"All of my people — right here, right now. Do you know what I mean?"
Carnegie Hall: The season opens on October 6 with a de-luxe all-Strauss program — Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, the works. Ian Bostridge, who delivered a hair-raising Die schöne Müllerin at Zankel Hall last season, sings Winterreise on Oct. 15, with Leif Ove Andsnes miming the hurdy-gurdy. On Oct. 25, James Levine marshals the Boston Symphony in Mahler’s Eighth; he’ll have made his debut as the new Karl Muck three nights before. On Nov. 20, Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica in an all-Shostakovich program, including the death-shrouded Fourteenth Symphony; Kremer’s way with Shostakovich is spellbinding. On Nov. 29, the Venice Baroque Orchestra plays the serenata Andromeda Liberata, which may or may not be Vivaldi’s; no matter whose it is, the Venetians will make it glow. On Dec. 1, the poetic young Austrian pianist Till Fellner, whose recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier has serious traction on my playlist, gets his Zankel on.
The New York Philharmonic: Lorin Maazel’s merry band begins the season on Sept. 21 with a shockingly innovative program of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the Dvorak New World Symphony. There are scattered points of interest in the months that follow. From Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, Maazel unveils Augusta Read Thomas’ Gathering Paradise, a set of Emily Dickinson settings. Also, Lang Lang will either bang or sing his way through Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, depending on his mood. October: not a whole lot going on. November 11-13: Sakari Oramo, Simon Rattle’s successor at the City of Birmingham, who English chums swear is the real deal, does Sibelius, Saariaho, and Tchaikovsky, with the aid of Karita Mattila. Dec. 2-4, David Robertson leads the string orchestra version of Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet. Dec. 16-18, the divine Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sings Britten's Phaedea with Colin Davis conducting.
Great Performers at Lincoln Center: Jane Moss’ fastidiously progressive series plays it safe this fall with dollops of Brahms, who, as Gunther Schuller demonstrated in his book The Compleat Conductor, is the most badly played great composer in the repertory. I’m not too worried about Herbert Blomstedt’s programs with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Oct. 18 and 19), which anchor the series. Blomstedt is a greatly underrated conductor whose secret is that he’s got rhythm (at least of the Brahmsian kind). On Oct. 17, Wolfgang Holzmair sings Brahms Lieder, hopefully reminding us how powerful Brahms’ songwriting can be. On Oct. 31, the absurdly gifted scholar-violinist Andrew Manze dispels the Hamburg fog with a program of Mozart and Vivaldi; I stress again that Manze’s new Vivaldi disc (not out til Sept. 14) is beyond. Curiosity will lure me to Leon Botstein’s all-Czerny program with the American Symphony (Nov. 14). To give over a whole program to Czerny, long-reigning tyrant of piano finger exercises, sounds like a self-parodying gesture on Botstein’s part, but some people actually consider Czerny some sort of lost great composer, and in 2002 the pianist Anton Kuerti went so far as to organize an entire Czerny Festival in Edmonton. We’ll czee. Lastly, you wouldn’t be a fool if you bought a ticket to Simon Keenlyside’s song recital of Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler (Dec. 5).
A sped-up, inadequate tour of other New York halls: The New York Early Music Celebration (Oct. 1-10) has dozens of worthy events — count me in for Pomerium’s program of Ockeghem and Gombert at Corpus Christi Church. That same afternoon, the Mozartean Players are playing at the Frick Collection, which hasn’t yet announced its entire fall schedule. The never boring New York Festival of Song presents a Kurt Weill / Berlin–in-the-twenties evening at Merkin Hall on Oct. 14. On Oct. 24, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents the really early music ensemble Sequentia in selections from the group’s new CD, Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper, up at The Cloisters. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has the Orion Quartet doing the six Bartok quartets (Nov. 21, 23; $72 for the set). Miller Theatre is generally pegged as a new-music clubhouse, but under George Steel’s direction it has become a hotspot of early musicking as well. See Europa Galante reuniting Bach and Vivaldi et al (Oct. 14) or the Tallis Scholars belting out Palestrina, Lassus, Isaac, and de Rore (Dec. 10; “belting out” ironic). The Miller season opens on Sept. 18 with a Leonard Bernstein tribute; it includes excerpts from the great man’s troubled but potent late opera A Quiet Place, which New York has never heard. Finally, poking my head into jazz, I’ll put in a probably unnecessary plug for Black, Brown, and Beige chez Jazz at Lincoln Center on Oct. 25 — part of the new jazz hall’s opening festival. I have never experienced Ellington’s symphonic masterpiece live, and I’m as eager to hear this show as anything else on the fall schedule.
