- July 28, 2015 – At TANGLEWOOD: Paul Lewis, Emerson String Quartet extol Beethoven’s final works: ‘It must be’
- July 23, 2015 – DANCE: Alonzo King’s ‘LINES,’ sinuous exploration of existence
- July 21, 2015 – TANGLEWOOD: Terfel rampant, Radvanovsky resplendent in Verdi, Puccini
- July 16, 2015 – Review: Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in glorious recital at Ozawa Hall
- July 7, 2015 – Seeking American Spirits at Tanglewood – BSO pays tribute to liberty, and swing
- July 3, 2015 – Titillation to transcendence at Tanglewood: Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett
- June 3, 2015 – Our bodies, our science, ourselves in ‘The How and The Why’
- November 2, 2014 – A Brief Encounter with sublime Mozart
- August 25, 2014 – Tanglewood: The Gospel According to Jeremy Denk
- August 18, 2014 – Magic and Whimsy at Jacob’s Pillow: ‘Chalk and Soot’
- August 1, 2014 – Tip-Top Tapping at Jacob’s Pillow: Dorrance Dance’s World Premier of ETM: The Initial Approach
- July 23, 2014 – Baritone Thomas Hampson reveals the glories of 19th century lieder
- July 19, 2014 – Fireworks from the Emerson Quartet: Shostakovitch lasts quartets
- July 14, 2014 – Love and Loss in astounding a cappella; Chanticleer in ‘SheSaid/He Said’ at Ozawa Hall
- July 8, 2014 – An American welcome to the Tanglewood season: Opening night starring Renee Fleming
- August 27, 2010 – Mälkki, with Bell, and Denk, Raises Questions of Tempo and Gender
- August 24, 2010 – Upshaw, Morlot Weave Affecting Textures with BSO
- August 20, 2010 – The Joint wuz Jumpin’ with Thibaudet, Spano, Martin
- August 18, 2010 – Latin Lilt to Rowe’s Flights of Flute, Weilerstein’s Stellar Cello
- August 7, 2010 – Ariadne auf Bali Ha’i in Tanglewood Fellows’ Marvelous Strauss Pacific
- August 5, 2010 – Sexy Berg, Affecting Strauss, and Resplendent Mahler by BSO
- August 1, 2010 – Goerne and Haefliger Unapologetically Probe Human Experience in Schumann, Brahms
- July 26, 2010 – Stand-up Send-up of Mozart Comedy in the Shed
- July 25, 2010 – Wispelwey Gives New Meaning to Playing Ozawa Hall
- July 22, 2010 – Mendelssohn, Shostakovich with Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, then Mahler with Tanglewood Orchestra
- July 22, 2010 – Journeys from Judaism and Persecution in Mendelssohn and Mahler
- July 15, 2010 – Mahler and the Transition to 20th Century Music at Tanglewood
- June 30, 2010 – Rite, Ritual, and Romantic Struggle: Music and Dance Open Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood Festivals
July 28, 2015 AT TANGLEWOOD: Paul Lewis, Emerson String Quartet extol Beethoven’s final works: ‘It must be’
Lenox — Ludwig van Beethoven inscribed his last string quartet, “The hard-won resolution” (Der schwer gefasste Entschluss). Toward the end of its second, final movement, the published score bears a profound thought, to be expressed by the viola and cello: “Must it be? (Muss es sein?)” They play a dramatic, three-note melodic fragment, set in a minor tonality, which forms an obvious question mark: two notes down, one up. Shortly, in a faster, major harmonic setting, two powerful assertions from the two violins sound the musical theme beneath Beethoven’s written response: “It must be! It must be! (Es muss sein! Es Muss sein!). “
What was resolved? What does this signify? This has been the subject of much (unresolved) scholarly discussion. But clarity of intention can be inferred in the qualities of a composer’s music, and this is the intent of this review.
On July 21 and 23, 2015, the renowned exemplars of Beethoven’s piano music and string quartets, respectively Paul Lewis and the Emerson String Quartet, gave moving accounts of the final three piano sonatas, Opus 109, No. 30 in E, Opus 110, No. 16 in A-flat, and Opus 111, No 32 in C minor; and the string quartet, Opus 135, No. 16 in F.
Lewis’s understated elegance and virtuosity, and the Emersons’ shimmering eloquence, are ideal vehicles for navigating this transit. They addressed four of the most significant chamber works in the history of music in a manner that appeared to approximate perfection.
No doubt these are mature artists contemplating the most mature works in their repertories, in which the greatest composer of chamber music knowingly and anxiously approaches his moment of death. In their own moods and gestures it appeared that they, too, were attentive to the ineluctable passage of time and all its implications for every maestro who commits her or his life to this ephemeral art. These evenings, it appeared that the audience also sensed their respect, gravitas and joy in honoring Beethoven so thoughtfully and passionately. After each performance, the Ozawa Hall audience sat briefly in rapturous silence before exploding in appreciation.
There are striking similarities, and differences, across these compositions. These, of course, do not nearly embrace the many subtleties, much less the interpretive nuances of such gifted performers.
Frequently, it is obvious that Beethoven is improvising on the piano before writing the notes on his manuscript. Inspired jazz artists, too, take fragments of melody and expand them into longer phrases and developed passages with astonishing ease and logic.
In the second movement of the Opus 109 piano sonata, for example, many phrases contain an unexpected dissonance, in the right hand, while the left hand strokes a harmonic and rhythmic foundation. But nearly all the dissonances then resolve, by easing up or down a half step into a pretty chord. Beethoven does something very interesting here, which is actually familiar to accomplished jazz pianists in the present day. He makes a melody from the notes to which the dissonances resolve, which then become the motifs for small fugues. It’s the kind of thing pioneered (so to speak) in the jazz of the 1950’s by the classically trained pianist, Bill Evans, in his many exciting melodic variations on the 12-bar blues, as well as by Erroll Garnerand by Garner’s successor, Bobby Timmons.
Arguably, it was Beethoven and his predecessors, Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart, who established the tradition of keyboard improvisation in live performance.
Toward the end of the movement, the resolving dissonances continue, suggesting that beneath the crust of orderly elaboration boils a brew of undisciplined emotion. Suddenly, a Chopin-like, romantic melody distills over the heat of Beethoven’s imagination into the melodic essence of yet another fugue. In the end, the cascade of resolving dissonances comfort the ear, presaging a sweet, strong, definitive ultimate finale, and a breathtakingly gorgeous one at that.
Resolution is possible, even with the pull of dissonance, in the late Beethoven oeuvre. It’s this tension – between the pull away and the pull toward resolution – that is so audible in this music. In his life, and, for that matter, toward the end of all of our lives, resolution comes only when we reconcile what we must leave with what we can take away. Ars longa, vita brevis
Still more fugal variations stir the beginning of the last movement of Opus 109, with intersecting melodies that collide to weave a still denser, chromatic tapestry. Beethoven seems to say, “I hear you, Herr Bach, in my final hours, and bow deeply in gratitude for your inspiration.” After stunning left hand runs and a strong, pointillist outlining of melody in the upper register (as the wizard of imagination and technique, Art Tatum, does in this wonderful treatment of Anton Dvorak’s Humoresque), the piece concludes with a final, accessible, hymn.
Light shines through as the arc of this sonata’s shifting Sturm und Drang waxes and wanes. There’s comfort in knowing that heaven is above.
The second movement of Opus 110, marked Arietta. Adagio molto semplice e cantabile (“Breeze. Very slowly, simple and singable”). begins with a ravishing, simple, C-major melody, which again you can play in waltz (3/4) time : CG-GF, DG-GE, GAE, CCB, BCE, GGF etc.
Note the exquisite beauty with which pianist Maurizio Pollini starts this movement:
Beethoven develops this sweetness into a minor variation, and elaborates it into counterpoint, introducing rich chords and occasional, emphasized dissonances. At a certain point, the core of the melody forms with underlying harmony into a recognizable pattern, and became a stronger platform for Beethoven’s right hand improvisation (just as the prolific Canadian, classically-trained, Tatum-influenced jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, demonstrated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Coleman Hawkins.) Scampering melodic fragments leap across the keyboard in this vision of what was to come in mid-20th Century America.
In telling this story, Beethoven plays with an impressive corpus of melodic techniques on the piano, e.g. pedal-point in the left hand, which allows him to improvise wild variations above the pulses, with plunging into a sea of dissonances; arpeggiate flourishes, which spell out the notes of a chord, one by one, giving emphasis to rising melodies and to particular, favored harmonies; simple, two-note contrapuntal experiments, with the right hand at the top of the keyboard and the left at the bottom, flowing to the center and back again; and trills in the upper register of the right hand over a progression of melodies on top of chromatic chords in the left.
Beethoven’s brilliant flight of fancy at the end of the final movement of his last piano sonata, gives an impression of starlight shining through a cloudy sky: trills in the upper register of the right hand over a progression of melodies formed by the notes on top of rising, romantic chords in the left hand. Then, a series perfect fourths and fifths (GC and CG ) heralds a strikingly philosophical final resolution to a simple clear, C major chord.
One can discern a message here: The angel of death may inevitably descend, but there is both hope ahead and satisfaction in leaving a meaningful artistic legacy behind.
Note the restrained passion and lyricism with which Alfred Brendel, Paul Lewis’s influential teacher, performs this sonata here:
The string quartet, Opus 135, No. 16, has a pleasing and attractive conversational quality, which derives almost certainly as well, from Beethoven’s improvisational approach to composition. In the beginning allegretto, clear, bold counterpoint develops from simple melodic ideas, tossed back and forth among the instruments, supported by a strong, accessible harmonic sensibility, redolent of romanticism.
At the beginning of the second, Vivace (“Lively”) movement, syncopations (with emphases on the 2nd and 4th beats of the four-beat rhythm, rather than the 1st and 3rd) rocket from both sides of the ensemble. Then, all of a sudden, everyone plays a series of loud, low E-flats are played by all the members of the group, disrupting both the swinging rhythm and the starting, F major harmony. What is going on here?
Before answering this musical question, Beethoven returns to a new set of rhythms and melodic variations, continuing at a fast tempo before disturbing us by more low, slower, repeated, low E-flats. Then, another surprise: in zipping excursions and down the ranges of the instruments, the players bounce their bows on their strings. Simultaneously there arrive dramatic changes in volume: declining to a pianissimo repeated rhythmic pattern. But then, with no forewarning, those corrupting E-flats strike again, before a pause and a dramatic harmonic shift back to the familiar F major and an emphatic, F major cadence.
Here is the Emerson Quartet in an equally brilliant recording of this Vivace movement:
This wild ride strikes some observers as humorous, but not to this one. Your reviewer reads it as a musical conundrum and challenge for interpretation, e.g. a fast swim in a swelling sea, where sharks poke their menacing snouts through the surface, once again a metaphor for the struggles of a composer in the late 18th and early 19th century, and for psychological and physical danger in the face of the threat of death.
In the last movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, which bears his marking “Serious, but not too sudden,” the rhythm of the “Must it be?” gesture becomes the frame for a conversational variation between the 2 violins and the viola. When subsequently the harmonic sensibility modulates through a velvet carpet of chords, before finally settling on F major once again, Beethoven concludes the passage with curiously off-set rhythms. It’s a bit sudden, yes, but beautiful, and dizzying.
After the striking question, “Must it be?” and the bright response, “It must be! It must be!” there arrives a strikingly simple melody set to a lovely, repeated rhythm. The song and its setting surely influenced the “Symphony from the New World” (Symphony No. 9), by Antonin Dvorak. This sweet tune turns, twists, shifts, and repeats with suggestions of the “Must it be?” intervals. Toward the end a leaping pizzicato variation diminishes in volume to a barely audible pianissimo, then rises quickly in volume and intensity, with full power, to a shocking, exquisite fortissimo cadence, asserting “It must be! It must be” as existential truth.
Renowned himself as a virtuoso with an uncanny ability to execute trills and thirds, Beethoven exacted high standards, which were not always met, for the performance of his works. He was a suffering man of great courage and integrity. One can hardly imagine what it was like for someone who lived, performed, and composed in the world of music to lose his hearing, much less to valiantly attempt to conduct the premiere of his Ninth Symphony.
In these evenings of tribute at Ozawa Hall, this reviewer discerned not a single lapse in the sustained brilliance of Paul Lewis. He extracted from the piano a subtle panoply of colors and textures, and the prevailing resonances of his touch were sweet and lithe. Beethoven’s gnarly counterpoint came across with vivid clarity, and the confusing rhythmical aspects of the three sonatas were addressed straightforwardly, without over-emphasis or didacticism. Lewis’s phrasings, dynamics, pedaling, comprehension of the interior- and over-arching structures, were all exciting to behold. They kept this listener on the edge of his seat throughout the concert.
Notwithstanding the fabulous musicality and maturity of the Emerson Quartet’s Beethoven, who were to a man equally adept in expressing its subtleties and narrative, the first half of their program, Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 1, “From the Salvation Army,” and Lowell Liebermann’s String Quartet, No. 5, Opus 126, written for and premiered by the Emersons in 2014, was disappointing.
Perhaps this was attributable to the immature, even jejune, quality of the Ives, which came across as a pastiche of studies from an undergraduate composition class, resembling only slightly the courageous, muscular, and transgressive Ives we know and love; and to the forbidding nature of Liebermann’s modernistic injections into the tissue of Romantic stylizations. In both pieces, one sensed a powerful ambivalence toward late 19th Century harmonizing by both composers, Ives embracing it without discrimination except when he threw a few dissonances at it, and Liebermann avoiding its innate beauty by cluttering its rich vegetation with dark, dense, and dirty chords. To this listener, there were too few black notes in the former, and too many in the latter.
These were Beethoven’s nights, when his last, perforce, took first place. Profound and meaningful questions were posed, addressed, and resolved with surpassing consideration and virtuosity.
July 23, 2015 DANCE: Alonzo King’s ‘LINES,’ sinuous exploration of existence
Becket — Time flew by on July 17 at Jacob’s Pillow, during the first half of this moving, penetrating exploration of our relationships with one another and our planet, expressed in a choreography which enabled gifted dancers to give their own interpretations of symbols and signals of the physical, visual, auditory, and philosophical dimensions of our existence. From a setting of J.S. Bach’s 1739 Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor, BWV 1043, in which the violins speak as individuals, flirt, and merge in fugal imitation, through Edgar Meyer’s Radius of Convergence, where the piercing alto saxophone of Pharaoh Sanders peeks through a tapestry of emotional harmonies, the first half of
the performance flashed in successive milliseconds of reaching up, pulling in apart and coming together, in solos, duos, trios, quartets, and quintets of twisting, turning, twining, and tangling. It was heartfelt, honest, and original expression by strikingly beautiful, muscular, tall, linear humans to music of depth and profundity. Notably absent were rote patterns, fixed poses, and showy acrobatics. This was an experience of constant revelation.
The Bach and the dancers mirrored one another in Concerto for Two Violins, without overly precise coordination, and in a striking convergence of musical and corporeal metaphors. Innate tension prior to the resolution of the counterpoint is perhaps the most organic and gripping quality of Bach’s masterpiece, balanced against the luscious, accessible harmony in which the melodic lines are embedded. Each dancer, it was clear, experienced this tension in her and his dramatic, slow extensions, bends, and rises in the central, adagio section.
In the allegro outer movements, there was both an exquisite sense of order in the tutti passages, befitting the church-y formality of Bach’s orchestral composition, and a growing sense of urgency and improvisatory physicality in the dancing as the violins twirled toward their climactic cadences.
Here, in the Pillow’s own promotional video of the LINES Ballet for the 2015 season, one can witness, in the course of the several, brief, intercut passages, the discipline — emphatically without regimentation — that energizes the dancing, in a frame that is both organized and permissive. Notice, as well, how the solo and duo engagements convey spontaneity and human verisimilitude, with bursting sensuality and excited contemplation, drawing attention as well to the act of watching. This is, in Alonzo King’s own metaphor for ballet, thought made visible. And, if you will, fantasy made visible. Note as well Axel Morgenthaler’s apposite lighting that dissolves from cream over a black background to mauve.
In Men’s Quintet, the five dancers progressed from individual display to a striking metaphor of separation, mistrust, and masculine teasing. (This, please understand, is your reviewer’s interpretation of the narrative of the dance. Others may read it differently.)
A group of four formed a weird parade in the rear of the stage, sustaining hand and arm contact with one another as they scuffled along, isolating away from them a man in the foreground. Suddenly, they formed a line, standing side to side, and the man ran desperately toward them and leapt horizontally to arms outstretched at the last possible moment.
If you’ll forgive a didactic moment, it is well to note here that teasing — a preoccupation among many boys and men, especially around themes of status, power, and sexuality — exerts its effects on the intended victim by emotionally isolating or shaming them. In caring and loving relationships, a tease is momentary and can have salutary and seductive effects, when, after the tease is resolved, it pulls us together even more closely than before the tease.
The tease in this dance appeared to be about acceptance and rejection, and it wasn’t favorably resolved. Just after this stunning moment, the quartet moved together diagonally toward stage right, and the teasee, after being saved by them, found himself unable to break into their formation, despite his valiant trying. This is the danger implicit in the tease, which can become a form of bullying.
There was palpable sadness here, as before, with gorgeous dancing, remarkable for its sinuousness, strength, and understated athleticism.
After intermission, a new dance, Biophony, was presented. Lit in various greens, its music, by Bernie Kraus and Richard Blackford counterpoised recorded sounds of the jungle and seashore with electronic simulacra of the post-industrial life. The former predominated, and the dancing evoked an astounding array of imaginary creatures. Bathed in translucent hazes that wafted across the stage, disappeared, and reappeared without overt timing, the men and women became idiosyncratic, striking creatures, with distinctive gaits, temperaments, mating behaviors, and responses to the elements and inhabitants of their worlds.
Here the dance, rising and falling and rising in intensity, reflected the excitement of the computer-generated score. The wild ride of birdcalls, buzzing bees, murmuring chickens, rain showers, shrieks, roars, waves, whale calls, thunderclaps, hisses, bursts of static and occasional marimbas, bongos, and synthesizer swoops provoked a riot of activity at times, always with keenly-individual takes. One female dancer obviously got a kick out of making like a hen, stooping and shaking her booty at the audience. She repeated this several times, provoking a ripple of laughter in the crowd, perhaps the roles of women in rap and music videos were so familiar, or because it was just plain fun.
Supremely challenging yoga maneuvers, some resembling spider poses, were also incorporated into movement. People gasped.
Yet this last piece lacked the dynamic tension and satisfactions of the first half of program. Surely there was a message about the precarious state of biological diversity in contemporary life. But the sublime capabilities of Alonzo King’s dancers seemed submerged in the tintinnabulations of transcriptions and transistors. Ballet can make us believe that dancers can fly, but this came across as a leap too far from Firebird.
In sum, however, this was an evening full of passion, surprise, and astounding artistry. See it for yourself!
July 21, 2015 TANGLEWOOD: Terfel rampant, Radvanovsky resplendent in Verdi, Puccini
Lenox — Two nights after a wide ranging and generous recital at Ozawa Hall, on July 11, the justly celebrated bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, brought his huge and resonant voice to the Tanglewood Shed, with solo arias from Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and “Falstaff” preceding a wondrous performance of Act I of Puccini’s “Tosca.”
In the latter, as the evil, love-struck police chief, Scarpia, Terfel was joined by his equal in power, projection, and personality, the Met soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky, a credulous, sensuous, volatile Tosca. She evoked the wizardry of Maria Callas to Terfel’s Feodor Chaliapin, along with a superb, last-minute tenor replacement, Brandon Jovanovich, as Cavaradossi, and a truly impressive supporting cast: bass-baritone, John Del Carlo as the Sacristan, the marvelous bass, Ryan Speedo Green, as Angelotti, tenor, Ryan Casperson as Spoletta, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and a children’s chorus, Voices Boston, along the Boston Symphony Orchestra, singing and playing their hearts out under the baton of Bramwell Tovey.
Verdi’s Overture to La forza del distino and Stabat Mater preceded Terfel’s solo arias. Tovey’s conducting was masterful and understated. His subtle stick work and expressive left hand drew lovely dynamic shadings and clearly arched, emotionally deep phrases from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which wove elegant tapestries of context and support. Ravishing string pianissimos, exquisite solos from clarinet, oboe, and flute, and rich underpinnings of contrabasses and brass distinguished these works.
Stabat Mater began with Mary’s weeping at the foot of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, with unsparing lyrics and in astonishing expressive verisimilitude, combining decrescendo and rallentendo to create a sense of overwhelming sadness from the chorus.
“The sorrowful mother stood
weeping by the cross
where her Son was hanging.
Her groaning heart,
Saddened and anguished,
A sword had pierced.”
Short phrases and single syllables gave power and tragedy to these images of death and loss, over continuously-flowing, ineluctably-progressing passages in the woodwinds and low brass, for whom the piece was virtually a concerto with voices. Perfectly, Tovey balanced the velvety brass ensemble sound both with the chorus and the orchestra. Allowing the trombones and tuba to be clearly perceived all through came as a revelation (because it was missing throughout James Levine’s tenure), deepening the profound emotionality of the text.
“She saw her sweet Son
desolate in dying,
as He gave up the spirit.
Ah Mother, fount of love,
make me feel the power of grief
that I may lament with you.”
Stabat Mater built on the words and music of a medieval hymn. It conveyed to the heedful listener a message for all time and all mankind: Appreciate earnestly the love and travails of mothers. If they suffer trauma and loss, reach out to them with kindness. Sense and share their grief; and give them sympathy and care.
Bryn Terfel then presented two Verdi arias, the moving Ella giammai m’amo (“She never loved me”) from Don Carlo, and the over-the-top send-up of conventional morality, Eh! Paggio! Hey! Page! L’onore (“Hey, page! Honor!”) from Falstaff. The first was at once deeply mournful and exquisitely tender. A sweet and warm summoning from Martha Babcock’s cello contrasted thoughtfully with the vocal line.
But Eh! Paggio! L’onore! offered no sense of civility, or of empathy. Honor, in the view of the fat knight, was for show, evasive in meaning and contingent on the scheme at hand. Terfel gave him rip and roar, emphasizing in gesture, phrase, and bellow the strutting of a gentleman poseur. Honor is but a word, which can neither heal wounds nor mend broken bones. What’s more, it has zero meaning after life is over!
Verdi worked with his librettist friend and colleague composer, Arrigo Boito, on Falstaff between 1889 and its premiere in La Scala in Milan in February, 1893. The slow pace of completion was partly attributable to there being no need to rush, as they were composing and writing for their own amusement. But Verdi was keenly aware of his advancing years, and his depression, lapses in their communications, and their both suffering illness and the deaths of friends contributed as well.
Their letters, however, also reveal the joy, and no doubt relief, that they shared in reframing Shakespeare’s boffo comedy. Verdi wrote Boito in 1891:
Pancione, “The Big Belly” is on the road to madness. (Pancione was their nom-de-travail for the opera before they disclosed that it was based on Shakespeare.) There are some days when he does not move; he sleeps and is in a bad humor. At other times, he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart. I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this, I will put him in a muzzle and straightjacket!”
(Note: For yo,u dear readers, who view skeptically this reviewer’s seeking contemporary resonances from antique tropes, he can do no better to trump your argument than to point to the bellicose billionaire with the Clorox hair who fouls the American airspace. Were he to accept the role, Bryn Terfel would be superbly cast as this man of the hour, if only John Adams were to compose an opera about his quixotic journey.)
Tosca, the second half of this splendid concert, has special significance for both its lead singers. For Terfel, the role of Scarpia is often said to have been made for him, and vice versa. Critic William Harston of the London Express, for example, praised his 2014 performance in the Royal Opera House, which also starred Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca:
“Bryn Terfel is quite simply the best Scarpia around, seeming to seethe with malice with every note. His stage presence is enormous, gripping the attention and combining with the music to create an instant mood of pure blackness whenever he enters.”
For Sondra Radvanovsky, it was a performance of Tosca that moved her to become a singer. By happy circumstance, she and her mother were watching television when she was about 12 years old. They accidentally came across a performance of Tosca in which Placido Domingo played a leading role. Although her mother wanted to move another channel, young Sondra insisted, “Wait, I want to see this!” Transfixed, she watched the remainder of the performance, so affected by its end that she told her mother, “I want to do this!” In a year, she began voice lessons. Radvanovsky told this story last year to Classic Talk, hosted by Bing Yang and Dennis Glauque, in a videotaped interview.
Here is a solo encore from Radvanovsky’s 2011 joint appearance with the very man who inspired her singing career, in the aria Vissi d’arte (“I lived for art”) from the second act of Tosca, in Toronto, which she thanks as “my home town.” (The aria begins after the announcement at 2.01.49)
The singing in this evening’s Tosca was every bit as enthralling, and the better for being live. Cavaradossi in Brandon Jovanovich’s hands was lithe, flexible, and centered across the tenor range, with fine edges and a mellow core. With Radvanovsky, there was a fine synchrony, both of vocal virtuosity and complementarity, with excellent balance in the center of the hall.
Her singing was nothing short of spectacular, to this listener’s ears, having heard her two months previous as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera from a center orchestra seat at the Met. She brings extraordinary power and feeling to the line and the lyrics, which together frequently sends shivers up the spine. With Terfel, it’s a marriage made in heaven. She brings equivalent weight, below and above the tessitura, and a silky radiance that beams through in passages from pp to ff. Equally, she bears a sexy femininity, which suits this complex role to a T, if you will.
But you wouldn’t, with this T, or rather, this S! Terfel’s Scarpia was as personally monstrous and brutally unsexy as could be imagined. When Terfel uttered Scarpia’s line comparing his plot to ensnare Tosca to Iago’s plot to deceive Othello to the point of murdering his beloved Desdemona in the Shakespearean tragedy of jealousy and love, he gave a sense of a cauldron of hatred beneath the policeman’s preoccupation with control. That the plot appeared to work was nauseating, and one had to pause to remember that it was only a play.
The Te Deum that ends Act I is arguably Puccini’s masterpiece of religious representation. The following portion of a delightful letter to his friend, Monsignor Dante de Fiorentino, shows the urgency Puccini attached to get the scene right:
“Go to San Martino. Go to the Bishop, if necessary, and ask him what would be appropriate for the priests as they proceed toward the altar for the celebration of the Te Deum… Find some verses for me, or at least one which will suggest the victory in a prelude before the great Te Deum. Tell the Bishop to invent something for me. If he doesn’t, I’ll write to the Pope and have him thrown out of his job on the grounds of imbecility. . . Get the words for me, or I’ll become a Protestant.”
After Tosca leaves the scene of the Act One to confront her lover, whom Scarpia intends to execute, he gloats over his intentions. As the Te Deum (‘To God”) is sung by a procession of the devout, he proclaims, “Tosca, you make me forget even God,” before singing the prayer with, and above, the chorus.
The musical effect was devastating and magnificent. Terfel soared, blended, rarely disappearing into the prayer but inevitably emerging in volume and range as a frightening portent of what was certain to follow.
Here is Terfel as Scarpia performing the ‘Te Deum’ from Act I of Jonathan Kent’s production of Tosca (2011) in the Royal Opera in the U.K.
In the present performance, the post-Romantic Italian opera movement called Verismo, where Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Giordano, among other composers, writers, and artists, searched for realism in nature, human affairs, and art, was fully realized. Baron Scarpia and Floria Tosca sang unapologetically. The ambiguities and elegance of earlier tradition, with formal beauty and Bel Canto virtuosity, were cast aside. Music and story were impressively integrated, to tremendous effect.
Here, as well, came a revelation of a universal truth, one which we ignore at our peril. When masculine urges and controlling depredations are enabled in the name of religious observance and law enforcement, societies – and especially women – are inevitably imperiled.
July 16, 2015 REVIEW: Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in glorious recital at Ozawa Hall
Lenox — In a musically fulfilling and energetic entertainment in Ozawa Hall on July 9, the surpassing vocal technique and musicianship of Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone champion of Wales, were matched by, and occasionally overweighed by, his showmanship.
Responding to the opening burst of applause, he exclaimed, “It’s working already!” Later, in a collection of Wales-inspired songs, after beginning “Home on the Range,” reprised from his previous Ozawa Hall recital in 2013, Terfel invited the audience to sing along. Noting their hesitation with the unfamiliar second verse, he exclaimed sweetly, “You don’t even know this!”
After a gorgeously nuanced “Mack the Knife,” from Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera,” sung in German as a first encore in, he delivered a stunning treatment of Arrigo Boito’s “Son lo spirito che nega sempre (‘The Whistle Aria’),” from the opera, “Mephistofele.” Terfel challenged the spellbound crowd, yet again. But this time, it was to whistle as loudly as he did. Suddenly, Ozawa Hall was transformed to Fenway Park! Where Terfel’s wolf-whistle was loud and amazingly melodic, the audience’s was anything but. Did they ever screech-whistle! Your poor, poor reviewer’s ears hurt.
And, oy, again, if he may! Did this Terfel walk the walk and kvetch the kvetch of Tevye in “If I were a Rich Man,” from “Fiddler on the Roof?” Did he ever, to end the concert, to clamorous applause. “From Wotan to Tevye!” one audience member exclaimed afterward, referring to one of Terfel’s famous Wagner roles, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Nothing, to your happy reviewer’s mind!
Along the way, there was some astounding music-making, notably in in the passionate, tragic “Fleur jettee,” or “Discarded Flower,” poem by Armand Silvestre, music by Gabriel Fauré, in which he revealed an upper range that was
rich, nuanced, subtle, and luminous, and in the flamenco-inflected, “Chanson a Dulcinee,” from the “Don Quichotte” suite of poems by Alexandre Arnoux, set to music by Jacques Ibert, starting with a controlled, warm, deep basso and ending in a honeyed, falsetto high A, with emotional transits from pining to revelation, repeating the couplet “A day lasts a year if I see not Dulcinea” after each verse, and evoking glorious metaphors, seeing his lover’s face in “every dawn and each flower” and sensing an exquisite breeze: “The wind brings me her breath when it passes over jasmines.”
Here is Feodor Chaliapin, the Russian basso to whom Terfel referred several times in the concert, singing the Chansons in French, and subsequently, in an English movie. The composition was commissioned, to be performed by Chaliapin from George Ibert by the film’s director, George Wilhelm Pabst, in his film of the Cervantes story. In the course of this concert, Terfel mentioned Chaliapin several times, noting the curious story of this commission: that it actually went first to Maurice Ravel, who submitted his score too late! (Sadly, it was Ravel’s last completed work.)
Here, first, is a quite excellent audio recording of Chaliapin, followed by a charming video excerpt from the movie, in an excellent print, with some raucous comedy, featuring Chaliapin’s heavily accented English and equally charming acting, over orchestral accompaniment. Note his sublimely expressive face and acutely sensitive phrasing. (One cannot but sense his influence on Bryn Terfel’s.)
In the movie version, the song cycle is delightfully punctuated by an amusing dialogue, a horseback ride into a herd of sheep, and Quichotte’s freeing a column of convicts, who mock his request to send his love to his “girlfriend,” Dulcinea. The knight’s squire, Sancho Panza, is played and sung by the superb George Robey, the British comedian, renowned by his fellow citizens and knighted as the “prime minister of mirth.”
The chansons start at 15:25, with the Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte, the final song in the cycle, continuing at 51.18, following marvelous hijinks at Court, the notable fight with the windmill, and his sad demise before the pyre that burns the book of his adventures. Can there be a more elaborate scaffolding for a great performance of lieder in the entire history of music?
Franz Schubert’s “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, or “Group from Tartarus” D. 583,” opened with a formidable statement, over roiling chords in the piano lower register:
“Hark – like the murmuring of the angry sea,
like a brook weeping through hollow, rocky gullies,
you can hear over there, deeply muffled,
a heavy, toneless groan,
extracted with torment!”
Metaphors of suffering in the underworld followed, over rising chromatic chords that presaged Richard Wagner’s own path-breaking harmony (there’s little doubt about Schubert’s influence). This was a daring look into the abyss, sung with a deep sense of tragedy and also, of alert warning to we the living.
In this powerful version of the first Tartarus song, Malcolm Martineau accompanies Terfel. His bold, urgent pianism is quite apposite to the dark sentiments.
In this concert, however, the pianist was the virtuoso Natalia Katyukova, whose musical emotions across the gigantic range nestled with astounding closeness to Terfel’s, and whose virtuosity Terfel saluted thusly after the second piece in the group: “Ladies and gentlemen, D-flat major, the hardest key I could have given Natalya, in this song.”
Such was the generous spirit and appealing charm of the evening.
July 7, 2015 Seeking American Spirits at Tanglewood – BSO pays tribute to liberty and swing
On July 3, in the Tanglewood Shed, the first Symphony concert of the summer season opened a window on the cultural swerves that brought us to present-day America. Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” narrated by John Douglas Thompson, enshrined our greatest President in soaring prose and antiphonal music, signifying humane principle against slavery and exploitation; the teetering heedlessness of the Roaring Twenties was danced to oblivion in John Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra);” George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” was given a thrilling performance by Kirill Gerstein, whose improvised cadenza and bursting sfortzandos summoned the spirits of James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Meade Lux Lewis, and Duke Ellington; and an over-orchestrated treatment of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem” attempted to bring the nimbleness of jazz improvisation into the ocean liner of musical ensembles, the symphony orchestra. It also actualized the struggle orchestras face to stay relevant in a popular culture addled by its relentlessly coarsening music.
John Harbison’s 1986 “Remembering Gatsby” was a splendid choice to begin a promising concert, his “salvage endeavor,” according to the Harbison’s notes, from a yet-unproduced opera. Subsequently, James Levine offered him a commission to produce a full work, “The Great Gatsby,” based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, at the Metropolitan Opera, as part of his 25th anniversary commemoration. Its first performance there was given in December, 1999.
Harbison commented on the work in the evening’s program notes:
“The piece, which runs about eight minutes, begins with a cantabile passage for full orchestra, a representation of Gatsby’s vision of the green light on Daisy’s dock. Then the foxtrot begins, first with a kind of call to order, then a 20’s tune I had written for one of the party scenes, played by a concertino led by a soprano saxophone. The tune is then varied and broken into its components, leading to an altered reprise of the call to order, and an intensification of the original cantabile.
“A brief coda combines some of the motives, and refers fleetingly to the telephone bell and the automobile horns, instruments of Gatsby’s fate.”
The work began with an impressive, dark seascape, with swells and descending chromatic chords, impressively accented by deeply expressive low brass, with a virtuoso turn by the principal tuba, Mike Roylance, as a rising wave to a piercing high F from a low B flat. Segueing to F major 2/4, a Sears-Roebuck frame for dance bands’ commercial gigs, the soprano sax sang sweetly, reminiscent of Lawrence Welk (whose lively spirit is quoted by Pete Fountain and other band alumni in the Swedish-inflected vernacular: “Pee on your toes, boys!’)
Roylance’s arching tuba morphed into a muscular Dixieland bass, with deliciously sharp edges. The aforesaid melodic deconstruction gently blew apart over jazzy counter-rhythms and graceful chromaticisms, with clear structural parallels across phrases. After an aching rallentendo, it was a tempo again, giving way to a crowd of melodic fragments before resolving once again on the dance theme. This was simultaneously sentimental and bittersweet, a lovely little emotional tour de force. Harbison, summoned to the stage, took a well-deserved bow to enthusiastic applause.
Gershwin’s Concerto in F was then given a stunning performance by Kirill Gerstein, with a grand surprise, his own reconceptualization of its final, long cadenza. He threw caution to the wind and improvised a fine, bluesy solo with a relaxed tempo and a few virtuosic flourishes. (The man’s technique seems magically to blend Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum.) Absent the orchestra, which had been led somewhat metronomically to this point, nearly overwhelming the subtleties of the piano part in volume and compromising its intrinsic swing, Gerstein offered some real, accessible jazz, with beautiful rhythmic anticipations and suspensions, a fine and gentle underpinning beat, sometimes taking a gentle not-quite-boogie-woogie ostinato, and no few relaxed, perfectly-timed jazz ornaments.
The splendid BSO orchestral voices of clarinet, English horn, and the quite amazing trumpet of Tom Rolfs revealed themselves as well. Rolf’s penetrating blues sensibility and astounding technical virtuosity, included, during an A-minor passage, an effortless descent from a high, soft C to the lowest C in the trumpet range, then back up to a high D and E before descending in the cadence to A. This was mind-boggling and heartrending, the kind of musicianship that brings the audience to the Shed year after year, and it had the taste of jazz.
By happy coincidence, this concert’s printed program contained the following biography of the evening’s featured soloist, who is clearly destined for a leadership role in an important new Boston institution (about which, more below):
“Born in 1979 in Voronezh, Russia, Kirill Gerstein attended a special music program for gifted children and taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ extensive record collection. At fourteen, he studied jazz piano as the youngest student ever to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Subsequently deciding to focus on classical music, he moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Solomon Mikovsky and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. He continued his studies in Madrid with Dmitri Bashkarov and in Budapest with Ferenc Rados. An American citizen since 2005, he now divides his time between the United States and Germany, where he has been a professor of piano at Stuttgart’s Musikhochschule since 2006.
