Monday, December 28, 2015

December 30, 2009: Donald Runnicles meets Brahms in Berlin

When I wrote last month that Donald Runnicles would be visiting Berlin in December to conduct a performance of Johannes Brahms' German Requiem that included the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, soprano Genia Kühmeier, and bass-baritone Gerald Finley, I suggested that San Francisco audiences, particularly those of the San Francisco Opera, would be likely to find this concert interesting through the medium of the Digital Concert Hall.  Opera fans know that Runnicles spent many seasons equally comfortable with the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and Giacomo Puccini;  but Brahms' composition for both chorus and solo voice is in a class significantly removed from the world of opera.  Thus, while Runnicles is well credentialed in the concert hall, as well as the opera house, we in San Francisco have had few opportunities to appreciate those credentials.  Furthermore, having established, with the recent visit of the Berliner Philharmoniker to San Francisco, that their director, Sir Simon Rattle, is equally at home on both sides of the Wagner-Brahms opposition, I was personally curious as to how the conductor for our new San Francisco Ring would approach the other side of that opposition.

Having now seen his performance through the Digital Concert Hall archives, I am happy to report that Runnicles' command of Brahms is as secure as his command of Wagner.  This included managing the challenge of what was apparently a last-minute replacement of Helena Juntunen for Genia Kühmeier;  but there were no overt signs of this having been a substitution.  For one thing Brahms kept the vocal solos to a relative minimum, two for the bass-baritone and only one for the soprano.  The overall architecture of the composition is dominated by the interplay between chorus and orchestra, most of which involves an intense subtlety on both sides.  In the entirety of this ninety-minute work, there are really only two key elements of climax.

The first comes in two stages in a setting from Corinthians for the second movement.  The first is a stark rendering of the brevity of mortality, followed by a declaration of the power of the word of the Lord.  This requires a gradual building of energy that cannot be expended entirely on the first climax (which, to make matters more challenging, is repeated).  The second climax must shock the listener with the same sort of jolt originally intended by Paul.  This is probably as close to an operatic moment as Brahms gets in his entire repertoire, and Runnicles delivered it with all of the dramatic impact that it demanded.

The second climax comes in the penultimate movement with the same text of the Last Judgment that George Frideric Handel selected for the third part of his Messiah.  Given Brahms' interest in Handel, this could not have been a coincidence;  and, since this is a "German" requiem, it seems appropriate for Brahms to have turned to Handel to lead the way towards an alternative for the "Dies Irae" portion of the Requiem Mass.  However, while Handel focused his attention on the sound of the Last Trumpet, Brahms played down the brass work in preference for the overall agitation of the Judgment itself.  This is, again, highly dramatic material that flourished under Runnicles' direction.

This focus on climaxes should not detract from his overall conception of the performance, however.  In this composition Brahms uncovered subtleties in the alternation of the homophonic with the contrapuntal, selections for instrumentation, and even the underlying sense of a rhythmic pulse that constitutes the very first impression of the music.  That pulse is almost a measure of time in a setting in which time has lost its meaning, the time when consciousness of time has been lost, so to speak.  Brahms cut back on the number of climaxes to facilitate our listening to those subtleties, and Runnicles clearly understood the facilitation Brahms had in mind.  This opportunity to appreciate the talents of a familiar conductor in a repertoire unfamiliar to his audiences here makes a strong case for the value that cyberspace can bring to the serious listener.

December 25, 2009: Reinterpreting opera as film: the latest effort

There are two ways to approach the rendering of opera in the medium of film or video.  One is to "capture" an actual performance, preferably with camera work that will present the opera being performed in the best possible light.  This has been the basic strategy behind the Live in HD series of productions by the Metropolitan Opera.  The results have been variable;  but, when they have been positive, they have been more than impressively so.  The other approach is to rethink the entire conception of the opera, recognizing that the grammar of film differs from the grammar of the stage in significantly different ways.  The film director who understood this the best was one who was equally at home with both grammars, Franco Zeffirelli.  When he reconceived Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata as a film in 1982, he not only left a memorable legacy of some of the best Metropolitan Opera performers of that period but also left all future film directors with a tough act to follow.

This week the PBS series Great Performances presented director Robert Dornhelm's effort to follow that act with a cinematic conception of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème;  and, as if the Great Performances producers feared that we did not know what we were going to get, they presented the result under the title La Bohème:  The Movie.  It has also been released as a DVD by Kultur;  and, while the package cover (pictured above) simply gives the name of the opera, the page refers to it as La Boheme: The Film (apparently neglecting the grave accent on the "e").  Now, to be fair, this document has the value of an opportunity to hear Rolando Villazón in full voice before he was obliged to cancel most of his engagements for health reasons;  but, if that is the major motivation, then he deserved better treatment than what he received from Dornhelm.  The same can be said of all the other musicians involved in this project, particularly conductor Bertrand de Billy, whose name flies by before you realize why it was there and appears to be entirely absent from the DVD cover, which identifies only Villazón and Anna Netrebko.

The real problem, however, goes beyond giving credit where credit is due.  Presumably, as is usually the case, all film was shot after the entire opera had been recorded, with all performers lip-synching to their recorded voices.  Unfortunately, this is one of those cases in which the studio amplification balance work tends to undermine both the drama and its visualization.  We are given the impression that Villazón is always singing full-out.  This has a variety of problems.  Most important is that he has a physical disposition that shows the strain of such a forceful voice, and Dornhelm's camera is never kind to appearance of that disposition.  However, from a dramatic point of view, all that force undermines the climax of the opera.  Rodolfo's primal scream of grief upon discovering that Mimi has now died is just another instance of Villazón in full voice, perhaps even weaker than any preceding instances.

Since so much of the action of this opera takes place on Christmas Eve, by all rights this DVD could have made an excellent Christmas gift.  It may still do for those (many?) who are enthusiastic fans of Netrebko and Villazón (particularly while waiting for his performance schedule to get back in full gear).  However, while Zeffirelli's Traviata could not only satisfy opera fans but also make a case to everyone else about what excited those fans, Dornhelm's conception is unlikely to hook any potential newcomers into going to a performance of La Bohème;  and, given how we used to rely on PBS in the "good old days" to inspire curiosity in the performing arts, this latest Great Performances product is a great disappointment.

December 24, 2009: Richard Goode returns to San Francisco Performances

On Friday, January 22, at 8 PM, Richard Goode will return to Herbst Theatre to present a piano recital under the auspices of San Francisco Performances.  For me there will be a strong sense of anniversary to this occasion, both public and personal.  Since this will be Goode's fifteenth appearance with San Francisco Performances, one could not think of a better selection for their 30th Anniversary Season;  but my first reaction to the announcement of this event was the discovery that he would be performing music that I had encountered the very first time I heard him give a recital.  This was a performance at Alice Tully Hall that concluded with Robert Schumann's Opus 16 Kreisleriana cycle;  and this same work will conclude the program he has prepared for his visit to San Francisco.

Those unfamiliar with the significance of the name of this eight-movement composition need look no further than its Wikipedia entry:
The work is intended to represent the fictional character Johannes Kreisler from the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Like Kreisler, each piece has 2 very different sections, resembling the imaginary musician's manic-depression, and perhaps recalling Florestan and Eusebius, the two imaginary characters created by Schumann himself, who said that they represented his impulsive and dreamy sides, respectively. Johannes Kreisler appeared in three books by E. T. A. Hoffman, most notably in Kreisleriana (1813).
Composed in 1838, the work was dedicated to Frédéric Chopin.  Not only is it one of Schumann's most sophisticated compositions;  but also it captures the spirit of Hoffmann's literary imagination far more perceptively than the music we usually associate with him, either Jacques Offenbach's operatic setting of his tales or the usual narrative line for Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet.  The last time I had to write about this music was another San Francisco Performances event, a recital by Jonathan Biss.  On that occasion I used my blog to provide a basic sense of the spirit behind both Hoffmann and his literary creation:
I first encountered Kreisler in my college days. A mathematics professor I knew had pointed me in the direction of Hoffmann's Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst Fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. This purported to be an autobiography of a cat (Murr), who was kept by Kreisler. Unable to find blank sheets of paper, Murr decided to write this autobiography on the opposite side of pages that Kreisler had used to document his own life. The resulting text is an oscillation of disconnected fragments as the "editor" (Hoffmann) reproduces both sides of each sheet of paper in the order in which he found them. Those fragments were enough to convince me that Kreisler was one scary character, so it did not surprise me that one of Hoffmann's working titles for his Kreisler material was Lucid Intervals of an Insane Musician.
The successful execution of Schumann's fantasies on Hoffmann's creation thus requires just the right combination of confidence and guts to situate the listener on that brink between lucidity and insanity without ever providing even a breath of security.  The young Goode I heard about a quarter-century ago had both the confidence and the guts;  but the overall narrative arc of the music eluded me, leaving me more with a sense of each nightmarish tree than of the entire forest.  Thus, I am looking forward with great curiosity to how Goode's approach to this music (and my own listening skills) will have matured with experience.