ADDENDUM: I know I've limited myself to Manhattan, but I want to add that the New Jersey Symphony looks to be in great shape under its new conductor Neeme Järvi, despite all that risky business with stolen and/or fake violins. The indefatigable Estonian adds to the Brahms flux with a program of the Second Serenade and German Requiem (Nov. 19-21) and presides over a festival of Scandinavian music in January.
August 22, 2004 | Permalink
One more thought about film music, following on the Elmer Bernstein obituary below. Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, and David Raksin, by doing their utmost for a few immortal films, have, in the process, gained a certain kind of immortality. This is an ironic turn of events because film composers are so often dismissed as the hacks of the composing world, the manufacturers of imitative background pap. "Sounds like a film score" is the put-down of choice for tonal orchestral music. "Serious" composers are supposed to suffer neglect in their lifetimes, with the gratitude of posterity their invisible reward. The my-time-will-come mindset was especially widespread in the twentieth century, with composers believing that if they invented a new sound or came up with a "big idea" they would win their place in history. The result was a great deal of superficially difficult, emotionally disposable music, whose ultimate historical value is now very much in question. By contrast, it seems certain that in a hundred years people will still be talking about Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo, Goldsmith's Chinatown, Raksin's Laura. They have gone down in history, because they found a way to make their music matter.
August 22, 2004 | Permalink
The fact that Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, and now Elmer Bernstein have all died in the space of a month may make people talk about the end of an age in film music. Bernstein himself addressed this issue in an impassioned speech in 1998:
People say to me, 'You know, what has happened to film scoring?' I hear this all the time. I hear it from filmmakers. 'You know, what happened, you know, what happened to the great film scorers?' Well of course it's a nonsensical question because I'll tell you, I teach a class at USC, and I'm here to tell you that there's nothing wrong with film scoring and the people that I teach there, I just hope to see them fed into our business. There's nothing wrong with film scoring and there's nothing wrong with the talent, but there is something wrong, seriously wrong with the process and the system.
Bernstein went on:
The composing of music is an art. In our business, art is the only three-letter dirty word because art requires courage, and it's very hard to have courage when you spend a year and a half ... two years developing a project, shooting a project. A project which costs millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars. And you blow it out all one weekend on sixteen hundred screens, and what happens on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of that weekend determines whether that picture is going to survive or not. It's a numbers game. Everything about our business has become a numbers game. We're automated and that is not a good atmosphere for art. And that is the problem we're facing.
In any case, Bernstein wrote a lot of wonderful music, from Man With the Golden Arm in 1955 to Far From Heaven two years ago. Sweet Smell of Success is my personal favorite — it hints at the hot emotion behind the film's ice-cold facade.
August 20, 2004 | Permalink
From Christopher Isherwood's Prater Violet, lately purchased at the Rodgers Book Barn:
There is one question that we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal. And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow-travelers. What makes you go on living? ... I supposed, vaguely, that it was a kind of balance, a complex of tensions. You did whatever was next on the list. A meal to be eaten. Chapter eleven to be written. The telephone rings. You go off somewhere in a taxi. There is one's job. There are amusements. There are people. There are books. There are things to be bought in shops. There is always something new. There has to be. Otherwise, the balance would be upset, the tension would break.
