It appears that Angela Merkel might become the next Chancellor of Germany. Which would mean, among other things, that Germany would once again be run by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable Wagner-lover. Before you see anything sinister or regressive in that potentiality, though, you should read some comments that Merkel made in July of this year, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The article ran to nearly five thousand words, and it was devoted entirely to the subject of Wagner. An excerpt, roughly and hastily translated:
F.A.Z.: In the third act of Parsifal, God himself speaks. Or so said Romain Rolland. As a Protestant minister’s daughter, what did you make of the voodoo-magic which Christoph Schlingensief unleashed last year in Bayreuth?
Merkel: After Schlingensief’s Parsifal in Bayreuth, I attended Lehnhoff’s Parsifal in Baden-Baden. I confess I had a better time there. On the day of the Bayreuth opening, I resolved to be an open listener. I did not want to batten down the hatches; I wanted to give the new a chance. But this production made excessive demands on me. Herr Schlingensief had many very interesting ideas, but I found that the piece now radiated too many stimuli, a multilayeredness of perceptions, which had a distracting character. The music moved into the background, which led some singers to have the impression that they were no longer at the center of things. It is also interesting to learn from younger people that they had a better time dealing with this immense quantity of stimuli. I probably should admit to the fact that I belong to the over-fifty crowd, and that younger people obviously have an easier time navigating this flood of stimuli around us. I belong among those who are comfortable with silence. For example, I regard Lufthansa’s innovation of playing disembarkation music as no improvement on my quality of life.
F.A.Z.: Kundry experiences redemption through annihilation. It is well known that she is not the only figure in Wagner’s oeuvre in whom traces of anti-Semitism have been discovered. On the other side we know about Hitler’s Götterdämmerung fantasies in the Führer bunker. As a Wagner-lover today, can you simply set this aside this dimension of the work?
Merkel: To set aside is to suppress. One cannot dismiss the concatenation of Wagner with National Socialism, because it was, unfortunately, a historical reality. That is the way it is. Wagner’s work must be interpreted anew and seen anew for today's time — as has been tried in various ways since the end of National Socialism. For me, the Kundry figure is a rather interesting female character. Nevertheless, we should be at all times conscious of where anti-Semitic tendencies might lie. Once you put it out in the open, you banish the danger that such a connotation could remain implicit in interpretations which are no longer acceptable [or something like that]. The total reduction of Wagner’s music to the ideological dimension, which happened in the National Socialist period, later led many people to a total rejection of Wagner. That reduction was an abuse, which covered up the unbelievable many-sidedness of the music, its textual and motivic connections, its progressive tendencies, and it still blocks the entrance to Wagner today. As a result, the modernity of Wagner’s music is, alas, completely overlooked. Many twentieth-century composers partook of Wagner’s compositional technique. I urge that the abuse of Wagner be looked at an open and critical fashion, so that more people can gain access to this great musician. And it’s good to see that exactly this is already happening.
September 18, 2005 | Permalink
The admirably weird Dr. Gene Scott is still on TV here in San Francisco, despite the fact that he died last February. During the dismal post-college year that I lived in Berkeley (my fault, not Berkeley's), I fell into the habit of watching Dr. Scott in the middle of the night, trying to grasp what on earth he was driving at. He was a maverick televangelist with a Captain Ahab beard who held forth in an inexplicably mesmerizing Idaho baritone on a bizarre variety of topics, from the minutiae of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the Bible (he was evidently quite learned, and earned the "Dr.") to the secrets of the Pyramids. Sometimes he would disappear from the screen for long stretches, to be replaced by footage of racehorses or polka dancers. One evening, as he was reading aloud from the occult pop history Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I decided to make a tape composition out of his recitation of facts concerning the Spear of Destiny, and combined it with a loop of the final notes of Salome. The result was judged uniquely disturbing by the two people who heard it. Dr. Scott seemed free of the hard-heartedness that drives other pseudo-Christians on TV; he avoided hot-button social issues, although he did once advise George Bush Sr. to nuke Iraq. There were questions about the financial structure of his church, which, no doubt, the IRS is still busy sorting out. If he did engage in chicanery, he couldn't really be accused of being a hypocrite, since his religious system was so murky to begin with. He was a divine American kook of a sort they don't manufacture anymore.
