes, the singing. Well-executed throughout by Ben Jones, Darron Flagg, Igor Vierra, and Richard Mix, with the ensemble incisively conducted by Diedre McClure, despite the fact that some of the sound gets lost in the cavernous upper reaches of the OO's new venue (N.B. this is not your grandparents' grand opera for warhorses, but rather a rustic warehouse -- having recently moved from a smaller, yet somewhat similar space -- where resident genius composer/director/empressario Tom Dean holds forth in a stained t-shirt).
And the rest of the program? Oh yes, the rest of the program. A fine micro-mini masterpiece (Pastorale) from grand singer, Oakland Opera board member, and fellowette Dominican University musica alumna Kimarie Torres (the original Curley's Wife for my opera on John Steinbeck's [Of] Mice and Men back in the early 90's); and the ever-popular Solder's Tale.
Perhaps too popular these days. If Renard is underdone, perhaps Histoire has been heard a bit more in the opposite direction. It's still a great work, of course, and, as the Oakland Opera notes "Renard looks back, while Histoire looks forward to [Stravinsky's] neoclassic period. It also is the first of the composer's pieces to -- how shall we say this decorously...well, I guess we can't... -- show a bit of laziness, of putting in the time. While Stravinsky had never before, and probably never again, literally recapitulated so much (and so little) music, and while this does make for a singular, telling effect... Still, it's a little much. After after multiple variants of the three opening selections, I, for one, am always ready and relieved when the music finally moves on.
In this appropriate resetting of the work to the current Iraqi war, Histoire solidly joins the ranks of older stage pieces whose scenarios cannot be left alone. Winning interpretations by all-american Soldier Ben Jones, merchant-cum-Devil Mathias Bossi (who brought just the right amount of ambiguous sexual preference to the role), and soldier-girl Narrator Kirya Traber brought the witty but over-long (the words even interupted the supposed segue between the Tango and Waltz) libretto to life. Projected images of Iraq atrocities made us yearn for a proper outcome to the election (which will be known by the time this finds its way into newsprint).
Never in this reviewer's viewing has the Tango been more sensuously realized than in Munn's amorous interpretation, which directly followed her comic, mal-a-tete as a hungover Princess. And, after an evening of such winning musical theatrics, our heads were spinning a bit, too.
Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic in Bernard Rands's Chains Like the Sea. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "This orchestra has regularly favored new pieces from composers who combine rigorous methods with more lyrical inclinations. Mr. Rands, English-born but based in the United States since 1975, creates pieces filled with technical demands that make them gratifying to the performer, as well as sufficient sensual beauty to appeal to listeners. Poetry has provided the spark for some of his strongest creations; Chains Like the Sea, an instrumental work about 20 minutes long, was inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill. Certain phrases, Mr. Rands explained in a program note, conjured memories of early years spent in Wales. True to its title, The Sabbath Rang Slowly, the first of two sections, was a broadly paced sequence punctuated with bell tones made from stacked notes that shimmered and rippled in combination. Patches reminiscent of Debussy seascapes and early Stravinsky lullabies floated in a dreamlike drift, meant to evoke the tedium of slow, pious Sundays. A more animated second part, Rivers of the Windfall Light, repeatedly surged with chattering gusts of horns, brass and percussion. Mr. Rands has an unerring knack for lucid orchestration; here, scintillating details regularly pricked through an overall melancholy tone. A brief, gentle duo for solo violin and muted trumpet midway through the second part, for instance, seemed to leave behind a humid, bluesy wilt in its wake. Mr. Maazel, who does some of his best work when confronted with challenging new scores, provided an exactingly detailed account. The orchestra’s polish and commitment earned a warm response from the audience" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 10/2/08].
