main: June 2008 Archives
The most striking feature of English National opera's new production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide is the drop-curtain.
It has been made up to look like a 1950s television test-card and it takes us instantly back to that era.
The card melts, as the music strikes up, into newsreel clips of Middle America, McCarthyism, gas guzzlers and the rise of the Kennedys. I won't review the show - Fiona Maddocks gets it bang to rights in the Evening Standard - except to say that Robert Carsen's co-pro with Paris and La Scala seemed to appeal more to under-30s in the audience than to over-40s.
Carsen's supposedly controversial caricature of Bush, Blair, Putin & Co in flag-design swim pants was silly rather than provocative and the Eurotrash anti-American tone of the show grew tedious after the first ten gags.
What bothered me most, though, was what I had liked best.
When the test card became an active screen for moving images, it completely distracted attention from the Overture which, in my view, is the most concentrated and exciting piece of music that Bernstein ever wrote. I missed the Overture and it may have blighted my evening.
There is a growing tendency for directors to use Overture time to do clever things beneath the proscenium. Some have actors wandering the footlights, others project movie clips. They miss the point.
There is a reason composers write overtures, and it's not just to allow latecomers to find their seats. The Overture sets the mood of a show. Overlay it with visual peripheria and you risk going into the performance without the courtesy of foreplay.
I'm setting up an Overture Protection Society. Sign up in Comments, below.
Jonathan Carr, who died last week near Bonn, was an astute political journalist and a musical enthusiast of expert knowledge and sound judgement.
He brought an aesthetic perspective to his professional occupation and a shrewd political eye to his musical researches, adding a dash of wit that made him constantly readable.
As Germany correspondent for the Financial Times and, later, bureau chief for the Economist, Jonathan saw just about every Meistersinger in 30 years, and held Rafael Kubelik's 1967 Munich production with Thomas Stewart as Sachs to be supreme.
He forged a musical bond with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, becoming his biographer. Two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he wrote an essay foretelling German reunification. Both the FT and Economist have published warm tributes, here and here.
As a friend, he was both giving and undemanding. In 15 years, I never experienced an awkward moment in Jonathan's company or heard an empty phrase from his lips. He was a true idealist, living to the full the values he held important and dear.
I gave him the title for his first musical biography, The Real Mahler. He delicately declined my suggestion for the second - The Wagner Gang - preferring The Wagner Clan as the more decorous option. Unmoved by reputation, he maintained a critical independence that, in its occasional severity, was always tolerant of human weakness.
Journalists are generally not the best advertisement for their vocation. Jonathan was.
A year ago I asked 'has anybody seen Alberto Vilar?' Several readers were kind enough to respond and I was relieved to learn that the former philanthropist is still going to the opera while awaiting his fraud trial in September.
How about Chris Craker, though? Has anyone seen Chris?
Up to a couple of months ago he was running the classical output of Sony-BMG and talking up the industry in the music magazines with a lovely line in chutzpah. Then the inevitable happened. A short press statement said he was gone and the cheery fellow has not been responding to emails. I do hope he's OK. Tell me if you've seen him.
The ones I feel sorriest for at Sony are the fine young artists that Chris signed - the Skrida sisters from Latvia and the lovely Lisa Batiashvili. Who will record them now?
Meantime, better news of two victims of the EMI crunch. Barry McCann, who used to run the classical label in the UK and was Our Nige's best mate, has joined the self-publishing co-op Avie, while Theo Lap, who ran classical marketing, has joined the Dutch label Brilliant Classics. Brilliant it occasionally is, with low-cost boxes of collected works - the complete Messiaen on 17CDs, for instance, for as little as 30 Euros.
For some reason they do not appear to be available in the US.
A wonderful release of Bach and Handel arias by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson has just appeared on the self-publish community label, Avie, and is reviewed as my CD of the week.
No need to say more about the Bach, but Handel's Hercules was completely unknown to me and I revelled both in the musical invention and in Lorraine's fine articulation. The track that leaped out at me from the headphones was an aria titled 'Resign thy club' and I kept having to rub my ears to make sure I was hearing right.
Handel paid great attention to the words he set. 'Resign thy club' is supposed to tell Hercules give up the fighting and come home to mummy. But I couldn't help wondering if Handel here wasn't signalling an in-joke to his patrons who spent their evenings in the London gentlemen's clubs tht run along Pall Mall. If they happened to take a little snooze in act two, a call to resign from the Atheneum would be sure to stir them in the stalls.
Anyone know more about this aria?
No blogs from me for the past six weeks - I've been immersed in a new book.
But the word from Cleveland this weekend deserves a cheer or three, if only for its courage and foresight in an industry noted for its timidity. The Cleveland Orchestra has renewed contracts with music director Franz Welser-Möst for another six years, taking them up to 2019, by which time they will have been together for two full decades.
FW-M is also due to become music director of the Vienna State Opera in two years' time and is in high demand with orchestras on both continents.
So what's so brave about the rehire? It is no secret that Cleveland's chief music critic, Donald Rosenberg, struggles to find a kind word to say about Franz and that several of his colleagues on the NY Times take a comparably sceptical line when the orchestra comes to Carnegie Hall. Such dissent can affect public perceptions, as well as box office sales.
I have known musical organisations to turn chicken when critical opinion went sour on a maestro - check the recent Philadelphia Story (though that's only half the story), or the way English National Opera treated its last two music directors. So all praise to Cleveland for sailing straight ahead and showing two fingers to the malcontents.
FW-M is never going to be to everyone's taste. He has strong ideas about music and likes to get his own way. But there has never been a doubt of his ability to achieve exactly the performance he envisaged, or to maintain and improve the playing wherever he waves a wand. Cleveland, after ten years of Franz, is still by some margin America's finest ensemble - and among its most adventurous, with a stream of new commissions and, in the near future, a season of fully-staged opera.
Which other US orchestra is showing such enterprise and determination?
Go on, name me one.
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Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog