An attempt to mark non-Orthodox Easter and the Skandalkonzert anniversary together. Penderecki's Utrenja might also be an apt choice, particularly with all the talk of The Shining in the media these days:
The above video seems already to have made the rounds in the UK, but I hadn't come across it until a friend forwarded it. Mono Pop describes itself as "an online verbatim series sharing the unheard voices of the ordinary, the not-so-ordinary, and everyone in between"; essentially, it's an exercise in off-kilter, conceptual lip-syncing. In this episode, an actor who participated in the première of George Benjamin's Written on Skin, in Aix-en-Provence, mimics some audio recorded during rehearsals. The result is daft, adorable, and, despite some possibly exaggerated gestures, revealing of a major artist at work. Here is a conductor who gets what he wants in the least dictatorial way imaginable. At the end, we hear Benjamin focusing on a crucial detail of the score—the rustle of maracas that is heard at the very end of the opera, carrying an implication that I tried to tease out in my New Yorker review. I have been assured that Benjamin himself found the video amusing. Written on Skin will receive its American première at Tanglewood in August, with the composer conducting.
A tougher lip-sync assignment: Paul Hindemith.
March 29, 2013 | Permalink
The Lincoln Center Festival has announced an exceptionally rich musical lineup for 2013. As hinted below, the Köln ensemble musikFabrik will bring to town its production of "Michael's Journey around the Earth," from Stockhausen's Donnerstag, in a staging by Carlus Padrissa, of the Catalan theater group La Fura dels Baus. This continues a Stockhausen wave in New York, with last summer's Gruppen and the Oktophonie just concluded. Had Hurricane Sandy not struck, we would also have heard Joe Drew's presentation of Cosmic Pulses; let's hope it has another chance soon. No less notable is the local première of Toshio Hosokawa's Matsukaze, a German-language setting of the fifteenth-century Noh play Wind in the Pines. The same production will have been seen at the Spoleto Festival in May and June. (Will Robin covered the Berlin première for the New York Times.) Also, Lera Auerbach's a-cappella opera The Blind has a run of performances in the Kaplan Penthouse; John Zorn receives a sixtieth-birthday tribute; and Damon Albarn's Chinese-pop confection Monkey: Journey to the West takes over the so-called Koch Theater. Those of a certain age may recall Albarn as the lead singer of the rock band Blur.
March 28, 2013 | Permalink
James Levine conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, DG 419781.
The hundredth anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg's "scandal concert," the greatest musical uproar of the twentieth century, arrives on Sunday. (Sorry, Rite of Spring, your tumult is a bit too typical of long-standing practices of French cultural politics.) Will Robin, proprietor of the blog Reflections on the Rite, concedes that the Schoenberg event "may take the cake" in the annals of musical mayhem, and provides a good summary of what went down. On the anniversary itself, the Musikverein in Vienna, site of the brouhaha, will present a curious all-Italian program under the direction of Fabio Luisi. Six days later, though, the RSO Wien, under Cornelius Meister, will re-create the concert note for note, if not blow by blow — Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, four of Zemlinsky's Maeterlinck Lieder, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, two of Berg's Altenberg settings — and will conclude with the Kindertotenlieder that went unheard when police called things to a halt. I'm happy to see that the Webern (audio from the fourth movement above) will be performed in its extravagant original version, with the two trombones that play only five very soft notes.
