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31.7.05

News from Bayreuth

Following up on my first Bayreuth post this year (Oh, Bwoonhilda, You're So Wovewy, July 25), there is no real controversy to speak of, but they are still performing Wagner's operas in the Festspielhaus. In general, however, the critical reception has been lackluster, to say the least. Are the best of the best (singers and others, with Plácido Domingo excepted) just not lining up to go to Bayreuth anymore? Here's a sampling of press reviews I have read of the five operas staged this year:

Tristan und Isolde:

  • Andrew Clark, Obsessive love in a 1940s setting (London Financial Times, July 27)
    An ordinary man and woman fall for each other. Theirs is an all-consuming love - compulsive, illicit and ultimately futile. It not only undermines their will to live, it poisons all the relationships in their orbit. This is the scenario proposed by Christoph Marthaler in his new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuth festival. Wagner's great hymn to romantic love is not about sex or passion. Nor has it anything to do with metaphysics or the cosmos. No, it is about the destructive loneliness of love, an obsession that can lead only to extinction. On these terms Tristan und Isolde is a modern story. But do we need to go to Bayreuth to experience it? Marthaler, a Swiss director who staged a controversial Figaro in Salzburg three years ago, has done his usual thing of showing opera characters as everyday types, but there was nothing revelatory about Monday's performance. The conductor, Eiji Oue, kept musical passions running high. Marthaler was booed; the cast was cheered.
  • Christian Merlin, Wagner en roman-photo (Le Figaro, July 27)
    So we just have to say it: we did not see the season's best Tristan in Bayreuth. The director is far too talented for us to speak of a failure, but between a promising beginning and a moving ending, it was mostly a frustrating evening. Is Marthaler afraid of myth and metaphysics? His lovers are the heroes of a picture novel or a musical comedy, whose process of maturing has tragic consequences.
  • Manuel Brug, Auftakt in Bayreuth: Christoph Marthaler beleuchtet Wagners größte Liebesgeschichte (Berliner Morgenpost, July 27)
  • Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, Hero to Zero: The unspectacular failure of "Tristan and Isolde" at Bayreuth (Sign and Sight, July 27)
    It was sobering but not annoying: an unspectacular disappointment. The idea was interesting: putting the opera of the most extreme rebellions and exaltations together with the directorial master of abysmally shrewd and pensive staidness. What resulted was the insight that a good piece plus a good director does not necessary equal an extraordinary performance if those 'goods' are of a controversial nature, as was the case here.
  • Anne Fournier, Christoph Marthaler hué à Bayreuth (Le Temps, July 30)
Lohengrin:
  • This year at Bayreuth there was no redemption for Lohengrin (Associated Press, July 26)
    But the gloom grows even thicker in Keith Warner's revived production. Instead of fading away gloriously into the sea horizon as he returns to join other knights of the holy grail, Lohengrin is ingloriously swallowed up by the ground. The swan - a symbol of redemption - is carried in dead at the end of the final act. And in the place of a grown warrior - Elsa's brother reincarnated from swan to human - the hero leaves behind a weak boy unable to lift his sword, let alone defend the Brabant duchy, like he was supposed to as Lohengrin's surrogate.
  • Andrew Clark, Lohengrin Festspielhaus, Bayreuth (London Financial Times, July 28)
    When a production is revived at Bayreuth, it usually works better than when new. That is because revivals here, unlike metropolitan theatres, get thorough rehearsal, with the original team in attendance and quirks in casting ironed out. It is what Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's 85-year old grandson and festival director, used to call "Werkstatt Bayreuth" (Bayreuth workshop), though the term is not heard much now. Lohengrin, directed by Keith Warner and designed by Stefanos Lazaridis and Sue Blane, shows that the workshop approach does not always work.
  • Christian Merlin, Nuit gothique (Le Figaro, July 28)
    Those who hated the new Tristan und Isolde staged by Christoph Marthaler for the opening of the Bayreuth Festival celebrated the reprise of the Lohengrin conceived by Keith Warner. But was it for the right reasons? They booed Marthaler's modernized minimalism, but they applauded the armor and medieval ambiance, thinking that they had finally found the "real" Wagner. But was there not ultimately more theater in Marthaler's horrible huis clos (no exit) than in Warner's cloak and dagger spectacle?
Der fliegende Holländer:
    George Jahn, 'Hollaender' Takes Liberties With Wagner (Associated Press, July 28)
    The music came from Wagner at Wednesday's Bayreuth Festival production of "Der fliegende Hollaender" but the plot came from Freud. Wagner's Senta, abused by her father, dreams up a fantasy lover -- the flying Dutchman -- who will whisk her away from her stifling bourgeois surroundings; she redeems the Dutchman from an eternal fate at sea by casting herself into the waves at the end of a stormy 2 1/2 hours -- much of it on deck or on the yardarm. But not a glass of water was seen in Claus Guth's production, and the action was in the mind instead of the ocean.
  • Christian Merlin, Une distribution vocalement indigne (Le Figaro, July 29)
    Succeeding Eiji Oue, overwhelmed by the events in Tristan, and Peter Schneider, comfortable but routine in Lohengrin, the third night of the 2005 festival was conducted with verve by Marc Albrecht: nervous gestures and bright peaks, compact dramatism, at the edge of stiffness but nevertheless moving. Shouldering aside soloists and choir a bit in the fast parts, he did not tolerate any dead time. Too bad! The casting was not worthy of a festival that should be the Wagnerian ideal. [...] Whoever may have started listening to a radio broadcast of this performance would not have believed that it was from Bayreuth, where the casting should be an example, either with renowned artists or with up-and-coming young singers, but certainly not with players that a first division soccer team would have recruited as substitutes and not as first-stringers.
Tannhäuser:
  • George Jahn, A little kitsch, lot of fine music in Bayreuth Festival's Tannhaeuser (Associated Press, July 28)
    Under Christian Thielemann, arguably the best Wagner conductor of the day, the Festival Orchestra masterfully underpinned the haunting pilgrims' choruses, set the ground for the chromatic harmony that depicts the tonal world of Venus, or worked its magic in the orchestral preludes that create the mood for the acts to follow. In an unusual act of homage reflecting the orchestra's performance, Thielemann brought the musicians on stage for a curtain call - many of them in shorts and sandals to beat the heat - in a gesture normally reserved for the end of the festival.
  • Julian Sykes, La petite musique de Bayreuth (Le Temps, July 30)
Parsifal:
  • Festival de Bayreuth: ovations pour Pierre Boulez (ATS, July 30)
    The French conductor Pierre Boulez was given a standing ovation by the audience Friday night in Germany, at the conclusion of the performance of Parsifal at the 94th Bayreuth Festival. [...] As happened last year during this production, the iconoclastic staging by the bad boy of German theater, Christoph Schlingensief, which uses video with images of dead rats, was soundly booed by a part of the audience.
  • Christian Merlin, Bayreuth : «Parsifal», le syndrome Avignon (Le Figaro, August 1)
    In spite of his spats last summer with Wolfgang Wagner, the festival's director, Schlingensief has come back to develop his staging in a more serene climate. But if some aspects have been modified (the artist is said to change ideas every twenty minutes), the spirit remains. It poses basic aesthetic, even philosophical, problems. It is impossible to describe here all of the production's details. Just know that Avignon Syndrome has struck again: Schlingensief, an artist, has created an installation and not a staging. His method of expression: the revolving set and the projection screen. [...] We should have sent our contemporary art critic to Bayreuth instead of a music critic like me. Because what we saw was a work by Christoph Schlingensief after Parsifal, accompanied by the music of Richard Wagner.
And just for fun:

Dip Your Ears, No. 39 (Hewitt's Bach Concertos)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Keyboard Concerti v.2 (BWV1053-57),
Angela Hewitt / Australian CO
Hyperion



available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Keyboard Concerti v.2,
Angela Hewitt / Australian CO
Hyperion SACD




available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Complete Keyboard Concertos,
Angela Hewitt / Australian CO
Hyperion

Bach is like an oasis or refuge… or both – whichever you need. Hearing these keyboard concertos with Angela Hewitt and the Australian Chamber Orchestra from a double-release on the Hyperion label (to be released late this July) reminded me more than anything else in recent months of my belief that classical music (or maybe just Bach) is an inherently superior music, after all. While most of that credit does go to the Old Master himself, I would certainly not hear him so well and the music would not be communicated so well, were it not for the immaculate, energetic, and utterly tasteful playing of Ms. Hewitt.

Playing Bach on a Steinway hardly needs justification anymore, but Angela Hewitt (who also wrote the informative liner notes) provides one of the most elegantly convincing arguments I have yet read:


It is said that if we sat down and copied out all of the music Bach wrote it would take us a lifetime. Yet he was composing it as well. So it is no wonder that from time to time he borrowed from himself. Such is the case with the keyboard concertos. If an original version has not been handed down to us, then there probably was one but it has been lost. Concerto movements also ended up in cantatas, often with florid parts being added to an already busy original. This recycling is one of the arguments I used to defend the performance of Bach on the modern piano. If he could write for the violin, oboe, or voice a singing, melodic line that would have its natural inflections, phrasing, and rise and fall, then why would he not have wanted to hear it on a keyboard instrument that was capable of doing the same thing (since the harpsichord could not)?


The concertos are indeed all either source material for other music or arrangements themselves. If Concerto no. 6 (BWV 1057) isn’t often heard, it must be because of its famous parent, the Brandenburg Concerto no. 5. Keyboard Concerto no. 3 in D major, BWV 1054, formerly known as the A minor violin concerto, BWV 1042, has a similar story to tell. Hewitt unfailingly sparkles throughout, and BWV 1057 making use of the harpsichord continuo alongside the grand piano (neither unique nor common as it were) makes for a particularly interesting and well-judged aural experience. The ACO proves to be a most amiable partner: responsive, flexible, and energetic.

(Going back to my collection, I was surprised to find out that up until now I had had these works [minus BWV 1057] only in two other versions: Trevor Pinnock’s on harpsichord [Archiv] and Glenn Gould’s [Sony]. Perhaps that goes some way in explaining my desire to use phrases such as “utterly tasteful,” “well-judged,” “immaculate,” and “unfailingly this-and-that?”)

