Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Listening to music

One of my daily stops in the classical music blogosphere is On An Overgrown Path, run by the indefatigable Bob Shingleton, who blogs under his nom de blog, Pliable. I'm awed at how he's able to blog so consistently across such a wide range of subjects when I can't rouse my lazy ass to post more than occasionally.

In a typically interesting post, the topic of "dishonest music" came up in regards to Richard Strauss. Der Meister von Garmisch-Partenkirchen gets a hard time from sniffy critics who don't think he's serious enough or didn't use his talents properly or is too facile or [long list of aesthetic crimes here]; that's apart from the whole "stayed in Germany and was a Nazi functionary" thing. One of Pliable's commenter's, Pentimento, made this comment in regards to Strauss' music:
But I think that Strauss failed to use his abilities to achieve what the best music does, which is to really touch the core of humanity and bring the audience to a higher experience of it.
Oh dear, how to unpack that? After a cursory look-see at Pentimento's blog, I suspect that what she means is "Strauss' music doesn't put us in contact with The Divine", which leaves me absolutely cold, having been an atheist since I was 12. Good for Strauss, who loathed religion, I say! I replied in Pliable's comments:
It's probably just me, but if I'm told that a piece of music is "uplifting" or "touches the core of what it is to be human", I run as fast as I can from it. I look for two things from music:

1. Tickle my ear with interesting sounds
2. Engage my intellect via form, harmony etc.

On those counts, Strauss succeeds in spades. I don't listen to music as an exercise in self-improvement, but as music.
It's really the old Sibelius/Mahler conversation about the symphony, isn't it?:

Sibelius: "When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing".

Mahler: "No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything".

Sibelius 1, Mahler nil. My way of viewing music is obviously not common, as this follow up post by Pliable and this comment indicates:
Well ... yes, it is, [just you] Henry, as least as far as I'm concerned.

It strikes me as a marvelously silly and cynical conceit to dismiss a piece out of hand simply because someone has been touched by it beyond interesting sounds and technical ingenuity.

It sounds to me like a singularly cold and soulless manner in which to live. But to each his own.

Note that I'm not saying that Henry Holland is silly or cynical or soulless; I have no idea whether he is or not. I'm just saying that his comments strike me that way.
Well, I'm silly a lot of the time, absolutely cynical to the bone and reject the idea of a soul as religious hokum.'s a fair comment, I'd say!

More seriously though, I think the commenter, Scott, slightly missed my point and my intended sarcasm obviously didn't translate (I should have put a :-) in there after "I run as fast as I can").

I obviously wouldn't avoid a piece based on "someone being touched by it": in that case, I wouldn't have been blown away by the experience of hearing the Beethoven 9th in the late 60's because my Dad just had to have me hear it, so much so that he forcibly sat me in a chair and said "Listen to this!". OK, he was mainly sick of me wearing out my Beatles, Cream and Hendrix albums with overplay, but still. Needless to say, I'd have been put off Parsifal forever if that was my attitude, considering how borderline creepy some Parsifal fanatics are in terms of solemnity and The Proper Way To Attend A Performance of Wagner's last opera.

It's one of my pet peeves about the arts: they're not something to be enjoyed in various ways by individuals based on a complicated set of criteria that's unique to each person, there's that Puritanical gloss of "It's good for you, it'll make you a better person", like music is castor oil, that I detect underlying so many of those kinds of comments. Sure, I suspect that's not Scott's intent, but it's something I've heard for years, that my way of approaching music is "too intellectual", "cold", "clinical" and my favorite: "not what music is about". Sorry, we can't all be like my first boyfriend, Rob, who burst in to tears the first time he heard Phantom of the Opera.

My small apartment has scores and books like this all over the place; I really should have been a musicologist, as I'm far more interested in HOW an opera/orchestral piece came to be than WHY or how others perceive it. I mean, last night, after watching the lovely bit of fluff called Indiscreet that I'd recorded last week off of TCM, I was curious about the overall key scheme in the Nachtspiel of Schreker's fab-u-lous Der Schatzgräber because I'd listened to it the other day and was curious about the harmonic plan of that part of the score. So, I pulled out the piano/vocal score, got my #3 pencil (because it makes light marks that are easy to erase) and spent 10 minutes analyzing the score. Turns out, it pivots around D minor, with excursions in to C# and Bb. All that feeds in to my fascination with astronomy, chess, the plots of LOST and other things: what is the scaffolding upon which this thing is erected?

