A Bachian video by Alexander Chen, of Google Creative Labs.
Robert Ashley will receive much welcome attention in New York next month. Amanda MacBlane, in Time Out New York, has a profile of the avant maestro, who turned eighty last year. There doesn't seem to be a specific reason for the current "groundswell," as MacBlane calls it, and there needn't be: Ashley is a major figure not only in the American experimental tradition but also in the recent history of conceptual theater. From Nov. 1 to Nov. 5, the Incubator Arts Project, based at St. Mark's in the Bowery, focuses on Ashley's chamber and instrumental music; there's info here. On Nov. 6, as part of Performa 11, there will be a daylong performance of Ashley's 1983 television opera Perfect Lives, moving through various locations in the East Village. And, on Nov. 19-21, the Kitchen, again in league with Performa 11, presents Ashley's pathbreaking 1967 opera That Morning Thing, which no one has attempted in forty years. One more event follows in December — a Spanish-language version of Perfect Lives, called Vidas Perfectas. Anyone who wishes to read about Ashley in depth should await Kyle Gann's Ashley book, which the University of Illinois Press will publish next year; there's a teaser page of musical examples on Kyle's site. No one has expressed interest in reviving the Ecstatic Radio Fantasia on Robert Ashley's "She Was a Visitor," which is just as well.
Illustration: Richard Merkin, from The New Yorker.
October 29, 2011 | Permalink
I meant to add to one of my recent miscellanies a few words of congratulation to the top-flight independent label Bridge Records, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. Allan Kozinn recently had a profile of the Starobin family — David, Becky, Robert, and Allegra, all involved with the label — in the Times. Christian Carey reviews an anniversary concert in Musical America. Bridge's most recent releases seem as strong as ever: Susanna Phillips's recital of Debussy, Messiaen, and Fauré is gorgeous at every turn.
October 28, 2011 | Permalink
In a recent column on Mieczysław Weinberg, I mentioned the composer's score for Vinni-Pukh, the Soviet cartoon version of Winnie-the-Pooh. This same music, in an arrangement by Lev Zhurbin, will appear on a Nov. 3 program by the Brooklyn Phil, focusing on Russian cartoon scores. Shostakovich's The Silly Little Mouse is also featured.... The great experimental composer Alvin Lucier recently retired from Wesleyan University after teaching there for forty years. The college will host a major celebration of his work on Nov. 4-6.... The fierce-fingered pianist Lisa Moore will play at Roulette on Nov. 16, marking the release of two records on Cantaloupe: Caprichos Enfáticos, by her husband, Martin Bresnick; and Annie Gosfield's Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers, which is paired with the same composer's Brooklyn Dodgers tribute, Brooklyn, October 5, 1941 (for piano with baseballs and catcher's mitt).... The Oregon Symphony Spring for Music program that I and others raved about last spring is now on CD.... The new season of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, in Philadelphia, begins on Nov. 5, with a program of Sibelius, Piazzolla, and Beethoven.... A Halloween special: Pierrot Lunaire Meets Teletubbies. Three people sent me a link to this; it must have my name written on it, which is unsettling.
October 28, 2011 | Permalink
These musical examples come from my essay "Strauss's Place in the Twentieth Century," which appears in Charles Youmans's anthology The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss. The first is a famous horn passage from Strauss's Salome (right before Herod's "Wer hat meinen Ring genommen?"); the second is the bass clarinet and bassoon line at the beginning of Schoenberg's Die glückliche Hand.
Strauss's enormous influence on the Second Viennese School has been much noted over the years, but I believe it's still underrated, not least because the eternal politics of twentieth-century historiography — radical vs. conservative, etc. — keep getting in the way. The fact is that Schoenberg adulated Strauss when he was young, and was intimidated by him in a way he never was with Mahler. Emphasizing the link does favors for both composers: Strauss seems less vulgar, Schoenberg less forbidding. I write this in lieu of a promised post on Jennifer Shaw and Joseph Auner's Cambridge Companion to Schoneberg — I'm a bit too frantic with other work to give this volume the attention it deserves. But let me note that Craig De Wilde offers an excellent summary of the Strauss-Schoenberg relationship from the other side. "It is rare when two great minds can parallel," De Wilde writes, "but it is even more remarkable when they intersect, if only for a moment."
