"The Dude abides. Not for long, though." Tim Mangan wonders about Gustavo Dudamel's absences from the LA Philharmonic. The specifics can be debated, but a larger point seems clear. With the complicated cultural and financial pressures now circling orchestras, the modern music director needs more than ever to be on the scene. This means showing up for more than the standard twelve weeks; leading school concerts; participating in fund-raisers; giving interviews; meeting prospective audiences at campus events; attending other people's concerts; appearing at gallery openings and other cultural gatherings; and generally being a visible citizen of the city. More than ever, each orchestra needs to convince its community of the music's power, and the chief conductor is—or should be—the best person to make the case. The old international star system is fading; it's local fame that counts.
October 31, 2010 | Permalink
The composer John Luther Adams has received several high-profile performances in recent years, but none quite as prominent as the one that the Chicago Symphony is about to give him: tomorrow night, the mightiest of American ensembles will deliver the first of three renditions of the twelve-minute tone poem Dark Waves. As Marc Geelhoed observes, Chicago has effectively become JLA City. I will interview Adams tomorrow on the campus of Northwestern University, at 4PM. You can hear all of Dark Waves via the Listen to This Audio Guide; the conductor there is Jaap van Zweden, who also leads the work in Chicago. The program also includes a selection of Mahler songs, with Measha Brueggergosman, and Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony. Prepare to be clobbered.
October 27, 2010 | Permalink
Here's a little explanatory video that my publisher and I made in support of the new book. It contains quick musical excerpts from Dowland, Monteverdi, and Purcell, in somewhat offbeat arrangements for voice, piano, and electric guitar. I sought out musicians with links to jazz, classical, and rock worlds to suggest the interconnectedness of the various genres. I'm hugely, deeply grateful to Ethan Iverson, Rebecca Ringle, Tyondai Braxton, and Geoff Nuttall for lending their time and skill. (If you happen to be in Macau, China, Oct. 15-17, Rebecca will be singing Dido and Aeneas there.) Daniel Perry did the filming, and Ryan Chapman guided the production. We had fun making it — I hope you enjoy it! I'll cover similar ground in my chacona talk.Previously: Video for The Rest Is Noise
October 27, 2010 | Permalink
On Thursday, Lincoln Center's White Light Festival opens with two free events: the unveiling of Janet Cardiff's installation The Forty-Part Motet and a performance by the great Meredith Monk and her ensemble. Steve Smith recently wrote in the Times about Jane Moss's concept for the festival.... The cellist Joshua Roman is curating a lively, new-music-heavy series at Seattle's Town Hall. The next concert, on Nov. 7, features composer/performers from the Seattle Symphony, where Roman served for two seasons as the principal cellist.... Noted: Dan Johnson on Missy Mazzoli's band project Victoire. See the video here.... William Braun has written a wonderful appreciation of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson for Opera News. The idea of her singing Kundry is indeed tantalizing. But for me the greatest loss is Das Lied von der Erde.... Cage Against the Machine is a worthy campaign to make 4'33" the No. 1 Christmas hit in the UK. "On how many different axes would this have made Theodor Adorno's head spin?" asks Matthew Guerrieri, who's back in the game.... The Minnesota Orchestra's 2010 Composer Institute is under way, and the twenty-year-old Taylor Brizendine is writing this year's NewMusicBox blog. He lists among his influences Bach, Britten, Bartók, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Primus, Lady Gaga, and Harry Smith.
October 24, 2010 | Permalink
Twenty-seven years after its premiere, Leonard Bernstein's opera A Quiet Place is finally arriving in Manhattan: New York City Opera presents the work beginning on Wednesday. Zachary Woolfe has a preview in today's New York Times; there's also a piece by William Braun in Opera News. With Lenny in the air, I thought I'd link again to "The Bernstein Files," a multimedia piece I published on the New Yorker website last year, examining Bernstein's relationship with the FBI and the Nixon White House. Here's a three-minute audio highlight reel, in which Nixon, H. R. Haldeman, and, briefly, Ginger Rogers address Bernstein's Mass and other musical matters:
October 24, 2010 | Permalink
The Listen to This book tour has roared down the West Coast, causing indescribable scenes of chacona frenzy and dithyrambic lamentation in one city after another. I'm tremendously grateful to all those who invited me to speak, came out to see me, picked up copies of my book(s), and shared favorite bass lines. I have more appearances in the coming week: a reading at Book Court in Brooklyn tomorrow night (Friday), the Westport Library in Connecticut on Monday, the Free Library of Philadelphia on Tuesday, conversations with Andrew Patner and John Luther Adams in Chicago on Wednesday and Thursday, and a final Chacona at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Friday.
October 21, 2010 | Permalink
More richly deserved attention is falling on Community MusicWorks, the passionately innovative music-education initiative that I wrote about in 2006. Last month, Sebastian Ruth, the founder of the organization, received a MacArthur Fellowship. Today, at the White House, Michelle Obama will present members of Community MusicWorks with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Programs Award; on Friday, the group will celebrate with a musical block party outside its storefront headquarters, in Providence, Rhode Island. Geoff Edgers, of the Boston Globe, has the story. There will be live updates on the MusicWorks blog. For more on the program, see Chapter 14 of Listen to This.
October 20, 2010 | Permalink
Each time I do my "Chacona" talk, several people come up afterward to name their own favorite lamento basses. (Go here to see what I'm talking about, or watch the video.) My cluster of examples from modern pop music—"Chim Chim Cher-ee" (courtesy of Paul Lansky), "Michelle," "Hotel California," "Ballad of a Thin Man," Nina Simone singing "Strange Fruit"—is obviously just the beginning. Sarah Cahill, the noted Bay Area pianist, points out that Roxy Music's "Both Ends Burning" has what I call the "classic" four-note bass, the one that is heard variously in Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa and Ray Charles's "Hit the Road Jack." Almost all songs with this bass line are in the minor mode, but "Both Ends Burning" is more or less in the major, which produces an interestingly spooky effect.
Barney Sherman sent along a link to an Independent article in which Donovan discusses the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." This song has a recurring bass line that begins with the notes A G F-sharp F-natural:
Barney generously describes the article as a "smoking gun" for my theory that descending bass lines in 1960s and 70s pop and rock may have a conscious link to the Baroque examples that I discuss in Listen to This. Donovan says: "It's based on a descending pattern based on a Bach piece. I just passed it on. I simply had some forms at the time that they didn't." The claim is arguable, since the Beatles had earlier used a similar kind of sighing figure in "Michelle," but the citation of Bach is telling. What piece Donovan have in mind? It's possible that he was thinking of "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" ("Weeping, Wailing, Fretting, Quaking"), which was reworked as the "Crucifixus" of the B-Minor Mass. The bass line is not the same, but there is a family resemblance of lament:
October 18, 2010 | Permalink
On October 23rd, Jacaranda, the ever-adventurous SoCal series, opens its season with music of Charles Ives (a "portfolio" of short piano, vocal, and ensemble pieces), Samuel Barber (his Knoxville: Summer of 1915), Krenek (his George Washington Variations), and the great Ben Johnston (the world premiere of his Revised Standards).... Will Robin reports on a wild night of avant-garde music theater at the Staatsoper in Berlin.... Alexandra Gardner muses on "tired ears".... There's one more performance tonight in NYC of Jonathan Dawe's Cracked Orlando, a "fractal" reworking of Italian Baroque opera.... Jon Wiener has posted John Cage's 1972 letter in support of Yoko Ono, from the period when she and John Lennon were threatened with deportation.... James Pritchett blogs about the process of preparing and performing Cage's "number pieces".... Is Marc-André Dalbavie's Gesualdo the Gesualdo opera we've all been waiting for? Shirley Apthorp says yes.
Listen to This aside, I'm happy to say that I have pieces appearing in two other volumes this fall: my article on Marian Anderson has been chosen for the 2010 edition of Best Music Writing, edited by Ann Powers and Daphne Carr; and Charles Youmans's Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss will contain my essay "Strauss's Place in the Twentieth Century."
I've set out on a book tour for Listen to This. I gave my "Chacona, Lamento" talk last night at Seattle's Town Hall; I'm going on to Portland today, for a reading at the great Powell's Books. Tomorrow night I'll speak at Berkeley's Cal Performances; appearances to follow in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. I had a lovely time at Town Hall, and am grateful to all those who came out to watch me dance the chacona and get the Led out, as it were.
October 13, 2010 | Permalink
"At the Brink"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 25, 2011
The fact that opera was invented, perfected, and made immortal on Italian soil—the genre’s semi-official birthplace is the Palazzo Corsi in Florence, where Jacopo Peri’s “Dafne” had its première, in 1598—might make you think that Italian politicians would take care to safeguard the art and celebrate its vast influence. Yet the government of Silvio Berlusconi has shown startling indifference, if not outright contempt, toward opera and other traditional genres. Last year, it was announced that the Unified Fund for the Performing Arts, which covers opera, theatre, dance, and film, would be slashed by thirty-seven per cent. At least a few of Italy’s storied companies seemed doomed to extinction, and others faced a threadbare existence.
In March, one man made a notable protest. Riccardo Muti, who long directed La Scala, in Milan, and who now leads the Chicago Symphony, was conducting Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Rome Opera. The production arrived in the midst of elaborate nationwide observances of the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Italy. In that historical moment, Verdi played a significant symbolic role: “Va, pensiero,” the lofty chorus of the Hebrew slaves in “Nabucco,” became an unofficial national anthem, its Biblical lament alluding to the long struggle under Austrian rule. On the opening night of Muti’s “Nabucco,” during the ovation after “Va, pensiero,” someone shouted out “Viva l’Italia!” The conductor made a little speech, with television cameras running. “Sì, I am in accord with that ‘Viva l’Italia!’ ” he said, in a quiet, pensive voice. Alluding to the budget cuts, he declared, “When the chorus sang ‘Oh mia patria sì bella e perduta!’ ”— Oh, my country so beautiful and lost!—“I thought to myself that, if we slay the culture on which the history of Italy is founded, truly our country will be beautiful and lost.” He then led an encore of “Va, pensiero,” inviting the audience to sing along.
Muti, who seldom indulges in political posturing, knew exactly when and where to strike. He succeeded in casting doubt on the patriotic credentials of a regime that came to power through chauvinistic spectacles; indeed, he seemed almost to be comparing Berlusconi and his American-style media operatives to the old Austrian occupiers. Such tactics elicited an immediate response. The finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, who had earlier said, “You can’t eat culture,” met with Muti and agreed to roll back the cuts. Berlusconi came to a later “Nabucco” performance, amid loud boos and heckling from the public, and made a show of going backstage to greet Muti. Seldom has a celebrity musician intervened in politics to more decisive effect.
No one in Italian opera is feeling secure. I stayed in Italy for all of June, thanks to a fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, and attended performances in Naples, Florence, Venice, and Rome itself. Signs of austerity were everywhere: in Venice, a staging of Wagner’s “Rheingold” had to give way to a concert rendition. Nor is there any guarantee that funding won’t be cut again. The stopgap measure that was put in place—a slight increase in gas taxes—is hardly calculated to win new fans for opera, particularly with a deeper financial crisis looming. Still, the art form retains a passionate following following on its native ground: the Arena in Verona, which presents open-air productions in the summer, draws half a million people each year. Opera remains, fundamentally, a popular art with élite trappings— the antithesis of corporatized pop culture in the Berlusconi mode.
The Rome Opera, whose ornate old auditorium is trapped behind a cold modernist façade, has never attained the prestige of La Scala. Yet it has a rich history, from the première of “Tosca,” in 1900, to legendary nights under the conductor Tullio Serafin in the mid-twentieth century. The current artistic director is the composer and conductor Alessio Vlad, a suave Leonard Bernstein protégé, who has brought a degree of order to the company after several chaotic years. Even so, the house has endured the usual struggles. Vlad had originally planned to end the season with Franco Zeffirelli’s historic version of “La Bohème,” but the budget was insufficient, and instead Vlad aired out some picturesque old sets by Pierluigi Samaritani, who died in 1994.
The cast on opening night was imperfect. The Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, customarily stylish in Italian repertory, was in dry, reedy voice as Rodolfo, and the big-toned Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava made for an oddly stentorian Mimi. Idiomatic diction was in short supply. The orchestra, though, played brilliantly; James Conlon, in the pit, obtained a performance rich in impressionistic atmosphere—delicate splashes of harp reminded you of how much Puccini owed to Debussy—and unsentimentally potent in effect. The lamentation for Mimi at the end had unexpectedly crushing weight. In the long-smoldering operatic rivalry between Milan and Rome, the underdog may be gaining ground, not least because Muti has more or less defected from one city to the other.
La Fenice, the splendid old theatre of Venice, had to be rebuilt after a notorious act of arson destroyed the extant building in 1996. Venetians are still debating whether the acoustics of the new house match those of the old; to my ears, the sound is uncommonly vivid, in this case illuminating hidden corners of Wagner’s “Rheingold” orchestration. (I now thought of how much Debussy owed to Wagner.) Amid more uneven casting, the baritone Richard Paul Fink stole the show with a full-voiced, savagely witty portrayal of Alberich, and the tenor Marlin Miller lent a fresh, songful timbre to the part of Loge. Whether Robert Carsen’s full production of the opera will make it to the Fenice stage is an open question.
Teatro di San Carlo, in Naples, reopened last year after an ambitious renovation. To the surprise of seasoned observers, the work was done on time and on budget; no felonious electricians set fires. The house for which Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi wrote at least a dozen masterpieces looks more glorious than ever. There is, however, another acoustical controversy; the Neapolitan director, composer, and author Roberto De Simone has lamented that the sound is not what it was. Muti, also a Neapolitan, inevitably became involved in the dispute, saying that the acoustics were actually better than before.
When I was at San Carlo, De Simone was directing Giovanni Paisiello’s 1769 comic opera “L’Osteria di Marechiaro,” a tale of aristocrats and peasants entangling at a seaside tavern. Paisiello influenced the young Mozart, and although he lacked anything like Mozart’s genius, he possessed a captivating lyric gift. The San Carlo singers, led by the earthy mezzo Marina Comparato, had a firm grasp of the Neapolitan-opera style, not to mention extended passages couched in the local dialect. People around me were laughing at jokes that would have eluded me even if I spoke Italian. The orchestra sounded a bit thin; perhaps the acoustics were to blame, although I hesitate to contradict Maestro Muti on this point.
In Florence, Maggio Musicale, Italy’s leading music festival, presented “The Coronation of Poppea,” Monteverdi’s eternally modern drama of erotic scheming at the court of Nero. The opera had its première in Venice, in 1643; the Teatro della Pergola, where the Florence staging took place, opened for business just fourteen years later. Although the structure was rebuilt several times over the ensuing centuries, the basic plan has remained the same. The sense of continuity that results from hearing opera in such a space is what cultural tourists prize most. The historical resonances that we think we hear echoing from the masonry may be purely imaginary, but they are strong enough so that they become quasi-physical sensations. I felt as much when I realized that my Venice hotel was around the corner from the little house where Vivaldi wrote “The Four Seasons.”
The Florentine “Poppea,” which was overseen by the venerable opera director Pier Luigi Pizzi, was a co-production with La Fenice and Teatro Real in Madrid, and it had a degree of international glamour missing from other events I attended last month. The superstar mezzo Susan Graham headed a lustrous cast, and the Baroque specialist Alan Curtis brought in members of his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco. In a lean season, this show had a well-fed look. (Curtis’s high-class Baroque ventures have the financial support of the best-selling crime novelist Donna Leon, who is well versed in Baroque opera.) Curtis’s latest version of “Poppea” puts some undue stress on the tenors, but it chooses a satisfying sequence among the many editorial alternatives that exist for this score.
