Wednesday, August 1, 2012

21ST-CENTURY MUSIC / August 2012


August 2012

Volume 19, Number 8

Mark Alburger - Music and Context

Chronicle of June 2012

Illustration / John Adams - Nixon in China

Editorial Staff

Mark Alburger


Harriet March Page

Patti Noel Deuter

Erling Wold

Elizabeth Agnew
Alexis Alrich
Katherine Buono
Ken Bullock
A.J. Churchill
David Cleary
Jeff Dunn
Phillip George
Elliot Harmon
Brian Holmes
Jeff Kaliss
John Lane
Arel Lucas
Michael McDonagh
Chip Michael
Tom Moore
William Rowland
Lisa Scola Prosek
Andrew Shapiro
Alice Shields


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Music and Context - Mark Alburger

The success of any musical or opera is dependent on the excellence of its score and the dramatic framework in which it is placed. These basic notions were again very clear in recent performances of Kurt Weill's Happy End and John Adams's Nixon in China, respectively given on June 23 and 26, at Live Oak Theatre, Berkeley (Goat Hall Productions), and the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (SF Opera).

While Bilbao Song, The Sailors' Tango, Mandalay Song, and Surabaya Johnny are classic Weill numbers -- the musical, with words by Bertolt Brecht and book by Elizabeth Hauptman, is less well-known. The songs, which more than justify the revival of this worthy work, are at the same time made more vivid by being placed in their dramatic context. And dramatic this production was, with standout performances by Michelle Jasso (Hallelujah Lil), Zoltan DiBartolo (Beerhall Bill), and Alexis Lane Jensen (The Fly) in this story of crusaders and criminals that in some ways feels like The Threepenny Opera II, predating Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls.

From the arresting opening Hosannah Rockefeller!, director Harriet March Page brought flair and pacing to an engaging production that featured a carnival of carnal talent including Jose Hernandez (The Governor), Nikola Printz (Mammy), Carl Lucania (The Reverend), Maria Mikheyenko (The professor), Crystal Philippi (Baby Face), and Thalia Beradozzi (The Barmaid). The mission-side of reality was well-represented by Rachel Warner (Major Stone), Don Hardwick (Hannibal Jackson), Kate Mathews (Sister Mary), Maggie Tenenbaum (Sister Jane / Mrs. Pigeon), Ignacio Zulueta (Ben Ownes / Mr. Pigeon), and John Paul Olsen (The Cop) -- in soulful consort with spirited pianist Skye Atman.

If the costumes and set were a little rustic... well, it suited the situation.

Similarly, the opulence of the San Francisco Opera's production was eminently appropriate for the Adams Nixon, with a comic and surrealistic libretto by Alice Goodman.

While it seems incredible that this amazing post-minimal score -- arguably the Berkeley composer's most excellent opera -- should not have been presented in San Francisco until now, this was a production that was worth the wait. Setting the tone was conductor Lawrence Renes polish and presence in the overture, against beautiful, crafty, and heroic visions of Air Force One touching down on the Chinese scene. Chen-Ye Yuan's Chou En-lai, Brian Mulligan's Richard Nixon, and Simon O'Neill's Mao Tse-Tung enriched the legacies of these important roles, the standard having been set quite high already by Sanford Sylvan, James Maddalena, and John Duykers in the 1987 Houston premiere. Similarly, Maria Kanyova (Pat Nixon), Patrick Carfizzi (Henry Kissinger), and Hye Jung Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung) brought honored the traditions established by Carolann Page, Thomas Hammons, and Trudy Ellen Craney. Both Madame Maos in particularly provided the over-the-top disjunct coloratura climax required for the visceral end of Act II, here stunningly staged with Madame standing upon a pile of dead bodies.

The comic minimalist-stuttering of Nixon's News aria, the delirious chordal-choral divertissements of the Cheers! chorus, the reality-bending Red Detachment, the saxophone-synthesizer inflected score with allusions to everything from Asian pop to zeitgeist Wagner, the dreamy transformation of Adams's own The Chairman Dances concert piece into the subdued context of Act III...

Context? Did we say context? Yes -- to have known this music since the 80's and at last seen it staged locally... what a joy. Aside from a few silly dance moves, here, as with the Weill, the dramatic denouemonts maximalized the music, while at the same time the sounds remained the primary solace.