This recital may also provide further opportunity to consider the impact of Johann Sebastian Bach on Schumann's compositions.  Most likely Hoffmann never studied Bach's music as scrupulously as Schumann did;  but, in the literary world, he had Kreisler perform the Goldberg Variations at tea parties, presumably to rather uncomprehending ears.  Goode's ears are far more comprehending, and thus they serve us well in our own efforts to grasp the Bach listening experience.  This is particularly true in his approach to negotiating the complexities of Bach's counterpoint by invoking the metaphor of a social conversation of "statements" and "responses" embellished by some of the social cues (like nodding in agreement) through which understanding arises.  Thus, his selection of two prelude-fugue couplings from the second book of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (BWV 883 in F-sharp minor and BWV 884 in G major), should provide excellent preparation for how we, as listeners, approach intricate details and the overall structure of Kreisleriana.

Schumann's studies also included the keyboard music of Joseph Haydn, and it is likely that he came to know Haydn's sonatas before his first exposure to Bach.  One might even speculate that Haydn's coupling of often highly unorthodox invention with a mastery of formal structure may have provided an initial stimulus for the dialectical relationship between Schumann's Florestan and Eusebius.  Thus, Goode's decision to include three Haydn sonatas  (Hoboken XVI/21 in C major, Hoboken XVI/20 in C minor, and Hoboken XVI/40 in G major) on his program may provide us with as much preparation for Kreisleriana as his Bach selections will.  In addition, Goode will be giving a free pre-concert talk on Haydn at 7 PM, one hour before his recital begins.  I would not presume to speculate whether Goode will explore any "Schumann connection" in this talk, since any one of these three sonatas provides more than ample material for discussion on its own!

Tickets for the concert itself will be $49 and $32.  Further information may be obtained from San Francisco Performances at 415-392-2545.  Tickets may also be purchased through the Web page for this event.

December 22, 2009: Goofing off with Handel

In the field of music performance, "goofing off" is a technical term introduced by Pete Seeger.  It was intended to refer to the (hopefully) creative things a musician does when (s)he has better things to do (such as, for pianists, going through all sixty exercises in Hanon's Virtuoso Pianist before getting down to anything else).  According to his Web site, Paul Ayres is a busy man, actively involved in composition, performance, and education;  so any given day probably confronts him with no end of "better things to do."  However, the spirit of goofing off seems to have led him in the direction of "re-composing" familiar classical music.  His first effort involved music that Henry Purcell had composed for the funeral of Queen Mary II, set for a four-voice a capella choir.  Ayres re-composed the work for double choir, describing the result, entitled "Purcell's Funeral Sentence," as follows:
One SATB group sings (nearly exactly) Henry Purcell's setting of the Funeral Sentences, the other group sing newly-written material, commenting, reflecting, accompanying and interfering...
He then progressed from this ten-minute anthem to a half-hour reworking of the requiem setting by Gabriel Fauré, giving the result a title fit for the texting generation, "4A Wreck."

Ayres has now taken on the entirety of George Frideric Handel's Messiah, which, in its performance last night by the Sanford Dole Ensemble filled a two-and-a-half-hour evening.  This time the title is Messyah;  and the spirit of goofing off certainly thrives in the "messy" stem of that word.  (Indeed, "messing around" is often used as a synonym for "goofing off.")  There is nothing pejorative about that spirit;  but, in his pre-concert conversation with Dole, Ayres at least hinted that he may have come to a point where enough is enough.

Messyah may have smashed one of the most popular icons of the Christmas season, but it is hard to accuse Ayres of malice.  He picked up all the pieces and reassembled them, always lovingly, often imaginatively, and occasionally hysterically comically.  In a preview piece in the Sunday Datebook section of this past Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman quoted Ayres posing the critical thought behind this effort:
Why did Handel do it this way instead of that?  What if we took a right turn down that street and see where it goes?
Messyah is very much a composition for those who know Messiah well, and ultimately it provides food for thought over the question of why it turned out the way it did.  However, while Messiah has the coherence of an oratorio setting of a complete narrative of the life of Jesus, Messyah is more a collection of case-by-case studies of the individual sections, each taking its own "alternative turn" with little apparent thought to the overall structure beyond Handel's initial framework.

Sadly, the result is often more tedious than stimulating, particularly when it gets predictable.  By the time one gets as far as "All we like sheep," one just knows that Ayres is going to do something with "gone astray;"  so it is no surprise when the members of the chorus leave their risers and start wandering about the stage "every one to his own way."  On the other hand, when Ayres cuts loose with his few pop settings with jazz combo accompaniment, the joyousness of the result is as true to the religious spirit as was the original setting.

From the performers' point of view, this composition is far more than the lark of a choral conductor having prepared too many Messiah performances.  It abounds with complex counterpoint, much of which is polytonal;  and the entire choir must face several improvisatory challenges.  Dole's choir was definitely up to the entire task.  Whether it involved being true to the source material or following Ayres down his alternative turns, the seventeen voices were most impressive in handling both solo and group material.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said of their instrumental accompaniment.  This consisted of a string quartet, bass, trumpet, two percussionists, and two keyboardists responsible for piano, harpsichord, and organ parts.  The strings were, sadly, the weakest part of the mix.  If the voices could negotiate the twists and turns of Ayres polytonality with a sureness of pitch, the same could not be said of the string section, most notably the two violins.  On the other hand the jazz backup work by percussion, bass, and trumpet was absolutely solid, which had much to do with why these particular departures from Handel's tradition were so effective.

Will Messyah become an "alternative Christmas tradition?"  My own guess is that it will not.  It is more like a series of experiments that Ayres developed to pursue the question he had posed.  The opportunity for an audience to review those experiments is definitely an interesting one, but once is enough.  By way of comparison, one might consider Donald Swann's contribution to the first Hoffnung Festival, where he chose to add a series of extra surprises to the second movement of Joseph Haydn's 94th G major symphony.  Even when Swann's surprises no longer surprise, they are still funny, even on the old recording of the Festival performance.  I am not sure that Ayres' surprises will have such an enduring quality, but it was still a pleasure to be exposed to them.

December 20, 2009: Is minimalism still minimal? (Was it ever?)

An interesting phenomenon of the twentieth century was the formation of specific groups around the initial intention of performing a single composition.  The best known example (at least in the United States) is the Tashi Quartet, formed in 1973, which consisted of violinist Ida Kavafian, pianist Peter Serkin, cellist Fred Sherry and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, which happens to the instrumentation for Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.  Less known in this country is Hoketus, which was founded by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen explicitly for the performance of his 1976 composition of the same name.  This was a larger ensemble than the Tashi Quartet;  and, because Andriessen's "Hoketus" composition was based on two musical "voices," each filling in the rests of the other's line (as in the hocket of medieval music), the group consisted of two equal groups of instruments:  two pianos, two Fender Rhodes electric pianos, two sets of panpipes, two saxophones, two electric bass guitars, and two percussionists.  While Tashi reunited in 2008 to perform Messiaen's quartet in celebration of the centenary of his birth, Hoketus disbanded in 1987.

However, Andriessen had formed an earlier group in 1972;  and this ensemble is still performing.  It is the Dutch Orkest De Volharding;  and it was also first assembled to perform a composition of the same name, "De Volharding," which is Dutch for "perseverance."  One wonders if Andriessen may have picked up John Cage's interest in the I Ching, in the course of which he had encountered a frequently recurring piece of advice:  "Perseverance furthers."  The Orkest De Volharding is certainly persevering better than Hoketus did;  and the American label Mode has now released a 2-CD set of their performances under the general title The Minimalists.