Here's another set of examples — swirling flute passages by Strauss, Schoenberg, and Boulez (Salome, Pierrot lunaire, Le Marteau sans maître):
October 27, 2011 | Permalink
As Red Sox fans, we here at The Rest Is Noise take no position on the current World Series, which finds the St. Louis Cardinals doing battle with the Texas Rangers. Applying purely aesthetic criteria, however, we can't help being impressed by the St. Louis Symphony's ferociously precise rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." David Robertson, the St. Louis director, has been holding up signs showing the score during performances. The Dallas Symphony side of the story is told here.
October 26, 2011 | Permalink
Back in 2007, I headed out on the road to hear some orchestras that aren't regularly covered by classical critics with a national reach — all four or five of us. Since then, I've been plotting to produce an operatic counterpart. Because I've spent very little time in the Great Plains, I was particularly eager to travel in that part of the country. (I've now been to forty-seven of the fifty states; the missing ones are North Dakota, Hawaii, and, somewhat scandalously, Louisiana. Yes, I know, I know.) The result of my efforts is in this week's New Yorker — a report on recent productions at the Tulsa Opera and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. (I'm sorry to have missed the Omaha Opera, which I would have visited if I had gone through with this expedition last year.) As is my wont, I'm posting a largely irrelevant smattering of amateur snapshots.
October 25, 2011 | Permalink
Angela Meade made a triumphant appearance in the Met's Anna Bolena last night, largely fulfilling the high expectations that have surrounded her. (I wrote about her recent Caramoor performances here and here.) She is not yet a vital actress, but the power, accuracy, and agility of her voice are so transfixing that I find myself caring less about the action onstage. When the rapid coloratura runs in a part like Anna are done just so, the character snaps into focus, and the emotion follows: precision equals rage. Meade started slow, sounding a bit faint in "Non v'ha sguardo," the big Act I cabaletta, but she steadily gained confidence as the evening went on. Everything began to click in the last scene of Act I, and she was in command from there to the end. She floated some breathtaking pianissimo phrases, and employed biting tones as well as caressing ones. There was much keenly observed nuance in "Al dolce guidami," the great mad scene, where Callas urged singers to "cambiare, cambiare" — change, change. The trills were a bit questionable, but they happened. The "Coppia iniqua" that ends the opera was electrifying, as pure a display of vocal power as I've heard at the Met in the past few years. In her final moments, issuing a tractor beam of Wagnerian tone with her arms flung out, she was no longer an impeccable bel-canto student but a youthful diva. I loved seeing her big, dazed smile at the curtain call, before an exultant crowd; she knew she'd pulled it off. As it turns out, you don't need celebrity glitz to create pandemonium at the Met; pace Anna Netrebko, we Americans want music as well as show. Meade sings the role once more on Friday night.
October 25, 2011 | Permalink
The American paperback of my book Listen to This arrives in stores this week. The new edition includes my recent essay about John Cage; the audio guide has been updated accordingly. Here again is the video we made for the initial release for the book last year, featuring Ethan Iverson, Tyondai Braxton, and Rebecca Ringle. The UK paperback is already out. On Thursday of this week, I will give a lunchtime talk at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca — a visually enhanced version of my "Chacona" lecture. On Nov. 3, I'll speak at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin; on Nov. 8 I'll read at Powerhouse in Brooklyn; and on Nov. 16 I'll appear at Boston College. A little later in the fall, I might bother you with news of a couple of events dramatizing the release of Best Music Writing 2011, which I co-edited with Daphne Carr. There may be Denk.
October 24, 2011 | Permalink
The New Yorker, Oct. 24, 2011.
