My recent wanderings have come to an end (for now at least). I went to Berlin, then to DC, then to LA. In D.C. I saw the National Opera’s production of “Salome”, which was at a very high level musically, but dramatically vapid (see that previous link to my Berlin trip for more about that). In LA, I went to see the Philharmonic’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie with Dudamel at the helm.
This was, in many ways, a surprising program choice for the Dudz. In fact, going into the concert, I couldn’t help but thinking that the Turangalîla was much more an Esa-Pekka piece. Indeed, not but a day after the concert was I reading Listen to This and my suspicion was confirmed: Maestro Salonen first encountered the Messiaen score when he was a Finnish tot of ten years old. (Interestingly, I learned from a different chapter that Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood became similarly obsessed with this score at the age of 15.)
I’m guessing that the Salonen connection may have had something to do with Dudamel’s choosing this piece: during his tenure as Music Director in LA, Salonen assiduously incorporated modern masterworks of the Turangalîla variety into the orchestra’s repertoire. The audience there [which, by the way, was easily the youngest and most diverse audience I have ever seen at an orchestra concert] is, by all accounts, accustomed to hearing works of this magnitude and amplitude, so Dudamel has to show that he’s more than just flash. Which he definitely is, and his reading of this pieces was thorough and committed from start to finish. And it’s not like conducting Mahler symphonies is a piece of cake anyway.
But what in the world is this Turangalila? It’s some amazing music for one; and perhaps 30-40 minutes too long, for another. The symphony is presented in ten movements, with the main material cycling through the whole piece. As with many of Messiaen’s compositions, there’s an inherent mathematical logic to the way that these musical cells appear and reappear that is extremely interesting, but doesn’t make for the most satisfying listening experience when your butt’s planted in a seat for 90 minutes.
Listening to the symphony, I was immediately struck by one of the main themes which comes back about 30 or 40 times:
because it bears a striking resemblance to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Cape Fear:
which, of course, went through the transmogrifier several times to become Alf Clausen‘s much beloved theme music for Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons. If you’re not adverse to watching illegal Russian-dubbed versions of TV on the internet, you can see the Cape Feare episode (for which Mr. Clausen picked up an Emmy) below:
Oh, and the other funny thing about the Turangalîla is that it uses the wood block like like it’s going out of style, and it sounds like Messiaen outsourced the final movement to Aaron Copland:
[P.S. I promise you that the LA Phil sounded about 100 times better than the above recording.]
because your colleague at the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl may have come up with the best line ever from an artistic review:
Two main stories competed in the fifties to explain the significance of Abstract Expressionism. One was nationalist, asserting native values of freedom and energy, as if America herself made the works. The other, Greenberg’s, posited an inevitability of formal development in painting, through progressive styles that were ever more attuned to the medium’s material givens of flatness and pigmentation and ever more averse to any sort of reference or illusion. Both tales ran aground in the sixties, when the New York School’s big painting became the chassis for Warhol’s Marylins and Elvises, and its frank uses of paint informed the taciturn object-making of minimalism. Then those movements, too, disintegrated, and it’s pretty much been one damn thing after another ever since.
I’ve just returned from a 9 day stint sampling the artistic delights of the city of Berlin. My visit was a work/play combo, and I spent a good amount of time cooking up project ideas with my dear friend, the brilliant playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, while also packing my schedule full of symphonic/operatic shows. [Speaking of Brandon, anyone in L.A. (as I will be next week) should totally go see his play this month (just click upon his linkèd name).]
I went to Berlin hoping to be disabused of all the usual rumors surrounding German classical music-making, but I’ve ended up finding them all to be true. In no particular order:
1) German orchestras play with less technical precision but more gusto/musicality than their American counterparts. True. Although it’s not like they’re particularly lacking in the technical department either. My first night in Berlin, I heard the Deutsches Symphonie, probably the second or third orchestra of the city of Berlin, but they played with a passion, beauty and energy that would outmatch many if not most of America’s top orchestras. The piece was Verdi’s Requiem, the conductor James Conlon. Hearing the orchestra of the Komische Oper play the score of Die Meistersinger a few days later was a similarly revelatory experience – the orchestra played with real command and gorgeous color under the direction of their new, young Chefdirigent, Patrick Lange.
