Benjamin Britten is one hundred, and, as Ian Bostridge argues in the Guardian, "his greatness is only now coming into proper focus." If there are still doubters, let them listen to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Phaedra — written in a few weeks in the summer of 1975, the music so secure in Britten's mind that he made no sketches and wrote in full score. The best epitaph for him remains Michael Tippett's: "I want to say, here and now, that Britten has been for me the most purely musical person I have ever met and I have ever known." It seems absurd to shout greetings to a very private and reserved man who is no longer with us, but, as one who became obsessed by Britten's music in college and has never wavered in my love for it, I will do so all the same: Happy birthday, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh!
November 22, 2013 | Permalink
The reliably outrageous TV show American Horror Story deserves a prize for the Foiling of Pop-Triumphalist Stereotypes. The most recent episode opened with a scene set in New Orleans in 1919, in which a coven of witches confront the Axe-Man, a serial killer who also plays jazz saxophone. The Axe-Man has issued an ultimatum to the city, promising to visit mayhem on any home from which jazz music is absent. (How Adorno would have enjoyed this allegory.) The witches defiantly put on a record of the "Casta diva" from Norma — an apt choice, given the opera's druidic setting. When the Axe-Man enters, he finds himself outmatched. For once, the polarity classical / pop does not align with repressed / liberated or stuffy / cool or evil / good. I trust someone is already working on a paper for the next meeting of the American Musicological Society.
Farewell, Great Spirit! Thou by whom alone,
Of all the Wonder-doers sent to be
My signs and sureties Time-ward, unto me
My inmost self has ceased to be unknown!
Others have been as glasses where was shown
The fashion of my face, or where to scan
The secrets of my utmost offspring—Man—
And learn to what his worth or shame had grown.
The worship of their names has filled the sky,
Their thunder has been heard, their lightning seen,
Yet after-suns have rolled themselves on high
And still have found me with unaltered mien;
Thou only hast so dealt with me, that I
Can be no more as if thou hadst not been.
— Alfred Forman, "The World's Farewell to Richard Wagner"
To Mr. Forman fell the task of first translating the Ring into English, or, at least, some language resembling it ("Fitly thy ravens take to their feathers," etc.). His brother was the distinguished literary forger Harry Buxton Forman.
Previously: Bad Bayreuth poetry.
November 13, 2013 | Permalink
November 11, 2013 | Permalink
Photo: Nathan Schram and Angelina Gadeliya play Britten's Lachrymae at Trinity Wall Street on Nov. 7.
There's a clear divide between American and British responses to the Britten centenary, which arrives on Nov. 22. Across the water, one sees understandable concerns about a relentless focus on a composer who has held dominion over British musical life since 1945, when Peter Grimes broke upon Sadler's Wells. Over here, though, Britten is in no way overexposed, and the composer's fans are jumping at the chance to hear works that appear in these parts rather rarely. Grimes, Turn of the Screw, the big song cycles, and the Yuletide choral pieces are familiar enough, but the Spring Symphony — which the New York Philharmonic will play during the birthday week — is an altogether different proposition. The orchestra has done the piece only once, in 1963, under Leonard Bernstein. I got to hear it at Aldeburgh in 1995, in a revelatory account under Oliver Knussen, and am eager to see what Alan Gilbert and his forces make of it. Paul Appleby, notable for his appearance in Two Boys, will assume the tenor part, and, before intermission, will sing Britten's Serenade.
The Britten 100 website gives a useful overview of other Britten festivities upcoming in New York. These include a Dessoff Choirs choral program on Nov. 14; a Noye's Fludde benefit for Lighthouse International, with Dr. Samuel Wong conducting; on the birthday itself, Carnegie Hall's centerpiece presentation, a hotly anticipated St. Louis Symphony Grimes (you can hear a broadcast from St. Louis on Nov. 16); on Nov. 23, a marathon of the complete string quartets at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; on Dec. 7, a Central City Chorus rendition of The Company of Heaven; and, on Dec. 14, a Carnegie Discovery Day devoted to Britten, with more singing by Appleby and a lecture by Paul Kildea, Britten's most authoritative biographer to date. But the richest local response remains the remarkable series staged by Trinity Wall Street, which will go on through December. The full schedule is here; upcoming highlights are the Cantata misericordium on Monday, a children's program on the birthday, and a Dec. 5 account of the Third Quartet by the brilliant young players of Decoda. More on Britten in The New Yorker in a few weeks.
Among events happening elsewhere in America, I'd like to single out a birthday concert to be presented at San Francisco's Castro Theatre by musicians from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, which attracts many students from underprivileged backgrounds. Matthew Cmiel will direct, and Chanticleer will participate. Cmiel — a composer and conductor who first came to my attention as leader of the Formerly Known As Classical series — tells me that his students have fallen in love with Britten, and have also been studying such advanced fare as the Second Quartet and Third Cello Suite. He also mentions the happy effect of Wes Anderson's film Moonrise Kingdom, which seems to have incited curiosity about Britten among musically aware kids around the country.
November 10, 2013 | Permalink
Christine Goerke first made her name in the late nineties, in Handel, Gluck, and Mozart. I remember the fresh thrill of her Iphigénie at City Opera in 1997. In the early aughts, she underwent a vocal crisis, as she recounted to Opera News, and has triumphantly reemerged as an exponent of high-dramatic German repertory. Last night, in Die Frau ohne Schatten, she proved herself the most potent dramatic soprano to appear at the Met since — well, let's not jinx her by naming names. But it's now a voice of immense force and wide-ranging expressivity. Absolutely go see her if you have the chance. Here is my 2002 review of the Herbert Wernicke production, which remains a rather superficial affair but certainly uses the Met stage with more flair than most productions of recent years.
November 08, 2013 | Permalink
"The solo writing for the singers is mostly of an instrumental character, essentially un-melodic and unvocal too, with imperfect prosody. The most dramatic choral passage is the scene before the church . . . [where there] is operatic rather than oratorio writing for the massed voices . . . The score is carefully and elaborately contrived. There is something doing most of the time on the stage and in the orchestra — all plausible, and highly intelligent, and — the real life of music-drama lacking."
— Olin Downes on Peter Grimes, 1949
November 07, 2013 | Permalink
Browsing on YouTube, I found this recording of a Kol Israel broadcast marking the fiftieth birthday of Benjamin Britten, on Nov. 22, 1963. The announcer is marking a performance of Britten's Piano Concerto, by Thea Raphaeli and the "Kol Israel" Philharmonic Orchestra, when there is a sudden, unexplained silence. The announcer then gives a piece of breaking news: John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. The broadcast then resumes. (If you click on the YouTube logo above and then hit "show more," you can read a full description of the event by Sagiv Raphaeli, the pianist's son.) In London, Britten was marking his birthday by attending a concert performance of Gloriana at Royal Festival Hall; the celebratory mood dissipated as word of Kennedy's death spread through the crowd.
November 06, 2013 | Permalink
A fascinating tidbit in Eva Rieger's biography of Friedelind Wagner (just out from Boydell & Brewer, in a translation by Chris Walton): when Michael Tilson Thomas worked as a musical assistant in Bayreuth in 1966 and 1967, Friedelind, the Meister's renegade grand-daughter, took an interest in him, and invited him to give a piano recital at Wahnfried. The program included works of Ives and Copland.
November 06, 2013 | Permalink