Whenever a new town sprang up on the American frontier, one of the first orders of business was to open an opera house. In 1883, the newspaper of Red Cloud, Nebraska, proclaimed, “We need it, and need it bad, and by all means Red Cloud should have an Opera House.” Few of these venues had the resources to mount their own full-scale productions; instead, performances by travelling opera troupes and solo singers intermingled with band concerts, Shakespeare nights, variety shows, Wild West revues, lectures, and other entertainments. (Oscar Wilde, on his American tour of 1882, took in a number of smalltown opera houses.) Nevertheless, the choice of name signifies the respect that opera commanded in the popular imagination, as the most extravagantly fulfilling spectacle of the age. John Dizikes, in his history “Opera in America,” observes that “the price of tickets at the opera house was usually within the reach of most residents, and its prevailing atmosphere was informal, democratic.”
I recently passed through Red Cloud, which was the childhood home of Willa Cather. She moved there with her family in 1883, at the age of nine. The opera house, a small theatre on the second floor of an old hardware store, has been handsomely refurbished, with the Willa Cather Foundation occupying offices downstairs. The schedule, ranging from chamber groups to Elvis impersonators, is as eclectic as it must have been in Cather’s time, when the author got her first taste of music theatre, in the form of light operas like “The Bohemian Girl” and “The Mikado.” Cather heard grand opera only after she left Red Cloud, encountering Wagner in Pittsburgh, in 1897. In her subsequent writing, most vividly in the diva-from-the-plains novel “The Song of the Lark” and the piercing short story “A Wagner Matinée,” Cather weaves together operatic epiphanies and memories of life on the prairie. Implicit in much of her work is the idea that the Red Cloud Opera House is no contradiction in terms.
These days, it’s much easier to find decent opera in cities and towns across the country. The advocacy organization Opera America has more than a hundred companies on its rolls; fifty years ago, there were only twenty-seven houses of comparable size. Amid the financial crises of the past few years, smaller-budget houses have struggled, and several have closed. There has been additional competition from an unexpected source: the Metropolitan Opera, whose hugely popular movie-theatre broadcasts may be siphoning off some of the audience for local opera. Nonetheless, the fat ladies have gone on singing, as have the barihunks. During a weekend trip to the eastern edge of the Great Plains, I dropped by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Tulsa Opera, making a detour into Cather country along the way. Both of the productions that I saw had more spark than the Met’s first new shows this season, and, unlike the Lincoln Center simulcasts, they provided the irreproducible thrill of live action—what Walt Whitman once called the “liquid world” of operatic art.
Oil brought money to Tulsa, and, with it, opera. The city’s Grand Opera House opened in 1906, and thrived for a while. (According to a 1919 Texaco newsletter, when touring singers visited a West Tulsa refinery, the tenor Orville Harrold remarked, “If there was any form of oil to be used in Grand Opera work, toward lubricating the voice, it would be Texaco brand.”) The present company, which was founded in 1948 and has an annual budget of two and a half million dollars, is known as one of the sturdier and more adventurous organizations in its class. Last year, when the Tulsa Opera was forced to make cuts, it staged Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” instead of more obvious fare. Rising singers have often stopped in Tulsa early in their careers: Stephanie Blythe, now a Met star, sang Carmen there back in 1999, and gratefully returned for a gala earlier this year.
Tulsa’s current season opened with “The Barber of Seville.” Taking the lead female role of Rosina was the soprano Sarah Coburn, who, at the age of thirtyfour, is nearing her peak; she has already won international notice for her appearances in bel-canto repertory, and made a successful Vienna State Opera début earlier this year. She grew up in Oklahoma— her father is Senator Tom Coburn, who, oddly, is a fanatical opponent of federal arts funding—and she lives in Tulsa when she is not on tour. Her loyalty is a boon for the company; she sings with fundamental beauty of tone and pinpoint coloratura agility, adding tasteful embellishments and effortlessly reaching to high C and above. (She withheld a high F in “Una voce poco fa” on this occasion, but it is within her power.) What I missed in her performance was the emotional urgency that even a comic role like Rosina requires; Coburn never seemed altogether lost in her character’s plight, absurd as it is.