What about minimalism itself?  Is it persevering?  For that matter just what do we mean when we invoke "minimalism" as a genre label?  Needless to say, Wikipedia has an entry for it with the following introductory summary:
Minimalist music is an originally American genre of experimental or Downtown music named in the 1960s based mostly in consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis and slow transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. Starting in the early 1960s as a scruffy underground scene in San Francisco alternative spaces and New York lofts, minimalism spread to become the most popular experimental music style of the late 20th century. The movement originally involved dozens of composers, although only four—Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and, less visibly if more seminally, La Monte Young—emerged to become publicly associated with it in America. In Europe, its chief exponents were Louis Andriessen, Karel Goeyvaerts, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Steve Martland, Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener. The term "minimalist music" was derived around 1970 by Michael Nyman from the concept of minimalism, which was earlier applied to the visual arts.[2] For some of the music, especially that which transforms itself according to strict rules, the term "process music" has also been used.
This is relatively consistent with the characterization attributed to Riley in the booklet of notes provided with the Orkest de Volharding CDs:  "music based on layered, simple patterns and a clear pulse, in which gradual, systematic changes (not 'development' in the serial sense) happen over a long period of time."  Note the way in which the parenthesis characterizes minimalism as a reaction against the "neurotic" (as Riley put it) obsessions that academics had with serialism.  Of course, if you really wanted to "get minimal," it would be hard to beat John Cage's 4'33", whose title specified a period of silence that constituted the composition;  but Cage actually did beat out 4'33" with 0'00", which basically imposes no constraints on any number of musicians.  (Yes, it has a score.  Yes, I saw it.  Yes, I have attended a performance of it.)  On the other hand Glass has taken to distancing himself from the "minimalist" label, preferring instead "music with repetitive structures."

So what does The Minimalists have to offer the curious listener?  From a historical point of view, it includes the composition that many (at least those who prefer to disregard Cage and Young) claim started it all, Riley's "In C," which was composed in 1964.  This was a score so "minimal" that it fit on the jacket of the original vinyl recording and now has its own Web page.  Like 4'33" it can be performed by any number of people performing any assortment of instruments;  and the score consists of 53 separate melodic fragments.  As the Orkest de Volharding booklet states:
The performers decide individually when to move from one motive to the next.
The fragments need to be played in numerical order.  Each one may be repeated any number of times, and the performer may rest for any period of time before moving on to the next fragment.

The original album became one of the icons of Sixties permissiveness.  You were not hip if you did not have a copy;  and for many it was the music of choice for experimenting with mind-altering substances.  Much to my surprise, I never encountered a party where everyone gathered around to play along with the recording (which was certainly easy to do, except when you had to flip to the other side).  These days with CD technology, we no longer have to worry about that flip;  and a recent check of turned up over a dozen recordings, including the New Albion "25th Anniversary Concert," recorded by an "all-star cast" on January 14, 1990.

The problem is that the concept behind "In C" tends to persevere far better than the music itself.  It is a bit like the old Japanese proverb, which states that there are two kinds of fools: the man (accepting the cultural bias of the language of the time and culture) who has never climbed Mount Fuji, and the man who climbs Mount Fuji twice.  Every serious listener ought to include a performance of "In C," preferably in a concert setting, as part of a "portfolio" of listening experiences;  but little is gained by having that experience a second time, even with different performers.  There is only so much that "In C" has to say;  and, once you get it, you've got it.  So, while its inclusion in The Minimalists is historically significant, there are probably better ways one could spend the 51'29" of its duration.

The only composer represented in this collection that is not American is the "founding father of the group," Andriessen.  He is represented by "Workers Union," described in the booklet as a "hooligan" version of "In C."  What this means is that none of the pitches are strictly specified, but the rhythm is exactly fixed.  In other words performance requires the same strict discipline of rhythmic performance that "Hoketus" demands;  and coordination is aggravatingly difficult, "just like the organizing and carrying out of any political action," as Andriessen puts it.  At 17'15" the performance is somewhat shorter than that of "Hoketus;"  but it is a major challenge for the listener.  In this case, however, listening multiple times may be more rewarding as one begins to develop an ear for the full scope of invention in Andriessen's rhythmic patterns.

In addition to Riley, the Americans represented on The Minimalists are (in temporal order of their compositions), John Adams ("Short Ride on a Fast Machine," 1986), David Lang ("Street," 1993), Steve Reich ("City Life," 1995), and Kyle Gann ("Sunken City (in Memoriam New Orleans)," 2005).  The Adams and Reich compositions were arranged for the instrumental membership of Orkest de Volharding (flute, three saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones, horn, piano, and bass, with occasional additions) by Artistic Manager Anthony Fiumara.  Most interesting is the coupling of Reich and Gann, since the sampled sounds of "City Life" include speech samples from firemen on the site of the 1993 bombing of the parking garage of the World Trade Center.  Needless to say, these sounds acquired an entirely new layer of meaning after September 11, 2001 and provide a chilling complement to Gann's meditation on the aftermath of Katrina.

On the other hand Adams, Reich, and Gann are clearly thinking beyond the "roots" of minimalism in the compositions that represent them in this collection.  As one might guess, those works are the most interesting in the package.  Personally, I think Glass has the right idea.  If you must talk about what you are doing (and I really do not think any composer should feel obliged to do so), it is always better to resort to language more specific than that of a label that was already beginning to wear out when it was first applied.

December 20, 2009: A virtual rendering of a non-standard concert

When Pictures Reframed was given its world premiere in New York, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini felt it was necessary to begin his November 16 review with the back-story:
The remarkable Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is a self-effacing, substantive and completely unflashy artist. You would not peg him as someone curious to explore multimedia and reinvent the piano recital.
Yet several years ago Mr. Andsnes approached Jane Moss, the vice president for programming at Lincoln Center, to propose collaborating with a visual artist on a performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Ms. Moss embraced the idea as being ideal for New Visions, part of the Great Performers series. After some searching, she introduced Mr. Andsnes to the South African-born video artist Robin Rhode.

The product of that collaboration, “Pictures Reframed,” an intriguing multimedia piano recital 80 minutes long without intermission, was presented at Alice Tully Hall on Friday night. It was the first of two performances, and the place was packed.
Astute readers may wonder how Andsnes managed to take 80 minutes to perform Pictures at an Exhibition;  and, fortunately, he didn't.  Here is Tommasini's account of the rest of the program:
… childhood was the theme of the “Pictures Reframed” program, which included three other works as well as two short Rhode videos without music. Mr. Andsnes began by playing the two existing pieces from Mussorgsky’s incomplete 1865 suite “Memories of Childhood.” “Nurse and I” was a Mozartean delight depicting the composer’s childhood nurse. But “First Punishment: Nurse Shuts Me in a Dark Room,” is a hard-edged, driving toccata that reveals the nurse’s ominous side.

In another fitting selection Mr. Andsnes offered a ravishing account of Schumann’s “Kinderscenen” (“Scenes From Childhood”), played with affecting directness, impressive clarity and vivid imagination. “What becomes,” a new work by the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher in its premiere performance, though often turbulent and volatile, also fitted the overall theme and was accompanied by video. This 20-minute, six-movement piece ranged over diverse styles, with stretches of postmodern harmonies that recalled the bucolic Copland and fantastical episodes that included pitches, thuds and scratches produced from altered strings on the piano. Mr. Andsnes dispatched the piece, which climaxes in a hell-bent, frenetic scherzo, with brilliant pianism and cool authority.
Prior to coming to New York, Andsnes gave a special preview at his Risør Chamber Music Festival in Norway.  The performance took place in a warehouse to accommodate the special staging needs, and the event was captured on video.  The house appears to have been as packed as it was in Lincoln Center.

Those staging needs provided the first clue to the "reframing" that took place.  Above Andsnes and his grand piano hung a large screen on which Rhode's videos were projected.  Both piano and screen were surrounded by five decorative panels that "framed" the presentation area.  The effect is one of a single "picture" on a very grand scale;  and it was immediately clear that both the magnitude of the scale and the nature of the images on the screen were beyond the scope of today's video capture technology.  So the "raw" video was then processed by a crack editing team into a document of the Pictures portion of event that included Rhode's source material and considerable close-up footage of Andsnes.  The result is now being offered in a package that includes the edited video on DVD, a CD of Andsnes' performances of all of the Mussorgsky selections (and two other short works) and the Schumann Kinderscenen, and a coffee table book of Rhode's images.  Meanwhile, Andsnes has just completed his European tour of the show first given in Lincoln Center;  and two more performances are scheduled for March:  one in Beijing and one in Abu Dhabi.