Pizzi’s staging often teetered on the edge of haute-couture kitsch: Nero’s soldiers were attired in short-shorts and sleeveless tops, and in one scene the Emperor donned a feathered ensemble reminiscent of Big Bird at his most flamboyant. Yet it was the most fully realized theatrical conception I saw in Italy, the relationships among the main characters thoroughly and thoughtfully developed. Many directors have brought out a homoerotic vibe in the duet between Nero and his companion Lucano—the two are supposed to be extolling Poppea’s beauty but seem rather wrapped up in each other— and Pizzi encouraged his performers to go further than most: the tenors Jeremy Ovenden and Nicholas Phan mimed a lusty makeout session, even as they sang with close attention to verbal and musical detail. There was nothing exhibitionistic about the sequence; it had the intimacy and spontaneity of a real-life encounter.
In opera, money buys you many things, but above all it buys you time: time to rehearse, time to resolve interpretive conflicts, time to find theatrical cohesion. The question of where the money will come from is one that opera companies all over the world are anxiously pondering, whether they derive the better part of their funds from the state, as in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, or draw on private donors in the American style. What the art form needs, in either case, is a persuasive justification for the expenditure. Muti, in conversation with the Chicago critic Andrew Patner, came up with a succinct formulation: “If you kill the culture, you kill the country.”
October 12, 2010 | Permalink
A gong is suspended from the ceiling of Avery Fisher Hall. Several rows of seats have been removed to make room for a liquid-nitrogen canister and other unconventional percussion. Magnus Lindberg's Kraft — a glorious sonic assault inspired variously by Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez, and Einstürzende Neubauten — has the last of three performances on Tuesday night at the New York Philharmonic; a few dozen seats remain available. The orchestra reports that it has received a very irate letter from a longtime subscriber who attended the Philharmonic last Wednesday night and was upset to find that Kraft did not appear on the program.
October 11, 2010 | Permalink
The Depths. The New Yorker, Oct. 18, 2010.
The chief glory of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Rheingold”—the first installment of a multi-year enactment of the “Ring”—is Eric Owens’s performance as Alberich, which announces the emergence of a major Wagner singer. I mention Owens ahead of the director, Robert Lepage, because in this age of director-dominated opera it’s good to focus first on the singers, and because Owens’s portrayal
is so richly layered that it may become part of the history of the opera. The last time I was so transfixed by a Wagner performance was in 1999, when René Pape, the charismatic German bass, sang King Marke in “Tristan und Isolde” and took over the opera midstream. Owens, similarly, assumed command of an uneven “Rheingold”: the opera became, in essence, the story of his character.
October 11, 2010 | Permalink
The special edition of ECM's famous Arvo Pärt recording Tabula Rasa — a 200-page bound volume containing facsimiles of the original manuscripts of the title work and of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten — is a thing of beauty. It's out now in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, and will come to America next month. Pärt's seventy-fifth birthday fell on September 11th.... Good stuff at Deceptive Cadence, Tom Huizenga's new classical blog on the NPR site.... What is really going on at the Detroit Symphony, which went on strike this week? Mark Stryker lays it out.... Susan Tomes ponders why so many pianists like to write.... Lindberg's Kraft has descended on the New York Philharmonic. Zachary Woolfe reports on last night's show; I'm going tonight.... Andrew Patner on the new regime at the Chicago Symphony's MusicNOW series (Anna Clyne, Mason Bates) and on Muti's illness.... In the New York Review of Books, a superb Geoffrey O'Brien piece on Duke Ellington.
October 08, 2010 | Permalink
If I may speak in my occasional capacity as co-producer, I'm intensely happy about the continued success of Gayby, a short film by my husband, Jonathan Lisecki. It plays at the Hamptons Film Festival this weekend and is also on the shortlist for the Iris Prize, in Wales. A slightly risqué trailer is here.
October 08, 2010 | Permalink