Looking Forward, in a program exclusively looking back at the 20th Century. Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, the first song of Benjamin Britten's Les Illuminations, Claude Debussy's Danse Sacree et Danse Profane, Olivier Messiaen's Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine, Edgar Varese's Intgrales, Steve Reich's Clapping Music, and excerpts from Lukas Foss's Time Cycle. New York City Opera in "a very fine concert of notable 20th-century works." St. George Theater, New York, NY. "To demonstrate opposite stylistic camps of the 20th century [George] Manahan conducted Varèse’s Intégrales, an arresting work of raucous sound clusters and brutal rhythms from the mid-1920s, scored for brass, [wood]winds and percussion, and then introduced Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, an early landmark of minimalism, performed, or rather, clapped by four percussionists from the orchestra [N.B. the work is scored for two clappers]. The inclusion of excerpts from Lukas Foss’s spiky, alluring Time Cycle, with the agile soprano Jennifer Zetlan as soloist, was a nod to the 12-tone camp, a place Mr. Foss visit[s] but [does] not live in" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/5/08].
Toronto Symphony Orchestra in "a wrenching, full-throttle account of" Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 and Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins (with Ute Lemper), directed by Peter Oundjian. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "The Seven Deadly Sins (1933) [is] a dark Brecht-Weill collaboration with more than casual links to their earlier Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. It is not unusual to amplify the vocalists in this work, but Ute Lemper was miked so heavily that when she sang, the orchestra was barely audible. This did Ms. Lemper no favors: her voice sounded metallic and harsh. Even so, she created a compelling portrait of the two sisters, Anna I and Anna II, who make their way around the United States, falling into the various sins along the way. The vocal quartet Hudson Shad, less vigorously amplified, sang the Family passages effectively. When the orchestra could be heard -- most notably in the Pride movement’s waltz interlude, and in the brassy introduction to Lust -- it produced a fluid, reedy sound well suited to Weill’s score. The Shostakovich 11th, called 'The Year 1905,' was originally planned for 1955 but was not written until 1957. From the Soviet state’s point of view, it was meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. On its surface the work commemorates the massacre of petitioning workers outside the czar’s Winter Palace on Jan. 9, 1905, and its second movement includes a harrowing tone painting of the gunshots and the crowd’s terror. But Shostakovich was adept at giving his pieces hidden programs, and it is generally agreed (to the extent that the phrase can be used about any aspect of Shostakovich) that this symphony was as much about Stalin’s terror as the czar’s. Mr. Oundjian, in a spoken introduction, seemed intent on sticking to the official program and didn’t even mention the subtext. No matter; whichever way you read this score, his dramatic shaping of the work illuminated its searing passions, and the orchestra responded with a remarkable fluidity and power. The strings played with a unity and control that made the icy, melancholy serenity of the opening movement palpable, and that magnified that effect when the music returned in the finale. And the woodwinds, brass and percussion evoked the terror and chaos that drives the second movement, as well as the eerie calm of the elegiac third movement" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/6/08].
The Met Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, in Olivier Messiaen's Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum, scored for brass, winds and metallic percussion. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Unlike many of Messiaen’s works that explore ecstatic, wondrous realms of spirituality, this 1964 piece commemorating the fallen of two world wars is a stark rumination on death and the hope for resurrection. The movements, each a response to a biblical quotation, have boldly episodic structures. Primordial chants are jolted by gnashing outbursts, wailing harmonies, pungently dissonant chorales and more. Perhaps Mr. Levine was striving to convey grim spirituality. But the performance came across as ponderous and inert. During dramatic moments of silence, the tension dissipated completely. Between movements Mr. Levine took so much time, whether to gather himself or to set the mood, that you feared he might have been unwell. . . . I have long wondered why the Metropolitan Opera has not seen fit to present Messiaen’s visionary opera St. François d’Assise. Could it be that Mr. Levine has little feeling for Messiaen’s work? . . . I still do not know what to make of Mr. Levine’s baffling performance of the Messiaen, offered in tribute to the composer’s centennial" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/6/08].
