Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Chronicle of December 2005

December 2

Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "For a company of such international standing, the Metropolitan Opera has had an inexcusably timid record of commissioning operas in recent decades. Consequently, when the Met presents a new work, the stakes are almost impossibly high. . . . An American Tragedy, Tobias Picker's long-awaited operatic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's landmark 1925 novel, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, opened at the Met. What composer would not covet Mr. Picker's success at winning this commission? But this was only the company's fourth premiere since the James Levine era began in 1971. Talk about pressure. Though An American Tragedy is essentially a conventional work and whole stretches of Mr. Picker's score would not be out of place in a Broadway theater, the opera is accomplished, dramatically effective and thoroughly professional. It's hard to imagine a more compelling cast. . . . The production by the director Francesca Zambello could not be more gripping. Still, in getting behind this project, the Met was playing it safe. The subject is taken from a lofty, though still relevant and troubling literary work. Mr. Picker embraces opera as a populist art form. Those wary of contemporary music will find Mr. Picker's Neo-Romantic idiom much easier on the ears than, say, that garish shocker Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. While John Adams (in Doctor Atomic), Thomas Adès (in The Tempest) and Poul Ruders (in The Handmaid's Tale) have pushed at the boundaries of the genre, Mr. Picker hews to melodramatic and operatic conventions. Yet he does so with undeniable skill. This is Mr. Picker's fourth opera (Emmeline is among the others) and in a recent interview he said that by now he had learned how to write for the voice, to pace the drama, to structure arias and ensembles. Many composers with greater musical originality could learn from Mr. Picker's know-how about the theater. Yet you almost always sense his controlling hand at work. . . . [T]he rousing music is generic and superficial. Paradoxically . . . [a] revealing moment seems a standard set piece with an applause-line final flourish, one of many set pieces in the score. Every time Mr. Picker summons his modernist vocabulary, closer to the idiom of his days as a young serialist, the music becomes more involving. . . . There are other . . . moments when you sense Mr. Picker working harder, taking more chances . . . . Below deceptively placid vocal lines, the orchestra erupts with quietly scurrying counterpoint and lurching, unhinged harmonies. Such moments stand out in a score that is mostly too eager to please with its undulantly lyrical outpourings and film-scorish flourishes. The bustling scene when we first see the chorus of women working at the shirt factory is very derivative, like pale Prokofiev" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 12/3/05].

December 3

Alarm Will Sound in five John Adams pieces. Miller Theater, Columbia University, New York, NY. "What makes Adams Adams or Adams American or Adams an artifact of his time begins with the idea that the world sounds different than it used to. It can shriek, bang and whine through loudspeakers. There was not a flowering lea or a mist-shrouded mountaintop in the Chamber Symphony at the end of this evening. Mr. Adams likes electrified guitars and keyboards, clarinets and brass in their upper-register jazz mode, and rock-band drum sets. On a street corner or in front of a television set, such sounds are received as intrusive, even hurtful. Mr. Adams tries to convince us that they are beautiful. Gnarly Buttons takes American folk and pop apart and reassembles them in looser fragments; only in Put Your Loving Arms Around Me does sadness sing out at length, here in the well-played clarinet solos of Elisabeth Stimpert. In Short Ride in a Fast Machine, arranged for piano and played by John Orfe, sheer brutality made its claim for respect. Mr. Adams's true fascination is with motion. And if American optimism is to be found in his music, look for it in the transformations of time and rhythm. Scratchband at the start of the evening, like the Chamber Symphony at the end, tells our ears that the motion we are hearing at this instant is more than itself. It bears the seeds of other kinds of motion. A little tic of movement, a tiny pattern from within, takes on its own life, blossoms and matures, leaving its parent phrase to die away. Mr. Adams's music is about birth and rebirth: life changes, life goes on. The result is terribly complex: a nightmare of sight reading for Alarm Will Sound's ardent and intrepid players and especially their conductor, Alan Pierson. What draws us to these pieces, I think, is the confidence and certainty that all this eccentricity exudes. What ought to make us nervous doesn't. The other music was from I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky and addresses California's clashing cultures in a kind of busy, but almost tender, oratorio. The visiting singers (almost everyone in the band sang as well) were Masi Asare, Evangelia Kingsley and Alan H. Green. The composer was on hand and spoke briefly" Bernard Holland, The New York Times, 12/5/05].