It seemed to me that I had always done whatever people recommended. You were born; it was like entering a restaurant. The waiter came forward with a lot of suggestions. 'What would you advise?' And you ate it, and supposed you liked it, because it was expensive, or out of season, or had been a favorite of King Edward the Seventh. The waiter had recommended teddy bears, football, cigarettes, motor bikes, whisky, Bach, poker, the culture of Classical Greece. Above all, he had recommended Love, a very strange dish....
August 20, 2004 | Permalink
Carl Wilson, aka Zoilus, has an excellent piece on the insecure friendship of literature and rock. Choice line: “How do you get 50 novelists out of the swimming pool? Tell them there's an argument in the kitchen about Dylan's gospel period.” Harry Pata, you’re my hero for this unexpected take on the somber giant of Soviet music: “Dmitri Shostakovich, we love you. And your little circular-rimmed glasses. Because you were emo before the word even existed.” Bard College’s program is doctored to illustrate the thesis. George Hunka, Jessica Duchen, and Helen Radice, all linked to the right, have joined forces on a new site called ArtsBlogging. It will be taken into account. Greg Sandow has written another aggressively sensible overview of the classical predicament. And Terry Teachout has finished his seventeenth book of the year. Excuse me while I stare moodily into space for an hour.... Damn book ... the summer's over ... hopeless ... how do you cut 100,000 words? ... Teachout! ... Should have chosen an easier topic, like Debussy’s Parakeet, or Spinal Apocalypse: How Overwrought Book Titles Are Ruining Publishing, or An Oral History of Anal Sex ... apathy, despair ... [more coffee] ... OK, I'm back. Congratulations, Terry!
August 18, 2004 | Permalink
Back in January, I traveled to Iceland to work on a profile of Björk, which appears in this week's New Yorker. I later went to Salvador, Brazil, and London, England. Here I'm posting scattered snapshots from the Iceland and Brazil trips, fleshing out scenes described in the profile. Some of the pictures will already be familiar to close readers of the blog. I did not photograph Björk herself, for obvious reasons. I was grateful enough that she'd let me in to her extraordinary world.
Below are various views of Reykjavík, beginning with Mt. Keilir as seen from the airport road:
What I saw when I talked to Björk about the "Nordic idea":
Moving on to Brazil, this is the view from the house where Björk worked on Medúlla for several weeks:
Here is a shot of the Cortejo Afro drummers, whom Björk recorded for "Mouths Cradle" and then left out because they didn't fit the (nearly) all-vocal concept of the album:
Next are several shots of Matthew Barney's float in the Salvador Carnaval, taken from the balcony where Björk was observing the procession. Valgeir Sigurðsson, who engineered Medúlla at his Greenhouse Studios, can be seen in the white coat on the right-hand side of the top of the float.
The man in the green and pink shirt is the great Caetano Veloso:
At this point, alas, the battery in the camera gave out, and the next day I was flying back to New York. The remaining drama of the making of Medúlla was sonic rather than visual.
August 18, 2004 | Permalink
A reader sent me a link to the Pierre Boulez Project, in which Josh Ronsen takes at face value Boulez's old proclamation that "all the art of the past must be destroyed."
Another reader pointed the way to David Rakowski's site, which gives a hilarious and harrowing picture of the pedantic gobbledygook that still infuses composition classes at some American universities. Imagine the expletives Mozart might have spat out if you'd told him to "keep all registers active." Rakowski also has a Lexicon with definitions for "Lenny's Revenge" ("Contemporary concert music that sounds like warmed-over Bernstein, especially ze mambo from ze Vest Side Story") and "Dogma Breath" ("A person with an overdeveloped sense of Manifesto Destiny"). Wise and funny stuff.
August 17, 2004 | Permalink
...Frank Gehry's performing-arts center at Bard College, where I spent the weekend. Bard's Shostakovich Festival continues for another week, the probable highlight being the Fourteenth Symphony with the great Russian bass Nikita Storojev. Fans of the Solomon Volkov controversy will be interested to know that Laurel Fay has uncovered a memo by Shostakovich's close friend Isaak Glikman, reporting that the composer railed against the writing of memoirs in the months before his death. He also asked, "What sort of person is this Solomon Volkov?" A full report will appear in the New Yorker in a couple of weeks.