Fete Francaise. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, Maruice Ravel's Tzigane, Pierre Boulez's Derive I, and music from Darius Milhaud's La Creation du Monde. New York Society for Ethical Culture, New York, NY. "Some of [the Quartet's] many hauntingly beautiful moments are in the fifth movement, titled In Praise of the Eternity of Jesus. . . . [T]he cellist Paul Watkins performed that movement’s ethereal melody with delirious intensity over the insistent piano chords played by Gilbert Kalish. Mr. Watkins’s dedication was matched by the violinist Daniel Hope and the clarinetist David Shifrin, who played his solo in Abyss of the Birds with piercing fervor. Mr. Hope also gave an impassioned and virtuosic performance of Ravel’s Tzigane, his gypsy rhapsodizing spiraling into a frenzied whirl at the work’s conclusion. He was accompanied with panache by the pianist Wu Han. . . . Fête Française, included two other colorful 20th-century French pieces, including Pierre Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone, derived from the set of pitches that Mr. Boulez used for a 1976 tribute to the conductor Paul Sacher. Trills and darting fragments ripple throughout this rigorous work of a sensual modernist. The concert opened with Darius Milhaud’s jazz-inflected concert suite for piano quintet, which he arranged in 1923 from his ballet Création du Monde. The work was inspired by Milhaud’s visit to Harlem jazz clubs and the ballet scored for the same combination of instruments he heard there" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 10/6/08].
John Adams's Doctor Atomic. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "A-bomb is a hit" [Ronald Blum, Yahoo News].
Manuel de Falla's La Vida Breve. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Falla wrote that he had both poetic and pragmatic goals for the opera: to make money while evoking sentiments of 'fear and joy, of hope and torment, of life and death, of exultation and depression.' Given that the premiere of this piece of Spanish verismo was delayed for eight years after its completion in 1905, Falla probably didn’t initially make much money. He did invoke a spectrum of operatic emotions in his first significant work . . . Falla wrote La Vida Breve after composing six zarzuelas, only one of which was staged. He integrated Cante Jondo (Deep Song) in the work, which won an opera competition sponsored by the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. The prize included a staging of the opera, but the work didn’t receive its world premiere until 1913, in a French translation in Nice, France. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted a detailed, evocatively shaped performance that illuminated the Andalusian flavors of the score. The Coro Nacional de España sang vibrantly, although the soloists were less memorable. María Rodríguez sang with a bright but hard-edged soprano as Salud, the most developed role. . . . The tenor Vicente Ombuena as Paco, the mezzo-soprano Marina Pardo as the grandmother, and the bass Josep Miquel Ramón as Tío Sarvaor sometimes had trouble projecting. Gustavo Peña sang with a clear, bright tenor as the Voz de la Fragua (Voice of the Forge), his voice projecting well from the back of the stage" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 10/17/08].
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Jacque Ibert's Hommage a Mozart and Paul Moravec's Brandenburg Gate. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Gate is part of the ensemble’s project to commission six composers to write works inspired by Bach’s "Brandenburg” Concertos. Mr. Moravec’s 20-minute contemporary concerto grosso creates restless interplay and feisty competition between the chamber orchestra and a solo group: flute (Susan Palma-Nidel), clarinet (Alan Kay), trumpet (Louis Hanzlik) and violin (Renée Jolles). The breathless first movement is all skittish runs and riffs, with some 12-tonish inner lines lurching through the textures to lend some punch to the composer’s essentially tonal language. The slow middle movement adopts an unabashedly Neo-Romantic tone, with a pensive theme in the cellos and astringent, chorale-like passages for the soloists. In the finale fractured motifs soon coalesce into hard-driving phrases. Mr. Moravec’s compositional skill is apparent throughout this well-made and agreeable score. For me, especially in the slow movement, there is a little too much “Romantic” and not enough “Neo" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/17/08].
Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and his ensemble in a program of Persian classical music. Zankel Hall, New york, NY.