September 17, 2005 | Permalink
I essentially haven't moved from this hotel room in three days, except to buy new socks and meet a couple of people. I'm trying to write a very long article in a very short span of time. As you can see, I have been working on the world's smallest desk. I am quite proud of the improvisation with the ironing board. The red book on the desk is Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which might give you some clue as to what I'm doing here. (No, not that, Homeland Security!) Sade's Lovers Rock is playing — a record that gets better with time.
September 14, 2005 | Permalink
Please welcome Marc Geelhoed, who promises to deliver sharp coverage of the music scene in Chicago, and Classical Domain, which aims for a comprehensive listing of classical events in New York City. (More new music, bitte, but this is a great resource that I'll be checking every day.) And note two singer blogs, which are new at least to me: Histoires de Moi and the Canadienne. In my last column for The New Yorker, I touted Jeremy Denk's site; I'd have done the same for Mostly Mozart breakout star Erin Wall (aka the Canadienne) if I'd known she was in the game. Blogging seems to be an excellent outlet for singers on the road: living in hotels can be lonely. Here I am, watching Adamsian tankers rise from San Francisco Bay.
September 12, 2005 | Permalink
September 11, 2005 | Permalink
The tragically destroyed neo-segregationist verandah where President Bush is "looking forward to sitting" (hopefully as a premature retiree) now has its own website.
JD Considine has analyzed the chord that Bush is playing in the famous guitar picture, taken at the height of the Katrina disaster. It seems to be a strongly dissonant sonority consisting of the notes G, G#, A, B, C, and D. Considine speculates that Bush was trying to play a G-major chord and messed up, but I suspect that our Commander-in-Chief, mindful of the inherent tendency of the musical material, has followed Schoenberg over the threshold of atonality. Here he plays the pitch-class set named 6-Z11 in the Allen Forte system — a hauntingly ambiguous chord that brushes against the ghost of a now defunct tonality even as it stares ahead remorselessly into the chromatic future. I am looking forward to the rigorously atonal works that Bush will have time to write on Trent Lott's porch.
Update: Paul Mitchinson has cast doubt on Considine's description of the Katrina dissonance. He says it's a different collection of discordant tones, namely B, C#, E, F, G, G#. Now, I know less than nuttin' about gee-tar-playin', so I will let these two gentlemen duke it out amongst themselves. But I am excited by the news that Bush might be playing pc set 6-Z49 rather than 6-Z11. He thereby shows awareness of the possibilities of octatonicism as the basis for a coherent atonal language.
September 10, 2005 | Permalink
I've been following the music of Thomas Adès since I first encountered it at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1995. His latest work is a Violin Concerto subtitled Concentric Paths, which had its first performance in Berlin on Sept. 4 and its second at the Proms on Sept. 6. BBC 3's "listen again" feature allows you to hear the work until Sept. 13. Blogger Fin Keegan has linked to the relevant portion of the broadcast, so you don't have to sit through Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture and Stravinsky's Pulcinella. I shan't say too much after only two hearings, but the work seems an imposing addition to the Adès catalogue. It signals a new austerity, if not simplicity, from this formerly devil-may-care composer: phantoms of Shostakovich, particularly the later, haggard Shostakovich, haunt the scene, though none of that composer's characteristic tricks appear. The slow movement is a landscape of awesome breadth.
September 10, 2005 | Permalink
About four years ago I wrote that Beethoven is the only composer who makes sense when the world becomes apocalyptic. I forgot Bob Dylan. Carl Wilson (condolences, Carl) has quoted some lines from Dylan's last album, the one released on September 11th, 2001, and I'll quote them too:
High water rising, six inches above my head
Coffins dropping in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pouring into Vicksburg
Don't know what I'm going to do
"Don't reach out for me," she said
"Can't you see I'm drowning too?"
The trouble with the song, though, is that it's using disaster as a metaphor for free-floating anomie. We are in a moment where metaphor breaks down and reality overpowers the imagination. I have trouble knowing how to write at times like this.
September 02, 2005 | Permalink
Terry Teachout and Our Girl in Chicago have broken away from the arts beat to compile links relating to Hurricane Katrina. The breaking-news site and readers' blog at the New Orleans Times-Picayune are heartbreaking beyond belief. No victims count more than any others, but two stories haunt me: this one, about two teen-aged brothers who reached out to their teacher, and this one, about the disappearance of "Fats" Domino. (Update: He's been found.) Meanwhile, George W. Bush is playing guitar, Condoleeza Rice is buying thousand-dollar shoes, and FEMA is being run by the former lawyer of the International Arabian Horse Association (where he was forced to resign!). Here are links to the United Negro College Fund and the American Red Cross, although the Department of Homeland Security is not allowing the Red Cross into New Orleans. They're taking care of everything beautifully on their own.
