Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Volume 18, Number 6
Dialogues of the Existentialists / Michael McDonagh
Goldilocks and the Three Pieces / Elizabeth Agnew
Divan Rites / Alice Shields
Glass x 2 / Michael McDonagh
Chronicle of April 2011
Illustration / Richard Nixon
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
Lisa Scola Prosek
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Life is about conflict, and so is opera. And what could be a more dramatic subject than the French Revolution when keeping your head wasn't an abstract issue, but a life and death one. Francis Poulenc's three-act grand opera Dialogues des Carmelites (1953-56) was acclaimed as a masterpiece at its 1957 La Scala premiere, and it's easy to see why. It gets at the heart and soul of its subject through the person of a high strung girl from a rich family, Blanche de la Force, who decides to become a Carmelite nun to escape life, and her internal revolution (or enlightenment) -- from not knowing who she is or what she wants, to full knowledge and decisive action -- is a perfect match for the external one. The inevitable is set in motion.
Why inevitable? Because from the first note to the last the forces of history drive the piece forward, and in Poulenc's very Catholic view God has preordained the outcome. None of this would matter if the music failed to make Georges Bernanos' fine book and its characters come alive, and come alive they do, in an extremely varied yet conversational style not unlike that of the Debussy of Pelleas et Melisande (1893-95, 1901-02). Dialogues is also the biggest installment in Poulenc's series of sacred works -- from the chorus only Litanies a la Vierge Noire (1936), to the chorus with large orchestra Stabat Mater (1950), and Gloria (1959) -- which an expert cast of San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theatre on April 3 at Cowll Theater delivered with power and point.
The role of Blanche, whose mood swings are all over the place (one moment she's impulsive, the next calm, scared to death, childlike, sincere) can't be easy, but soprano Sarah Meltzer, in one of several roles not doubled here, made these aspects fuse: her delivery solid, varied; her technique secure. The role of best friend Sister Constance who's cheerful, but not shallow, was superbly sung by light soprano/soubrette Elise Kennedy -- her clear-as-a-bell tone, diminutive stature and strong stage presence a welcome contrast to Meltzer's and the rest of the cast in this great but largely dark piece.
Its moral center is the convent's Old Prioress Madame de Croissy, whose character embodies the conflict between duty to her nuns, and freedom, which she has never really had. She only has two scenes -- the “entry level interview“ she conducts with Blanche, and the scene of her death. Yet if these don't work you have no opera. But contralto Kristen Choi, who substituted at the last moment for Evgenia Chaverdova, delivered the goods -- resolute, terrified, terrifying, resigned -- her voice in full command.
The rest of the large cast was equally fine, and the Cowell stage , though not large, easily accommodated Peter Crompton's faithful to the period set, which Richard Harrell's direction animated with imagination and grace. Artistic decisions are always complicated, and of course I wondered how Harrell would stage the finale when the nuns go to their death on the scaffold, and his solution made perfect dramatic and emotive sense.
The 43-member Conservatory Orchestra, with a synthesizer sitting in for the piano, gave a vivid, wonderfully nuanced reading of the piece, under conductor Michael Morgan. While each instrumental was choir strong, oboist Elizabeth Nelson's solo arabesque, and Sarah Bonomo's solo, on clarinet were especially striking. Also impressive was the work of timpanist Collin Boltz, and percussionists Jon Lou and Kevin Schlossman, on everything from tenor drum, to chimes, the tempos throughout well judged, though Act 1, Scene 1, could have gone a wee bit faster.
Once upon a time (April 8, 2011) there were three pieces performed by the San Francisco Symphony, conduced by Osmo Vanska -- a great big Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 2 ("London") (1933), a middle-sized Felix Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (1844), and a little Thomas Larchner Red and Green (2010).
They were performed in a big Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.
And in the evening a big audience, including Goldilocks, came to hear the works.
She heard the Larchner. It was a dark, post-minimalist exercise in textures and timbres, featuring relentless repeating notes that stimulated her libido. But it had little thematic content, and it was rather short (because that's often all symphony orchestras will let a contemporary composer get away with, because they have to play all that older music that everyone has really come to hear, anyway), and the people sitting next to her didn't understand it, and probably didn't like it much.
"How eager I am to hear San Francisco Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik!" said Goldilocks, just before the performance of the Mendelssohn. And the soloist performed marvelously on the 1742 Guarnerius del Gesu "David" violin -- evidently the same instrument by which the music was premiered by its namesake Ferdinand David in 1845. But the piece, through no fault of its own (other than its excellence), is now too familiar. And Goldilocks kept looking around for one of those just-right beds in substitute for her just-right chair. But most of the audience loved it, anyway.
