Sunday, March 17, 2013

Francesca Di Rimini; Zandonai's Opera of the Unspoken

"My life," sang Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca, "has more sorrow than I can tell."

This rich and fascinating opera by Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944) was saturated in the sense of the unspoken. As the opera progressed it increasingly articulated its central ideas through Wagnerian symbols of night and death as potential eternal union for its two central characters, Francesca and Paulo (sung by Marcello Giordani). 

And yet moments after they are both stabbed and the curtain falls comes the realization of the greatest of the unspoken elements of the opera--that we know these characters through Dante. Dante introduced them in Canto V of the Inferno where the souls of the damned were swept aimlessly by constantly raging storms in the second circle of hell. Francesca is allowed to break from the torment only briefly to relate her story. This fate is a horrifying distortion of the Wagnerian concept of Liebestod.

This production, by Piero Faggioni, is well-known from the DVD starring Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto filmed by Brian Large in the 1980s. The Live-in-HD experience provided the opportunity to measure a different, and very worthy, cast but also was an example of how much the technology of HD filming and the camera techniques that have become idiomatic in HD opera change the presentation of the opera.

The detail of the set was much more apparent Live-in-HD, and since the set was so rich and complex this was meaningful. The moving cameras articulated changes in color and texture on the set in ways that would not have been possible thirty years ago. The new angles and visual clarity summed and resonated with the now classic production.

In the act one intermission we had the opportunity to hear from the Met "Resident Costume Designer" Sylvia Nolan. She explained another aspect of the unspoken that was articulated through the original costumes designed by Franca Squarciapino.

"We pass through a lot of emotion in the opera," explained Nolan. These were translated by Squarciapino into colors and textures. "We start with something very translucent, full of light and gossamer [in the first act]. Then the color palette broadens in act two with warm and hot colors, which reflect the battles. Then we move into darker colors for acts three and four."

Nolan also described another feature of the costumes: Sqarciapino "quoted the silhouettes for the period [of Dante] however, in the decoration she actually quoted the artistic movements of the time the music was written...We see in the pattern of the embroidery the Art Nouveau movement and pre-raphaelite interest in bringing back their own version of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries."

"Lead me to my room and close the shutters," plead Francesca to her her sister just prior to seeing Paulo for the first time. "I need silence to calm me." This opera of the unspoken premiered on the edge of the first world war in 1914 has its own language for igniting the fearful boundary between silence and catastrophe.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Masterclass not to be Missed--Sarah Willis at Royal Academy of Music

Masterclasses are important to classical musicians. They provide an opportunity for students to break away from their comfort zone by playing for someone that they do not know well, someone who will give them new perspectives and fresh ideas.

Masterclasses are often inspiring. They are filled with the spirit of youth, but students display professional level skills, fearsome confidence, and eloquent grace even under the pressure of the circumstance. Most masterclasses are private--only a particular studio is allowed to view and observe the process. Public masterclasses tend to remain intimate and are often wonderful opportunities to gather insights about how pedagogy differs among various musicians.

We have all been invited to a unique masterclass on Thursday, March 14. This masterclass is not only public, it will be broadcast over the Internet. Sarah Willis will be giving a live horn masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music (14:30 London, 15:30 Berlin, 10:30 New York, 01:30 Melbourne). The class will be transmitted over her Live Hangout website, which has hosted a treasure of live interviews over the past several months with legendary horn players and other intriguing musicians and instrument makers.

I will be among those who will tune-in. Willis has created an environment where one can expect to be engaged, and I look forward to having the opportunity to observe her at work as a teacher. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to Live on Bread and Music; Thoughts on a Book of Poems by Jennifer K. Sweeney

Jennifer K. Sweeney (photo by Chad Sweeney)

I have taken to attending an odd store called "Savers" on the Post Road in Orange. Perhaps because it is close to New Haven it has a surprisingly varied collection of books. I have almost forgotten what it feels like to wander among books. The Internet has made the experience rare. The books are appealing because they are vaguely organized into categories like "classics" and yet they are still packed onto the shelves in complete randomness. Bright fluorescent light and ambient clatter makes the books feel abandoned. It is satisfying.

Today I discovered a book of poems written in 2009 by Jennifer K. Sweeney. The book is organized into five large numbered sub-collections that read like movements of a program symphony. A "Nocturne" opens the collection but stands alone, outside of its numbered movements. In this "Nocturne," she described a musician who sits alone and plays "a harp without strings."

"The world," she writes, "filters through || his empty frame as he plucks the air."

"Maybe you hear a song or maybe you don't.
That is the choice we are always making."

I heard a song. It was by Schubert (An die Freunde D.654). When the song had finished in my mind, I was already outside of the store. I had paid $2.12 and gave the cashier exact change.

The music that is actually sounded in the book includes a collection of italicized lyrics from songs by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez,Van Morrison, and Simon and Garfunkel among others. There is very little classical music, and yet neither is it excluded. There is a particular listening that is familiar.

The narrator of the second movement (called "The Listeners") learned music from "record albums" and shared the experience with a father who would "rush out to us begging someone || to hear what he's just heard." This capacity of recorded music to be repeatable, to cheat time by always fading into it but yet standing as an object ready to be shared at any time, saturates this wonderful poem.

The "trick of listening," said the father, is "to find the song that is autobiographical." How can this autobiographical quality come from a song written by someone else? Sweeney shows how we re-harmonize our past.