March 27, 2013 | Permalink
March 23, 2013 | Permalink
The Acht Brücken festival, unfolding in Köln in early May, promises dizzyingly rich programming day and night. Some highlights: Xenakis's Persepolis, BA Zimmermann's Requiem, a GF Haas elaboration of Scelsi, Lisa Streich's new AGNEL, a Benedict Mason program, all kinds of avant DJ activity.... On April 4, the University Music Society, in Ann Arbor, undertakes the monumental task of presenting Milhaud's trilogy of operas based on Paul Claudel's translation of the Oresteia: Agamemnon, Les Choéphores (with its visionary writing for percussion), and Les Euménides. The project fulfills a longtime dream of William Bolcom, Milhaud's most faithful student and a longtime Michigan professor. More than 450 student performers will take part.... Bavarian Radio has streaming audio of a memorable War Requiem from Munich, with Mark Padmore and Christian Gerhaher especially riveting in the "Strange Meeting" (via ionarts).... On April 6, Camerata Notturna celebrates the Britten centennial with an offbeat program centered on the luminous viola of Kim Kashkashian.... Composer and sound artist Bruce Odland is seeking to preserve the Tank, a Colorado water tank that has an astounding forty-second reverberation time.... Hannah Lash's Violations project, which I mentioned a while back on the blog, will have its première at Yale on March 28.... The main attraction of New York City Opera's 2013-14 season is Mark-Anthony Turnage's virtuosic "reality opera" Anna Nicole, playing at BAM next September. The Met's only modern offering will be Nico Muhly's Two Boys, on Oct. 21.... Gesualdines, take heed: the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center celebrates the dark prince on April 4, with a lecture by the historian Glenn Watkins the preceding day.
March 21, 2013 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 25, 2013.
The raw musical talent of the English composer George Benjamin has never been in doubt. In 1976, when he was sixteen, he went to Paris to study with the august Olivier Messiaen, who compared him to Mozart. By the age of twenty, he was receiving ovations at the Proms, in London’s Royal Albert Hall. Such early acclaim might have bred arrogance in some artists, but in the case of Benjamin, a congenial and unassuming man, it seemed to have the opposite effect, engendering caution. Between the ages of twenty and fifty, he worked with conspicuous slowness, often spending years on a fifteen- or twenty-minute piece. The adjectives “exquisite,” “fastidious,” and “immaculate” followed him around in the press, leaving the impression that he was a miniaturist, a creator of musical jewel boxes, rather than the kind of composer who could shake you to the core.
Benjamin’s first large-scale opera, “Written on Skin,” which had its première last summer, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and is now playing at the Royal Opera House, in Covent Garden, demolishes that image. The craftsmanship remains: more than a few pages of “Written on Skin” are as immaculate as anything that Benjamin has written, or, for that matter, anything composed since the heyday of Ravel. The score is magnificently free of clichés and longueurs. Orchestration teachers will add it to the curriculum, and students will marvel at the mind that could blend oboes, muted trumpets, pizzicato strings, and bongos into one scuttling, insectoid instrument. Yet the opera smolders with darker, wilder energies. Benjamin has found a way of painting on a large canvas, indulging in grand gestures while maintaining his fabled control of detail. He has also pulled off a tremendous feat of stylistic integration, fusing the legacy of twentieth-century modernism with glimpses of a twenty-first-century tonality. Even the composer’s most committed admirers are a little shocked: “Written on Skin” feels like the work of a genius unleashed.
The libretto is by the playwright Martin Crimp, with whom Benjamin collaborated on his only previous attempt at music theatre, the 2006 chamber opera “Into the Little Hill.” That piece was an oblique take on the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and “Written on Skin,” too, rings modern variations on ancient material—the legendary life of the Catalan troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing. Like “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Wozzeck,” two operas that lurk behind it, “Written on Skin” is a love triangle with an unhappy outcome. In the original telling, Guillem falls in love with his patron’s wife, Agnès, and sings her praises. When the lord finds out, he kills Guillem, removes his heart, cooks it, and serves it to Agnès, who, on learning what she has consumed, swears that she will never again eat or drink, so that she can preserve her lover’s taste in her mouth. Fleeing her husband’s wrath, she runs to a balcony and throws herself to her death.
Aware that too many operas have ended with a woman’s perishing, Crimp questions the premises of the genre as he goes. The plot is framed by a trio of contemporary angels who conjure away our world—“Strip the cities of brick . . . strip out the wires and cover the land with grass”—and summon medieval times. The present keeps bleeding through, however; at one point, the Guillem figure, who here becomes a painter of illuminated manuscripts and is called the Boy, has a vision of “this wood and this light . . . cut through by eight lanes of poured concrete.” At intervals, listeners are reminded that in this recovered past Jews are being stoned, that criminals are being tortured, that male bonding can mask homoerotic desire, and, above all, that women are being confined to a status of illiterate obedience. Agnès, whose first word is a defiant “No!,” pushes the Boy to depict the world as it really is and, in her final utterance, suggests that the tale of their love will help to liberate those who hear it.