“In September 20114 he was named artist-in-residence in the piano department at his alma mater, Berklee College of Music, and joined the piano and chamber music faculty at Boston Conservatory, the first joint appointment between the two institutions.”
After the intermission, the poetry of Copland’s majestic “Lincoln Portrait” was given perfect, understated elocution by the marvelous Shakespearean, John Douglas Thompson, who embodied a convincing, devastating Othello three seasons ago at Shakespeare and Company, and a memorable evocation of an aging, philosophical Louis Armstrong in Terry Teachout’s “Armstrong at the Waldorf” two seasons back, and subsequently Off Broadway. He substituted on short notice for an ailing Jessye Norman, who was unable to travel. (Cognoscenti take note: Mr. Thompson will star in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, Red Velvet, as Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play Othello on the English stage, in 1883. The play runs in Shakespeare and Company’s Packer Playhouse from August 6 to September 13. http://www.shakespeare.org/performances/all-performances/red-velvet/)
The orchestra was nothing short of magnificent in the massed brasses and soaring woodwinds that commented, back and forth, on the themes of the text, and in more dense passages beneath the narration, brought forward snippets of ragtime and 19th Century popular music, notably Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.”
In the spirit, it is worth noting Copland’s beautifully curated text, itself a fine work of composition, evoking the rhythms of the Black church and judiciously interspersing his personal attributes with the great man’s words:
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”
“That is what he said. That is what Abraham Lincoln said.
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.” [Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862]
“He was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and lived in Illinois. And this is what he said. This is what Abe Lincoln said.
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country.” [Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862]
“When standing erect he was six feet four inches tall, and this is what he said.
He said: “It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.” [Lincoln-Douglas debates, 15 October 1858]
“Lincoln was a quiet man. Abe Lincoln was a quiet and a melancholy man. But when he spoke of democracy, this is what he said.
He said: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
“Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of these United States, is everlasting in the memory of his countrymen. For on the battleground at Gettysburg, this is what he said:
He said: “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
The concert closed with a ponderous re-orchestration of one of Duke Ellington’s concert suites. “Harlem” was given by full orchestra with expanded percussion and woodwinds, including both piano and sax section.
But with due respect to the unnamed guest tenor sax man and the guest conductor, Jacques Lacombe, no classical tenor man can compete with Paul Gonsalves in telling the blues, much less his contemporary exemplar, Branford Marsalis, here in gorgeous performance with soprano, Kathleen Battle, on “Come Sunday,” one of the famous Ellington themes quoted in “Harlem:”
Note, please, its heartfelt emotionality, deliciously swinging tenor responses to the exquisite singing, and importantly, the unprepossessing orchestral background, with perfect balance and apposite swells.
Afterward, if you keep the video running, you should find, in sequence, a fabulous version of Ellington leading his band in “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “The Mooche” in 1956, with a parade of some of the world’s most renowned jazz soloists, including Johnny Hodges, alto sax, Billy Hamilton, clarinet, and Clark Terry, trumpet, backed with subtlety by Ellington, Sam Woodyard, drums, and James Woode, contrabass.
This American concert also culminated a month of important transition in the musical life of Massachusetts and the classical music world and evoked the inspiration and concerns of one of our leading musical protagonists.
On June 21, 2015, Gunther Schuller, died. His service as director of the Tanglewood Music Center from 1970 to 1985, and as president of the New England Conservatory of Music from 1967 to 1977, transformed both institutions and attempted to refocus their efforts toward the future rather than past. His books, “Early Jazz,” “The Swing Era” and “On Conducting,” adroitly addressed ineffable perishable musical traditions. And his daringly original compositions and invention (at NEC) and promotion across the world of a “Third Stream” hybrid of classical, jazz, and ethnic musics brought him many prestigious acknowledgments (including a 2009 Jazz Master award by the National Endowment for the Arts).
Where classical and jazz rhythms overlapped and collided, Schuller often posed the question, “What is ‘swing?’ ” And he answered it, especially in his astute conducting, trusting the orchestra to get the style. Sadly, classical conductors frequently ignore Schuller’s guidance, for example, on the subtlety of syncopation where, especially in jazz performance, the off-beat is stressed in layers of rhythm.
“Musicians and conductors sometimes tend to forget that a syncopation can only sound syncopated if it is in reaction to a strongly felt beat. When a normally weak beat is stressed, that stressing can only be perceived as such when the normally strong beat is also felt in all its full strength and weight.” (Gunther Schuller, On Conducting, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 270)
And in this excellent, deeply-informative disquisition on defining swing:
“In all of jazz there is no element more elusive of definition than swing. Although it is something that almost all good jazz musicians can do and recognize, and something whose presence or absence almost all jazz audiences can instantly distinguish, it is also something that is extremely hard to define in words. In Early Jazz I offered what is in effect a partial definition of swing.
“But perhaps it is possible now to probe still deeper into the matter by approaching a definition of swing from two points of view: one quite general, experienced as a direct reaction; the other quite specific, analyzed in technical-acoustical terms.
“In its simplest physical manifestation swing has occurred when, for example, a listener inadvertently starts tapping his foot, snapping his fingers, moving his body or head to the beat of the music. Rhythm is the most magnetic irresistible force among all the elements of music – harmony, melody, timbre, dynamics, etc. – and one to which human response is virtually universal. In a vast majority of the world’s musical cultures, rhythm – and its more specific manifestation, the beat – is the primary, indeed primeval element, to which human minds, hearts and bodies respond. Interesting examples of that fact can be seen in primitive music – be it the truly primitive and undeveloped musical efforts of certain aborigine cultures or the often harmony-less, melody-less but rhythmically-obvious exertions of certain modern rock performances. (emphasis your reviewer’s) For regardless of whatever other musical elements might be missing or feebly represented, as long as rhythm is functioning, the human physical/emotional response is almost guaranteed, be it achieved with harmony or melody, and even less with the other constituent components that collectively constitute the world of sound and music.
“But rhythm or a beat does not in itself produce swing While a really swinging beat or rhythm will make sophisticated dancers perform quite extraordinary terpsichorean feats, we also know that the vast amount of social dancing in the Western world occurs to the dullest, stiffest unswinging ‘clomp-clomp’ rhythms. Similarly, the good clean rhythm of a superb classical orchestra is not necessarily swing. Indeed, metronomic accuracy and rhythmically regular placing of time points (or beats) do not by any means guarantee swing.
“What then in technical terms is this elusive element? There are certain preconditions without which swing cannot occur. One is a regular reiterated beat, a regular pulse, either explicit – as in, for example, the 4/4 beat patterns in bass, drums, and guitar in a rhythm section – or implicit – as in an irregular rhythmic figure which nevertheless adheres to and is rooted in an underlying beat.
“Second, these rhythmic impulses — both the notes a musician is actually playing and the pulse underlying those notes, whether in a 2-bar break or a seven-minute improvisation – must be felt. They cannot be calculated, counted, intellectually arrived at, and still produce swing. Whatever calculation or study is involved must occur during the learning stages of the process. For a condition of ‘swing’ to exist, any calculating, studying, and practicing must have been translated in a feeling. It must arise not from the mind or the brain – although the brain may be involved with its controlling critical capacities by receiving the information conducted to it by the ear – but from one’s instincts and natural, at times even unconscious, impulses and feelings. When swing occurs it is innate, not studied. It is free and unhindered insofar as it arises from natural felt impulses; but at the same time it is controlled by the auditory apparati of the ear and mind. It is produced in the not fully conscious realms, but is governed by the conscious mind.” (Gunther Schuller, The Quintessence of Swing, In: The Swing Era, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 223-224.)
Another transition in Boston this past month signaled a further reconciliation of our musical traditions and charted a new path toward their further integration: the planned merger of the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music. Note, please, this sentence from Berklee’s announcement :
“The combined campus would also provide new opportunities for academic collaboration: a first-ever program in jazz dance, allowing Conservatory dancers to work directly with the gifted students of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute; songwriting and new-theater-works programs that take advantage both of Berklee’s expertise in contemporary song and the Conservatory’s depth in theater and stagecraft studies; and more fluid boundaries among ensembles that perform everything from Beethoven to Bollywood, from Monk to Mahler — all at a level that sets the bar for worldwide excellence.” Click here for the announcement in full.
On June 25, 2015, Malcolm Gay in Boston Globe article on the merger quoted the head of the current Boston Conservatory:
” ‘The combined institution creates in one stroke the most comprehensive training ground for performing arts and related careers in the country, if not the world,’ said Boston Conservatory president Richard Ortner.
Berklee would retain its name, and the Conservatory would become known as the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.”
We ought not to deny, in saluting this new, combined institution, which will become the world’s largest music conservatory, the extraordinary contributions of the New England Conservatory of Music, which Gunther Schuller served so well, and Boston University’s music conservatory within its School of Fine Arts. These are the traditional academic homes for the teaching studios of key members of the Boston Symphony, who in turn have nurtured the careers of many leading contributors to the classical music world.
One may hope that the change that’s in the offing will lead to a fuller embrace of diverse musical cultures, with this fine orchestra taking a lead, as we so appreciated at the opening night at Tanglewood.
(Disclosure: Your reviewer served 3 terms, from 2001 to 2010, as a trustee of the Berklee College of Music, and from 1994 to 2009 as an overseer of the New England Conservatory of Music.)
July 3, 2015 Titillation to transcendence at Tanglewood: Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett
Lenox — A 29-year-old, sexy pop star meeting an 88-year-old crooner could be the foundation for a whimsical movie or Broadway comedy. But in the hands of Lady Gaga (née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) and Tony Bennett (né Anthony Dominick Benedetto) before a sold-out, wildly enthusiastic crowd at Tanglewood, such was the brilliance of talent, showmanship, choice of songs, sense of swing, and sublime instrumental backing, that they transcended stereotype. Together, they gave a once-in-a-lifetime, deeply satisfying performance, in which each singer played lightly to their expected tropes, even as they relished in the emotional depth and opportunities for spontaneous improvisation in the music of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Michel Legrand, and the legacies of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Edith Piaf.
Sinatra’s voice sounded from overhead once the house lights went down: “Here’s the greatest thing in the world today, Mister Tony Bennett!” And there he stood in a simple outfit of white dinner jacket, white shirt, long black tie, and black trousers as Lady Gaga emerged from stage right wearing a floor-length, silver, sequined gown with a deeply scooped neck.
To a prancing beat from Tony Bennett’s world-class rhythm section of Mike Renzi, piano, Gray Sargent, electric guitar, Marshall Wood, upright bass, and Harold Jones, drums, on the left, along with Lady Gaga’s unnamed septet on the right, they dived into the Cole Porter standard, “Anything Goes,” delighting in its apposite lyrics, which they traded back and forth:
“In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Although this video of their “Anything Goes” doesn’t quite capture the intensity of the experience in the Shed, it shows a similar opening of their 2014 show in Brussels.
Note, please, the gloriously swinging jazz accompaniment, their secure rhythm, syncopation, and pitch, delight in one another’s company, and, the contemporary touches, Lady Gaga’s inner-arm trumpet and upper-back dragon tattoos, which became more visible with each successive costume change. This was a higher order of old-meets-young on the stage of song, a standard belted out with energy, sauciness, and creative abandon. As in Brussels, the Tanglewood audience went wild in response.
From here, Lady Gaga began Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” in a moderato tempo, impressive in her immense range and controlled vibrato, tossing the song to Bennett with a quick up-tempo shift that established the frame for their faster songs: trading phrases, jumping into spontaneous improvisation, blending together in tight harmony and loose scatting with glissandi, melismas, and riffs aplenty, and vivid contrasts in posture: he frequently moving gently or standing stolidly erect, with subtle hand, arm, and facial gestures, she frolicking about, showing off her dance moves and often, her curves, confident without evident choreography.
Into Gershwin’s “They All Laughed,” the mood brightened still, with stunning pauses and crisply articulated couplets.
Then came a sudden tempo change, and Bennett sang Alexander Borodin’s “Stranger in Paradise” melody from the Polovtsian Dances in the Opera, “Prince Igor,” as adapted for “Kismet” by Robert Wright and George Forrest. His voice was centered with sharp contours and a smoky expressivity in his tessitura, but strained to the point of raspiness as he approached the limits of his range (later ascending to a squeaky but astounding C above middle C). He wove delicious melodic variations over the harmonies, supported by the spare accompaniment piano, bass, and high-hat cymbal. This came across as both intimate and daring. With acceleration in tempo, for the first time in the evening, Bennett sounded his formidable high F in a solid riff, swinging like mad, with impeccable timing. One had the impression that he drew more and more strength from the music as the song, and indeed, the entire evening, proceeded. It was both inspiring and exalting. So much for the alleged infirmities of age!
In “Nature Boy,” an exquisite guitar solo by Gray Sargent, who “cuddled up to the chords” in his final phrase (as Stephen Holden, the New York Times critic, eloquently described his style a few years back), served as a prelude to one of Lady Gaga’s more impressive feats of vocal and harmonic virtuosity, a spellbinding jump from her middle register to a high D appoggiatura, descending to a perfectly tuned high, effortless, legato A B-flat A phrase over the melody line.
After a quick costume change to a blue jacket with a white tee shirt, knotted in the back, Lady Gaga presented Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down”), ending with a vivid red silk handkerchief spreading across her chest. If there was any doubt about her classical vocal formation, it was dispelled here, in consistent tonality across a broad range, balanced phrasing, unprepossessing power, and nuanced dynamics around the tragic text.
You can get a vivid sense of this fine artistry in another performance of “Bang, Bang,” yet again not quite up to the experience of listening in person.
Before singing Charlie Chaplin’s richly ironic song, “Smile,” Bennett mentioned that after he discovered the song and made a hit recording of it, he received a nice letter from Switzerland in which Chaplin thanked him “for making my song famous again.”
Chaplin would be 116 years old today, he observed whimsically, leaving it to the audience to do the calculus. (Chaplin lived from 1889 to 1977, and Bennett’s hit was recorded in 1959, when he was 33.) The performance was bittersweet, beginning slow, mellow, and low, with ascending lines and mounting intensity up to the the stunning line, “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile,” with emphasis on a passionate, high A, before its resolution in the final cadence. Its slight tremulousness gave an extra sense of existential truth. Would that Tony Bennett could live to 116!
Further highlights included an extraordinary parade of revealing outfits that appeared to recall the French cabaret tradition of Josephine Baker.
One, a red, see-through lace confection, featured a bare bodice adorned with sparkly pasties. Another, a pink taffeta number with a large pink bow, showed off the trumpet tattoo inside Lady Gaga’s right arm.
After this entry, Lady Gaga gave a touching and convincing evocation of “La Vie en Rose.” Without mimicking Edith Piaf, her own slightly nasal speaking voice uttered words that might have emerged from Piaf’s mouth. “In my opinion,” she said softly, “lives that are more dangerous are more fun. Badass! Shit!” And then she began to sing the indelibly sad introductory verse in well-enunciated French:
“Des yeux qui font baisser les miens
Un rire qui se perd sur sa bouche
Voilà le portrait sans retouche
De l’homme auquel j’appartiens.”
(“With eyes which make mine lower,
A smile which is lost on his lips,
That’s the unretouched portrait
Of the man to whom I belong.”)
Here’s a similar version (click here), with Lady Gaga wearing the same pink gown. Filmed last month in London, with a nice dedication to a British children’s service organization that she favors, this also includes another bit of incidental, unexpected profanity, as she suggests that if members of the audience could afford the ticket to her show, they could spare a small charitable contribution.
To your reviewer, well accustomed to the ribald humor that often accompanies jazz performances, these vulgar expostulations made no sense and contradicted the over-arching beauty of the evening. Such care went into Lady Gaga’s presentation, her hair, her gowning and ornamentation, even as she appeared to do all possible to complement Tony Bennett’s graceful and elegant performance. This suggests some ambivalence toward her audience on the part of a young woman who has achieved great fame and wealth, yet is sensitive to others in need.
The evening drew to a close after Bennett’s magnificent performance of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” by Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand, a sensitive reflection on music as a metaphor for life’s long struggles for love and fulfillment. Through the entire performance, Bennett frequently punctuated his songs with spoken, often perspicacious, thoughts and memories. Such an intimate sense of conversation, and confident self-disclosure, is without question one the charming hallmarks of his legacy.
Here’s another, equally gorgeous version of “How Do You Keep The Music Playing,” with the same band, and many glimpses of the redoubtable guitarist, Gray Sargent, filmed in England in 2012.
From “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” through a touching treatment of “But Beautiful, ” in which Tony Bennett turned to Lady Gaga and asked sweetly, “She sings beautiful, doesn’t she?”(followed by yet another eloquent guitar solo by Gray Sargent), to Gershwin’s “The Lady is a Tramp,” a veritable hit parade brought the show to a close. Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing” served as the icing on the cake. There were so many generous servings, and the huge audience left the shed after a final ovation, smiling and fulfilled.
June 3, 2015 Our bodies, our science, ourselves in ‘The How and The Why’
Lenox — Kenneth Tynan, the British literary scholar whose reviews in the New Yorker set a high bar for theatrical criticism, identified the following ingredients of great acting: a “powerful magnetism,” coupled with “complete physical relaxation, commanding eyes visible at the back of a gallery, superb timing which includes the capacity to make verse swinging, chutzpah . . .and the ability to communicate a sense of danger.”
Sarah Treem’s gripping play, “The How and The Why,” running in the Elayne B. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company until July 26, begins with a confrontation between two women. Rachel, a graduate student in evolutionary biology, played by Bridget Saracino, arrives in the office of Zelda, played by Tod Randolph, the distinguished president of the scientific association that has rejected her presentation to its annual conference.
“Why?” she asks, in a stunningly fraught and portentous scene in which every glance and each conversational gambit offered by Zelda to make Rachel comfortable or to explain her society’s arcane selection process is rejected with a feminist proclamation or threat to leave.
A powerful magnetism radiates from both sides here – these are truly gifted actresses — but it’s bipolar, repelling as well as attracting in a blaze of fascinating fits and starts. Is it because Rachel’s proposed theory of female reproductive physiology might threaten the broad scientific acceptance of Zelda’s “grandmother hypothesis,” which stipulates and offers a mountain of data to prove an evolutionary advantage to menopause in pre-historic communities? Is it because no one in the field previously has taken it back a step, as she claims to have done, examining the female reproductive cycle in light of newer knowledge in immunology and the evolutionary advantage of protecting the uterus from the toxic effects of certain poisonous sperm?
Or is it because, at the very beginning of the play, each woman realizes that there’s something more going on in these questions and this relationship, having to do with their positions in their respective arcs of life, love, fertility, loyalty, and not least, betrayal and abandonment.
Lest the experience be spoiled, I’ll hold back further pertinent details of the story, except to say that in the powerful thrust of their stories, they all emerge. In an enthralling conversation that effortlessly brings in delightful and informative pearls of wisdom from biology, gender studies, medicine, and anthropology, the tension between the women amplifies to a nearly unbearable breaking point, only at the very end resolving to the certainty of hope and assured connection.
Of the two roles, Ms. Saracino’s is less psychologically complex. With perfect dramatic pitch, she pouts, postures, and preaches. In the push and pull of her emotions, she both yearns for and wishes to annihilate the unfolding the relationship with Zelda. And as the play unfolds, we come to understand why. There’s no “complete physical relaxation” available in this part, but Ms. Saracino swings the verse like mad.
In the really heavy lifting that belongs to the role of Zelda, however, Ms. Randolph enters a new, exalted level of accomplishment, in her layered, nuanced portrayal of a middle-aged scientist. Words, mine at least, can’t quite capture the span of her artistry in this role, but I’ll try with these:
…Sustaining a conversation that goes backward and forward in time and builds iteratively, inexorably, several powerful story lines:
…of scientific conflict,
…of love and loss,
…of parental obligation and abandonment,
…of the evolving roles and status of women, in both evolutionary perspective and the arcs of two careers, … one paralleling the development of contemporary feminism, the other a modern woman’s coming to terms with the demands of a lover and the demands of a promising career,
…of power, dependency, and women’s autonomy in two intimate relationships,
…explaining complex physiological and anthropological processes and conflicting scientific theories, even as her character is deeply affected by the rocketing, unfolding relationship,
… beautifully caring and mentoring, even as she struggles to comes to terms with her own mortality
… gesturing so affectingly that she bring tears to ones eyes: e.g., the gentle stroking of the weeping young upstart’s head as she might in comforting a baby
The play and the acting are beyond the beyond, a magical tour de force. Don’t miss it!
The How and the Why. Shakespeare & Company, Kemble Street, Lenox, Mass. Elayne B. Bernstein Theatre. Through July 26. For tickets and information, consult The Berkshire Edge calendar, or contact Shakespeare & Company: 413-637-3353.
November 2, 2014 A Brief Encounter with sublime Mozart
Great Barrington – On arriving at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center shortly before intermission on October 25, your reviewer was shown to a seat in the back of the hall. On listening to the final Rondeau (Allegro) movement of Mozart’s 1780 Oboe Quartet in F Major, K.370, embarrassment on arriving late (because I mistakenly thought the starting time was 8 p.m.) turned to astonishment at the quality of the music.
Here were four world-class virtuosi tossing off with evident delight a tour de force of scampering runs, perfectly coordinated phrases, and stunning, gorgeous, dynamic surprises. Almost unbelievably, the oboist, James Austin Smith, gave a veritable master class in circular breathing in the service of sublime expression. (Here, a wind player simultaneously breathes in while he blows his instrument, hoping against hope to sustain a continuous line.) One doesn’t listen to music making like this every week, or for that matter, every year, and from this short sample, I knew I had to write about it.
The remaining two pieces of the concert, the Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica and Quartet in C minor, KV.617 (1791) and the Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, KV.493 (1786, Vienna), featured Mozart’s seeking heavenly exultation in his last work of chamber music, and rejoicing in the conversational possibilities of piano and strings. The title of the evening seemed well chosen indeed.
The role of glass harmonica, or as Benjamin Franklin described it, Armonica, was performed on celesta by the splendid young pianist, Roman Rabinovich. This transformed the work from a dreamy set of ethereal washes to a vivid exploration of high tonal impulses and delightfully strange collisions of instrumental overtones. And, mirabile dictu, Rabinovich was able to pull from it both dynamic shadings and clearly articulated harmonic transitions. He deployed the limited touch-sensitivity of the celesta with lighthearted subtlety and aplomb.
The ensemble was arrayed from left to right: flute, Tara Helen O’Connor; oboe, James Austin Smith: violin, Daniel Phillips: celesta, Roman Rabinovich; cello, Yehuda Hanani: and viola, Xiao-Dong Wang. The seating arrangement enabled a beautiful integration of woodwinds and of strings, both as sections and as an ensemble. As well, it gave visual access to their sensitive and lively interactions with the celesta.
Yehuda Hanani, its obvious leader, served as the emotional and rhythmic gyroscope of the group, foretelling the dynamic shadings and rising and falling intensities with welcoming glances, subtle bowing gestures, and tonal nuances on his cello. In Hanani’s hands, each impulse of pedal point conveyed a particular rhythmic and expressive meaning. His mastery in this regard was even more especially evident in the piano quartet that followed.
This is an unusual and precious skill in the performance of certain repeated notes, typically the fundamental or dominant of the starting harmony, played in the lower register, which enables melodic, contrapuntal, and harmonic development above, the sustained notes soothing the inevitable dissonances that occur when lines collide. And, as well, pushing the rhythm forward. Too often, all the notes can sound as if they are played the same. Not so here!
The overall sensibility of the glass harmonica work was whimsical and, without question, celestial. One cannot imagine a group of players more delighted to engage with this curious keyboard instrument, which Mr. Rabinovich had played for the first time in rehearsal that very morning.
Together, they projected an exquisitely-unfolding musical story, with an organic sense of pacing and respirational pausing, all the while seizing on delicious, witty exchanges among the characters; across the sections; and in fascinating combinations, such as antiphonal exchanges with the heavenly echoes of the celesta, beckoning, pleading, and laughing, and, toward the end, when the first violin, counterpoised against the viola and cello in unison, leads an exquisite two-part invention, a kind of Mozartian conversation with the guardian of the pearly gates.
Perhaps, toward the end of his short life, Mozart was arguing for acceptance of his dualistic character: to outweigh on the scale of judgment his astoundingly profane behavior and speech with his sublime music.
What of these oddly expressive instruments, the celesta and the glass harmonica? First, Mozart, who died in 1791, could not have known the celesta. A Parisian harmonium builder, Auguste Mustel, invented it in 1886.
To your reviewer, who has actually performed on the celesta at Ozawa Hall, this instrument seemed until now to be a keyboard-powered glockenspiel, blessed with a dampening pedal, great for sugarplum fairies in “Nutcracker” and twinkling presentations of rose and crystal in “Der Rosenkavalier,” but of little use in extended passages. Not so here! This was a voyage of discovery, thanks to Roman Rabinovich. This amazing young artist was evidently trained at Curtis and Juilliard to create beautiful music on whatever keyboard was available to him.
(Full disclosure: my own star turn on celesta took place on August 23, 2008, in the course of a concert given by the Cupcake Philharmonic Orchestra during Family Day at Tanglewood, while conducting and doubling on piano in support of the magnificent BSO tuba, Mike Roylance, on George Kleinsinger’s and Paul Tripp’s whimsical children’s story, “Tubby the Tuba.” Carolyn Newberger, who drew the portraits that illustrate this review, performed Tubby’s musical confidant, Peepo the Piccolo, on her instrument. Carolyn also doubled — on flute — and more than held her own with her seat-mates, the clarinet, Tom Martin, and oboe, Rob Sheena, of the BSO.)
Well prior to Franklin’s invention of the Armonica in 1761,in which 37 glass bowls were mounted horizontally on an iron spindle, turned by a foot-treadle of the kind one would see on an early Singer sewing machine, the ancient Greeks described a “harmonica to produce music for the soul by fingers dipped in water,” on glass, a hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica. Then, in Mozart’s time, starting in the 1740’s, the Irish musician, Richard Pockrich, performed in London on a set of upright crystal tankards filled with varying amounts of water.
According to the website of the Philadelphia Franklin Institute, which owns one of Benjamin Franklin’s original Armonicas, commissioned from his instructions from the instrument-maker, Charles James, in London in 1761,
Franklin said: “Of all my inventions, the glass Armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction.”
In 1773, Mozart and his father encountered one of Franklin’s Armonicas at the home of the physician and author of the theory of “animal magnetism” or “mesmerism,” Franz Anton Mesmer. Franklin, Mesmer, and Mozart were all Freemasons, who welcomed “glass music,” as it was called, for the promotion of “human harmony.”
Leopold Mozart wrote home that both Mesmer and Wolfgang applied their talents to the Armonica: “Do you know that Herr von Mesmer plays (the) harmonica unusually well? He is the only person in Vienna who has learnt it, and he possesses a much finer glass instrument than Miss Davies does. Wolfgang too has played upon it. How I should like to have one!” (For a painting of Franklin playing his Armenia, click here.) Most regrettably, there is no recorded meeting of Franklin and Mozart, however. (One would have liked to be a fly on the wall when the talk turned to country matters. They appeared to share certain characterological propensities.)
Notwithstanding the production of more than five thousand of Armonicas in the course of his lifetime, Franklin did not take a penny in royalties. In the year of his death, 1790, he wrote of all his inventions, “As we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.” Take that, Big Pharma and Monsanto!
To get a sense of what Mozart had in mind when he wrote the piece, please listen to this lovely excerpt of the Adagio and Rondo performed on Armonica by Thomas Bloch in a performance in Paris, featuring the same, marvelous James Austin Smith on oboe:
Note how the overtones from the twirling glass bowls clatter pleasantly against the upper registers of the strings, notwithstanding their near-perfect intonation and beautiful ensemble collaboration. It is indeed a heavenly reverberation.
Compare this to a treatment of the Adagio theme on the celesta that illustrates its own unique overtone series and the percussive impulses produced by its felt hammers striking metal bars. The performer is unknown, which is perhaps just as well, as he is no Roman Rabinovich.
Then compare these instruments to this wine-glass-harmonica in a proper quintet performance of the Adagio. Note how the overtones seem even more ethereal. The evanescence may be partly attributable to the necessarily- slower tempo. Getting one’s hands around this instrument is no mean feat!
The E flat chord that began the 1786 piano quartet sounded astonishingly luscious and warm. To a listener who hadn’t previously experienced a live music concert in the Mahaiwe, much less to a full house, balconies and all, there was certainly something magical about the acoustics. It had the power of a declaration in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.
But as the performance unfolded, with Roman Rabinovich playing a Steinway B piano, seated slightly behind Daniel Phillips, violin, on the left and Yehuda Hanani, cello, to his left; and Xiao-Dong Wang, viola on the right, it was clear that the tonal temperature was equally generated from their unusually warm musical personalities, deeply felt tonal sensibilities, and their relentless focus on creating a generous ensemble sound.
Daniel Phillips played with a sweetness and emotional availability that betrayed the stereotype of the first violinist in a quartet. His attentive listening and concern to support the ensemble was marvelous to behold, especially with the recent memory of the Juilliard Quartet’s South Mountain concert in Pittsfield. There, a new first violinist, without question a monster player, all but blew his colleagues away. Not so here. This was all in service of exalted quartet performance.
Equally, Xiao-Dong Wang made his viola, notable for a keen and focused resonance in a smallish instrument, into a continuously adaptive alto voice, adjusting subtly in every line and chord to the temperature of the harmony and the angle of the melody.
Where Roman Rabinovich’s piano playing was voluble, broadly flowing, and technically astounding across the entire piano range, coloristic in the best sense of this pre-Romantic idiom, and totally at ease with his demanding, featured role, Yehuda Hanani was more modest as a cellist and leader, attending closely to the flow of the counterpoint and, where needed, pulling back or pushing forth the rhythm. Constantly checking in visually with his colleagues, he energized with his bow and caramel cello sound a broad palette of harmonic and rhythmic emphases and accents. Hanani was an embodiment of Lao-Tse, the philosopher of Daoism, who observed that a good leader is the one whose followers, when the job is done, will think they have done it themselves.
At the rising, intense, accelerating finale of the first movement, marked Allegro, the audience burst into applause. This was fully deserved, and probably as Mozart would have wished it. Rather than to maintain straight faces, the members of the quartet smiled and nodded delightedly. This gave a lovely sense of reciprocity to the proceedings, even as the Emily Posts of chamber music might frown at such a violation of concert etiquette.
The second movement is scored as 3/8, but the predominance of two-bar phrases gives it almost, but not quite, a 6/8 sensibility. Which is to say, it didn’t rock, as in a boat, as 6/8 typically does, but breathed in superbly repeated rhythmic segments, with subtle, and affecting, pauses. The melodic expressions, most especially those uttered in pianissimo, moved so gently when the strings were in dialogue with the piano that, abetted by these pauses, they brought tears to one’s eyes. Surely this was mature chamber music performing of the highest order.
The third movement, back in quaternary rhythm, took the form of a dance. And what a dance! Rabinovich surveyed an entire landscape of pianistic devices, arpeggios, runs, bursts of harmonic variation. But he always held back just enough to yield tantalizingly to the leaping, shimmering sonorities in the strings. Hanani’s pedal points provided just the frissons of predictability and uncertainty to offset the rising momentum. Everyone, it was clear, was constantly absorbing, thinking, and urging one another on, with extraordinary brio and control.
After a wonderful, delightful exchange of grace notes between the violin and piano – drawing giggles from the audience – the mood suddenly shifted to minor, with blazing runs up and down the piano, with just a hint of impending tragedy. Shortly, however, a sudden, ambiguous diminished chord served as the pivot from sadness to a lively blossoming of the earlier E flat theme. We, relieved, were then treated to a stunning, majestic resolution, a brilliant ending to an unforgettable encounter with music. Bravi!
August 25, 2014 Tanglewood: The Gospel According to Jeremy Denk
Among the many iterations of Beethoven’s “victory” theme from Symphony No. 5, to be heard in the Berkshires this summer, surely the most dazzling emerged on August 13 from the pen of Charles Ives and the heart and hands of Jeremy Denk. In Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1890,” which he completed in 1915, the theme recurs continually This triumphal performance of one of the piano repertory’s most challenging works comprised the first half of the concert.
Previously in Ozawa Hall, the Emerson Quartet’s traversal of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartets No.’s 12 and 13, completed in 1968 and 1978, gave martial emphasis – to wit, metaphorical machine-gun bursts – to the ta-ta-ta-tums. And every pops concert that includes George and Ira Gershwin’s “You Can’t Take That Away from Me” declaims their inspired inversion of the motif, deriving from a conversation in which the brothers were searching for “new” source material and came upon the opening of the Fifth. (It was Ira who suggested in a moment of genius adding a fifth note and jazzing up the four-note series. One cannot but wonder whether the juice of some other opening fifth may have dissolved his inhibitions.)
The second half of Denk’s magisterial concert was comprised of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, published in 1741. This piece as well represents an imposing challenge, not least because it occupies iconic status, because so many harpsichord and piano virtuosi have recorded it.
Furthermore, Bach wrote it for two-manual harpsichord. To make sense of the work on a single keyboard requires frequent crossings of the hands, all the while continuing three or four lines of counterpoint. Performing it live, as opposed to the recording studio is a Herculean task. Dangers lurk everywhere, and mistakes are brazenly obvious and can’t be edited away.
Assembling these masterpieces in a single concert generates a vibe of excited anticipation. Jan Swafford characterized Denk’s daring to perform them together in his thoughtful notes in the Tanglewood program:
“Pianist Jeremy Denk has made a specialty of programs like this one, uniting formidable works that most pianists would not have the strength or the chutzpah to attempt in one sitting. Anyone who has heard Denk in this kind of program, however, knows that with him it is not an athletic endeavor but a distinctive kind of artistic probing: let’s put together these monumental pieces and see how they illuminate one another.”
Your reviewer has listened with admiration to Jeremy Denk on several occasions and contexts, in recital with the flutist, Paula Robison, previously performing the Concord Sonata, and, with Joshua Bell and the BSO, in Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for violin, piano, and strings. But never have I heard Denk express such a resplendent array of pianistic colors, such illumination of even the smallest embellishments, such clarity of the multiple contrapuntal lines and arcs of phrase that cohere in Bach’s movements, and such a transparent comprehension of the architecture of the entire corpus.
It was no wonder, then, that when the Goldberg came to an end, after Denk’s reverential restatement of the opening aria, the audience sat for 10 seconds of astonished silence. For many, this was as satisfying a concert experience as they could remember, on the same plane as Horowitz’s Sunday afternoon concerts in 1965, when he emerged from years of seclusion. Revelatory, elevating, transcendent, and thrilling are the nonmusical adjectives that come readily to mind. But it was the artistic structure that spoke to Jeremy Denk’s musical genius.
What united the two halves of the program was the interplay of thematic material. In the Ives, several sustaining themes appeared and reappeared, often unexpectedly, in repetition, inversion, fragmentary integration, and in contrapuntal variation, such as the stunning set of crossovers at the end of the second, “Hawthorne” movement, in which Denk struck with his left hand, near the top of the keyboard, single sforzandos that composed in a minute’s time a melodic reiteration over a background of roiling, swirling, dense, interior lines and chords.
The 25th variation of the Bach, a stately adagio framed in ambiguous three-quarter time, resembling curiously Ives’s intentional omission of bar lines, found Denk intensely exploring the meaning of previously-uttered thematic material, as if, after all this travail, to finally identify man’s place in the world. Each non-harmonic passing note seemed to be worthy of emphasis. These unanticipated chromatics, appoggiaturas, and leading tones pulled for deep emotion, and Denk’s exquisite left hand –stressed from but not defeated by all the preceding acrobatics – seemed to toll like a bell across a churchyard.
With reason, the harpsichord virtuoso, Wanda Landowska, an idol of your reviewer’s childhood, called this movement the “black pearl” of the Goldberg variations. In this performance it was darkly resonant.
When the distinguished music critic Tim Page, during an interview with Glenn Gould, suggested that the Adagio movement “had an extraordinary chromatic texture,” Gould responded, “”I don’t think there’s been a richer lode of enharmonic relationships any place between Gesualdo and Wagner.”
Here, Gould referred to pitches that have identical sounds but different names and functions, for example, in the key of E major, the Gsharp that gives the fundamental triad its happy sound, can pivot seamlessly to Aflat, enabling a modulation to a sad Fminor. Bach used this compositional device adroitly in the cantatas, and, famously, in the canon per tonos (“endlessly rising”) from “The Musical Offering,” which he dedicated to Frederick the Great with flattery that only a musician-monarch could appreciate: “As the modulation ascends, so may the glory of the King.”