Chronicle of June 2012

June 8

Belated San Francisco premiere of John Adams's Nixon in China. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA. Seven performances through July 3. "A production here of John Adams's Nixon in China begins with a goose-bump gorgeous projection on a scrim in front of the stage of Air Force One gracefully gliding into Beijing through slate gray clouds on a winter's day. Lawrence Renes, a Dutch conductor in his early 40's making his San Francisco Opera debut, creates a viscerally silky sound from Adams's brilliantly atmospheric orchestral prologue. The rest of Michael Cavanagh's production, a product of Vancouver Opera, may not entirely live up to this beginning, but the specialness of the moment is significant. The opera's opening anticipates President Nixon's historic opening of our relationship with the People's Republic of China after a quarter century of mutual cold-war suspicion. And at the War Memorial Opera House the prologue has an additional quarter-century consequence. Twenty-five years and one month ago at the Herbst Theatre, next door to the opera house, Adams's Nixon score received its first public reading. The singers stood at music stands, accompanied by two pianos and synthesizer. That was enough to reveal that Nixon heralded a meaningful new chapter in American opera. Bizarrely, though, the preview sealed opera's Bay Area fate for the next 25 years. No matter that Adams was (and still is) a local, the late Terry McEwen, then head of San Francisco Opera and no fan of Minimalism, announced that the company would produce Nixon 'over my dead body.' It's finally happened. The general director of San Francisco Opera is now David Gockley, who commissioned Nixon for Houston Grand Opera when he ran the Texas company. The quintessentially American and widely acclaimed opera has since been seen all over the country and around the world. But only this month is Nixon receiving its belated San Francisco Opera premiere as part of the company's summer season . . . . The performance . . . was both exhilarating and disappointing. The cast proved capable. Renes's conducting gave Adams's magnetic score an electrifying rhythmic punch and scintillating clarity, although his slow tempos could dull the action. Occasionally the production illuminated Goodman's insightful and lyrical libretto, probed into the deep meaning of world events and, most important of all, revealed the tantalizing -- and tormented -- inner workings of the men and women behind them. And then there was the stupid stuff. When the projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis wasn't creating imaginative atmospherics, he displayed American flags flapping in the wind, as if applying for a job at one of this summer's political conventions. Exaggerated makeup and wigs turned characters into caricatures. A series of portraits, morphing Nixon into Mao wound up with something resembling a Photoshopped Jack Benny. Though he's a Chinese artist, Wen Wei Wang was responsible for the staid choreography of the opera's Red Detachment of Women parody. The silly dances made for Richard and Pat Nixon, Mao, Chiang Ch'ing and, most egregious of all, Henry Kissinger should not have been allowed by the TSA to cross the border from Canada to the U.S. Still, this was Nixon in China. Once one got past Brian Mulligan's prosthetic Nixon schnozzle and his jokey victory gestures, it became possible to discover a curious Nixon charisma and pathos in the American baritone's virile performance. Maria Kanyova had a Pat wig to overcome and much too slow tempos her aria, 'This is prophetic!' but she was smart Pat. Simon O'Neill struggled with this staging's requirements for a woman Mao, but there was no stopping Korean Hye Jung Lee who was a firecracker Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao). And Chen-Ye Yuan maintained throughout Chou En-lai's touching eloquence. The opera's one gross character is Kissinger, but Patrick Carfizzi had to lay it on way too thick. Goodman and Adams dismiss the secretary of State in the last act by sending him to the toilet. Cavanagh brought him back to wander the stage like a zombie. That last scene -- after Nixon's great arrival, the invigorating banquet scene, Pat's tour of the countryside, the Red Detachment -- comes the final detachment of Dick, Pat, Mao, and his wife. Here against distracting deconstructed sets, it seemed like everyone had run out of ideas on stage but not steam. The singing was moving. There are better Nixon productions to have chosen from. Sellars' original Houston staging is still vital, as the Metropolitan Opera proved last year. Last spring, a strikingly elegant new production by the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng was mounted by the Théatre du Chatelet in Paris (and can be viewed on the venue's website). But at least San Francisco at last knows Nixon" [Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2012].

June 21

Worldwide Day of [Erik Satie's] Vexations. Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Korea, Jordan, Mexico, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, and United States.

Goat Hall Productions presents Kurt Weill's Happy End (Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, Book by Elizabeth Hauptman). Live Oak Theatre, Berkeley, CA.