Remembrance Concert. Isabel Bayrakdarian with the pianist Serouj Kradjian and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra in music of Gomidas, a composer revered as an architect of Armenian music, plus works by Ravel, Bartok, Skallkotas, and Klein. Zankel Hall, New York, NY. "Gomidas, a priest as well as a composer, collected and arranged hundreds of Armenian folk songs around the turn of the 20th century, before his career was cut short by the events of 1915. Though his life was spared through the intervention of notable associates, his spirit was shattered; he died two decades later in a French psychiatric clinic. Some selections, like “Andooni” (“Without a Home”) and “Groong” (“The Crane”), overtly conveyed the ache of the concert’s premise. But even in gentle songs dealing with themes of youth, nature and love, a hint of sadness lingered. . . . Mr. Kradjian’s transparent orchestrations provided a flattering backdrop, with colorful flourishes like pattering raindrops in Antsrevn Yegav (It’s Raining) and rustling winds in Dzirani Dzar (Apricot Tree). Some songs featured gorgeously breathy sounds from Hampic Djabourian on duduk, a double-reed instrument that sounds something like a soprano saxophone. Yet the loveliest selection was the simplest: Akh Maral Jan (Ah, Dear Maral), in which Ms. Bayrakdarian’s voice soared over Mr. Kradjian’s spare arpeggios. . . . Ravel’s “Two Hebraic Songs,” and Variations on a Moravian Folksong by Gideon Klein, a Holocaust victim, forged a connection to the horrors of World War II. . . . Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances and Nikos Skalkottas’s Greek Dances, like the Gomidas songs, preserved folkloric sources in concert-music guise." [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 10/21/08].
James Levine conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Leon Kirchner's The Forbidden. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Kirchner’s 14-minute score [is a] reworking . . . that first appeared in 2003 as a piano sonata, then morphed into a string quartet. . . . The title, taken from a passage in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, suggests that in this score, Mr. Kirchner, who studied with Schoenberg in the 1930's and was powerfully influenced by the 12-tone technique, is grappling with the forbidden -- that is, old diatonic tonality. The onrushing music swings between atonal, pointillist outbursts and diatonically grounded lyrical passages. For all the darting phrases and layered textures, a clear thematic line runs through the music, almost like a narrative voice. Mr. Levine drew a vibrantly colored and clear-textured performance from the orchestra. Though unsteady on his feet, Mr. Kirchner, with some help, appeared onstage to acknowledge the ovation" [The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/21/08]
Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY.
David Bruce's Gumboots for clarinet and string quartet. Zankel Hall, New York, NY. "[The] work [was] inspired by South African gumboot dancing, a form that originated during apartheid. Since workers were often prohibited from talking while they labored, miners -- who wore Wellington boots because of frequent flooding -- communicated by slapping their boots in certain patterns, the origin of the rhythmic, energetic gumboot dance. . . . The work is divided into two parts, with a wistful, tranquil prelude preceding six jubilant 'gumboot dances,' which according to the composer can be interpreted as a celebration of the regenerative power of dance" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 10/24/04].
Leonard Bernstein's Mass. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Leonard Bernstein suffered crushing disappointments as a composer. The most hurtful of them all was surely the premiere of his Mass in September 1971, inaugurating the Kennedy Center in Washington. That he conceived this eclectic score as A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers did not give pause to the many critics, mostly classical music critics, who dismissed it as a vulgar exercise in antiestablishment pandering. It was fairly daring to turn a setting of a liturgical Mass into a drama about a shattering spiritual crisis for a pastor and his disillusioned and rebellious congregation. And Bernstein’s unabashed mixing of musical styles in Mass (Mahlerian richness, show-tune pizazz, hard-driving rock, 12-tone counterpoint, hymnal simplicity and more) was considered glib and cheap. If only Bernstein could have been at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights on Saturday afternoon. There is nothing like young performers to refresh older pieces. And the performance of Bernstein’s “Mass” that Marin Alsop conducted at this palatial former vaudeville house involved hundreds of young, inspired and inspiring performers. This was actually the second performance of Mass in two days. As the major event in its contribution to the citywide celebration of the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, Carnegie Hall sponsored the Bernstein Mass Project. On Friday night Ms. Alsop conducted the work at Carnegie with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a dynamic roster of solo singers and two ensembles of gifted choristers: the Morgan State University Choir (Eric Conway, director) and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (Dianne Berkun, director). On Saturday afternoon