Apropos of Goldberg Variations and artistic royalty, it would be well to note that Jeremy Denk eschewed in this performance the histrionics of Gould’s “fast” 1955 version and the agonized probing of his 1981 version, his last recording before dying at the age 50. The self-conscious emotional exertions that too often intrude on Bach performance are entirely absent in the Denk oeuvre.
At the outset of the concert, Denk, dressed casually, offered warm and inviting introductory remarks, gently guiding the audience on what to listen for. He established an usual sense of friendly connection and shared adventure. What followed was indeed ingenuous, fresh, and daring. One felt taken along on a scenic tour by an admired and knowledgeable companion whose driving skills inspired confidence.
After a left hand assertion of the Beethoven 5th motif at the beginning of the first movement, “Emerson,” of the Ives, Denk summoned his promised sense of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendalist beliefs in soft, sweet, impressionistic, passionately-expressed waves of sound.
A bit of explication of Emerson’s beliefs is in order. In his essay, “The Over-Soul,” published in 1841, the core Transcendentalist belief –that all things are connected to God, and God is to be found in all things – is developed further. (Emerson was influenced as well, he wrote in his diary, by his study of the Indian Vedas.)
“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.”
Emerson also rejected, quite controversially, the man/God dualism. He asserted in an invited 1838 Harvard Divinity School address that not only was Jesusnot God but that historical Christianity had turned Jesus into a “demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo.” This provoked accusations from the Protestant establishment that Emerson was a poisoner of young men’s minds –and an atheist to boot. Harvard didn’t invite him back for 30 years.
Ives, himself an iconoclast who suffered from the rejection of the musical establishment, was keenly aware of this controversy, and the Emerson movement roiled with impassioned dialogue.
Repeated descending phrases ended in short bursts of upswept notes that appeared to symbolize the posing of multiple questions. They were followed by mighty octaves, arguably stern answers, which Denk counterpoised with elegance, not harshness.
The Beethoven 5th motif recurred frequently in a major, as opposed to its typically minor, tonality (see Gershwin, above, and turn that “You Can’t Take That Away from Me” melody over). Dense chromatics nearly buried the theme at certain points. And soon, the hymn theme was back, anticipating the close of the movement in a hushed choir of echoing washes.
But in the portentous final cadence, there was both ambiguity and uncertainty. Major and minor tonalities sounded simultaneously. Irreconcilable philosophies appeared to coexist. And Emerson’s integrity and craggy character maintained.
The following movement, “Hawthorne,” celebrates the writer’s playful storytelling rather than his rigid morality. Ives, in one of his essays, disclosed that the “Hawthorne” movement was propelled by a desire to “suggest some of his [Hawthorne’s] wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms.”
(Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables” is often read as a story of nature’s punishing generations of selfish behavior, and his “Scarlet Letter” as personifying the good woman gone bad in Hester Prynne.)
Denk dramatically illustrated the more fantastical realms in the presto with pauses, syncopations, and dollops of contemporary ragtime redolent of the celebrated pianist-composer Eubie Blake (who published his virtuosical “Charleston Rag” in 1899, the same year in which Scott Joplin’s much less technically challenging “Maple Leaf Rag” swept across the upright pianos of American parlors.)
Ives’s notorious 14 and ¾ inch piece of wood, specified in the score, was deployed gently across the black keys, its right edge descending successively on Eflat, Db, Bb, and Ab. Thusly, Denk lent a fabulous, soft, pentatonic overlay to the dissonant melodic excursions in the left hand. (It is well to note that Ives made this farsighted technical contribution to piano performance long prior to the so-called “prepared pianos” that Hector Villalobos and John Cage scored in 1925 and 1938, respectively.)
After a burst of chromatic intensity, the heavens opened. A lovely, half-famiiar hymn, “Martyn” emerged. Ives derived this idea from Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Rail-Road,” a parody of Pilgrim’s Progress, the 17th century Christian allegory by John Bunyan, in which a man, Christian, makes his burdened way to the Celestial City from his hometown “The City of Destruction.” Ives’s American travelers, by contrast, take a train (what better newfangled carriage?) to the Heavenly City, listening to the hymn of the pilgrims who are trudging there on foot.
This kaleidoscope of images devolved to a wildly-chromatic quotation of Ives’s “Country Band March” from “The Fourth of July in Concord, juicily blasted over an oom-pah stride in the left hand. In Denk’s treatment, there was a sense of a nearly out-of-control celebration in which different musics, singers, and dancers collide delightfully. For sure, Ives’s Civil War bandmaster father, George, his principal musical influence, would have loved this evocation of one of his favorite musical memories.
The third “Alcott” movement interwove hymns and Beethoven into a wondrous fabric, with motif and rhythm mounting in intensity and excitement, then declining into a luscious calm, with an exquisite folky, pentatonic melody, reminiscent of Stephen Foster’s popular romanticism.
Listen, please, to Ives himself playing the “Alcott” movement. Even correcting for the primitive recording quality, it’s a rather wooden treatment of this richly-expressive work.
Now watch Jeremy Denk’s performance (exquisite and far superior to the composer’s, in your reviewer’s opinion) at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
Note Denk’s calm and unaffected demeanor, his delicious immersion in the music, and the fascinating results he derives from Ives’s multiple expressions of the Beethoven 5th theme in many keys and registers; and his sensitive dynamics in the hymns, giving them extra emotion. And, especially, listen for the many colors that Denk is able to pull from the piano toward the end, when a forthright, contrapuntal development paves the way to a fabulous, declamatory series of emphasized major chords on the Beethoven rhythm in the right hand over octaves in the left. The movement ends on an optimistic C major chord that dissolves into an uncertain B flat. It aches to resolve to F major, but it doesn’t. In Denk’s interpretation, there’s a touch of whimsy, rather than an anxious anticipation of unknowns that will certainly follow.
Ives wrote in his “Essays” that the final movement of the Concord Sonata, titled “Thoreau,” depicts a day at Walden Pond:
“If there shall be a program for our music, let it follow his [Thoreau’s] thought on an autumnday of Indian summer at Walden.”
In his “Essays,” Ives associated his father and Thoreau as loveable “cranks,” as well as admirable musicians. A month after Ives entered Yale in October, 1894, his father died. It was a bitter loss, and Ives would remark all through his life of his father’s profound influence on him. Indeed, he began his musical experimentation with his father, even while continuing his musical studies with Horatio Parker. This movement is often considered to memorialize both Thoreau and George Ives.
Denk began the movement in quiet contemplation, and recited carefully a repeating row: D, E, Fsharp, A, B, that gave a familiar, pentatonic cast that we recalled from the piece of wood’s pressing on the black keys in “Hawthorne.” But here, the mood was decidedly different. Calm, not harmonic collision, prevailed.
A series of half-familiar melodies were given sweet emphasis, including, curiously, a specific quotation of Stephen Foster’s so-called “Ethiopian” song of 1852, “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground.” In a tribute to an outspoken abolitionist, this bit of blackface hokum, however popular in the minstrelsy of the post-Civil War period, came across as contradictory, even tasteless. Perhaps Ives’s father, George, performed it and enjoyed it. Whatever. Denk had no choice but to state it.
Toward the end, an offstage flute sounded another pentatonic melody on C, D, E, G, and A, rising to a quotation of the hymn from the first movement and the three E’s of the major version of the Beethoven 5 motif. A repeated 3-note ostinato rumbled quietly in the left hand, several quiet chords and another, gentle 5-note row ended the piece with the feeling of a memorial.
Louisa May Alcott, whose happy family life Ives celebrated in the “Alcott” movement, published a poem, “Thoreau’s Flute,” in the Atlantic Magazine in 1863. Its fervent evocation of music as a spiritual balm – both to accompany lamentation, and to lift the memory of a deceased great man, beyond grieving, to a level of permanent memorial. This is the sense the Ozawa Hall audience was left with at the intermission.
|WE, sighing, said, “Our Pan is dead;|
|His pipe hangs mute beside the river;|
|Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,|
|But Music’s airy voice is fled.|
|Spring mourns as for untimely frost;||5|
|The bluebird chants a requiem;|
|The willow-blossom waits for him;|
|The Genius of the wood is lost.”|
|Then from the flute, untouched by hands,|
|There came a low, harmonious breath:||10|
|“For such as he there is no death;|
|His life the eternal life commands;|
|Above man’s aims his nature rose:|
|The wisdom of a just content|
|Made one small spot a continent,||15|
|And turned to poetry Life’s prose.|
|“Haunting the hills, the stream, the wild,|
|Swallow and aster, lake and pine,|
|To him grew human or divine,—|
|Fit mates for this large-hearted child.||20|
|Such homage Nature ne’er forgets,|
|And yearly on the coverlid|
|‘Neath which her darling lieth hid|
|Will write his name in violets.|
|“To him no vain regrets belong,||25|
|Whose soul, that finer instrument,|
|Gave to the world no poor lament,|
|But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.|
|O lonely friend! he still will be|
|A potent presence, though unseen,—||30|
|Steadfast, sagacious, and serene:|
|Seek not for him,—he is with thee.”|
After the intermission, equally relaxed and none the worse for wear, Denk gave the most penetrating account of the Goldberg that this reviewer has ever heard. Among the high points:
A keen sense of propulsive rhythm propelled each movement, with the exception of the aforementioned Adagio. There were no out-of-context rubatos or rallentendos.
The tempi were well chosen and were, if anything, moderate. Only in the final Presto in 6/8 meter, just prior to the penultimate, stately Quodlibet movement that presages the final statement of the opening Aria, did Denk let it all hang out, in brilliant, fast-paced abandon. A technical marvel, with buzzing trills, astoundingly accurate cross-overs, whizzing legatos, and parenthetical phrases expressed in different volumes, it couldn’t have been played with more exciting dazzle.
There was no air of showboating. Denk’s formidable technique was entirely put to the service of musical expression.
The absolute silence of the house all during the performance, notable particularly in Variation 13, where Denk made sense of the horizontal dissonances over a G minor ground, easing the harmonic transition to D major through Bflat major and back to Gminor but focusing attention on the D enharmonic on which the modulations pivoted. All the while, each contrapuntal line was articulated precisely. Denk took optimal advantage here of the splendid resonance of Ozawa Hall, where you could hear a pin drop.
On the subject of quiet, there’s a particular video of the Aria that opens and closes the Goldberg Variations that caught your reviewer’s eye, by the pianist Kimiko Ishizaka. It’s remarkable for its similarity to Denk’s interpretation in its calm contemplation of what’s to come and of what life itself portends, and, what’s more, it shows the manuscript, proceeding note by note.
Enjoy it please, and don’t miss the opportunity to travel to wherever Jeremy Denk is summoning a vision of a Celestial Kingdom. Which is to say, in this reviewer’s opinion, whenever he performs.
August 18, 2014 Magic and Whimsy at Jacob’s Pillow: ‘Chalk and Soot’
Take the allusive poetry of painter Wassily Kandinsky (who knew?), the emotion-charged contemporary music of Colin Jacobsen, the burbling plasticity of his string quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and the deadpan faces of vocal virtuosos Shara Worden (soprano) and Gabriel Kahane (baritone, doubling on harmonium), and give choreographer John Heginbotham both a Jacob’s Pillow Creative Development Residency and the 2014 Dance Award.
Put them together and what do you get? A kaleidoscopic, gripping, immensely pleasurable multisensory experience that grabs and holds your attention while challenging everything you thought you knew about the big and little beings around you, intimate relationships, and the traditions of masque, music, and dance:
Word frames of uncertainty and tension, as in Kandinsky’s poem, “Sounds:”
“A woman, who is thin and not young, who has a cloth on her head, which is like a shield over her face and leaves her face in shadows. With a rope the woman leads the calf, which is still small and unsteady of its crooked legs. And sometimes it doesn’t. Then the woman pulls the calf by the rope. It lowers its head and shakes it and braces its legs. But its legs are weak the rope doesn’t break.
“Eyes look out from afar. The cloud rises. The face. Afar. The cloud. The sword. The rope.”
A company of six dancers with striking, geometric, and androgynous bodies, whimsical expressions, long limbs, one uncannily resembling an adolescent.
A show so rich in gesture, intense paired and group interactions, dramatic leaps, crawls, carries and tumbles, and music so exciting and rhythmic that you cannot resist your jaw dropping or feet tapping; poetic verses so allusive and provocative that inferences flow like wine; and complexities of story and swirls of emotion that sweep you from your chair to a meta-level of delicious observation, listening, and identification.
At the outset, the string quartet (Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins, Nichoas Cords, viola, Eric Jacobsen, cello), performed in a wide semicircle, their backs to the audience. A brilliant harmonium player and vocalist, Gabriel Kahane, played toward the right, facing in and sustaining the emotions of the dance with apposite gestures and facial expressions.
Colin Jacobsen’s original music was colorful, accessible, and delightfully salted with auditory puns, from the arching bassoon solo that begins “Rite of Spring” played on bowed violin, to the sung and bowed major 7ths that introduce the wild sacrificial scene during Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and the jumping rhythms of his “Petrushka.”
Each of the players gave committed, textured performances, attending sensitively to the dancers in front of them, and during Act II, around them. They gave new meaning to the ancient integration of music and dance, pioneered in modern times by Sergey Diaghilev and his colleagues in the Ballets Russes, and in the present day by Mark Morris, with whom John Heginbotham collaborated before forming his own company, and, importantly, by The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Act I began with an off-stage violin playing eerie, high harmonics. Electronically generated percussion sounds intruded overhead. A wisp of cello wafted above the silence, and then, after a pause, a tall woman wearing a below-the-waist shift emerged. Formally, she held her arms outward, crossed them, and made unrecognizable hand signs.
A man entered, seated himself at the keyboard, and stared vacantly ahead, in silence. A second dancer, childlike in stature, joined the first. They moved toward the stationary man and beckoned toward his keyboard.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by the sounds of slurpy kissing and electronic “tuh” sounds, of the kind a seven month old infant might make. A female, electronically distorted voice talked overhead. The childlike dancer made a cutting motion across her wrists, covered her eyes, and fell to the floor, lying on her side, totally still. Another dancer entered, hands covering her eyes to the high electronic sounds of a woman keening “Oooooh, Ooooh” and then, “Ma, ma, me, me, me, me, me, me.”
The spare instrumental background and economy of movement gave extra power to this desperate seeking of love and connection. As well, the dancers’ loose black tops adorned with simple white stripes – chalk over soot – appeared devoid both of gender identification and color. What was going on? Your reviewer wondered if this weren’t a tableau that packed in a teenager’s confusion about sexuality, her contemplation of suicide, and her fantasy about her mother’s reactions were she to carry it through.
Please turn to Wassily Kandinsky’s woodcut, “Chalk and Soot,” and note the mask-like image that projects an existential sadness. Although the title of the work refers specifically to an actor’s makeup – in tradition composed of inexpensive raw materials – the facial painting appears only partly to protect the person from the unbearable emotions that lurk deep beneath the chalk and soot.
Then, as the lights dimmed and a haze of fog arose, a violinist entered alone, plucking a soft pizzicato rhythm. The cellist followed, with an echoed pizzicato that rose to repeated notes, an ostinato that accelerated higher and higher as an amplified, invisible female voice keened again. After a scampering passage in the violins, performed with impressive virtuosity, she sang astounding, high, perfect major 9th intervals. The musical mood was of tense expectation and worry, and even as the onstage musicians were themselves integrated into the choreography, it was the invisible singer who proclaimed Stravinsky’s motif for impending tragedy.
After a series of pairings in which the dancers each cupped a hand behind them and followers dipped their heads into the cups and shuffled ahead, suggesting multiple images Kandinsky’s calf being led, several dancers stood still at the margin of stage left, with their hands to the floor, shifting forward so only their extended legs and lower backs were visible to the audience. The strong metaphor of condemned beasts in stalls was strengthened by intense swirls of musical lamentation. But at the same time, a leavening of whimsy attended the herding abstractions and the bottoms-up postures of the beasts. They reminded one of the Saturday morning cartoons of one’s youth and the affectionate portrayals of animals in YouTube clips and Facebook posts.
“Exit,” – another strangely-moving Kandinsky poem – was danced to a text that read in part, “You clapped your hands. Don’t lean your head toward your joy. Never, never” The music featured a stomped riff (a repeated rhythmic pattern) in a bright major tonality. This shifted through changes of rhythms and syncopated hand-clapping to pizzicatos in the strings, then anxious tremolos beneath the words, “Again he sighed. He sighed.” This was quite an engaging mix of meanings and feelings.
After the intermission, Act II also began with darkness.
But the striking appearance of singer, Shara Worden, totally changed the mood, and, indeed, the visual center, from Act I. After the string quartet (now in a close formation, facing the audience) and the harmonium emerged into light, there she was, standing behind a wooden lectern hung with a black, velvet drapery resembling a formal gown.
Her scalp shaved an inch above her ears, her hair parted severely into a tight black bun, her shoulders exaggerated by a pole that extended beyond her elbows and a bright shirt that wrapped tightly around her waist, hiding her arms, Worden appeared to represent some species of puppet.
The dance proceeded with the viola expressing a stately theme to the text of Kandinsky’s poem, “Look:
Why are you watching me through the white curtain? I didn’t call after you, I didn’t ask you to look through the white curtain at me. Why does it hide your face from me? Why can’t I see your face behind the white curtain? Don’t watch me through the white curtain! I didn’t ask you. Through closed eyelids, I see how you watch me, when you watch through the white curtain. I’ll pull back the white curtain and see your face, and you won’t see mine. Why can’t I pull back the white curtain? Why does it hide your face from me?”
A warm, sweet, major tonality sounded in the strings. The dancers stood still, then moved forward in lunges to create a circle, accompanied by a pizzicato rhythm. A mysterious blue-gray vertical diamond appeared on the barn door at the rear of the stage.
Exactly what species of puppet Sharon Worden symbolized was disclosed in a moment of high drama before long. There was, surely, a specific significance to the recurring white curtain image in “Look.”
After dance metaphors of circus celebration, exhaustion, death and funerary ceremony, apposite to the poetic themes of personal display, voyeurism, powerlessness, loss of identity, and alienation, Worden emerged from behind the lectern wearing not a black skirt but harlequin pants, and toddled along in tiny steps. She was a puppet. No, not just any puppet, but Petrushka!
Take a look at the marvelous opening scene of this 1997 production of “Petrushka,” (choreography by Michael Fokine, costumes by Alexandre Benois) from the Bolshoi Ballet and note the puppeteer’s parting of the curtains to reveal his puppets at 7 minutes 15 seconds.
The central puppet’s costume certainly resembles Shara Worden’s. (Fair warning: It will be difficult to just take a look! This a beautifully danced and filmed performance, worth taking the time to appreciate.)
Note, too, the harlequin pants in a Benois design for Alexander Nijinsky as Petrushka, whom many believe danced his most memorable role in the work.
Your reviewer regrets that he could find only two brief movie segments of Nijinsky’s performance of Petrushka. Notwithstanding, they project lively and expressive images of the master’s facial expressions and movements.
Shara Worden, whose splendid voice and impressive range were matched with infallible intonation on the most vexatious chromatics, sang these allusive words to the poem, “Still,” Her finely-attuned articulation and sense of the meaning of the poetry gave urgency to the stunning, emotion-drenched, often acrobatic dancing around her.
“You, meditative swallow, you who don’t love me. Self-consuming silence of rumbling wheels that chase and shape the figures. You, thousands of stones that weren’t laid for me and sunk down with hammers. You hold my feet in a spell. You are small, hard and gray. Who gave you the power to show me the glittering gold? You, speaking gold. You wait for me. You invite me: you were built for me. You, soulful mortar. “
More delights and conflations of seriousness and whimsy followed, when suddenly, released from standing behind the lectern, Worden pulled her arms and elbows from the confines of her shirt, revealing her as a living, breathing human being, with genuine limbs.
But before long, a controlling puppeteer – in the form of Gabriel Kahane, the harmonium master and singer— grabbed Worden from behind and lifted her up. Worden instantly transformed from woman into a diagonal, rigid object before Kahane carried her off to stage right.
This was some shocking, unexpected, brutal ballet, choreographed for non-dancers. Totally contrary to the gracious lifts we so admire in classical choreography and the expressive male sensibilities of the Nijinsky legacy, it was, to say the least, confusing. What, indeed, was John Heginbotham asking us? Should women, or women playing puppets, ever be treated this way? Must we break all the rules of performance politesse? Talk about Mark Morris being the bad boy of dance! You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
But when the rest of the crowd laughed, you joined in. And as with everything else that transpired in this evening of magic, you wondered about it afterward.
August 1, 2014 Tip-Top Tapping at Jacob’s Pillow: Dorrance Dance’s World Premier of ETM: The Initial Approach
This spellbinding show opened in total darkness in the Doris Duke Theater at Jacob’s Pillow on July 18. A spotlight rose on a single dancer, striking first one toe-tap and then another on a 5-foot-square, resonant platform, in front of which was a row of tiles. He slowly built a syncopated rhythm. When he tapped a musical tile, it responded instantly with a brief musical tone. The rhythm, including his single note, became a riff (a repeated rhythmic pattern).
Another spotlight found another dancer. Standing on a similar platform, she layered her own riff upon the first, with its own tapped note. Then another spotlight, another dancer, yet a new riff, and yet another note. And another. And another, with more and more intense and swinging individual contributions, elevating the essential elements of the riff to a polyrhythmic, syncopated texture. No doubt, this was the start of a new kind of dance recital, looking back on an old African-American art form with its jazz and show biz extensions, and forward to realizing the fabulous potential of tap and contemporary music.
In her introductory remarks, Ella Baff, the Executive and Artistic Director of the Pillow, noted that the production was created in part during Michelle Dorrance’s Creative Development Residency. It featured, she asserted, dancers who “are musicians with their bodies, head to toe.”
Two of these extraordinary dancers are also accomplished percussionists on twin trap sets, and one, Aaron Marcellus, is an accomplished gospel baritone. All are brilliant improvisers as well as attentive listeners to their colleagues’ and partners’ offerings.
Throughout the show, two unusual choreographic devices brought continuing surprises and delights. First, darkness brought rhythm and sound to the forefront. And while most of the rhythms were easily apprehensible – swinging, jazzy, and funk-inflected – the sounds were astonishingly varied: a panoply of delicious noises, soft, sweet, crackling, from-the-movies extraterrestrial, and natural and electronically enhanced variations on the baritone voice. The instruments used to create these sounds in real time included tap platforms and transducers, washboards, chains, and rough and smooth surfaces, stoking vivid auditory memories of their great African-American antecedents, Jimmy Slyde (Michelle Dorrance’s inspiration and whom Savion Glover reverently called “Moses”), Sandman Slim, and Peg Leg Bates. (Their very names give a sense of their trademark techniques.)
The second device was an open-hearted opportunity for solo, and especially duo, improvisation. Each of the dancer/musicians brought a distinctive sense of style to the tapping: hip-hop moves beyond what you’d ever see on a sidewalk, acrobatic jumps and flips, sensuous slow sinewy stretches, dynamic shifts from pianissimo to fortissimo in a space of seconds, and a dizzying array of partnering deriving from classical ballet and jazz tropes, from the Lindy hop to Saturday Night Fever. Some of the solo and duo improvisations toward the end of the show employed long, hand-held “clickers” that, when pointed and pressed, sounded whistles, buzzers, and fabulous cascades of electronic notes.
In the course of the evening, there were many inspired pairings that resonated to the great tap dance archetypes, including the Nicholas Brothers, Little Buck and Peg Leg Bates, Buck and Bubbles, among others.
By fortuitous circumstance, an article, The End of ‘Genius’, appeared the day after this show in the Sunday New York Times, in which Joshua Wolf Shenk dispelled the myth of “the lone genius.”
“The pair is the primary creative unit — not just because pairs produce such a staggering amount of work but also because they help us to grasp the concept of dialectical exchange. At its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities, two cultures or traditions, or two people, or even a single person and the voice inside her head. Indeed, thinking itself is a kind of download of dialogue between ourselves and others. And when we listen to creative people describe breakthrough moments that occur when they are alone, they often mention the sensation of having a conversation in their own minds.”
In this vein, Michelle Dorrance wrote the following in the evening’s Artist Statement.
“None of this work is remotely possible without tap dancer, percussionist, and innovator, my long-time friend, Nicholas Van Young. He is the man behind the curtain. He has been developing the instruments you see here and has been experimenting with the technologies you will see at work for years in order to make this work possible.”
In his own program note, her collaborator, Nicholas Van Young, described the dialectical exchange that developed so gloriously into this remarkable performance:
“It started with the simple need to find a way to amplify tap dance without feedback, so I could dance with a live band. Many people have used contact microphones (Gregory Hines, Tap Dogs, etc.) so I knew that was a possibility, and it led me to experimenting with guitar pedals and effects. I started out looping hand and body percussion, with live and affected tap dance . . .I got the idea to create small trigger boards to dance on – essentially wooden drum pads. . . I was creating solos with my ‘Compositional Tap Instrument’ but had visions of several dancers across a number of platforms and boards. Dancing out elaborate choreographed phrases while simultaneously playing the musical composition. Once Michelle asked me to collaborate on this show, I knew it “was on.” Her expansive creativity in tap choreography and movement, along with her sophisticated musical phrasing, started to unlock possibilities in our set that were getting us both so excited. Simple ideas led to large discoveries, and every time we workshopped an idea, 20 or more were born. . .In some ways, we have created the ultimate tap dancers’ playground, where you can let your imagination and your feet run wild.”
Only the dancers’ feet didn’t exactly “run wild.” As exuberant and crazy were some of the acrobatics, challenges, and improvisatory risks, all was in the service of a well-conceptualized notion of dance, organized within physical framings such as platforms and washboards and chains; choreographical set-pieces in which dancers enacted romantic and competitive themes; and thoughtfully planned spaces for original improvisation. If anything, this was a process of creative exploration within explicitly articulated boundaries. In the seeking of original expression, the dancer-musicians bumped up against the figurative walls, nobly transcending them, finding new sources of inspiration and connection.
Your reviewer cannot resist showing you two filmed examples of archetypal tappers in brilliant dialectical exchange:
First, the Nicholas Brothers in “Stormy Weather” (Fred Astaire is said to have called this “the greatest tap dance number ever filmed.”)
Next, the Apollo Theater tap dance reunion hosted by tapper Sammy Davis, Jr., which includes movie clips of Buck and Bubbles, Bojangles, Tip Tap and Toe, Nicholas Brothers, Beny Brothers, Buster Brown, Coles and Atkins, Peg Leg Bates and Little Buck, Bunny Brigs, Chuck Green, Greg Burke, Sandman Sims, and a stunning live appearance by Michelle Dorrance’s muse and inspiration, Jimmy Slyde.
The British children’s storywriter, Lauren Child, expressed well the notion of creative seeking that we witnessed in this memorable evening:
“We were given: Two hands to hold. Two legs to walk. Two eyes to see. Two ears to listen. But why only one heart? Because the other was given to someone else. For us to find.”
Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young certainly found one another’s hearts – and the Jacob’s Pillow audience’s – as well. Their and their colleagues’ delighted, grinning bows before the standing, cheering audience, were indeed heartfully welcomed and appreciated.
July 23, 2014 Baritone Thomas Hampson reveals the glories of 19th century lieder
For the many classical music aficionados who cut their teeth on the sublime long-playing records of the 1950’s and 60’s, the announcement of an evening highlighting the lieder of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler brought vivid auditory memories to mind.
For this reviewer in a candle-lit college dormitory room in 1960, it was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings with the pianist Gerald Moore that inscribed in his brain a template of what they were supposed to sound like. The master’s heartfelt emotions, moment-to-moment focus on the musical and textual meaning of the phrase, and that voice, never losing its depth and beauty whatever the demands of volume and extremes of range.
Attending a concert they gave in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall twenty years later if anything strengthened these impressions. The elegance, commanding physical presence, economy of gesture and expression, and resplendent artistic power reinforced the frame, and in the intervening years to the present, only Matthias Goerne’s 2010 recital approached the DFD standard.
Until July 16, 2014, that is, when Thomas Hampson presented to a full house in Ozawa Hall a gorgeous, profound, and intensely engaging reinterpretation of these lieder. Surely, perhaps unavoidably, there were resonances to Fischer-Dieskau in articulation, laser focus on the meaning of every word, magnetic stage presence and tessitura. An ingenuousness, freshness, curiosity, and daring, however, suffused this concert, projecting a vivid sense of Hampson’s originality – rooted in tradition, to be sure – but at the same time, conjuring an atmosphere of eager anticipation. What marvels and revelations were coming next?
Eight Strauss songs comprised the first half of the concert. According to the excellent program notes by Jay Goodwin, they were written over a span of 80 (80!) years. They were presented in this order:
- “Himmelsboten” (Messengers from Heaven)
- “Heimliche Aufforderung” (Secret Invitation)
- “Freundliche Vision” (A pleasant vision)(the only song composed in the 20th century)
- “Traum durch die Dämmerung” (Dreaming through the Twilight)
- “Die Nacht” (Night)
- “Mein Herz ist stumm” (My heart is dumb)
- “Sehnsucht” (Longing)
- “Morgen” (Tomorrow morning)
In “Messengers from Heaven,” (1896)(Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or “The Boy’s Magic Horn,” a popular collection of old German folk songs), a man beckons the sun to inform his sleeping lover of his affections. Strauss’s arching phrases “unlock the clouds,” even as Eros rears his delightful head. After high notes that emphasize special, sizzling adjectives: “her bare throat,” her clear eyes,” the song ends with two languorous words that take forever to express: “her round breasts.” (You can tell when a Tanglewood audience is paying serious attention by when they laugh.) Hampson resisted the easy wink of the eye and deadpanned the line, focusing all through the piece on bringing out the beauty of Strauss’s exquisite harmonies, so apposite to the surging emotions of romantic love.
“Secret Invitation,” (1894)(poem by John Mackay), gave Hampson a further opportunity to display his emotional and cognitive intelligence. Sung boldly at the outset, over waves of pedaled arpeggios, he emphasized the harmonic and dynamic nuances that Strauss packed into a story of a couple’s enjoying – and happily leaving – a drunken feast.
A startling accent on the “Nein” at the outset of a key passage in the story, grabbed one’s attention. “No, lift the twinkling cup, and let them be happy at their noisy meal.” And relishing the stanza that followed, with understated intensity, he foretold the ending of the song:
“But when you’ve savored the meal, your thirst quenched, then quit the loud gathering’s joyful fest, and wander out into the garden to the rosebush. There shall I await you, as often of old.
“And ere you know it shall I sink upon your breast, and drink your kisses, as so often before, and twine the rose’s splendor into your hair. Oh come, you wondrous, longed-for night!”
Remember that unexpected harmony that lifts you off your chair whenever you listen to or watch the “Presentation of the Rose” scene in Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier,” the collision of chords that adds musical glitter to the stage setting of champagne crystal and starlight? At the very end of this song, there’s a lovely semblance. For sure, it’s intended to adorn the rose-filled text of Mackay’s poem. Sounding on the words “longed-for night,” Strauss overlays a B major, then an A major over the dominant D seventh chord before concluding the cadence to the tonic, G. Magical! Do try this at home!
Emphasizing this affecting phrase and harmony ever so graciously was Wolfram Rieger, the pianist – one really shouldn’t call him an “accompanist” in an evening like this – himself an exceedingly thoughtful and responsive partner. His own singing tone, and astoundingly calibrated tempi and dynamics lent an extra dimension of resonance to the emotions signaled by the composers, the poets and Hampson himself. Rieger’s introductions, solo passages, and codas were marvels of understated anticipation, colloquy, and resolution, with each judiciously pressed note and phrase pulling at the heartstrings.
If you scroll down to the links below, you’ll be able to hear what I mean by comparing his treatment of the Mahler’s “Ruckert Lieder” with Daniel Barenboim’s, Leonard Bernstein’s, and Gerald Moore’s in collaboration, respectively, in one of Fischer-Dieskau’s and in one Christa Ludwig’s performances.
“A Pleasant Vision” and “Dreaming through the Twilight” (1901 and 1895)(poems by Julius Bierbaum) evoked verdant meadowlands in an atmosphere shifting from broad daylight to the “grey twilight, deep into bushes of jasmine, and the associated experiences of walking “with one who loves me, My heart at peace, into the coolness of this white house, into the peace, Brimming with beauty, that awaits our coming,” and being “drawn by a faint, velvet thread through the grey twilight to the land of love, into a blue, mild light.” Here, Hampson’s impressive capacity to summon evanescent moods was amply demonstrated in quiet inflections and emphases on the few verbs that signaled action and the surprising metaphors that signaled transcendent love (“Statues of gods gleaming from the foliage”).
The musical textures brimmed with lush harmonies, for example, a stunning, stepwise progression beneath the same text begun above, “Through the grey twilight to the land of love” that continues, “I do not walk quickly, I do not hurry.”
Try this chord progression at home, too! C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E flat diminished, F, and wonder, as I did, whether Richard Rodgers had this Strauss song in mind when he composed the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” in his 1945 musical, “Carousel,” with words by Oscar Hammerstein.
A dramatic compositional device begins the song, “My Heart is Dumb, My Heart is Cold,”(1888)(poem by Count von Schack). Each syllable is uttered on the same C, becoming a pedal point that pushes this verse and its sad associated harmonies into a glacial emotional landscape:
“My heart is dumb, my heart is cold, frozen is the winter’s ice; sometimes, but only in its depths, it seethes, trembles, and stirs quietly.”
Hampson uttered this softly, with subtle emphases at the height of phrases that alluded to a more optimistic past (“And the sound of horns, carried from leaf to leaf . . . echoes from the gulches faintly in my ears, like a shout from happier days”). The C’s recur before the song’s end, underpinning the text, “the echo of a dying sound fades into the distance, and once again everything is frozen.” They become C sevenths in an accelerating tempo that speeds a weighty F minor ending. Hope is no more in this fellow’s dismal world.
“Longing” (1896)(poem by Detlev von Liliencron) evoked a path walked “every day, and always alone.” Were he ever to meet his “maiden” again, “like a sun to me in heavy night,” he tells her, “I’d quickly pull your sweet heart to me and softly whisper: I love you.” On this phrase, Hampson’s tone was velvety and deeply resonant, yet voiced exquisitely softly.
“Tomorrow Morning,” (or “Morning,”1894, poem by John McKay) began with a quiet introduction that Rieger articulated carefully and slowly, balancing interweaving, rising, rising strands of melody over sublime arpeggios. Hampton’s treatment of this paean to lovers’ reunion breathed a sense of relief and settling in, amplifying gently the rhythms of the text, and with a sense of drama, slowly approached the C seventh dominant chord, his last, unresolved, cadence.
“And to the shore, the wide shore with blue waves, we will descend quietly and slowly; we will look mutely into each others’ eyes and the silence of happiness will settle upon us. . .”
It fell to Rieger to bring the song, and the set, to close, with a thoughtful, leisurely, reading of its coda, sweetly closing the harmonic uncertainty in the vocal line with a warm F major chord.
After the intermission, a brief transit through the poems of Richard Dehmel set to music by Strauss contemporaries Anton Webern, Alexander Von Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Arnold Schonberg, and Strauss himself gave a lively and engaging sense of harmonic and textural explorations that paved the way to the music of the 20th century.
The five songs (all of which were presented elegantly and assuredly by Hampson and Rieger), demonstrated the foundational elements of their composers’ oeuvres:
Webern’s stunning excursions in “Looking Up” (1903) from major to minor tonalities and from familiar-sounding lines and intervals to sudden, spiky dissonances;
Strauss’s employing familiar musical tropes and adventurous harmonic variations in “Freed” (1898), laying down D minor introductory arpeggios straight out of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” before the text, “You will not weep. Gently, gently you will smile,” yielding shortly to Hampson’s glorious projection of a fine crescendo on the words, “O happiness” (“o Gluck!”), to the luscious cadence, E seventh G seventh C;
Alma Mahler’s (Gustav’s wife’s) lovely and straightforward “The Silent City” (1901), describing brilliantly in descending melodies and confident, polychromatic counterpoint the introductory text, “A town lies in the valley; a pale day fades” and lending emphasis to the eerie final stanza through smooth and subtle harmonies and the adroit use of a well placed, F sharp-to-E appoggiatura to adorn the word “Kindermund” (“the mouth of a child”):
“But as the traveller felt fear, a tiny light shone below, And through smoke and mist, a soft song of praise began. From the mouth of a child.”
Arnold Schonberg’s “Anticipation” (1899) was in the same romantic, pre-12-tone band of composition as “Transfigured Night” and “Gurrelieder.” To the text, “A woman’s pale hand beckons him from the red villa beside the dead oak,” Hampson sung poignantly and intensely, giving voice to the uncertainty of what might follow. Here was real musical excitement, melding passionate text, superb vocalizing, and splendid pianism. Rieger treated the coda as if he were translating to the keyboard the words of the third stanza, “Three opals glint; red and green gleams from the pale gems and submerges,” building sparkling arpeggios that illuminated the F ninth, G, F harmonies that descended to silence.