How I listen to rock and jazz is different, as it's simpler to grasp, but when I first listen to an opera or orchestral piece, I'm taking in as much information about the sound and form as I can, to make sense of the musical argument; I'm not thinking "Wow, this makes me think of God!" or "That depicts a bird flying through the air!". A perfect example is a recent discovery: D'Albert's Die Toten Augen. This obscure opera was mentioned as a throaway remark by a favorite opera blogger, Maury D'Annato, in this post. I listened to a few soundclips at Amazon and ordered it. As usual, I planted myself between the speakers of my computer, popped the first CD in to the D: drive and, with libretto in hand, listened to see if the opera was worth a second listen. What I listened to was purely technical things, based on what little I knew of D'Albert's music and the time frame the opera was written in (my criteria would be different if it was written in 1982, say): does the music support the text, are the vocal lines grateful to sing, are the tunes any good, the orchestration interesting? Yes, mostly, yes, definitely. I've since listened to the opera two more times and would love to see a production of it.

So, how is that a less valid way to experience music?

Two other examples of orthodoxy that grind my molars:

* Joseph Kerman's sniffily pompous description of Puccini's fabulous Tosca as a "shabby little shocker". I adore Puccini's operas, Edgar excepted, and find the continuing disdain that they engender from professional critics hilarious. Via the wonderful La Cieca at Parterre Box is this amazing set of videos (you can watch the other parts after clicking on the link La Cieca provides): Tosca as done in Legos. That the piece, truncated as it is, still works as theatre, that's what I need to know, not whether the opera is spiritually elevating or tells me anything about the world.

* The continued veneration of the music of Shostakovich, based almost entirely on his biography, not the intrinsic worth (or: worthlessness) of the actual music. From that interesting article (which I have problems with, by the way) at the link, musical bomb thrower par excellence Pierre Boulez could be speaking for me:

"Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time… It's like olive oil, you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third pressing of Mahler. …with Shostakovich, people are influenced by the autobiographical dimension of his music"

Ouch. As Monty Python might say, "Cruel, but fair". It was interesting that Esa-Pekka Salonen, to much fanfare, initiated a Shostakovich festival about 6-7 years ago, because a) he was Music Director of a symphony who b) had never really conducted Shostakovitch's music, so here was his chance. There were to be three symphonies performed each year, with the numerically corresponding string quartets played in the public areas beforehand. I think that Mr. Salonen lasted one season (alas, Google is no help and I've long gotten rid of the programme) before he bowed out (the first of the three was the Fourth, I think; I still remember the second concert in the series, containing the absolutely ghastly 2nd and 3rd symphonies). I believe his comment when it was quietly announced that he wouldn't be continuing the project he initiated was "Well, his music is interesting" in that way where "interesting" = "is really bad".

If the critical consensus was to be believed, I'm supposed to turn my nose up at Puccini's glorious operas because they're allegedly treacly, sentimental and manipulative "low art" and revel in Shostakovich, who wrote music That Is About Very Important Things.

I'll pass.

A small irony: I type this on the day I'm attending the Disney Hall concert of the sublime Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (the pit band at the Netherlands Opera, where I heard them play the hell of out Schreker's Die Gezeichneten last June). The program: the Mahler 5th and...ta da! Strauss' Don Juan.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Lorin Maazel needs to buy a clue

Lorin Maazel, fresh off conducting Die Walküre at the Met, is here in rainy, cold Los Angeles to conduct four performances (um, now three since I'm late with this) of Benjamin Britten's blazing masterpiece, the War Requiem. I have my ticket for Saturday night and I'm very much looking forward to it.