Jokey detachment was the main flaw of this generally lively and well-rehearsed production, directed by Tara Faircloth. Cutesy dance moves for Rossini’s vamping rhythms and a few anachronistic additions to the libretto (“Fruita di Looma” appeared on Rosina’s laundry list) had the effect of distancing both performers and audience from the action. In any case, the jokes by Rossini and Beaumarchais are funnier. David Portillo was a nimble if sometimes dry-voiced Almaviva, Corey McKern a resonant though not always dexterous Figaro. Peter Strummer and Michael Ventura vigorously filled out the buffo roles of Bartolo and Basilio. Most impressive was the fluid, idiomatic playing of the orchestra, under the direction of Kostis Protopapas, who has served as Tulsa’s artistic director since 2008. In any city, it’s rare to find a conductor who sets the right tempo so consistently, in scene after scene, that you stop noticing he is there.
The man who imported opera to Kansas City was Kersey Coates, a Quaker who moved west in 1854, helped build the first bridge across the Missouri River, fought slavery, and did very well in real estate. The Coates Opera House had many splendid seasons before burning down, in 1901. After lean years in the mid-twentieth century, local opera resumed with the founding of the Lyric Opera, in 1958. Like the Tulsa Opera, the Lyric has a history of supporting rising talent, none more significant than the mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, on the Kansas side. DiDonato has become perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation, the heir apparent to the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She still has a home in the area and keeps an eye on local affairs. When Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, abruptly eliminated the state’s arts funding, earlier this year, DiDonato took to her ordinarily cheery blog to denounce the move as “ignorant, shortsighted, fearful, and unspeakably damaging.” Perhaps out of deference to a colleague, she has had nothing to say about Senator Coburn.
Last month, the Lyric Opera moved to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a four-hundred-milliondollar complex designed by Moshe Safdie and financed principally by the Kauffman pharmaceutical fortune. It’s not a particularly original piece of architecture, its nested forms recalling, variously, the Sydney Opera House, Disney Hall, and the New York Guggen- heim, but its vast glass-canopied lobby is stunning, and its concert hall is a golden-wooded wonder. The interior of the opera house veers toward chintziness, and its acoustics are imperfect: voices project well and the brass ring out, but the upper strings tend to wither away. All the same, the Lyric had no trouble selling out a run of “Turandot.” Tickets are becoming scarce for the remainder of the season, which includes John Adams’s “Nixon in China,” in March.
The “Turandot,” directed by Garnett Bruce and designed by R. Keith Brumley, is a markedly more thoughtful show than the Zeffirelli warehouse sale that still clutters the stage of the Met. Faded reds and greens mimic the gritty grandeur of the Forbidden City, with various scenic details borrowed from Mingdynasty treasures in the collection of the nearby Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Zeffirelli could also learn a few things from this team about making the action clear. Less focussed was the playing of the orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony. At the matinée I attended, Ward Holmquist, the Lyric Opera’s artistic director, had evident feeling for the Puccini style, but he tended to conduct along with the score rather than in front of it; various cues were imprecise, leading to helter-skelter moments.
The cast offered no talent on the level of DiDonato—the home-town diva will make her Kauffman Center début in March, in the concert hall— but the singing rose above the humdrum. Lise Lindstrom was a forceful Turandot, slightly shrill but precise; Arnold Rawls, the Calaf, got by mainly on clarion high notes; Samuel Ramey lent quavery soul to Timur. Most notable was the Cuban-American soprano Elizabeth Caballero, who sang Liù in sensuously glowing tones, her charged legato shaping the music into cogent paragraphs. Liù’s death scene tore at the heart. For a long stretch in Act III, the performance achieved the kind of unselfconscious emotional directness that has lately been in short supply at the Met, where almost every new production seems designed for people who think they don’t like opera, or, worse, for the movie cameras.
Caballero also appears this season with the Nashville Opera, the Florida Grand Opera, the Austin Lyric Opera, and the Central City Opera, which occupies a great old opera house in Central City, Colorado. She has sung only one small role on the Met stage—Frasquita, in “Carmen”—but deserves to ascend farther. Anyone who has given up on a local company in favor of the Met broadcasts might ponder how singers like Caballero will be able to hone their craft if America’s national opera network flickers out. In opera, as in the rest of the economy, outsourcing kills careers.