This is volume two of the final Bach offerings of Angela Hewitt on Hyperion, lest she can be convinced to do the works for multiple keyboard also. It is as wholly recommendable as all previous installments of her solo Bach – which is to say: very much!

30.7.05

Classical Week in Washington (7/31)

Classical Week in Washington is a weekly feature that appears on Sundays. If there are concerts that you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (praecentor at yahoo dot com). Plan your concert schedule for the entire month of August with our Classical Month in Washington (August), or your summer opera listening with Opera in the Summer 2005. We warn you, however, there is not much to hear round these parts this month. We're biding our time until the fall.

Tuesday, August 2, from 2 to 6:30 pm
Wednesday, August 3, from 2 to 6:30 pm
Thursday, August 4, from 12 to 3:30 pm
Qualifying round, Rostropovich International Cello Competition (Mstislav Rostropovich himself will head the jury in Washington) [FREE, but you must make a reservation, 202-944-6090 or Culturel.WASHINGTON-AMBA@diplomatie.gouv.fr)
La Maison Française (Embassy of France)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, August 3)

Wednesday, August 3, 8 pm
Sounds of Slovenia: Landscapes, Dance, and Romance (works by Brina Jez and others)
Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, August 5)

Friday, August 5, 8 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata and Concerto (Cantata 209, B Minor Suite, other works by Haydn and Quantz)
Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Sunday, August 7, 5 pm
Anne Horsch (Grünwald, Germany), organ [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral

Sunday, August 7, 6 pm
Jin Sun Cho (South Korea), organ (music by Bruhns, Jongen, Bach, Liszt) [FREE]
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church

Sunday, August 7, 8 pm
Sounds of Slovenia: Pour le Temps Passé (music by Brina Jez and others)
Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)
See the review by Claire Marie Blaustein (Washington Post, August 9)

——» Go to last week's schedule, for the week of July 24.

Classical Month in Washington: August

Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature that appears on the first of the month. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (praecentor at yahoo dot com). Happy listening!

Tuesday, August 2, from 2 to 6:30 pm
Wednesday, August 3, from 2 to 6:30 pm
Thursday, August 4, from 12 to 3:30 pm
Qualifying round, Rostropovich International Cello Competition (Mstislav Rostropovich himself will head the jury in Washington) [FREE, but you must make a reservation, 202-944-6090 or Culturel.WASHINGTON-AMBA@diplomatie.gouv.fr)
La Maison Française (Embassy of France)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, August 3)

Wednesday, August 3, 8 pm
Sounds of Slovenia: Landscapes, Dance, and Romance (works by Brina Jez and others)
Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, August 5)

Friday, August 5, 8 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata and Concerto (Cantata 209, B Minor Suite, other works by Haydn and Quantz)
Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Sunday, August 7, 5 pm
Anne Horsch (Grünwald, Germany), organ [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral

Sunday, August 7, 6 pm
Jin Sun Cho (South Korea), organ (music by Bruhns, Jongen, Bach, Liszt) [FREE]
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church

Sunday, August 7, 8 pm
Sounds of Slovenia: Pour le Temps Passé (music by Brina Jez and others)
Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)
See the review by Claire Marie Blaustein (Washington Post, August 9)

Monday, August 8, 8 pm
U.S. Navy Band Concert [FREE]
U.S. Capitol, west side

Tuesday, August 9, 8 pm
U.S. Navy Band and Sea Chanters Concert [FREE]
U.S. Navy Memorial (701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW)

Thursday, August 11, 8 pm
U.S. Navy Sea Chanters Concert [FREE]
U.S. Capitol, west side

Friday, August 12, 8 pm
U.S. Army Band Concert (1812 Overture)
Washington Monument Grounds

Friday, August 12, 8 pm
Where the Boys Are (opera arias and scenes, Wolf Trap Opera Company)
The Barns at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
See the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, August 15)

Saturday, August 13, and Sunday, August 14, 12 pm and 2 pm each day (Round House Theater, Bethesda, Md.)
Tuesday, August 16, 6 pm (Kennedy Center Millennium Stage)
Brundibár, children's opera by Hans Krása in World War II for the children in the Terezín transit camp (FREE, but reservations are required, contact 202.448.3465 or education@dc-opera.org)
Presented by Washington National Opera's Opera Camp for Kids
See the review by Charles T. Downey and Mini-Critic (Ionarts, August 14)

Sunday, August 14, 6 pm
Songs of a Forgotten War (new compositions in memory of the Korean War)
Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage

Sunday, August 14, 6 pm
Anne Horsch (Grünwald, Germany), organ (music by Bach, Mulet, Peeters, Brahms, Fauré, Vierne) [FREE]
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church

Tuesday, August 16, 12:10 pm
Jana Stuart, piano [FREE]
Church of the Epiphany (1317 G Street NW)