Then after the intermission, when Goldilocks was just getting ready to have a nap, up sprung the Vaughan Williams London Symphony. And it was over the top. And just right. The composer, under-rated in some quarters (oh, say by a certain Berkeley professor whose huge study of Western music does not even mention the composer's name), delivers an engaging and varied large-scale, four-movement work, that continues to hold the attention from moment-to-moment in its rational yet emotive unfolding of ideas, and at the same time forms arcs that chill the spine and turn the heart. Conductor and orchestra made the most of every moment, in a shining performance that was left ringing in the ears, even to the daringly, surprisingly quiet conclusion.
And Goldilocks kept awake and was entertained and ennobled, running from the theatre in joy.
What? You were expecting she'd fall asleep and be awakened by the composers? No way, two of the three being dead anyway, but part of the magic of the arts is how the old-and-past can ever be reinterpreted as new and fresh.
On April 28, 2011 the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, an agency of the Republic of Austria, presented West-Eastern Divan in their chamber concert series. The sold-out concert featured violinist Frank Stadler, pianist Jun Kanno, and oud player and composer Hossam Mahmoud.
This superb concert at the Austrian Cultural Forum was a model of how to present classical works from different world traditions.
The three performers in their ethnic diversity reflect the cross-fertilization of the classical traditions of East and West. Violinist Frank Stadler, of European heritage, lives in Salzburg, is founder of the Stadler Quartet, and leads the Austrian Ensemble for Contemporary Music and the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg. Pianist Jun Kanno, of Japanese heritage, now lives in Paris, and has performed with the Munich Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of Berlin, Japan Philharmonic, Vienna String Quartet, and the Mozart Quartet of Salzburg. Oud player and composer Hossam Mahmoud, of Eqyptian heritage, now lives in Salzburg, and is a performer and composer focused on promoting dialog between music of different cultures. Born in Cairo, Mahmoud studied Middle Eastern music, and then Western composition in Graz and Salzburg. His compositions have been performed at stART2003 in Salzburg, Autumn festival in Paris and the Salzburg Biennale, and his stage works at the opera houses of Cairo and Alexandria.
The venue for this intercultural concert was the tall, thin modern building of the Austrian Cultural Council, a 30,000-square-foot structure of concrete, glass, and steel off 5th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The slightly elevated performance space, large enough to accomodate a piano quartet, is within 6 feet of the audience in this wood-lined jewel box of a theater.
Slow and meditative, the Hossam Mahmoud's Taq'sim, for solo oud, uses some melodic material from the Arabic classical Maqam patterns. Listening to this unhurried composition, which seems to dwell on the moment that has just past instead of the moment that is to come, it felt as if we had just stepped into a cool, shady courtyard, in which we could think for moment and look inward. We were held by the calm, descending melodic patterns, which seemed as egoless as leaves blown by a gentle breeze across our courtyard. This was satisfying, without accumulation or development or crescendo, simply dwelling in timelessness, unstructured, modest, in-dwelling.
And then the next piece began: we were immersed once again in highly structured time and now piercing dissonances, in the world premiere of Herbert Grassl’s Piece for Piano and Violin. Grassl’s work has muscular, clearly-shaped phrases and interchanges between piano and violin, and intense double-stop dissonances in the violin. Razor-sharp melodic lines and distinct rhythmic gestures culminate in excruciating but strangely pleasureable dissonances, played with impressive precision by Mr. Stadler. Some of the phrases repeated, so that the painful beauty of the dissonances could be enjoyed once more. The work was exciting in its aural exactness and crystalline form, and in an abstracted, distant way, expressed suffering.
Next came Debussy’s Sonata for Piano and Violin, where deeply pleasurable subtleties of fine ensemble playing were exchanged between the instruments, along with dramatic entrances and sharp timing and crescendos. But in its melodic and harmonic twists, the Debussy reflected the growing spiritual tortures of the ensuing century -- spiritual and musical twists that we had also just caught glimpses of in the Mahmoud and Grassl works.
Kanno’s performed Messiaen’s Regard de l’Etoile and Regard de l’Esprit de joie masterfully, presenting with seeming ease the densities, delicacies and enormous landscapes of these massive, virtuosic pieces. The works resonated through the hall with great effect and enjoyment on the part of the audience. Kanno made the keyboard resonate as if an enormous harp, easily strummed.