December 4

Emanuel Ax in a program of ballades, including works of Franz Liszt, Chen Yi, and Kaija Saariaho. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "The ballade is a notion disguised as a musical form. It doesn't adhere to formal dictates, like a sonata, or a defined rhythmic pattern, like a waltz. It doesn't even evoke a particular mood or distinct imagery, like a nocturne or a barcarolle. In theory, its roots are in the simple contours of the ballad, but most composers who have used the title have offered something structurally and dramatically grander. . . . Chen honored the form's roots by using Chinese folk melody as the basis of her ballade Ji-Dong-Nuo (2005), but if the traditional melody created the work's initial sound world, it was quickly submerged in thickets of Western modernism. By the middle of the work, which lasts less than five minutes, the simply harmonized melody heard in the opening bars had evolved into a virtuosic, texturally complex work that evoked Bartok's reconfigurations of Hungarian folk songs. Ms. Saariaho's Ballade (2005) is also a work of about five minutes, and like Ms. Chen's piece, it demands both a tightly focused technique and a poetic ear, two qualities that have long been prominent in Mr. Ax's arsenal. But Ms. Saariaho's ballade is concerned less with melody than with texture, or at least with the interplay between the score's emotionally tense figuration and the melodic strands that briefly arise from it. In some ways, Ms. Saariaho seems to have taken a page from Liszt's playbook for ballades. Though her work is more substantial than Liszt's Ballade No. 2 in B minor in every way but length (the Liszt is three times as long), they share rumbling basses and splashy, involved passage work. And by playing them side by side, Mr. Ax put a spotlight on their unlikely kinship" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 12/6/05].

December 8

Japan Society presents Miyako Itchu XII and ensemble. Three centuries ago in Japan, a former Buddhist priest turned musician named Miyako Itchu forged a style of narrative musical theater. His approach, Itchu-bushi, became the foundation of classical Japanese theater music, setting stories as suites that change seamlessly as a tale progresses. Itchu-bushi is sparse, somber music. Voices intone the stories in sustained phrases, swooping between speech and song. They are accompanied by a few notes plucked on shamisens . . . and peeped from a wooden flute (hayashi), to be punctuated by hand drums. Every so often a rhythm takes over and a melody is shared. For the stage, the austerity of Itchu-bushi gave way to a more vigorously rhythmic style, Tokiwazu-bushi, now regularly heard in Kabuki theater. But Itchu-bushi has survived as chamber music. . . . [T]he shamisen player who has been designated Miyako Itchu XII led an 11-member ensemble with pieces in both styles. The Itchu-bushi pieces were stories of enlightenment and contemplation. In Dojo-ji Temple, monks freed the troubled spirit of a princess from their temple bell, with music that moved from chantlike reverence to busy contention to stillness again. Chapter of Flowers, with lyrics taken from Junichiro Tanizaki's novel The Makioka Sisters [1943-1948], celebrated the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms. It was a duet by Mr. Itchu and the vocalist Miyako Ichisumi, whose voice could be sweet, almost disembodied or deliberately rough-edged. The Tokiwazu-bushi pieces were less abstract -- steadier in their rhythms, more succinct in their melodies -- but equally meticulous. Feather Robe on the Pine, about a celestial maiden whose robe is taken by a fisherman, featured a Kabuki dancer, Hanayagi Kiyohito, who grew convincingly fragile and earthbound without her divine robe, then turned regal when it was returned. Sanja Festival depicted a bustling, almost kaleidoscopic street scene with repeating, folky melodies and almost rowdy vocal interjections. It was easy to hear how Tokizawu-bushi supplanted the older style: its pleasures are simpler" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 12/10/05].

December 9

Bejun Mehta, with pianist Kevin Murphy, sings music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roger Quilter, and Gerald Finzi. Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY. "[T]his was Mr. Mehta's evening, and his clear, cultured countertenor sound came through relatively unobstructed, at least to a listener three rows in front of him. The Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi and Roger Quilter songs created a bucolic, lyrical English style colored by syntheses of modal scales" [Bernard Holland, The New York Times, 12/12/05].