Tuesday, August 16, 8 pm
U.S. Army Band Concert
U.S. Capitol, west side

Thursday, August 18, 8 pm [CANCELLED]; Saturday, August 20, 8 pm
Rossini's La Cenerentola (Wolf Trap Opera Company)
Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, August 21)

Thursday, August 18, 8 pm
National Philharmonic String Quartet (Haydn, Smetana, and Patiño)
National Philharmonic Summer Chamber Music Festival (F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre)
See the review by Andrew Lindemann Malone (Washington Post, August 20)

Friday, August 19, 8 pm
Violinist Elisabeth Adkins and pianist Edward Newman (Stravinsky, de Falla, Rozsa, Franck)
National Philharmonic Summer Chamber Music Festival (F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre)

Saturday, August 20, 8 pm
National Philharmonic Piano Trio (Jody Gatwood, Lori Barnet, Philip Hosford), music by Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky
National Philharmonic Summer Chamber Music Festival (F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre)

Sunday, August 21, 6 pm
Madison Ensemble String Quartet
Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage

Sunday, August 21, 6 pm
Myung Ja Cho (South Korea), organ [FREE]
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church

Monday, August 22, 6 pm
Voest-Alpine Concert Band (from Linz, Austria)
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

Tuesday, August 23, 12:10 pm
Rachel Barham, soprano, with Andrew Simpson, piano [FREE]
Church of the Epiphany (1317 G Street NW)

Thursday, August 25, 6 pm
City of Belfast Youth Orchestra [FREE]
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

Friday, August 26, 8 pm
U.S. Army Concert Band concert
U.S. Capitol, west side

Sunday, August 28, 5 pm
Organ Recital: Gerald Gifford (Thornham, U.K.)
Washington National Cathedral

Sunday, August 28, 6 pm
Ronald Stolk (St. Patrick's in the City, Washington), organ [FREE]
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church

——» Go to Classical Month in Washington: July.

Le Zapping

Jean Lambert-Wild, My Story is not a Loft, July 2005, photograph by Christophe Raynaud de LageI wrote a little post (New Piece by Jean Lambert-Wild, July 20) on the performances of Jean Lambert-Wild at the Avignon Festival. Apparently, I misunderstood exactly what Lambert-Wild had planned for his final performance there, where he is enclosed in a sarcophagus watching television. The piece is called My Story is not a Loft, a reference to the terrible French reality TV show called Loft Story. Lambert-Wild is enclosed in a sarcophagus for 48 hours, he is fed intravenously, and he does watch a television, and only the visitors can change the channel. However, if you pay 1 euro to change the channel and do so, you will also be administering a small electric shock to the artist through electrodes attached to his skin, as I learned in a review (Lambert-wild s'inflige le supplice du zapping, July 26) by Bruno Masi for Libération (my translation):

It is 9 pm on Sunday, and the director Jean Lambert-Wild is readying himself to go into his bottle, a glass sarcophagus three meters long. He will live inside it for 48 hours, while being fed intravenously. The mattress is covered with stuffed animals of all colors. Above he bid, there is a television. In front of the sarcophagues, there is a large red button: the visitor slides a euro coin into the slot and pushes the buzzer to change the channel. For one or two minutes, he can choose whatever program he likes. Each use of the remote control generates an electric charge that runs through the guinea pig's body. [...]

Seated on the edge of the fountain in the Saint-Louis cloister, Jean Lambert-Wild stares at the many photographers who have come to immortalize his submersion. Silent, he glues electrodes to his neck and stomach. Someone brings him a glass of water, and then he goes to his bed. Once the glass is sealed, the game can begin. As a sort of introduction to the project, Jean Lambert-Wild has written these sentences: "The media are not a medium for any life. Our television screens are the mirrors of a starved city that nourishes its children on the dejection of their parents. Thus are we drawn into an endless life of humiliation, where we haggardly never turn off our televisions, for fear of disappearing."
For some reason, he is also carrying a military rifle. I am surprised that anyone has had the guts to do this, but apparently they have. According to this article, people do change the channels, even though the shocks cause Lambert-Wild to writhe and grimace. Yikes.

29.7.05

Out There in Blogville

Here are a few things that have tickled my fancy lately at other people's blogs:

  • Danny Gregory is in Rome, creating wonderful drawings that are making me remember my latest trip there.
  • As Uncle Grambo put it so well, we will have hockey next season (hooray!), but we will not have Darren McCarty in a Red Wings uniform (boo!).
  • Le Monde correspondent Corine Lesnes, blogging from New York at Big Picture, parses a New York Times editorial by Paul Krugman about who has higher productivity at work, the French or the Americans. More vacation time, not surprisingly, makes people ultimately more productive. Get out there and fish, people! Spend some time with your kids, and stop selling your already pathetically small amount of vacation days back to the company for the cash.
  • I was not the only one to read and be interested by James Wood's review (Red Planet: The sanguinary sublime of Cormac McCarthy, July 25, 2005) of Cormac McCarthy's new book in The New Yorker, which was really more of a critical evisceration of McCarthy's work as a whole. James Tata had an interesting post about it. I didn't care much for All the Pretty Horses, which inevitably is what high school teachers began to assign their students to read, but I was blown away by Blood Meridian, one of the most violent but beautifully written books I have read in a long time.
  • We here at Ionarts have been patiently waiting to join the ranks of the big kids on the blogging block by getting mentioned in a real, honest-to-goodness newspaper article. (As I wrote here, being mentioned in the Santa Fe Reporter got us into Santa Fe Opera.) Well, it has happened again, in an article (A bravo season, July 10) by Sarah Bryan Miller for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In assessing the success of Opera Theater of St. Louis's recently concluded season (see my review of Gloriana there), she mentioned little old me as an example of "out-of-town" press coverage. True, we were listed without a hyperlink and with an incorrect URL, but we'll take what we can get. Thanks, Sarah!
  • One of the biggest laughs I had this week was from baritone Thomas Meglioranza, who is at the Marlboro Music Festival right now, at his blog Tomness, a conversation overheard "between a 20-something superstar piano virtuoso and a 13-year-old aspiring pianist/violinist."
  • George Hunka, who blogs at Superfluities, is taking piano lessons (hooray, George!). His reflection on practicing and playing one of Schoenberg's Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke sent me back to when I first encountered those pieces, when my teacher at Michigan State made me play all six of the damn things for a freshman recital. George compares them to Krapp's Last Tape, but I remember, when I had understood what Schoenberg was trying to do, that I felt probably the closest I ever have to how Jackson Pollock must have felt while splattering paint. The gestures are visceral, flinging sound with your arms.
  • Finally, MONSIEUR Lunettes Rouges is attending a summer course on Rodin at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris, lucky devil, and giving us his daily thoughts on that great sculptor. Here are the first five installments: one, two, three, four, and five. Yes, you will have to read French, but if you don't, you will still appreciate the pictures.

Apollinaire in the Air

Le Pont Mirabeau

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Under the Mirabeau bridge flows the Seine
And our loves
Is it necessary that it remind me
Joy always came after the pain

Let the night come let the hour strike
The days slip away I remain


Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)
Guillaume Apollinaire's book Le flâneur des deux rives (The wanderer of the two banks) is one of the best books in my Paris Reading Project, an investigation of the forgotten corners of the city Apollinaire loved. I've been meaning to write a little review for Ionarts but have not had the time. It's a great book. I am reminded of this, because for some reason there's lots of Apollinaire-related news lately. First, there was this article (Apollinaire, le guerrier amoureux, July 29) by Patrick Kéchichian for Le Monde, a review of a new, revised, expanded edition of Apollinaire's letters to Madeleine Pagès, Lettres à Madeleine (ed. Laurence Campa, Gallimard). Here's a brief excerpt (my translation):
"Not even the theater can give an idea of the terrible bombardment that purples the sky suddenly, of the whistling of the zeppelins passing by in the air like cars passing over a racecourse, of the rending explosion of the bombs and shells, of the insane crackling of riflefire, dominated by the nearby tac-tac-tac of the machine gun," wrote Apollinaire on December 10, 1915, to Madeleine. This reference to "the theater" is significant: aesthetics were part of the poet's perception. All of his letters, to one degree or another, are witness to a vision and carry it onto the stage of writing.

At the front line, as an infantry sous-lieutenant, Apollinaire knew what he was talking about. A few months later, on March 17, 1916, he was wounded in the head and sent home on May 9. He did not return to the front and would never be the same Guillaume ever again. He died on November 9, 1918, at the age of 38.
He was called up for service in January 1915, when he went to the town of Nîmes in southern France to join his regiment. On that train to Marseilles, where he went first, he met Madeleine Pagès, a 22-year-old literature teacher on the way back to her home near Oran. She edited the first edition of Apollinaire's letters to her, in 1952, which was "incomplete and notably expurgated." This edition presumably gives us all the naughty bits.

Madeleine was one side of Apollinaire's erotic coin in this part of his life (apparently he wrote many erotic letters to her, now finally available). Before going to Nîmes, he had been rejected by Louise de Coligny-Châtillon, whom he called Lou, and he also wrote letters to her. Finally, for Christmas vacation at the turn of the year before he was wounded, he took his leave and went to Algeria to stay with Madeleine and her parents. If only he had gone AWOL at that point, he might have written a lot more wonderful poetry.

Another article (Apollinaire à l'Honneur, July 25) by Aude Brédy for L'Humanité describes a performance, On July 22 in the Cour d'Honneur of the Palais des Papes at the Avignon Festival, by actor Jean-Louis Trintignant. He read selections from Apollinaire's poetry, including several of the poems he wrote to Lou, in alternation with music by Erik Satie, played by accordionist Daniel Mille and cellist Grégoire Kornulik. Fabienne Darge covered this event (Sobriété et vague à l'âme d'Apollinaire le mal-aimé, July 24) for Le Monde. You can find more of Apollinaire's poems here.

More Shadow than Light: Ionarts on Ferneyhough

Detail from Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee. Object of fascination for - at one point owned by - Walter Benjamin.