2) The professional radio choirs of Northern Europe/Scandinavia* are the best around.
I had this choir director in college who was basically abhorrent in every way, and she would often ramble incessantly about the quality of the radio choirs in Berlin and Stockholm. Well, the Rundfunkchor-Berlin was the resident choir for the Verdi Requiem that I heard, and they really were all that. About half the size of a typical US Symphonic choir, they packed twice the punch, and you could really get a sense of each singer’s individual artistic contribution to the whole, but not in a distracting, sticking-out sort of way.
However, I do think that the Bach choir of Tokyo is maybe second best. And I would never want to discount the recent achievements of Chicago’s own Grant Park Symphony Chorus. But from my brief experience with the RFC-Berlin, I’d say this group combines the best of a large symphonic choir and a small chamber choir.
[*I’m just kind of assuming that the Swedish Radio Choir is really great in person too… their recordings are superb enough.]
3) The Berlin Philharmonic is the best orchestra in the world.
The particular concert that I attended really illustrates what makes this orchestra great. The conductor was this guy, Tomáš Netopil,
a young Czech conductor standing in for the not-so-recently deceased Sir Charles Mackerras. He’s young, very energetic and makes music at a very high level, that’s for certain. What’s not certain, though, is what to make of his interpretations. The concert I heard contained two pieces: excerpts from Martinů’s opera Julliette and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. I know very little about the Martinů repertoire in general except that I tend to really like his music and I always wonder why we don’t hear more of it on concert programs (my teacher recorded a bunch of his stuff though, which you should totally buy).
But I sure as hell do know Dvořák’s 7th, at least enough to say that Mr. Netopil’s was a very unusual interpretation. One obvious point is that he used a totally different second movement, recently uncovered and edited by Jonathan Del Mar (who may be the most famous editor of classical music, assuming that such a thing actually exists.) This new second movement was quite lovely, though it’s always jarring to hear a re-composition of something so very familiar. My impression is that this alternate movement offers more in terms of color and fantasy but lacks the formal tidiness of the movement we usually hear.
But I digress. The thing about Mr. Netopil’s rendering of Dvořák’s 7th is that it was constantly on the brink – the tempi were generally quite fast but with lots and lots of modification, and he offered a gamut of surprises in terms of balance and color. But I simply can’t judge it as an interpretation because the musicians of the orchestra made it work perfectly. At times, it seemed as if the entire thing was going to disintegrate into a pile of mush — tempos would be pushed to such extremes that I didn’t know how the strings would possibly be able to play together, or how a particular wind player would conceivably be able to fit his rhythm into what the rest of the orchestra was doing. And yet, they did it with aplomb.
There wasn’t anything the least bit casual about it even though it sounded totally natural; the orchestra played with more concentration and intensity than any other I have ever seen. The furthest back players in all the string sections were as committed as the principals. It was easily best orchestral performance I have ever attended.
[Caveat: the Vienna Philharmonic is a personal favorite, but it’s not exactly a normal orchestra – positions in the orchestra are handed down from father to son, they play these weird, ancient instruments that are not used by any other players in any other orchestra in the world, they supposedly mark their bowings in pen, etc…]
4) Eurotrash. Not so much an axiom as a word, but the opera productions I saw in Berlin (Meistersinger, Traviata, and a trio of abstract chamber operas by Boris Blacher) left much to be desired. Many of you are probably familiar with the typical problems in German opera staging, and I should probably clarify my stance by saying that my argument is not with a particular aesthetic, but with the lazy attitude and sloppy work that accompanies most Eurotrash opera productions (it certainly applied to the ones that I saw.)
I fully understand that there are compelling reasons to update the costumes, sets and “concepts” of a given opera. It makes sense that directors and designers should incorporate contemporary visual and artistic references into the operas they produce. If the references are meaningful to audiences, the characters and dramatic situations in an opera can gain a vividness and relevance that might not be possible when staged traditionally. Or maybe these visual touches bring out some previously undiscovered dimension to the piece. And that’s great. I recently went down to Bloomington to see the opening of IU’s opera season, a magnificent production of Barber of Seville directed by Nicholas Muni. It had a kitschy, dark aesthetic to it and the costumes and set pieces really heightened the story-telling and comedy.