Benjamin’s score conveys a similar ambivalence about the conventions of operatic doom. It begins with an orchestral melee—brass, winds, and strings swirling into astringent dissonances. Such acts of harmonic aggression are commonplace in the annals of modern music: in Berg’s “Lulu,” a twelve-note barrage signals the murder of the title character. But Benjamin’s dissonances are not just signals of horror. They have their own organic logic, and tend to resolve into simple, sustained intervals. They come across as anguished assertions of will. And in the climactic scene of the grisly meal the chords trade hands in a significant fashion. At the beginning, a series of screaming six-note sonorities frames the icily detached voice of the lord—called the Protector—as he serves his cannibal dish. By scene’s end, as Agnès wends her way toward a convulsive high C, the same chords recur in clipped bursts, their ferocity converted to her cause.
An epilogue adds a dimension of cosmic mystery to an already intricate construction. The angels, observing Agnès’s fall, whisk us back to the paved-over present, their eyes exhibiting “cold fascination with human disaster.” In an interview, Crimp said that he had in mind Walter Benjamin’s famous description of a painting by Paul Klee—the “angel of history” who surveys the wreckage of the past while being blown backward into the future. The opera ends with a similarly fraught image of progress. The lower orchestra heaves a Mahlerian sigh of grief, with a hint of D major darkening to D minor. A glass harmonica and a bass viol float eerie sonorities, suggestive of wan light. But the dominant sound comes from that twitchy ensemble of oboes, trumpets, strings, and bongos, dancing enigmatically in place. The last sound you hear is a high C on the violins, echoing Agnès’s final cry, with maracas rustling underneath. It feels like a question mark hanging over the future of the species.
The inaugural production of “Written on Skin” is by the restlessly inventive theatre director Katie Mitchell. At the outset, contemporary figures flit about in a fluorescent-lit laboratory, apparently engaged in the restoration of a medieval manuscript. So immersed are they in their labors that they begin to reënact the story. The conceit produces some gripping images—at the end, Agnès moves in slow motion up a white concrete stairwell—yet the behind-the-scenes activity periodically disrupts the ebb and flow of the music. Between the second and third scenes, anticipating another entrance by the omniscient angels, Benjamin writes a magical transition in which triads melt into lush dissonances. Onstage, Mitchell’s bustling figures seem indifferent to the gorgeous blossoming of the sound. Future stagings, and they will come, should seek a more fluid response to the opera’s tricky temporal structure.
The opening-night cast at Covent Garden, which duplicates that of the première in Aix, last summer—there is a recording of those performances, on the Nimbus label—had no weak links. The soprano Barbara Hannigan gave a vivid, exacting portrait of Agnès, her voice secure up to high C. The rich-voiced baritone Christopher Purves added wily nuances to the menacing Protector. The countertenor Bejun Mehta exuded sacred passion as the Boy and as the lead angel, airily executing the Handelian ornaments that Benjamin wove into the part. The composer conducted, eliciting lustre and heat in equal measure.
Covent Garden has done Benjamin a favor by lowering ticket prices for the run: the most expensive seats are sixty-five pounds, the cheapest three pounds. The less moneyed classes are, as a rule, more open to new music, and there were no empty seats on the first night. The company used the same scheme for a January revival of Harrison Birtwistle’s “The Minotaur,” which had its première at the house in 2008. It is a grungy masterpiece in an unrepentant brutalist style, with a production, by Stephen Langridge, that wallows in violence and gore. Despite those elements—or, more likely, because of them—the run was essentially sold out. For coming years, Covent Garden has announced commissions from Georg Friedrich Haas, Thomas Adès, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Unsuk Chin, and Kaija Saariaho, among others. Against all odds, London’s plush old house has established itself as a global center for new opera. In comparison, the Met, for all its technological pizzazz, looks archaic.
March 18, 2013 | Permalink