Mahler’s lieder on Poems of Friedrich Ruckert (1860 to 1911) may be standards in the vocal literature, but Hampson and Rieger gave them new meaning. “I Breathed a Gentle Fragrance” began with Hampson’s stunning legato transit from an exquisite high G through E flat and C down to Bb on the last two words of the title. Shades of Franz Schubert! Single-note piano melodies complemented the vocal lines, expanding to a G seventh chord, over which Hampson delicately expressed “How lovely was the fragrance of linden.” Then came changing Mahlerian tonalities in C, then F, underpinning the text “That twig of linden you broke off so gently.” More single notes eased into a sweet, final cadence. The effect was totally woodsy, a rhapsody to love in a sylvan paradise, finely sung and beautifully played.
“At Midnight” began in A minor with a touching E F E melody. It is deservedly a frequently-performed piece, including such gems as a gorgeous piano introduction to the second stanza that includes echoes of the first, dramatic dynamics, such as the decrescendo that concludes the second and the huge buildup to a high fortissimo A at the end of the third to the text, “Lord! Over death and life You keep watch at midnight!” Hampson’s phrasing in the two final stanzas was magnificent, with spellbinding attention to the singer’s heart (“One single pulse of agony flared up at midnight”), to a struggle of Mankind to address the Lord’s suffering (“At midnight I fought the battle of Mankind; of your suffering; I could not decide it with my strength at midnight.”
This powerful song merits repeated listening. Here are some splendid examples to enjoy and compare:
Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger’s.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Leonard Bernstein’s.
Christa Ludwig and Gerald Moore’s
Do you not agree that Hampson and Rieger are up there in the firmament of lieder singing?
Music like this, as lovely as it sounds and looks in audio and video, deserves to be listened to in real time, live, if and when one can. Your reviewer’s words, nor any critic’s for that matter, cannot sufficiently describe the intimate sharing of a lieder concert, much less an extraordinary one like this.
Sounds like those with which Hampson and Rieger enthralled the Ozawa Hall audience can neither be bottled nor precisely characterized. Recordings are fine, although in this day of the portable digital device they are inevitably compressed, as they are on YouTube. Anyone who was there the night of this concert can enjoy Hampson and Rieger again in the above, but they would almost surely agree that isn’t nearly a similar experience. In a word, we were blessed to be there and grateful for what we were given.
July 19, 2014 Fireworks from the Emerson Quartet: Shostakovitch last quartets
If there were any doubt about the quality of the compositions of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose work has been programmed so infrequently at Tanglewood during James Levine’s directorship, it was thoroughly dispatched in Ozawa Hall when the Emerson String Quartet performed his Quartets 11 through 15 in a single, stunning sitting.
Here were, in miniature, the full-throated, exuberantly-orchestrated, passionate, crashing, whispering, moaning, overwhelming emotions that reach out and shake you in the symphonies, the dazzling, near-impossible technical challenges of the solo repertory, and the profound comprehension of the expressive possibilities in the softest, highest harmonic, the nearly-inaudible tap of the bow on the wood of a stringed instrument, or the challenge to the sections of an ensemble to pull together a thrown-about melodic phrase.
And in a string quartet! And what a string quartet! The Emersons have been transformed from an accomplished and articulate group of virtuoso collaborators to an organic, breathing, thinking, choir of attuned ensemble voices, capable of the deepest lyrical sensibilities, the most sensitive and subtle nuances of rhythm and harmony, and the most terrible devilish proclamations. We heard it first when Paul Watkins made his cello debut at South Mountain Concerts last Fall, and now, with further gestation, delivering his twin gifts, a magical calibration of instrumental sonority, and a mature conductor’s sense of the composer’s intentions. These were expressed audibly in astute adjustments of bowing and vibrato, in his responsive listening, and visibly, in his taking a position of intellectual leadership: cuing, approving, clarifying the counterpoint with his bow, and signaling with a whole palette of facial expressions, eyebrow and eye movements, his knowing sense of the unfolding story.
The first two quartets on the program, numbers 11 and 12, are not easy pieces. Beginning serenely, they quickly become ominous, with gently-roaming melodic strands evolving into mysterious conversations and sudden frissons (C minor chords with overlaid tritones) in the first, and a low-register warning stir in the cello following a gently-rocking 6/8 prelude in the second.
The 11th quartet is performed without pause and features dense and dissonant contrapuntal passages that occasionally give way to clear and accessible harmonies. After a snarl of snaky lines, a snippet of a folk song emerges quietly and expands to a bold, unison exhortation. A martial theme struts in C major, giving way to sustained dissonant chords in the upper voices, while the cello saws violently in the low register.
Then, surprise! A prominent “Cuckoo” call is sounded by the first violin, diminishing in volume as it jumps across the second violin to the cello, before dissolving through dense textures to a piano G major chord. Over a strong, open C in the cello (its lowest string), the “Cuckoo” returns, even as the C morphs in intensity into a sustained pedal point. The fiddles jitter intensely, as if frightened by the creature below.
After a prolonged, 2-second rest, that rattling, sustained C returns and the old folk song returns in a G tonality, wafting a dissonant B-C minor second, as the harmonies collide, into the air. Suddenly again, the mood changes, as a brief, pianissimo melody gets tossed to the 2nd violin. As the pedal C returns in the cello, a pizzicato echo of the song emerges from the viola, and the volume starts to pick up. Then, with no warning, the whole ensemble hushes again, beautifully changing the mood to further uncertainty about what is coming next. As the quartet searches for a resolution, the sustained C is delivered to the violins as the viola and cello tentatively explore a final, F minor sensibility. A brilliant solo violin cadenza ends the quartet, on an intense excursion ending in an exquisitely-controlled long-note diminuendo.
A burst of applause followed, suggesting that the many ambiguities and dissonant passages fell on welcoming ears. Surely, this was food for thought, about which more below. But equally, this listener believes, there was respect for the performers’ committed engagement with this challenging piece. Though the night was young (five quartets in three sections, with two intermissions), there was no sense of conserving energy or holding back. These gentlemen dug in, constantly, seriously, and thoughtfully. That they were seated, in exception to their usual practice of standing, might have had some significance in the stamina department. But the technical demands were met straight on, and their shared ownership of the music, of profound attention to their own and one another’s voices, and indeed, their distributed leadership was manifestly evident.
The two violins, who rotate the first position between them, are first-rate masters of their instruments. Unlike Paul Watson, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer are muted in expression, except in their playing. (Violist Lawrence Dutton falls in between.) Neither facial movement nor balletics give emphasis to their take on the emotions of the music. Rather, the glorious sounds they make on their instruments speak for themselves.
It is perhaps not too much of a stretch in this context to make reference to one of the 20th century’s most noted virtuosos, Nathan Milstein, who was sometimes called the “least Russian of the Russian violinists.” He eschewed the “grand manner” of his friend, Vladimir Horowitz, he noted in his memoir, and was sometimes criticized for his allegedly academic manner. Because of his reserve and appearance of intellectuality, he wrote, he didn’t become a “star.” But if the musical firmament were full of celestial bodies like Drucker and Setzer, the nights might not be brighter, but the gravitational pull toward elevating, exalted music-making would surely be stronger. Indeed, as if one needed any validation, the enjoyment of this concert was enhanced by the presence of both YoYo Ma and Joseph Silverstein in the audience.
Were the reader to be curious, here is an informative interview with Eugene Drucker, giving musical illustrations from the Saint-Saens Sonata,
to compare with a gorgeous excerpt by Philip Setzer from Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat, Opus 99, II, along with cellist David Finckel, Paul Watson’s long-serving predecessor in the Emerson Quartet and pianist Wu Han
to compare to from Nathan Milstein’s renowned performance of the third Saint-Saens Violin Concerto, III
Why then, do we go to Tanglewood? There is no one answer, but surely, not least of its attraction is the promise of splendid, seeking, transporting artistry like this. As here, on this night.
Like the 11th, the Shostakovich 12th quartet immerses the listener in a puzzle of inexplicable and vanishing effects with a predominantly sad tonality, here relieved by stunningly accessible moments of sweetness. The threat of human conflict is sounded by a repeated variant of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony “victory” theme, but the ta-ta-ta-tum becomes a rapid, martial ta-ta-ta-ta-tum, like a pair of paradiddles on the snare drum, sounding soon after the start of the 2nd movement and recurring in the percussive, minor-toned ending.
Swirling around this rhythmic assertion at the start of the movement are passionately intense viola and cello phrases reminiscent of Bartok, with meters shifting from quadruple to triple, spiraling legato lines in the fiddles, creating a web of confusion. The Beethoven 5 theme is literally quoted by the viola with a few scraped embellishments, and a sort of Baltic folksong strand leads into an astonishingly sweet G major chord. Some quiet, chromatic rumination in the low registers of all the instruments follows. Then all the mutes come on, and a prayerful, dynamically nuanced progression of G minor F diminished, B flat minor, A flat major. Perfect fifths voiced by the first violin and viola ascend to an exquisite B flat major chord even as a quick diminuendo extinguishes the phrase.
All this searching draws us forward, through violin pizzicati that build up to the familiar “Cuckoo” of the 11th quartet. We are back in the woods, as the bird climbs up and up and, all of sudden the mutes come off and intense, strong double-stops sound in pizzicato and arco (bowed) assertions.
Their meaning is clarified by an F minor squirreling of violins and a call to arms by the cello and viola. The first violin screams and wails over blasts of pizzicato dissonances by the second violin, viola, and cello. If there were a movie about Picasso’s “Guernica,” this could be its soundtrack!
A quiet, hymnal, muted recession follows this inhumane battle, with stately D minor, E flat major, G minor, F minor chords mutating to a Ravellian wash of gentle chromaticism. The calm gives way to a still-muted viola solo, interrupted by more ta-ta-ta-ta-tums in several harmonic tonalities and false cadences. At the last, a vaulting cello line embraces a last set of ta-ta-ta-ta tums before the entire quartet proclaims a powerful, percussive, minor take-down of all the pleasant stuff that has gone before.
Shostakovich appears in these two quartets to be asking, “What is a composer to do in the face of all this mid-century madness?” He seems to be sorting through our universal strivings for harmony, identity, and connection after three decades of civil and wartime destruction of Russia, its peoples dispirited by zealots, armies, and apparatchiks attacking from both outside and within. Where we long for sweet song, the peace of the woods, and the plenty of our fields, what do we get? Bursts of weapons, bombs and machine guns disrupt our dreams (ta-ta-ta-ta-tum); forced famines, arbitrary imprisonments, and genocidal murders (see: Baba-Yar) destroy our loved ones; and the drums of war pollute our quest for beauty. And yet, and yet, we keep on keeping on, especially we musicians. We have an obligation to honest expression, reaching for a higher plane of existence and communication to whatever audience can connect with us there.
This is what it felt like in Ozawa Hall in the first portion of the Emerson Quartet’s concert.
The music became more and more accessible in the 13th, 14th, and 15th quartets, written in 1970, 1973, and 1974.
Eugene Drucker moved to the first violin position for the 13th, a work that included occasional hard scrapings of that “Beethoven 5” rhythm, ominous ruminations in the instruments’ lower registers, and some novel instrumental effects. All of a sudden, after one of those martial effects, there was quiet, and a mysterious tapping sound seemed to bounce around the stage. It was the second violin, then the viola, then the cello, playing col legno (with the wood) or col legno battuto (hitting with the wood), not against the string, but on the wood of their instruments. The odd, occasional incidents became more frequent, until the second violin directed a stream of at least 8 hits, not on the wood, but on his chin rest. (This was seemingly a smart move.)
Then a high, keening cello melody introduced a strong, ugly tritone (an augmented fourth), and a whirling succession of trills in the low register of the second violin led to a repeated, monotonous reiteration of the “Beethoven 5” rhythm, extending across all the instruments. Had the war returned?
Not exactly, it turned out, or so it seemed. Relief was granted as the viola sounded a familiar theme, the short, legato phrases it uttered at the very beginning of the quartet, morphing into a lovely counterpoint and a unison version of the lyric across the second violin, viola, and cello. The viola continued its exploration of the theme over perfect fifths in the lower registers of the violins, expanding to a cascade of descending seconds, each becoming the dissonant portion of a resolving appoggiatura, a satisfying, indeed relieving, buildup to a brilliant finale. First, parallel fifths by the violins grouped around short viola phrases. Next, the viola reached for higher and higher appoggiaturas, weeping over more col legno by the second violin, the viola in a tour de force, continuing its ascent to a long sustained, high, high C harmonic starting piano and slowly, slowly in one drawn stroke of Lawrence Dutton’s blow increasing in volume to a final, perfectly-ending fortissimo. As sublime as was this artistry, the audience was left with a real sense of the triumph of the human spirit. Another burst of applause followed, this time with cheers, telegraphing a shared sentiment, “Bravo Shostakovich, bravo Emersons, bravo Dutton!”
The fourth Shostakovich quartet was warmer, elegiac, and far more diatonic in tonality. Absent of martial intrusions and declamations, there were more arching, engaging melodic lines and a lovely nocturne featuring a cello-dominated, muted ensemble passage that ends with an affecting series of pizzicato triplets by the first violin. Then the violin sings a wildly abandoned, strongly articulated, melody over pulsing rhythms by the remaining trio, culminating in a delicious tossing-about of 3- and 4-note scraps of its line.
Continuing in this exciting spirit, a high, muted first violin throws a passionate lyric to the muted viola, where it’s transmogrified into gloriously intoned double-stops and melodic variations. Then, after a stunning, sustained, unison G, the tempo accelerates to – oh no! – the return of the ferocious, half-remembered ta-ta-ta-ta-tums return, but, thankfully dissolve into warm arpeggios all around the G tonality, with the first and second violins playing a half-familiar melody in sweet sixths over the pizzicato viola. The threat of war becomes a sunny picnic, and after a brief, exquisite, soft cello cadenza the piece draws thoughtfully to an end in a solemn romantic story, expressed in simply articulated chords, E flat, G followed by two parenthetical ta-ta-ta-ta-tums and then a D seventh, G, C minor, D seventh, G, mildly reminiscent of the ending of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” This was a peaceful, contemplative, welcome resolution before the second intermission, a contextualized memory of wartime suffering in the continuing arc of life.
Prior to the beginning of the fifteenth quartet, the Hall lost a third of its audience, making its ambience much more resonant and alive. Eugene Drucker returned to the first violin position and bingo, the quartet projected more powerfully, with more pronounced nuances. Philip Setzer stated the initial melody, to which Drucker responded in extended counterpoint. The cello joined in, picking up a repeated rhythm (two eighth notes followed by a quarter note) and with the violin transported the predominantly major tonality to the dark blue key of E minor.
A Hebraic theme was sounded in sweetly accessible adagio with romantic harmonies oscillating from E minor to C major, pivoting on the E minor sixth (D flat) to a D flat major first violin development of the melody, modulating back to bright C major. Here, Drucker gave a honeyed start to a marvelous interplay of violins in the middle register, exchanging the lovely lyric with very high cello and very low viola, as if, through the weird and wonderful new-found orchestration they were about to introduce something new. And there it was, that old Ochichornia (Dark Eyes) tune, briefly quoted in low-register violin. After this little chestnut, the first movement drew to a close with a peaceful reiteration of that three-note rhythm from the beginning, expressed in single voices.
Without pause, the second movement shifted toward the dramatic, with the introduction of an extraordinary device after a short waltz: each instrument bowed a long note glissing upward in a single sweep, simultaneously increasing its volume to fortissimo. Each participant in this challenging exertion contributed to a brilliantly-unfolding melodic line, typically but not always at the beginning point of the sweep. The melody was seamless. Soon it folded into a multistranded, Bartokian polyphony. Once more in waltz time, the ensemble threw it back and forth, building to a huge, virtuosic first violin cadenza with contributions by the second over a cello pedal point on a low E.
Coming up for air after this extravagant display of instrumental and ensemble accomplishment, the Emersons (or rather, perhaps, Shostakovich) offered a sweet intermezzo in quarter time. Romantic progressions proceeded through D, E flat, G, and F to a gracious, contemplative ending.
After a third movement of stirring E minor triads, viola and cello solos yielded striking chromaticisms. Still another brilliant first violin solo shifted the harmonic center through a sad C minor to a pleasant G major, by far the closest thing to easy listening in the entire concert. And what fine easy listening it was!
After nearly three hours, the performance ended with more sparkling fireworks: a dazzling first violin cadenza ending in low trills; sustained, muted, rapid tremolo notes lifting the whole ensemble into astounding, sudden crescendos and decrescendos; and still three more subtly nuanced, muted tremolo passages, this time supporting solo cello and viola melodies, and, at last, a quiet, E minor triad.
After an appropriate moment of contemplation, the audience rose in acclaim. The Emerson Quartet had given its all to this music, and responded to this expression of gratitude with their own applause. No one present will soon forget this triumphal evening of Shostakovich at his most eloquent, and the Emerson String Quartet’s arriving at a new pinnacle of glorious accomplishment.
July 14, 2014 Love and Loss in astounding a cappella; Chanticleer in ‘SheSaid/He Said’ at Ozawa Hall
A large audience at Ozawa Hall on July 9 gave multiple ovations to Chanticleer’s “She Said/He Said” concert, which gave a revelatory display of emotion, insight, intelligence and wit, expressed in dazzling ensemble nuances, solo brilliance, unerring intonation, and smart and subtle announcements.
Here was at once a serious exploration of the harmonic and textural possibilities in madrigals written by female and male composers in the 11th, 12th, 15th, and 16th centuries, a revival of multicolored choral masterpieces by 19th and 20th century romantics, a sensual contemplation of passion and passage, a send-up of collegiate harmonizing, a celebration of the myriad marvels in folksong and gospel singing, and a contemplation of the differences in musical perspective in the lives of men and women.
The twelve-man group is composed of six countertenors (three altos and three sopranos), three tenors, one baritone, and two basses. Because of transportation difficulties in their six-concert tour, ranging from Ottawa through Ravinia to Rockport, they almost didn’t make it to Lenox. Perhaps, as frequently happens in the music world, their anxiety dissipated on coming on stage to a full and responsive house, giving extra energy to the performance. Whatever the stimulus, there wasn’t a dull or disappointing moment.
Between Giovanni Palestrina’s “Joy be yours, glorious one” and Tomas de Victoria’s “Queen of Heaven, rejoice,” eloquent in antiphonal exchanges and dramatic dynamic variations, one singer announced the group’s relief that the concert could start on time, adding, “We’re in the middle of an intense cross-USA tour . . . enjoy the conversation!”
And what a conversation it was! Where the opening two pieces, by male composers, featured antiphonal exchanges and the familiar sustained syllabic emphases of the madrigal canon, the third, by a nun, Hildegard von Bingen, gave insight into the beauties of convent singing.
Her “O virginous branch” featured a hummed F drone in the baritone and basses, supporting rich harmonic progressions. A gorgeous, vibrato-free, ornament-rich soprano solo delivered this text in Latin: “You grow and blossom with such nobility like the breaking dawn.”
Chanticleer’s ensemble sound shimmered, with seamless shifts in tonality and refined and accurate articulation of the texts. The high-to-low balance shifted as well, in coordination both with the 2-part counterpoint and the emphases of solo expression. These devotional anthems provoked an immediate and palpable spiritual elevation.
Francisco Guerrero’s “Hail, most holy Virgin” was uttered softly, its syllables more subtly defined, in a wash of coloristic harmony, with moving progressions such as F Aflat Bflat C Eflat, and F Eflat C Bflat. The music, versifying, and performance melded seamlessly. Two-part counterpoint graced the verse, “Hail, ever glorious precious pearl, like a beautiful lily, as full of perfume as the rose” across a harmonized top line and fast-moving unison baritone and basses.
“Moving from the reverent to the irreverent,” the next announcement, introduced “two sexually-charged 16th century madrigals.”
Claudio Monteverdi’s “Oime [a sigh][pronounced ‘oy-may’]” went as follows:
“Oime, if you are so fond of hearing ‘Oime‘ spoken, why do you make whomever says ‘Oime‘ die?
If I die, you’ll be able to hear only one languid and sorrowful ‘Oime.’
But, my sweetheart, if you will let me draw life
From you and you from me, then you will have
Thousands and thousands of sweet ‘Oimes.'”
Here, the four sopranos and four altos were ranked in front of one another on the left, and the single baritone and three basses on the right. Back and forth went the ‘Oimes‘ in a passionate and intense conversation across the “sexes,” as it were, underpinned by startling harmonic progressions, building to the lighthearted, final G, B, G cadence.
Fannie Mendelssohn’s “Handsome Stranger” and her brother, Felix’s, “Water Ride” (“Schone Fremder” and “Wasserfahrt”) were both written in gently-rocking, 6/8 time, the first including striking romantic harmonies descended from late Beethoven, and backing a splendid verse, “Here behind the maple trees, in secretly darkening splendor, what do you murmur, as if in a dream to me, fantastic night?” (text by Joseph Eichendorff)
The second song summoned metaphors of a lagoon and a loss, ending, despite the sense of sadness in the Heinrich Heine poem, in a philosophical major cadence:
“Appearing on the far horizon
Like a picture in the fog,
A city, with its towers
Shrouded in the evening dusk.
A damp gust of wind eddies
The course of the grey water;
With a mournful rhythm
The boatman rows in my boat.
The sun lifts itself once more
Glowing upwards from below the horizon,
And shows me that place
Where I lost what is dearest to me.”
Chanticleer’s singing of both the Mendelssohn songs powerfully evoked of the sentiments of the text, with accruing and diminishing volume, precise and emotional articulation, and a sweet palette of accents on the most affecting melodic turns.
The female and male compositional qualities bespoke respectively the fear and hope of the mysterious nighttime encounter and the allusive and unarticulated identity of the beloved: squirreling lines and hushed contrapuntal passages alluding to the love’s mysterious grip; as opposed to melodic metaphors reflecting the boat ride, and an inchoate, ambiguous, and veiled emotionality, and, perhaps, even, his difficulty in clearly characterizing his feelings. “Venus and Mars, anyone?” the evening’s title would seem to ask! In reply, this reading listener would say, “Who knows?”
Still more ambiguity pervaded Chanticleer’s Johannes Brahms’s “Vigil I [Nachtwache I], ” Opus 104, No. 1, to the text “If you open an ear, open a loving heart and, if none opens to you, let the night wind carry you sweetly back to me.”
Lush harmonic sweeps gave Chanticleer the opportunity to celebrate Brahms’s vividly-expressed emotional registers that, in association with the poem, resonate to contemporary speculations about his sexuality and its attendant conflicts in his time.
Notwithstanding, this was a committed, beautiful performance, glowing in its attention to musical and textual subtleties.
There were no answers to the sexuality question in this concert, and by no means is it evident that Chanticleer intended to alert the audience to this discourse. But, dear reader, these are singing men from San Francisco, with open eyes and hearts, as well as ears and mouths!
Apropos the “He Said/She Said” theme, here is musicologist Jan Swafford, the author of “Brahms: A Biography” (Macmillan), on the freighted relationship between musician Clara Schumann, accomplished pianist and composer and friend Robert Schumann’s wife, and Brahms. In the linked Guardian article, Brahms’s complex sexual history is delineated less allusively.
“After a protracted decline, Robert died in 1856, whereupon Brahms and Clara were free to declare their passion, to marry. The couple went on holiday to Switzerland to sort it all out. Exactly what he said to her we will never know, but it amounted to this: Cheerio. I’m off to Hamburg. Write if you get work.
Clara put him on the train, staggered home, and told her journal: “I felt as if I were returning from a funeral.” Daughter Eugenie later said that Clara could never understand why Brahms so ruthlessly turned away. Clara took up her performing career with a vengeance; it was her solace and, she would tell Brahms, “the very breath of my body.”
Moving to another, lighter emotional palette, the first of Maurice Ravel’s “Three Songs,” describes a young woman, “Nicolette,” who with sagacity and humor, evades a growling wolf in a compressed version of the familiar story line: the creature invites her to Grandmother’s house.
After running away, Nicoette then meets a most attractive page “with blue shoes and grey doublet”, and soon thereafter, an old lord, “twisted, ugly, stinky, and fat.” The latter offers her gold coins, and “good Nicolette” runs to his embrace, “never to return to the field.”
This delicious bit of agrarian nonsense was offered with precisely articulated, staccato syllables. The delightful final verse counterpoised the pesante plodding of the rich old man with the chirpy, flighty delight of the security-seeker, or, should you prefer, gold-digger.
After admission, the concert’s most astounding technical feats took place during meditations on love and death by two young American composers. Both works were commissioned by the Chanticleer ensemble.
Stacy Garrop’s (b. 1969) setting of Carl Sandburg’s “Give Me Hunger” had the countertenors nearly shouting the title phrase over sustained bass pedal points on F, C, and Bb, the middle voices striking perfectly tuned, edgy tritones, pulling apart the diatonic harmonies. Repeated C to Bb resolving appoggiaturas added emotional intensity as the ending approached. In the final stanza,
“Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love,”
the pedal point and the intense choir executed a phenomenal gradual crescendo from pianississimo to fortississimo on the word, “window.” You had to hear it to believe it!
In the program notes, the composer explained the meaning of this technique in her program notes: “In my piece . . . I reflect Sandburg’s enraged voice with a relentless ostinato (a repeating gesture) coupled with dissonant chords; for the poem’s softer side, I employ lush harmonies to anticipate the “coming of a little love.”
In Eric Whitacre’s (b. 1970) hymnal “A Boy and a Girl,” sustained, syllables gave elongated emphasis to seamless ensemble. His harmonizing thoughtfully tracked the sensuous exhilaration of the first two stanzas, but the word “underground” was wracked with sudden dissonance, and the last four lines were separated by long pauses of, say, three seconds, and then, astoundingly, without visible cues, another dense chord, at a precise interval.
“Stretched out on the grass
A boy and a girl
Savoring their oranges
Giving their kisses
As the waves exchange foam
Stretched out on the beach
A boy and a girl
Giving their kisses
Like clouds exchanging foam
Stretched out underground
A boy and a girl
Giving silence for silence
The effect was spellbinding. You could hear a pin drop in Ozawa Hall.
As an antidote to this nearly unbearable turn of fate, Chanticleer offered a sentimental balm for the crowd, a send-up of collegiate a cappella. A Whiffenpoof-y treatment of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance” from the musical, “Jumbo,” was amiably adorned with barbershop and jazz modulations and inflections, blowing its seams on the succulent phrase, smoothly set forth by the choir:
Ooh ooh ooh
The way my most fantastic dreams come true
My romance doesn’t need a dream like you
Rounding out the evenings artistic and emotional journey were five gospel-inflected songs, hand-clapping, joyous, exuberant songs:
“I Feel Better,” (with overlaid jazz, gospel and barbershop harmonies);
“Everything Has Changed” (featuring the charming phrases, “We kissed like we invented it ” and “We make the moon a miracle,” stomping, and clapping on the offbeats);
“Sit Down Servant (And Rest a Little While),” with brilliant falsetto melismas – up to soprano high C! – by baritone Marques Jerrell Ruff belted out over the riff, “sid-down, oh sid-down; sid-down, oh sid-down”);
“Plenty Good Room (In My Father’s House),” with a deep blues sensibility, and preachable moments intoned in falsetto by alto Cortez Mitchell over clapped offbeats;
“Keep Your Hand on the Plough” ending with a stunning sequence of half-step modulations on F, F#, and G major chords, tossed off with such a casual aplomb that the impossible sounded easy.
Chills went up many spines, and a prolonged ovation followed, The chorus of twelve good men emerged from the Green Room immediately to meet the audience under the Ozawa Hall portico. Many enjoyed the opportunity to chat and to purchase one of their large selection of CDs. Disclosure: your reviewer was among the happy buyers.
July 8, 2014 An American welcome to the Tanglewood season: Opening night starring Renee Fleming
Lenox – A spirit of gracious openness embraced the first Tanglewood Opening under the aegis of Maestro Andris Nelsons. Departing dramatically from the traditional focus on heavy European classics, the musical offerings were drawn from a distinctly American oeuvre, both through composed orchestral works and the splendid yield of “Tin Pan Alley,” Hollywood film, and the Broadway stage.
A delicious summer’s evening followed the intense rain that spilled on the beginning of the July 4 weekend. At the concert’s end, the great American opera diva – or rather, music star – Renee Fleming, led sing-a-longs on Frederick Lowe’s and Allen Jay Lerner’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” and Leonard Cohen’s hymnal popular song, “Halleluja.” The proceedings delighted a huge crowd in the Shed and on the Lawn.
Surveying a wide range of themes and emotions, the initial, more “classical” portion was conducted by William Eddins of the Edmunton (CA) Symphony, who recently supported Renee Fleming’s tour of South Africa, leading the Natal Philharmonic. A remarkably mature figure at 50 years of age, exuding warmth and confidence in the BSO players with a steady hand and a friendly manner, he received his degree from the Eastman School of Music at 18, making him the youngest graduate ever. Eddins is also one of the small number of African-American conductors to ascend to the podium of the Shed.
His zest for our 20th century compositional canon was evident in his detailed and thoughtful treatment of Joseph Schwanter’s 1989 “Freeflight,” subtitled “Fanfares and Fantasy,” commissioned by John Williams for the Boston Pops Orchestra; Aaron Copland’s 1961 “Night Thoughts,” a portion of a larger work, “Music for a Great City” that was originally scored for the movie, “Something Wild”; Samuel Barber’s 1948 “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” with Ms. Fleming as soloist; and John Adams’s 1986 “Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Fanfare for Orchestra.” The Barber could have been an artistic triumph, had it been possible properly to hear and understand Ms. Fleming’s singing and diction.
In Schwantner’s “Freeflight,” Maestro Eddins put down his baton early in the piece, bringing forth with expressive arms and hands the striking, unusual sonorities: eerie duets of xylophone and open vibraphone with woodwind echoes and woodblock punctuations; chimes clattering under hard mallets, transmitting urgent polyrhythms to massed, quiet strings; stacks of 13th chords blown by brass and woodwinds reminiscent of the mighty Stan Kenton band’s cadenzas. Short on thematic and rhythmic development, this was certainly interesting music, beautifully conducted and performed, but wanting in coherency.
Back with baton in the Copland, Eddins led with broad and energetic motions, pulling from the brass bold declarations, from softly massed strings a rich and loamy landscape, and from the superb percussion section both gentle and jazzy rhythms. There were no few straightforward, clear-headed harmonic explorations redolent of the composer’s “Appalachian Spring.” Here again, this was engaging stuff, entertaining and apposite to the sweet spirit of the night.
Renee Fleming entered to cheers and bravas before uttering a word, splendidly attired in a muted teal-blue, floor-length gown, with a long, tulle stole. Her performance of “Knoxville,” however, was so quiet that it was both difficult to hear and nearly impossible to understand. Despite bringing the lights up slightly, the words in the program were all but impossible to read, much less to coordinate with the music.
Had Ms. Fleming used the very microphone that she used later to talk to the audience, and had the BSO provided either supertitles or readable text, the artistic yield would have been vastly better. As it was, Barber’s lush harmonies, exquisite interplay of vocal and instrumental lines, and splendid, Kaleidescopic orchestration, were almost as for nothing. The depictions of Barber’s and poet James Agee’s deep engagement with a six-year-old boy’s sensory and emotional experience depend as much on the text as the music.
To demonstrate what might have been, and to illuminate the genius behind the evening’s programming, here is another Tanglewood favorite, the soprano Dawn Upshaw, performing “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the baton of David Zinman.
Knoxville, Summer of 1915
Click here for the link to the performance.
The Agee text follows below (in italics), so please follow the poetry with the music.
Note Barber’s arching phrases, the soprano’s high notes giving emotional emphasis to certain key words. The very highest note in the singer’s challenging score, Bb above the staff, is sung softly. This occurs in the childlike characterization of the evening, “now is the night one blue dew.”
Powerful compositional devices give added weight, and occasionally lend overwhelming impact to certain words. Barber’s brilliant streetcar orchestration features marvelous honks and traffic noises, fascinating and perhaps frightening the boy. The harmony beneath the passage beginning “Low on the length of lawns” unfolds in a pentatonic sensibility, with a comforting, gently-rocking, folk-song quality. Through Bflat minor, the harmony shifts to F major in what is, for this listener, the most moving episode in the piece, the section that begins, “On the rough wet grass of the back yard.”
Two simple, repeated melodic strands combine with ravishing text to describe the child’s sense of being protected and loved by his parents: the appogiatura Bflat resolving to A and F forming and developing the repeating melody of the “my father is good to me” text. And the “Three Blind Mice” theme, a triviality known to virtually all American children of 1915, extends all through, framing phrases and passages repeatedly, elevating one’s spirits, settling one’s stomach, and, indeed, bringing tears to one’s eyes. The ending phrase, “but will not ever tell me who I am” depicts beautifully how the child senses his parents’ respect for his future development, and for the person he is today.
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt; a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.
A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints ; halts, the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten. Now is the night one bluedew.
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes. . .
Parents on porches: rock and rock: From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.
On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. . .
They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved at home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, notever; but not evertell me who I am.
JAMES AGEE (c) 1938
John Adams’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” was led strongly, with jazz riffs (repeated, short rhythmic phrases) resounding over steady impulses on the wood block. An astounding 2-minute fast, exposed, fortissimo bass line over scattering winds and strings was walked perfectly by the tuba player, Jerome Stover, substituting for the BSO Principal, Mike Roylance, his doctoral studies supervisor at Boston University. Stover somehow found space to breathe in Adams’s dense array of notes. His every attack was perfect, and his strong, centered sound melded perfectly with the other brass notwithstanding its exposure. To this reviewer, Stover’s was the instrumental tour de force of the evening.
The second half of the concert, ably led in the fashion of the Great White Way by Rob Fisher, featured clear direction, the beats enumerated with crystalline clarity by his baton, and a fine comprehension of the subtleties of the music, always appropriate to the lyrics. There was some shaggy playing by the orchestra, doubtless a consequence of insufficient rehearsal time. But as the saying goes, it was close enough for jazz.
The stunning1949 “Overture to ‘South Pacific’ by Richard Rodgers, with its resounding “Bali Hai” call at the beginning and the end, and wisps of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame” summoned one’s happy memories of the show and the movie. An unfortunate clam in the horn section, forming a minor second in what would otherwise have been an exposed high C, could be forgiven both in the context of the happy display and in keeping with one of the most important messages of the play: Nobody’s Perfect! Neither Nellie Forbush, the sweet girl from Arkansas, the horny enlisted men who extol the figures if not the persons of the women they long for, the expatriate French plantation owner who struggles to accept his interracial children . . . nor the accomplished BSO brass section.
Then Renee Fleming returned, resplendent in a sweeping persimmon silk gown with a long, matching stole. The sartorial blue and white of the first half were thus completed in red. (July 4, get it?) Taking the microphone in hand, Ms. Fleming saluted the orchestra, noting that she had to change clothes to be sure that there was enough room left on stage for the musicians. Some of them, she observed, had to purchase airplane seats for their precious instruments. . . as she does for her dresses. (Here, it should be noted that the percussion section refrained from sounding “ba-dum.” Note the popular definition of a gentleman during the jazz era: a man who knows how to play the banjo but refrains from doing so.)
Indeed, this was a different kind of Tanglewood opening night.
Ms. Fleming noted that she grew up with this music, having played Eliza Doolittle (the female lead in “My Fair Lady”) twice before the age of 16.
This was evident in her knowing, affecting renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs: “The Sound of Music” from the 1949 play of the same name in she swooped delightfully to Eflat; her spontaneous leaping to a high Bflat at the end of “Wonderful Guy” from “South Pacific (1949);” and her touching and sensitive portrayal of “Hello, Young Lovers” from “The King and I (1951),” in which the widowed Anna, governess to the children of the King of Siam, expresses her hopes for other lovers’ happiness notwithstanding her own loss, in the immortal phrase, “I’ve had a love of my own.”
Then came Gershwin, in the form of the brief overture to “Girl Crazy,” with some splendid section work by the three BSO trombones, performing a perfectly coordinated slide vibrato in thirds that would have made Duke Ellington proud. For sure, this required some serious woodshedding. It came across like a shooting star.
The official program came to a close with Ms. Fleming’s touching version of “Summertime.” Here, once again, she performed without the microphone, but in the hushed hall, in her caramel tessitura, she was able to evoke the tragedy and hope for the orphaned infant she was holding. Here was a virtuosic triumph of understatement, summoning the beauty of the best Broadway story-telling and American composers’ and lyricists’ courageous confrontation with dispiriting social realities.
Well-earned bravos ensued, and Ms. Fleming’s encores and sing-a-longs included were clamorously received. This was an auspicious start of the Tanglewood season, signaling, one may hope, the advent of a special musical welcoming and inclusiveness by Maestro Nelsons and his company.