In Berlin, at the Komische Oper, however, all I saw was lazy, incompetent direction and design. Every single cliché of the regietheater was on display: mirrors on the floors, exposed stage apparati, extraneous nudity, food being thrown, changed endings, etc. What I didn’t see was well-rounded characterization, thoughtful relationships, connections between words, music and drama, or anything that elucidated the action of the story with a modicum of interest. Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg is a 5 1/2 hour long opera. In the Komische Oper’s production, first two acts staged with costumes and sets exclusively in gray and brown. That’s a rather monotonous color story for 3 1/2 hours of opera. Then, in the third act, when the holiday festivities commence – what do you know? Colors! And this is supposed to qualify as an interesting artistic decision? All I saw was a sucky collision of Dogville and The Wizard of Oz.
Then there’s the Traviata directed by this guy, Hans Neuenfels:
and even though I like basically everything about this picture of him, sitting through his production, I felt overwhelmingly that he should be drawn and quartered. Let’s take as an example of his ‘craft’, his rendering of the character of Giorgio Germont. This is really a complex character, a deeply religious man who asks Violetta, a woman he barely knows, to make an enormous personal sacrifice for the sake of his family. What’s more, he feels a strongly paternal affection to Violetta upon meeting her. So, wrapped into this character is a real conflict and a number of dimensions. Here’s what he looked like in Mr. Neuenfels’ production:
See how he’s thrusting his crucifix in other characters faces like a talisman? That’s exactly what he spends about 90% of his stage time doing. What you don’t see is his footwear, and the fact that one of his feet is cloven. Cloven. Like a goat. Because, you see, religious people are really evil and hypocritical. And it’s interesting and edgy to point that out. Except when it’s not, which is like most of the time, but it’s particularly uninteresting in this opera. Presenting this character in this light renders him way less interesting than a seated reading of the libretto would.
This post has sort of derailed, and I should point out that I loved Berlin and my experiences there, and my friend Branden is totally the best, but let me just end with this: Opera Directors, I hereby encourage you on behalf of whomever – let’s say the opera-going public – to work hard to re-invigorate constantly the operatic cannon with every production. Dig deeply into the libretto and the score and try to access and interact with the combined intelligences of the librettist and the composer. Create a bold interpretation and invite your audiences into a revelatory night of theater. Please!! It’s what we want. But if you dig and dig and can’t find a way to express the piece and to express yourself through the piece, just don’t do it. You know what? YOU COULD EVEN WRITE YOUR OWN OPERA. Go ahead! It’s very hard work, let me assure you. I just hope you aren’t frustrated by the efforts of your interpreters.
Frank Sinatra always talked about how he was one of the last living singers of Saloon Songs. I think he meant songs with a honkey-tonk flavor and a certain inebriated view on the world. I personally define “Saloon Song” to mean any song whose lyric specifically places the singer in a saloon (a bar will do just fine). Examples include: “One for my baby (and one more for the road”, “Angel Eyes”, and, um… others.
Here’s my crack at the genre:
You at the bar,
Pour me another… one of these
‘Cause I’m in the mood to remember
The night when my man went away.
Well, I guess you’d have called him a drifter,
He just drifted right into my heart,
There was never much to him,
No good to pursue him
So why then did I ever start?
Hey there, so how ‘bout that drink?
I’ve got another verse to sing
About a cool autumn night in September,
The night when I first met my man,
He was a liar, a cheat, and a scoundrel,
But I had so little to lose,
I thought I could right him, refine, and delight him,
The night when I first hatched my plan.
Oh how I tried so to keep him from trouble,
But I couldn’t keep trouble from him,
‘Cause when trouble’s a mind to, it always will find you,
Like the night when I first met my man.
Well, I guess you’ve have called him a bastard,
Well I guess I’d have called him one too.
But when you’ve tried hard to hone him,
You feel like you own him,
And love is the cost that’s come due.
And on the night when he finally left me,
The law picked him up in a fray,
So that was his way out, and I lost my payout,
The night when my man went away.
So I’ll think of him when I feel lonely,
And I’ll think of him when I feel blue,
But I’ll never regret that I once cast a bet on
The best damned man I ever knew.
The sun’s comin’ up.
It’s gonna be a bright and fine day.
But oh, how the moon was an ember,
The night when my man went away.