"We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. I am personally asking our bipartisan congressional delegation here in Louisiana to immediately begin congressional hearings to find out just what happened here. Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired? And believe me, they need to be fired right away, because we still have weeks to go in this tragedy. We have months to go. We have years to go. And whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chain-sawed off and we've got to start with some new leadership. It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now....
"The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night...."
— Aaron Broussard, President of Jefferson Parish, New Orleans
"Out of the rubbles [sic] of Trent Lott's house — he's lost his entire house — there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."
— George W. Bush, President of the United States
September 01, 2005 | Permalink
A while ago I complained that Piano Man, a nameless virtuoso mental patient, was receiving widespread media coverage principally because the media like to depict classical musicians as freaks. Now it turns out that Piano Man may not be much of a pianist: "Other reports have surfaced that the patient did not, in fact, give a virtuoso piano performance, but, the Mirror said, tapped at one note repeatedly. The hospital disputes this claim." Har. For more on deviant pianists, visit Adam Baer.
Update: John Burke proposes a solution to the mystery — Piano Man is in fact a piano tuner.
August 22, 2005 | Permalink
"A Little Late-Night Music"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, August 29, 2005.
A decade ago, the Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center’s venerable summertime series, was offering some of the dullest concerts in the Western Hemisphere. I remember a performance of Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D, with Jean-Pierre Rampal as the soloist and Gerard Schwarz conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, which was positively bureaucratic in its self-satisfied mediocrity, as if it were being piped in from a department of motor vehicles in Leonid Brezhnev’s Russia. I briefly considered abandoning music criticism for cat-sitting.
In the mid-nineteen-nineties, with the advent of the multidisciplinary, hipper-than-thou Lincoln Center Festival, many people assumed that the older series would fall by the wayside. Instead, Mostly Mozart has undergone a mildly shocking rejuvenation. The programming now includes period-instrument ensembles, dance (the Mark Morris Dance Group performed its masterpiece “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” last week), even world music (Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh virtuoso, appeared last summer). Late-night concerts have been added, and a new stage has been installed at Avery Fisher Hall. The orchestra, which draws on New York’s inexhaustible supply of skilled freelancers, hasn’t changed all that much; half the musicians on the roster were in the group a decade ago. But they’re now playing with a youthful edge, finding threads of novelty in some of the world’s most familiar music.
The guiding spirit of Mostly Mozart 2.0 is Jane Moss, the Vice President for Programming at Lincoln Center, who conceived the idea of remaking the venerable summer festival. Working alongside her is Louis Langrée, who took over from Schwarz as music director in 2002, having made his name at the Glyndebourne Festival. An amiable-looking fellow with tousled hair, Langrée conducts in a collarless white tunic, which makes him look something like a celebrity chef. His style is at once warm and sharp; he is plainly liked by the players, yet he is able to steer them out of the eddies of harmonious routine. He has a neat way of etching the beginnings and ends of phrases, so that Mozart’s heavenly paragraphs don’t devolve into dulcet murmuring. In the first movement of the “Haffner” Symphony, for example, a pattering eighth-note figure at the end of a measure is given a marked articulation, so that it drives into the next bar with a kind of piston action. In the same movement, upward scales in the strings are dramatized with quick, flaring crescendos. All through the scores, decorative details become pulses of energy, flexings of musical muscle. At the same time, Langrée avoids the bad habit of incessantly poking at the music as if it were almost dead.
The theme of this summer’s festival—it ends on August 27th, with the Mass in C Minor—is “Travelling with Mozart.” We follow the composer on various revenue-generating trips to Paris, Prague, and London; we sample music from each country and hear Mozart’s works interpreted by native ensembles and soloists. At times, the attempt to keep the governing theme afloat results in awkward intellectual calisthenics. When the Gabrieli Consort of London, under the direction of Paul McCreesh, played Mozart’s great G-Minor Symphony, the program annotator ventured that the work was somehow English in nature. I’d have guessed we were in Italy; the performance was winningly fleet and graceful, devoid of the Romantic histrionics that conductors sometimes bring to this piece. Mozart was, in fact, music’s perfect cosmopolitan: wherever he went, there he was.