Philharmonic 360. Drill Hall, Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY. "Those who think classical music needs some shaking up routinely challenge music directors at major orchestras to think outside the box. That is precisely what Alan Gilbert did . . . . His program . . . took the orchestra outside the box of Avery Fisher Hall and into the armory’s cavernous hall, a space the size of a football field with a vaulted 80-foot ceiling. The reverberating acoustics there make it problematic for many kinds of music. But not all kinds. Mr. Gilbert, finishing his third season as the Philharmonic’s music director, seized on the Drill Hall as ideally suited to works conceived with a spatial dimension to the sound, especially Stockhausen’s Gruppen (Groups) for Three Orchestras. This 25-minute piece, composed in the mid-1950's, is meant to be played by three separately positioned orchestras with an audience in the middle. It is performed rarely because it is hard to adapt traditional concert halls to this scheme. But the Drill Hall was perfect for Gruppen. With this work as the mainstay of the program, Mr. Gilbert chose scores by Pierre Boulez and Charles Ives that also involve spatial elements. And to show that composers in earlier eras sometimes thought spatially, he included the finale to Act I of Mozart’s Don Giovanni -- the party in Giovanni’s ballroom -- in which three groups of instruments simultaneously play different dances. Mr. Gilbert comes across as a modest, serious-minded musician, both in person and on the podium. Yet he is at his most dynamic when he thinks big, as with the white-hot performance he conducted in 2010 of Ligeti’s bleakly satirical opera Le Grand Macabre, in an inventive production by the director Doug Fitch at Avery Fisher Hall. Philharmonic 360, this season’s special Gilbert project, was comparably ambitious and successful. The director and designer Michael Counts, who staged New York City Opera’s 2011 Monodramas production, helped transform this concert into a theatrical performance with a made-to-order set. In the center of the hall several hundred audience members sat in circular rows, resting against innovative supports called Back Jacks. There were three surrounding platforms for three orchestras, all subgroups of the Philharmonic, with a conductor’s podium in the middle. Between the platforms traditional rising rows of seats had been set up; all together about 1,400 audience members were accommodated. That Friday’s performance (and Saturday’s repeat) was sold out well in advance should reassure the Philharmonic’s board that there is a classical music audience eager for adventures in programming. Mr. Gilbert began the evening with a piece unlisted in the program: Gabrieli’s Canzon XVI, played by three brass ensembles positioned in far-apart sections of the balcony. The Drill Hall was a perfect place to duplicate the effect of brass fanfares and riffs bounding from one balcony to another in Baroque cathedrals. By including Gabrieli, Mr. Gilbert showed that composers from that era were spatial music pioneers. Mr. Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna is a work from the mid-1970s scored for eight diverse groups of instruments, with each group including one or more melodic instruments and percussion. The work was a tribute to Maderna, Mr. Boulez’s close colleague, who died in 1973. As such, much of the music has a somber cast. Mr. Boulez’s high modernist language and 12-tone techniques have put off some listeners. But in this score the delicacy and specificity of his writing are wondrous. And the sheer drama of the music came through, with groups of instruments placed high and low all over the hall. Though the rhythmic content is often intricately complex, a steady, subdued drumbeat enhances the ritual element of what is, after all, a memorial piece. . . . The Stockhausen was performed as conceived with three orchestras and three conductors, Mr. Gilbert and two composer-conductor colleagues: Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher. Gruppen is an organic piece with dazzling instrumental colors, craggy rhythmic energy and astringent sonorities -- both dissonant and beautiful. Hearing the music volleyed among three ensembles ratchets up the dramatics. There are few moments in Gruppen when Stockhausen just piles it on. Instead he uses the distance between ensembles to highlight arresting, challenging details. The audience broke into prolonged applause and cheers. Ives’s Unanswered Question is a 20th-century landmark of spatial music. In the background the strings of the orchestra play placid, hushed diatonic chords that slowly move up and down the scale. Here that backdrop was given added luster by dividing the strings into three sections on separate platforms. The solo trumpet posing cosmic questions emerged from a distant high balcony, while the four flutists who struggle for answers were placed in the dead center of the hall. Mr. Gilbert, assisted by Mr. Weilerstein, led a glowing, serene yet suspenseful performance. If only programs like this one were regular offerings, not just ambitious special projects. Mr. Gilbert pushed to make Philharmonic 360 happen. He should keep pushing" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 7/1/12].

