Overflow: October 2009 Archives

I was in Chicago a week ago to discuss the subject of writing musical biography with some of Prof. Philip Gossett's excellent graduate students at the University of Chicago - a thoroughly enjoyable experience, at least for me.  While I was there, I managed to catch a CSO concert with the orchestra's music director designate, Riccardo Muti.  Thanks to some peculiar twists of fate, or scheduling, at any rate, this was the first time I'd ever heard the orchestra on its home turf rather than at Carnegie Hall or elsewhere on tour.

The program consisted of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony and the Bruckner Second.  In the past, Muti's Mozart often seemed forced to me - carefully conceived but with tempi, both fast and slow, that didn't seem to flow naturally.  This was not the case here: the approach was fresh, playful, and thoroughly delightful.  And for the second time in my listening life, I did not either fall asleep or wish I had fallen asleep during a Bruckner symphony.  The first was a New York Philharmonic performance of the Sixth a couple of years ago, also conducted by Muti.  I have a feeling that his success with this composer has to do with the fact that instead of trying, as many of his colleagues do, to rationalize the unrationalizable by shoehorning all those weird, contrasting episodes into a logical whole, he focuses on each episode and lets it flower.  Maybe he reached the conclusion that thematic dithering is central to Bruckner's compositional process - at least in the symphonies; much less so in the religious music - and that the works' coherence is to be found precisely in their apparently incoherent qualities.  Now that I'm well into my seventh decade, I think it's safe for me to say that I'll never be a Brucknerian, but I can finally see that a good Bruckner performance every once in a while can be a pleasant experience.  The CSO sounded splendid, and the city's pre-honeymoon with Muti, who takes over as music director next fall, seems to be in full swing.

Call me crazy, but on Saturday evening I thought again (if only for a moment) of Bruckner's bizarrely episodic Second Symphony while listening to the excellent Pacifica Quartet play Janáček's even more episodic "Intimate Letters" Quartet at the Metropolitan Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.  I sometimes have the feeling that Bruckner is episodic because he couldn't figure out what else to do, whereas Janáček is episodic, especially in this work, because that's what his churning stomach was dictating to him.  This quartet is full of Eros and Thanatos - hardly a unique combination (these are the magnetic poles between which most art bounces back and forth, though there certainly isn't a hell of a lot of Eros in Bruckner) - but in this case the emotions created by those two demanding gods are mashed together with Slavic exuberance and good old early-20th-century, Central European angst.  The Pacifica threw themselves into the maelstrom and captured the piece's wild mood shifts wonderfully well.

I was much less impressed by their take on Mozart's "Dissonant" Quartet (C Major, K. 465): I felt that the first movement's introductory Adagio was exaggerated, not so much by the ultra-slow tempo as by inflated dyanmics and phrasing that went with it, and the Allegro itself seemed unsteady, as if the musicians had inadvertently taken a marginally faster tempo than usual.  The Andante cantabile was marred by numerous little affectations that so many musicians today opt for in Mozart; I generally find that "bringing out" details is a much less successful procedure than letting them stand out by making sure that everything around them is absolutely clear but subordinate. The third movement and finale were much less fussy.  Maybe some of the problems in the first two were exacerbated by the auditorium's slightly dry acoustics, which have a negative effect on Mozart's super-exposed musical textures.

The Pacifica Four's Brahms, however, was every bit as good as their Janáček.  The Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2, seems to me the most difficult to bring off among the composer's three surviving works in this genre.  With the exception ot its relatively forthright finale, the piece has an underlying terrain that shifts constantly with respect to rhythm, articulation, harmonic movement, and emotional content.  The musicians captured all of this excellently; even the gently anguished piano dolce chords in bars 20 and 22 - a stumbling block for so many ensembles - came off with just the right degree of internal tension.  Another stumbling block is the choice of a basic tempo for the second movement: if it's a shade too fast, the sense of repose is destroyed, but if it's a shade too slow, the opening theme sounds banal. The Pacifica players got it right - and they also understood that the violence in the movement's agitated middle section must sound semi-repressed; there's a reason, after all, why Brahms's dynamic markings never rise above a single forte.  Even the cello's dark upbeat to the third movement - usually dragged out to make it more "meaningful" - was all the more portentous for its gentleness.  And the first violin's headlong, virtuosic dash in the finale's coda capped a wholly satisfying performance.