Ms. Alsop took all those performers up to the Heights, where they were joined by some 250 schoolchildren from the New York area, including the members of the All-City High School Chorus. Seated in the first 12 rows of the theater, facing the orchestra, the students lent their ardent voices to several of the work’s pivotal choruses. The theater almost shook with the vehemence of the music-making during the most bitterly angry section of the work, the Dona Nobis Pacem, when the Celebrant, here the charismatic baritone Jubilant Sykes, collapses in despair over the inflamed protests of the people he has been trying to reach, who are demanding peace, demanding proof and answers: 'Give us something, or we’ll just start taking!' As a rock band drove the orchestra through spiraling riffs of pummeling rhythm, the soloists portraying the street people encircled the Celebrant, shaking their fists, shrieking 'Dona nobis' at him. The choristers onstage and the hundreds of schoolchildren in the hall joined in, singing with vehemence, swaying in sync, as drums pounded and steely rock guitars wailed. Some pieces that seem trendy at their birth soon fade away. But the essence and achievement of Bernstein’s Mass have become clearer over time. In other scores, like his loftily titled “Jeremiah” Symphony, Bernstein was perhaps guilty of self-conscious striving for profundity. But Mass was driven by a deeply personal agenda. He did not care if a passage seemed a rip-off of Copland, Pete Seeger, buzz-saw rock or Godspell, the musical that opened off Broadway while Bernstein was composing Mass. Bernstein even tapped that show’s creator, Stephen Schwartz, to help write the vernacular lyrics added to the Roman Catholic liturgy. Surely, viewed in retrospect, Uncle Lenny was worried about the young people who were protesting the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, the very generation he had tried to reach as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic through his landmark Young People’s Concerts. A lingering criticism of Mass is that with his brash mixing of pop and classical styles, Bernstein came across as just too hip. But the evocations are expertly done. And today such blending of styles is commonplace. Young composers, who disdain categories, borrow from any style they care to. And why not? Bernstein sweated the details in composing this score. A Simple Song is as alluring a tune as he ever wrote. The sublime chorale Almighty Father, with its hauntingly wide-spaced harmonies, had the audience at the United Palace Theater, full of restless families, utterly hushed and attentive. The Word of the Lord is an artful transfer of a Pete Seeger-type folk song into an orchestral setting. There are cringe-inducing moments in Mass, especially some too-clever lyrics, like the riff on “do, re, mi” that the Celebrant sings: 'Mi alone is only mi./But mi with sol/Me with soul/Mi sol.' But there are cringe-inducing moments in many works that I love, including Mahler symphonies and Beethoven’s Fidelio. . . . Had Bernstein taken better care of himself and had a little better luck, he might have been around for this day. And how he would have loved seeing his “Mass” touch so many people in Washington Heights" [Anthony Tommasini, The New Yrk Times, 10/26/08].
Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY.
Making Music: George Crumb: Vox Balaenae, The Sleeper, and Voices From the Morning of the Earth (American Songbook VI). Zankel Hall, New York, NY. "In an interview with Jeremy Geffen, the hall’s director of artistic programming, he said his output had dwindled into the ’90s because he was spending more time teaching than composing. His retirement in 1997 solved that problem. The program proved another point too: Fascinating as it is to hear composers speak for themselves, the music tells you what you really need to know. And because Mr. Crumb’s music is rooted in a sound world of his own creation — in which musicians hit, scrape, stroke and sing into their instruments, and notions of tonality and atonality are entirely fluid — his signature is unmistakable. [T]he avant-garde classic Vox Balaenae (1971), is driven by bending, microtonal flute and cello pitches and percussive inside-the-piano writing. . . . Two more recent vocal works showed the extent to which Mr. Crumb has continued to demand that virtuosity, while stripping away the outlandish effects. You still hear them in the sometimes swooping, sometimes whispered vocal lines and plucked piano writing of The Sleeper (1984). But in Voices From the Morning of the Earth (American Songbook VI) (2007), Mr. Crumb’s expansive arrangements of folk songs, spirituals and pop tunes, those sound effects give way to layered, contrapuntal percussion writing and deeply expressive reconfigurations of the vocal melodies. In an assertive performance by Ann Crumb, a theater singer and the composer’s daughter; Randall Scarlata, a baritone; and Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, the work’s finale -- a haunting version of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? -- was particularly gripping. Against a hazy chromatic backdrop, with an angular piano figure punctuating the verses, the two singers alternated lines, the stanzas sung with an acidic vehemence and the refrain ominously whispered. Mr. Seeger’s plaintive antiwar text has never sounded more grim" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/28/08].