See also: Great Plains photojournal.
October 24, 2011 | Permalink
Listening live to Christus on Liszt's birthday yesterday, I was struck again by the complexity of the Liszt-Wagner relationship. There are numerous echoes of Liszt in Wagner, of course, but the resonances are probably most acute in Parsifal, which draws on various religious works of Liszt, Christus included. Here is the opening of "Tristis est anima mea," the Mount of Olives scene (from the Helmuth Rilling recording):
And here is the passage in Parsifal which tells of how Titurel found Kundry asleep in the place where he was building Montsalvat (from the Thielemann recording, with Franz-Josef Selig as Gurnemanz):
The passages are scored in a similar way, with muted violins against clarinets, bassoons, horn, and lower strings in Liszt and muted violas against clarinets, bassoons, and tremolo cellos in Wagner. As so often with Wagner, the gesture is at once a theft and an homage, perhaps also a clue. After all, the "Tristis" text contains the line "Pater, si possibile est, transeat a me calix iste" ("O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me").
October 23, 2011 | Permalink
A very happy birthday to Liszt Ferenc, who was born two hundred years ago today. Above is Claudio Arrau playing Les Jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este; Jessica Duchen gathers more celebratory videos on her blog. Kenneth Hamilton has a fine, unsentimental appreciation in the New York Times; I wrote about Liszt back in 2003. There will be no fewer than eleven performances of Liszt's vast oratorio Christus around the world today, with the Paris version going out over France Musique at 7PM CEST. Although the extant discography is staggering — Leslie Howard's ninety-nine-CD survey on Hyperion gives you every note the man wrote for piano — there's been no lack of notable Liszt recordings in the anniversary year: the Nelson Freire collection Harmonies du soir, Louis Lortie's survey of the complete Années du pèlerinage, Marc-André Hamelin's account of the Sonata in B Minor, Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Liszt Project. As for My Piano Hero, well, the cover remains arresting.
October 22, 2011 | Permalink
Sellars in Bolinas, California, 2007.
Robert Kiely, the longtime master of Adams House, a complex of undergraduate dorms at Harvard College, recalls how he gave a helping hand to a future genius of opera production:
A jolly personage came smiling up to me, shook my hand vigorously, introduced himself as Peter Sellars ‘80, and asked for twenty-five dollars from the Master’s Fund to clean up and paint an old basement storage room so that it could be used as a theater. At first I thought he was kidding, but it quickly became clear to me that despite deferential giggles and guffaws he was in earnest. So I figured, twenty-five bucks, what can I lose? But little did I imagine what Adams House and the college were about to gain! Within days, the dungeon-like space was cleaned, painted, and lighted. Not very well lighted, but there were a light bulb and two small dirty windows looking out at people’s feet passing up and down Plympton Street. Soon those feet were headed to Explosives B, the new Adams House theater, seating capacity a comfortable twenty or an uncomfortable forty sitting on mattresses left over from storage. The first production, if I remember correctly, was a Polish satire that involved an enormous hand made of plywood that kept entering menacingly from the only door. The performances, the concept (short plays, no admission charge, limited space, late starting times), and the unbounded creativity and imagination of the director and actors made the place a sensation. Everyone wanted to come! People lined up in Randolph Court hoping to squeeze in.
Theatrical talent and ideas rained down on Adams House. A new play seemed to appear every few weeks. Some were new and experimental, others old favorites. Nothing seemed too ambitious. I went to them all, but some still seem to have been impossibly terrific. Peter decided to do something Russian. Was it Boris Godunov? Anyway, it was a mammoth Russian opera cut down to forty minutes. Peter liked moving his audiences around, so it began in Explosives B, then, with the director leading us on like Puck, we moved to the billiard room where Boris or someone died on the green felt table, and then we all were taken (in a lightly falling snow) to the Lowell House courtyard where I swear he had arranged to have the Russian bells ring. Am I dreaming this? Some of the details may be wrong, but the picture is right. Other classics followed in various unlikely places: a thirty-five-minute Macbeth with three actors in the tunnels; Genet’s The Balcony utilizing the staircase of the Gold Room; and, most memorable of all, Antony and Cleopatra in the Adams House pool (audience sitting around the sides, Cleopatra enthroned on a raft in the middle of the water). They were some of the very best, most original theater I have ever seen at Harvard. Peter would sit in the dining hall, eyeing the crowd and then walk up to someone who had never been on stage, saying, “You would be a terrific Lady Macbeth.”
