Look under Event.
— Josquin, Missa Sine nomine and Missa Ad fugam; Tallis Scholars (Gimell)
— Heavenly Harmonies (music of Tallis and Byrd); Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi)
— Rochberg, Symphony No. 1; Christopher Lyndon-Gee conducting the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony (Naxos) [See Sequenza21 review by Steve Hicken]
— Dowland, Lute Songs, Britten, Nocturnal; Mark Padmore, Elizabeth Kenny, Craig Ogden (Hyperion)
— Verdi, Aida; with Roberto Alagna, Violeta Urmana, and, well, Roberto Bolle (Decca DVD)
— Schumann, Symphonies 1-4, Mahler edition; Riccardo Chailly conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Decca)
— Leifs, Edda I; Hermann Bäumer conducting the Iceland Symphony and Schola Cantorum (BIS)
February 26, 2008 | Permalink
"N.Y. SENDS GERSHWIN TO SECRETIVE COMMUNISTS," said CNN's main page earlier today. It feels like 1956 again. There are, needless to say, divergent opinions about the New York Philharmonic's forty-eight-hour tour of North Korea, now underway. Norman Lebrecht has issued a flat-out denunciation, as has Terry Teachout. Matthew Guerrieri is skeptical, but at a softer dynamic. Greg Sandow believes the trip can do good. Jens Laurson and George Pieler think it might have done good if the program had been different. Condoleezza Rice weighs in: "I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvořák is going to do in North Korea." Dan Wakin is providing reports on the Times arts blog; Steve Smith is also along for the ride. Kate Julian of the New Yorker talks to Lorin Maazel. Anne Midgette looks at North Korea's classical scene. Pete Matthews live-blogs the broadcast. I'll comment later on.
February 25, 2008 | Permalink
Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, one of the most psychologically potent operas in the repertory, opens at the Met on Feb. 28, in a new production by John Doyle; an HD simulcast follows on March 15. The Met blog is supplying various perspectives; this post, with commentary by the company's wonder-working chorus master, Donald Palumbo, whets the appetite. Peter G. Davis has written an incisive preview for the Times. Here, to add to the verbiage, is an excerpt from the Britten chapter of my book:
Aldeburgh is a windswept fishing town on the east coast of the British Isles. “A bleak little place; not beautiful," the novelist E. M. Forster called it. He went on: "It huddles around a flint-towered church and sprawls down to the North Sea — and what a wallop the sea makes as it pounds the shingle! Near by is a quay, at the side of an estuary, and here the scenery becomes melancholy and flat; expanses of mud, saltish commons, the marsh-birds crying.”
Some decades later, the great German writer W. G. Sebald fell even more deeply in love with the oblique charms of Aldeburgh and neighboring villages, and devoted his book The Rings of Saturn to the geography and history of the region. “I had not a single thought in my head,” Sebald wrote, describing one of his walks across the flats. “With each step that I took, the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound…. I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”
There are ruins all around Aldeburgh. At Dunwich, a few miles up the coast, an entire medieval town has slid into the sea. Around Orford, to the south, the landscape is dotted with relics of two world wars and the Cold War that followed — gun emplacements, designed to impede a Nazi invasion that never came; radar masts, employing the technology invented by researchers in nearby Bawdsey Manor; Atomic Weapons Establishment facilities, looking like skeletons of palaces. When the weather changes, these wide-open vistas of sea and sky, with their stone and metal memories of the past, can have a somewhat terrifying effect. A mass of black cloud rears up behind a sunlit scene; the sea turns a dull, menacing green; an abandoned house groans in the wind. Then, in the next second, the light changes. The water assumes a rich, iridescent color, as if lit from within. Anonymous jewels sparkle in the beach. The sun appears under the ceiling of cloud and floods the world.
On the slope beside the Aldeburgh church lies the grave of Benjamin Britten. He was born thirty miles up the coast, in Lowestoft, in 1913. His childhood home looked over the beach to the North Sea, or the German Ocean, as it was called before the First World War. For most of his life, he lived in the Aldeburgh area, and he once stated that all his music came from there. “I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships,” he said in a speech in Aspen, Colorado, in 1964. “I want my music to be of use to people, to please them…. I do not write for posterity.” Britten designed many of his pieces for performance in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall and in churches in the area. In 1948, with his companion, the tenor Peter Pears, and the writer-director Eric Crozier, he founded the Aldeburgh Festival, which featured his own music, contemporary works from Europe and America, and favorite repertory of the past; it was a kind of anti-Bayreuth, as intimate as Wagner’s festival was grandiose.
