Friday 3/13, “Abduction from the Seraglio”, Lyric Opera

This was a very good show, lovely set and costumes, beautiful singing, excellent staging (especially the first act.)  I’ve seen a number of three act operas lately, and it dawned on me that I would not have the faintest idea of how to go about structuring a 3 act theater piece.  I’m so totally steeped in the American musical theater tradition of two acts, I just don’t know what you need that third one for.

“Abduction” is a singspiel, and contains some really excellent tunes.  My only problem with it is that clearly Herr Mozart got a little tired of cute ditties and decided to flex his compositional muscles during the second act.  Wolfie dear, this is neither the time, nor the place.  The music is beautiful and all, but the lengthy duets and quartets really take away from the dramatic unfolding of the piece.

Another note on this performance: prior to the show, it was announced that Steven Davidslim had been suffering from a cold but would sing that night anyway, so the audience was asked to be forgiving.  Um, what?  I’m sorry, Mr. Davislim, it just doesn’t work that way.  Either you can sing or you can’t.

This reminds me so much of every musical theater/opera audition I have ever sat through.  Inevitably, people (particularly young people) will come in and mention that they have a cold.  Ugh, JUST GET ON WITH IT!  If you really have a cold, which you don’t, we’ll be able to hear through it.  Auditioners in this situation invariably begin responding to these warnings with: “Oh yes, it seems like there’s something going around”.  Let’s just cut the crap, shall we?

No matter.  The real star of the night was Matthew Polenzani, a beautiful lyric tenor that filled the entire hall with a rich, full sound.  Kudos as well to Aleksandra Kurzak and Andre Silvestrelli.

Mahler 7

I saw a performance of Mahler’s 7th last night.  While I recognize the evening’s event as a major achievement for both the orchestra and the conductor, I feel totally unqualified to judge the performance beyond that.  I find this piece completely unintelligible.  From start to finish there is not a note that I understand, even after having heard the piece in its entirety several times.

The closest parallel I can think of would be a James Joyce novel like Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, works I find equally impenetrable.  However, I know that really brilliant people respect all of these works, so I’ll try not to write them off too quickly.

But really, what the hell are those guitar and mandolin doing in there?

Vitalis and barbasol

On the subject of male dress for classical concerts

There are, essentially, four options.  From the most formal to the least:

(1) White Tie: a dress coat (i.e. tails); a well-starched white shirt (piqué); cummerbund, suspenders or (preferably) a white piqué vest; black patent leather shoes; and of course, a white piqué bow tie.

(2) Black Tie: black tuxedo, white tuxedo shirt (ruffled or non-), cummerbund or suspenders, black patent leather shoes, black bow tie.

(3) Suits: dark suit (black, grey or, in a real pinch, navy blue… my condolences to the owners of navy blue suits everywhere), white shirt, tie of choice (see below), black shoes.

(4) All Black: the most formal variation being a tuxedo with a black turtleneck underneath.

But definitions will get us only so far.  The question is on which occasions should each of these costumes be worn?  It is with regards to this question that I frequently encounter such pitiable ignorance — or even sheer lack of concern (!)

White Tie is worn by professional orchestras at regular subscription concerts.  It is also worn by guys intent on “tickling pink” their particular dame on a given Saturday night.  In either situation, the gleam from the gentlemen’s torsos casts an intoxicating, radiant shimmer on the proceedings.

Black Tie is worn by community and student orchestras for their regular concerts.  It is also worn by professional orchestras during the summer season, with one particular alteration: white dinner jackets rather than black.

Suits are to be worn at any concert taking place before the evening, or at any evening concert where a slightly less formal atmosphere is desired.  While suits are not nearly as formal as White Tie, they are not such a drop down from Black Tie to render them inappropriate for formal concerts.  They may also be worn by certain (often European) orchestras during their summer seasons.

All Black dress is reserved for two particular situations: new music concerts (where the dress code is interpreted as “dark” and “edgy”) and playing in pit orchestras (more often for musicals than opera).  All black should never be worn during a daytime concert of standard repertoire music; suits are the appropriate garb for such occasions.  The amount of difficulty I have encountered in trying to convince student musicians of this most self-evident of rules defies explanation.

Then comes the all-important question: what does the conductor wear?  I believe I can answer this with one simple word: concordance.  The conductor should simply wear whatever the gentleman of the orchestra are wearing.  This rule applies equally as well to lady conductors as to their gentleman counterparts.

even3Now that the basics have been established, one may consider certain variations and exceptions.  Many conductors use variations in their wardrobe to present an individualized podium presence.  The so-called “Nehru” jacket is a form of attire worn by a great many conductors to show how individual they are.  This can be appropriately worn with an orchestra wearing either White or Black Tie, but not suits.

There is then what I like to call the “Leonard Slatkin”:

white-tie-black-shirtThis is a dress frequently worn by Mr. Slatkin and historically associated with various mafioso types.  A sort of “inverted Black Tie”, this outfit defies easy categorization.  It has a solemn, yet bold overall appearance, and combines the class of a tuxedo with the “attitude” of all black.

I myself have worn this dress on occasion: mainly in pits and at Good Friday services.  

Kudos to Mr. Slatkin for picking up on my trend-setting idea.