Death of Gyorgy Sandor (b. Budapest, Hungary), at 93. New York, NY. [He] studied [piano] with Bartok and remained a champion of his music throughout a long career as a performer and teacher. Mr. Sandor . . . [took] composition with Kodaly at the Liszt Academy of Music there. He began to travel widely as a concert pianist in the 1930's, and settled in the United States after his American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1939. Though the program of his debut at Carnegie featured Brahms, Schumann and Bach, he became best known for his performances and recordings of Bartok and Prokofiev. He recorded the complete solo piano works of Prokofiev and Kodaly, and the piano music and concertos of Bartok, for which he won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1965.
Critics praised his style for its grace and delicate coloration even in the brawniest and most technically demanding music, like Bartok's dense cluster chords. 'His playing serves as a chastisement to those who play Bartok with percussive sound,' Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote in a review of a four-disc set that Mr. Sandor recorded for Sony Classical after his 80th birthday in 1992. In the 1940's he gave the premieres of Bartok's Dance Suite and Piano Concerto No. 3, and four decades later performed Bartok's long-lost piano reduction of his landmark Concerto for Orchestra. Bartok produced it in 1944 for a choreographic version of the piece by American Ballet Theater -- which never materialized -- and it was found in 1985 by the composer's son Peter, who asked Mr. Sandor to prepare it for performance and publication. Mr. Sandor maintained a busy touring schedule around the world, even after a heart attack three years ago. His last concert was in Turkey in April, his son said. He was also influential as a teacher. He taught at Southern Methodist University in Dallas from 1956 to 1961 and was then the director of graduate studies in piano at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor until 1981. The next year he joined the piano faculty at the Juilliard School. Among his students were Malcolm Bilson, Barbara Nissman and Hélène Grimaud. He wrote On Piano Playing: Motion, Sound and Expression (1981), and he recently completed the manuscript of a book on Bartok and his music, his son said. His marriage to Christina Sandor ended in divorce. Besides his son, of Manhattan, he is survived by two stepdaughters, Alejandra de Habsburgo de Riera of Barcelona, Spain, and Inmaculada de Habsburgo of Manhattan" [Ben Sisario, The New York Times, 12/14/05].

December 19

Speculum Musicae. Merkin Hall, New York, NY. "David Rakowski wrote Inside Story this year, while Charles Wuorinen's Fortune goes back to 1979. . . . Some of the music was very good, most of it interesting and all of it very well played. Curtis Macomber, violinist, Aleck Karis, pianist, Allen Blustine, clarinetist, and Chris Finckel, cellist, faced musical and technical puzzles with remarkable skill and true engagement. . . . Jacob Druckman's Dark Wind and Toru Takemitsu's From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog shared, in their different ways, an earnest pursuit of beautiful sound. Mr. Druckman's combinations of violin and cello tone showed a man in love with both instruments; the Takemitsu finds delicacy in the extreme ranges of the violin and the piano. Their mirror opposite was Mr. Wuorinen's two-movement quartet at the end, hard-bitten and complex - a tough guy next to these two soft and curvaceous duos. Chou Wen-Chung's Windswept Peaks, also for all four instruments, was high-strung, tumultuous and given to sending short phrases back and forth between the different parts. Mr. Rakowski's three movements begin with scurrying figures and sharp banging interruptions; they continue with a kind of baritonal nocturne and end with rumbling tremolos and a terribly complicated piano part running beneath them. Beauty in the feel-good, hedonistic sense was as absent here as it was in Mr. Wuorinen's Fortune. One could split the evening into two camps. One side says, 'The sensuous is still important'; the other, 'Here is the news, not all of it pretty'" [Bernard Holland, 12/21/05].

December 27

Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "If James Levine could zap himself back in time and conduct the premiere of any opera in history, what among his favorites might he choose? . . . My guess . . . is that Mr. Levine would choose the 1925 premiere at the Berlin State Opera of Alban Berg's Wozzeck . . . . Adapted by Berg from Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck, which was left in sketches when the author died at 23 in 1837, the opera was largely denounced by the critical establishment at its premiere. Yet it stunned and excited Berlin audiences with its excitingly radical musical language and brutally modern dramatic content. When Mark Lamos's arrestingly abstract 1997 production of Wozzeck returned . . . Levine once again showed himself the living master of this extraordinary work. It remains one of the greatest achievements of his career. Since coming to the Met in 1971, Mr. Levine has found it hard to fashion the company into a place that fosters new works, though he and the Met have done better at this in the last 10 years. But he has succeeded at another important goal: to make a few major operas from the early 20th century essential components of the Met's repertory, works like Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, and Berg's unfinished masterpiece, Lulu. He has said that simply by bringing these works back regularly he is convinced that he can win over Met patrons and the public. . . . During . . . [this] decade, Wozzeck has been presented in four seasons, including this one. . . . Many people would not consider this bleak, atonal opera appropriate holiday fare . . . . Levine could not have asked for a more attentive and appreciative audience. With his brilliant and searching conducting and an inspired and excellent cast, I could not imagine a more compelling production. Mr. Levine's achievement in Wozzeck comes from his ability to fuse its musical and dramatic elements. . . . On the surface the music seems volatile and fractured, teeming with Expressionistic fervor. . . . Though Mr. Levine illuminates . . . structure, the message of his performance to listeners is: 'Let me worry about all that; you just sit back and let yourself respond to dramatic sweep and musical power of this tragic story.' Through careful voicing of chords, attention to details, coaxing of inner lines, expressive nuances and sheer intensity, he drew an electrifying performance from the Met orchestra, revealing this pungent score to be deeply emotional and excruciatingly beautiful" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 12/29/06].