Gustav Mahler's and Ellen Taafe Zwillich's respective Symphony No. 5's. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. Last week on the illuminating blog On an Overgrown Path (www.overgrownpath.com), Bob Shingleton, a retired recording executive who writes under the screen name Pliable, mused on the subject of fifth symphonies’ capturing what he termed the essence of their composers’ styles. He cited major figures like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, as well as lesser-known worthies like Valentin Silvestrov, whose Symphony No. 5 prompted the post. 'Their fifth symphonies are not necessarily their greatest works, but somehow they capture the unique voices of those composers,' Mr. Shingleton wrote. That statement was put to the test on Monday night at Carnegie Hall, when the Juilliard Orchestra introduced Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s new Symphony No. 5. James Conlon, the conductor, paired the work with a famous Fifth, that of Mahler. Among the many noteworthy achievements in Ms. Zwilich’s career, her 1983 Pulitzer Prize, the first awarded to a female composer, usually tops the list. But before that, in 1975, she became the first female composer to earn a doctorate from Juilliard. In her program notes for the new symphony, which was commissioned by the school, Ms. Zwilich cites Juilliard as the place where she found her voice as a composer. Her mature style -- a mix of neo-Classical craftsmanship, roiling energy and tonal accessibility — came into focus slightly later, from her Pulitzer-winning Symphony No. 1 onward. Those qualities were also present in the new symphony, a 24-minute work in four movements. Subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, the symphony demonstrated Ms. Zwilich’s flair for orchestration. Focus restlessly shifted among sections, and from massed groups to isolated soloists. Unorthodox percussion instruments (like the spiral cymbal, a dangling, serpentine coil that offers a distant roar) and techniques (timpani played with a model of wire brush known as dreadlocks) showed that Ms. Zwilich keeps up with recent trends. A brooding fanfare and crackling martial tattoos in Prologue echoed and subtly evolved throughout the work. Celebration, which could stand alone as a rousing curtain-raiser, bubbled and bristled with youthful ebullience. Memorial, inspired by Mr. Conlon’s championing of composers silenced by politics and war, paid tribute with surprisingly languorous, bluesy figures, redolent of music by Copland and Bernstein. In Epilogue elements from the preceding movements resurfaced in a stormy finale. Determining whether Ms. Zwilich’s Fifth Symphony is among her strongest creations would require more than a single hearing. But the qualities that have long made her music personal and compelling were certainly present, and the Juilliard musicians took up the piece with diligence and vitality. They also responded admirably to Mr. Conlon’s thoughtful leadership in a thoroughly considered, powerfully rendered account of Mahler . . . music that contains not just the composer’s essence but some measure of his soul as well" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 10/28/08].
The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró, a multimedia suite by Bobby Previte. World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, New York, NY.