In these days of cutbacks of coverage of classical music in paper-and-ink newspapers, it was nice to see a teaser article yesterday in the Los Angeles Times. Pretty straightforward --250 people will make quite a noise in the fairly small space that is Disney Hall-- except for this juxtaposition:
The work also calls for two conductors -- one for the large orchestra and one for the chamber orchestra -- although there have been performances under the leadership of a single person. "I have conducted both orchestras," Maazel said, "and it was doable. But I felt it was defeating the purpose of the score, and I was very happy to go back to the source and follow the composer's instructions. [snip]
That's admirable, one assumes the composer knows best what they want. Oh wait.... (from earlier in the article):
Britten called for a chorus of boys' voices, but here, as often elsewhere, the chorus will be mixed. "This was requested by maestro Maazel," said Anne Tomlinson, director of the children's chorus. "He prefers the sound of a mixed ensemble".
As you'd say in a text message: WFT? I know humans have the capacity to hold contradictory thoughts in their minds simultaneously, but that's absurd. One can't claim fidelity to a composer's intentions and in a previous breath, totally disregard them for your own aesthetic reasons. Jeebus.

As anyone who knows Britten's biography in any detail could tell you, Benjamin Britten had a complicated relationship with adolescent boys. Apart from his amorous and sexual interest, however, he simply loved the sound of unbroken boys voices; his oeuvre features them prominently (Miles in the incredible The Turn of the Screw, the Spring Symphony, my very first live opera experience A Midsummer's Night Dream and so on) . If Britten had wanted a mixed boys/girls chorus in the War Requiem, he bloody well would have specified it in the score!

This is really one of my serious pet peeves: conductors/stage directors who don't follow what's in the score. Tristan und Isolde set on a spaceship kinds of things are simply so clichéd and boring by now that they are almost beyond risible. Tampering with the way a score is performed, however, is another matter altogether. I well remember attending my first Der Ferne Klang at the Berlin Staatsoper, conducted by noted Schrekerian and advisor to the Franz Schreker Society Michael Gielen and being aghast at how Gielen allowed some of Fritz' lines in Act III to be assigned to minor characters, just so that the director could perpetrate his fraud of a production. Shame, shame, shame.

Still, I love the War Requiem to bits, it's an ever-timely piece these days and to hear it in Disney Hall as opposed to the barn that is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion should be an amazing experience. Huh? What's that? Be consistent and boycott the performance because Maazel is tampering with the score? Yeah, right......

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Life begins anew: 2008-09 opera schedules

Damn, it actually takes willpower to blog on a consistent basis......

As an opera fanatic who has spent vast sums of money traveling within the United States and to Europe for opera performances, this time of year is always interesting, as the upcoming season schedules are released. Obviously, the vast majority of them consist of the usual La Bohème > La Traviata > Die Zauberflöte core rep --nothing wrong with that, they're great operas and there's always a segment of the audience that are experiencing them in the opera house for the first time-- so the one or two slots that the bigger companies use for non-standard repertory is where the real interest lies for me.

My hometown troupe, Los Angeles Opera, has decided to do three Puccini pieces in a season again but this time in the form of Il Trittico. I've only been to one performance of the entire trilogy (at the Met in the early '90's, with Teresa Stratas as a searing Suor Angelica) so I'm looking forward to this production. The long mooted Ring cycle finally gets off the ground, sans Industrial Light and Magic. Most companies start with a single opera in the tetralogy, but it'll be nice to have Das Rheingold and Die Walküre to look forward to. I have zero hopes for Howard Shore's The Fly. The basic idea is sound, I guess, but there's a huge chasm between writing film scores and writing an opera (though, of course, Erich Wolfgang Korngold had no trouble doing an opera > film score move) and I have doubts that Mr. Shore will be able to pull it off. See: Elliott Goldenthal and Grendel.

The one opera I'm really really really looking forward to finally experiencing live is Walter Braunfels glorious Die V
ögel. At last year's potpourri concert of excerpts that served as a taster for LAO's ongoing Recovered Voices project, the excerpts from Die Vogel were magical. I listened to the sole recording (that I know of) again a few months ago and was transported once more. I'll note it's also a good move to limit the run of it to four performances. I can't wait for the subsequent season's productions of Schreker's incredible Die Gezeichneten (please please please don't use the Stuttgart production--I've seen it in Stuttgart and Amsterdama already!) and my favorite opera, Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. Major props to LAO Music Director James Conlon for his advocacy of these operas.

