Monday, January 31, 2005

Thanks to ACD...

...for his additional remarks on Wagner's counterpoint, Wagner at the Festspielhaus (which I intend to visit, though likely not for a few years), and Nilsson. A minor point of remaining disagreement would be that I have complete faith that Wagner wrote trills, however rarely, because he knew what he was doing. (I expect ACD does too.) To my ear it does make a difference when they're executed and executed well. I've heard Brünnhilde's trills executed on record by Frida Leider and live by Jane Eaglen; I hope to hear them again.

I love Baroque opera, but I spare myself most Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini, trills or not.

I'm afraid I can't agree to the criminality of Boulez; I consider his Ring among the best-conducted, but that's what makes horse races, and very likely it's one area we won't ever agree.


...I join everyone looking shocked that TT had never seen Kind Hearts and Coronets before this weekend. It's one of my very favorite films and a look at the cast list will tell you a few reasons why. My mother introduced me to Kind Hearts at the tender age of 10, which might explain a few things about me. Curiously, I have a copy at home right now because another friend of about my age and TT's has never seen it. I cannot imagine how your respective educations were so neglected.

Reason No. 16 Revisited

In comments to an earlier posting of mine, David Bratman, who may be read at San Francisco Classical Voice, mentioned in that he was exposed to classical music in elementary school, but it did nothing to interest him. I replied that for some, it'll take, for others, it won't.

At About Last Night, Terry Teachout tells us why he's one of the ones for whom it took: a great teacher, now departed, who taught him the violin. Thank you, Terry, for the heartfelt words of remembrance.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Roger Norrington

The other day, Alex Ross had a few choice words on the subject of Roger Norrington's recreation of Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. (Got that? Oh, good.) He's taken the posting down now on the grounds that it didn't make much sense. He's wrong about that - Norrington went over some kind of common-sense limit regarding the value of historical recreation - but I have a few choice words about Roger Norrington myself.

Norrington's had a long and distinguished career in early music, as you can read in his biography at the EMI Web site. His major fame in the United States certainly rests on his orchestral work with the London Classical Players, and more specifically on his Beethoven symphony recordings. I gather they were considered somewhat revolutionary at the time they were first published, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Beethoven symphonies were already available in one period-orchestra recording, that of Christopher Hogwood with the Academy of Ancient Music. But Norrington's aggressively fast tempos were something new and exciting.

I wonder if the excitment has worn off by now. I've heard a couple of those recordings, and they don't have very much going for them other than the unusual tempos and the period instruments. Those fast tempos are rigid and lacking in rubato, and I can't imagine that lack of rubato is a correct period practice. Sure, it's nice to hear Beethoven on period instruments - but there are excellent sets by John Eliot Gardiner and Franz Brueggen, who are both more interesting conductors.

There's one Norrington set that is still a revelation to hear, though, and that's the Wagner disc. I suspect his very fast tempos aren't any more correct than the Beethoven tempos, but the transparency of the orchestra and the bright, individual sounds of the mid-19th century instruments are a far cry from the homogenous, dense sound that so many consider the right sound for Wagner. That's a sound that is only produced by a modern orchestra.

Between that orchestral sound and the size and design of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, his ideal theater, you have to wonder what kind of voice Wagner really wanted. We know from the trills and decorations to be found in the Ring operas that he wanted flexible voices. Yes, Wagner singers have to have stamina, but less-than-immense voices wouldn't present any problems of audibility at Bayreuth with a period orchestra.

The most interesting moral of the Norrington story is very likely that you don't have to be a trumpeter like Flagstad or Nilsson to sing Wagner.

Updated January 31, 6:13 a.m.

ACD mostly agrees with with what I say above, for which thanks, but takes issue with a couple of my points. Herein some responses.

I think I will just have to disagree that with Wagner, the genius lies in the massing (not the details) and therefore it's wrong to play him transparently. There is much genius in the massing, and yet there's also genius in the counterpoint. I've frequently gasped or been brought to tears by the details of the inner line in Wagner. I love Furtwangler and Knappertsbusch, masters of massing, but also Bernstein and Boulez, masters of transparency. And perhaps it's not a coincidence that two great composers are the ones to most bring out that inner detail in Wagner. It's certainly revelatory to me to hear, as well see, those details.