Above all, Britten wrote Peter Grimes, an opera of staggering dramatic power that is soaked in Aldeburgh to its bones. First heard in June 1945, one month after the end of the European war, it tells of a fisherman who causes the death of his apprentices and loses his mind out of guilt and fear. The story comes from the poet George Crabbe, who grew up in Aldeburgh in the later eighteenth century, and apparently based the character of Grimes on a real-life case. Crabbe describes the Suffolk coast thus:
….The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide....
Here dull and hopeless he’d lie down and trace
How sidelong crabs had scrawl’d their crooked race;
Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
Of fishing gull or clanging golden-eye….
The first orchestral interlude in Britten’s opera brings the coast to life. High grace notes mimic the cries of birds; rainbowlike arpeggios imitate the play of light on the water; booming brass chords approximate the thudding of the waves. It is rich, expansive music, recalling Debussy’s La Mer and Mahler's more pantheistic moods. Yet it hardly ravishes the senses: the orchestration is spare, the melodic figures are sharply turned, the plain harmonies flecked with dissonance. The music is poised perfectly between the familiar and the strange, the pictorial and the psychological. Like the tone poems of Sibelius, it is gives shape to what a wanderer feels as he walks alone.
In his Aspen speech, Britten provocatively compared the regimentation of culture in totalitarian states to the self-imposed regimentation of the avant-garde in democratic countries. Any ideological organization of music, he said, distorts a composer’s natural voice, his “gift and personality.” Everything about Britten’s style — his deliberate parochialism, his tonal orientation, his preference for classical forms — went against the grain of the postwar era. Luminaries of the avant-garde made a point of snubbing him; at the Dartington Summer School in 1959, Luigi Nono refused to shake his hand. Much else about Britten was at odds with Cold War social norms: his pacifism, his leftism, and especially his homosexuality.
Nonetheless, he succeeded in becoming a respected national figure, a focus of British pride. In this respect he was a little like Sibelius, a lonely, troubled man who became a patriotic icon. Even closer in temperament was Dmitri Shostakovich, whom Britten got to know in the nineteen-sixties. Despite the language barrier, the two composers formed a lasting bond. What they had in common was the ability to write elusive emotions across the surface of their music. Britten made his inner landscape as vivid as the rumble of the sea, the cries of the gulls, and the scuttling of the crabs....
Colin Davis conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, from Philips 289 462 847-2.
February 24, 2008 | Permalink
Downtown Music Gallery, an excellent record store and performance space specializing in avant-garde genres, is desperately looking for a new home, having been priced out of its current location on the Bowery. The staff's appeal for help doubles as a cogent essay on the decimation of New York's downtown scene by out-of-control rents. I don't know if any good-hearted, progressive-minded Lower East Side landlords read this blog, but DMG needs you.
February 22, 2008 | Permalink
Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, has asked various writers for their book recommendations. Here's my contribution: "Carl Wilson's Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is part of a paperback book series called 33 1/3, in which writers talk in depth about a pop album they admire. Wilson, a music critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, boldly elects to write about an artist he thinks he can’t stand: Céline Dion. (Yes, the subtitle performs the brilliant feat of conflating two Célines into one.) It’s as much an essay in aesthetics as a description of music; indeed, relatively few of Wilson’s 161 pages are devoted to accounting for the contents of Dion’s 1997 album Let’s Talk About Love, the one with the Titanic song. Instead, Wilson wants to know why he, as a pop listener of intellectual bent, seems almost to have no choice but to detest Dion; why millions of listeners in a hundred or more countries around the world passionately embrace her; why Québécois tend to hear her rather differently than do Americans and Anglophone Canadians; why Pierre Bourdieu was only half right about the economics of cultural taste; why 'schmaltz … is never purely escapist'; why it’s sometimes unaccountably overpowering. At the end of his investigations, Wilson hasn’t exactly turned into a Céline Dion fan, but his views of the pop diva have grown considerably more complex. I finished the book with the delicious feeling that the mystery of music had deepened just a little more." Carl blogs at Zoilus.