When ‘jumping for joy’ in honour of a known work, or holding it up to execration, you may be writing in accordance with the prevailing view or against it. Now suppose that you are urging your readers to amend the unfavourable opinion they entertain of works which you think highly of: you are promising them something positive, an addition to the range of their enjoyment. They may wonder at finding works which leave them cold described as thrilling and lovable, yet eventually be swayed by the inducement held out.

On the contrary, if you are trying to make people see that their taste and faith is at fault, the position is that you are holding out no direct, positive inducement: ostensibly, you are proposing, not to add to their stock of artistic pleasure, but to detract from it. The task is as graceless as that of taking a bone from a dog. […] Wordsworth is reported to have alleged that ‘a stupid invention, in prose or verse, is quite harmless’. Knowing how much smaller the average man’s capacity for and chances of assimilating music are than with literature and the other arts, how very much less varied his musical experiences are than any others, one could hardly say the same with reference to the stupid inventions in music with which the world is overrun. Judicious criticism, therefore, has a great and much needed part to play with regard to the extirpation of bad music.

(M.D.Calvocoressi, "Musical Criticism," 1931)
Last Friday, I saw Shadowtime, Brian Ferneyhough’s “thought opera” on the life and work of Walter Benjamin at Lincoln Center Festival. As the Star-Ledger wrote on July 10th, 2005, the festival has a way of “showcasing experimental new operas that likely could not find a home at a standard American opera house.” And experimental an opera Shadowtime is. Some might question whether it is opera at all, but that of course would be as silly as the claims (that I’ve heard) that Peter Grimes is not opera or, for that matter, should not be called art. Shadowtime is an opera, it is art… it is merely difficult art based on a difficult subject and with an aim (according to the composer and librettist Charles Bernstein) to target the engaged and thinking, rather than sympathetic, listener. I am not sure if “unreconstructed high modernism” would do any more to explain the opera than a summary of the nonexistent plot or the suggestion that it sounded like sheet music of John Adams sent through the shredder and randomly glued back together, but it is this critic’s best attempt to describe charitably the experience that has brought him the closest to physical pain ever experienced in a concert.


Other Reviews:

Daniel Schlosberg, A hero takes morphine, but it won't ease the pain (New York Newsday, July 26)

Fred Kirshnit, Shadows of Schonberg (New York Sun, July 25)

Anthony Tommasini, For a New Operatic Type, Complexity Rules (New York Times, July 23)

Bradley Bambarger, Ferneyhough's 'Shadowtime' -- Absolutely inscrutable (Newark Star-Ledger, July 23)

David Patrick Stearns, Daunting imaginary journey (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23)

Willa J. Conrad, New British opera provokes thought, not emotion (Newark Star-Ledger, July 10)

Anne Ozorio, BRIAN FERNEYHOUGH: Shadowtime, An opera in seven acts (Seen and Heard International, July 9)

Andrew Clements, Opera of the phantom (The Guardian, July 8)

Tess Crebbin, Life and Death (Music & Vision, June 3, 2004)
As the New York Times pointed out in an article on the subject of this opera on July 17th, Theodor Adorno defended difficult music as “having its own social value precisely because it teaches us to withhold understanding and therefore helps us resist the allure of false clarity in the world beyond the concert hall. Complexity, in other words, is a worthy ideal in art because reality is even more complex and dissonant than the thorniest work of modernism, even if politicians and the commercial culture reassure us that everything is simple, clear and harmonious.” But does that really justify the “ambiguity and often impenetrable surfaces” that Mr. Bernstein figures are crucial because of the opera’s subject matter? That impenetrability starts from the opening sounds. Street-scene-like, a cacophony arises with chattering aborted here and there, sparks of ideas that fade away as soon as they flare up. Before long the tones and musical sputtering settle in, though… attributable to the ear and mind-adjusting, I suppose, rather than the music relenting. And that is just Shadowtime’s – dare I say “traditional” – overture.

Language is employed as a formative element of the rhythm and music, but all a garble of German phrases, English sentence fragments, hissing, and hiccupping. Which might be arresting, if it were in the least bit new – which, full-blown modernism though it may be, it simply isn’t. If you’ve heard a fair share of modern works, vocal or not, then you’ve heard the truncated musical huffs, the upward surging lines, and other stock phrases that are almost identical in every second avant-garde work. (Especially those for solo flute.) The long guitar solo of scene II gave plenty of time to be mesmerized by a video loop of changing train-schedule boards… or at least ponder the point whether such music, such an opera, can convey anything (and if so, what) to its audience.


available at Amazon
B.Ferneyhough, Shadowtime,
J.Hempel / Nieuw Ensemble, Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart
N.Hodges, M.Scheidegger et al.
NMC

Somewhere between Scenes II and III (it seemed like an interlude at first), the bass Ekkehard Abele, who portrayed Walter Bejamin, sat in his chair, holding a cutout of Benjamin’s likeness in front of his face and did not move for over 20 minutes. The chorus hissed and hummed around in abrupt patterns. “Ideas are supposed to beget ideas” in these short-breathed musical phrases of Brian Ferneyhough (in accordance with Benjamin’s philosophy ), but all too often orderless complexity begets only numbness of the mind and other senses. Rather than preparing for the complexities of the real world, it seems to undermine our willingness to deal with any complexities whatsoever. Certainly the fair share of audience members who had fallen asleep by now were successfully avoiding present complexities.