I’ve kind of been stalking the Chicago Symphony recently. Put another way, the orchestra has recently held three free events to open up their season, and I’ve been to all of them. Two of them were hits – out of the ballpark we’re talking here – and one was a miss.
Thursday, Sept 16
Mexico 2010 celebrations
Benito Juarez High School Auditorium
Carlos Miguel Prieto, conductor
This event was part of the CSO’s contribution to Mexico’s bicentennial celebration, and important collaboration and outreach event given the large Mexican community in Chicago and given the fact that Chicago is a sister city with Mexico City. The programming was awfully clunky though – why did it begin with “Till Eulenspiegel”? Why not just, you know, Mexican music? That’s what followed, namely Galindo’s “Sonnes de Mariachi”, Marquez’ “Danzon No. 2” and Moncayo’s “Huapango”.
Let’s forget this German oddball pink elephant gargantuatron in the room for a moment (which I’m guessing might have been the idea of the conductor who wanted to get something juicy into a rare appearance with the Chicago Symphony) and look at the Mexican selections. I happen to have played all three of those pieces in orchestras at one point or another. I’ve also played really, really good Mexican music. If you were going to play Mexican music for an inter-generational, celebratory crowd, how could you possibly avoid doing Sensemayá, which is one of the baddest pieces of orchestral music Mexican or otherwise out there?
I’m basically just shocked that there was not a single piece by Ravueltas (above) or Carlos Chavez, who are justifiably considered Mexico’s great composers. I also hate to rag on this concert because it did seem to deeply affect the community in attendance – young and old, Hispanic and non-, all seemed genuinely moved that their new auditorium would be graced by the presence of this great orchestra, and that’s a good thing.
Sunday, Sept 19
Free Concert for Chicago
Riccardo Muti, conductor
Here was an amazing concert – everything was just right. First off, the orchestra sounded fantastic, like a real old orchestra with beautiful, singing tone. A huge part of the equation was the programming, which was very much (and very wisely) of the “give them what they want to hear” variety: Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, Liszt’s “Les Préludes” (OK, nobody’s perfect), Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. All were appropriately flashy and bombastic, but for me, the Verdi stood out particularly in terms of sound and interpretation – just perfect.
The other cool thing was how crowded it was there. It literally felt like a rock concert wending one’s way through the unwashed masses at the park.
And at the end? Fireworks!
Wed, Sept 22
Dress Rehearsal for the Opening Subscription Concert
Riccardo Muti, conductor
Here were the real fireworks (umm… you know, figuratively speaking). First half: Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique. Second half: Berlioz, Lélio.
What is Lélio, you might ask? Well, that’s a question easier asked than answered. It’s the sequel to Symphonie Fantastique. [btw, I find the idea of a purely instrumental work having a “sequel” incredibly interesting – I can’t think of a single other example. Can you?] It’s a sort of monodrama for narrator, orchestra, chorus, and lieder singer with accompanist. There’s a huge amount of dialogue given by the narrator (in Chicago played brilliantly by a truly corpulent Gérard Depardieu: )
The narrator is sort of Berlioz, but sort of not – basically, it’s whoever wrote the Symphony Fantastique – let’s call him Berlioz’s alter ego. [p.s. here are some notes that I put up about Symphonie Fantastique a while ago.] This has got to be the most Berlioz-y piece that Berlioz ever Berliozed, if you’ll pardon the expression. Basically, the narrator extemporizes at length about his ordeal in composing/living the story of the Symphonie, the inability of his continental peers to understand Shakespeare’s brilliance, and his mental cohabitation with the characters from The Tempest – all interspersed with orchestral interludes, lieder played at the piano, and a choeur des ombres. Towards the end, it turns out that the composer-narrator just happens to have sketched a choral-orchestral fantasy on the subject of The Tempest, and – how convenient – there just happens to be an orchestra on stage. Before the piece begins, he exhorts the players on stage to play in tune, follow the conductor, not to drag, etc. This lengthier piece is what one usually hears from Lélio. The “Tempest Fantasy” ends and the narrator is quite impressed and then goes off to die – or something.
Anyway, I’ve got to hand it to Muti – this is a hell of a way to kick off a season. Great mix of a familiar classic and something crazy. New York should be green with envy. Their opening concert sounds like it SUCKED!!!!