In Traditional Arabic Piece for Violin and Oud, Mahmoud and Stadler sat, intently leaning forward, the latter preparing to play with the violin lower on his arm in the Middle Eastern fashion. Mahmoud began the Maqam melodies on the oud; Stadler echoed, senza vibrato, in low range. The two often alternated or overlapped, playing descending melodic fragments with occasional ornaments. After the thunder of the Messiaen, we had again stepped into a quiet courtyard, and this time seemed to be listening to a quiet conversation between two people, a conversation in which no change or conclusion was expected or desired. One performer would give a fragment of a melody, descending, and then the other would imitate it. Here there was no desire to use repetition to contain emotion or to create form within a larger work. In this, it seemed repetition was being used between two different players as if it were a way of perhaps not being alone: you could hear someone “say” what you had just said, so you knew somebody was out there. Other people exist, and they sound like you; they are quite like you, and you know it because they play very similar things, not very different from yours.
Kanno came onstage to join Stadler and Mahmoud for the final work, the world premiere of Mahmoud’s Piece for Violin, Piano, and Oud, dedicated to those who lost their lives in Tahrir Square. The mood was quite different than in the previous, traditional composition. Although melodic elements of the Maqam were were still audible, the piece did not dwell in introspective solitude as in the earlier Taq’im, nor was it an imitative dialog in a quiet courtyard. Now, with the piano and violin and oud, it seemed a synthesis. Within a developmental structure, there were bursts of intense feeling and activity, with structured differences between the musical material played by each instrument, and clusters of density contrasting with brief solo lines. There were rises and falls in pitch and intensity, with particularly beautiful moments in which a whirling fast series of notes in the piano would meld with fast patterns in the violin and oud. Neither Western, nor Arabic in sound or structure, this moving work carried us beyond into sorrow and love for those who have perished in the cause of justice and freedom.
This was a concert not to be missed.
We like to think that concert music is something other than sound we hear with others in a room. Of course it is, but music is a physical fact we encounter first hand and try to wrap our minds around later, and the large and attentive audience at Philip Glass's San Francisco Performances program of his solo piano works seemed to know the difference when they gave him a warm welcome even before he'd played a note at his from memorized 8o-minute intermissionless recital at YBCA's Novellus Theater on April 30. Real affection like that for a composer, especially a controversial and popular one like Glass, is rare, and that's just for starters.
Glass has never been a virtuoso pianist -- he once quipped that he writes the hard keyboard parts for his ensemble's music director Michael Riesman -- but he's a thoroughly engaging and utterly sincere one. He began with Six Etudes – # 1, # 2, # 3, # 6 , # 9, #10 -- from his first book of Ten (1994-99), which are deeply personal, listener friendly yet demanding for the player who has to keep a steady pulse while executing Glass's often rapid and rapidly shifting figures in sometimes irregular metres. His approach here was miles away from his 2002 recording of the set for www.orangemountainmusic.com on a Baldwin grand, which he played here on a Hamburg Steinway Model D, with its typically brilliant, hard Germanic sound. Glass has composed a lot since that CD, and the differences in how he hears now were everywhere apparent. # 1, with its fanfare-like opening which reappears in different contexts, sounded more dramatic, but not as smooth, the driving figures of unequal lengths in # 3, looser, almost improvisatory. But the real news here was how the composer's sudden attacks and releases, and frequent yet tasteful rubato -- ritenuti and diminuendi -- made these pieces in the moment fresh. And his pedalling exploited the massing overtones in a logical but non-systematic way, each sound adding sound to sound like rising floors in a house with interconnecting rooms. The pull backs in tempo in #2 like emotion refracted; the low hammered figures in # 10 like the insistent drone of an Indian harmonium, the ascending melismatic one an integral decoration in a complete structure. Glass's Etudes extend the classical tradition of Chopin and Debussy's sets in an entirely individual way, though unlike Debussy he gives no clues to what they're about.
The other pieces here were just as unique. The 1980 series of alternately lyric/static and active/dramatic variations, Third Series Part IV, which Lucinda Childs renamed and choreographed as Mad Rush -- its opening figuration suggests Schubert's song Du bist die Ruh -- were less exploratory than the Etudes, but very affecting, especially in the soft slow parts. It's as much of a stand alone piece as Glass's 1989 Metamorphosis #1-# 5 series which he made from 2 separate scores -- one for for Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line, and one for two concurrent Dutch and Brazilian theatre versions by different directors of Kafka's story Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) -- we heard #2-#4 -- which encapsulate the isolation of its "hero" Gregor Samsa, who awakens one morning and finds himself turned into a giant cockroach. Its fragile bell-like themes and suspended harmonies, which Glass played with great sensitivity, are a perfect transformation of Samsa's spiritual state into sound, and deeply touching, too.
Dreaming Awake (2006), which Glass wrote and recorded as a limited edition, with a facsimile of his manuscript score, benefit for his Tibetan spiritual teacher Gelek Rinpoche's Ann Arbor, Michigan, retreat center Jewel Heart, is a rapidly changing lyric piece whose warm fluid harmonies draw on the discoveries the composer made in his award-winning score for Stephen Daldry's 2002 film The Hours, which suggest the here and gone feeling of the heart's many facets with consummate grace.