The festival also wants to shake up conventional patterns of programming, in an effort to simulate the wildly varied concerts of Mozart’s time. In the opening weeks, concert and opera arias enlivened the usual procession of overture, concerto, and symphony, and a handsome parade of sopranos delivered them. Renée Fleming, who sang at the opening-night gala, gave evidence of having headlined one gala too many: she rendered a group of Handel arias in an unintelligible, mannered style. The diva-in-chief was followed by a posse of younger women who were determined to make an impression. Emma Bell sang Mozart’s “Ah, lo previdi . . . Ah, t’in-vola agl’occhi miei” with gleaming intonation and a buoyant personality; the aria is a howl of fury, but Bell had fun with it. Sally Matthews gave dramatic heft to “Ch’io mi scordi di te . . . Non temer, amato bene.” And Erin Wall, a young Canadian, sang “Bella mia fiamma . . . Resta, o cara” with grace and fire, showing the sort of righteous rage that would make for a great Donna Anna. I hope someone from the Met was taking notes.
Since Avery Fisher Hall opened, in 1962, various wizards have tried to fix the erratic acoustics and consuming blandness of the place. The prime innovation of this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival has been to put in place a temporary “Mozart stage,” which goes some way toward humanizing the room. If the New York Philharmonic is smart, it will bring back the new arrangement. The musicians now play on a Brazilian bloodwood platform that extends thirty feet into the audience. There is extra seating to the side and in back of the ensemble. The sound isn’t quite voluptuous, but it’s fuller and richer than it was before: an array of overhead baffles helps to bring focus. If you sit in the “courtside” areas, you are practically inside the orchestra. You get to see the body language of the musicians: a congratulatory nudge to a violinist who has finessed a broken string; a sympathetic pat on the knee to an oboist whose reed starts squawking in the summer heat; Langrée’s inviting glances and grateful smiles. You also notice that the triangle is incredibly loud for its size.
The late-night concerts take place in the Kaplan Penthouse, ten floors above Lincoln Center Plaza. A space usually reserved for institutional powwows has been transformed (if you squint a little) into a classical Rainbow Room, with candles on the tables and appropriate beverages. One night, the gifted young pianist Jeremy Denk accompanied Emma Bell in Mozart and Debussy songs, and also played Bach’s Third English Suite. He’s a powerful, intelligent musician, as severe in Bach as he is sensuous in Debussy. He is also a blogger, of all things. (His site, jeremydenk.blogspot.com, contains a soaring description of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”) A few nights later, Jean-Yves Thibaudet rode the elevator up to the Penthouse to give a mini-recital of Satie’s first “Gymnopédie” and Debussy’s Second Book of Préludes. Although Thibaudet’s Debussy is a bit strict and dry for my taste, his musicianship is impeccable, and he has an easy, charming way of talking to the audience. When it came to the encore, he actually took requests: Chopin won over Ravel.
The Mostly Mozart team must have wondered whether people would really venture into the wilds of the Upper West Side at 10:30 P.M. No problem: both late-night concerts that I attended were standing-room-only. And the audience was noticeably younger than the one that showed up at Avery Fisher. Eight o’clock, the inviolable starting time for classical events, is, for a lot of us, an awkward hour; we’d rather be sitting down to dinner, not digesting. Younger people also reportedly shy away from the concerts because they are afraid of violating grandmotherly rules of decorum. The Mostly Mozart late-night series, casually serious in tone, raises the possibility that a large institution can carve out alternative identities, rather than try to please several demographics all at once.
Most concerts in big halls are two-dimensional experiences. The orchestra is so far away that it may as well be a projection on a screen; the sound has depth, but the image is flat. Change the perspective and the music changes, too. Last spring, I happened to sit in Row A, right in front of the orchestra, for a performance of “Tosca” at the Met. I could see the sweat on Aprile Millo’s brow as she calculated each step into diva madness. Zeffirelli’s grandiose sets soared on all sides, Roman grandeur incarnate. One gentleman in the brass section read a New York weekly while he waited for Scarpia’s ominous sonorities to arrive. The man beside me whispered to his neighbor about the time he saw Callas; the prompter muttered the tenor’s lines. I’ve never had more fun at the opera.
August 22, 2005 | Permalink