The most important thing to bear in mind in approaching the video is that any resemblance between Rhode's imagery and the paintings by Victor Hartmann that inspired Mussorgsky are purely coincidental.  This was very much a collaboration with Andsnes, which may be just as well since Andsnes took some pretty major departures of his own from Mussorgsky's original text, at least as documented in the complete edition published by the Soviet Union in 1939.  There are time when it sounds as if Andsnes is more interested in going after the sound of Maurice Ravel's orchestration than after the original notes, and his approach has provoked more than a little wrath from the purist crowd.  Thus, one needs to approach the work with a willingness to accept it on its own terms.

Unfortunately, the video editing does not facilitate that approach very well.  The biggest problem is that we really do not see enough of the video for it to take full effect.  Some of this, ironically, may have been a problem with the high-definition (HD) technology.  The HD aspect ratio required that Rhode's videos appear to the side of the shots of Andsnes.  Had this video been produced with the old-fashioned (pre-HD) American aspect ratio, there would have been perfect screen space for the video to appear above Andsnes, exactly the way audiences saw it.

Furthermore, with all due respect to Andsnes and his performance technique, there is just too much of him.  The amount of screen time given exclusively to Rhode's video sources is thoroughly dwarfed by shots of Andsnes from every conceivable angle, including far too many shots of the face staring pensively into space.  (I never found myself thinking about this at any Andsnes performance I have attended.)  The resulting DVD thus makes it far more difficult to accept this project on its own terms than would be the case at an actual performance.

The back of the CD includes the following quote from Andsnes:
You have to challenge the status quo.
I agree entirely.  At the same time I remember Merce Cunningham, the choreographer who spent his entire career challenging the status quo.  Cunningham had an even more memorable quote:
Sometimes it works;  sometimes it doesn't.
When things didn't work for Cunningham, he would move on and try something else.  There is so much creative imagination in both Andsnes and Rhode that I hope they have no trouble with moving on, either together or each in his preferred direction.

December 19, 2009: Virtual Tosca

Since everyone else seems to have had something to say about the new production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca by Luc Bondy, which opened the Metropolitan Opera's season in September, I figured it was time for me to see for myself by watching the PBS Great Performances broadcast.  I have to confess that I was prompted in part by a preview piece that Joshua Kosman prepared for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Kosman offered an interesting judo maneuver by taking New York's rejection of Bondy and turning it on the New Yorkers:
New Yorkers are a big bunch of weenies.
Seriously, this is what passes for a fiasco in the Big Apple? This muscular, clear-sighted and often powerful staging of a familiar repertory standard - marred, admittedly, by a handful of small but painful directorial missteps - is all it takes to arouse the collective ire of New York's opera crowd?
What will they do when something really goes wrong?
Having been a part of the New York audience scene and a Metropolitan Opera subscriber for several years, I feel some need to defend.  About the only generalization one can make about New York audiences is that they are diverse, and that diversity permeates even establishments as traditional as the Met.  Within all of that diversity, some pockets are more vocal than others, sometimes fanatically so.  In this case the pocket in question was the faction that was adamant about giving up any production by Franco Zeffirelli with a spirit that could only match Charlton Heston's attitude about giving up his gun;  and basically they were as vocal about their position as Heston was about his.  Unfortunately, Bondy did not deal with this faction particularly well, since the only message he had for them was (in paraphrase):  Things change;  get used to it.

On the other hand, there were certainly places in the production where what Kosman chose to call "small but painful directorial missteps" were, for me, cases where "something really goes wrong."  None of those situations are irreparable;  and, if the Met allows Bondy the time to work on them, I am sure the problems can be remedied.  Unfortunately, the first few of those cases (the spotlight that cannot decide whether it is taking orders from Scarpia's police or the stage manager and the key whose hiding place is just plain dumb) take place within the first minutes of the production;  and it is extremely difficult to get beyond first impressions.

Nevertheless, it is possible to get beyond biting Bondy's finger to look where he is pointing.  Personally, I saw the finger pointing at our general conception of "grand" opera (with intentional scare quotes).  Bondy seems to be in the camp that can accept that, whatever criteria we may have for grandeur, those criteria are absent in Tosca.  My predecessor, Scott Foglesong, wrote the following about the 1953 recording by Maria Callas under this banner last July:
One hears gush about the "utter truth" of Callas's performance as diva Tosca, but let's get real here: how much "truth" can there be in a trashy, shabby, grubby little potboiler? The fans hear "truth"; I hear cheap histrionics.
My own reaction to this position is that, ultimately, the opera indulges in vulgarity to the point of celebrating that very quality;  and, in Bondy's production, George Gagnidze's Scarpia rules over that vulgarity with the same relish that Milton's Satan rules over Hell.  There were no cheap histrionics in any of those moves.  Those could be found in Karita Mattila's Tosca, who was trying to go in too many directions at once, and Marcelo Álvarez' Cavaradossi, who never really negotiated the fine line between pathos and bathos.

My guess is that Bondy would be the first person to recognize that more work needs to be done.  From that point of view, I personally find it unfair that this particular video document should be part of his legacy.  The Ovation Channel used to broadcast European videos of his earlier work, and he quickly registered with me as a director who could draw me into certain operas that I usually did not particularly like.  I have no idea whether or not the operating constraints of the Metropolitan Opera will give Bondy the opportunity to do that necessary work that would make Bondy's case more clearly and concisely.  I certainly hope so.  There is no question in my mind that he has a valid point of view.  We would all benefit if he could present that view in circumstances better than he has had thus far.

December 18, 2009: An abundance of chamber music by Antonín Dvorák

The latest collaboration between the Alexander String Quartet and lecturer Robert Greenberg will be a series of four 10 AM Saturday concerts on January 16 and 30, February 20 and March 27 at the Herbst Theatre, presented by San Francisco Performances, devoted entirely to the chamber music of Antonín Dvorák.  Dvorák is hardly a stranger to San Francisco chamber music fans, and it would probably be fair to say that he is one of the favored composers among both faculty and students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  However, these Saturday morning events will provide the opportunity to supplement performances of the music with Greenberg's insights in his capacity as Music Historian-in-Residence for San Francisco Performances.  Those insights are sure to touch upon his nationalist influences, his relationship with Johannes Brahms (an equally prolific composer of chamber music), and, of course, the impact of the time he spent in the United States.  The complete schedule for this series of concerts (with some background on the music being performed provided by San Francisco Performance) is as follows:

Program 1
10 AM, Herbst Theatre, Saturday, January 16
String Quartet in D minor, Opus 34; String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 51

This program features the first two compositions that caused Dvorák’s sudden burst to fame in his late thirties. By 36, he had labored for years in obscurity, supporting his young family by giving music lessons, playing the viola in orchestras and the organ in church, and trying to compose. He was known in Prague but almost nowhere else. Dedicated to Brahms, who helped alert European publishers to Dvorák’s talent, the “String Quartet in D minor” (1877) is a little-known jewel, full of lovely music and showing some unusual thematic relationships.

As his fame grew, Dvorák was encouraged to give up his Czech identity and write music in the mainstream German tradition. The “Quartet in E-flat Major” (1879) shows how the composer found himself trapped between these two worlds; even as he writes for German performers and audiences, he insists on using Czech rhythms, sounds and forms.

Program 2
10 AM, Herbst Theatre, Saturday, January 30
Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 74; Piano Quintet in A Major, Opus 81
(With Roger Woodward, piano)

An unusual combination of two violins and viola, Dvorák’s “Terzetto” (1887) is as genial and good-spirited as anything he wrote. Faced with the challenge of writing for three high voices (string quartet minus the cello), he provides a full harmonic palette and bass line.

Not long after completing that four-part piece, Dvorák composed what is universally acclaimed as one of his finest works, the “Piano Quintet” (1887), tremendously vital music full of fire, sweep and soaring melodies. For the Quintet, accomplished pianist Roger Woodward, currently a professor at San Francisco State University, joins the Alexander String Quartet.