Durham University law students present Tricky Dick. Durham, NC. "Tricky Dick, a musical written by Duke Law School students and starring a 50-person ensemble of professors, administrators and students, was performed . . . at a sold-out arts center . . . . And now organizers want to make the zany, cabaret-style show an annual tradition" [Robbie Brown, The New York times, 4/3/11].
San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theatre presents Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, conducted by Michael Morgan. Cowell Theater, Ft Mason Center, San Francisco, CA.
The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater,” directed by Patricia Birch, with Michael Tilson Thomas, Judy Blazer, and the New York Philharmonic. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "This semistaged program takes the form of a personal memoir in which Mr. Thomas tells the story of his grandparents Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, pioneers in the Yiddish theater, which thrived at the turn of the 20th century on the Lower East Side and on tours to American cities. But along the way the program also provides an inside story of this vibrant people’s art form, with Mr. Thomas as a warm, wry and loving narrator, supported by a cast of four musical theater performers, archival film clips and the Philharmonic, reduced in size and sounding like a Yiddish theater pit band. Since 1998 the Thomashefsky Project has been uncovering and reclaiming the music and arrangements of Yiddish theater works. The arrangements Mr. Thomas conducted, as in a medley from Dos Pintele Yid (A Little Spark of Jewishness), were as close in sound and style to the originals as you are likely to hear. Not content to tell stories and conduct, Mr. Thomas, who last week led a demanding program with the New York Philharmonic, played a snappy piano accompaniment to a Yiddish song, A Coat From Old-Time Stuff, sung by the sassy Judy Blazer, who portrayed Bessie Thomashefsky. In Act II Mr. Thomas stopped the show by singing Who Do You Suppose Married My Sister? Thomashefsky. This 1910 song poked fun at Boris Thomashefsky’s womanizing ways. Mr. Thomas first presented a version of this program in 2005 at Zankel Hall and has been performing and refining it since. What comes through most is his affection for his grandparents, both born in shtetls outside Kiev, who met in Baltimore when young Boris was on tour and Bessie was 14. Boris, who died at 71 in 1939, five years before Mr. Thomas was born, was played here by Shuler Hensley, who brought gusto and a hearty voice to the role. . . . Growing up in Los Angeles, Mr. Thomas knew Bessie as a grandmother in her 80s, and clearly adored her. She regaled her musical grandson with stories of her stardom and performed songs at family gatherings. She began her career as a late adolescent, with trouser roles as her specialty, but evolved into a wisecracking, sassy singer and actress paving the way for later stars like Fanny Brice. . . . Mr. Thomas (whose father, Ted Thomas, changed his family name) speaks with honesty about his grandmother’s decision to separate from her philandering, spendthrift husband. His most moving recollection came when he recalled Bessie, who died in 1962 when he was 17, telling him, 'You are just like me'" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 4/6/11].
James Levine conducts Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "Levine made it a priority to conduct Wozzeck, a work he reveres and has performed stunningly over the years, the last time in the 2005-6 season. But I never heard him give a better account of this harrowing, deeply moving opera than this one. Mr. Levine must still be coping with back pain; he did not make it to the stage at the end for bows. Instead he simply waved to the audience from the pit. On the podium, though, sitting in his conductor’s chair with his arms flailing, he seemed inspired. Could the extra urgency and sweep on this occasion, and tempos slightly faster than those I remember from his earlier performances, have been motivated by a determination to prove that he was still a dynamic maestro? Whatever the cause, the results were thrilling. Mr. Levine still drew plenty of depth, spaciousness and glow from the orchestra during the despairing passages of Berg’s gravely beautiful atonal score, first performed in Berlin in 1925. But his work had greater overall shape and more prickly energy on this night than in years past. Played without breaks, “Wozzeck” lasts just 1 hour 40 minutes. The time passed without notice; the score has seldom seemed so compact and inexorable. Mr. Levine was on the podium when the Met’s spare, grim Mark Lamos production -- with sets that are all shapes, shadows and tall slanted walls —--was introduced in 1997. The staging remains effective. The strong cast was headed by the bass-baritone Alan Held as Wozzeck, an oppressed, impoverished soldier. Mr. Held’s full-bodied sound combined with his haggard, pitiful look made his Wozzeck seem especially delusional and dangerous. As Marie, Wozzeck’s common-law wife and the mother of his little boy, the mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier was magnificent. Though her voice may not be glamorous, it is warm, humane and poignantly expressive. Singing the haunting lullaby to her child (the sweet-faced John Albert) Ms. Meier brought suppleness and earthy colorings to Berg’s elusive vocal lines. Yet during Marie’s throes of despair or, when the handsome Drum Major tempted her, desire, Ms. Meier’s voice sliced through the orchestra with burnished power. When Marie confessed her infidelity and Wozzeck was about to slap her, Ms. Meier’s Marie rashly defied him. She would rather have a knife in the belly, she made clear, than let Wozzeck lay a hand on her. Even hobbled by guilt and humiliated by poverty, this Marie was going to maintain her dignity. The Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, in his Met debut, was an imposing, bright-voiced Drum Major. The tenor Russell Thomas brought out the decency of Andres, Wozzeck’s fellow soldier. The tenor Gerhard Siegel was aptly sniveling as the weirdly giddy Captain who berates Wozzeck for his faulty morals. And the booming bass Walter Fink held the stage as the pompous Doctor, who pays Wozzeck to be a subject of quack medical experiments. But inevitably this was Mr. Levine’s night. I will not soon forget the pulsing intensity and surging sound he brought to the orchestral interlude near the end of Act III, after the scene in which Wozzeck, panicked over having killed Marie in a fit, drowns in a pond while trying to hide his knife; or the eerie playfulness Mr. Levine teased from the short final scene, in which neighborhood children curtly tell Marie’s boy that his mother is dead" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 4/12/11].
Chanticleer performs Benjamin Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia, Sarah Hopkins's Past Life Melodies, Kirke Mechem's Island in Space, Mason Bates's Observer in the Magellanic Cloud, Erica Lloyd's Cells Planets, and songs of Harold Arlen and Kurt Weill. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. "[T]he sensuously droning throat-singing in Sarah Hopkins‘s “Past Life Melodies,” from 1991, had welcome strangeness, and Kirke Mechem‘s Island in Space, from 1990, was lyrical and affecting" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 4/8/11].
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Ivan Fischer, in Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”). Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Some works are derivative by default, with composers subconsciously incorporating various influences into their scores, but Prokofiev deliberately modeled his First Symphony on Haydn. His efforts resulted in far more than mere imitation, meshing traditional elements with 20th-century twists. The Gavotte, for example, blends a lighthearted dance with bold harmonic quirks" [Vivien Schweizter, The New York Times, 4/8/11].
21c Liederabend. The Kitchen, New York, NY. "'I feel like at a real 19th-century Liederabend there would be more flirtation between the performers and audience,' the singer and pianist Gabriel Kahane . . . . He affected the tremulous tone of a cagey suitor: “What are you doing later tonight?” Mr. Kahane’s brief assignation offered a moment of pop-inspired directness during a long, ambitious evening of contemporary art song and opera, part of a three-night series produced by VisionIntoArt, Beth Morrison Projects and Opera on Tap. Theo Bleckmann reprised selections from Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs in luminous new arrangements, played elegantly by the pianist Timothy Andres and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. A versatile, enchanting artist, Mr. Bleckmann added his own mesmerizing songs and participated in chattering ensembles by Julia Wolfe from the 1999 Bang on a Can opera The Carbon Copy Building. Russell Platt wrangled iconic poetry in Two Whitman Panels with stately decorum and unruly chromatic lines. Matt Marks treated sexual candor both sardonically and tenderly in I [XX], emphasizing the dramatic flair of the soprano Mellissa Hughes. In a resourceful, astonishingly beautiful Wilfred Owen setting by Gregory Spears, Amelia Watkins, a soprano, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, a countertenor, intertwined in languorous flights. Ted Hearne’s Is It Dirty evoked urban roil with jazzy motifs in raucous collision. Paola Prestini’s elaborate Aging Magician, a premiere based on an earnest Jonathan Safran Foer text, forged an enigmatic détente among Rinde Eckert’s potent delivery, Mr. Kahane’s soulful singing, moist narration by Melvin van Peebles, a clattering musical-junk sculpture by Mark Stewart and more" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 4/8/11].
Sarah Connolly sings Ivor Gurney's By a Bierside and Sleep, Benjamin Britten's Charm of Lullabies, Richard Rodney Bennett's History of the Dansant, and music of Herbert Howells, accompanied by pianist Malcolm Martineau. New York, NY. "Connolly brought sincerity and purity of tone to British songs: Britten’s “Charm of Lullabies,” whose occasional longueurs she overcame with variety, and two of Herbert Howells’s gently old-fashioned airs. She captured the brainy nostalgia of Richard Rodney Bennett’s surreally retro “History of the Thé Dansant,” but best of all were the Gurney [selections] . . . performed with moving nobility" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 4/15/11].