August 27, 2010 Mälkki, with Bell, and Denk, Raises Questions of Tempo and Gender
Both Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for violin, piano, and strings and his Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Op. 21, composed when he was but 13 and 17, were given dashing interpretations by conductor Susanna Mälkki—the former with violinist Joshua Bell, and pianist Jeremy Denk in the Tanglewood Shed on August 21, 2010. Revealing the brilliant portent of Mendelssohn’s childhood and giving a critical perspective of his growth into a worthy Beethoven successor came in the second half of the program, dedicated to Beethoven’s music. Here, Bell’s performance of Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F major, Op. 50 for violin and orchestra, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60, offered striking contrasts in substance and mood.
We witnessed in this concert both that wild tempos in the hands of virtuoso players can stir excitement in the absence of great musical substance and that frustration can come when a great orchestra, accustomed to male conductors, faces a woman on its podium. Along with the revelations and discoveries in this provocative concert came interesting questions of orchestral professionalism and leadership that bumped against the patriarchal values constraining the careers of female conductors.
Susanna Mälkki, substituting for James Levine, could hardly appear more different than the BSO’s recuperating music director. Where he is confined to his chair, limited in the range of his gestures, she is a lithe, graceful, youthful presence on the podium. Where he is cerebral, preferring subtle gestures of the baton, she is “a conducting animal” of the Gustavo Dudamel species who expresses ideas and emotions with her fingers, hands, face, hair, torso, and legs. Where he is ambiguous in his directions, pulling from each individual player the best that they think he wants from them, she is vigorously direct and steadfast, even in the face of active resistance to her tempos and dynamic indications. Where he is a male conductor at the pinnacle of his career (notwithstanding his physical infirmities), she is a modern woman on her way up, unencumbered by anything but the preferences and prejudices of a tradition-ridden profession.
The daring acceleration with which Mälkki addressed the ethereal beginning of Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared to confuse the orchestra, which held back. She increased the amplitude of her hand and arm movements. Still they held back. She assumed a military posture, employing strong vertical indications to signal the downbeats of the 2/4 meter and pulling the second-beat accents in the succeeding passage with dramatic up-lifts. The beat couldn’t have been clearer, but the orchestra was flaccid, and the quality of the attacks, especially in the strings, was ragged.
The dense and shifting orchestral colors emerged convincingly in response to Mälkki’s confident sweeps of her arms and delicate conjuring of her fingers, however, as the initial section of the work developed through a splendid rallentendo, approaching its penultimate D-minor cadence before returning to the shimmering tonalities of the beginning. This left no doubt that the BSO could, and would, play for her if it wanted to.
An unexpected auditory event presented itself next, signaling that for all her expertise in contemporary music (Mälkki leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris), the conductor respected what Mendelssohn had in mind with regard to the orchestra of his day. BSO third trombone Douglas Yeo sounded his ophicleide, the unfamiliar predecessor of the modern orchestral tuba that is usually cast in this piece. It was as if a fat French horn had descended down an octave and a half below its low F. Yeo’s tone was focused, resonant, a bit thin for the tuba taste, but exquisitely blended with the horns and contrabasses, its slightly nasal quality adding just the right amount of distinction to this important, exposed melody. It was a marvelous touch, evoking the zany spirit of the “play within a play” of Shakespeare’s comedy.
Mendelssohn then explored his developing identity as a romantic in the lovely harmonies that suffused the final passages, featuring another vivace, now appropriately controlled in the strings, that brought in the woodwinds, first in F minor, then on a downward harmonic escalator that flowed in magic thirds through D minor to Bb major to G minor and after a tentative C 7th, to an F-minor cadence. In the end, an affecting, sad, descending scale was repeated by the first violins and then the horns before the woodwinds brought the piece to a soft and satisfying close. It was a stirring performance, to which the audience responded with appropriate enthusiasm. The back-story seemed not to matter. How lovely it is that music is so ephemeral!
Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk brought virtuoso technique to bear on the pubertal pretensions of the Mendelssohn Concerto for violin and piano. The opening of this adolescent adventure sounded as if it came from the composer’s counterpoint class. The “orchestra” here was more a figure of speech than a foundational platform, offering chords and comments beneath the serviceable channeling of a three-note phrase into canonical and fugal configurations. Bach it was not. But Bell and Denk pulled every available emotion from the melodies, such as they were, emphasizing shifting tonalities with graceful dynamics and velvety legatos.
Then came fun! Mälkki, Bell, and Denk whizzed around several octaves’ worth of scales, the two instrumentalists cuing one another with a subtlety that approached telepathy on chiseled phrases, stunning volume shifts, and effortless streaks of unisons and thirds. If the exchanges between the violin and piano seemed absurdly literal and the thematic development sounded primitive, what the piece lacked in structure it gained in breathtaking performance. Back-to-back short cadenzas culminated in a lyrical rubato section for solo piano before the breakneck tempo reappeared. Mendelssohn and the violinist friend for whom the piece was written obviously had enjoyed this chase, stirring a quick quotation of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” (the popular last movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11) into a recapitulation of the 3-note motif (D, E, A) from the first movement.
Here, Mälkki held it all together, and the orchestra played gamely along. Now there was no obvious backing and filling. The crowd loved it, and many smiles were shared in the intermission that followed.
The Beethoven Romance was a sweet affair, its rhythms and accents guided gently by Mälkki’s hands, arms, and torso. Bell brought a balletic expressivity and his own subtle movements to the arching melodies with controlled nuances and a warm temperament reminiscent of Isaac Stern. Despite the searching, forward-looking brilliance of his original cadenzas, there was not a shred of show or pretence. Here was a serious performance of mature music, as it was meant to be.
The Fourth Symphony began with a sense of mystery. Mälkki took the opening tempo very slowly, giving emphasis to the bold harmonic transits — those magic thirds again! — from Bb minor to Gb to Eb, in which Beethoven pointed the way through Mendelssohn and Schumann to Wagner and 20th-century composition.
The drama was enhanced by Mälkki’s impressively articulated accents. In no sense did the use of her body appear to be disingenuous or inappropriately sensuous, although her femininity could not be denied. This was music making of a very high order, making effective use of a fine repertory of expressive tools.
An exaggerated fortissimo to the first movement allegro gave still more excitement, with blasts of tympani and bursts of trumpets. The mood calmed, and Mälkki focused on the inner voices from the woodwinds. Like a restrained ballerina, she summoned from principal flute Elizabeth Rowe a high and shining solo. Shakes of Mälkki’s hair added a certain swing to Beethoven’s rhythmic syncopations.
Now the musicians were playing absolutely responsively, with mighty crescendos, gossamer string and woodwind pianos, and impressively controlled accents from Timothy Genis’s tympani and the two matched flugelhorns. The dotted-eighth rhythms were signaled by Mälkki’s subtle counterpunches and torso-flicks, yielding inescapably to satisfying orchestral synchrony. Sustaining the emphasis on tonal variety, she hushed the violins with a quick application of finger to lip. Down they came, with alacrity. She urged Beethoven’s sfortzandos with total-body pulses, in which she pushed forward with her hands while arching slightly backward. At the same time, her athleticism was restrained both by her relentless focus on the task at hand and by her costume, a modest tuxedo with a simple leather collar. The music was her focus.
The last movement was a rapid tour de force, wild, and yet controlled. In the swirling violins over tremolo contrabasses, the punctuation of diatonic harmonies with diminished chords, and the buildup to the crashing Bb ending, the full palette of Beethoven’s tortured emotions was exposed. Mälkki had led us through this transit from childhood through adulthood in what felt like minutes. It was intense, enthralling, and revelatory.
Your reviewer searched in vain through Gunther Schuller’s 1997 magnum opus, The Compleat Conductor, for any reference to female conductors. But Schuller’s courageous, indeed relentless, insistence that no one has the right to fiddle with the composer’s intentions, led him to adroit and powerful criticism of such conducting icons as Tanglewood favorite Leonard Bernstein. Schuller documents that although Bernstein himself talked and wrote that music came first, he violated the principle in obvious ways when he was standing on the podium. Schuller underlines a set of paramount conducting values that include honesty, expressivity, respect, and thoughtful reflection.
In this spirit, after a concert like this one, one is constrained to ask these questions:
- Why should this professional guild be nearly exclusively male?
- Could Mälkki’s feminine status have affected the orchestra’s initial resistance?
- Was it daunting to the players and the audience?
- Was her confidence a product of Finland’s more adroit fulfillment of the promise of women musicians that ours?
- If we disagree with her tempos and her interpretations, do we criticize them more harshly because she is a woman?
- Could Mälkki possibly be unaware and unaffected by Marin Alsop’s cruel and public mistreatment by the Baltimore Symphony’s players, even after the Board hired her, and her earlier unpleasant encounter on the Tanglewood podium (that this reviewer witnessed)?
Your reviewer has no answers to these questions except to say that sexism is alive and well in the world of music and that the time has come for female conductors to take their rightful places on the podiums of the world’s greatest orchestras, including this one. Yet another 19th-century European prejudicial tradition should yield to contemporary respect for human rights and gender equality, and to the creative power of cultural diversity.
August 24, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Upshaw, Morlot Weave Affecting Textures with BSO
Inspired by the culture of France and the Jewish diasporas, the Boston Symphony Orchestra began its concert of August 20 with Mozart’s dense and compact Symphony No. 31 in D (“Paris”) and proceeded through two moving works for soprano solo, Devrath Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne and Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, to Ravel’s coloristic concerto for orchestra, Ma Mere l’Oye (“Mother Goose Suite”, in the complete version). Dawn Upshaw’s modest stage manner belied her powerful emotionality and vocal virtuosity, bringing tears to the eyes and cheers to the heart in her knowing evocations of love and loss, and the charming intimacies of country life. Ludovic Morlot treated the stirring Mozart meters with a startling economy of movement, but embraced the subsequent romantic works with passionate spirit and expansive gesture.
The allegro first movement of the Mozart was sprung like a clock, sounding regular alarms of shooting octaves from the highest to the lowest strings (played with remarkable precision by the contrabass ensemble, led on this night by Lawrence Wolfe), but controlled both by brisk, steady rhythms and the fierce logic of a gorgeous counterpoint. Merlot’s subtle cues pulled out the inner lines; he emphasized the shape of the longer phrases by bringing up the volume of the two matched, mellow flugelhorns.
In the second movement, the 3/4 andante under Morlot’s baton became not so much a walking meter than a waltz. A striking series of four-measure exchanges unfolded between the strings and the woodwinds, telescoping to two- and then one-measure conversations. In but a few moments, the Shed was transformed to the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Keisuke Wakao’s oboe and Elizabeth Rowe’s flute sang together as one, swept away. When Mozart received this commission, what could the young fellow from Vienna have been thinking about the predilections of the French?
With its rapid piano strings and sudden forte bursts from the flugelhorns at the start of the third movement, Mozart, in 1778, anticipated Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony by 13 years. (Whether or not Papa Haydn was a thief is not the issue. What great composer stands alone?) Here, one could perceive the compositional sources of Mozart’s titanic influence: his ability to make melody magic of every short succession of notes, to propel rhythmic ambiguities through counterpoint, to subtly push inner lines into overlapping phrases of tensile strength, and to fearlessly assert complex rhythms, bold dynamics, and heady harmonic transitions.
When, at last, the splendidly synchronized arpeggios in the flugelhorns returned harmonic tonality convincingly to D major, there was delight, satisfaction, and even relief. Here was 250-year-old music brought to contemporary relevance by a sympathetic conductor in front of a splendid orchestra.
Dawn Upshaw appeared to a warm welcome in a flowing, turquoise jacket and matching scarf over slim, black pants. Her easy manner and lack of pretension captured beautifully the simple eloquence of the folk lyrics in the Canteloube songs. But her singing! This was world-class stuff, in range, color, timbre, and daring. Upshaw’s voice spans the soprano range with an ermine warmth. Without much ado, she adds depth and variety apposite to the lyrics: here an edge of laughter, there the verge of tears, and in the Sprechstimme that the Canteloube calls for, an unaffected, highly inflected human voice, and then a stunning emulation of a cuckoo’s cries. What force she adds for expressive nuance appears as the vocal equivalent of burnished wood, a timbre that falls somewhere between the bass clarinet and the oboe. If there were a perfect singer for the huge emotional range called for in the works of in this evening’s program, it was surely she.
The “Spinning Girl” in the first song, when asked for a kiss, gives two, and whirls through a vocal gyre from low E to high A. The repeated nonsense refrain, “Ti lirou . . . la la diri” was elevated by twinkles of flute and piccolo, capturing in form and fancy the dizzying delight of first love.
Who writes songs like “Run, Dog, Run!” these days? This little stunner would arguably have better served the climax of the 1995 movie, Babe, than the final movement of Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony. Absent the colossal impact, “Run, Dog, Run!” shimmered equally in animation and charm. Upshaw’s portrayal of the drama of a runaway cow, a shepherd, and a terrier, in swoops and yells and guttural barks, leapt over the rushing winds and dashing strings of Canteloube’s orchestration.
With such guidance, this doggie hardly needed a password to help him with his task. (Musicological trivia question: What was the password that Babe the pig used to herd the sheep into the corral, enabling him to win the grand prize of Scotland’s herding contest, not by being mean, but by asking nicely? Answer, cued to the piano arpeggios that herald that first, crashing organ chord, uttered gently: “Ba, Ram, You!” This was arguably the finest moment of French movie music since Wilhelmenia Fernandez sang Alfredo Catalani’s “Aria from ‘La Wally'” in the 1981 cult classic, Diva.)
The repeated comforting phrases of “Lullaby,” woven into exquisite, soft woodwind textures, evoked maternal frustration as well as love. Finally, the baby drifted off to sleep, after Upshaw observed tenderly, “It is coming at last, the lazy one! It is coming, here it is! And the baby is going to sleep… Ah!” After a song about putting a baby to bed, there came another about getting somebody special out of bed. Only after Pierre returned from multiple trips to the fair with Margaret’s “chemise, and the petticoat, and the laced bodice, and her kerchief, and her panties and her hat,” would she consider arising for the day. A delicious mix of harmony captured Pierre’s complex emotions. Circling around A-minor tonalities, his mood abruptly changed when Margaret at last exclaimed, “How pretty I look!” The song quickly resolved in a bright A-major cadence when, finally, “Margaret got out of bed!” Poor Pierre! Happy Pierre! Enabling Pierre!
“The Cuckoo” sang from a tree “in bloom, all red” to music that reflected a fabulous metaphor: “Certainly if all the cuckoos were to wear little bells, they would sound like five hundred trumpets.” Here the trumpets surely shone, with lots of chirpy staccatos, dissonant cackles, and at the end repeated calls of “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!” Upshaw’s sense of humor came across especially pleasingly in her understatement of the over-the-top text.
The scene turned darker and more serious in the first of the Golijov songs, a lullaby, translated to and sung in the Yiddish of his forebears, with an unusual musical structure: soprano solo, soprano with orchestra, and orchestra solo. Upshaw began the song a cappella, totally exposed and precisely in tune, with the words, “Close your eyes and you shall go to that sweet land all dreamers know.” The subtle orchestral accompaniment lay down simple harmonies on a carpet of thick woodwind textures, with echoes of the vocal line sounding in the alto flute, contrabass clarinet, and violas. A romantic harmonic progression (C major, A major, E major, repeated again and again) underpinned this knowing expression of maternal comfort.
Then tension mounted with a keening melody, voiced in scalloping circles by the first violins, counterpoised by a rapid pizzicato passage in the contrabasses and bursts of linear lines in minor keys in the mid-range of the French horns. Their harsh tritones resolved to perfect fourths in a sudden, minor cadence. After the sweetness and peace of the lullaby came an augury of tragedy.
Yiddish changed to Spanish in the following affecting song, “Moon, Colorless.” Once again, Upshaw started a cappella, sounding a stunning, perfect E. Joined by strings in an expansive, rubato treatment of Rosalia de Castro’s poem, she asked the moon “If you know where Death has her dark mansion, tell her to take my body and soul together to a place where I won’t be remembered. …” Following a sweeping lament by Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, alternating pizzicato phrases between the cellos and the contrabasses underpinned a complex soprano melody that rose through Latin American and Klezmer inflections to a high Bb before resolving on the major third of a clear C-major chord. The sad ambiguity of human hopelessness in the face of a glowing heavenly body was resolved with optimism. Only through music can mixed feelings such as these be expressed, and shared, so deeply.
Two spare poems by Emily Dickinson closed this portion of the program. These, too, were songs of love and the transitory nature of human existence, embedding intimate feelings in soaring celestial images. These phrases could not have been better suited to Golijov’s and Upshaw’s artistry. His music was among his best: straightforward, simply and carefully worked, with clear voicings of the instruments (again with emphasis on texture, enriched by high contrabassoon and alto flute), accessible harmonies, and honest, heartfelt emotion. Her singing was thoughtful, nuanced, and moving.
Maestro Morlot’s “Mother Goose” focused on the kaleidoscopic qualities of Ravel’s orchestration. This is really a concerto for orchestra, and star turns were taken by oboe Keisuke Wakao, summoning rapid changes of mood and leading us up a staircase of romantic harmonies, and by piccolo Cynthia Myers, principal clarinet William Hudgins, and contrabassoon Gregg Henegar, who handed off a long melody that developed from a muscular, low Gb to the splendid lower register of Elizabeth Rowe’s flute. Lush, muted violins re-introduced Wakao’s oboe and gave emphasis to the honeyed quality of Robert Sheena’s English horn that built and ultimately directed all the woodwinds to a glorious section chorale.
After three statements of a four-pulse birdcall, played with charm by one of the percussionists alongside companionable chirping from the piccolo, the muted strings and oboe returned. Jessica Zhou’s harp, along with the celesta and xylophone gave sizzle and sparkle to the “Fairy Garden” movement, with echoes of its ethereal, pentatonic tonalities whispered by the alto flute and the piccolo. A powerful crescendo propagated shards of melody across the woodwinds and brass to a stirring restatement of the principal theme from the “Empress of the Pagoda” movement, punctuated resoundingly by horns and gong.
Your reviewer’s notes at this point in the Ravel include the phrase, “totally unlike listening to a recording, the shadings, the tonal variety!” This was one of those moments to rethink one’s listening habits. Really to appreciate music, there’s no substitute for listening to the real thing in live performance. In this deeply satisfying evening, Ludovic Morlot, Dawn Upshaw, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave us a magisterial alternative to the CD, the MP3 or any media player.
August 20, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
The Joint wuz Jumpin’ with Thibaudet, Spano, Martin
The spirits of Edward “Duke” Ellington, William “Count” Basie, Thomas “Fats” Waller, and Art Tatum hovered gently over a splendidly satisfying concert in the Tanglewood Shed on August 15. Bounding rhythms of 1920s and 1930s jazz inspired both the afternoon’s composers and Maestro Robert Spano, a fine choice to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra through the many delights and sensibilities of this quintessentially American music. Four works by three composers framed the tour, beginning and ending with the greatest synthesizer of jazz and classics, George Gershwin (An American in Paris and Piano Concerto in F with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, soloist). The other offerings were by the redoubtable composer and jazz scholar Gunther Schuller (Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee) and long-time Tanglewood faculty member Leonard Bernstein (Prelude Fugue and Riffs for clarinet and jazz ensemble, with the BSO’s Thomas Martin, soloist.)
An American in Paris led off with typical Gershwin pentatonic themes. Virtuosic solo work by English horn Robert Sheena gave, in just a few nuanced notes, the fulcrum that shifted the balance from traffic jam to blues. Breathy melismas by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs infused the “Bess, You Is My Woman” theme with deep passion. Using subtle dynamics rather than smears, principal tuba Mike Roylance invested the blue thirds and sevenths with sad poignancy in his long, rubato solo.
Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee evoked the sound and spirit of bandleader and composer Duke Ellington in his musical description of the Klee drawing, “Little Blue Devil.“
As Larry Wolfe walked the pizzicato bass line and woodwind and trombone choirs riffed over a swinging cymbal rhythm, an extended cup-muted trumpet solo summoned the marvelous horn talk of James “Bubber” Miley. In the other movements, idiosyncratic orchestral settings and subtly articulated contrapuntal lines created delicious, shifting harmonic effects.
In the movement entitled “Abstract Trio,” flutter-tonguing flutes and streaking clarinets danced over a softly growling French horn. Klee’s curious “Twittering Machine” squeaked around, bearing a chattering aviary of muted trumpets, woodblock, piccolo, and sliding trombones, all immersed in a warm atmosphere of tremolo strings, and superbly animated by Spano’s ratcheting stick-work
In “Arabian Town,” we eavesdropped on a conversation between BSO principal flute, Elizabeth Rowe, who stood within the natural resonating chamber formed by the portico before the left stage doors, and a male oboist who was seated before a harem of second violinists. After an introduction of affecting, quietly resonating string chords, Rowe brought a pensive melody to life with dynamic inflections and ornaments that suggested cool nights in the desert. Bringing the volume down to pianissimo, she held the house rapt. (This was one of those rare moments of absolute audience silence in the Shed.) Then suddenly, the oboe, in flagrant braggadocio, interrupted her. But standing her ground, she continued with wounded sadness, uttering soft trills that elevated her poetry to an ethereal plane, repeating, and repeating again scalloped lines in her lovely middle range, each time differently, with variations in volume, vibrato, and middle-Eastern intervals. Sustained strings and syncopated tympani appeared to affirm the logic of her point of view. Then the belligerent returned, loudly proclaiming, with the help of one of the kept violins and a convincing emulation of an oud, that his would be the last word. His solo leapt and crept around before settling into a menacing, low A drone. But ultimately the flute prevailed, never raising her sweet voice, considering and then maintaining a measure of feminine autonomy over gently bowed strings. Magic!
“Pastorale” evoked the subtle colors of agrarian villages. Brief melodies and contrapuntal encounters from clarinet, English horn, and French horn led to a splendid clarinet cadenza by BSO principal William Hudgins that circled down into the lowest range and spiraled upward in stunning arpeggios, greeting the piccolo in animated conversation. This joyful solo and interplay evoked the tension between individualism and community, tempered by mutual respect and the collective need to survive, that holds villages together. The economy of Klee’s layered drawing, with houses, colors, and geometric rhythms immersed in muted shadings, and Schuller’s spare orchestration spoke volumes. Not one unnecessary line, note, nor point of emphasis was sounded in this splendid performance.
Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs utilized a band of five saxophones, piano, trap drums, seated trombones, and standing trumpets. The precisely accented, swinging drumming and the creamy lead alto sax brought to mind the great Count Basie powerhouses, Jo Jones and Marshal Royal. But Bernstein gave equal tribute to the European composers who made such brilliant use of jazz equipment and language —Darius Milhaud (La Creation du Monde) and Igor Stravinsky (Ragtime for Eleven Instruments) — through intricate rhythmic shifts, blue notes, ragged lines, filigreed counterpoint, and unpredictable solo excursions on piano, trumpet, and, above all, clarinet. BSO principal contrabass Edwin Barker’s accelerated pizzicato lines pushed clarinetist Martin to soaring phrases redolent of Benny Goodman at the height of his power; Martin’s heartfelt blues inflections were worthy of Pee Wee Russell in the depth of his cups. As the piece drew to a close, Maestro Spano conjured a big band in full cry, wailing before a crowd of committed fans. His was the kind of identification and shared passion with which Ellington and Basie spurred their bandsmen to the best they could produce.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, sporting a well cut, black mini-morning coat, open white shirt with a high collar that tickled his mandible, and spiked hair, inhabited the Gershwin piano concerto with the same kind of intense focus that he brought to the Ravel concerto several Tanglewood seasons back. The man plays the piano as well as he dresses, but who would have thought that his heart was in jazz?
Through this curious and challenging work, with its repeated references to the showy pianistic devices of the great New York “Stride” players James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake and the New Orleans pianist and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton, Thibaudet made eye contact with individual players in the orchestra, establishing the rapport that brings out the best in jazz improvisation, digging his solo lines into those of the sections. He was having a ball, and the orchestra was infected by it. Immediately, he provoked unexpected expressions of delight among both musicians and audience. His danceable treatment of Gershwin’s “Charleston” (the original composed by the father of “Stride” piano, James P. Johnson) provoked the players to tap their feet. The three-over-four-beat hemiola that evoked Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” was played slowly and elegantly, and it swung all the more for the understatement. Here, Thibaudet moved the inhabitants of the Shed to do the shoulder-shift in their chairs. During the second movement blues, he rocked his head from side to side, deeply immersed in its feeling. In the final Allegro agitato, over an eight-to-the-bar rhythm, Thibaudet ignited a firestorm of multiply-struck notes in the middle range of the piano, tuning in precisely to the underpinning meter, using visual checks to bring the basses along in the excitement, and easing into the final crescendo with dynamic nuances that filtered through the orchestra like laser beams.
In this brilliantly accomplished performance, it was clear that Thibaudet was giving special tribute to Art Tatum. His precisely controlled, liquid arpeggios and carefully woven inner lines of the blues were instantly recognizable from Tatum’s celebrated improvisation on Dvorak’s Humoresque. Tatum himself improvised a send-up of that very firestorm in the middle of his 1949 eight-to-the-bar fast blues, “Tatum-Pole Boogie,” one of his most technically spectacular improvised performances. (Listen to it here:)
Gunther Schuller’s appreciation of Tatum’s prodigious technique is notable in this regard, both because his “Seven Studies” reveal such a deep comprehension of the structure and method of jazz and because of the manifest influence of Tatum on Thibaudet’s style and jazz technique: “The effortless gliding of his hands over difficult passages puzzled most who witnessed the phenomenon. He especially mystified other pianists to whom Tatum appeared to be playing the impossible.” Apropos of the impossible, one can see what Schuller is talking about in this transcription of the last improvised chorus of “Tatum-Pole Boogie” that takes the form of a tribute to the Stride masters James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, and especially in its astounding coda. Who can play a sweep of descending thirds like these and runs like these? (note: Your reviewer attests to the accuracy of his transcriptions.)
This deeply satisfying concert filled one with respect for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s versatility and stylistic flexibility, Robert Spano’s inspired direction, and both Thomas Martin’s and Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s virtuosity. It was also one of those days when American pride filled the Tanglewood Shed, as two great musical traditions melded seamlessly together.
August 18, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Latin Lilt to Rowe’s Flights of Flute, Weilerstein’s Stellar Cello
In a concert on August 13 at Tanglewood that wove together soft-edged visual and auditory impressions of the lands of the Incas, Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in seven short works of varying quality and one flashy encore. Only three made lasting impressions, Illapa, a tone Poem for Flute and Orchestra composed in 2004 by Gabriela Lena Frank, Mariel for Cello and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov (2008), and Fiesta, by Jimmy Lopez (2007). The Lopez work offered some real density and juice, and affecting solo appearances by the BSO’s own principal flute, Elizabeth Rowe, and the young cello virtuoso, Alisa Weilerstein, brought dignity and aesthetic substance to their platforms.
The encore, Ary Barroso and Xavier Cugat’s pop hit, “Brazil,” was offered in an arrangement that drew on every Samba cliché in the book. Were the program notes to have included Cugat’s own words, they would have served the listener well: “I would rather play Chiquita Banana and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.”
But as Frank Sinatra would have said, “Everybody finished together, and nobody got hurt.”
A large movie screen dominated the stage, nearly obscuring the orchestra that played with illuminated music stands. (Note: the annual Tanglewood “film night” was scheduled the following night.) From the two large video projectors hung over the middle of the Shed, fan noises gave a breezy ostinato that obscured the details of every piano passage. Some pretty photographs of Machu Picchu, some taken from the adjacent Huayna Picchu mountain, along with 18th-century watercolors of Peruvian village life, fit nicely with the first two pieces on the program, the evocations of traditional songs by the early-20th-century composer, Alberto Alomia Robles, entitled El condor pasa (The condor passes) and an 18th-century proselytizing bishop, Baltasar Martinez y Companon, Coleccion de musica virreinal (Collection of Vice-Royal Music).
In the first of several short speeches, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya noted that the latter work was composed at about the same time that Mozart was writing The Marriage of Figaro. While each work used European compositional and orchestrational devices, however, neither approached mastery nor gave substance to the quoted indigenous melodies and rhythms. Rather, these were flattened, sweetened, mashed into diatonic harmonies, and otherwise deracinated and sterilized. That all the bishop’s watercolors displayed dancing Colonials gave an ironic verisimilitude to the first portion of the program.
Responsorio, by Diego Luzuriaga, evoked in nine minutes the mountains of Ecuador, with drums, flutes, and repeated themes in Aeolian mode. Some pretty overlays of muted trumpet on a ground of cello pizzicatos and an ineluctable crescendo toward the end signaled Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras and Stravinky’s Sacre du Printemps. Responsorio, however, came across neither as the work of a mature composer nor as a serious representation of its musical inspirations. The orchestration, heavy on the flutes and piccolo, didn’t begin to summon the life and verve of panpipes and their drummers. In the end, the build-up plodded to a half-hearted bass-drum bang.
Next followed a moment of embarrassment, if not an argument for more and better conservatory instruction in the humanities. “Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards,” Harth-Bedoya announced, “language was not written down, and music and pottery carried the culture.” Such was the Eurocentrism, if not triumphalism, that justified the innumerable cruelties visited on the Inca and Mayan by the conquistadores.
But the composer of Illapa, a tone poem for flute and orchestra, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Peru who has distinguished herself not only as a composer but also as an ethnomusicologist, clearly knew better. Gabriela Lena Frank’s idea was to capture the legendary dialogue, echoing across the Andes, between the eponymous weather god and the people in the valleys below, symbolized by percussion and traditional bamboo flute. Elizabeth Rowe, elegant in a coral gown, gave flight to the drama, counterpoising precisely articulated repeated low notes against percussion hits of claves and drums at the outset, defying gravity into the stratosphere, embracing the enterprise in a warm humanity of subtle shadings and dynamic nuances. In the return to the first theme, after a development reminiscent of Bartok and Hindemith and the familiar G tonality, Rowe’s exquisite duet with cello principal Jules Eskin, and then low-register violins and trumpets, depicted the aspiration to spiritual transcendence, surmounting the clatter of the percussion and the assertive dissonances in the trombones. Before a final strike of the claves, tremolo basses and pianissimo woodwinds supported a series of eerie high trills that magnificently showcased Rowe’s expressivity and utter mastery of her instrument. One had the impression that humanity – and indeed, culture – had held its own.
Golijov’s Mariel, originally written for cello and marimba in 1999, saw its orchestral premiere in 2008. Like his Blue, commissioned by the BSO three seasons ago, the work features washes of color with sustained chords that simultaneously envelop and mystify the listener, who wonders “Where is this going?” and “Why?” Here, in the absence of plausible development, there was an underpinning story, the tragic death of a friend. The composer’s words expressed his intentions to emulate the “waves and echoes of the Brazilian music that Mariel loved,” in which he “let the melodies and harmonies lead the music to a wider range of emotion.” Through these ambiguities, Alisa Weilerstein wove a tapestry of hope, love, sadness, and optimism, in a radiant, sonorous, nuanced series of arching phrases, wisps of fleeting melody, among interesting orchestral voicings, for example with harp, trombone, and chime. The accompanying color shadings and patterns on the screen above made absolutely no sense to this listener, as when, for example, a passage featuring marimba, bass drum, and English horn shifted to pink, and while the cello wailed in the upper register for a good 10 seconds, without a discernable change in the instrumental timbre, the color suddenly transmogrified to bright orange. Were it not for the glorious cello, this would have been a tissue of contradictory sound and fury, or rather son et lumiere, signifying rien.
Sadly, Alisa Weilerstein’s cello was closely miked, creating occasional distortions and odd overtones. That splendid artist neither needed, nor deserved, this enhancement. At one point, when the cello moved suddenly to a vibrato-less line in the lower register, it sounded like an entirely different instrument. One looked around in a vain effort to discern where on the stage the sound was coming from. Was it a high contrabass, the English horn without Robert Sheena’s ravishing natural vibrato?
Alfonso Leng’s 1905 Preludio No. 1 was a curious, three-minute trifle by a self-taught composer who, according to the program notes, achieved international recognition as a specialist in the dental subspecialty of odontology. Jacques Offenbach loomed as his inspiration, but the formulaic harmonies and absence both of intelligent melodic development and Latin sensibility made one wish that he had stuck with his day gig. It was perhaps just as well that at this point in the program, the buzzing projectors gave the audience the gift of a purple, geometric screen-saver with a circular hole in its center.
Four Pop Dances for Orchestra by Jimmy Lopez gave many moments of redemption. Composed in 2007 by a 22-year-old Peruvian, this was a muscular work that mixed ethnic references to Latin America with overlaid African rhythms, juiced up with delicious bits of old-time rumba and cha-cha, contemporary techno-pop, and jazz. There were riffs in the strings, rhythmic exchanges between the woodwinds and the brass, and a general sense of delighted experimentation. Suddenly, a conga-line formed over a powerful pedal C, the deep fundamental of Mike Roylance’s splendidly sonorous tuba pouring like molten brass, and the orchestra danced, faster and faster, to the edge of chaos. At last, some music you could sink your teeth into! The piece drew to a surprising close, after a burst of Spanish rhythms, on a sustained, unadorned perfect fifth, just barely suggesting a diamond-clear C chord.
Here, finally, it appeared that one could play Bach and keep the swimming pool.
August 7, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Ariadne auf Bali Ha’i in Tanglewood Fellows’ Marvelous Strauss Pacific
When Zerbinetta (coloratura soprano Audrey Elizabeth Luna), the lead prankster in a disruptive comedy troupe, appears in shorts and a halter top that evoked Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in the original cast of South Pacific and prances up to Ariadne, (soprano Emalie Savoy), a noble prima donna sitting on a beach bench dressed in a formal, black gown, pouting about her loser of a lover, the god Theseus, it was evident that this wasn’t going to be your everyday staging of Richard Strauss’s 1912 opera, Adriane auf Naxos. August 4, 2010, saw the advent of new masterpiece of serious fun.
Zerbinetta and her irrepressible male cohorts, Brighella (tenor Lawrence Jones), Scaramuccio (tenor Martin Bakari), Truffaldin (bass David Salsbery Fry), and Harlequin (baritone Elliot Madore) wearing around their waists iridescent children’s pool-floats with silly animals in front, sang and mimed lessons from the book, “Freud für Frauleins.” They did this along with a regular Radio City Music Hall production of song and dance, acrobatics, jokes, and stagey sympathy, to coax Ariadne from her depression.
This didn’t work, of course. (Note from this doctor: It never does, yet everyone keeps trying.) In the end, however, the god Bacchus stepped off his yacht, sang some fabulous solos, duos, and trios, completed a quick costume change to resplendent golden robes and diadems, and spirited his similarly be-gowned Ariadne off to eternal bliss. This preposterous storyline gave Strauss and the present company’s gifted director, Ira Siff, plenty to work with. Sustaining the aesthetic momentum of Strauss’s preceding masterpiece, Der Rosenkavalier, into a phenomenal confabulation of spectacular singing, conducting, orchestral performance, zany beachwear and youthful hi-jinks, this production was balm for the soul, Prozac for the perplexed, and cause for optimism about the future of classical music. It was a delight in every way.
Preceded in the Prologue (as the Act I set-up to this play-within-a-play is called) by The Major-Domo (spoken by Hans Pieter Herman), The Dancing Master (tenor Patrick Jang), a Lackey (baritone Shea Owens), an Officer (baritone Javier Bernardo), and The Composer (a trouser role by mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall), these young singers came across as tomorrow’s stars in the making. Also appearing with individual and collective brilliance in the Performance (as the Act II is called), were the three visually and vocally stunning sea-nymphs, Najade (soprano Deanna Breiwick), Dryade (mezzo-soprano Kristin Hoff), and Echo (soprano Emily Duncan-Brown), Bacchus/The Tenor (Ta’u Pupu’a), and The Music Master/Harlequin (baritone Elliot Madore).
A chamber orchestra squeezed into the pit of the ancient Tanglewood Theater. Augmented by piano and harmonium into an emulation of the larger instrumental ensemble prescribed by Strauss, this small instrumental force was credibly — indeed magically — magnified into a proper orchestra by conductor Keitaro Harada through perfect timing, dramatic dynamics, and unerring coordination of the musical stagecraft. Not a second was out of synch. Everything had that ineffable snap. There was never a dull moment!
This could not have been easy for this superb young conductor, for the plot is absurdly complex, and his predecessor conductor, substituting for the recovering James Levine, was the redoubtable senior statesman, Cristoph Von Dohnianyi. (Imagine, if you will, who, under these circumstances, gets the lion’s share of the rehearsal time. Take it from your reviewer, this was the case here, with just 15 minutes for Mr. Harada, who fortunately knew the score cold and enjoyed the total trust of the musicians and singers, his fellow Tanglewood fellows.)