The complete works for string quartet by the "intensely complex modernist" Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), performed by the adventurous Jack Quartet, plus music of Corey Dargel. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. Justin Kantor and David Handler . . . decided to open a club that would present an eclectic mix of programming, not just old and new works from the classical music tradition, but rock, jazz, world music and anything else that might entice people, especially young people, who are curious about out-there music and care little about labels. The club’s motto is 'Serving Art & Alcohol,' and the owners count on revenues from drinks and snacks. The tables were filled on Wednesday night for the Xenakis immersion, and there were standees everywhere, drinks in hand, listening raptly, and then shouting whoops of approval during the ovations. . . . If challenging music is presented in an inviting and informal space, the theory goes, then open-minded young audiences will show up, whether the music is Bach, Ligeti or the stylistically eclectic singer-songwriter Corey Dargel, who performed the second show on Wednesday night. You could argue that the players of the Jack Quartet, who met as students at the Eastman School of Music, presented Xenakis in an almost anti-intellectual manner. There were no program notes and no spoken introductions to the pieces, except for a few teasers from the cellist, Kevin McFarland, who talked of the “insanity level” or the “computer-generated chaos.” Yet these musicians and the proprietors of Le Poisson Rouge are on to something. What is most essential is for audiences just to show up and listen. Though I am in the business of informing people about music, I have to concede that knowing about the matrix of complex theories that generated Xenakis’s music may not help listeners much. Born in Romania of Greek parents, Xenakis was also a trained architect who approached composition almost like an engineer, building 'sound constructions,' as he called them, generating musical materials from algorithms, wave forms, spectral screens and stochastic synthesis. Clearly, what mattered to the musicians and audience at Le Poisson Rouge were the visceral energy, weird sound effects, raucous busyness, sometimes pensive beauty and often sheer craziness that, on the surface, can be found in Xenakis’s pieces for string quartet. In Tetora (1990) there were gripping passages in which the string harmonic clusters slither up and down the scale, and episodes in which tightly bound chords pummel along relentlessly, like some fractured Greek folk dance. Amid the wailing, percolating rawness of ST/4 there were surprising moments in which delicate volleys of pizzicato pitches were traded among the players. And it was gratifying to see the audience so involved that they laughed out loud at Xenakis’s musical pranks, as in Ergma, when frenzied outbursts of counterpoint wind down and land with dull thuds on final chords. Mr. Dargel’s set was a release party for Other People’s Love Songs, his new recording of 13 original songs on New Amsterdam Records. As the title implies, these custom-made songs were commissioned by people for their significant others. For this occasion Mr. Dargel was backed by the Now Ensemble, a contemporary-music group. Mr. Dargel sings in a modest, sweet-toned, conversational way, and writes songs whose lyrics and melodies are at once wistful and wry, tender and irreverent. In Other People’s Love Songs, giving voice to the lives and relationships of his subjects, he invests melodies with playful melismatic turns, evoking Kurt Weill cabaret, Latino rhythms and more" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Time, 10/30/08].
N.B. All dates are from online editions of publications.
John Adams. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "As he explains in his charming and illuminating memoir, Adams had a revelation in 1976, when he was a 29-year-old composer struggling to find his creative voice, and it led him to make caring the essence of his art. He was driving a Karmann Ghia convertible along a mountain ridge in Northern California, where he had moved from New England. He was playing a cassette recording of the first act of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” and he found himself blurting, to himself, “He cares.” Adams, until then an acolyte of the John Cage school of conceptual sonic experimentation, was unexpectedly moved by Wagner’s high emotionalism. He thought he could feel — or, rather, he felt he could now think about -- the capacity of music to connect with its listeners viscerally, as well as intellectually. That flash of obviousness constituted apostasy in the insular, parochial society of the musical vanguard. 'What was creating such a deep impression upon me in the music of these German composers was the pure expressivity of their art,' Adams explains in Hallelujah Junction. 