Yuri Temirkanov conducts the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in Anotoli Liadov's Kikimora and Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "In the bizarre Russian fairy tale depicted here, Kikimora is a witch raised from infancy by a magician, who regales her with stories while rocking her in a crystal cradle. At 7, the witch is still the size of a thimble, yet already plotting evil for the world. The sound of the murmuring low brass chords that began this performance seemed not to be coming from the stage but seeping up through the floorboards under the seats. After an atmospheric episode, the piece broke into a spiraling dance, sometimes crazed, sometimes delicate with gossamer textures. Why this 1909 tone poem is not as popular as Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” I cannot imagine. . . . The brilliant young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whom I had not heard since 2009 when she took part in Classical Music Day at the White House, was the compelling soloist in a first-rate performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Again, playing with incisive rhythm and crisp articulation is not this orchestra’s strong suit. But between Ms. Weilerstein’s impassioned, intelligent playing and the richness and color of the ensemble, this was an organic and arresting account of a great work, one of dozens of major 20th-century scores written for Mstislav Rostropovich" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 4/15/11].
Violinist Gil Shaham and his sister, the pianist Orli Shaham, in a concert of Jewish music. 92nd Street Y, New York, NY. "Avner Dorman decided not to create a piece with traditional Jewish melodies. Instead, Mr. Dorman -- an Israeli composer whose influences run the gamut from Bach and Bartok to the jazz guitarist John McLaughlin -- explored Jewish traditions from around the world, including Central Asian wedding songs and North African cantillations. He meshed those idioms with other traditions like Macedonian dances and Georgian folk rhythms to create the electric Niggunim for piano and violin. The work . . . [was] given a dynamic performance by the Shaham siblings. Niggun is a Hebrew word meaning soulful melody; the music often has repetitive and improvisatory elements. Mr. Dorman’s piece opened with a haunting, slightly dissonant Adagio, whose eerie melody was etched out by Mr. Shaham in a high register. In the third-movement Adagio the piano took over, slowly teasing out a similarly haunting tune in the upper register. Mr. Shaham plunged into the virtuosic thickets of the Scherzo with aplomb, revealing its improvisatory melodies with flair. The concluding Presto unfolded in a kaleidoscopic blaze, a frenzy of jazzy rhythms and explosive energy. The Shahams were equally convincing with more traditional Jewish music, including a Hebrew Lullaby, Hebrew Melody and Hebrew Dance by Joseph Achron. They also offered beautifully wrought interpretations of Bloch’s Baal Shem and George Perlman’s Ghetto Sketches, written as a composition for his students. (Perlman was also represented by his agitated Dance of the Rebbitzen from his Suite Hébraïque.) And Mr. Shaham’s lush tone did full justice to the suite from John Williams’s score for the film Schindler’s List" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 4/17/11].
Chicago Symphony, conducted by Riccardo Muti, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "One measure of Mr. Muti’s triumph [was from the beginning] . . . to his final downbeat on the plangent chord that closed Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony . . . worries about the state of American orchestras and those who lead them disappeared. Mr. Muti, lithe and energetic (the Shostakovich included a balletic leap or two, both feet off the podium), drew such a glorious sound from his players, and interpreted the music with such insight and clarity, that a listener had to be fully in the moment. . . . There was room to quibble about Mr. Muti’s reading of the Shostakovich. Whenever a tempo was slower than Allegro, Mr. Muti lingered over it, replacing its tartness with an unwarranted beauty. Those touches created a striking contrast with the fast, loud and intensely bitter sections that invariably followed, but Shostakovich’s slow music should not be defanged. That said, the Shostakovich brought the best out of the orchestra. The strings were lush, the woodwind playing was beautifully chiseled, and the brasses had the kind of spectacular power and precision that made the section legendary during the Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti eras. All that made it easy to forgive a touch of interpretive oddness" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 4/18/11].