As well, the set of the Act I Prologue – “backstage at the private theater in the house of the richest man in Vienna” — differs greatly from that of the Act II Performance, taking place not in his theater but in the patron’s enormous, fancy living-room, and the cast counts a large number of singers located high, low, left, and right across the stage, who, walk, run, jump, and even fall as they sing. Harada was welcomed to the podium with a clatter of stamping feet from the orchestra, who played their hearts out for him and cheered him again at the end.
Among the stand-out performances were The Composer, a casually-dressed, middle-class man played by soprano Cecelia Hall in high dudgeon because the owner has told his Major-Domo, at the last possible minute, to compress into a single performance both the serious, commissioned work about a high-born singer marooned on a desert island, and a slap-stick comedy by a troupe of low-lifes. Blessed with a huge mezzo instrument and a fabulous repertory of foot stamps, eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, and resigned slumps, Hall gave her all to soaring legato lines, wide intervals, and splendid embellishments. Across its range, Hall’s voice has a caramel consistency, as delightful to listen to as her colorful acting was to watch. When the Dancing Master, the Mr. Fix-It of the piece, suggested that she (he) “cut out the dull parts of Ariadne,” and “give him the pencil,” she sang “I’d rather burn it!” with poetic force sufficient to alert the motherboard of the house sprinkler system that serious trouble was coming.
Surely the most serious role was that of Ariadne, a prima donna outraged by the circumstances in which she is compelled to perform. Emalie Savoy brought an even, deeply resonant, warm voice to a complicated acting challenge that included her going ballistic, falling to the floor in mid-song as she responded to the Major-Domo’s announcement of what “the patron commands” and, in the main drama of the Performance, having to sit distractedly as the comedians pulled out their various entreaties to rouse her from her miserable funk.
Hall convincingly maintained her indignity through the show, finally relenting when one of the men proffered a handkerchief to dab her tears (grabbing it like a two-year-old in “no” mode) and, only in the end, succumbing to the godly power of Bacchus before deciding that, yes, she’d sail off into the sunset with a guy in whose veins ran “balsam and ether” rather than wait for a red-blooded human. Ariadne’s long, dramatic aria, bemoaning her loss of Theseus, who “walked in light and rejoiced in life,” soared to high A’s and piercing Bb’s over luscious chromaticisms and gorgeous French horn lines, melting into a lovely, more diatonic waltz redolent of Der Rosenkavalier and spiced with marvelous Eb to B major romantic harmonies. Ms. Savoy was formal and romantic at once, a wounded woman of passion, justly skeptical of any man’s love, only belatedly allowing herself to be swept off her feet by a god.
To Zerbinetta (Audrey Elizabeth Luna), however, fell the most challenging role. She distinguished herself equally with vocal virtuosity, physicality, and comic acting. In the Prologue, she was the prototypical girl “who cain’t say no,” oozing impulsive sexuality, emotional volatility, and desperate availability as she flirted with Officer and her trampy colleagues alike. In the Performance, she mused about the endless variety of male embraces and seductions.
Finding Freud, she discovered in paperback psychiatry a short list of useless aphorisms. In a dazzling, long aria, during which she tossed these half-truths at Ariadne, motionless on her bench, she surveyed the entire soprano range with trills in the stratosphere, delicate ornaments woven through arpeggiate lines, nailing difficult intervals, and bringing off two –—two ! — astounding vocal and acrobatic feats.
Soaring to a high Eb while urging Ariadne to stop her crying, she descended to high C, and then, as she ended the phrase, suddenly plopped to the floor and gave us a resounding low F. Carrying her book, “Freud für Frauleins,” to Ariadne, Zerbinetta’s mood changed to caring and concern, and she asked touchingly, “Yet aren’t we both women with hearts beating in our breasts, beyond understanding?” The two flutes descended sympathetically.
Even as Ariadne sat, mute and expressionless, Zerbinetta sang on, with deepening emotion about how she “never learned to curse men, unfaithful as they are.” Such “monsters, with no scruples!” As she asked, “are we immune to their kisses?” she rocked Adriadne in her arms. In a passionate, rising arpeggio, she sang “I’m still faithful, ‘though I stray!” She added with emphasis: “I finally deceive him!”
In response to this proclamation of feminine empowerment, Ariadne, at long last, became animated. Indeed, she stood up, ascended the stairs to the door balcony behind them, and walked out! Not exactly your modern woman, either circa 1912 or 2010!
Zerbinetta, notwithstanding, continued her aria with increasing intensity and virtuosity: To the verse, “It’s amazing how your heart can be such a mystery,” her melody ascended to a high Eb before a florid cadenza scaled down and up to high Eb again, and then upward in a still more brilliant Bb arpeggio to high F, and then downward in an F arpeggio as she fell, incredibly, flat on her back.
From this impossible posture, her star coloratura turn continued for what must have been minutes, perfectly sounding wooly trills, lambent appoggiaturas, up-and-down arpeggios, all kinds of embellishments and odd intervals over multiple orchestral polytonalities and innumerous intersecting inner lines. This was a spectacular tour de force. If you hadn’t been there, you’d not have believed it! (Note to gentle reader: Click to the Metropolitan Opera box office to catch her debut as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute during the coming season. While you’re at it, get a couple for Cecelia Hall’s debut as the Second Priestess in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride.)
Ta’u Pupu’a, in the Bacchus/The Tenor role, brought a commanding physical presence and fervent, silken, superbly focused voice to his emotional solo and duo arias with Ariadne. The former may have had something to do with his first choice of career, during which he sustained an injury. Faute de mieux! Forced to return to opera from the National Football League, to which he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and also played for the Baltimore Ravens, he studied and performed with Kiri Te Kanawa at the Solti/Te Kanawa Bel Canto Academy in Italy. When Pupu’a sang of love’s bringing “balm to the body and slumber to the soul,” he was persuasive indeed, but when he told Ariadne of his fleeing the clutches of the enchantress Circe, “Your magic bonds barely touched me! Do not burden my fragile heart with your dark enchantment,” she seemed pretty convinced that this god was a good catch.
Elliot Madore, the baritone whose amorous antics as The Music Master/Harlequin won Zerbinetta’s heart, was the most tender of comedians, strumming a neon blue ukulele as he approached her bench. Sitting at a respectful distance from Ariadne, he sang of love and hope. But “Bali Ha’i” this was not. Rather, he sympathized honestly: “Love, hate, hope, fear drive pain through the heart. All these again are yours!” With a gracious gesture, he offered her his handkerchief. Madore’s voice could not have been more apposite to this role: warm, embracing, brimming with articulate nuance.
There were no weak links in the chain that connected this stunning evening of human theater to the muses above and the poetic imaginations of Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Watch for all these singers, players, and conductor in the years ahead. The future of opera is in capable hands.
August 5, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Sexy Berg, Affecting Strauss, and Resplendent Mahler by BSO
Juanjo Mena led an exciting tour of Gustav Mahler’s time and influences in the Tanglewood Shed on July 31.The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of this formidable Spanish conductor, affirmed his visionary utilization of the entire string, woodwind, brass, and percussion sections as instrumental voices, first mediated through Alban Berg’s whirling Three Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6, and, directly, in the concert closer, the pleasing and accessible Mahler Symphony No. 4 in G, with soprano Hei-Kyung Hong. In between, Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, presented with touching grace by Hong, punctuated the Mahler conversation with complementary visions of inevitable mortality. The piece bows in the direction of his and Mahler’s shared inspiration, Richard Wagner. This was incisively intelligent programming (with thanks to the recovering James Levine, whom Mena replaced as the evening’s conductor) that gave insight into the energies and emotions that powered the European beginnings of modern music.
In his book, Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link, Theodore Adorno, his student and biographer, noted how, in Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, “his most Mahlerian score became the most complicated one he ever wrote. In wild abandon, with multi-note chords and friction between countless simultaneous voices, he far surpasses in sheer provocation everything which moderns had until then been capable. The turning point in Berg’s style is at once its moment of greatest shock. . .Under the glass plates of form, large as a house, in the wild distorted motley array of orchestral planes, those fragments awaken to a second and catastrophic significance. . .If mediocre humanity disintegrates into banal illusion, then the form that reflects that illusion is magnified to inhuman and terrifying proportions. The hammer blow in the third piece symbolizes that . . .in that scenic moment when the man asserts his full strength, only to be immediately smothered in the sphere of banality. With a giant’s fear, Berg piles them one on top of the other. It is fear that they breed.”
The 24-year-old Berg, moved by the premiere of Mahler’s fourth Symphony in 1909, approached the composer afterward. Mahler gave him his baton. According to Henry-Louis de La Grange, in Volume Four of his Mahler biography Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911), Berg was so devoted to Mahler that he joined the vigil at the sanatorium where Mahler was hospitalized before he died. His wife was asleep when he returned home after Mahler’s death. The following morning, on awakening, she asked after Mahler. Berg, speechless, pointed at his black tie.
If there was one section that captured the sense of life’s struggles and death’s rigors in the Three Pieces, it was the brass. Never has this reviewer heard such stunning section work and solo brilliance as in the build-up to first, huge climax early in the first movement, with Thomas Rolf’s agonized high trumpet over broadly-bowed contrabasses, and Mike Roylance’s rocketing tuba, across the entire range, with earth-shattering pedal tones and keening upper-register cries of distress as the whole brass section clamored in sympathy. Then, with muted trombone, violins in tremolo, and muted trumpet, the volume ramped down, and a three-note descending fragment, Gb, E, Db, was tossed around. In scary symmetry the opening rumbles of bass drum and tympani returned, and the movement steamrolled into a waking state, as if after a nightmare.
A pretty, perfectly blended French horn choir supported Rolf’s muted trumpet at the beginning of the “Round Dance,” or Reigen, as Berg called the second movement. After an echo by the woodwind choir, the cellos swooped up and down, and a flirtatious wisp of melody by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe led into a flagrant oompah-pah of a weirdly inverted waltz, with the ooms in the strings and the pah-pahs on the drums and cymbal. Sexy madness! (Reigen was also the title of a 1900 play by Arthur Schnitzler that examined German sexual mores across boundaries of social class. It subsequently led to the so-called “Reigen scandal,” in which Schnitzler was attacked by politicians and in the press as a “Jewish pornographer.” In her article, “Truth, Gender, and Sex: Berg’s Schnitzler and Motivic Processes in’Reigen’,” in the Journal of Musicological Research, Christina Gier observed inflections in the music that reflect this text, based on Berg’s own thoughts as written in his diaries and his personal copy of Schnitzler’s play. “Close musical analysis, informed by literary insight” she wrote, “reveals that the ‘liberation of the sensual’ is central to Berg’s compositional process. Despite previous assertions of a structural correlation of music to play, Berg’s “Reigen” emerges as distinctly different from the play, in that it musically articulates the liberation of the sensual, while the satire can only imply it.”)
Washes of muted brass followed the short waltz, and sparkling, solo harp arpeggios introduced the next bit of dancehall passion, a string tune of which Mantovani would have been proud, if it hadn’t lasted for but 10 seconds before giving way to Mike Roylance’s tuba.
This was not the honeyed and limpid tuba of the “Bydlo” movement in Pictures at an Exhibition that melted the hearts of the huge crowd that came to hear YoYo Ma perform the following afternoon, and winning Roylance the second – the second! – stand-up acknowledgement from Maestro Meno. (Trust this tuba-playing reviewer: orchestral tubists toot their entire tenures without tasting this tender treat.) No, this was Roylance on the warpath, unburdening himself of a rapid cannonade of up-and-down chromatic arpeggios in precisely articulated fortissimo, leaping over howling horns and brass and scaring the Bejesus out of the assembled sinners.
Next, two trumpets in thirds waltzed into a dramatic accelerando with high horns wailing, clarinet sobbing, and a rapid, repeated high figure in the woodwinds. The door was opening, and the devil might be standing there! This frightful section closed with a short, legato, very sad song expressed touchingly by Rolfs with mute in hand, then whispered by high-register flutes, and more prominently, piccolo and oboe. But that judging tuba blasted back the last chastisement, a stentorian, downward roll of sfortzandos. All that was left was the pitiful humanity of a quiet, solitary major third in the French horns. Repentance, maybe.
Sounding a bit like the duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the final movement, “March,” began with a saucy, rhythmic phrase in the English horn that led into a jazzy, chromatic riff by the trombone choir. Roylance’s high tuba led the dancers through shifting, chromatic harmonies with xylophone sprinklings into a brass extravaganza, with choirs of horns, and whole sections of the orchestra picking up the martial rhythm.
The drums went bang, the cymbals clanged, and the horns they blazed away, but this was no McNamara’s band. It was a blazing symphony in overdrive, with screaming trumpets, bursts of tympani, chattering xylophone, high register horns, then suddenly the whole band directed on a downward melodic legato line over the strutting tuba.
All this calamitous chaos was beautifully conducted, with clear and confident cues, and tempered gestures. Juanjo Mena gave every impression of knowing and loving this challenging work without making a big deal of its implicit dramatics. He drew from the orchestra one of the most committed performances in memory. (Considering all the repertory they have to cover in so few days, with so few rehearsals, it is an impressive tribute to their professionalism that they continue to produce at such a high level for an unexpected parade of guest conductors.)
In the end, there were more blasting hits from the bass drum, swirling fragments of melody, glockenspiel resonances of marching bands, a repeated low tuba Db, followed by repeated tuba Bb’s, the minor third signifying from below that there was no hope ahead, and then a crying theme that could have been a Wagner motif, played in unison by several sections, a huge crash of the gong, and, suddenly, a dramatic decrescendo, with harp chords over a withering, descending trombone line, over a continuous, rapid underpinning of pizzicato violins, beginning low and keening upward to a high repeated figure.
Anxiety ran unabated, until bang went the tympani and bass drum, ending the story of striving, embarrassed impulse, unfulfilled yearnings for release, and inexpressible human emotion, all plucking the strings of your heart. This was real stuff, but highly allusive and allegorical. The effect was confusing, devastating, but enormously satisfying, a visit to the devil with a pass back to the simple pleasures of daily life.
If the Berg was allusive, the Strauss songs could hardly have been more explicit in their touching, accepting reflections on life’s passing. The four last songs are entitled “Spring,” “September,” “Going to Sleep, and “At Sunset.” Moved by the poem, At Sunset, by Joseph von Eichendorf, this was the composer’s final completed major work. Setting three texts of Hermann Hesse and one by von Eichendorff for soprano and orchestra, Strauss included vivid French horn supports in each movement, beckoning the memory of his father, Franz Strauss, a renowned horn player, and bowing to his wife, Pauline de Ahna, a gifted soprano, the sound of whose voice gave comfort to Strauss during his last illness.
“Spring,” presented thoughtfully and with soft-edged nuances by Hei-Kyung Hong, radiant in a sparkling, low-cut, mauve gown, ascends upward in long circles around an Eb tonality, then subsequently, through a gorgeous progression in the strings, with a poignant connection to the verse: “In shadowy crypts I dreamt long of your trees and blue skies of your fragrance and birdsong. Now you appear, in all your finery, shining brilliantly, like a miracle before me.” and at the end of the poem, “You recognize me, you entice me tenderly. All my limbs tremble at your blessed presence!” Here, there is a glimpse of the stunning polytonality of the Presentation of the Rose in Der Rosenkavalier and, a diminuendo in which the tonality shifts from Bb to Ab, and a splendid, rising whole tone progression that returned to Bb tonality for the entire orchestra. Splendidly suited to the piece, Ms. Hong’s voice and subtle gestures were knowing and mature, and the effect was true, unsentimental, and moving.
The text of “September,” also by Hesse, begins “The garden is in mourning. Cool rain seeps into the flowers.” After a lush expression of Db tonality in the orchestral introduction, a lovely flow of woodwinds and high strings pushed the melody of the song upward to a plangent high Ab, and then a deepening sadness expressed by Ms. Hong in the descending melody. Here was the quintessence of late romanticism, capturing in sound the feeling of “Summertime shudders, quietly awaiting his end.” Maestro Mena coordinated the melodic lines instrumental dynamics in a marvelously gracious way, turning partly to face the singer on his left, evoking in his expressions and gestures the emotions of the verse and the music, even as his baton, sweeping gently across his music stand, signaled the changing intensity of Strauss’s marvelous orchestration.
The French horns played a powerful role in the drama that followed, and as the soprano line descended to F and then Bb and down, and the horn choir led the harmonic progression down to Gb and an F minor sustained with arpeggiate figures to the last stanza of the poem: “For just a while he tarries beside the roses, yearning for repose. Slowly he closes his weary eyes.” This was a ravishingly beautiful moment.
Then a gorgeous French horn melody brought woodwinds and strings together in a stirring, final Eb chord. This was sublime match of poetry, music, and orchestration and – equally so— singer, conductor, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its very best. With all respect to James Levine, who conceived this program and knows it so well, his players and guest conductor served him well.
The text of the third song, also by Hesse, “Going to sleep,” begins “Now that I am wearied of the day, I will let the friendly, starry night greet all my ardent desires like a sleepy child.” From the short introduction, where the contrabasses bowed a deep Db and C, and the cellos and violin sounded the black-note descending melody, the verse began, with massed high woodwind voices alternating with the string section counterpoising splendidly the starry night and the ardent desires. The sleepy child’s foggy perceptions were expressed in hushed tones by the soprano and exquisitely embellished in an extended, quiet violin solo by Malcolm Lowe. This was a lullaby, over simple chords in the cellos, horns, woodwinds, and basses, soon transmuted into a different state of consciousness. To “Hands, stop all your work. Brow, forget all your thinking. All my senses now yearn to sink into slumber,” the melodic lines reached slowly upward, and the soprano’s melody, graced with languid arpeggiate intervals, yielded a hypnotic effect, a suspension of active reflection on the inevitable end of life.
Ms. Hong ascended to a high Db before the melody continued, over the horn section. She gave the words “And my unfettered soul wishes to soar up freely into night’s magic sphere to live there deeply and thousand fold,” a convincing, warm humanity. A variation of this melody re-appeared in the violins, braced by the entire choir of horns, descending down to a low Db as the violins bowed a downward arpeggio to a low F, joining and sustaining the final, moving, Db chord.
In the introduction of the final song, “At Sunset,” set to Eichendorff’s text, the tympani softly propelled the opening F major chord to a brilliant progression reminiscent of Puccini’s La Bohème. But here, in a lovely melody sung over the romantic progression, Ms. Hong gave voice to Strauss’s more optimistic mood. (What is it about those chords, progressing in thirds, that so magically evoke a deep, emotional landscape? Schumann and Wagner blazed this path, and Strauss and Mahler imprinted them indelibly on us.) Another affecting integration of word, melody, and harmony came as Ms. Hong sang the last three words of the verse, “Around us, the valleys bow’ the air is growing darker. Just two skylarks soar upwards dreamily into the fragrant air”‘ to sustained Gb tonalities supporting eight exquisite flute trills.
Clarity of vision, with the melodic line soaring over crystal-clear harmonies, underpinned the final stanza, “O vast, tranquil peace, so deep at sunset! How weary we are of wandering — Is this perhaps death?” A marvelous, stately progression of chords emphasized the specific melodic and textual phrases: “O vast, “tranquil peace,” “so deep ” “How weary,” then a short progression to a C minor “Is this perhaps”, Bb major “death?”
Just as the listener was reminded, in this elegantly paced row of harmonies, of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a legato theme emerged in unison strings and muted trumpets that rang with familiarity from the tone poem, and the suite of songs drew quietly to an ending that left one pondering one’s death with a mix of sadness and solace. The final question – death? – gave one pause to ponder the possibility of enduring life, and the certainty of enduring music.
After the last echo of sound in the Shed there was silence. Some 15 seconds passed before the first, tentative applause began. This was an unforgettable moment of reverential contemplation, and shared wonder at the inspired performance.
After the resounding, and unprecedented success of Mahler’s Third Symphony, “the Fourth, so very different, enraged the Viennese public, who thought its stylistic references to their beloved Haydn, Mozart and Schubert a virtual insult. Viennese critics took the Symphony to task as a pastiche of ‘contrived naïvetés’ and impertinent quotations.” Lewis Smoley’s chapter in the authoritative edited volume, The Cambridge Companion to Mahler (edited by Jeremy Barham), treats adroitly the enthusiasm of great conductors both for Mahler’s music and his compositional vision, that mirrored the worship of such composers as Schoenberg and Berg.
In the year the Fourth was published, 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler, conducted the first performance of the Third Symphony and completed his Fifth Symphony. This frenetic year also welcomed the birth of his daughter, Maria Anna, whose death from scarlet fever in 1907 marked the fulcrum of depression and marital turbulence that propelled Alma into the arms of Walter Gropius when she met him while recovering at a spa. In turn, the emotional juggernaut sent hurling down the track by these events weighed down on Mahler’s life and powerfully affected his music down to his own death in May, 1911, at the age of 50.
The first movement of the Fourth (marked “Pretty easygoing”) begins with a violin theme now familiar to concertgoers, because it is played so frequently, notwithstanding the snobbery (and prejudices) abroad in Austria at the time of its premiere. Jolly sleigh-bells, contrabasses and French horns set up an expansive, sunny mood. Maestro Mena appeared with the sound of the orchestra and actively engaged with its players. The sweet second theme was gracefully lifted by the second violins and cellos, then tossed to the woodwinds. Slower variations followed, and Mena and the whole crew appeared to be breathing this glorious music together.
The main theme returned, along with the sleigh-bells, buttressed by a colorful counter-melody in the French horns and basses. Suddenly, the entire cello section offered a taste of Mahler’s Second Symphony in a delicious, downward glissando to the next iteration of the principal theme and the sleigh-bells. This was nothing if not a mid-summer night’s dream of Klezmer music at Christmastime! Delightful!
Keeping up the Eastern-European resonance, a quasi-Gypsy, quasi-Klezmer theme came and went in the French horns, followed by a virtuoso turn for all the contrabasses, going rapidly from pizzicato to arco to a happy dance with the contrabassoon. Superb, leaping clarinet, horn, and an entire muted trumpet section kept the party going, and Mena swept the baton low and up across the podium in a graceful dance of his own, perfectly mirroring Mahler’s soaring phrases.
At the end of the movement, a splendid solo horn led a diminuendo down to a pianissimo restatement of the first theme, before a glorious cascade drew down the curtain. Certainly, this orchestra has this piece embedded in its collective DNA, but this was a very special performance of a deservedly popular work.
The second movement (marked “At an easygoing pace. Without haste.”) began with a Stravinskian theme with folksy elements played eloquently by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. He plucked some lovely Ab’s over the flowing strings, pushing the pulse and giving a special sparkle to the splendid string-focused orchestration. Then the contrabassoon, then all the woodwind voices joined in, and a series of French horn calls prefigured horn solos that extended throughout the movement.
So much more accessible than Berg, and so much less chromatic than Strauss, this symphony enabled a kind of archeological excavation of Mahler’s own musical idols, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Wagner principal among them.
Ms. Hong emerged to sing the soprano role at the outset of the next movement. To a slow melodic introduction in the second violins, sustained gently by the cellos, playing almost without vibrato and echoed by the oboe, she sang a magnificent, long, reflective melody that moved across the tonalities of G major and E minor. A weepingly beautiful solo by English horn virtuoso, Robert Sheena, gave way to repeated high appoggiaturas in the violins, then another English horn melody that descended to a magnificently-voiced low E.
An aura of sadness swept across the orchestra, suddenly brightened by a quick waltz with a martial flavor, the basses plucking both first and second beats, before returning to duple meter. Muted trumpet, glockenspiel, and cymbals accompanied the French horns, both in solo and in section, in an inspired heralding of the song to come, “Life in Heaven.”
A wisp of melody, bowed by the violins on the descending theme was echoed very quietly in the woodwinds. The horns rose in thirds to a glorious C ninth chord, and a fervent cadence down to G, then a strong E major with trumpets blazing, and cymbals and tympani crashing.
In moments, the mood was transformed. The horns held their instruments high, and summoned the heavenly hosts. Then, suddenly, a softer horn choir, and lovely, quiet harp arpeggios (those magical, romantic thirds again!) led to a liquid clarinet introduction to Ms. Hong’s entrance on the words, “We enjoy heavenly pleasures, and therefore avoid earthly ones. . .We lead angelic lives.” This verse was elevated by flights of piccolo by Cynthia Myers and flutters of flute by Elizabeth Rowe. Sleigh-bells rang softly and continued until the tonality shifted to minor, with repeated, nuanced mid-range appoggiaturas in the English horn.
Ms. Hong’s voice seemed perfectly suited for this other-worldly verse, with slightly reedy crescendos in the soft dynamics of the exquisite falling melody that brought the symphony to its close. She shaped the song beautifully, and the orchestra supported her magnificently. Every musician seemed to be listening expectantly, inhabiting the music as it unfolded. This was the committed musicmaking that makes the Boston Symphony one of the world’s greatest orchestras.
Once again at the end of the Mahler, there was a thoughtful pause of several seconds before the start of the deserved ovation. Few in the hall seemed unmoved by these inspired performances. Tears could be seen in many eyes.
August 1, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Goerne and Haefliger Unapologetically Probe Human Experience in Schumann, Brahms
In an ambitious program of songs and virtuoso piano pieces by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Andreas Haefliger filled Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood on July 30 with a full palette of affecting melodies, romantic harmonies, and layers and layers of inner voices and textual meanings. The program included Schumann’s lieder to texts by Heinrich Heine (Opus 45, No. 3; Opus 127, No. 3; Opus 142, No. 4; and the Liederkreis, Opus 24), and Brahms’s Three Intermezzi for Piano Solo, (Opus 117), and Nine Lieder und Gesange, (Opus 32, to texts by August Graf von Platen-Hallermunde and Georg Friedrich Daumer), with one encore, the Brahms Ach, Wende Diesen Blick (“Oh, Turn Away this Gaze”).
Matthias Goerne, a disciple of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, brings to his audience the master’s legendary investment of meaning into every syllable, exacting articulation, and tonal nuance, and in addition to these attributes, a dark, velvety baritone voice, with a range that descends to a succulent F like a 16-foot diapason on a 19th-century organ.
If a fair comparison can be made to his teacher (based on listening to recordings and a single live performance during the Edinburgh Festival in the early 1980s), where Fischer-Dieskau is elegant and controlled and carefully modulates each gesture as well as every phrase, Goerne permits himself to express passion in the extreme, hugging the narrow portion of the lid of the piano, rocking from foot to foot, and reaching out and pulling the audience into nearly overwhelming surges of melody and feeling.
Neither breaking his voice nor affecting emotion through vocal tricks, Goerne inhabits the music in a manner that is both thoroughly convincing and deeply moving. So strongly, so powerfully, indeed, that one searches for comparisons to masters known barely to suppress what lurks below, to Rostropovich, perhaps, and surely to Horowitz, of whom Leon Fleisher once observed that were he not to tame those subterranean magmas with his prodigious technique, they would burn up the hall.
Utilizing a similarly eruptive metaphor in his magisterial volume, Music in the Romantic Era, Alfred Einstein observed that the songs that closed the first portion of this concert came after a period in which Schumann had written “only piano music and, being a genuine Romantic, had thought instrumental music the only fitting means by which the inexpressible could be expressed, and the inmost secret of feeling could be penetrated. He had felt that the word, as something too rational, was a fetter, a limitation. But when with Opus 24, the Heine song-sequence, he began to write lieder, he was like a volcano in eruption.”
Schumann wrote 138 songs in 1840 and departed from Franz Schubert both in a reformulation of the role of the text — in Schumann’s words, “to liberate the word from the curse of reason, and by means of the unity of feeling between language and music, to fuse them into something like a universal art-work” — and also in the use of the piano, in less a subordinate role than a seeking with the singer “a more highly artistic and more profound kind of song.”
With Andreas Haefliger as his collaborator, Goerne engaged powerfully with a pianist of surpassing musicality and stunning technical capacities. This was manifested in his rapturous facial expressions when Haefliger performed Schumann’s pianistic commentaries, evocations, and variations on the vocal text. The piano, while never overwhelming the voice, played an equal role in this mostly satisfying concert—mostly, but not entirely, it must be said, and not due to any fault of the performers, who did their best to manage a curve ball thrown their way by the Tanglewood printer. Although the event was scheduled for 8:00 pm, the program supplement carrying the texts and translations could not be located. The artists “prefer not to go on until the audience has them in hand,” announced Benjamin Schwartz, an artistic manager of the BSO, “and they are being copied now.” Although the crowd in the hall seemed patient, a wave of rhythmic clapping swept in from the lawn. At 8:40, the artists appeared.
Such wonderful music can, of course, be appreciated from sound alone, but unlike listening to the opera on the radio, when one is facing two performers so obviously involved in expressing this “more profound kind of song,” it can, and did indeed prove to be an exercise in frustration. There were so many heart-felt expressions of unknown meaning, so many achingly unanchored melodies, movingly uncertain harmonic transitions, that splendidly descending baritone lines down to that gorgeous low F —yes, low F — that gave emphasis to suspensions and appoggiaturas that left one suspended.
The Brahms piano Intermezzi began in a gently rocking 6/8 meter with a quietly expressed melody, each note lovingly articulated, and thoughtfully voiced inner lines. The predominant Eb tonality gave way suddenly to a C minor that floated ambiguously, unclear in direction, before resolving gently through F minor and Bb to Eb. This taste of straightforward harmonic logic quickly gave way quickly to a succession of rich, chromatic chords with only wisps of melody and tangled inner voices that collided in bitter dissonances. Where was Brahms taking us? But the first theme returned with a warm, delicious sense of comfort and, as it descended, a charmingly Romantic progression emerged: Eb, D, C, Bb, Ab, G, and the lovely cadence Ab, A diminished, Eb, Bb, Eb, ending with a sweet, bell-like Eb octave. Where had we been?
Haefliger’s impressive control and ability to develop crescendos and diminuendos over many measures or three-note passages gave feeling to the next, more rapid section, with its complex counterpoint and repeated, embedded V7-tonic resolutions in lively, chromatic sequence, dense tangles of suspensions in the center of the keyboard. The melody was brilliantly subordinated here – always evident but requiring extra attention to enjoy it — and all the activity was muted, as if a quilt were thrown over an emotional storm.
Then a moderato introduction with ambiguous tonality led into a beautifully articulated melody in the left hand, with chords above, and then a unison line in both hands that arched upward in Bb, A minor, and D minor arpeggios before resolving in a sad, simple A 7th D-minor cadence. Something was certainly stirring here, and with a shudder, the tonality shifted to Bb with sparkling, repeatedly struck high C’s and D’s over flowing left hand harmonies.
Where these twinkles sounded as sweet tenths and unresolved ninths, now the upper line became gnarly and passionate, with several Eb to D, and Ab to G appoggiaturas. The rubato section that followed was polychromatic, with an impressively moderated, beautiful paced crescendo leading to a restatement of the first melody, this time offered over an unexpected cadence through a new harmonic path: B 7th, E minor, E diminished, A 7th, D minor. Because of Haefliger’s secure sense of the logic of all of this, and his secure handling of the challenging dynamics and chromaticisms, one felt that a confident guide was taking over this mountainous route.
The Brahms lieder that closed the concert were enjoyed with translations in hand. And what evocative words they were:
— on sexual fantasies (bashfully expressed, perhaps alluding to Brahms’s confused sexuality and giving emphasis to their commanding significance): “How I roused myself, in the night, in the night; And felt myself drawn further; I left the alleys, guarded by the watchmen; And wandered through quietly, in the night, in the night; The gate with the Gothic arch.”
— on heartache: “I no longer live quietly; Ah, speak, say only one word”
— on the shame of psychological pain: “I creep about, sad and mute; you ask me not, why? My heart shakes with so much pain! Could I ever be too gloomy?”
— and on the unremitting power of amorous obsession: “Alas, so you would again; you hindering shackles, imprison me? . . .Out streams the longing of the soul, flowing out in clamorous songs; inhaling ethereal fragrances!”
To these words were attached music that glowed with passion and confusion: “in the night, in the night” with mounting tension voiced by layered, rising appoggiaturas, as Goerne rocked foot-to-foot, concluding with a desperate cadence G minor, B major, E minor; heartache signified by Goerne’s emphasizing the sadness of the repeated E minor-A minor cadences with yearning, summoning gestures with this left hand; depression with multiple C-B natural appoggiaturas, with subtle emphasis on the Cs; and romantic yearning in a huge voice over a more orchestral piano treatment, with stormy left-hand textures, roiling chords, excited arpeggios and rapid harmonic transitions from minor to major and back.
After the encore (of course without translation), one was left impressed with the vision implicit in Goerne’s and Haefliger’s combined approach to these masterpieces. Their search for meaning unapologetically probed the depths of human experience, and celebrated our shared humanity. Tonight’s was a noble effort, which ultimately surmounted its technical difficulties. Existential truths appeared to emerge from this challenging, beautiful concert: life is not about perfection, and art that accepts our imperfections can leap to, in Schumann’s words, “a more profound kind of song.”
July 26, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Stand-up Send-up of Mozart Comedy in the Shed
An uproarious stage performance of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio K. 384, on July 23, 2010, was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Johannes Debus conducting, featuring soprano Lisette Oropesa as Konstanze, a Spanish lady; soprano Ashley Emerson as her English maid, Blonde; tenor Eric Cutler as her noble Spanish fiancé, Belmonte; tenor Anthony Stevenson as Belmonte’s former servant, Pedrillo, now serving as Pasha Selim’s supervisor of gardens; bass Morris Robinson as the Pasha’s country house overseer, Osmin; Will LeBow as the narrator; and a mixed chorus of 16 Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows. The opera was sung and spoken in German, with English supertitles and narrative text by Simon Butteriss.
For all its buffoonery and sexy lampoonery — underscored by Will LeBow’s shameless emphasis of each and every salacious implication of Simon Buttriss’s hilarious script — the stand-up used send-up of anti-Islamic prejudice to make serious points about our enduring inability to separate person from stereotype. The narration drew attention to our confining assumptions about Moslem addictions to violent fantasy, obsessions with controlling misogyny, aversions to healthy sexuality, and rejections of Western morality.
In the end, there was a seeming paradox in the Pasha’s granting liberty to the captured, loving couples. Despite Osmin’s insistence on, and Kostanze’s and Belmonte’s expectation of, torture and execution, the Pasha, on realizing that Belmonte was the son of the arch-enemy who had exiled him from his own land during the Crusades, repudiated Belmonte’s father’s cruel path by granting mercy to his son. When the tables were turned, the Pasha invoked a higher justice. His forsaking retribution allowed the captive lovers to pursue their happiness free from his control, and turned the stereotypes on their heads.
Nuanced dynamics and supple, responsive string and woodwind playing in the overture made it clear that Mozart was in good hands with Johannes Debus standing in on short notice for James Levine, who is recovering from surgery. This young German conductor, who currently serves as Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company, has a long and deep interest in opera and an impressive repertory. He delighted in this debut, expressing in confident rhythms, gracious gestures, finely turned phrases, precise cues, and lots of smiles, a friendly comfort with world-class players and singers and an intuitive feel for Mozart and musical humor. Drawing from all of them terrific ensemble work, spectacular solos, and, from the singers, dazzling duos, trios and quartets, Debus responded with gratitude, engaging deeply in every interchange, even as he steered the ship with accuracy and style. The evening flew by, even though the love-songs were ever so gently paced.
The comedic timing, too, was totally unhurried, and the singers dug into their roles with gusto. When a Mozartian synthesis of story, melody, rhythm, and role comes across so convincingly – would that it happened more often! – one must acknowledge not only the coordinated efforts of the conductor, cast and orchestra, but also the serious preliminary work of rehearsing and coaching the singers who carry the roles. For this superb expression of the composer’s vision, the audience was indebted to Tanya Blaich, who teaches in the piano and voice departments of the New England Conservatory of Music and served as both rehearsal pianist and vocal coach.
Morris Robinson’s Osmin was a star turn straight out of Sid Caesar, with expressions worth a thousand laughs and body moves that recalled the glory days of live TV. His stunning voice, with low Eb’s and Bb’s of surpassing potency, flowed seamlessly across the range, giving special luster to the bass legato lines in the vocal ensemble, and real firepower, when he needed it, at the top. His laughable bluster was spectacularly unconvincing, but he modulated and tempered every outburst. How glorious it was to see such a big man with such a huge instrument making such a fuss with such a light touch! It was a delight to see hear him again, four years after his splendid Tanglewood debut as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, and again in that role last year. (Your reviewer could not but think as he admired Robinson’s work that had Mozart had the foresight to score a tuba in the brass section, BSO principal Mike Roylance, another big guy with a light touch on a huge horn, could have given him a run for his money. To be sure, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that sufficiently precise valves enabled the invention and construction of the tuba. Consequently, the salaried orchestral tuba player always counts among his or her dearest friends Johann Sebastian, Ludwig, and Wolfgang.)