February 21, 2008 | Permalink
I received a lovely note from a friend of a friend, a well-regarded writer in another field. He read my book and subsequently developed what he calls a "full-blown obsession" with Messiaen, whom he'd never listened to before. The obsession grew to the point where he did something unprecedented and extreme: he bought tickets to an orchestra concert. Namely, the St. Louis Symphony's Turangalîla evening, which I praised below. He writes: "I'm not even going to try to describe the effect it had on me, other than to say there are a few cultural encounters that have marked me forever — understanding Cézanne for the first time, my Merce Cunningham epiphany, my first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth viewings of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai — and the Turangalîla now joins their company." This is obviously my cue to see Flowers of Shanghai!
February 20, 2008 | Permalink
Inextinguishable. The New Yorker, Feb. 25, 2008.
Some more CD notes: Herbert Blomstedt's cycle with the San Francisco Symphony offers a very solid (and cheap) introduction to Nielsen. There are also strong recent cycles by Michael Schønwandt (da capo) and Osmo Vänskä (BIS). Leonard Bernstein's classic recordings of the Third, the Fifth, the Flute Concerto, and the Clarinet Concerto are available through ArkivMusic as part of a four-CD box. Amazon's download site has Thomas Jensen's stunning live performance of the Fourth and also songs sung by the heart-stirring Aksel Schiøtz.
February 18, 2008 | Permalink
The program notes for the MET Orchestra concert at Carnegie earlier today stated that Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6, were to be performed in the revised, reduced version of 1928. But a member of Carnegie's staff advised that the original version would be used instead — which made me happy, since there's something gloriously excessive about the work as Webern conceived it, in that first atonal summer of 1909. The score calls for a very large orchestra that includes six trombones, yet the fifth and sixth trombones make an almost absurdly minimal appearance: they are heard only in a sequence of five chords, marked pp and ppp, at the beginning of the fifth piece. When Webern made the revision, he criticized his initial version as "extravagant," noting also that the alto flute was given only a brief solo in the fourth piece. Maybe so, but the extravagance of the ensemble and the extreme economy with which it is used are integral to the music's power: one is aware of a vast army of instruments held in reserve, their full force unleashed in overwhelming instants. And that alto flute solo is eerie beyond words. So kudos to James Levine for dismissing practicalities and unveiling Opus 6 in all its terrible sublimity. (He took the fourth piece, the Funeral March, even slower than he does on his thrilling DG recording.) Let's hope someone bought drinks for those two hard-working trombonists who were brought in to play five very soft notes; they had nothing else to do for the remainder of the concert.
February 17, 2008 | Permalink
Almost exactly nine years ago, the St. Louis Symphony played Messiaen's massive Turangalîla Symphony at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of the late Hans Vonk. The program also included Oiseaux exotiques, and I'll never forgot what the man behind me said to his wife about ten seconds in: "Aw, shit." The concert had been sold to subscribers as part of a series called Concerto Plus, and the subscribers weren't buying; they left in droves as the Turangalîla went on, a dozen or more after each movement. On Friday, the St. Louis returned with the same wild-eyed masterwork, with David Robertson conducting, and the results were dramatically different. Only a handful departed prematurely; the rest of the crowd, which mostly filled the house, stayed riveted to the end. No doubt it helped that prices were lower, that Robertson gave an appealing lecture-demonstration beforehand, and, most important, that the orchestra played with passion. But I believe that in the past decade audiences have evolved as well. No amount of arm-twisting could have persuaded listeners to deliver an ovation like the one that erupted after the raucous finale; it seemed spontaneous and heartfelt.
For a fairly comprehensive listing of Messiaen centenary events around the world, go to Boston University's Messiaen Project site. Two NYC events should be added to the calendar: 1) a screening of Paul Festa's remarkable documentary Apparition of the Eternal Church at St. Bartholomew's Church on Feb. 27, with live performances of L'Ascension, Offrande au Saint-Sacrement, and, of course, the Apparition, along with what appears to be the New York premiere of the Fantaisie for violin and piano; 2) at Juilliard the same night (alas!), a complete rendition of From the Canyons to the Stars, in all its world-embracing, life-enhancing glory.
Re: St. Louis's second concert, Felix Salmon wishes he could have heard the John Adams Atomic Symphony twice.