Models and Paradigms, a tribute concert for Gunther Schuller, celebrating his 85th birthday (November, 2010). Weill Recital Hall, New York, NY. "The program featured just four works, two by Mr. Schuller and two by Mohammed Fairouz, a talented composer 60 years his junior. Though Mr. Schuller composes according to the strict rules of 12-tone technique, his work manages to sound freer and more varied than the forbidding image many people still have of serial music would suggest. In his Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano (1999), the pianist Katie Reimer began with slow arpeggiated phrases over a lilting saxophone line, played with sweet intensity by Michael Couper, before shifting to a jumpier, more aggressive jazz-flavored finale. The 14 short movements of the quintet Paradigm Exchanges (1991) were the perfect symbol of Mr. Schuller’s inventiveness, moving restlessly from solos to duets to full-group passages and back. The players captured the work’s controlled energy in moments like a sweeping and bristling solo from the violinist Tema Watstein, a rich duet for cello (the warm-toned Michael Katz) and clarinet (Vasko Dukovski), a meditative piano solo from Ms. Reimer and an impassioned duet for violin and flute (Magdalena Angelova). Mr. Fairouz’s work is not 12-tone, but he experiments with dissonance and microtonality to expressive effect. Mr. Schuller’s main influence on him is his eclecticism, his sense of genres and styles as collapsible and combinable. Four Critical Models (2009) uses the violin (Rayoung Ahn) for its penetrating tone and the saxophone (Mr. Couper) for its insinuating smoothness in a spiky opening; a slow, haunting second movement; and a pensive finale. Inspired by writings about music and Orientalism, the piece features a brilliantly handled third-movement indictment of stereotypically 'Arab' music. (Think of snake charmers.) Every time a clichéd riff emerged, it would quickly disintegrate, exhausted and uncertain. That piece followed Mr. Fairouz’s warmly sympathetic 2010 setting of the Borges poem The Poet Declares His Renown for baritone (the excellent Mischa Bouvier) and string quartet, with Ms. Watstein and Mr. Katz joined by the violinist Michelle Ross and the violist Mary Sang-Hyun Yong. Mr. Fairouz’s music is not really like Mr. Schuller’s at all. That the program was still cohesive speaks to the capaciousness of Mr. Schuller’s style and interests. He has, as Mr. Fairouz said in an onstage discussion, big ears" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 4/24/11].
Death of Joan Peyser (b. Joan Goldstein, 6/12/30, New York, NY), at 80, after heart surgery. New York, NY. "[She was] a prolific writer about classical music and the author of biographies of Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, died on Sunday in Manhattan. . . . [Her] whose interviews with contemporary European and American composers, published mostly in The New York Times between the late 1960s and the late 1980s, helped clarify what those musicians considered most important about their work. Articles she contributed to The Times and other publications were collected in The Music of My Time, a 1995 compilation that traced contemporary music from Schoenberg to Charles Wuorinen and Todd Machover, with pieces about Maria Callas, the Beatles and the New York Philharmonic along the way. As a biographer, Ms. Peyser tended to focus on the personal lives and inner motivations of her subjects, an emphasis that attracted considerable controversy in musical circles. Her Bernstein: A Biography (1987), in particular, was criticized for its emphasis on Bernstein’s bisexuality and the dark side of his personality, rather than on his music. The conductor Leon Botstein, who reviewed it for The Times, characterized the book as 'a kind of psychobiography' and wrote that Ms. Peyser had 'fallen prey to the lure of publicity and the temptation to substitute superficial personal revelations for analytic argument and coherence.' Ms. Peyser was undaunted by such criticism. In her introduction to a paperback edition in 1998, she wrote: 'The response was a small price for me to pay for the pleasure of fitting together the intricate pieces of this particular jigsaw puzzle. In the end, when each of the pieces is placed where it belongs, it forms with the others the picture of a man virtually everyone recognizes as Bernstein.' While the debates about her Bernstein book were still raging, Ms. Peyser began work on The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin (1993). Using letters, recollections of Gershwin’s associates and family, and his brother Ira’s lyrics -- which Ms. Peyser described as a veiled biography of the composer -- she created a portrait of Gershwin as insensitive, narcissistic and disappointed with his lack of acceptance in the world of serious music. She also explored rumors of an unacknowledged son. Here again, the music was not the point of the book. 'I don’t go into encyclopedic detail about the songs and shows,' Ms. Peyser told The New York Times in 1993. 'That information is available in other books. I think of this as the first biography of Gershwin. The rest are chronicles of what he did and whom he met.' . . . [B]efore she was 10 her father changed her surname and her brother’s (but not his own) to Gilbert, to shield them from anti-Semitism. She began her musical studies, as a pianist, when she was 5, and played a recital at Town Hall when she was 13. As a student at the High School of Music and Art, she also studied the viola and took courses in music theory and orchestration. She gave up music briefly in her mid-teens, but returned to it in college. She attended Smith College from 1947 to 1949, then transferred to Barnard College to complete her bachelor’s degree in music. She earned a master’s degree at Columbia, where she studied with Paul Henry Lang, in 1956. In 1949 she married Herbert S. Peyser, a medical student who became a psychiatrist. Though their marriage ended in divorce in the early 1970s, Ms. Peyser acknowledged that their discussions about psychology informed her own understanding of motivation, a crucial underpinning of her work as a biographer. They had three children -- [Monica] Parks and Tony Peyser of New York City and Dr. Kami Seligman of Scarsdale, N.Y. -- all of whom survive her, as does her brother, Robert Gilbert of Lancaster, Pa., and the jazz historian Frank Driggs, her partner since 1990. Ms. Peyser began writing about music in the 1950s, and submitted articles about music to Opera News and other publications while still a student. In 1966, the Delacorte Press offered her a contract to write The New Music: The Sense Behind the Sound, published in 1970. Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma followed in 1976; in 1999, she combined The New Music and Boulez and republished them as a single volume, To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since ‘The Rite of Spring.’ Ms. Peyser was the editor of The Musical Quarterly from 1977 to 1984, and of The Orchestra: Origins and Transformations (1986), a compilation of essays tracing the orchestra from the 15th century to the present. Among the many prizes she won were six Deems Taylor Awards for excellence in writing on music from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Speaking about her Gershwin biography in 1993, Ms. Peyser described an approach, as well as a conclusion, that could have applied equally to her Bernstein book. 'What I’ve written,' she said, 'is an interpretation of a life that was much sadder than anyone dreamed' [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 4/25/11].