The first act of the opera included impressive arias by lovely Lisette Oropesa, a powerhouse soprano whose supple embellishments, including real trills, gave convincing emphasis to the long phrases that signified Kostanze’s longing for her fiancée, and, before the dénouement, her philosophical acceptance of a terrible fate at the Pasha’s command.
Eric Cutler’s mellifluous tenor was perfectly suited for the dignified Belmonte, pining “I’m going to find you, Kostanze!,” utilizing melisma-infused inflections in a big, sweet, focused voice. He, like Oropesa, filled the Shed with gorgeous sound, easily rising over the orchestra, the balance skillfully calibrated by Debus and both singers’ musical intelligence. Cutler’s performance was delightfully reminiscent of his effervescent role as the “Italian tenor” in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera last New Year’s Day. One surely sensed his potential then, but the greater emotional range and gravitas of this comic role suited him much better.
Oropesa (Kostanze) soared gracefully to the outer limits of the soprano range, hitting no fewer than ten high D’s as she asserted her emotional independence from the Pasha, with not a shiver from her robust, satiny timbre. A crisis then was presented, when the Pasha (through the narrator) informed her that she must make up her mind to love him by the next day, or else. But Pedrillo appeared and introduced Belmonte to Osmin as an American architect who had just arrived to help the Pasha extend his palace. Step #1 of the abduction strategy!
Pedrillo’s amorata, Blonde, sung by Ashley Emerson, considered her own parlous situation in the face of Osmin’s clumsy advances in a skyrocketing aria replete with flights of legato to a high D and then, spectacularly, to a high F, before descending effortlessly in a Bb major arpeggio to a confident cadence. Stunning!
The narrator noted that Osmin was not a “Moslem fundamentalist” but rather a “Moslem sentimentalist. ” (The use of such contemporary epithets came across as good-natured parody of our own stereotypes, not as judgments of religious or cultural archetypes.) Although he might aim to seduce Blonde, he asserted, she would be as resistant to his overtures as her mistress was to the Pasha’s.
In the accompanying aria, the diminutive Blonde threatened the hulking Osmin with violence if he didn’t back off. Growling at one another in the low notes of both the female and male lower registers and expressing their mutual bewilderment in the other’s actions, they badgered one another in a splendid duo that poked fun at the limits of masculine pretension and control. Blonde is English, he asserted, and who can fathom how such women can be so resistant? But an English girl’s spirit is free even when she’s forced into a burkha, she replied. Here, Mozart counterposed Blonde’s fabulous sassiness against perfectly blended strings in a rapid 6/8 meter. If anyone in the audience were wondering here about Gilbert and Sullivan’s inspiration for their pointed patter on proper Englishmen, this peppery portion of the play presented the potion perfectly plainly.
Kostanze sang again of her sadness and love of Belmonte in a challenging and lengthy aria marked with long leaps to high Ab’s followed by glorious descending scales — Mozart emphasizing her pain and longing in these superbly punctuated, downward swoops of melody – proceeding through exposed, perfectly-articulated F minor accented arpeggios to a touching ending (“a withered rose that never shows is no less wretched than my heart”) that was echoed by John Ferillo’s sweetly sympathetic oboe, and reciprocated warmly by Debus’s gracious and enveloping left-hand gestures.
Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe ornamented Ferillo’s and flutist Elizabeth Rowe’s nuanced opening fragments of a little intermezzo with swirling C violin arpeggios across the range of instrument. The flute twinkled over an affecting oboe legato, and brief variations were tossed around as Osmin mused about how “torture unabating must be for men awaiting.”
The music ostentatiously ignored the silly man’s fantasies, a critical perspective that needed no verbal elaboration in the text. Cellist Jules Eskin joined the instrumental quartet as Kostanze explored the philosophical meaning of her impending death (“Dying will be never, for virtue must be its own reward”). In this formidably challenging aria, the initial phrases looped around the high soprano register, with legatos lines flowing around the interval high G to high C culminating in a sustained high B as Rowe’s flute toyed gently with her own highest register. Mozart’s orchestration balanced brilliantly the singer’s moral resolve in the face of tragedy, her phrases bedecked by the magnificent playing of Rowe, Eskin, Lowe, and the equally virtuosic clarinet principal, William Hudgins. Up to a high D, down to a low B, then up the octaves to B, then sustained C, and a trill on the high D, Lisette Oropesa sang her heart out, surveying the range of Kostanze’s passions, from love to loss, belief to despair, and resolve to withdrawal in a towering cadenza on “Torture and berate me, impotently hate me, dying will be heaven sent.”
Following dizzying runs by unison strings that ascended to a high, sustained Ab, Debus led the orchestra into a crashing coda. To the burst of applause, he asked the four principals to join Oropesa in her bows. They appeared pleased indeed to accede to his request. This was staged opera at its very zenith, the stuff of which only the Boston Symphony, benefiting from the James Levine’s deep operatic connoisseurship and commitment to blazing upward paths for young singers, can bring out in its summer festival.
Blonde (Emerson) then stole a kiss from Pedrillo and further mashed stereotypes of Englishwomen in a voice that was lighter but as supple and expressive as Oropesa’s, openly worrying about Pedrillo’s courage to put the escape plan in motion. He questioned “Should I listen to my terror, risking life’s fatal error?) and responded to a two-trumpet bugle call with stunning, high assertions of confidence. Time for Step #2 of the abduction strategy!
Carrying large and small bottles of wine (the larger one spiked with a sleeping potion), he fortified himself with a sip from the smaller one and induced Osmin to abandon his dietary obligations and join him in that traditional ceremony of manly brotherhood that sometimes overrides religious proscription. Osmin took the big bottle, and they launched into a hearty drinking song, after Osmin’s lame explanation: “I am converted! Drink gave me the courage, I think.”
To the tune of a Turkish march with bass drum banging, cymbals crashing, woodwinds whirling, they drank away and sang “Hail Alcohol,” “Long Live Bacchus.” Pedrillo steered Osmin to bed, and Belmonte prepared the way for the events to follow in a soppy love song that featuring a refrain redolent of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and lines worthy of an 18th-century Hallmark card: “Kissing these sweet tears away may be a lover’s happiest caress.” Over the top but gorgeous nonetheless, two clarinets in silky legato thirds directed the theme to a splendid quartet. Kostanze and Belmonte teased one another about women’s loyalty, men’s faithlessness, with deliciously matching facial expressions and gestures. Over a 6/8 barcarolle, the vocal ensemble was balanced and elegant. Contrasting sustained chords in the orchestra offset the flowing interior lines of by the bassoon, flute, and oboe, and the second act ended with an superbly stilted exhortation to the team to stay together in the drama sure to follow: “Don’t kindle the ember of jealousy’s rage! Let’s live for love only!”
Belmonte sang to love’s conquering all in a splendid aria at the start of Act Three, shortly before midnight, with variations embedded in arpeggios that swept across, down, and up to the high tenor range. Then came the moment the lovers were waiting for, Pedrillo’s song, signifying that he had placed the ladder to the window of their room in the harem and that the time had come for them to descend and join the escape. Mozart set this up with a glorious orchestral device, which added a measure of visual excitement to the stage version of the opera. The violins and violas placed their instruments across their laps and strummed them as if they were mandolins, yielding a soft wash of lovely, slow strumming, and an exquisite diminuendo down to pianissimo.
But Pedrillo’s melody jolts Osmin from his stupor, and when he realizes what’s going on, he reverts to form, intoning threateningly on the satisfying execrations and executions to follow, with such formidable predictions, as he descends to an ominous, low Bb, of “Slipping off the nooses when, at last, you’re dead,” and growls downward to a funereal low F, “Of my triumph I’ll be singing when they slip your neck an agonizing death.”
After they are captured, Belmonte and Kostanze sing of their undying love, and plead their case to the Pasha, promising a ransom from his noble family, whom he names. Realizing Belmonte’s true identity, the Pasha considers their punishment, both for the escape attempt and for the cruel wrong done him by Belmonte’s father so many years before. The Pasha directs Osmin to prepare their execution, and Belmonte and Kostanze sing a mournful duet of love, regret, and responsibility, underpinned by many diminished chords, building tension yet relaxing into major tonalities, as in the stunning progression from Bb, Ab, B diminished, c minor, Bb 7th in the 6/4 inversion to Eb, bowed broadly in the strings.
Mozart infused into Belmonte’s and Kostanze’s professions of love an aura of anxiety through rapid, running eighth notes and frequent passing harmonies. Their singing arched gracefully over the nervousness of the orchestra with sentiments such as “The cause of love will always surmount death” and “Enduring life without you there would be more than I could bear.” Konstanze’s words “It is a privilege to die with one’s beloved,” expressed in a line ending with a high C, and the words “Divine transfiguration will face annihilation” begin with the high C and descend magnificently to a Bb cadence to the words, “Lost in your loving eyes.” This was voluptuous music, given moving voice by Cutler and Oropesa with exactly the right embellishment by the horns, sweeping down to the final cadence in stately arpeggios.
The Pasha resolved these tensions with the announcement, “I despise your father too much to emulate him. Tell your father I have repaid his cruelty with mercy.” These magnanimous words brought forth a fast-paced vocal quartet confection that your reviewer described in his notes as “very G + S.” The music, perfectly apposite to the delight and relief of the characters, brought smiles to everyone, and a realization that in but 36 years of life, Mozart gave us satisfactions that endure through the centuries. His magical linking of story to character to human emotion elevated by music was relived in this performance. Surely as well, Mozart abides in the best works that aspire to tell a story through music on the stage.
July 25, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Wispelwey Gives New Meaning to Playing Ozawa Hall
Pieter Wispelwey’s tour de force at Ozawa Hall on July 22, 2010, comprised all six of the J.S. Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, offered in three sets, with two intermissions and a single encore. His quiet repeating of the opening Prelude after the well-deserved final ovation gave a sweet symmetry to the evening’s expanding cascades of gorgeous sound, intense illuminations of the contrapuntal structures within and across the recurring themes of the succeeding suites, and kaleidoscopic expressions of connection with his magnificent instrument. (These included spontaneous facial expressions that reflected not only shadings of tonality but snippets of conversation among the upper, middle, and lower voices of the inventions.) Wispelwey’s thoughtful performance was powered and magnified by his intelligent, even experimental exploitation of the hall’s remarkably resonant acoustics. At the end of this fulfilling evening, his sounding again that familiar theme with neither dynamic swelling nor vibrato trembling gave solace to performer and listener alike, much as Bach’s humble restatement of the beginning Aria permits a virtuoso pianist to close the Goldberg Variations with such calm after the jousting in the preceding competitive clamor. But this occurred three hours later, a long distance from Glenn Gould’s 51-minute “slow version” of the Goldberg.
Wearing black tuxedo pants, a formal white shirt, and a cream-colored silk vest, Wispelwey cut an elegant, athletic figure. Taking this on from memory must be an exhausting intellectual, psychological, and physical marathon for the cellist – Heartbreak Hills loom everywhere – but there were few clues of flagging energy. Wispelwey appeared to relish every moment, and he carried the audience with him.
He began by emphasizing the bass contours of the Prelude and appeared to be studying the idiosyncratic resonances of the performance space even as he focused like a laser on every sound. As the movement proceeded, it became evident that he was actually using the auditorium as an extension of his instrument. (This gave new meaning to the chamber musician’s career accomplishment, playing Ozawa Hall.) A sustained high D, sounded without vibrato, cut through the space, before a set of exquisitely formed, rapid scales descended in a gentle sweeps to their roots on the contrapuntal bass line, C, B, A, and G. The high G reverse pedal point that followed turned the variation on its head, arpeggios and legato internal voices ringing a tribute to Bach’s compositional genius. All this on just one four-string instrument! The experience was comparable to our listening to one of Bach’s trio sonatas on the legendary 1745 organ in the Church of Saint-Séverin on the Left Bank of the Seine. This concert began with a sense of solemn occasion.
The audience sat totally still during the first Allemande, and each note, every embellishment, seemed to jump across and around the room in a miraculously conjured cascade of sound. In contrast to the Prelude, the mood was cooler, more rational, and more intensely focused. Wispelwey appeared to study every single note and phrase, turning his gaze side-to-side as complementary lines answered and elaborated one another.
The 3/4 Courante saw the unexpected advent of some unintended harmonics in the fast-tempo phrases where skittering high-notes flew around the downbeats. This imperfection provided a comforting sense that this sublimely twirling technical feat was being performed by a mere mortal. In the end, Wispelwey focused attention to the rhythmic syncopations that jazzed up the contrapuntal voices before they descended to that broadly bowed, confidently-asserted low G. The audience seemed to hold its collective breath, and the hall responded to the thrill of the performance with a fine and happy echo.
The first Sarabande of this evening featured romantic rubatos, dramatic dynamics, and strong, low double stops, played as tiny arpeggios. It closed with an affecting pianissimo. A stunning, accelerated 6/8 gigue gave a dramatic ending to the first Suite, provoking a burst of applause and shouts of delight from the crowd.
Tempo variations colored the second Suite in D minor, with a Prelude distinguished by a stately grandeur; a warmer and more sentimental Allemande; and a rollicking, rapid Courante marked by expansive phrases and cut with dramatic pauses. A deliciously contemplative Sarabande featured trills that emphasized the emotional pulls of the melodic anticipations and suspensions, giving a sympathetic, human quality to the strongly articulated counterpoint. It ended in a settling diminuendo of elegantly bowed octaves, from high to low D. After a pair of contrasting Minuets, one formal with a triumphal, stately ending, one starting with and sustained by a sprightly up-tempo, a stunningly rapid Gigue brought the Suite to dizzy, exciting close. To say the audience was pleased would be an equally dramatic understatement. People looked at one another with amazement, and the sober fellow following the score in a seat in front of your reviewer broke into a happy smile.
Harmonic variety propelled the Prelude of the Third Suite in C. A set of descending proclamations of the possibilities inherent in the C major scale were expressed with seriousness and clarity, and over a low G pedal point, the voices sketched out the progression G 7th, C, G 7th, G 9th. Bach is nothing if not courageous in allowing the lines to create surprising, if logical, dissonances. Spiccato bowing punched out the rhythmic foundation of the dancing Allemande that followed, with trills and turns that emphasized rather than detracted from the thrust of the melodic lines. Playful excursions back and forth from the relative minor harmony were expressed with lightly sustained low As before transforming back to a final cadence drew down to a diamond-clear C major 10th bowed arpeggio.
Wispelwey began the Gigue that followed with restraint, drawing attention to the unfolding rhythmic structure (6/8), and he eschewed technical display to the service of illuminating the brilliant bones of one of Bach’s most satisfying creations. Then, marvelously, he let it all hang out, with whirling, thrusting, intersecting lines, double-stopped grace-notes, and burly, deep, guttural rhythmic patterns that complemented billowing melodies in the upper register. The joyous dance cooled quickly from high heat to a fine, tempered, pianissimo conclusion.
Clearly, this was serious fun, and in the next section of the concert, beginning with Suite No. 4 in E-flat, Wispelwey seemed to be more at ease, his emerging sense of humor helped along by Mother Nature. During the Prelude after the intermission, Wispelwey offset succulent cantabiles with precisely chiseled devices. He was aided and delighted by the antics of a large moth that collided with his left hand and bounced to the podium, where he completed his dance with a few low jumps before falling exhausted to the floor. As if to mourn the exit of the little fellow, the exquisitely melodic Sarabande was uttered with just a touch of vibrato on the heads of some sustained notes and the tails of others. And then, during a bustling Bourée, Wispelwey bowed zippy strokes of five notes each with sizzling zest, lifting his legs and rocking subtly back and forth, all the while giving emphasis to the middle line of the counterpoint. He supported the 12/8 meter of the ensuing Gigue with a veritable dance with the cello, tapping his right foot in the joy of it all.
Wispelwey burned the final, sustained, low Eb with a brilliant trill that, the sober fellow in front graciously confirmed during the cheering that followed it, was definitely not in the manuscript. Nor, for that matter, are any of the embellishments, it should be noted. Bach left the details to the devils of inspiration, imagination, and impulse.
All were on vivid display in this concert, and yet a new interpretive opportunity presented itself in the Prelude of the Fifth Suite in C minor. A hungry, winged animal settled on the left temple of the cellist. Bow in hand, he swatted it with impressive accuracy. The beast fell to the podium. Wispelwey looked down seriously, found the creature, and held it up for examination by the cheering crowd. Not since the most recent Tanglewood appearance of the Toreador Escamillo, in Carmen, it may be averred, has a classical artist so impressed an audience with his carnivorous propensities. It was not for nothing that William Rawn, the architect, designed the barn door at the rear of the hall to stay open during concerts.
This suite’s Allemande was given in a sweet, light C minor, with only occasional vibrato. This was performed with special intensity on notes that held the greatest melodic and harmonic directionality. Similarly, in the Sarabande, serious, long notes underpinned the marvelous chromatic progression B-flat, B-natural, G, C, the elegance of the counterpoint suggesting a far-sighted harmonic vision. The ending, on an unadorned vibrato-less C, was no less inspired. And the Gigue, replete with appealing flourishes, concluded with a sweeping, one-handed, huge, open C, that brought the cellists in the audience, and no few others, to their feet.
Finally, in the third section of the concert, there were some problems. These appeared during the complex Prelude of the Sixth Suite, with its 3/8-6/8 sense of meter, lines emphasizing thirds and sixths that surveyed A Major to D to G minor to E minor to B minor to Bb to Eb in the space of what seemed like seconds, playful chromatic cadenzas, heaped one on the other, challenging any performer’s sense of time and harmonic location. It was here that the a few intonation lapses presented in the high register, a sure sign of incipient exhaustion.
But then, immediate recovery! An astounding arpeggiate cadenza began, with 6/8 pedal-point Bb repeats on the progression Eb, Eb, Ab, F, Bb, Eb. One held one’s breath again. Could Wispelwey sustain this? Here, he looked pained, concentrating hard on the very slow, singing line of the Allemande.
The treble meter of the Courante was offered light, dry, and ephemeral, giving way to one of the most moving events of the evening, a prayerful Sarabande, sans vibrato, that came across as a reverie on the lives of the great cellists. Casals, who brought us these masterpieces? Rostropovich, who dedicated weeks of effort to find the right church, with the right resonances, and hired the right engineers to record his own, reverential version of them? The Concertgebouw Orchestra players, who taught his teachers, deported to death camps during the Nazi occupation? Your reviewer took the unexpected opportunity to pose this question as Wispelwey crossed his path on the way to sign CD’s for his gathered fans. Taking the question seriously, he thought a moment and replied, yes, he had in mind the arc of life, but nothing more specific.
Performers with Wispelwey’s commitment, intelligence, and range of expressive abilities are members of a rare species indeed. Tanglewood was graced with the presence of a great master on this evening, and those who shared the privilege of being in the audience will not soon forget it.
July 22, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Mendelssohn, Shostakovich with Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, then Mahler with Tanglewood Orchestra
On July 15, 2010, in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio offered deeply affecting accounts of the Haydn Piano Trio No. 25 in E minor, Hob. XV:12, the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op.67, and the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66, followed on July 17 in the Shed by a provocative but inconsistent treatment of the Mahler Symphony No. 3 by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, showcasing the brilliant young principals of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, director, and the American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, conductor. The juxtaposition of these two concerts led this reviewer to reflect on Jewishness and music with Mendelssohn and Mahler, which I have addressed in an accompanying article here.
On the heels of the Mahler Second Symphony on July 9, with its whimsical melodic Yiddishisms and Klezmer fiddling and final intoning of a hymn that yearns for heavenly relief from the pain of life and the passionate strivings of love, the Mahler Third appears first as a woodsy, chirping paean to pantheism, transformed at the start of the final movement into a hymn in which the protagonist converses with God, confessing, “I have trespassed against the Ten Commandments,” before finding “Heavenly joy, that has no end. . . By Jesus and for the salvation of all.” This precedes a long musical reflection that evokes the melodic, and especially the harmonic, legacy of Richard Wagner, whose explicit anti-Semitism did not deter Mahler’s life-long infatuation with his music. So, too, does the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 end with a tempestuous fantasia that incorporates allusions both to hymns “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” and J.S. Bach’s polytonal masterpiece on the theme of final judgment, “Before Your Throne I Now Appear” (“Vor deinen Thron”), interwoven with Hebraic major-minor melodic inflections resonating to those struck in its second movement.
The reception of Mahler’s Third Symphony was generally very positive, but on April 15, 1910, one influential French critic, Georges Humbert, editor of La Vie Musicale, ascribed its ‘enigmatic originality’ to the manner in which “these clichés mingle and collide,” that represent, he asserts, “an accurate reflection of his Jewishness.” Mendelssohn and Mahler, however, appeared never to cease being aware of the prejudicial context of their social and cultural worlds. Is it not then logical to surmise that their intentional inclusion of clearly identifiable Jewish and Christian liturgical themes had deep meaning, and that the complexity of some of their most inspired compositions reflected their personal aspirations, struggles, and conflicts? As it happens, both were literate and articulate men, and said so in many words as well as notes. The task at hand is to reflect on the music and performance of these works.
Because the Piano Trio No. 2 by Dmitri Shostakovich, a non-Jew, was performed first in the sequence of works here under review, however, it is appropriate here to note that he composed it in 1944, as the terrible violence of both the Stalin and Hitler regimes toward Russians and Jews was increasingly evident. Notwithstanding his having received the Stalin Prize in 1941 for his piano quintet, Shostakovich’s explicit references to Hebraic themes in the last, so-called “Jewish” movement of this work led to its being banned in the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death.
In the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson concert, there was an atmosphere of exquisite gentility. Individually and together, they approached their instruments with a delicacy, never with overtly passionate expressions of physical engagement with the music. But beneath the surface, with one’s eyes closed, one could not but discern a ferocious commitment to every note of the music, and a nearly telepathic reading of the others’ feelings. The surface sheen was smooth and unruffled, but the experience of listening was both profound and revelatory.
The Haydn was played with a kind of respiratory organicity. The music breathed, and unfolded with a wonderful logic. This piano trio is not a simple work, and it carries an unusual polytonality for its day, in the first movement with minor to major ambiguities and harmonic subtleties, from G to E minor, from A 7th to D minor, and from B 7th to E Major in rapid sequence, and a nearly romantic quality. The end of the movement was particularly lovely, with an emotionally settling and fulfilling harmonic descent to C 7th, B 77th and E minor cadences. Kalichstein, using light accents, gave brilliant emphasis to the expressive dynamics of his colleagues.
The second and third movements were equally interesting in harmonic richness and interweaving melodies. This was Haydn at his most masterful, played by virtuosi at the top of their forms. The scampering piano lines of the Rondo Presto, with warm cello countermelodies, and the tempered, ever-engaged expressivity of Laredo’s violin opened and closed phrases with fulsome and satisfying intelligence. Flowing, rapid piano runs, doubled in the violin, toward the end of the third movement, were superbly well coordinated down to the lastfermata, before ending in a delicious decrescendo. Never had Haydn seemed so percipient and confident, and it could not have happened without such visionary ensemble playing.
The Shostakovich began with Robinson’s devastatingly sad high cello harmonics, giving way to a plaintive violin line in the middle range, muted, and descending downward, with the piano, to a low G. The whole range of an unfolding tragedy was forecast in this introduction. Now the cello, with high double stops and lines parallel to the violin’s, provoked a sense of worried contemplation, transmuting with the violin into a spicattosection, the bows bouncing off the strings as the piano, in unison octaves, broke into a mournful contrapuntal line, followed by high, keening violin lines, pizzicato cello, and repeated eighth notes by the strings in a minor tonality.
Many colors, many textures, came quickly, building in volume and intensity and, at the same time, the tempo pulling back as rising lines gave way to dissonant descents. Then folksy, dense, but straightforward melodies, arched over Bartokian scrapings and pizzicatos in the violin and cello. Over the pizzicato strings, Kalichstein sketched thoughtful wisps of legato melodies and chordal phrases before the emergence of a brief, hard, emphatic waltz, and a final return to 4/4 meter and a broadly bowed E minor chord. This was beautiful playing of a rapidly unfolding story of struggle and defeated hope.
The allegro non troppo beginning of the next movement rang with Eastern European resonances of Khatchaturian and much-admired Stravinsky, with swinging, scraping, groaning strings, and repeated dotted eighth/16th note repetitions. Kalichstein hit a series of ascending eighth notes with the middle finger of his left hand in an off-hand display of virtuosity, giving each note a clarion quality that deftly elevated the mood.
In the Largo that followed, dissonant, minor chords grouped around B minor, C# minor, and F# minor in a tragic confluence, and Laredo intoned the first of a series of dramatically-extended Hebraic lines, minor, transforming legatos over simple, sustained chords. Robinson’s cello sang a prayerful transliteration of one of these lines, giving way to powerful chords expressed by both strings. Now the strings squeezed out a sad melody with evident Jewish sensibility, that bore little resemblance to the pleasant, village schmaltz of the Mahler Second Symphony.
This was serious, the stuff of oppression and suffering. A wisp of the Kol Nidre hymn from the Yom Kippurliturgy expanded into a touching, extended theme of prayer, the reverie interrupted by a weird dance with rapid pizzicatos in the violin, left-hand piano rhythms, and then, cello pizzicatos that morphed into bowed parallel fifths over another, unmistakably Hebraic theme by the piano. Through folksy rhythms and bold, diatonic harmonies (F maj., E maj., F maj., E maj., E mi., C maj., G maj., C maj., Db maj.) the development of this theme proceeded through violin, then cello, then piano rhythmic variations, then sawing, mean tritones in the cello, and, suddenly, a passionate cello line that arched over broad piano arpeggios.
The violin jumped into the dance, intending, perhaps, to rescue the cello from the tragic juggernaut, and the passage ended with a sweet, comforting C major cadence. Brilliant, confusing, emotionally layered music, that felt the more devastating because of the trio’s astounding restraint. They knew this music and clearly felt no need to declaim its ineluctable progression toward annihilation.
So the ominous piano left hand rumbles that followed came as no surprise, as the bit of dancing over a light, rhythmic groove by the violin morphed into savage tritones, growing louder and louder. Kalichstein pressed hard, the violin and cello protested in response, sounding the dance again, but the devil was on to them.
Suddenly there was another moment of light, a clear, open piano line reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony, stated slowly, with nearly unbearable intensity. Hebraic inflections in the high violin register signaled a hope of God’s rescue, but the tempo accelerated as rapid, downward arpeggios blew the ensemble apart. Each instrument voiced its separate distress, the violin in spicatto, the cello in sliding, slipping glissandos, and the piano in independent flight across the keyboard. Then suddenly, in unison, the violin and cello came together again in unison in, repeated, and yet again repeated set of Hebraic phrases.
The story, so elegantly, yet forcefully, expressed, drew to its inexorable close with harmonies voiced in the cello over low piano figures. They grew to a liturgical progression (B minor to Gb Major) with violin and cello pizzicatos in Gb Major tonality expiring softly over a deep Gb in the piano. The horror gave way in the end to a philosophical awareness of life’s immutable meaning, and after sustained applause, the intermission began with an unusual quieting of the crowd.
Out on the Ozawa Hall loggia, near the stage door, Yo-Yo Ma, Joseph Silverstein, and Emmanuel Ax, as formidable a piano trio as one can imagine in a concert audience, were conversing intensely with their friends. This memorable Tanglewood scene speaks for itself.
Concluding the concert, the second Mendelssohn Piano Trio was brought out with zest and excitement. Virtuoso piano runs with string accents were voiced with stunning dynamic variations, giving nuanced emphasis to the quick harmonic transitions from major to minor and back. Laredo’s and Robinson’s sublimely expressive playing evinced personal involvement with every one of Mendelssohn’s melodic experiments, and Kalichstein’s technical virtuosity, in one particularly stunning rapid descending line, was magnificently calibrated not to overweigh his colleagues.
The second movement, with its deliciously ambiguous, shifting 6/8 and 9/8 rhythmic sensibility, began with a gorgeous, waltzy theme, voiced over subtle, internal lines that played with the treble rhythms. A minor interlude suggested a bit of happy Jewishness. It resolved, however, in the major. The counterpoint here was reminiscent of the perfection one hears in Beethoven at his most confident and mature, the inflected, fascinating, lines breathing life into soaring romantic phrases, here splendidly nuanced with just the right swellings and diminuendos by this wonderful ensemble.
Kalichstein’s musicality, continuous adjusting his dynamics to fit the ensemble, graced the third movement with liquid right hand lines, swirling phrases, and astounding, sudden shifts in volume. Pizzicato strings accompanied the finale of this little piano concerto.
Mendelssohn’s proclamation of a happy conversion to Lutheranism informed the fourth movement, beginning with major/minor harmonic shifts at a flowing 6/8 tempo, and B 7th pause before the statement of “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past.” A few Jewish themes flowed in and out of its development, cheerily resolving in a G 7th/C cadence. The hymn returned triumphant, notwithstanding the intrusion of fierce, diminished arpeggios, and a cold, clear, C major tonality, stood its ground.
The extent to which this trio tells Mendelssohn’s own story, as I explain in the accompanying article, may be a matter for conjecture, but this intensely sympathetic reading yielded inescapably to a sense of deep personal meaning, both to the composer and to the players. This was chamber music at its exalted best, giving satisfactions both emotional and intellectual, notwithstanding the disturbing themes and countercurrents.
By contrast, the Mahler Third under Michael Tilson Thomas, gave pointed emphasis to the individual virtuosity of a number of Tanglewood Fellows, and to great extent the whole was sublimated to its parts. This is a work that is full of episodes, presenting no few challenges to its conductor to pull together a coherent narrative arc. Especially during the long contemplation at the very end, the orchestra seemed often to meander. But there were numerous satisfactions, indeed.
In the first movement, splendid horn fanfares and bursts of tympani (two sets!) gave way to dynamically-nuanced, melodic lines that extended from affectingly soft-edged contrabassoon (Thomas DeWitt) to warmly expressive mezzopiano tuba (Landres Bryant) to well-blended, muted trumpets to magnificent unison phrases by the entire horn section over sustained D minor strings. The forest was lovely, with many quick, delightful solo turns from the first trombone, with its marvelously expressive natural vibrato (Samuel Schlosser), the sweetly singing English horn (Kristina Goettler) that gave relief after an unusually shaggy entrance by the woodwind ensemble, and the superbly talented concert mistress (Breana Bauman).
Schlosser’s trombone gave a fabulous accounting of one of the most exposed challenges to the low brass in the Mahler oeuvre, an extended melody developed with heart-rending, romantic circles in the middle trombone range, through harmonies shaded by excursions through D minor, D major, and back. One was reminded of theUlricht hymn in the last movement of the Second Symphony, with its yearning for relief, as Mahler put it in his own words, from the passionate strivings of love.
After a lovely oboe statement by Sarah Lewis, whose English horn distinguished the Webern setting of theRicercare from Bach’s Musical Offering the previous week in Ozawa Hall, a fine post-horn solo by David Cohen heralded a march that shone a spotlight on sprightly melodies and fascinating polytonalities and forward-looking chromaticisms. The orchestral playing was impressive, and Michael Tilson Thomas bounced on his toes, seemingly in tribute to Leonard Bernstein’s Tanglewood legacy. Thomas, however, for reasons known only to himself, kept hushing the brass, just as the martial spirit called for them to cry out. Bernstein certainly would have called for more!
Velvet sounds from Schlosser’s trombone returned later in the movement, in a melody that descended to a fine, strong, resonant low E in seventh position, an uncommonly beautiful note in the awkward depth of this saucy instrument, whose simplicity betrays its challenges to serious classical expression. Virtually every sustained note was burnished by vibrato, with nary a shake of the slide. Tommy Dorsey, playing his iconic theme song at the height of his powers in the 1930’s, could not have accomplished this, seduced as he was, and as most commercial players still are, by the easy, sexy vibrato that the lubricious slide offers the trombone player. Such convincing, natural vibrato as Schlosser’s is difficult to accomplish and to sustain, and he served this entire movement memorably.
Martial themes poked through the forestial and riverine landscape at odd intervals, counterposing aggressive human strivings with the equilibrium of nature, where the temple of Mahler’s idealized world is found. In the arc of Mahler’s symphony composition, this is perhaps his most intuitively comprehensible work, with fewer complexities and struggles than the others. The offstage drums and horns, Ivesian intersections of marching bands, blasts of percussion and brass, firm platforms for instrumental display, and straightforward structure, make for more than an hour of satisfied listening.
In its vocal passages, starting with the chime imitation by the boy choir, their ding-dong syllables heartily welcomed by the women choristers, the Symphony then lifts its sight toward God in Heaven. Mahler’s words, as noted in the second paragraph of this review, appear to celebrate his abandonment of his Jewish faith to the promise of Christian salvation. In this performance, the mezzo, Karen Cargill, possessed of a lovely, dark, and shimmering instrument, used her powers superbly in giving voice to Friederich Neitzsche’s summoning of Nature’s message to man:
Oh man, give heed!
What does deep midnight say?
From a deep dream have I waked!
The world is deep,
And deeper than the day had thought!
Deep in its pain!
Joy deeper still than heartbreak!
Pain speaks: Vanish!
But all joy seeks eternity,
Seeks deep, deep eternity.
These provocative texts and this powerful music surely do not solve the paradoxes we face in being human; our yearnings for love, acceptance, and spiritual meaning, if not transformation exist side-by-side with our proclivities toward cruelty, destruction, and mindless exploitation of the natural world around us. But there is, perhaps, no better way than through music to pose these big questions. These evenings of music gave pause to acknowledge our common humanity, with all its manifest imperfections.
July 22, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Journeys from Judaism and Persecution in Mendelssohn and Mahler
by Eli Newberger
Mahler, born into a Jewish family, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1896 in order to preserve his career as a conductor, at a time when anti-Semitism became the norm of Germanic cultural identity and law. (1)
Mendelssohn’s father Abraham, son of the Enlightment philosopher and Jewish sage, Moses Mendelssohn, converted to Lutheranism and added the hyphenation of Bartholdy, the name of a piece of land purchased by his brother-in-law to buffer his Jewish surname. He angrily rebuked his son for calling himself “Felix Mendelssohn” in concert programs in the 1820’s, in these words:
A name is like a garment; it has to be appropriate for the time, the use, and the rank, if it is not to become a hindrance and a laughing-stock. … There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius. If Mendelssohn is your name, you are ipso facto a Jew.
Felix Mendelssohn, who had been baptized a Christian in 1816, did not cease to do so, because he admired the legacy of his grandfather, but out of respect to his father had his calling cards printed with the Bartholdy hyphenation. (2)
In the recently-translated, fourth volume of his magnum opus on Mahler, the magnificent “Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911),” Henry-Louis de La Grange sheds light on both Felix Mendelssohn’s respect for the legacy of Moses Mendelssohn, and the influence of his grandfather, both on Mahler’s own father and the life of the village of Iglau in Moravia, near the Czech border, where Mahler grew up. The author notes that “The Czech provinces were the place of origin of many of the more sophisticated Jewish immigrants in Vienna, just as they had also been the home of a ‘Reform Catholicism’. Here ‘Jews could experience at first hand a tolerant, human, humanist attitude, even from the Catholic church.'” (p. 471) (2, 3) “Iglau’s Jewish community . . . witnessed the birth and rise of a new trend in Judaism, the Haskalah, which in the 1760’s and 1770’s was one of the many consequences of the ‘Enlightenment” movement and its philosophy of religious tolerance. The main leader and inspirer of the Haskalah was the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was admired throughout Germany as a ‘wise man’, a ‘sage’, and a humanist. He was referred to as ‘the German Socrates . . . and praised to the skies by his followers for ‘having inaugurated an era of light after one of darkness’, and for having ‘brought the Jewish people from folly to wisdom, fostered the Hebrew language, fought Talmudic casuistry and acted as a messenger of ‘Providence’.” (p. 472)
This intriguing link in the background of Felix Mendelssohn’s and Gustav Mahler’s struggles with and against their Jewish identity is explored in detail by de La Grange. He notes that after his death, Moses Mendelssohn was mourned by a huge following of both Jews and non-Jews. Included in the sage’s vision was a departure from the traditional linkages of Jewish religion and learning toward a secularization that the Haskalah movement characterized as “an ideal synthesis of loyalty to Judaism and involvement in general culture and society.” (p. 472) This separation from Jewish tradition was embraced by Mahler’s father, Bernhard, who, in de la Grange’s telling, decided to raise his whole family in accord with the Mendelssohnian principle of Haskalah.
Notwithstanding this optimism, subsequent historical events dashed Mahler’s and many other artists’, professionals’, scientists’, and philosphers’ hopes for integration as Jews in Germanic society. The 1885 General Election in Austria brought to power a popular demagogue, Karl Lueger, an ally of the author of racial clauses in his socialist “Linz Program,” Georg von Schonerer. This victory, de la Grange asserts, “sounded the death knell for Austrian liberalism, and thereby served to end any hope of true assimilation that many Jews may still have harboured. . .Although many Jews had unconsciously yearned to become part of the Christian world, the general feeling now was ‘Once a Jew, always a Jew,’ and Jewish integration into the ‘Aryan’ world seemed impossible. Espousal of Protestantism was the frequently preferred solution, and it was the option chosen by Viktor Adler . . .Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, and Arnold Rose, amongst many others. The legal status of Christianity was thereby conferred without any recourse to Catholicism, and in the event of marriage there was no need for a religious ceremony to take place.” (p. 484)
Mahler, who married his wife, Alma Schindler, in a Roman Catholic service, made only one known statement about his conversion.