February 17, 2008 | Permalink
"Atomic bomb of contemporary music" was Virgil Thomson's phrase for Olivier Messiaen in September 1945, when the French master was first becoming known in America. It's fitting that the St. Louis Symphony will proceed from Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony to John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony in its concerts this weekend at Carnegie Hall. The Messiaen, on Friday night, will be accompanied by a multimedia demonstration by David Robertson, St. Louis's music director, who has proved very deft at such events in the past. The price is nice: $10-$35. On Saturday night, Adams's symphony, derived from the score of Doctor Atomic, nestles grimly with Brahms's Tragic Overture, Sibelius's Tapiola, and Berg's Violin Concerto (with Christian Tetzlaff). The same night, the venerable new-music ensemble Continuum presents an evening of works by the late, colossally original, unrelentingly austere Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya. The following afternoon James Levine picks up the doomy thread with an intense-looking MET Orchestra program. Alfred Brendel is making his final appearances at Carnegie in the coming week — his formal
farewell is on Wednesday, when he plays Schubert's great B-flat-major Sonata — and it would appear that Levine is marking the occasion by surrounding Brendel's performance (Mozart Concerto No. 24) with a kind of raging pyre of Austro-German musical mayhem: Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, Webern's apocalyptic
Six Pieces, and
the final scene of Salome (with Deborah Voigt kissing the head). For musicmaking in a very different tone, go to Bargemusic this weekend for a program of autumnal Strauss (the Sextet from Capriccio), Brahms (String Sextet No. 2), and the New Yorker's Russell Platt (the world premiere of his Sextet with Voice, Transport to Summer). Read more here.
February 15, 2008 | Permalink
A young composer-pianist explores the twelve-tone method:
"He composed mostly at the worktable, popping over to the Bechstein now and then to see if something was physically playable or to check a motive or a rhythm figure. But when he had a piece written to his satisfaction he would take it to the piano and play it — at first very slowly, often so slowly as to be out of tempo — and listen with all the concentration he could muster. He felt oddly passive, hearing his own work as if from a distance. The strange sounds contained in a progression of unrelated intervals. The eerie, dense chords, like black stones in a Zen garden. Notes skittering in all directions. Everything up in the air without a net.
Sometimes, even with a purely atonal piece, he could hear fragments of some unwritten, hallucinatory, tonal substructure running along underneath, as if played by a string section of ghosts. When this happened — and it was always by chance, beyond his control — he became excited, carried away with an only slightly guilty pleasure. Once he played such a section for Satterthwaite and asked him if heard anything else behind the stated sounds.
"Oh, I don't know," the boy said. "Sometimes I hear chords when there aren't any chords. In my head, I mean. Like there, bars twenty-three to twenty-six."
"Play it," Satterthwaite said, bending his head to take his brow in his hand.
Claude played the four bars.
Satterthwaite lifted his shiny face. "I hear only the notes."
"If you are hearing something more," Satterthwaite said tentatively, "it's probably your brain trying to pull it into tonality. Disregard it. You are doing wonderful work, young man. Very pure, very adept. Stay on the high path. Don't be sucked down, even in your head."
"Yes, sir," Claude said, knowing full well that if this was impurity, he wanted more of it.
— from Frank Conroy's novel Body & Soul
February 14, 2008 | Permalink
Much new music in New York this weekend. Tonight the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center launches an all-embracing American Voices festival, which runs through Feb. 24. Works in the series include Benjamin Franklin's Quartet No. 2, Henry Cowell's Aeolian Harp (the pioneering strummed-piano-strings piece), Amy Beach's Piano Quintet, world premieres by Mario Davidovsky and Joan Tower, a new song cycle by Alan Louis Smith (with none other than Stephanie Blythe singing), Lukas Foss's Time Cycle, the rarely heard Ives Piano Trio, the august Ruth Crawford Seeger Quartet, and Anthony Philip Heinrich's Sylvan Scene in Kentucky, or the Barbecue Divertimento. Steven Mackey's Time Release is on the program for Marin Alsop's Carnegie Hall debut with the Baltimore Symphony on Saturday night. The Manhattan Sinfonietta gives concerts on Saturday and Sunday, the first celebrating the late James Tenney and the second celebrating the not at all late Milton Babbitt (look for Robert Hilferty's interview with the nonagenarian notesetter on Bloomberg TV this weekend). Also on Sunday evening, Red Light New Music plays an all-Italian/Italian-American program of Tiziano Manca, Lorenzo Pagliei, Christopher Cerrone, Nono, Sciarrino, and Scelsi at the Italian Academy at Columbia. If you want to make a marathon of it, you could also hear Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle played by the Budapest Festival Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday afternoon.
February 08, 2008 | Permalink