The conductor may also opt for various bow tie replacements: simple studs that match one’s cuff links are a popular option, as are a number of alternate collar types that require no tie at all.

A few additional notes: White Tie offers no real chances for individual variation; the basic elements of costume itself offer all the magnificence that a normal imagination could ever desire.  Black Tie offers one chance to stand out: the cuff links.  A suit, on the other hand, has the singular advantage of allowing its wearer considerable room to express himself in the choice of tie.  One important consideration is that, if at all possible, the tie should match the specific character of the music.  I, for example, have worn purple to conduct Dvorak, a somber blue for the Elgar Cello Concerto, and pink for Beethoven’s 1st.

The chance to wear formal attire, specifically tails, was perhaps the principal motivation behind my choice to become a conductor.  Were I to limit my musical activities to composing, dressing up would hardly an option.  Most composers look like total schlubs, including me when I am just sitting around the house writing music.  Case in point:

Mr. Berio, ready for his next Scorsese cameo


Mr. Ligeti, in one of his two (2) outfits (although in his latter years, this may have been reduced to one (1))


Kramer, the minimalist


And of course, the great nineteenth century Russian composer, ZZ Top


And now, statues of the Vienna Philharmonic

This creeps me out:


Do you notice the bizarre motionlessness of the players?  I’ve never seen anything so surreal.  How did Herbie get all of those musicians to remain so perfectly still for this performance??  Frankly, in certain shots it appears to me that these gentlemen are not even playing.  Take a look particularly at the brass fanfare at 0:31 — is the fourth trumpeter playing?  Woodwinds at 3:15 – is the principal flute playing?

Now check out the shot of the violins at 3:37.  When have you ever seen a row of violins in straight formation like this?  Yesterday while I was watching Karajan’s similar video of Dvorak 8, I hypothesized that they must have re-shot several of these segments after the performance so they could get the right camera angles (and ensure that the lighting was perfect for the glowing halo surrounding the orchestra).

The sound is, of course, über-Karajan — very precise, very aggressive and yet with a pristine wash over the whole texture.  This particular clip doesn’t reveal as much the very dishonest engineering job that was done to the balances — that is to say, the sound here is not really reflective of the actual performance of the orchestra, it was largely engineered in the control room.

The overall effect is a little bit terrifying.  The military-like rigid formations, the doctored, in-your-face sound, the halos surrounding Karajan and the orchestra — what was Karajan’s goal here?  Dare I say the whole thing is just a bit Nazi-ish?  Why would such a superb musician want to present his music this way?  I think we can safely assume that Karajan supervised every detail of these videos…

Now let’s compare.  Same orchestra, same hall, same time (give or take 1 year), but different conductor:


UNbelievable!!  Look at how much the musicians move when given the chance!  You’ll have to wait a bit, but look at around 1:40.  The orchestra looks like a living, breathing organism, completely invested and physically experiencing the music.  The sound is so much more open and real.  We get the impression that Kleiber loves the music and lets the musicians express themselves.  Look at how cheeky the oboist can be with his coquettish little solo at 1:52.  It’s inspiring.

I feel with Karajan that he cared less about the quality of the musicians (who cares, we’ll change it in the editing room) than the fact that they are a bunch of Aryan men who can serve as a set piece to maximize his God-like persona.  With Kleiber, I get the sense that all he cares about is that this orchestra is a body of musicians who are part of a vitally living tradition of playing the greatest works of all time.

Also, notice how Karajan does not allow the beautiful Musikverein itself to be filmed, lest the magnificence of Valhalla outshine Odin himself.

And then of course, there’s Lenny:


Need we say any more?

mais, in tempo

From the score of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, movement 4, we read the following instruction:

“Selon le caractère d’un Recitativ mais, in tempo”

My interest in this simple phrase is a perfect example of why I don’t exactly “fit in” to the classical music world.  That is to say, I just don’t think the people around me quite appreciate the linguistic deliciousness of the writing.  Look at it!  It’s basically in French, but with a Germanized (and capitalized, no less) Italian word, ending in an Italian phrase.  And what’s that comma doing there?  Shouldn’t it read “…Recitativ, mais in tempo?”  Is that some kind of a linguistic marker?  What’s going on here??

I suppose the fact that nobody blinks an eye when they see this marking is maybe just as interesting.  Musicians, and I want to say especially conductors, end up talking in this weird sort of lingua franca made up of terms from all the big musical languages.  I guess this just proves that the tendency has been around for close to 200 years.

Is this sort of thing not interesting?  Leonard Slatkin brought up this term in my conducting class the other day, but all he wanted to talk about was how to interpret these words musically!  I really wanted to get into this whole linguistic commentary, but somehow it seemed so totally inappropriate; thus was my enthusiasm stifled.

On a wholly unrelated note, it came out today that I am an unapologetic disliker of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and you would think I had insulted somebody’s baby.  Just because half of my lunch mates were Italian, I don’t see what there is to get so excited about.  It’s not like I dissed Sergio Leone or something.  In fact, I’d gladly take a Spaghetti Western over that cerebral FF crap any day.  And I take offense to the immediate supposition that I somehow “don’t understand what it’s about”.  I understand perfectly well.  In fact, I would say I gave that movie every chance — I researched it, read about it, stayed awake during (most) of it.  What more do you want people?  It just doesn’t resonate with me.

Give me Pedro any day.