This is from an Adams House alumni newsletter called Gold Coaster. I should disclose that Kiely was my thesis adviser, and a extraordinarily generous counselor. He has a new book entitled Blessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints.
October 21, 2011 | Permalink
Earlier this month I saw Laurie Anderson perform in Kansas City. Her show made a deep impression on me, and something that rang in my head with particular force was her quotation from an old movie: "There's trouble out at the mine! There's trouble out at the mine!" She ran her voice through her "voice of authority" Vocoder, so that it took on dark, desperate weight: "Patriots, citizens! There's trouble out at the mine!" I haven't been able to shake the memory of it, for obvious reasons.
October 20, 2011 | Permalink
The SONiC Festival ends on Saturday night with a free concert by the American Composers Orchestra at the World Financial Center. Yes, a guy from a famous rock band is involved, but there are other reasons to go — Andrew Norman's brilliant piece Unstuck, for example. You can listen to music from the opening-night program at Performance Today; Alex Temple's Liebeslied, with delirious vocals by Mellissa Hughes, is something quite amazing.... The Great Flood, a new collaboration between guitarist/composer Bill Frisell and the filmmaker Bill Morrison (he of Decasia and The Miners' Hymns), memorializes the 1927 Mississippi River flood. The premiere is at Zankel Hall on Nov. 4.... Jeremy Schlosberg muses on the need for good music curators.... The hits keep coming at Medici TV: up now is a gorgeous performance of Cavalli's Didone, with William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants at the Théâtre de Caen.... Opera Vista, in Houston, is presenting Thomas Adès's pitch-black operatic comedy Powder Her Face on Nov. 10 and 11.... New World Records has digitized the entire old CRI LP catalogue. Dog of Stravinsky! ... Congratulations to ArtsCriticATL, the Atlanta culture site, for receiving a $20,000 challenge grant from the Possible Futures foundation. Go, Pierre Ruhe! ... Sources close to the Internet are telling me that the new Ives CD by violinist and video ironist Hilary Hahn came within a hundred copies of unseating Paul McCartney from his ill-earned position on top of the Billboard classical chart. Can crusty old Ives defeat the winner-takes-all celebrity math? Next week will tell.
Update: Amanda Ameer reports that Ives has won.
October 19, 2011 | Permalink
I'm not going to review the Met's new production of Don Giovanni — my column next week will focus on performances elsewhere in the country. In any case, I wouldn't have much to add to scathing reports by Likely Impossibilities, James Jorden, and Zachary Woolfe. Michael Grandage's staging is, as Zack says, a "nonevent." He gets to the heart of the problem when he quotes a recent Peter Gelb interview to the effect that Grandage deserves praise for his “cool and elegant aplomb." Opera is not a cool and elegant art form. Don Giovanni is not a cool and elegant opera. And, even if it were, to call this production cool and elegant would be to overpraise it greatly. It is just unpardonably dull. Peter Mattei sang beautifully, though, in his last-minute assumption of the role of the Don, and Luca Pisaroni, as Leporello, succeeded in breathing some theatrical life into the proceedings.
October 19, 2011 | Permalink
October 18, 2011 | Permalink
Matt Haimovitz in Zuccotti Park, Oct. 16, 2011.
Bach takes a less gentle tone in BWV 26, "Ach wie flüchtig":
To hang one's heart on earthly treasures
is a seduction of the foolish world.
How easily the devouring passions arise,
how the seething floods roar and tear away
until all is smashed and falls into ruin.
October 17, 2011 | Permalink