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The Prototype Festival’s Scarlet Ibis (and the day I almost ate glue)

When I was a kid, my older brother tried to feed me a tube of airplane glue. I'm sure he thought it was for my own good. Perhaps the glue resembled toothpaste? It made a great story over the years: Mom caught brother in the nick of time though with so much glue flying around that nearby furniture had to be re-varnished. Now, this micro-confession is a disclaimer for my hopeless capitulation, really from moment one, to The Scarlet Ibis.. This new opera with words by David Cote and music by Stefan Weisman created a quiet sensation at the … [Read more...]

The weirdest day of my recent life

The invitation sounded innocent enough. Somebody had died, leaving a massive classical record collection. Would I take a look to see if it's worth donating to a school or something - despite the formats (LP and 78s) being out dated? "Sure." "You'll have to wear a haz-mat suit." "Really? Who was this guy?" "He was a morbidly obese shut-in and lived in squalor." The sketchy story that unfolded - nobody wanted to talk details - is this: The man was the son of opera aficionados, was one himself, but had few if any relatives, and … [Read more...]

The Henry Mollicone underground operas

Who ever said that opera had to be grand? It wasn't in the original mission statement when opera was invented more than 400 years ago with composers setting out to recapture the power of once-sung Greek drama. And they did so in royal courts that couldn't have been very large. But even as opera became gargantuan, smaller chamber works have been written, performed and loved over the centuries but rarely embraced with the fervor of bigger, louder Elektra and Turandot. The starting point of this grandeur-challenging train of thought was the … [Read more...]

Curlew River: Britten’s madwoman as samurai

Never do I listen to Britten's Curlew River as an opera-goer. Partly because I've always had to travel considerable distances to hear the piece live, I am, in effect, a pilgrim - and one who happens not to be inclined toward pilgrimages. More than that, Britten's 1964, 80-minute piece about a madwoman looking for her lost son is a confluence of so many things that my expectations about well-made lyrical drama are left far behind. It's an aesthetic vacation of sorts. With ritualistic deliberation and allegorical formality, Curlew River … [Read more...]

Scott Johnson’s Mind Out of Matter: Should music make so much sense?

When music starts talking to you in plain English, what - if anything - are you supposed to learn? Imagine a brilliant, engaging lecture on the origins of species encased in an ongoing musical narrative and you have Scott Johnson's  Mind Out of Matter.  Days after the premiere, I am still wondering what the piece wanted to give me, vs. what, in fact, I got. The aesthetic here isn't pieces for narration and orchestra, but pre-recorded speech embedded into a musical composition - which clearly reached a new level the weekend of Oct. 5 at … [Read more...]

4X4 Baroque Music Festival: Bach’s subversive multiple messages

More J.S. Bach cantatas? Yes, and that's good news not just for Bach devotees but for psychotherapists who stand to profit from the guilt that some (though not all) cantatas can induce among those who take them too literally. After centuries of neglect, Bach cantatas are becoming a regular part of the concert landscape, thanks to Bach@1 at New York's Trinity Church at Wall Street and Choral Arts Philadelphia's Bach@7, which mixes cantatas with music by other composers of Bach's time. The 4X4 Baroque Music Festival, slightly uptown from … [Read more...]

Gramex to U.S. collectors: “Send us your enemies!”

London can be just about anything to anybody, but for collectors of classical recordings, whether CDs, LPs or 78s,  it's Mecca, equalled possibly by Paris (if only because French recording artists tend to stay home more, so their work has been less-often exported). But during my summer trip to London, the usual haunts had been disappointing. There had been some excellent LP discoveries at Oxfam thrift stores both in Canterbury and Hampstead. In my internet searches, Gramex kept coming up, highly recommended, in a location conveniently near … [Read more...]

Dmitri Shostakovich, Yuja Wang, Cultural Drift and Cher

Cultural drift has been of particular concern with Dmitri Shostakovich. The world was still very much digesting his extensive output encompassing 147 opus numbers – like those acres of string quartets written near the end of his fraught life – when biographies began appearing, revealing that covert meaning was often more prominent than overt. Subtext eclipsed text, one reason why the Emerson Quartet, for one, observed how the music doesn’t look like much on paper but creates its own world when played. Bit what of the early works? The ones … [Read more...]

John Luther Adams’ outdoor music needs to come indoors

Applause seemed inadequate and inappropriate, like some weird contrivance of civilized life at the end of John Luther Adams's Sila: The Breath of the World, performed by a dispersed collection of 80 singers and instrumentalists in its July 25 world premiere at Lincoln Center's Out of Doors festival. It was like applauding God for creating Magnetic North. Or tundra. Or glaciers The title refers to Inuit cosmology: Sila is the force behind the force, that which powers everything from life to wind to weather. That's not out of character from … [Read more...]

The Passenger: The reality behind the letdown

  Long before I walked into the Park Avenue Armory for Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger in the much-acclaimed, much-traveled David Pountney production, the opera itself had left me puzzled and underwhelmed, namely in the DVD shot live in Bregenz that preceded the opera's many visits around the world. The final scenes of this opera about Auschwitz and its aftermath were all I hoped they would be in terms of dramatic power. But the rest was undermined by its own less-than-singable vocal lines that had little sense of … [Read more...]

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