I don't think that the profoundly intimate cavatina from another A minor quartet - Beethoven's Op. 132 - makes an appropriate encore piece, but I'm glad that I stayed to hear it because it was so well played.  I look forward to hearing this fine group in other Beethoven quartets as well as other repertoire.

October 25, 2009 8:16 AM | | Comments (2)

Since I saw the Met's new Tosca production (see a previous entry), about which I found much less to dislike than most other commentators (not to mention the opening night audience), I've been back to the house for three more operas - all Italian, although the first of them is not by an Italian.  Jonathan Miller's production of Le nozze di Figaro is still lovely, but in this revival it is damaged by the wayward conducting of Dan Ettinger, who had no concept that I could discern of one of Mozart's greatest masterpieces.  To begin at the beginning: the problem with playing the overture as fast as possible - and I've heard many musicians say that that's how it should "go" - is that what's possible in the first bars is barely if at all possible, and not at all desirable, at various other points, and even the wonderful Met orchestra found itself scrambling to fit in all the notes, in tempo, during this performance.  At the other end of the tempo spectrum and of the opera, "Contessa perdono" was excruciatingly slow, and along the way there was a great deal of pushing and pulling that seemed gratuitous, distracting, and just plain wrongheaded.  Danielle de Niese and John Relyea were near perfect as Susanna and Figaro, respectively. Emma Bella sang all of the Countess's notes and was very good in the ensembles, but somehow her two arias didn't communicate much.  Bo Skovhus was a convincing Count and Isabel Leonard a fine Cherubino, although I liked her even better as Stéphano in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette a couple of seasons ago.

I had been told, or had read somewhere, that it was Samuel Johnson who said something like, "What is too foolish to be spoken is sung."  But in re-reading Beaumarchais's Le Barbier de Séville for my History of Opera course at the Curtis Institute (several of my students will be participating, this winter, in an in-house production of Rossini's Barbiere), I find Figaro himself saying, "ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d'être dit, on le chante" (what isn't worth saying is sung).  If I'm not mistaken, however, Dr. Johnson also said that what is too profound to be spoken is sung.  In any case, although Rossini's Barbiere has plenty of touching moments and is certainly not foolish, it was not meant to be profound.  Or can we say that effervescent wittiness contains a sort of reflected (as opposed to reflective) profundity?  It is profound by association: it uses irony and ridicule, rather than high drama and reason, to comment on human foibles; it does not describe or explain those foibles - it smacks us in the head with them.  For that matter, even farce, by its very obviousness, can be probing and corrosive, because even a distorting mirror is still a mirror.

Bartlett Sher's Met production of Barbiere is exuberantly farcical.  I may be misremembering, but it seemed to me even more over the top this year than when it premiered two seasons ago.  Yet like Mozart's Figaro, Barbiere allows for elastic interpretation, and there is a lightness to this production  - its sets as well as its action - that makes one excuse its excesses.  Conductor Maurizio Benini is a competent baton-wielder who accommodates singers rather than trying to provide them with some sort of common musical vision or sense of direction, and as far as I could determine he seemed to let each of them ornament their parts a piacere.  But Joyce DiDonato is a scintillating Rosina, vocally and stage-wise, and all of the other singers ranged from acceptable (Barry Banks as Lindoro/Almaviva, has a vibrato that makes individual notes in fast passages almost unintelligible) to very good (the Russian Rodion Pogossov, as Figaro, trained at the Met's Lindemann Young Artists Development Program).

I understand that conductor Daniele Gatti was booed at the first performance of this year's Aida revival, but I don't know why.  At the third performance, which I heard, the orchestra played well under his baton, and he seemed to have a good, solid concept of the work.  His tempi made sense, the ensemble scenes functioned well - so what was all the fuss about?  No one protested against Ettinger or Benini, and Gatti is several cuts above them both.  The singing, on the other hand, was somewhat uneven.  Violeta Urmana is fine in the title role, but her voice doesn't soar in high and/or intense passages, as Caballé's and Leontyne Price's used to do, and at the performance I attended she had trouble holding some climactic high notes for a reasonable length.  Johan Botha is an old-fashioned stand-and-sing tenor; his Radames was clear-voiced and true in intonation, but it communicated little emotion.  Sure, if you read the plot or even the whole libretto, you think that Radames and Aida are two-dimensional characters, but with a little help from their interpreters they should make us want to care about them.  Carlo Guelfi, the Amonasro, is not a great singer, but he has exactly the right sort of Italianate sound for this and related roles. Dolora Zajick (Amneris) has one of the most powerful voices in the business today, but subtlety is not her forte.  (I'm tempted to say that her forte is forte, but I've heard her do better than she did in this performance.)  Ramfis - one of several Verdi characters through whom the composer expressed his dislike of religion in general and the clergy in particular - was stiffly portrayed by Roberto Scandiuzzi, who, in solo passages, was often out of sync with the orchestra: sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow.  (This reminds me of the comment of a disgruntled symphony conductor who found himself working with a not terribly exalted ballet ensemble:  "Dancers perform in two different tempi," he said; "too fast and too slow.")  Donald Palumbo's chorus sang magnificently, as it almost always does, and Sonja Frisell's monumental, twenty-year-old production still functions well.