Program 3
10 AM, Herbst Theatre, Saturday, February 20
String Quartet in F Major, Opus 96 “American”; Viola Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 97
(With Andrew Duckles, viola)

While serving as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York in the late 19th century, Dvorák composed what is known as the “American” Quartet (1893). The artist claims to have composed “in the spirit” of American music and national melodies; listeners will have to decide for themselves.

The “Viola Quintet” (1893), is said to be directly influenced by the uniquely American elements of Iroquois drumbeats and locomotives pounding along New York City’s rail lines. Joining the Alexander for this piece is Southern California-based violist Andrew Duckles.

Program 4
10 AM, Herbst Theatre, Saturday, March 27
String Quartet in A-flat Major, Opus 105; String Quartet in G Major, Opus 106

Dvorák composed the “String Quartet in A-flat Major” (1895) as he was leaving the United States to return to his native Bohemia. The piece, with its general mood of celebration, reflects the composer's relief at being home — it is saturated with Czech musical forms and the spirit of Czech music. Similarly, “String Quartet in G Major” (1895), his first work after returning, reflects Dvorák joy at this homecoming.

Tickets for individual concerts cost $36 and $24;  and the "package rate" for all four programs is $128 and $86.  Further information may be obtained by calling San Francisco Performances at 415-392-2545.  There is also a Web page for the entire series of events.

December 17, 2009: Arvo Pärt and the Word made flesh

As we near the end of the period of Advent, this would be a good time for those still thinking about choosing gifts to consider the latest ECM release of the music of Arvo Pärt.  The disc is entitled In Principio, and it is one of the nominees for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in this year's Grammy Award competition.  More importantly, however, those who were positively impressed by Olivier Messiaen's non-standard musical approach to the Nativity, Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus, as performed by Marino Formenti a little over a week ago may now wish to consider the equally non-standard approach taken in the title composition on this album.  The text for this work for mixed choir and large orchestra consists of the first fourteen verses from The Gospel According to Saint John, whose climax occurs, both musically and textually, in the final verse.  In the translation of The Jerusalem Bible, that verse is as follows:
The Word was made flesh,
he lived among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father,
full of grace and truth.
Pärt is as seriously devout in his Christianity as Messiaen was but in entirely different ways.  While, as was recently demonstrated, Messiaen cast his celebration of the Nativity in a language of subtle harmonic progressions and melodic lines, Pärt's is very much a language of gesture;  and his musical gestures often reflect the gestures of the declamation or incantation of sacred texts.

I have Steve Reich to thank for my first exposure to Pärt.  I had attended a talk he gave in 1985 at UCLA about "New York Counterpoint," which he had recently completed and was about to be performed at the Chandler Pavilion.  In the course of his presentation, he offered what he called his "Minimalism 101" account of how he and fellow composers like Philip Glass and John Adams became aware of new approaches to composition.  During the question period, one bright student piped up, "Which composer do you listen to with the most interest these days?"  Without skipping a beat, Reich replied, "Arvo Pärt;"  and that was enough to get me listening to Tabula Rasa, the first ECM disc of Pärt's music.

Listening to In Principio, however, I am just beginning to appreciate why Reich replied so quickly and so confidently.  One could never mistake the two composers;  but Reich shares with Pärt this appreciation that text, particularly sacred text, has its own inherent musical value.  (Consider how Reich explored this proposition in Tehillim.)  The three settings of sacred texts on In Principio ("In Principio" itself, "Cecilia, Vergine Romana," and "Da Pacem Domine") all take, as a point of departure, John's mystical conception of Word made flesh and follow it through to Word made music.  Thus, it is because the Word that is so important, that the gestures of utterance are so fundamental to the grammar, logic, and rhetoric behind Pärt's music.

This is equally true of his strictly instrumental music.  Indeed, in the case of "Für Lennart in memoriam," commissioned for the burial service of former President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, the Old Russian text for the service was written into the score below the double bass part.  However, the more secular composition "Mein Weg" explores gesture in a manner that departs from its foundation in speech.  This is a composition of "embedded" gestures:  Gestures "in the small" compound to form gestures "in the large" in a manner that could be described as fractal without too great a stretch of the imagination.

In this respect Pärt has a more unlikely kindred spirit in Claude Debussy.  Consider the often discussed influence of Katsushika Hokusai on La Mer, culminating in the decision by Durand to reproduce "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" on the cover of the score:

For an early nineteenth-century Japanese woodcut, this displays a remarkable intuition for the self-embedding of a feature on different scales;  and, when one listens closely to Debussy's orchestral texture, one hears that same self-embedding in motifs played by different instruments concurrently.  As with Reich, one would never confuse Pärt with Debussy;  but each took a shared approach to gesture and pursued it in a unique direction.

In Principio is thus a single recording that reveals Pärt to us in the depth of both his sacred and secular values.  All performances are conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste with a sensitivity to detail that reveals that depth with the utmost clarity.  This makes for an excellent gift for anyone seeking ways to expand his/her listening experiences.

December 17, 2009: The Isserlis-Gerstein duo returns to San Francisco

On Sunday, January 10 at Herbst Theatre, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Kirill Gerstein will give a recital at 7 PM under the auspices of San Francisco Performances.  This will be their second duo appearance for San Francisco Performances, the first having been in May of 2007 (which, coincidentally, was one month after Marino Formenti gave his first series of piano recitals for San Francisco Performances).  However, neither performer is a stranger to San Francisco.  When Gustavo Dudamel made his debut conducting the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall in March of 2008, Gerstein was the soloist in the first half of the program, performing Sergei Rachmaninoff's first piano concerto (his Opus 1).  While many dismissed this as a rather disappointing way for two such capable artists to present themselves to the Davies audience, I looked through the other end of the telescope at what I called "a work that is not 'up there' among the recognized masterpieces."  I felt that taking on a work that lacked such "masterpiece credentials" was a real test of performance skill;  and Gerstein (as well as Dudamel) emerged from that test with flying colors.

This past September Isserlis was here under somewhat more amenable circumstances, performing Joseph Haydn's C major cello concerto (Hoboken VIIb/1) with Philharmonia Baroque under its Music Director Nicholas McGegan and conducting a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music based entirely on movements from three of the unaccompanied cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, all music with impeccable "masterpiece credentials!"  The program he and Gerstein have prepared for next month will involve somewhat less familiar material:
  • Benjamin Britten:  Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Opus 65
  • Robert Schumann:  Violin Sonata No. 3 (arranged for cello by Isserlis)
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff:  Sonata in G minor for Piano and Cello, Opus 19
Note the ordering in the Rachmaninoff sonata.  When this work was performed in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral last October, I noted that its Wikipedia entry cited a remark by record producer John Culshaw claiming that Rachmaninoff disliked calling it a cello sonata because he thought the two instruments were equal.  Personally, the work struck me more as a piano sonata with cello obbligato;  but it would not surprise me if Isserlis and Gerstein, both strong personalities, will achieve the sort of equality of voices that Rachmaninoff supposedly had in mind.

The decision to arrange Schumann's last violin sonata is particularly interesting.  While Schumann's cello concerto holds a secure place in the repertoire, he never composed a cello sonata.  Indeed, his only solo instrument sonatas are the three he composed for violin;  and the third is his last piece of chamber music.  The work is seldom performed;  so the opportunity to listen to it will be welcome, even if the experience will be mediated by its arrangement for cello.

The Britten sonata is also seldom heard, and I know it personally only from the Etcetera CD recording by Alexander Baillie and Ian Brown.  Perhaps the deepest impression the work made on me had to do with my interest in the "raw materials" of sound and the approach that Britten took to having the cello arpeggiate through natural harmonics.  I was also struck by the observation in the anonymous notes for this recording that the work was composed in January of 1961, which probably puts it closely before Britten began work in his War Requiem.  In this case I feel I am long overdue for listening to this work without the intervention of recording technology.

Tickets for this recital are available for $49 and $32.  Further information may be obtained by calling San Francisco Performances at 415-392-2545.  The link for purchasing tickets online may be found in the January area of the Calendar Web page for San Francisco Performances.