At one point, marimba sounds accompanied a Walter Benjamin striptease, tempting commentary on the philosophical depth of seeing the layers of the impenetrable philosopher fall before us, down to the very nakedness of the man – if not existence itself. Well… its boxer-shorts at any rate. An anagram section in scene III (13 Canons on the Doctrine of Similarity) plays with the many possibilities of reassembling Walter Benjamin’s name. "Bann A Real Jew Tim" or something of the sort. The visually appealing backdrop with shadowplays and projections had, at times, a Monty Pythonesque character. The costumes of the chorus, various shapes yet uniform looking through the use of similar shades of blue, could have doubled as North Korean concentration camp garb.

Pianist Nicolas Hodges was swirled around the stage with his Steinway in scene IV (“Opus Contra Naturam”) as he performed fiendishly difficult music while reciting text. Brian Ferneyhough’s piano writing revealed no particular purpose or goal or inherent quality: it merely was… and therefore quite unlike the intellectually appreciable Boulez sonatas, or the gorgeous and telling Carter sonata, recently heard at the French-American Contemporary Music Festival. Humor was attempted with nonchalant combinations of highbrow phrases with offbeat delivery and the banal. After 90 minutes of sounds lacking any form resembling anything graspable, the very mention of a warmly familiar phrase like “knock knock” was able to score laughs of palpable relief. The pseudo-existential questions of the interrogations in Scene V (“Pool of Darkness”) were cute at times (“is it possible to know to have forgotten without remembering?”) but more often were as deep as “if 7-11 is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, why are there locks on the door?” Not terribly mind-bending, at any rate, even if this particular ‘conundrum’ may not actually have appeared in the work.

The backdrop for this scene was a collection of suspended red-and-black cutouts featuring a gargoyle (or headless ghoul, as the program tells me), three mouths (at least two of which come close to violating a trademark held by the Rolling Stones), a Nosferatu (actually Baal Shem Tov, disguised as a vampire), a screaming Hitler (“who considers the nature of existence”), a triple-headed hydra with Groucho and Karl Marx’s and a French bulldog's head, Pope Pius XII, a pipe-sucking Albert Einstein, one Joan of Arc, and a late addition of a peasant zombie (Golem).

The penultimate scene (VI) over “Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia (Second Barrier)” finally was poignant as all the behind-the-scenes elements of stage props, lighting, hydraulics, neon lights, etc. were revealed. This utter nakedness of the stage and the views into the wings it allowed, slowly, pulley by pulley, prop by prop, was a deconstruction along Brechtian lines that nearly made sense of the pondering tableaux that included phrases like “Truth / Is a gun loaded with a parachute,” “If you can’t see it, it can still hurt you,” “Whether what is is so because / Is so because it’s not.”

Without trying to be ungrateful, I think the performance fell into the "Happy to have been there, happier still not to have to go back" category. Brian Ferneyhough’s music, challenging our senses and tolerance, was mastered with the greatest imaginable aplomb by the singers and players of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, splendid pianist and reciter Nicolas Hodges, and guitar soloist Mats Scheidegger. Jurjen Hempel conducted; Frédéric Fisbach directed.

Freude schöner Götterfunken: Baltimore's Last Summer Thursday

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Calm Sea..., Mass in C,
J.E.Gardiner / ORR
Archiv

The final Summer Thursday Classics concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s series at Strathmore was a worthy finale, indeed. The 9th Symphony of Beethoven – one of the musical pillars of Western civilization – alone has the nobility and grandeur to make for an eminently uplifting evening. The most welcome coupling with the all too rarely heard Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Goethe’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt further sweetened the deal).

As the program notes (sadly without texts) helpfully pointed out, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is not the description of an all-ideal watery journey but rather contrasts the negative with the positive. A calm sea, when sailing was the way to get about on the seas, was the last thing you needed to get swiftly from A to B. It would have taken forever, and you better not have had perishable goods or impatient passengers on board. Get a good wind under those sails, though, and you’d have advanced speedily and happily, if roughly. Accordingly, the two elements in this work are calm and mourning for the first poem, wild and joyous for the second.


The BSO and Baltimore Choral Arts Society’s hushed entry was as delicious as the more forceful parts were rousing. Only in terms of clarity (and possibly diction) could the choir have improved; without the text, it was impossible to catch more than a few words. A minor quibble, admittedly, given the limited number of German speakers in the audience.

Some of the principal players of the BSO were not present – we assume that they are in Marin Alsop Appreciation Boot Camp – but that didn’t keep the BSO from following Jeffrey Kahane with agility and verve. I’ve heard bigger-boned ninths and I’ve heard more otherworldly openings (an entry that suggests, like Wagner’s Rheingold prelude – the very beginning of the universe), but there were no faults to be found. Wherever instruments had particularly exposed moments, excellent individual contributions (flutes especially, horns perhaps less so) could be registered. It was heartening that barely a seat was empty at an continuously impressive Strathmore hall that strikes me as slightly less booming than it had been in the first few months. Mr. Kahane took the work at a crisp speed (the 9th, alone among his symphonies, does not have metronome markings, which probably makes whichever chosen speeds less controversial than where there are retrofitted ones as in, say, the third symphony) leaving the Allegro in the Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso of the first movement, for example.