October 22, 2009 4:10 PM | | Comments (2)

Sometimes, in looking back over periods in your life, you may recognize that certain moments or events were turning-points.  But you may also recognize other moments or events as having been potential turning-points that you passed up for one reason or another.

Just now I'm remembering one of the latter moments.  While I was visiting my girlfriend at the University of Michigan 45 years ago -- I was eighteen at the time -- we went to see The Music Room, a film by Satyajit Ray.  I had never before heard Indian classical music, and I was amazed and fascinated by its combination of intellectual complexity and sensual intensity.  If I hadn't been so occupied and preoccupied with Western music, literature, and art, I could easily have taken a turn into Indian culture right then and there.  I'm not a fundamentally lazy person, but I am a fundamentally all-or-nothing person, and this characteristic leads to laziness with respect to whatever doesn't interest me totally.

I've written the previous paragraphs only to explain (without attempting to excuse myself) why I know so little about Indian music despite the fact that every time I come into contact with it, it mesmerizes me.  And this very fact surprises me, because I'm not easily mesmerized.  Long-winded late and post-romantic works in the Western musical canon, for instance, rarely mesmerize me, nor does the music of composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, et al., much of which depends on some sort of capacity to be mesmerized.

I went to 89-year-old Ravi Shankar's Carnegie Hall concert yesterday evening, asking myself en route why I was going -- especially when a subway screw-up made the trip longer and more complicated than usual.  During the concert itself, there was too much amplification in the hall, and some boors in the audience kept taking flash photos, despite a pre-concert announcement that this was not allowed.  Yet I felt very, very happy to be there.  I freely admit that just as people who don't know much about the internal workings, origins, and various performing traditions of Western classical music may derive uncritical enjoyment from concerts that I find appalling, it's quite possible that what I heard last night would not have appealed at all to people in the know.  All I can say is that the music's rising, falling, and orgasmically explosive re-rising, its constant changes of meter and pace, its stupefying rhythms (the tabla player Tanmoy Bose was wonderful), and its vast emotional range delighted me as they always do.  I heard, or thought I heard, more pain and anger but also more unrestrained joyousness in the playing of the old man -- who can no longer even tune his own sitar (whether for lack of strength or loss of fine hearing I don't know) -- than in that of his 28-year-old daughter Anoushka, who nevertheless seemed to me to play beautifully on an instrument that had a much longer neck (thus a wider range) than her father's.

I repeat: I was happy, truly happy, to be enjoying the complex rhythms and melodies and the Dionysian impulse of this foreign but to me wholly attractive music.

October 11, 2009 11:18 PM | | Comments (1)

The New York musical season began, for me, with a double dose of Puccini.  First, I visited the small but interesting exhibition that the Morgan Library and Museum has dedicated to the composer between two of his anniversaries - the 150th of his birth (he was born in 1858) and the 100th of the world premiere of La fanciulla del west, which took place at the Met in 1910.  There are manuscripts, drafts, and/or sketches of Le Villi, Edgar, La bohème, Butterfly, and Fanciulla, as well as autograph letters, not only by Puccini but also by Leoncavallo, the publisher Giulio Ricordi, and others, plus first editions of the libretti of all of Puccini's operas and various items connected with Caruso, Toscanini, and other performers who were close to the composer.  It's a tiny sample of the vast treasures owned by or stored at the Morgan, but it will fascinate most music lovers.  And while you're there, you can spend as much time as you like in the next gallery and examine the grand, indeed overwhelming, exhibition dedicated to William Blake.