December 16, 2009: Marc-André Hamelin presents the delights of the nineteenth century

In his program for San Francisco Performances last night at Herbst Theatre, pianist Marc-André Hamelin communicated an understanding of the nineteenth-century aesthetic that is regrettably rare in the current crop of concert offerings.  It is an understanding that subordinates the performer to the music itself and the demands made by that music on appropriate performance technique.  His casual appearance and cool disposition make it clear that the program is not about him;  it is about the nineteenth-century perspective on both composition and performance.

This perspective is best appreciated if we again invoke the concepts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric behind the medieval trivium.  It is through grammar that we understand how a composition is structured, not only as an assembly of building blocks but also as a prioritization of that assembly through which some blocks serve to embellish others (as adjectives are used to embellish nouns).  As with sentences, musical compositions may be ambiguous about structure, in which case it is up to the performer to clarify how (s)he wishes to communicate that structure.  Clarification often comes through identifying a logic behind the structure, which may be facilitated by regarding the performance as a journey through time for which there are clear points of departure and arrival and a well-defined path connecting the two.  Put in more blunt terms, logic concerns the question of what, in the composition, the performer expects us to listen to in order to justify the commitment of sitting there for the duration of the performance.  Having established that justification, one then applies rhetoric to keep the listener engaged in that commitment to listen.

The application of this framework to Hamelin's performance may best be appreciated in the major work on his program, the collection of four consecutive etudes from Charles-Valentin Alkan's Opus 39 collection that he chose to call a "symphony" for solo piano.  The tempo markings make it clear that these four etudes are assembled in the structural plan of a four-movement symphony:
  1. The Allegro moderato follows the conventions of an opening symphonic movement.
  2. The Andantino is marked Marche funèbre in a clear nod to Ludwig van Beethoven's use of a funeral march as a movement in both a piano sonata and a symphony.
  3. The Menuet indicates a basic ternary form movement, which is probably more in the spirit of a scherzo.
  4. The Presto is also marked as Finale, following the convention of a fast-paced conclusion.
The listening experience is thus very much a symphonic journey along which one encounters many features that had established themselves in the eighteenth century.  Rhetorically, however, the sense of etude is invoked from beginning to end in the virtuoso demands that must be met in the interest of proper execution.  This is where flamboyance comes into play;  and, by keeping his own cool, Hamelin allows those on the audience side to appreciate that the general journey is very much about taking a traditional structure (probably dismissed as outmoded by many of Alkan's contemporaries) and illuminating it with fireworks, rather like a low-tech version of one of those hokey Son et Lumière productions that were so popular as tourist attractions in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Hamelin's appreciation of this nineteenth-century aesthetic is so acute that he can also apply it equally effectively to eighteenth-century music.  This was most apparent in his performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's A minor sonata K. 310.  Composed in 1777 when Mozart was 21, this is a highly turbulent and expressive work that goes beyond the exuberant displays of a "show-off kid."  Mozart scholar Maynard Solomon has even seen it as a foreshadowing of the entire framework of grammar, logic, and rhetoric that would define nineteenth-century composition;  so, in many respects, all Hamelin was doing in his (decidedly non-period) approach was allowing the music to cast its shadow forward to the nineteenth century in the manner of Solomon's assessment.  In other words the performance had less to do with any sense of Mozart's own grammar, logic, and rhetoric and more to do with how the nineteenth century received Mozart's legacy.

The set of F minor variations on an Andante theme by Joseph Haydn, Hoboken XVII/6, is another matter.  Haydn was always trying to invent ways to push the envelope of composition;  but he also had the good sense to pay attention when his patron, Prince Nicholas Esterházy, would let him know (usually gently) than enough was enough.  With Esterházy's death in 1790, however, those constraints were lifted;  and Haydn was once again free to explore new ways to invent.  This particular work, composed in 1793, actually has the subtitle "Sonata – Un Piccolo Divertimento," which is a bit deceptive, considering that it is a single movement (making it "piccolo").  Its double variation form, which would figure so significantly in the fifth and ninth symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven and much later in the fourth symphony of Gustav Mahler, was a radical departure from what variations were expected to be, matched only by the outrageous turn-on-a-dime progressions in a coda that, when used at all, had previously been intended to return the listener to the simplicity of the theme after a journey of embellishments.  This music is less a foreshadowing of nineteenth-century thinking as much as it is one of the first clear and explicit statements of that thinking, making it the perfect way for Hamelin to introduce his program.

All this attention to the Haydn and Mozart offerings that began Hamelin's program and the Alkan that concluded it should not detract from the middle of his own journey (or, for that matter, his encore).  Between Mozart and Alkan we had Franz Liszt, the Venezia e Napoli supplement to the second "year" of his Années de Pèlerinage, and Gabriel Fauré's sixth D-flat major nocturne (Opus 63).  In these cases Hamelin was again the quiet center of control, whether it was the roiling energy of Liszt at his most "Lisztich" (not necessarily in the pejorative sense that Johannes Brahms had intended) or Fauré's intricate interleaving of voices, which only makes sense through a clear rendering of the interplay.  The performance was all about the music, and the performer was simply the channel for that performance.  This was also true of his encore, the second of the Opus 27 nocturnes of Frédéric Chopin (also in D-flat major), whose ternary form frames some of Chopin's most elaborate embellishments between outer sections of deceptive simplicity.

On a broader scale San Francisco Performances has used the past two weeks to offer us an impressive piano journey of its own.  First we had Marino Formenti guide us through many of the complexities of the twentieth-century aesthetic, after which he led us just as capably into the twenty-first-century aesthetic of Bernhard Lang.  Then, last night we could fall back into the nineteenth-century with a more informed sense of what it was, where it came from, and where it would eventually lead.  If this program planning was less a matter of design and more one of happy circumstance, we should still celebrate the benefits of that circumstance!

December 14, 2009: Discovering William Walton through the EMI archives

EMI has been in the business of recording music pretty much since that business first emerged.  As a result they have accumulated a rather impressive archive of material, much of which can be as valuable to the informed listener as it is to the serious student.  One of the more interesting offerings of material from this archive is now available in as a 2-CD set.  The package provides an excellent opportunity to hear a broad selection of the orchestral music of William Walton conducted by the composer;  and, not surprisingly, it has been released under the title Walton Conducts Walton.  The selection includes two concertos (for violin and viola, both with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist), one symphony (his first), a partita for orchestra, and the single-movement oratorio, "Belshazzar's Feast."  For those interested in size, that comes to slightly more than two and a half hours of music;  and, since Walton tended to be at his best when working with a full orchestra (even in his film scores, such as the ones he composed for Laurence Olivier's Shakespeare films), the selection presents him in an excellent light.

Curiously enough, the historical scope of this selection is bookended by a single composition.  The viola concerto was completed in 1929 but then revised in 1961.  This work is also one of the most interesting of the offerings in the package.  It was intended for the great Lionel Tertis (whose viola students included Rebecca Clarke, whose viola sonata was performed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last week), who then returned the score to Walton for being "too modern."  As a result, the premiere was performed by Paul Hindemith (whose own viola sonata was performed at that same Conservatory recital).  Tertis would eventually perform Walton's concerto;  but, at least according to the notes provided by Michael Kennedy, he never really "got it."  The Menuhin recording (which is of the revised version) was made in 1968;  and his chemistry with Walton seems to have been excellent.  I was first exposed to the final movement of this concerto through a master class given at the Conservatory by Misha Amory last March.  Amory tended to focus on the wit of that movement, which I had encountered in many other Walton compositions;  and Menuhin brought that wit to a more enhanced life through its contrast with the opening movement and the rapid-fire scherzo.

The composition in the EMI selection most likely to be familiar to San Francisco audiences is "Belshazzar's Feast," since it was performed by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus under Vladimir Ashkenazy last March.  While I try to avoid superlatives, it would not surprise me if history were to remember this as the quintessential English-language oratorio of the twentieth century, if not the major oratorio of the century in any language, since the form was not particularly popular.  The work is a feast of orchestral color and rich choral writing that moves forward at a rapid pace, thanks to a libretto by Osbert Sitwell that concentrates on the narrative thread, leaving the reflective texts for prologue and epilogue.  While, with all of these resources, there may be no substitute for attending a performance of this work, the EMI recording team did an admirable job of capturing far more of it than one might expect from 1959 technology.  (My guess is that Walton himself had a hand in the success of the recording through his own scrupulous sense of balance.)

