Posts Tagged: Berlin Phil

Die heilige deutsche Kunst

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.

Journey into the heart of dorkness

I recently listened to this concert, the 66th of the current Proms season, featuring the Berlin Phil with Simon Rattle in the following program:

Wagner, Parsifal Overture
Strauss, 4 Last Songs

… and then, played without any break:

Schoenberg, 5 Orchestral Pieces
Webern, 6 Orchestral Pieces
Berg, 3 Orchestral Pieces

[I should mention before we go any further that the audio from this particular concert is available for only another 12 hours (i.e. you won’t be able to listen to it after Friday morning.)  Sorry!]

I think this is really a hell of a program, and certainly an interesting choice for a Prom, given that those programs usually tend toward the populist side of things.  But first off, if you end up listening to one of the Proms broadcasts on the BBC iPlayer, you’ll notice something a tad peculiar about the volume adjuster.  This has got to be a joke, right?

Or is their player really just louder?

My analytical juices started to flow when Sir Simon mentioned in his introductory remarks that the Parsifal Overture was in many ways the most rhythmically complicated piece on the program. This seemed like it might be kind of a stretch particularly because when you listen to it, it sounds like pure, unfettered melody with a subtle oscillation running underneath (like around 0:44).

But not being familiar with the Overture (or is it a Prelude?) myself, I decided to take a look at the score:

So now things start to get very interesting, because if you look at the flute part in the last bar, you see this:

which is one of these musical-mathematical conundra that conductors just love to stew over.  See, what happens is that while the rest of the orchestra keeps playing in 4/4 – i.e. four quarter notes per measure – the flutes and two of the clarinets have to count 6 quarter notes to each measure.  So, each of their quarter notes will end up being shorter/faster than the other players’ at a ratio of 6:4.

It would be easy enough if all they had to do was play 6 of their shorter, faster quarter notes against a conductor beating a four pattern of slightly slower quarter notes – musicians have to do this basic sort of trick all the time.  But Wagner doesn’t make it that easy.  Instead, he writes a rather complicated rhythmic figure (which, vexingly, will hardly even be heard in the orchestral texture.)

In this figure, the flutes and clarinets have to subdivide each of their six quarters into three triplet-eighth notes, so the total number of these notes in a bar is 6 x 3 = 18.  This is all well and good, lest we forget that their visual and musical reference in lining up with the rest of the orchestra is 4 (quarter notes to the measure, that is).  18 ÷ 4 = 4.5.  Since 4.5 isn’t a whole number, it’s not exactly useful.

Except that a particularly clever flautist bent on finding a practical solution to this problem (the problem being how to know how fast to play her triplet-eighth notes in a bar of six and line that up with the conductor’s four pattern) might notice something: despite the fact that 4.5 seems to bear little logical relevance to the problem at hand, if we take a closer look at the particular rhythm that she’s playing:

we notice that the second beat in this pattern consists of 2 eighth notes.  So, one solution is to approximate the triplets and make sure that the second eighth lands on the conductor’s fourth beat.  1 eighth note = 1.5 of the triplets; therefore 3 triplets + 1 eighth equals 4.5 triplets.

And that’s likely what everyone who actually plays this does, but the University of Chicagoan in me just hast to know the exact, theoretical answer, as practically untenable a solution as it may present.  The next step is to multiply the 18 triplet-eighth notes by 2 – basically, we’re looking for a least common multiple between 18 and 4, i.e. 36.

So then, the really anal-retentive flautist, who probably has no job and definitely has like zero friends, if she were hired to play the Parsifal Overture (Prelude?) would sit at home and practice counting 36 notes per bar (that’s 9 notes per beat, btw), and regroup those 36-lets into twos so that she would wind up with 18 groups of 2 and divide those 18 groups by 3 so that she could feel 6 beats per bar and know that she had done a really thorough job.  She might employ a chart that looked something like this:

and still not be quite satisfied with the outcome.  Now, if she really got to thinking smart, said flautist might decide to trip the conductor before he went on stage and step in for him, since beating a simple four pattern and letting everyone else worry about this crap is a way better idea.  But she wouldn’t be able to escape her obsession – her obsession with rhythm.  And now it would just get even worse, because did you see what was going on with those violas??  They play 8 notes to the beat, multiplied by 4 beats to the bar, so 24 notes in total per measure.  Now our valiant flautist/conductor must find the least common multiple of 24 and 36 (it’s 72) if she wanted to figure out how the flute and viola parts really lined up.

I wonder if any conductor or musicologist or whoever has ever actually taken the time to figure out how these two parts line up by dividing the bar into 72 parts.  I can only think of one conductor who I would even remotely suspicion of doing such a thing [who shall remain nameless.]

NEXT TIME: I rate Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.  [Which I actually meant to do this time, but it seemed like things were getting a little intense already.]  Somebody had to do it.

Time to hop on the bandwagon

Does the thought of a middle-aged North German woman’s violin bow thrusting out into your face fill your little heart with glee?  Well then you’re in luck, because the Berlin Phil is now in 3D!  And you can even watch it in 3D on your computer, if you click on the links at the bottom of that page and then you are able to figure out how to activate the software (maybe it’s a PC thing?) and of course, if you have the proper eyeware.

Dare I admit that this development hardly came as a surprise to me?  Well, it didn’t.  Avatar may have announced the arrival of this revitalized technology, but there was another summer blockbuster that confirmed it was here to stay: Step Up 3D.

I recently took in a screening of this third installment of the Step Up triptych with these three other dudes.  Not having seen the previous two films, I was worried that I would be hopelessly adrift when it came to the plot.  Not so.   The writers were extremely generous in the pains they took rendering the story’s exposition crystal clear.  And the third dimension made up for everything else.

In all seriousness, I do predict that the Met will be the next to jump on the 3D bandwagon.  What exactly these organizations think they have to gain from going 3D is a little bit beyond me though – in fact, I already find the HD Met broadcasts a tad frightening in their intimacy… 3D threatens to go well over the line.

The other trendy new orchestra thing seems to be these season trailers.  Witness:

[bt-dubbs, is it like, embarrassing that they both chose Sibelius symphonies as their theme music for the present season? At least it wasn’t the same symphony… would be a little like showing up to a party wearing the same dress, à la Lucy and Ethel or Dorothy and Blanche?]

In fact, the Baltimore Symphony is even doing this weird thing wherein they present a concert of individual movements of the season’s highlights.  Interesting, isn’t it, that this modern idea ends up closer akin to what an orchestra concert used to look like 150 years ago…

I’ve got a much better idea for these orchestras, so I think it’s time for a pitch: instead of cheezy video montages and patchwork regional concerts, why not hire me to write a Medley of the big tunes that will feature in your season’s repertoire?  You choose the tunes and leave the rest to me — I’ll jazz ’em up with swell new show-biz arrangements and string them together with an array of irresistable musical theater transitional clichés.

[You know the type:

It will make for a killer promotional tool.  Especially when you film it — wait for it — in 3D.