June 30

English Nation Opera presents Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. London, UK. "I have a confession to make about Britten’s opera Billy Budd: I don’t like it very much. I struggle with its listless pace; its largely flat characters; the way its libretto, by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, prefers telling us what people are thinking rather than showing it. But it is one of the opera’s lessons that in antipathy there is always an element of fascination, and I keep on trying to bring myself to Billy Budd, based on Melville’s parable of good and evil on a British naval vessel caught in the fraught aftermath of the French Revolution. . . . The National’s version is stark . . . .: a stylized take on a wooden ship’s hull, which, as Anthony Tommasini observed in his review in The New York Times last week, aims for 'psychological, not scenic, realism.' Like Claire Denis’s 1999 film, Beau Travail, which transferred the story to a remote French Foreign Legion post in East Africa, [David] Alden’s production is aggressive, even sadistic, with the ship envisioned as something akin to a chain gang. [The] production . . . work[s], and . . . [was] tight: strongly sung, passionately acted and perceptively conducted. Yet . . . my attention kept wandering, and I came to think, watching Billy Budd at the National, that the trouble was the sense in the opera of the listener’s being kept at bay, in a way that irritates rather than intrigues. Most damning, for all of its reliance on declarations of thoughts and feelings rather than their revelation through action, the opera simply doesn’t say very much. Like a limp therapy session, there is much talk but little insight or interest. Billy Budd is a work populated by people with secret feelings. But these secrets never translate into dramatic tension; considering all the emotions in play, the temperature onstage remains stubbornly cool. You get the impression of feelings unconfronted, of characters and situations expertly, even beautifully, glossed over rather than explored. It is worth remembering that Billy Budd is a product of the gay closet. It is an opera composed by a closeted gay man, to a libretto written by Forster, a closeted gay man, based on a novella by a man who scholars often suggest was closeted and that revolves around the attractions of men to other men. Though Melville protests, when describing the malevolent master-at-arms, Claggart, that his mysterious evil nature 'partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual,' there is no mistaking the secret desire at the core of his hatred of Billy. Forster wrote that Claggart’s aria at the end of Act I, which consciously echoes Iago’s Credo in Verdi’s Otello, represents 'love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but never the less flowing down its agonizing channel; a sexual discharge gone evil.' This discharge is not too far from the spilled soup that Melville describes streaming past Claggart’s feet when he first encounters Billy, the 'greasy fluid' that Claggart fantasizes to be 'the sly escape of a spontaneous feeling on Billy’s part.' In the opera a novice sailor cries, 'I’m done for,' after he is flogged, and the chorus answers, 'Yes, lost forever on the endless sea.' Another sailor tries to reassure him. 'The pain will soon pass,' he says. 'The shame will never pass,' the novice responds, and confesses that 'my heart’s broken.' . . . The novella and the opera do more than describe the closet, with its anxiety and coded messages; detached and diffident, they feel closeted themselves. Both also inadvertently reveal a great truth about the closet: It’s boring to watch. Like any magic realm with its languages and codes, it is wholly engrossing only when you’re inside it; from the outside, it is less compelling, less mysterious than evasive. The work has its greatest tension and highest stakes when the specificities of individual personalities are transcended, and the chorus is singing. 'Heave, oh, heave away, heave,' they chant near the beginning of the opera, to a haunting melody that echoes throughout . . . Near the end, after Billy has been hanged for killing Claggart, the sailors come together in a restive growl, murmuring and groaning as they move tantalizingly close to mutiny. . . . [I]t is the sequence in the opera when the theme of the closet -- the repression of illicit passion -- pays dividends. Here we finally feel the tension and are forced to confront the underlying emotions. Unfortunately, it happened to be the moment in the National’s production when Mr. Alden overplayed his hand. Rather than simmering and fading away, the sailors in his version actually revolt, and are violently suppressed, a heavy-handed take on a simmering passage. Mr. Alden’s interpretation of Claggart, though, showed a deep understanding of the opera. As brilliantly acted and sung by the bass Matthew Rose . . . the master-at-arms was pale and wide-eyed, seemingly shellshocked by the trauma of his own secrets. He emanated the anger that arises out of great frustration" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 7/3/12].