Then there was the Met's controversial new Tosca production.  Starting a season with a repertoire opera is hardly a bold act - and the Met has presented Tosca some 900 times.  But this year - as practically everyone interested in opera knows by now - Peter Gelb dared to mothball Franco Zeffirelli's grandiose 1985 production (back then, one of the original participants said to me, "I'd like to take you up on stage: you feel as if you're standing in the middle of a f---ing football field!") and to call on the Swiss stage director Luc Bondy and the French set designer Richard Peduzzi to create something new.  As is now well known, the production team was roundly booed on opening night.  I attended the third performance, and I found it hard to understand what all the fuss was about.  Yes, the second-act set is decidedly ugly, and I felt that Bondy was uncertain in his approach to the action in the act's dénouement.  But take it from someone who lived in Italy for 23 years: the cold feeling of entering a huge, unilluminated Baroque church early in the morning was well captured through the first act's dark set, just as the pre-dawn rooftop setting of the last act served its purpose.  Bondy and Peduzzi did not toy with the plot's time and place.  I attended the third performance, for which James Levine was replaced by Joseph Colaneri, who did a creditable job, and at which Carlo Guelfi - growling too often but otherwise singing well - took over for two indisposed Scarpias.  Karita Mattila threw herself into the title role with characteristic intensity and conviction; she is not a natural in Italian opera, but she certainly acquitted herself better here than in last year's Manon Lescaut - just as Marcelo Alvarez was much better as Cavaradossi than as Manrico in last season's Trovatore.  In short, this observer had expected to leave the theater in anger or disgust but ended up rather enjoying the evening.

James Levine's absence for emergency back surgery also put a damper on Carnegie Hall's opening night concert by the Boston Symphony, but after five seasons under his direction the orchestra is sounding splendid.  Daniele Gatti managed to learn John Williams's brand-new harp concerto, On Willows and Birches (a pretty but inconsequential piece, to my ears and mind), in a few hours and seemed to do a fine job of backing up the excellent soloist, Ann Hobson Pilot.  And he was similarly at one with Evgeny Kissin in Chopin's F minor Piano Concerto, which is not technically hard but is often very tricky (especially in the second movement) for orchestra and conductor.  It is technically difficult for the pianist, however, yet Kissin played it with extraordinary lightness and brilliance.  In Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Gatti seemed to be trying to make a purely dramatic, almost operatic, piece into an epic one, and his approach to La Mer - the concert's finale - was noteworthy more for its crystalline, Boulezian clarity than for the sort of physical excitement that you can hear in recordings by most of the old-time conductors and quite a few contemporary ones.  But he really saved the BSO and Carnegie from what could have been a completely deflated and deflating evening.   I am curious to hear (next week) how he is dealing with Aida at the Met.

And so to Avery Fisher Hall.  I was out of town on the New York Philharmonic's opening night, but I attended Alan Gilbert's concerts on September 26th and October 3rd.  I have high hopes for this serious, dedicated musician and for the orchestra that has been entrusted to him.  Their performance of Schoenberg's lush Pelleas und Melisande was intense and committed, and their approach to Ives's Second Symphony seemed equally convinced.  But not convincing - at least not to this listener, who finds this work boring in its best moments, crude and downright silly in all the others.  And don't tell me that I'm missing the point of Ives's iconoclastic irony!  One can hear that, in proportion, in Three Places in New England and some other Ives works, but what we have in this case is 35 minutes'-worth of overblown nonsense.  Sure, there is some real feeling here and there, but it's overwhelmed by a lot of tenth-rate Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Berlioz (the pomp of his religious music without its substance), Bruckner, Schumann, Elgar, and Stephen Foster, along with a mixture of hymns and patriotic tunes that are amusing at first but that quickly wear thin - very thin.  At the first of the two concerts, I found Frank Peter Zimmermann's approach to the Brahms Violin Concerto angular, gritty-sounding, and unmoving, but at the second Emanuel Ax's concept and realization of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto were entirely to my taste - and Gilbert and the Philharmonic were his ideally matched partners for him.

At both concerts, Gilbert spoke to the audience - at the first, about the Schoenberg work, and at the second, about Expo, a new piece by Magnus Lindberg, the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence, who joined in the conversation.  (Expo sounded to me like a skillfully-written experiment in timbres - an otherwise empty genre of which most of the listeners I know, including many radicals, have become profoundly tired.).  Gilbert knows his stuff speaks well and warmly, without either condescension or show-off-ish erudition, but I'm of two minds about in-concert - as opposed to pre-concert - chats.  They can be useful, but often the subtext seems to be: "We're about to play something that you won't like or that may bore you unless I clue you in on some of its inner workings."  It may be a good idea, but it shouldn't be implemented too often.

October 7, 2009 10:13 PM | | Comments (1)

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