Up the coast, the San Francisco Opera delves head first in to the David Gockley era and, for me, it's not pretty. There's exactly one thing that would compel me to hop on a Southwest Airlines flight: the aforementioned Die Tote Stadt. Alas, there's two strikes against this production:

1. Torsten Kerl, who is scheduled to sing the punishing tenor role of Paul. I have two recordings of his Paul: the DVD from Opéra de Rhin, which, ghastly Eurotrash production aside, contains Kerl's wobbly Paul and the 2004 Salzburg Festival
recording, with outgoing SFO Music Director Donald Runnicles in the pit, that's even wobblier.

2. The "one intermission" note at the SFO site means one thing: the horrible cut that is standard these days of the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2. The cut takes out the last two minutes or so of Act 1 and cuts out most of the fabulous Act 2 prelude festival of celesta, bells and wind machine. It means that the first two acts are run together, lasting about 90 minutes. That's a long sing for the Paul and the Marietta and it makes my butt hurt in uncomfortable opera house seats.

Pamela Rosenburg's tenure from 2001-2005 was certainly interesting and I might be in the minority in ruing the missed chances in that period. Due to various circumstances (9/11, the dot com bust, the conservative faction of the audience, board resistence), her extremely ambitious project, Animating Opera, was only fitfully realized. The biggest success was a much lauded production of Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, but planned productions of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel and Berlioz' Les Troyens were scrapped. The less said about the appallingly bad Four Saints in Three Acts, the better. At least there's no Philip Glass on the menu........

So now David Gockley is in charge and it seems "innovation" and "interesting repertory" are ideas banished to the wilderness. I'd love it if in five years, people who support the San Francisco Opera turn on him for being such a programming dullard. Is this really the company that has done such things as Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, Reimann's Lear and von Einemn's Der Besuch der alten Dame, among many operas done there that weren't Verdi and Puccini?

Other opera company schedules are starting to trickle in: Canadian Opera Company in Toronto is ambitiously tackling Prokofiev's War and Peace and Britten's ravishing A Midsummer Night's Dream (my very first opera ever attended) in the same season.

Further afield, my jones to hear Reimann's Lear live again might mean a trip to Germany later in the year: Frankfurt and Halle have been mooted to be mounting productions in early October. Die Tote Stadt finally makes it to the United Kingdom, a mere 89 years after the premiere, at the Royal Opera House, with a superb cast of Stephen Gould, Nadia Michael and Gerald Finlay. Ingo Metzmacher is in the pit and that should be a good thing: he brilliantly conducted the Gezeichneten I heard in Amsterdam last June.

Hopefully, there'll be a production or three of Schreker's operas to tempt me to travel, but the German-language houses usually don't announce their upcoming seasons until the spring/early summer. Damn not having the ability to traverse space and time....

EDIT (1/24/08): Lyric Opera of Chicago (PDF) weighs in with their 2008-09 itinerary. Mein Gott, das ist Lulu's Bild! Yes, one of my very favorite operas, Berg's Lulu, gets an airing. There's been a worrying trend in Germany to revert to Berg's torso score, the reason given for not doing Friedrich Cerha's completion being.....well, I can't tell, really, since his job was much easier than Alfano's for Turnadot or either Jarnach or Beaumont for Doktor Faust. In any case, a good cast on paper, Andrew Davis in the pit, with the quite handsome Paul Curran will be directing. A look at the portfolio on his website shows some really lovely stage pictures, all the better to contrast with the human carnage that is the plot of Lulu.

Also of interest for people two times zones away from Chicago is the Tristan with Clifton Forbis and Deborah Voigt as the doomed lovers, Andrew Davis again in the pit. Lyric is borrowing David Hockney's beautiful production, originally done for Los Angeles Opera and recently spruced up. For star power, Lyric is offering Massenet's Manon with Natalie Dessay and tenorhunk Jonas Kaufman. Does anyone know if Lyric is jumping on the theatre screening/DVD bandwagon?