On Saturday I broke away from the round-the-clock socialist-realist hilarity to visit the other chief cultural destination in upstate New York, the Rodgers Book Barn. It's one of the most delightful used-book stores in the country, not just because of the selection (large, cheap) but because of the adventure of getting there. Study the map closely and watch out for those little signs. I picked up first editions of Isherwood's Prater Violet and Klaus Mann's Pathetic Symphony.
I wrote a brief discography to accompany my Björk profile, which appears in the New Yorker this week but is not yet online. Some more Björkiana will follow later this week.
August 16, 2004 | Permalink
I'm heading upstate today for Bard College's weekend-long Shostakovich Festival. Unfortunately I will miss the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which is supposed to have interesting music. I may meet up with a rural S/FJ to plot our co-blogging venture, the Popular Vs. Classical Extreme Eustace Tilley Smackdown. My profile of Björk will shortly be flying toward the presses, to appear on Monday alongside some New Yorker online-only and Rest Is Noise barely-online features. This is the "top-secret project" I've been not very subtly hinting about. The passing of David Raksin (see below) is much on my mind.
August 12, 2004 | Permalink
While finishing up Björk, I listened to a slew of CDs at the office yesterday. The winner was Baltic Voices, a Harmonia Mundi compilation of modern sacred music from the Baltic Sea region. The composers are Urmas Sisask, Toivo Tulev, Per Nørgård, Galina Grigorjeva, and Alfred Schnittke; the luminous chorus is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under Paul Hillier. The influence of Arvo Pärt is strong but not inescapable. Grigorjeva, in particular, is a composer I’d like to hear more of; her On Leaving ruminates in the grand Russian Orthodox tradition. Other CD’s I’ll deal with in ultra-gnomic Christgau style. Daniel S. Godfrey, String Quartets (Koch): rare wedding of flawless craft and flowing lyricism. Haydn, The Seasons (Harmonia Mundi): René Jacobs spews out another eccentric but persuasive recording. Get his semi-definitive Figaro first. Anna Netrebko, Sempre Libera (DG): the girl can sing. Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters (Universal): ditto. Vivaldi, Concertos for the Emperor (Harmonia Mundi): Andrew Manze’s playing in the scalding finale of the C-minor sounds exactly as scary as Vivaldi’s was said to have been.
August 12, 2004 | Permalink
I was very saddened to read of the death of David Raksin, whose Laura theme is one of the great inspirations in film-music history. I knew Mr. Raksin slightly. He was a warm and witty man whose library of anecdotes reached back deep into the golden age of Hollywood. I was amazed to read that he was 92 — he looked 75 at most. A few years ago I had lunch with him at Musso & Frank's, and when we sat down he said, "I used to have lunch at this table with Charlie" — meaning Charlie Chaplin. He told me fabulous stories of Schoenberg, from whom he took some lessons. Once he made the mistake of asking how to write music for an airplane sequence, whereupon Schoenberg snarled, "Like music for big bees, only louder." He also retold at my request the famous Raksin Hitchcock anecdote. Hitchcock didn't want music for the lost-at-sea drama Lifeboat because he thought audiences would wonder where the music was coming from in the middle of the ocean. Raksin said, "Ask Hitch where the cameras are coming from." I had been meaning to e-mail him asking whether he knew Lulu at the time of Laura, because something about the theme resembles Berg's "portrait" music. Too late. First Jerry Goldsmith, now Raksin: these are sad days for film-music buffs.