'What Wagner and Schumann cared about was making the intensity of their emotions palpable to the listener.' This book, Adams’s first (and, let’s hope, not his last), is a cogent account of its author’s escape from the world of audience-alienating “process” music absorbed with its own making and his arrival at a place where intellectual adventurism and robust emotion coexist -- a pilgrimage from the Land Without Feelings to Hallelujah Junction. There happens to be an actual location called Hallelujah Junction, a highway crossroads near the Nevada-California state line; Adams came upon it -- inspiration tends to find him behind the wheel -- and he adopted the phrase originally, 10 years ago, as the title of an exhilarating four-hand, two-piano piece that employs, essentially, just two notes. Although the sojourner scheme is a cliché among books by creative artists, politicians and pretty much everyone else, Adams plays it lightly. There is no more self-aggrandizement in this wry, smart and forthright memoir than there is in the venturesome but elegiac music of Adams’s maturity. Indeed, Hallelujah Junction stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures. Adams can write prose, as he has proved with articles, program notes and lectures, some of which form the basis of chapters and sections in his book. (Most of the previously published material has been improved, often by the addition of more vivid detail.) Describing the Volkswagen Beetle he drove from Cambridge to California after finishing his graduate studies at Harvard, Adams writes, 'Perhaps sensing it was being flogged into making this one last trip only to die in an alien land, it made a noise like a spoon caught in a Disposall and sputtered to a halt.' He can even be droll. 'It has occurred to me,' Adams notes in a section on creative collaboration, 'that, next to double murder-suicide, it might be the most painful thing two people can do together.' Like many of Adams’s musical compositions, Hallelujah Junction is a collage of disparate elements -- demystifying ruminations on the creative process, sharp assessments of his and his peers’ work, sweet memories of his precocious childhood in New England, rants against pomposity and indifference in all forms (especially the kind passing for nonconformity), and traditional then-I-wrote sections, all organized with careful attention to balance, contrast and propulsive effect. Adams juxtaposes and paces the components with (what else?) great care to simulate spontaneity. Among the most vigorous sections of this book are Adams’s terse critiques of other composers, past and present, in and out of the avant-garde. Copland, he writes, 'was adept at playing the role of provocateur, particularly in his gift of melding the leanness and angularity of Stravinsky with the demotic energy and raucous timbres of ’20s jazz.' Adams deftly lacerates Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Babbitt for what he hears as mechanistic severity and coldness in 12-tone music and serialism. He reveres Ives for his famous iconoclasm and formal inventiveness, while admitting disappointment in the failure of Ives’s symphonies to stir him deeply. Adams is particularly fervent and persuasive in his advocacy of lesser-known contemporary composers like Glenn Branca, who has written a symphony for 100 guitars, and Robert Ashley, who, working in a realm between music and speech, creates grand vocal pieces that Adams describes as 'meditative, seemingly improvisatory, but in fact carefully constructed' -- a description that suits more than a few of his own compositions, especially his concerto for symphony and electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur. Much the same, Adams praises Cornelius Cardew, founder of the Scratch Orchestra, because he finds Cardew’s music 'anti-elite and antihistorical to the max' and 'fresh, playful and humanistic.' In the awe-struck impressions of the West in Hallelujah Junction ('the land . . . untamed and mysterious'), as in the evocations of open landscapes in his music, Adams makes clear his fascination with the natural world; and for a composer to admire others whose music sounds very much like his own is only natural. . . . Adams’s importance as a composer is rooted not so much in his having done anything new, but, rather, in his having done very well the things he has done . . . . With Hallelujah Junction, Adams has put in prose an argument against the ideology of aesthetic continuum, a case that his music has always articulated eloquently by example. “That particular continuum I found ridiculously exclusive, being founded on a kind of Darwinian view of stylistic evolution,” he argues. If a composition 'didn’t in some way advance the evolution of the language, yielding progress either by a technological innovation or in the increasing complexity of the discourse, it was not even worth discussing.' Who cares? John Adams. And, so, now do we" [David Hajdu, The New York Times, 10/24/08].
Anthony Braxton. The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton. Mosaic. "[This is] an eight-disc set covering the output of this multireedist and composer during a major-label tenure as impressive as it was improbable. Recorded from 1974 to 1980 and previously available only on vinyl, the material ranges so broadly in structure and scale that it almost defies understanding as a single body of work. Yet Mr. Braxton’s vision is recognizably diamondlike, at once prismatic and tough. He knows exactly what he’s after, even when he struggles to articulate it. In the liner notes Michael Cuscuna, Mr. Braxton’s original producer and now the president of Mosaic, recalls the “blend of excited anticipation and dread” that he felt before planning each release. Mr. Braxton’s palette runs from the existential (unaccompanied alto saxophone) to the quixotic (Opus 82: For Four Orchestras), with a lot of action in between. His unstoppable Creative Music Orchestra turns up memorably, and so do several rough-and-tumble quartets featuring the bassist Dave Holland and Kenny Wheeler on trumpet or George Lewis on trombone. Taken as a whole the collection enables a new understanding of Mr. Braxton’s complicated mind-set as he works through a host of ideas about disjuncture and continuity, form and ritual, timbre and pulse. In some ways this was merely a foundation — he’s still furiously composing and performing — but that hardly diminishes its impact or its exhilarating sense of discovery" [Nate Chinen, The New York Times, 10/17/08].