I have not yet been to Bayreuth, and it sounds as though ACD has been, so I am interested in hearing more about the "circle-squaring" aspects of achieving transparency in that theater. My experience is strictly with performances recorded there, in which, of course, transparency may be achieved by the clever placement of the microphones. (Boulez, though, has stated in writing that he wants to achieve transparency.)

I'm not saying Wagnerian voices shouldn't be big, beautiful, and expressive. I'd distinguish between "big" and "immense," especially when the hugest voices can't execute the ornaments or when they move with such difficulty that the music doesn't flow well. I love Varnay as an interpreter, but all that glue in her tone...!

Lastly, I'd have to take issue with "beautiful" as applied to Nilsson's voice. Again, I never heard her in the house - my loss - and everyone I know who really loves her heard her live. On record, even at her freshest, in her debut recordings from the late 1940s and on recordings up to at least her first Tristan, there's an awful lot of steel under not very much velvet. From the mid-60s forward, on record, her sound thinned out over time and records as if it's often just missing the core of the pitch, sometimes by different amounts during a phrase. The last time I put on Boehm's Tristan, this bugged me enough that I had to take it off.

Not everybody hears this in her, and I've had some rather sharp discussions with friends about her. But I think most will agree that she doesn't trill where Wagner wanted those trills, and she executes written-out ornaments (that one in the dawn duet, for example; yes, I can produce a measure number if you want one) without much grace. That also does Wagner a disservice.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Twang of Doom

Not about harps, although there is a harp in the score -

The most doom-laden twang I know is the last two notes, pizzicato low Gs in the cellos and double-basses, of the Tristan prelude - especially in the 1952 Furtwangler studio recording. You know the outcome of the opera long, long before Isolde's transfiguration.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Crisis: Reason 16

Today at ArtsJournal, Greg Sandow has a detailed, persuasive, and very troubling list of fifteen reasons there's a crisis in classical music.

I have a quibble with one; in no. 7, he refers to Nonesuch as "once an exclusively classical label." I'm not sure when exactly that was; the Nonesuch Explorer series of field recordings of musics from around the world started coming out in 1967, according to the Nonesuch Web site. So I think that this reason is not such a good one.

But there's a 16th reason he omitted completely. Here it is:

16. Public schools in the United States used to teach children about music. Kids learned the basics of reading music by about the third or fourth grade. Classical music groups came to perform in the schools. Free or very low-cost lessons on orchestral instruments were available, and instruments could be rented on a monthly basis. (I took clarinet in the fifth grade, which didn't take, and flute in the ninth, which did.) All of my elementary school teachers could play the piano, so there was daily exposure to singing and music. There were choruses, bands, and orchestras starting around junior high and sometimes before that.

Over the last 30 years, and especially since the tax-cutting mania that started with California's Proposition 13 and the drive for more hours spent on reading and math, it's been difficult for schools to keep art and music education in the public schools. This is to the detriment of classical music, all the way down the line: fewer kids with basic musical knowledge, fewer kids with basic skills, fewer kids studying instruments, fewer kids curious about the great composers means fewer young people and younger adults in the audience.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Basta, Baby, BASTA!

San Francisco Opera announced its 2005-06 season the other day. There are some significant highlights to the season:
  • The on-stage debut of Christine Brewer, she of the glowing dramatic soprano voice. Yeah, it's in Fidelio, and I'd been hoping for Tristan, but I've never seen Fidelio live, so fine.

  • La Forza del Destino, the last middle/late Verdi work I've never seen live

  • The company premiere of Handel's Rodelina (alas, not with the glittering cast heard recently at the Met; alas, in a production described as "film noir," meaning more trench coats and fedoras)

  • A rare staging of Tchaikowsky's The Maid of Orleans

  • Best of all, the world premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic, based on the life of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and starring, among others, the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, not seen at SFO since 1998's L'incoronazione di Poppea
I expect I will snooze my way through The Italian Girl in Algiers, if I even bother to show up for it. (So sue me; I just don't like the Rossini comedies. Sit for three hours waiting for the mezzo to finally sing "Non piu mesta" or some other showpiece? Never again!)

I expect Catherine Nagelstad will be a good Norma, certainly miles better than Carol Vaness was in the opera's last outing. (I must admit to some concern for Nagelstad, who arrives, rehearses and performs Rodelinda, then rehearses and performs Norma. Yow!) Nozze is one of the few operas I will happily sit through in alternate years.