Incidentally, Raksin not only wrote a glorious, swaying theme for Laura but also introduced a striking electronic innovation. Everyone who's seen the movie remembers the scene in which Dana Andrews stares at Laura's portrait and falls under her spell. The mood is set by eerie shimmering chords on the soundtrack. What Raksin did — as he explained in an interview with Roy Prendergast, author of Film Music: A Neglected Art — was to record a series of piano chords with the initial attacks omitted. The engineer turned on the microphones only after each chord had been struck, and continued bringing up the levels until ambient noise saturated the ringing tones. Raksin then made tape loops from this spectral, disembodied sound. "It was the interplay of the partials without the ictus," he explained. Some years later, the Beatles used the same trick to create the massive piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life."
August 11, 2004 | Permalink
I've been reading over brochures for next season, trying to nail down my reviewing agenda for the fall. I like to take my time deciding what to cover; my first instincts usually lead me to write about the same Germanic foolishness over and over (Schoenberg, Wagner, Schoenberg, Wagner). As a public service for those who live around or are passing through New York — The Rest Is Noise is nothing if not public-spirited — here's a rundown of potential highlights at the major halls and houses. Today, opera; next week, concerts. I issue a challenge to all you culturally aware non-attenders out there: you are not allowed to use the adjective "operatic" unless you have actually seen an opera in the last three months. Troy does not count.
The Metropolitan Opera: On paper, it doesn’t look to be a particularly mind-blowing season at the Met. Four new productions: Cyrano de Bergerac, Faust, Rodelinda, The Magic Flute. The first and the third are star vehicles — the Franco Alfano obscurity Cyrano done at the bidding of Placido Domingo, Rodelinda made to order for Renée Fleming. Rodelinda will at least have an outstanding stage director in Stephen Wadsworth, and if Renée’s acting doesn’t grip you then Stephanie Blythe’s surely will. The Magic Flute, opening Oct. 8, ought to be a visual hoot: Julie Taymor makes her Met debut, the wizardly George Tsypin designs. There’s a fine young cast led by Dorothea Röschmann and Levine’s new favorite Matthew Polenzani. This is probably my Met review for the fall. As for the revivals, I’m most jazzed about seeing Karita Mattila tear up the stage in Janacek’s Katya Kabanova (Dec. 17). There is no way this can go wrong. Otherwise, the newly budget-conscious Met seems to be banking on a lot of newish singers in the repertory pieces. Angela M. Brown as Aida? Sylvie Valayre as Tosca? Elena Evseeva as Mimi? You take your chances.
New York City Opera: The season opens on Sept. 8 with Richard Strauss’ luminous late masterpiece Daphne. I've never seen it in a full staging, though I have fond memories of the San Francisco Opera’s semi-staged production ten years ago. Elizabeth Futral sings the title role; Stephen Lawless directs. The tricky thing about Daphne is that it ends with a woman turning into a tree. Good luck with that. I’m also duty-bound to attend the Oct. 31 world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun & The Sea of Stories, with a James Fenton libretto based on Salman Rushdie. A quick listen to an Albany CD of voice-and-piano excerpts didn't leave me giddy with anticipation, but, as the great Anna Russell used to say, I will go with a completely blank mind. City Opera also presents Tazewell Thompson’s production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, which drew raves from Peter G. Davis in its Glimmerglass incarnation.
I plan to leave town in December for the Chicago Lyric Opera world premiere of William Bolcom’s A Wedding. The Lyric, celebrating its Golden Jubilee Year, also has a Don Giovanni with Bryn Terfel and Karita Mattila, the first installment of a Ring cycle (but I've filled my Wagner quota for the year), and a promising new production of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen. I’ll probably also stop in at Placido Domingo’s Washington Opera, which has the junior tenorissimo Salvatore Licitra in Andrea Chénier and Britten’s monumental Billy Budd in the Francesca Zambello production from Covent Garden. Domingo’s West Coast office, the Los Angeles Opera, offers a strong, Placido-led cast for Idomeneo, plus Exorcist director William Friedkin taking on Ariadne auf Naxos (let's hope there's no projectile vomiting). Finally, the San Francisco Opera has its own Billy Budd with barihunk Nathan Gunn and the North American premiere of Ligeti’s comic-apocalyptic Le Grand Macabre. There's no reason to envy New York.
