1. I’m driving from New York out to my country place, late last night. I’m listening to sports radio. A commercial comes up; I don’t want it yapping at me. I flip over to NPR, aka WNYC, New York’s public radio station, and often a good place to hear surprising music. I just miss the announcement of the music coming up, but when the music starts, I’m drawn right in. A woman with a strong, high voice — nice edge on it — is singing something repetitive, with a good sharp beat. But really not repetitive; that’s an illusion created, I think, because the tune keeps boxing itself in before it gets very far, and then keeps starting over again. Interesting.
For a while I think this must be one of those new-music composers (the kind who don’t work in the classical concert hall) who writes what in any non-classical context would be called pop songs, though they’re rough and individual. I’m judgmental enough to think the boxy tune is evidence of this; maybe a real pop person would write a tune that flew a little further. But then something starts skittering around in the instrumental mix, and I get lost listening to it. And before I understand exactly what’s been happening to me, I find I’m drawn into the entire thing, that it goes on longer and does far more than I’d expected it to, and that I’d follow it anywhere.
Turns out it was Bjork, singing one of the last songs in her recent NYC concert. Shame on me — if I listened to her more, of course I’d have recognized her voice. Shame on me double — if I’d listened carefully to her unstable new album, Volta, (unstable in all the best ways) instead of leaving it on in the background, I’d have recognized what I just heard as one of its tracks. But I loved that music. It was gripping, original. I would have followed it anywhere.
2. I’m flipping channels after dinner this evening, watching twilight fall outside, listening to a storm slowly brew, wondering if the three wild kittens I’ve been spotting on our property will show their little faces. I flip to PBS, and the overture to The Barber of Seville is just starting. This, I realize, is a telecast (or retelecast) of the Met’s new production, as originally streamed to movie theaters. I’d vaguely wanted to see it, to find out how theatrical the new staging might be.
But quickly I hit a snag. I know The Barber of Seville all too well, from recordings and live performances, and I didn’t want to hear it this evening. It’s lots of fun, and in fact I just adore bel canto opera, but as I said, I know it pretty thoroughly, and it holds no mysteries for me. So — really, truly, and with no prejudice against its quality — I didn’t want to hear it. This is a danger, obviously (or in a sane world it would be), that’s going to strike when the core operatic repertory has so few pieces in it.
Nor was I encouraged by what I heard. The orchestra sounded neat and mildly crisp. Closeups showed that the players are notably young. That got me thinking about the paradox in classical music today, the aging audience vs. the youthening (so shoot me; I made up a word) of major orchestras. Then came the second theme of the overture, the oboe solo, and the tempo slipped a fraction. Bad.Careless. The conductor’s fault. The camera wandered over to him, and I thought I saw what the problem was. He makes all sorts of graceful motions to encourage little string flourishes, but he doesn’t keep an absolutely steady beat.
So why do I want to watch this? The Mets had just gone ahead of the San Francisco Giants. I’d rather go back to the game. So I do. But then there’s a commercial. I switch back to PBS, thinking that by now the curtain must have risen, and I can watch the staging, and hear Juan Diego Florez sing his first-scene aria.
But again I’m discouraged. The staging isn’t bad, exactly. But it’s all too predictable, the count’s servant Fiorello asking everybody to be quiet, and everybody not quite doing that. “Quiet!”
Something falls. Ba-ding. Been there, done that. And in the middle of all these mild contrivances, the baritone who sings Fiorello isn’t singing quietly, and as far as I can tell, isn’t even trying to. Been there, done that, too. Opera! The art where sometimes they don’t even try.
Then Florez comes in. Through the audience, which did wake me up a little. He gets up on stage via a ramp built over the orchestra pit. It’s a nice touch, which I’d read about. But it really works. And of course he’s a real singer, in the sense of “singer” that includes Frankie Laine and Frank Sinatra, though not many other opera figures. Or at least he could be. I really think he’s got it all — voice, feeling, attitude, expression. Except he’s so damn careful! It’s the classical music curse. The first thing you’re taught to do is obey the rules. Don’t go too far. Respect what the composer wrote. Yadda yadda yadda, until you’ve got about three square feet in your 2500 square foot musical home for your own personality.
In this aria (“Ecco ridente”), he might begin by doing the kind of ornamentation Rossini would have expected to hear. I teach this each year to my Juilliard class on the future of classical music. I show them the Barber score Rossini wrote, and then two sets of ornaments for this aria, as published by Manuel Garcia, Jr., a famous 19th century voice teacher who also just happened to be the son of the man who created the role Florez is singing tonight.
I also play three performances of the aria for my class. First a modern one, strictly by the book. Then one by Tito Schipa, from 1916 (if I remember right; I don’t have it with me), nicely ornamented. And then one by Fernando de Lucia, recorded I think in 1904, just full of ornaments and all kinds of other personal touches, though the Manuel Garcia ornaments go even further. It’s a kind of musical archeology, unearthing history, one layer at a time, always going deeper. Too bad Florez (and probably the conductor, and the coaches at the Met) don’t know all this, or else think it’s somehow not respectable. Florez needs to be unleashed. He might start, at least in this role, by doing what the composer would have wanted – -and what the style of the composer’s time demanded. He should go to town with the music, in a really personal way. (Just like Dorothy Love Coates, a classic gospel singer I’m listening to as I write this, goes to town with every note she sings.)
I went back to the ballgame. There was nothing here to interest me. How could I recommend this emptiness to any Bjork fan? (Including me.)
You can see the Manuel Garcia ornaments by downloading a PDF file here: http://www.gregsandow.com/popclass/garcia.pdf