Back in my student days Walton received a fair amount of attention.  Unfortunately, he seems to have gone out of fashion, with Ashkenazy's programming being more exception than rule.  This music does not deserve such neglect;  and the best possible case for it may well be made by Walton's own performances of it.  Here's hoping that, with this new release, EMI will contribute to a revived interest in Walton's music!

December 13, 2009: End-of-semester opera at the San Francisco Conservatory

The full-length opera prepared for the fall semester at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.  Since this is a one-act opera that takes less than an hour to perform, three of Purcell's songs were performed as an "overture" to this afternoon's performance:  "Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away," "Man is for the Woman Made," and "I Attempt from Love's Sickness to Fly."  These were sung to harpsichord accompaniment, while the music for the opera was provided by a string quartet with guitar and harpsichord continuo.  The production was staged by Richard Harrell, Director of the Opera Program, assisted by Heather Mathews;  and music direction was by Kathryn Cathcart.

Working with relatively minimal resources, Harrell's staging was most effective.  As Mathews had done in the Family Opera staging of Hansel and Gretel, he tended to play up the comic side of the malevolent forces behind this tragedy, a contralto Sorceress and the two witches that assist her, both sopranos.  Both the witches and their supporting chorus sang with nasal voices that made of an eerie sound;  but Harrell endowed the witches with a playful quality, somewhat reminiscent of Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, particularly in those moments when he was straining Gene Wilder's patience.  This comic relief is a great asset in the context of the libretto by Nahum Tate, which rarely rises above the tedium of inflated language and overly predictable rhyming schemes.  Consider this bit for Aeneas in the grove scene that takes place after a successful hunt at which he had killed a stag:
Behold, upon my bending spear
A monster's head stands bleeding,
With tushes far exceeding
Those did Venus' huntsman tear.
For those who know the word only as the diminutive of the Yiddish tuchis, "tush" is an archaic English predecessor of "tusk."  Comic relief goes a long way when the author is laughable when trying to be serious, and there is good reason to believe that Tate actually intended some his scenes in such a comic sense.  Most critical is that the announcement that Aeneas and his crew are setting sail for Italy, the crucial decision that will lead to Dido's suicide, is delivered as a drunken sailor's song.  Finding the right mood of delivery for each episode in the libretto is thus a bit like walking a tightrope, and Harrell negotiated that tightrope excellently.

The successful staging provided some compensation for shortcomings in the musical performance.  This was primarily a technical problem of inconsistent intonation, most evident in the sharp distinctions of tone between the two violinists.  Fortunately, the singers could usually rely on the harpsichord for pitch;  and their delivery was far more secure in both solo and group passages.

Baroque opera can be a risky business.  For all the musical virtues, the dramatic elements tend to come across as archaic to modern day audiences;  and, when the libretto is in English, that archaic sense is even more pronounced.  Similarly, while the melodies and harmonies are readily accessible, getting the sound right can be challenging, particularly to those who spend most of their time cultivating a nineteenth-century repertoire.  Today's performance may not have hit on all cylinders, but the staging was successful enough to throw the whole affair in a most positive light.

December 12, 2009: Family-style opera

Every year at this time the Opera Theatre Department of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents a "Family Opera" production.  Last year Heather Carolo staged a production of a "condensed version" of Die Zauberflöte in an English translation by Marcie Stapp, intended, as Director of the Opera Program Rick Harrell put it, for "children of all ages."  This year (now Heather Mathews) she directed a similarly condensed Hansel and Gretel in the Constance Bache translation (with revisions by Hamilton Benz) that honors all of the rhymed couplets of the original German text by Adelheid Wette.  Engelbert Humperdinck's score was performed (presumably from the Schirmer vocal score) by Music Director Darryl Cooper.  The English text being sung was projected on a screen to the right of the stage.

While the story is one of the traditional fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, its subject matter is far darker than the quest story of Zauberflöte.  In the first act we have extreme hunger and at least suggestions of parental abuse;  and in the third act we have a child-devouring witch who ultimately suffers the same fate as the children she has captured, being baked in her own oven.  The best way to make this more kid-friendly is to play down the sinister qualities of the witch;  and Mathews achieved this by turning her into a clown-like character, played full out by a tenor in outrageous costume.  (In the current Metropolitan Opera Production, shared with the San Francisco Opera, the witch is portrayed as Julia Child, which is not the sort of joke that kids are likely to get.)

However, the greatest asset to a kid-friendly production is a plot line that keeps things moving at a brisk pace.  By sacrificing many of the Mozart arias we love so much, Carolo achieved that pace in her Zauberflöte.  Mathews banked on the wealth of folk tunes adopted by Humperdinck, but one could sense kids losing patience with some of the songs going on too long.  Fortunately, she found a better sense of pace in the final act and kept the entire production to about an hour's duration.  If the kids were a bit restless at the beginning, Mathews had them hooked at the climax and final celebration.

This annual project is an excellent idea.  It provides the Conservatory students with an alternative take on opera production;  but it also fosters a spirit that the Conservatory has a way to give back to the general community, rather than appealing only to specialist interests.  The day's rather nasty persistent rain did not seem to interfere with the house being full;  so there is every reason to hope that the community appreciates the Conservatory's efforts.  We should hope that this tradition will continue in the coming years.

December 12, 2009: Haydn variations

Last night Marino Formenti performed the second of his two Aspects of the Divine recitals for San Francisco Performances at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco.  The title of this second part was Seven Last Words;  and the central work, performed after the intermission, was a piano transcription (presumably Formenti's own) of Joseph Haydn's oratorio, The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross.  This was preceded before the intermission by a single work, the United States premiere of Bernhard Lang's Monadologie V—7 Last Words of Hasan.

In a statement reproduced in the program book, Lang described his Monadologie compositions as follows:
Perhaps the Mondadologies can best be characterized in the following points:  they utilize tiny introductory modules, which are used to generate the entire musical fabric.  These introductory elements are for the most part "samples" from existing musical material.  The scores are created through cellular automatons [sic];  in other words, they are created mechanically and themselves represent mechanical abstractions in the Deleuzian sense.  The cells pass through discrete states as complex differentials, appearing as constant mutations.
In Monadologie V the "existing musical material" comes from Haydn's oratorio and Formenti's own comments in the program book reflect on the relationship between Lang and Haydn:
His [Lang's] way of obsessively dissecting and reassembling (and therefore obsessively questioning) models and modules, based here as in his other works on "historical" material, would also recreate an authentic, partly violently true "anti-music."
The concept of "seven last words" also undergoes transformation in Lang's reworking of Haydn.  In Haydn's case, the "words" are actually seven phrases from the Gospels that Jesus uttered from the Cross.  Haydn's oratorio was written for a Good Friday service in the Cathedral of Cádiz in Spain to provide music for meditation by the congregation after each of these phrases was pronounced during the ritual.  Lang has transformed Jesus into Hasan-i Sabbah, first known by the West through the tales of Marco Polo.  Hasan himself was not a martyr;  but he led the cult of Shiite Arab Hashshashins (the Assassins), all of whom embraced martyrdom as part of their cause.  The legend is that, on his deathbed in 1124, Hasan whispered seven words just before dying:
Remember, nothing is true;  everything is permitted.
To the extent that cellular automata have provided a fundamental mathematical abstraction in an area of research known as "artificial life," Hasan's words have striking relevance:  The world of abstraction transcends the concept of truth.  The question of whether or not anything is true is replaced by the question of whether or not all the propositions of the abstraction are consistent among themselves.  Truth no longer matters;  and, while everything is not permitted, the constraints of internal consistency allow for a generous approximation to everything!

Thus, as had been the case with the music of Olivier Messiaen at the first Aspects of the Divine recital last Saturday, Formenti presented a program of music based on a considerable theoretical infrastructure.  However, as was the case on Saturday, it was clear that he approached his performance with more attention to practice than to theory.  From this point of view, he seemed to take that comment about "partly violently true 'anti-music'" (perhaps in response to Hasan's dying conviction that nothing is true) as a point of departure.  There was definitely an outburst of violence in the flood of notes that began Monadologie V, pounded out with such spontaneity that Formenti began playing as he was taking his seat on the piano bench;  but, for all of that violence, I am not sure I would call Lang's music contrarian.