The second movement, separated from the first by well-meant if slightly misplaced applause, with its wonderfully modern, punctuated runs was superb fun and a truly Molto vivace. (If you want to check out how extremely modern that movement really is, watch A Clockwork Orange and listen to the Wendy/Walter Carlos synthesized version!) If the beginning of the fourth movement (Presto and Allegro assai vivace, alla Marcia) was not at the same level as the preceding three, it was due to individual instruments breaking out in a part where they should be part of a fluctuating whole. But even that was reined in quickly. The soloists for the performance were Indra Thomas (soprano), Barbara Rearick (mezzo), Michael Hendrick (tenor), and Michael Borowski (bass). The singers can make or break a performance of the 9th – here they did neither. Mr. Borowski certainly left nothing to be desired in terms of volume or sonority. But there was also an inappropriate vibrato that made the words and several phrases rather a mush. Nor were the other soloists’ voices distinctly in the service of the music but rather vice versa. Mr. Hendrick (whom I have heard quite a while ago in the NSO’s staged La Clemenza di Tito) was slightly better in that regard and if he didn’t present a great voice, he managed the challenging Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen admirably. The Choral Arts Society music director Tom Hall’s choir, heavy on female voices (67 vs. 26) thundered away with palpable delight and to impressive effect. And though outnumbered almost three to one, the men were hardly lacking in heft.

Even if the soloists turned part of the fourth movement into a vanity fair of vocal chords – humility would have befitted the singers more in this work than operatic flair and ego – it was not sufficient to drag down an entirely enjoyable and moving performance that should have caused at least a few moist eyes. Bravo.

A repeat performance will take place at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight at 7:30 pm.



The Ninth From the Can


So many recordings of the 9th exist that choosing one (why only one, anyway?) might be daunting. And then the question remains whether one wants the most inspired or fervent or beautiful or uplifting performance. Here are a few candidates for consideration along different lines of preference.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Sy.9,
W.Furtwängler / BPh
March 1942
Opus Kura

Historic(al) performances: Furtwängler remains one of the – if not the – most important interpreter of any Beethoven symphony and particularly the 9th. His postwar Bayreuth (EMI) and Lucerne performances are rightly famous. But most searing, truly chilling, and heart-wrenching are some of the wartime recordings. Performed in the knowledge that they might well be bombed mid-triad, these readings have an urgency that remains unsurpassed. You may also wish to read something political into a performance that calls upon all people to become brothers in the midst of fascist Berlin. The 1942 radio broadcast from (currently available on Music & Arts, Archipel, and Classica D'Oro, and Opus Kura) might be the best example. Probably not a ‘first’ recording due to the naturally limited sound quality, but once you know the work well, you should give it a try and listen through the hiss to the actual interpretation.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Sy.9,
L. Bernstein / BRSO + members of the Kirov O., LSO, Paris O., Dresden Stakap. NYPhil
DG

Historic, if not historical, is also Bernstein’s live Berlin performance (DG) in celebration of German unification. The record is titled “Ode to Freedom” as Lenny poignantly exchanged “Joy” (Freude) with “Freedom” (Freiheit) in the text. Not only appropriate given the context – the end of communist oppression for almost 20 million Germans – but also with a claim to would-be accuracy. As Jeffrey Kahane pointed out in his helpful, brief introduction, Schiller is said to have considered calling the poem “Ode to Freedom.” Perhaps he wasn’t too excited about another spell in prison and thought better of it…? The performance with strong soloists may not be the last word in recordings of the 9th, but it captures the excitement of a historic moment from the midst of our lives very well.

Karajan’s 1962 - and more so the 1977 version - are beautiful and offer polish without overdoing it as much as in his 80s recording (all DG). I always go back to the Abbado recording from the Salzburg Festival (live) with the Berlin Philharmonic and an outstanding cast of singers in Jane Eaglen, Waltraud Meier, Ben Heppner, and Bryn Terfel. On a mid-price Sony, I’d make it the library version, ahead even of a similarly priced, wonderful RCA recording with Günter Wand or the still-sublime first ever stereo recording of the 9th, Ferenc Fricsay's on DG.

For those who crave authentic instruments and performance practice, the Gardiner recording with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Archiv) is (still) the go-to disc. He, alone among his ‘performance practice’ brethren, pulls the 9th off without making it sound a poor and haggard relative of its more ‘traditionally’ interpreted versions.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Sy.9,
C.Abbado / BPh / Eaglen, Meier, Heppner, Terfel
(Salzburg, live)
Sony

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Sy.9,
J.E.Gardiner / ORR / Orgonasova, von Otter, Cachemaille, Rolfe Johnson

Archiv

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Sy.9,
F.Fricsay / RIAS / Seefried, Forrester, Haefliger, Fischer-Dieskau

Archiv