Philip Glass, solo piano, performs Mad Rush, Wichita Sutra Vortex (including the voice of libretist Allen Ginzberg), and music from Etudes, Glassworks, The Thin Blue Line, and The Screens. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA.
Richard Courtney and George Cassidy. Come Together: The Business Wisdom of The Beatles. Turner. "During a 1968 recording session, they couldn’t find a suitable introduction to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, a song written by Paul McCartney. John Lennon didn’t much like the song, and, after several hours, he stormed out of the studio. When he returned, he strode to the piano and banged out several chords, then added petulantly, 'Here’s your intro!' 'All eyes shifted to Paul, expecting rejection, perhaps an outburst' . . . Instead, McCartney defused the tension with this: 'That’s quite good, actually.' Lennon’s chords, pounded out in a fit of pique, make up the song’s now-famous opening. 'The underlying disagreement about whether the song had merit in the broader scheme of things did not disappear,' the book concludes, 'but resolving the conflict informed the work and made it stronger, rather than destroying it.' That takeaway -- that disagreement can lead to synthesis -- is just one of 100 lessons that the book teases out of the history of the Fab Four. . . . 'There were some very visible failures, particularly in the late ’60s, centered around the Apple group of companies,' [George Cassidy] says, referring to the various enterprises the Beatles started at the time to enter the film, record and retail businesses. 'For a lot of people that became the whole story as far as the Beatles and business are concerned. Our approach was to take a look at a longer trend line, a bigger set of facts, and say by and large this thing has been ticking upwards for almost 50 years now.' It’s an intriguing idea -- that by studying creative people who are passionate about what they do, we can enhance our own creativity, and business savvy, even if we work in a completely different arena. Of course, it’s easier for most people to relate to musicians and their work than, say, to people who design furniture (and their end tables). . . . [W]hen the Beatles were a young band, their only means of transportation was a van missing its windshield. That meant that in the dead of winter, traveling across England to a gig was such a frigid experience that the band members who weren’t driving huddled on top of one another for warmth, the authors write, adding: 'Take a page out of their book. Although frostbite is generally a bad idea, avoid relying heavily on debt to finance your daily operations or growth.' The Lennon-McCartney decision to always share credit on songs provided another lesson, the authors suggest: Don’t waste time arguing over crumbs when that energy could be better used building a bakery -- or, in this case, the Beatles songbook. Another story from the Beatles’ early years highlights the importance of heeding feedback, even when it’s not what you want to hear. . . . The Beatles could have kept arguing about the . . . merits [of Love Me Do], or simply given up on conquering America. Instead, Mr. Courtney and Mr. Cassidy explain, they kept recording new material and sending it to Capitol -- for one solid year. Finally, in 1964, Capitol released I Want to Hold Your Hand, which became the Beatles’ first No. 1 hit in the United States. 'The most important lesson here is not simple perseverance, though that is important,' the book says. 'The approach was key. They did not continue to pitch Capitol the same product that they had already rejected.' Instead, the Beatles’ producer George Martin got in touch only 'when he had something new and improved.' . . . [The authors] tell a story about how one night Lennon and McCartney taught Mick Jagger and Keith Richards how to write their own songs -- by composing I Wanna Be Your Man in front of them. The anecdote raises the question: Is there a book to be written about the business wisdom of the Rolling Stones? . . . 'The Stones have stayed together as a working band for so long and weathered so many changes in the music business,' he said. 'They weathered the decline of record sales and the increased emphasis on live performance and touring as a revenue source. They also adopted a number of strategies very different from the Beatles -- becoming expatriates to avoid the crushing British tax burden. It’s a very different story but almost an equally fascinating one.' In other words, if Come Together does well, Gimme (Tax) Shelter may not be far behind" [Amy Wallace, The New York Times, 3/19/11].