What was fascinating about the organization of the program is that Haydn's oratorio is not a particularly familiar work, even in his revision of the music as a string quartet (sometimes performed by a string ensemble).  Thus, one could not count on extensive recognition of the modules behind this particular compositional process.  One was simply aware that, in the midst of an onslaught of violent dissonance (the earthquake of the coda to Haydn's oratorio?), fragments of eighteenth-century rhetoric would emerge, swept away by the dissonances almost before they could be recognized.  Yet I suspect that Formenti anticipated that those fragments would register, even if subliminally;  so they would be recognized when they emerged after the intermission in the Haydn source text.

Since I have heard several performances of the oratorio (all recorded, unfortunately), I had the advantage of recognizing those fragments when Lang revealed them.  However, as I listened to Formenti's piano transcription of the Haydn, I realized that another bond had formed between the two compositions on the program.  Lang's "discrete states" were realized through an intensely driving pulse;  and that pulse figures significantly in Haydn's rhetoric.  In Haydn, as one might imagine, the pulse serves primarily as a background element, which adds emotional tension to the foreground melodic line and the poignancy of the text being sung.  Thus, much of Lang's own architecture arises from the way in which he has taken background material from Haydn and moved it into the foreground.  In Lang's music the emotional tension is still there;  but it is now revealed with far sharper edges, providing Formenti with a basis for that "violent truth."  However, by performing his transcription of Haydn after Lang's mutations, Haydn's pulses no longer receded to that background for which they had probably been intended.  In other words the context of Lang's music had disrupted the usual conventions of foreground and background that we would apply to listening to Haydn;  and Formenti's performance seemed designed to let that disruption run its course, providing an "aspect" of Haydn more revolutionary than what one would gather from most accounts of his work.

The whole evening was thus thoroughly alien to the usual traditions of the piano recital, even in the ways in which Haydn was presented.  Nevertheless, the conception of the program was certainly true to its overarching theme.  After all, just about any "aspect of the Divine" must, by its very nature, be alien to mere mortality.  Those aspects of the Divine that Formenti addressed through Messiaen last Saturday were presented as sources of awe and wonder.  Haydn's music may have been intended for silent meditation;  but Lang's transformations restored those impressions of awe and wonder, thus shaping any meditations that occupied our minds when Formenti allowed Haydn's voice to speak through his transcription.  Meditating on the Crucifixion during Advent may have put time a bit out of joint, but meditating on aspects of the Divine is suitable for any period in the religious calendar.

December 11, 2009: End of semester at the San Francisco Conservatory

The last two chamber music recitals of the semester at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music took place yesterday at 4 PM and 8 PM.  Both were in the String and Piano Chamber Music division, although the piano appeared only once.  The 4 PM concert consisted entirely of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, traversing his early, middle, and late periods in three works.  The 8 PM concert moved forward in time to the turbulent transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth with two compositions by Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg, respectively.

Yesterday's review concluded with the somewhat wistful observation that "We'll always have Beethoven;"  but the real issue is whether we shall always have performers that will keep the experiences of listening to Beethoven rich and alive.  On the basis of yesterday afternoon's recital, it would be fair to say that the San Francisco Conservatory is one of the institutions that will assure us of having at least one more generation of such performers.  The program was cleverly structured as a précis of the development of Beethoven's "chamber music voice," beginning with the rather non-standard Opus 25 serenade in D major for flute, violin, and viola and proceeding through two string quartets, the first in the "Razumovsky" set, Opus 59, Number 1 in F major, and Opus 132 in A minor (which, in the wake of a rather extraordinary performance in New York earlier this week, may now deserve to be called "the Four Quartets quartet," in recognition of its impact on T. S. Eliot).

Recently, Conservatory students have been encouraged to preface performances with some remarks about the music.  Because the recital program is almost always a single sheet of paper providing nothing more than the compositions and the performers, this provides an alternative to a program book and prepares students for the sometimes challenging task of accounting verbally for what they are doing.  The introduction to Opus 25 emphasized the uniqueness of the flute-violin-viola combination but mistakenly situated the work's historical context between the first two symphonies.  While the music was published in 1802, Thayer puts its composition in either 1795 or 1796, which would mean not too long after the Opus 2 piano sonatas.  This was a time when Beethoven acknowledged the inventive wit of his teacher, Joseph Haydn, usually by trying to do Haydn one better.  The serenade is thus a product of Beethoven at his most genial;  and, while the remarks made no mention of his wit, the performance certainly demonstrated awareness of the sense of play with which Beethoven approached this rather traditional (if not outmoded) structural form.

By the time we get to the Opus 59 quartets, we are well into the Beethoven of energetic and emphatic expressiveness.  (He had only recently completed his third "Eroica" symphony, Opus 55.)  This work was presented without remarks but with a raw and gruff energy that well illustrated Beethoven's sometimes tense relationship with polite society.  This made for a valuable perspective in the context of the many performances these quartets receive that are far more polished and polite.  Opus 132, on the other hand, is a highly introspective work.  Personally, I do not find Eliot's use of the noun "gaiety" particularly apposite;  but his phrase about "the fruits of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering" are most perceptive, particularly in light of the central role of the extended middle movement, the Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart.  One might argue that this is a work that demands far more maturity than one can expect from students;  but, while that maturity may have been missing in the prefacing remarks, the students brought far more than sufficient music understanding to the performance itself.

The evening recital began with Debussy's only string quartet in G minor.  This work is frequently compared or coupled with Maurice Ravel's F major quartet;  but the two are markedly different, particularly on rhetorical grounds.  Ravel greets you with an accessible affability, which better disposes your receptivity to the subtleties that shimmer beneath the surface.  Debussy begins with sharper edges;  and, while his Andantino movement is "doucement expressif," the tone of the entire work is entirely assertive.  This is not to say that his rhetorical stance is hostile, but it is not afraid to show little tolerance for traditional conventions.  To a great extent the Conservatory students caught this rhetorical spirit;  and, while it was not as rough-and-ready as the approach taken by the "Razumovsky" students, it certainly did justice to Debussy's spirit.

The major evening event, however, was Schoenberg's Opus 21, Pierrot Lunaire, which was also the only occasion for a piano.  In this case spoken remarks were replaced by a silent PowerPoint Slide Show of background text supplemented by appropriate images.  The PowerPoint projection then remained to provide English translations of the German texts (which, in turn, had been translated from Albert Giraud's French poems).  This work was conceived as a cabaret-style performance with the texts delivered in the Sprechstimme style by a soprano accompanied by five instrumentalists, the pianist, a string player alternating on violin and viola, a cellist, and two wind players, one for flute and piccolo and the other for clarinet and bass clarinet.  Schoenberg described the work as "three times seven poems," meaning that it has three major sections, each of which presents seven poems.  The first may be loosely described as a celebration of moonlight that descends from the manic to the depressive.  The second takes place in the darkness of night as a venue for crime and punishment.  The final section is an awakening from the nightmare of its predecessor with the moon serving as a reminder of a sense of loss.

This is clearly not your usual cabaret entertainment.  Indeed, it is more a grotesque reflection on such entertainment;  and the capturing of that grotesque was probably the most salient element of the student performance.  The text was delivered with all of the wild emotional swings demanded by the score, all of which were firmly reinforced by the rich diversity of Schoenberg's instrument technique.  (No two movements use the same combination of instruments.)  Taken as a whole, the composition is a major and ambitious journey;  but the students were not daunted by that journey.  Those of us in the audience were thus the benefactors, receiving the gift of an opportunity to hone our Schoenberg listening skills.

Readers will note that none of the students participating in these recitals were referred to by name.  These are free events that are not announced on the printed Conservatory Calendar.  Those of us who sit in the audience do so as guests of the Conservatory, invited to observe the work-in-progress that is the daily activity of those students.  These performances have clearly progressed beyond the early rehearsal stage;  but they are not necessarily offered as finished products or "professional" ones.  Thus, the Conservatory is a "safe place" in which the exploratory processes of discovering a performance may be conducted.  It would be unfair to any student to call out any false moves and attach them to specific names, and it seems just as appropriate to refrain from calling out those whose moves are more positive.  I can only hope that those who find their way to particularly effective performance will be able to bring their results to a more public venue.