August 11, 2004 | Permalink
Alexander von Zemlinsky: Complete Orchestral Songs. James Conlon conducting the Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker; with Soile Isokoski, Violeta Urmana, Andreas Schmidt, Michael Volle. EMI 5 57024 2
Is there such a thing as second-rate genius? Mahlerian settings of Langston Hughes, among others, gloriously sung.
I finally finished Michael Chanan's Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism. In what has to a personal best of sustained procrastination, I've been trying to get through this book since its publication in 1994. Not the writing itself but my odd reading habits are to blame: I tend to bury one half-finished book under the next. In any case, Musica Practica is a tour-de-force, demystifying the "music itself" (as musicologists used to say) by showing how social practices and technologies shape it and direct it. Something quite uncanny happens at the end of the Prologue; working off citations of Mark Poster and Jacques Attali, Chanan essentially predicts the entire musical universe we've been living in for the last few years, the world of MP3s, downloading, and the iPod:
Whatever becomes information, anyone can now store and reproduce, repackage and refashion to their own purposes without anyone's permission, without payment, and largely without detection. Hence the expanding domain of information threatens the principle of private property....The results can be heard in the cacophony and confusion of contemporary music, which the recent introduction of synthesizers and samples has only increased. On the one hand, the technification of music has distorted the process of listening and damaged our hearing. On the other, it increasingly throws everything back into the arena, as the ease of reproduction allows the circulation of music to escape the control of the market and discover new forms. In short, the old hierarchies of aesthetic taste and judgment may have broken down, but music continues to breathe and to live according to its own immanent criteria.
I'm glad I waited to finish the book, because back in 1994 I would have had no idea what he was talking about.
It has been 59 years since the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki, 35 years since the Manson murders, 30 years since the resignation of Nixon, 29 years since the death of Dmitri Shostakovich, and 90 days since my first post on this site. Surely the worst is now behind us.
Kyle MacMillan of the Denver Post has an arresting lead for his profile of the brilliant coloratura Natalie Dessay:
Ask an opera diva about the biggest challenges she faces on stage, and you might reasonably expect her to cite nailing the high notes or handling a tricky articulation. But 39-year-old French soprano Natalie Dessay, the unrivaled star of this summer's Santa Fe Opera season, likes to buck expectations. She offers a surprising answer that reflects a huge transformation underway in recent decades in the opera world — achieving dramatic impact. "It's the hardest job," she said. "You have to be able to sing, of course. But the other half of the job is to be able to act. Even if the libretto is not so interesting, it's our job to make it interesting."So many singers these days are trained to make beautiful sounds, so few have thorough grounding in acting. Those who do command the stage — a short list might include Dessay, Karita Mattila, René Pape, Lauren Flanigan, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and, yes, Placido Domingo — seem to have an inborn knack for it; few were actually schooled in theater. Hopefully, the "huge transformation" that MacMillan mentions is just beginning, and the next generation of stars will make good operatic acting the rule and not the exception. Link via ArtsJournal.
August 07, 2004 | Permalink
Terry Teachout asks some heavy questions about the point or pointlessness of writing about art in a dangerous time, and answers them movingly. What would I do if only a day remained? It doesn't do my mood much good to contemplate such questions, but at some point or another I would reach for Brahms' Intermezzos Opus 117, and in particular the first, which since age seventeen or so has been the music closest to my heart. Some years ago Radu Lupu made an irreplaceable recording of Brahms' late piano music. It offers something more than beauty — it gives sympathy, compassion, companionship. Other than that, I'd want to get out of the house and leave art behind. When, on September 11, I left the building from which I'd watched the terror unfold and joined the endless crowd of people walking up Seventh Avenue, I felt one of the most powerful emotions of my life, which was the feeling of belonging to a mass. Strange how seldom our so-called mass culture provides such a feeling. Even the rowdiest entertainments return us to the suburbs of solitude, our disconnectedness rushing back in.
August 06, 2004 | Permalink