Do you know what particularly offends and annoys me? The fact that it was impossible to occupy an official post without being baptized. This is something I have never been prepared to accept. Of course it is untrue to say that I was baptized only when the opportunity arose for my engagement in Vienna – I was baptized years before. In fact it was my longing to escape from the hell of Hamburg under Pollini that prompted me to contemplate the idea of leaving the Jewish community. That is the humiliating part of it. I do not deny that it cost me a great effort, indeed one could say it was an instinct for self-survival that prompted me to such an action. Inwardly I was not averse to the idea at all. (p.484)
de La Grange appends to this quotation the following revealing footnote, that speaks to the personal and moral conflicts Mahler was forced to endure to sustain his conducting career: “For understandable reasons, Mahler wrongly claimed to have converted ‘years before’ his Vienna appointment. He was in fact baptized in Hamburg on 23 Feb. 1896, and appointed Kapellmeister at the Hofoper on 8 April. Further, his aim in struggling to be appointed in Vienna was not only to escape from Pollini’s ‘hell’.” (pp. 484-485)
The reception of Mahler’s Third Symphony was generally very positive, but on April 15, 1910, one influential French critic, Georges Humbert, editor of La Vie Musicale, ascribed its ‘enigmatic originality’ to the manner in which “these clichés mingle and collide,” that represent, he asserts, “an accurate reflection of his Jewishness:” (p. 528)
Not that he is a unique member of this powerful, fecund, and marvelously talented race, with a will which senses when it is opportune to be supple. He is an artist who is primarily concerned to assimilate, in spite of being obstinate and inflexible. Here his is sweetly Italianate. There he is the clever director of a chaos on which he projects a very bright light. He resembles both Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, and often reveals that he has a similar temperament, even though he lives in a different age, and uses different means. (p. 529)
Now in 2010, your present reviewer, whose grandparents fled the violent anti-Semitism of Austria-Hungary and Russia in the interval between Mahler’s conversion and the premiere of his Third Symphony, would pose two questions: “What’s a Roman Catholic lantzman to do?” and “What’s the relevance to the music?” (note: Lantzman means “fellow countryman” or “fellow Jew” in the Yiddish spoken in these provinces.)
To the first question, there can be no answer, and surely no condemnation of the exigent accommodations that Mendelssohn and Mahler made to prevailing anti-Semitism, except perhaps to express gratitude that one’s forbears took leave of this mishigas (craziness). The world is a harsh place if you’re not a bona fide member of the favored ethnic majority or minority, and no one could have foreseen the destructive energies unleashed by racial “science” later in the 20th century in these very countries.
To the second question, the answer must be: nothing, and everything. Music is ephemeral, disappearing into the ether once the sounds are heard. What we interpret as musical narrative is our own. We can never know what anyone else hears and how they make meaning of it. Neither can we know how external attributions affect our, and others’, listening experiences. If you never knew that Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, you might enjoy his wonderful music only on the basis of how it sounds. Leonard Bernstein, to whom this annual concert by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra is dedicated, once was asked how he could love Wagner. He replied: “I hate Wagner – on my knees.”
July 15, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Mahler and the Transition to 20th Century Music at Tanglewood
by Eli Newberger
With three concerts that focused on the vivid linkages between late romantic and modern classical composition, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival embraced its official opening weekend. On the Friday, July 9, it offered a “prelude concert” by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Ozawa Hall, immediately prior to the evening’s main event, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, in the Shed. Under John Oliver’s baton and with special guest, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, the chorus and conductor celebrated their 40th anniversary together with five delicious, harmonically-complex a cappela works: Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans, Poulenc’s Quatre Petites Prieres de Saint Francois d Assise, Francaix’s Trois Poemes de Paul Valery, Ravel’s Trois Chansons, and Poulenc’s cantata, “La Figure Humaine. They were supported in the latter by a fine contrabassist, Thomas Van Dyck. Then, substituting for James Levine, who was recovering from back surgery is not expected to return to the podium until after the summer, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the BSO in its first concert of the season, with soloists Blythe and Layla Claire featured in the Mahler. A thoughtfully-conceived Monday concert propelled the perspective forward with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra offering Anton Webern’s transcription of the Ricercare from J.S. Bach’s “Musical Offering,” conducted by Christian Macelaru; Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, D.485, conducted by Keitaro Harada; and Strauss’s orchestral suite from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” Opus 60, conducted by Alexander Prior.
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Technical challenges affected both Friday concerts, but the musicians rose to the occasion and overcame them. On the Ozawa stage, the stationing of the chorus across the fixed, broadly-concave risers limited the singers’ abilities to hear one another, producing some awkward excursions from intonation and balance, particularly in the inner voices. Had they been singing in a tighter concave formation, this would probably have been avoided. Notwithstanding, the Debussy and Ravel suites glowed with emotion and excitement, indeed elevated to a higher, even transcendent, plane, when, in the second movements of each work, Stephanie Blythe contributed her immense, glowing, rich, subtly-modulated, and exquisitely articulated voice to the proceedings. (Blythe worked similar magic in the title role of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein by Jacques Offenbach at Opera Boston in May, bringing lesser singers to peak performance, even as she risked upstaging them.)
The Poulenc World War II cantata, La Figure Humaine, a strikingly original and enduring choral work that intones and proclaims the text of “Liberte” by Paul Eluard, ended the vocal program with power and passion. Dropped by the planeload over Nazi-occupied France by the Royal Air Force, this famous poem is a mounting litany of metaphors of suffering and hope that closes emphatically with a strong and dangerous declamation of the cherished word, Liberty, itself. Beneath the bustle and excitement of Poulenc’s musical setting, the chorus dug heartily into the dense chromaticisms down to the last shouting major chord. Pity the soprano who took a daring shot at the high octave and missed, but give her an A for courage and John Oliver and the chorus a richly-deserved ovation. Never has such an ensemble, to paraphrase Churchill, served so many, for so long, for so little compensation, excepting travel expenses and the reward of filling our ears with inspired song.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Once seated in the Shed, as the large crowd settled into silence after greeting Michael Tilson Thomas warmly, another challenge presented itself. For members of the audience un-inured to the hum of the African vuvuzela during the World Cup soccer playoffs in the previous weeks, a continuous hum emitted from the large, high speaker banks to the right and left of the stage. From Row J of Section 6 in the center of the hall, it was really noisome, and lasted, amazingly, through the entire first movement before suddenly turning off mid-way through the second. After the first movement ended, there was brief applause. When the crowd quieted down, Thomas looked first to his left and then to his right, searching, it appeared, for someone to shut the hum off. Shrugging his shoulders and appearing perplexed, he plowed ahead.
Bad move. He might, had he been aware of the event, taken the cue from Mahler himself. On first arriving in the rehearsal hall of the New York Symphony, the renowned conductor heard the sounds of other musicians’ practicing wafting through the building. Only when the others stopped, he declared, would the rehearsal start. Such confidence and leadership would have been welcome here. One was left to wonder who was in charge of the hall.
James Levine was surely missed at the first summer concert of his orchestra. During the stunning first movement of Symphony No. 2, the closing, heroic arc of Symphony No. 1 is extended. Mahler intended it this way. Levine, who brought the First so powerfully to its spectacular close in a moving performance in the Shed in 2008, would have made this obvious. Those horn cries, that charging hero theme, those sparkling woodwinds, the rumbles and brass outbursts that portend big trouble ahead, were tempered by background noise and by the distressing realization that no-one in a position to rescue the players and audience appeared to be listening, and by the initial hesitancy of the evening’s conductor.
But the principals and sections of the Orchestra played their hearts out and redeemed the evening. They know this work intimately, and from the outset, individual players and sections brought out its exquisite shadings and dramatic dynamics without requiring specific cues. Unlike Levine, who intensely engages with the musicians and reciprocates special contributions with his eyes and hands from a seated position on a high arm-chair, Thomas focuses less on the musicians than on the big picture, evincing a personal engagement with the emotional unfolding with gestures reminiscent of great conductors of the past, rising on his toes, heaving side to side, seizing violently to moments of crisis (Leonard Bernstein) and sweeping the baton in a right-to-left horizontal line in the third beat of every measure of particular flowing passages (Charles Munch). His cues telegraphed the general direction of the responses he sought, even as he paid most attention to superstructure of the symphony, most of which he conducted from memory. The end result was gratifying indeed. For all its sturm und drang and churning complexities, the symphony drew one in, yielded clearly to intuitive understanding, and reached its final summoning apotheosis in what in retrospect seemed but a flash of time.
High points in the first movement included Robert Sheena’s and Toby Oft’s legato English horn and trombone lines that soared over the martial underpinning, reminding the listener of the hero’s struggles in the First Symphony, the perfectly articulated descending lines of Mike Roylance’s powerful but nuanced tuba, Thomas Rolf’s sadly whimsical major sixths, giving unusual reflective substance to the simple bugle call, and the delicious portamentos and glissandi in the violins and cellos that signaled the shtetl roots of the composer, conductor, and some of the players, all of whom dug into them with relish.
Superb ensemble work was evident in the brass, with Rolfs and Thomas Siders, the newly appointed assistant principal trumpet, blending with exquisite clarity and delicacy in proclamations early in the movement, legato lines in its center, and the sustained pianissimi in the final 16 measures, before the harmony suddenly mutates from C major to C minor in the space of four beats, a stunning excursion from pianississimo to fortissimo and back, by oboists John Ferrillo and Keisuke Wakao, declaiming authoritatively the major and minor thirds before the movement comes crashes a close in a furious chromatic fortissimo descent to a unison C, followed by a piano, and then a pianissimo C in just the woodwinds over pizzicato strings.
Midway through the second movement, the continuous hum from the high speakers finally stopped. Relief! Instantly, the harp shone with real sparkle and the pizzicato contrabasses, one of the iconic sounds of the Tanglewood shed, at last resonated across their distinctive spectrum. This blessed event occurred shortly before the introduction of Mahler’s familiar Tchaikovskian theme that features schmaltzy appoggiaturas. After this brief interval of easy satisfaction and emotional tranquility, the solo harp, Jessica Zhou, playing a splendidly-controlled ascending arpeggio, diminishing from piano to pianississimo, brought the movement to a gentle ending, again with two soft pizzicatos in the strings.
Finally, silence reigned (although the audience applauded again) and the dreaded vuvuzela did not reappear.
Mezzo Stephanie Blythe and soprano Layla Claire entered, wearing contrasting gowns, the one a lovely olive green with matching woven shawl, the other with a creamy top and sequined black skirt. Then, shortly after the beginning of the movement, astoundingly liquid solo, duo, and trio clarinet work by William Hudgins, Michael Wayne, and Thomas Martin, provoked new respect for Mahler’s masterful use of the whole section as an expressive voice, and the superb teamwork among these virtuosi. The trumpet section, in gently-voiced, beautifully-balanced legato lines reciprocated this shortly afterward over rapid arpeggios by both harps. The conductor, reaching for dramatic gesture to the limits of his arms and feet, seemed not to notice these sublime contributions, however.
The magnificent final movement, takes its vocal text from a long poem from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) works, and expresses a yearning for relief from life’s struggles and death’s rigors, beginning, in the translation that accompanies the orchestral score in the 1987 Dover Press republication of the 1897 Josef Weinberger edition, with text from the Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock poems “Urlicht” (Primal Light) and “Aufferstehung” (Resurrection). Here are excerpts:
“O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How much rather would I be in Heaven!”
“To bloom again are you sown.
The lord of the harvest goes
And gathers sheaves,
Us, who died.
Then Mahler’s own words follow. Here is the final passage:
“O Sorrow, all-penetrating!
I have been wrested away from you!
O Death, all-conquering!
Now you are conquered!
With wings that I won
In the passionate strivings of love
I shall mount
To that light to which no sight has penetrated!
I shall die, so as to live!
Arise again, yes, you will arise from the dead,
My heart, in an instant!
What you have conquered
Will bear you to God!
(Note: The Dover edition translation is much more satisfying than the one offered in the program, the latter positing the stilted – if politically correct — “Mankind” in place of “Man,” and “In love’s ardent struggle” for Mahler’s own phrase, “In the passionate strivings of love.”)
The minor choral hymn that projects these aspirations was preceded by a repeating phrase in alternate measures of 3/4 and 4/4 meter, sung by Stephanie Blythe with moving understatement and subtle dynamics. Her gorgeous, velvety, enormous sound was marshaled perfectly to the text and to the shifting tonalities of Bb minor to Bb major tonalities. This reviewer wrote in his notes at that moment: “The sun has come out.”
And then, within a second, Tanglewood Son et Lumiere! As if by magic, the lights in the entire shed rose to at least half-strength and stayed that way until the end of the performance. The skeptic in one might recall the devilish moment three seasons before, when, during Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony under Levine’s direction, the lawn sprinklers went on, drenching hundreds. The resulting stir required a long pause before the shed that housed the faucets was identified and the sprinklers were turned off. (Teenaged pranksters were alleged to have been responsible for this incident.) No further gremlins appeared on this particular evening, nor were artistic culprits publically identified. (We await with anxious anticipation a performance of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)
To clashing minor chords after the appearance of the sun, two French horn players rushed of the stage. The Left stage door opened, and after a pause, a series of horn calls emanated, echoed across the stage by oboe, trumpet, horn, and harp. The violins fluttered with seeming worry, and an ominous solo trombone sounded over the rumble of the tympani. A minor-key folk-melody in the flute, clarinet, and oboe appeared over pizzicato strings, and superb solo trombone and trumpet calls reprised the off-stage horn calls.
Here, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus began the slow hymn a cappela, as quietly as possible, on the familiar liturgical cadence of dominant, subdominant, and dominant chords. The blend was exquisite, and the subsequent underpinning of contrabass gave the listener a jolt of remembrance of the “Liberte” in the prelude concert that utilized this most apposite orchestration device. The repeated phrases of the simple, diatonic melody (so different from the 20th century modernisms of the Poulenc cantata) exerted an powerful sensory and emotional effect, and the simple chromatic modulations, by the half step, only increased the intensity. Just when one thought that choral singing doesn’t get better than this, a restatement of the melody transposed down was joined by the contrabasses and Layla Claire, whose sweet, unprepossessing, but insufficiently strong voice could not quite project the softer passages to the center of the hall. Yet this gave Mahler’s expression of human frailty and transitory existence a striking humanity and verisimilitude. One did not have to hear every one of Claire’s words to sympathize with her, and to recognize our own, fates. One lives for such moments of transcendent music-making, where performers and audience are brought to a such an exalted plane of human existence and when human experience is ennobled by music.
Michael Tilson Thomas was much less flamboyant here, sedate, in keeping with the mood. In the end, there was need neither for acrobatics or histrionics. Blythe, her huge voice resolving perfectly intoned appoggiaturas, pleading, “Oh believe,” the male choristers intoning “I shall fly upwards,” and the splendid orchestra, fully capable of elevating the spirit to an assurance of enduring life.
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Conducted and prepared superbly by Christian Macelaru, Anton Webern’s orchestral adaptation of the Ricercare movement of Bach’s Musical Offering blazed with interest. The melodic and contrapuntal lines were distributed across a variety of instruments, not one line to each instrument, but pieces of lines, single notes, short arcs, and rows (rows, ye modernists!), that together made perfect sense, even if you hadn’t heard this kind of Bach before. The counterpoint, sometimes straightforward, often dense, gleamed with kaleidoscopic color, and layers on layers of thin and thick texture waved and contracted and unfurled again. Here was the master in his most confident, magisterial authority, seen through the lens of a Schoenberg disciple, who was in turn a Mahler devotee, preoccupied with the beauty and distinctiveness of individual musical tones and lines. One was reminded of James Levine’s stunning presentation of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder four Tanglewood seasons ago, with its visionary perspectives, both forward and backward, glorious palette of orchestral colors, and concentration on tonal beauty. The forces here were tiny by comparison, but the vision was comparable. One could witness both the profundity of Bach’s compositional achievement and anticipate Webern’s smaller but strikingly original modernism.
The conductor drew from each soloist splendid expressions of their small and large commitments. Meaning was made of every note! Most distinguished were the warm English horn of Sarah Lewis, the limpid violin and sweetly expressive viola of Alicia Enstrom and Amy Mason, and the shimmering trumpet of Eli Maurer. The whole orchestra, however, functioned as a living, breathing organism.
Keitaro Harada’s conducting was so engaged with each player in the Shubert Fifth, that a quality of mutual delight in performing together pervaded this sunny, familiar work. Composed when Schubert was only 19, it resonates with respect to Haydn and Mozart, and anticipates in a striking way Mahler’s Schubertian melodic sensibility. Harada listens intently, leads with clarity and subtlety, and emits a thoughtful and appreciative musicality. The first movement was radiant, with clear lines and perfectly balanced contrapuntal voices.
Harada put down the baton for the 6/8 opening of the second movement, a graceful kind of barcarolle. Jessica Anastasio’s sublimely supple and organic account of the graceful melody blended beautifully with the other woodwinds. Harada’s conducting hands were as James Levine’s at his best: inviting, describing, and summoning with precision the emotions that underpinned the phrases. Most especially, in the singing final section, he drew from the orchestra a splendid choral quality, leading up to the brilliant, descending Eb arpeggio by horn soloist Meghan Guegold that brought the movement to a convincing and satisfying conclusion.
High horns in thirds and many tips of the hat to Mozart distinguished the third movement of the Schubert, with Harada’s baton deftly indicating the andante 3/4 time and the many dynamic nuances. There were beautifully controlled piano and pianissimo ensemble sections here, the players instantly and eagerly responding to Harada’s indications.
Still more dramatic distributions of dynamics characterized the fourth movement of Schubert in quick 4/4 time, with sweet melodies tossed around and beautiful section work in the 12/8 portion. The reviewer’s notes include the excited phrase “Sounds like a big string quartet!” Such was the plasticity and nuanced expression of this performance! At its end, the players applauded Harada enthusiastically.
With Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Orchestral Suite, the salvaged music from the unsuccessful Strauss/Hofmannsthal five-act opera that followed Der Rosenkavalier, there was yet another parallelism with Friday’s concert. Just as the Mahler Second sustains the music and drama of the First, so does this programmatic confection carry forward the wit and whimsy of its predecessor. There is much happy parody of the formalities of high and low society, paeans and lampoons of costume and convention, a predestined prig who meets his comeuppance, and some, but nearly as much, delicious polytonality. Here, however, it’s all in miniature, and all in the orchestra, but the charm is there. The conductor, Alexander Prior, at 18 years of age, has already received awards in the Mahler Conducting Competition, the Leeds Conducting Competition, and the International Prokofiev Composition Competition, and conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and Eugene Onegin, Dido and Aeneas, and La Traviata in Russia. The light lifting of this work was addressed with brio and humor, and the orchestra and crowd loved him.
In the Overture, a vivace movement features a sub-orchestra, first just a piano quintet, then with the addition of a contrabass, and gradually the whole shebang, bursting through delightful modulations and rapid changes of mood. The clear, bright trumpet and strong, flexible bass trombone of Toby Penk and Nozomi Kasano Flatt, respectively, sang sweetly and strongly, and the virtuoso runs and arpeggios of pianist Makiko Hirata swept the ensemble along.
A solo in 6/8 meter by the oboe, Kristina Goettler, gave a dulcet, vocalistic quality to the opening melody of the second section of the overture, and the clarinet of Georgiy Borisov, sustained its development, along with an impressively nuanced descant by the confident horn player, Matthew Bronstein.
The Minuet section that followed featured two flutes and harmonic resonances direct from the second act of Der Rosenkavalier, with repeated dominant-tonic cadences in different keys. The “Fencing Master” movement was charming, with pleasing and pompous pokings and pretensions from the trumpet, piano, and horn.
The following movements, “Entrance and Dance of the Tailors,” “Minuet of Lully,” and “Courante,” comprised a cleverly-embedded violin concerto, with zesty double-stops, fabulous filigrees, and shades of Sarasate for concert mistress Sarah Silver. Her sound is splendid but not large, and one had to listen carefully over the voluptuous orchestration to appreciate the full ambit of her music: technically brilliant with deep feeling, unerring intonation, keen dynamic sensibility, and a fine sense of humor.
Alexander Prior brought forth in the gracious Entrance of Cleante an unusual hymn-like string ensemble, with an eerie resonance to Baroque chamber instrumentation. A pianissimo passage, voiced by violins, cello, and contrabass was contrived by the use of portamento to echo like violas de Gamba, giving way to a bouncing theme with changing meters featuring horn and trumpet. This was a small-orchestra tour de force in the space of five minutes.
“The Dinner (Table Music and Dance of the Kitchen Boy)” brought the show to a fulfilling close. Prior’s conducting accurately and expressively characterized the stiff formalities, martial posturing, and churlish children, cooking up a mouth-watering array of savories: the splendid cello of Caleb van der Swaagh, soaring high on the fingerboard with nary an absent spice, delectable and fragrant flute/oboe duet playing by Anastasio and Goettler, and harmonies that tasted of the miraculous acid overlays in the Presentation of the Rose.
If these three concerts can be seen as a measure of the present and future of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its progeny, one may safely say that classical music at Tanglewood is in good hands, even in the absence of its musical director. In his recovery, we hope James Levine returns soon and thank him for both for his enduring legacy and this thoughtful programming.
June 30, 2010
Boston Musical Intelligencer
Rite, Ritual, and Romantic Struggle: Music and Dance Open Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood Festivals
by Eli Newberger
Rhythms reminiscent of Rite of Spring drove the most riveting performances in the June 25 and 28 offerings by the State Ballet of Georgia and the Mark Morris Dance Group that kicked off the dance and music seasons of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance in the Ted Shawn Theater and Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, respectively. Both companies are justifiably renowned for bringing music front and center in their dances, and in moments tender and fierce, they showed keen awareness of the composers’ intentions, especially when sharing the stage with brilliant young piano and string players. In each program, ceremony and synchronous movement held in check powerful impulses of sexuality, violence, and self-abnegation. Passionate live performances of Stravinsky, Bizet, Chopin, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison, propelled leaps and lifts, slaps and stomps, prancing parades and paralytic pauses, along with astounding mad dashes by men and women flying over every square foot of stage. Those in attendance will not soon forget the virtuosity, expressivity, and stamina of these brilliant musicians and dancers.
State Ballet of Georgia at Jacob’s Pillow
Nina Ananiashvili, founder and artistic director of the Georgians and renowned principal of the Bolshoi, Kirov, and New York City ballet companies, offered a generous, three-part survey of a sweep of classical and modern dance that depicted the arc of her career. A set of delicious classical amuse-bouches, to recorded music by Delibes (Sylvia), Offenbach (La Chatte Metamorphosée en Femme), Massenet (Thaïs), and Johann Straus II (Fruhlingstimmen), all choreographed by Frederic Ashton, preceded a pair of live performances by Jeanette Fang, piano, and David Southern, violin, of Stravinsky’s Duo Concertant, choreographed by George Balanchine, and, with Fang performing alone, off-stage, Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques, retitled “Bizet Variations Pas de Six” in choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The program closed with “Falling Angels” by choreographer Ji?í Kylián, set to recorded excerpts of Steve Reich’s Drumming.
Surely the most stunning moment of the first set was at the beginning of the Massanet, when, to that familiar, deeply-affecting descending melody, the powerful David Ananeli entered as a one-man sedan-chair, carrying Ananiashvili herself high on his right shoulder for what felt like 10 minutes as she slowly and exquisitely began her tribute to Anna Pavlova, with over-the-head arm movements, wrist-to-wrist, finger-to finger, undulating side-to-side, ultimately dismounting with a lovely, continuous, balanced sweep. Although Ananeli was alter-cast as a subordinate in this star turn, he was a worthy, musically-attuned counterweight to Ananiashvili’s controlled and whimsical presence, giving arm, hand, and lift in magnificently restrained reciprocations of longing and love. Would that that old, unidentified, undeniably pretty cello recording, effective as it surely was, had been played instead by the stunning duo presented after the intermission!
Efforts to integrate live music into dance performance in the Ted Shawn Theatre are inevitably frustrated, if not compromised, by the hum of the ceiling fans and the buzz of the air conditioning machinery overhead. In the old days, with the barn-door open at stage rear of a hot Sunday afternoon, the primitive blowers produced a kind of informal languor, apposite to the rough-and-ready history of the Pillow. Not, however, on this night.
In her otherwise-informative introduction of the Georgia State Ballet’s performance, Ella Baff, the executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, exclaimed, “Live dance, live music, what could be better!” Hear, hear. But when the lights dimmed almost to near-total darkness between program sections, the din grew inescapably from background to bloody distraction. And when a violin and piano had to fight to be heard at the outset of the Stravinsky, and when the sound technician miked up an off-stage, out-of-tune piano level to full flagrante at the beginning of the Bizet, one could not but wonder about the real place of music in the enterprise. Sadly, on this night, it could not have been but subordinate, whether or not by intention.
Notwithstanding these limitations, the pianist Annette Fang, playing a roll-out baby grand, and the violinist David Southern, miked directly, brought forth an inspired reading of the Stravinsky “Duo Concertant.” This work bristles with spiky rhythms and triad-on-triad harmonies redolent of the “Rite of Spring” and “Soldier’s Tale,” that underlay vivid, arching, chromatic lines, counterposed against the glowing cantabiles and romantic village tunes that one hears in the composer’s songs and in such ballet music as “Les Noces.” Indeed, there reigned here the vivid collaborative sprit of Diaghalev, if not of Ruth St. Denis, whose portrait, opposite her former partner Shawn’s, adorns one wing of the stage. The costumes were simple and the stage-set plain, but the melding of melody and movement, dissonance and drama, manifested a total commitment to making transcendent art by two duos of players and dancers.
At the beginning, Balanchine places the man and woman behind the piano, between the keyboard at the left and the violin at the right. Sebastian Kloborg and Nino Gogua listened attentively to the music until one, provoked by a musical stimulus or emotional impulse, pulled the other flirtatiously or forcefully to the center, where together they spun, fell, pranced, held, and delicately and indelicately intertwined. There was magic here in both music and dance, and especially in this seamless fusion of the arts. This piece was sublimely elevating and moving, the best of the evening.
The Bizet followed quickly after a short pause during which the grand piano was pushed off the stage, preparing the way for a lively, three-couple sortie that required the entire stage and its flies for soaring comings and goings. The choreographer, Alexis Ratmansky, who composed the dance in 2008 while serving with Anianashvili at the American Ballet Theater, contributed this comment to the program notes, focusing on the absence of narrative structure: “As George Balanchine used to say, when woman and man dance, it is already a story.”
This story, however, included a genuine devil, an over-amplified and out-of-tune instrument that sounded more like a neglected fortepiano or barrelhouse upright than the previously enjoyed baby grand. When suddenly, mid-way through the piece, the volume was ramped down, the inadequacy of the instrument was emphasized, not diminished, giving further dismay to a listener trying to stay engaged with the Bizet.
Notwithstanding, the piece worked well because of Annette Fang’s unremitting musicianship and indomitable character, and the evening’s most charming moment came at the end, when two of the dancers en pointe pulled her into their bows, held both her hands as they toed backwards to stage rear, and quickly returned to the front with their admired captive, a game and comely presence, wearing high heels.
The evening ended with a stunning, eight-woman evocation of feminine self-consciousness and striving for corporeal perfection and human connection. These “Falling Angels” wore sexy black leotards and reached out to one another across aching acres of separation, but also in tight company, the yearning emphasized by pin-point spots that pierced the darkened stage to reveal fingers straining to touch and hands grasping desperately to hold, the circle of light expanding to reveal entire bodies tortured by failed communication, falling, weeping, the whole troupe synchronizing a miserably controlling gesture: wrists over the heads and under their jaws, forcing their mouths shut. Those clamping limbs weren’t their own, their pained expressions suggested, but the many cultural and personal forces that silence women’s voices.
The piece included stylized emulations of frenzied workout routines, Michael Jackson moves, and slinky, sensuous steps performed by the entire ensemble in synchrony. Carried dancers fluttered their hands and struggled to break free, yet the rhythms of the bongos and midrange tom-toms appeared to lift the women’s spirits. In the end, the joy of the dance enabled the angels to rise above earthly adversity.
Here, ironically, the music, however canned and amplified in low-fi, served well as background. Compared to the African percussion ensembles that so obviously inspired it, these excerpts of Reich’s “Drumming” included neither the syncopations nor rhythmic anticipations that give the real thing its tension and swing. The downbeats were relentless and plodding, and the superimposed layers of rhythm added a bit of energy, if not real excitement and spice, focusing the eye and ear on the dancers.
Mark Morris at Tanglewood
Mark Morris’s annual Tanglewood visit, as always, featured his own brand of choreography that takes inspiration and draws energy from music performed in real time. Four large works were offered, “Mosaic and United,” to music by Henry Cowell (excerpts from his third and fourth String Quartets ); “Sang-Froid,” to piano music by Chopin (excerpts from Etude in A minor, Op. 10/2; Mazurka in A minor, Op.68/2; Etude in G flat, Op. 25/9; Mazurka in D, Op. 33/2; Berceuse in D-flat, Op. 57; Waltz in D-flat, Op.64/1, “The Minute Waltz”; Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55/1; Prelude in A. Op. 28/7; and Etude in A minor, Op. 25/11), and the world premiere of a new work “The Muir,” (to folk songs arranged by Beethoven, “Ye shepherds of this pleasant vale,” “The sweetest lad was Jamie,” “Cease your funning,” “Sally in our alley,” “Could this ill world have been contriv’d,” “What shall I do to shew how much I love her?” “Sunset,” ” Come fill, fill my good fellow,” and “The lovely lass of Inverness.” After another pause came “Grand Duo,” to music by Lou Harrison (“Grand Duo: Prelude, Stampede, A Round, and Polka”).
At the outset of “Mosaic and United,” Cowell’s dense, lush music seemed to compensate for nearly every dissonant passage with a prominent, friendly, major chord. This uncertainty of intention was reciprocated by an ensemble of three men and two women who were clad in colorful, flowing pajamas by Isaac Mizrahi. A sense of precariousness and frustration pervaded the opening portion of the piece. Both men and women lifted their partners, whose arms and legs vibrated and fluttered, as the music became wispy and the jackets were shed. The beautifully played, arching, extended cello line propelled upward the faces and gestures of three dancers and framed the entire subsequent movement. Kathryn Bates Williams (A New Fromm Player) gave a splendid accounting of this challenging and exposed mini-concerto.
The cello, with lively rhythm, jump-started a lively, folksy sequence in 5/4 time. Some lovely quartet ensemble work counter-posed warm, rich sonorities against a parade of dancers lost in their individual thoughts. A man and woman broke away in a passionate duet. The woman retreated, dancing sensuously to a fabulous cello line that conjured circles and arabesques. When another man entered and stood alone, she ran distractedly and fell. As the cello line descended, she seemed almost to die, but when the cello ascended once more, she regained her excited animation, circling the two men. The cello’s voice appeared to evoke her passions, thoughts, and conflicts, and the dissonances were saucy and hot.
Suddenly the harmonic mood shifted to major, and a happy and lively ensemble was pulled to stop by a sustained triad. Then a keening, urgent, high cello melody began, with violins and viola stamping out fierce rhythms reminiscent of Bartok. A couple leapt into action with distinctive folk turns, jumps, and swings. Bursts of movement, stamping heels and races around and across the stage led to the first real summer wildness on the Ozawa Hall stage, the music feeding the dance, and vice versa. Once more Williams’s brilliant high-register cello led the action before everyone ran off.
A spiccato section followed, the bows of the second violin, viola, and cello bouncing the 3/4 meter as the first violin sang a lyrical melody. The female dancers returned in a sensuous, slow formation as the men circled around them. Soon re-garbed in their bright tops, two men suddenly carried off one woman, then another, then another. When grabbed, they folded. Did their fancy threads enable this aggression? Were the women seduced by such male display? Could they possibly have desired this abduction?
Then as Williams struck a set of lively 7/4 and 5/4 rhythmic riffs, another string player drummed on the back of her instrument, a slow and thoughtful final passage began, marked by beautifully expressive, sustained chords without obvious metric indications. Strong, assertive, rhythm returned, with strong and sonorous cello leading the way. A march with high kicks brought the company from the back to the front of the stage with a kind of fearsome inevitability, and the piece ended to clamorous applause.
Chopin was next, and what Chopin it was! Ryan McCullough, a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow, gave a bravura accounting of this unusual suite of familiar gems, sustaining with humor the 3/4 rhythms of the Mazurkas (as if the dancers really needed the extra emphasis) and spinning out the impossible thirds and embellishments of the Etudes as if they were cotton candy. The Berceuse was lovingly played. The dancers mimed his music, nodded off, lost balance, awakening suddenly. The ravishingly beautiful Chopin projected a sense of comfort that balanced the darkness, mystery and loss of control in the dance.
The Opus 64, No.1, waltz came across as a send-up of every performer who has tried to rush it into a minute’s display. Dancers careened across the stage, but were blocked by a fence formed by three of their colleagues, making the point, perhaps, that high art isn’t a technical show. Here, Ryan McCullough’s virtuosity was evident and understated, his playing projecting a warmth in the slightly slower, middle section, that conjured the humanity of Artur Rubenstein. The men that formed the blockade danced together here, sweetly and gently.
In the Nocturne, a sense of awkwardness and impending tragedy pervaded a small group of couples who looked balefully across the floor at one another, even as their stilted movements betrayed isolation from their partners. Failing and dying alone were suggested by seemingly unsuccessful efforts to revive fallen dancers. This was a brave and unflinching reflection on the tragedy of loss and our own essential separateness. McCullough evinced both its sadness and compassion at a thoughtfully nuanced slow tempo. Brilliant cascades of sound closed out the piece, and the dancers gave every indication of being moved – literally and figuratively – by the music. This is why we come to Tanglewood.
“The Muir,” though beautifully danced and sung, was an exercise in frustration. From Row N left, just 50 feet from the box where the quartet of singers and piano trio were placed, it was impossible to discern a single clear syllable of the English lyrics. This was not the fault of the soloists, all of whom sung articulately and with feeling, but rather with the problematic acoustics associated with positioning the singers in a low-ceilinged corner forward of extreme stage left. Although two and a half pages of single-spaced text were provided in the program, it was impossible to read them in the darkened hall. And who, anyway, would want to read them on one’s lap while trying to watch a dance performance?
The charming, vernacular lyrics were essential to both dance and song. Would it not have been appropriate to provide the singers with adequate amplification or positions on the stage, or to utilize the supertitle system announced in this very printed program to interpret the forthcoming “Beowulf” in Ozawa Hall? As it stood, this performance left an impression of vigorous and pleasant dancing, colorful ball-gowns, intensely presented Beethoven, and an inattention to detail that risked spoiling a Mark Morris world premiere.
The “Grand Duo” that closed out the evening came across as a kind of confectionary “Rite of Spring.” Michelle Yard was the star of the show, provoking worry for her safety as unbearable tension rose in the Prelude movement. She turned from one couple to another, reaching desperately for engagement and protection, as the piano punched out inexorable rhythms, with right-fisted clusters of notes evoking a sacrificial ritual. She retreated to stage rear, facing away, her red dress almost shouting “Stop this!” Then silence. And darkness. A thrilling, menacing pause. What was coming next?
But fortunately, even as devices of threat and victimization returned, and the music ebbed and flowed, Ms. Yard survived, and, indeed, triumphed in a lovely panoply of turns, bows, jumps, pairings, and affecting reconnections. Of all the dancers in the company, she projected the most human vulnerability and resiliency in the face of the cruel fusion of rite and cruelty.
Were Harrison’s music to have had more tissue and harmonic richness, the piece would have been more devastating. Although its rhythms and interplay between piano and violin were lively and infused with respect for the compositional tradition associated with the Ballets Russes, it paled in comparison to the exalting Stravinsky “Duo Concertant” that so energized the evening at Jacob’s Pillow. This is not to say, however, that it was not well played. Both Katherine Bormann, the violinist, and Nolan Pearson, the pianist, gave it their all, and provided exemplary collaboration to all the action on the stage.
Mark Morris’s vision is not a pessimistic one. He appears to eschew the formalism and abstracted standards of beauty that pervade the classic ballet tradition, and to favor down-to-earth athleticism and emotional expression. In triumphs like “Mosaic and United” and “Sang-Froid,” he melds music and movement with substance and style, posing big questions and giving assurance that high art can allay the discomforts of the examined life.