But there's also a very significant low point to the schedule: the return, in May and June, 2006, of Madama Butterfly, which will be seen in San Francisco for the sixth time in eleven years.

Yes, you read that right: the sixth time. Here is the recent performance history of the opera at SFO:
October, 1995 - 8 performances
December, 1995 - 4 performances
June, 1997 - 20 performances (with several rotating casts)
January, 1999 - 8 performances
June, 2002 - 9 performances
January, 2003 - 5 performances
May/June, 2006 - dates not announced, but there is only one cast; presumably 6 to 8 performances
Yes, it sells tickets; yes, it's cheap to put on, with only four leads (and who cares about Pinkerton and Sharpless, anyway? They have been weakly cast most years.); yes, everybody looooooooooves Puccini.

But good god. Give the cash cow a rest. PLEASE. It is just plain wrong (and BORING) to schedule this one opera so often. It is wrong to ask subscribers to pay to see the same opera SIX TIMES in eleven years. SFO seasons these days are nine operas long, and we've never had more than twelve; you can't bury a repeat the way the Met, with 25 productions per year, can bury its perennial Boheme performances.

It reeks of lack of trust in the audience, which is bizarre in a company willing to put on St. Francois and Le Grand Macabre, among other less-than-mainstream works, and productions such as the controversial Alcina of a couple of years back. Or maybe it reeks of sheer laziness: given the generally challenging nature of the repertory and productions during the Rosenberg years, this is one work that can be put on without much thought or energy, knowing few will object to it. But that doesn't make it right.

Whatever the reasons: basta, baby! BASTA!!

Monday, January 03, 2005

Against Interpretation?

There's a discussion going on among several bloggers that started with an emailed query from ACD to George Hunka about why live theater should survive as an art form, when "the theater today seems a total anachronism, anything treated there better treated as a film."

And in today's sounds & fury, ACD comes back with this:

Let me make myself clear about this, if I haven't up to this point (and I think I have), by stating the matter in the bluntest of terms. The above quoted declarations of humanist faith notwithstanding, the audience doesn't count. The actors don't count. The director doesn't count. Even the playwright himself doesn't count. Nothing counts but the created artwork: the play itself and its aesthetic realization; a realization determined -- determined exclusively -- by the requirements and dictates of the play's text alone in which is contained what's necessary for the achieving of the "aesthetic transcendence" George above speaks of if the play is worth the paper it's printed on.

I find all of this puzzling. A film gives its creator(s) full control over the finished product, which then won't vary in content, performance, or form once it's completed. But somehow, playwrights keep writing plays instead of looking for...the Platonic ideal of the realization of their works? Apparently they think there's some value in the director, the scenery, the different views that different directors and actors will have of the work, and, yes, the presence of the live audience, or they'd be in the business of making films instead.

If the created artwork is all that counts, then why bother with interpretation or performance of anything? Why not just read the plays? Why shouldn't I just sit at home with the score of Tristan und Isolde and let it take place in my mind, instead of attending a performance or listening to one of the dozen or so imperfect and compromised CD and DVD performances I've got?

ACD, is that what you mean? Are you arguing against interpretation and performance? Or are those two Stage vs. Film postings merely the best justification you can come up with for disliking live theater? It's fine with me if you don't like and aren't moved by live theater, but the justifications aren't making all that much sense to me.

Just how does the Times allot space?

Today's NY Times Arts section leads off with an interview with soprano Andrea Gruber - it's nearly identical in content, if not in length or glossiness, to the interview with her in January's Opera News. And if you dig around a bit in the print version of the Times, you'll find a half page devoted to Anthony Tommasini's review of Kurt Masur's New Year's Eve concert, which consisted of Beethoven's 9th symphony and "Auld Lang Syne."

Now, Gruber's story, involving her recovery from years of drug problems, is certainly an interesting one, but it's dismaying that the Times interview is so similar to the one in Opera News. And why, oh, why, the two big photos of the Philharmonic concert, taking up more space than the text of Tommasini's review? Why bother to review the concert at all, when the performance doesn't sound particularly distinguished? ("Musically, the performance of the first two movements was disappointing......Still, the playing of the orchestra, though precise and sonorous, seemed expressively constricted.")

In the last three days, wasn't there some musical event in NYC, other than the umpty-umpth performance of Beethoven's 9th, that was worth sending the Times's principal classical music critic to??