"Lights out, I listened and swayed,
trying to feel what saved him."

The narrator was "practicing for angst."

This likeable book of poems is filled with music, even when music is not specifically the subject. I was drawn to the collection and suspect you might be also, unexpected friend. In the meantime Sweeney suggests that we broaden our diet by adding bread to it.


Monday, March 4, 2013

A Meditation on March by Tchaikovsky, Nicholas Breton and Lev Oborin

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

March was nicknamed the "Song of the Lark." The elusive tune of the middle section [0:32], where graces work with syncopations to make the music seem airborne, is the passage that inspired this title from the editors. But this passage is an elaboration of the dialog between treble and bass in G minor that is not only the frame, but also an anchor that gives March meaning as a mediator between opposites.

The English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626) knew of these opposites and wrote about March in his book "The Twelve Moneths." "It is now March," wrote Breton, "and the Northerne wind dryeth up the Southerne durt [...] Now riseth the Sunne a pretty step to his faire height, & St. Valentine calls the birds together [...] the Ayre is sharpe, but the sunne is comfortable, and the day begins to lengthen." Sharpe Ayre but comfortable sunne; in this juxtaposition is Tchaikovsky's G minor.

Lev Oborin (1907-1974), was the first winner of the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition when he was twenty years old. He plays March quietly but finds lively clarity in the figuration and plays the rhythmic surface with clever consideration of deeper rhythmic currents. The camera hovers above him and makes us feel like ghosts. The shot seems motionless but is not. We are moving closer. This was planned. The increase in speed corresponds with increasing development and as melodic octaves signal the return [1:11] the closeup accelerates. By [1:39] we no longer see the piano or the hands of Oborin--just a formal quality of focus and concentration. The short quickly retreats during the final cadence which does not resolve as much as it fades outside of our hearing. The camera leaves us hovering.

We awaken: Now beginneth nature (as it were) to wake out of her sleepe," writes Breton, "and sends the Traveller to survey the walkes of the world. [...] It is a time of much worke, and tedious to discourse of: but in all I find of it, I thus conclude in it: I hold it a servant of Nature, and the Schoole-master of Art” the hope of labour, and the subject of Reason. Farewell."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Jungian Parsifal; Review of the Met Live in HD Production

François Girard’s production of Parsifal, seen yesterday Live-in-HD, was impressive. The production, along with a musically insightful cast and with fascinating conducting by Daniele Gatti, brought clarity of process to the work that allowed its musical webwork to emerge undisturbed.

The set for the first and third acts was divided by a shallow stream that separated two hemispheres that never mixed; one in which the male chorus, in white dress shirts, congregated to meditate. They were organized in patterns, most often circular, but also triangular and moved in highly synchronized gestures that spoke the language of ecstatic ritual.

Surprisingly there was also a silent female chorus who stood almost motionless, dressed in black, forming no patterns, positioned on the opposite divide of this brain-like set. Kundry emerged from and remained on this hemisphere throughout the act.

It was wonderful Jungian imagery of the Anima and Animus. The logical and articulate represented by René Pape as Gurnemanz and by Peter Mattei’s compelling portrayal of Amfortas. Kundry emerged from the non-patterned side and expressed a dream-world that assumed a clarified kind of strangeness in relation to the male side of the stage.

Jonas Kaufmann’s Parsifal was a study in the meditative process. He was dressed in black but walked among those on the articulate side. The dead swan was brought in from deep within the dark hemisphere but was brought the very edge of the divide. Pape reached across to touch the swan as he taught Parsifal why it was wrong to kill this innocent creature.

The Act II set was set in a blood pool several inches deep. It was both fascinating and disturbing; as the Act II set should be. “There is about 1200 gallons of blood onstage,” explained the Met’s Technical Director John Sellars, “it is water, food grade glycerin, and red food coloring.” He said that there were heating pads that radiate heat up through the liquid, which it put into the pool at a 105 degree temperature. Getting this liquid on and off stage was an amazing technical achievement, part of which we were able to view from the cinema during the intermission.

The Act III set was set in a place that seemed like T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land; it was an apocalyptical version of the set from Act I. There were no longer any patterns. The mute Kundry crossed over to the articulate side of the stage as she was baptized and Parsifal crossed to the inarticulate side during the Good Friday Music.

Katarina Delayman was able to fuse the demanding acting load required of Kundry with the laser-sharp pitch flexibility for which the part is infamous. Kaufmann was riveting as Parsifal. His ability to shape vocal colors at the extremities of volume and range was perfect for this role. And Kaufmann can act. I was particularly impressed by Pape: Gurnemanz is a character that does not often come quickly to mind when you think of this opera, and yet his music dominates the narrative. Pape brought a magisterial quality and attitude to the role and contributed with each gesture and glance; all of which we saw with the help of the HD cameras.

This production concept worked. It allowed a complex and slowly unfolding dreamscape to speak without distraction. The performance was filmed beautifully, the camera angles never distracting and often at the perfect place to balance close expression with larger stage context. Even the subtitles were well done, often worded to transmit the Schopenhauerian influences in the original German. The only disappointment was that the sound of the off-stage choirs at the end of Act I just sounded distant; there was no movement from the changes in elevation of that sound up and down as it happens when you hear the work live. These subtleties are among those that cannot yet translate into the cinema.

It takes years to properly learn the score to Parsifal. I learned it from a piano/vocal score and listened to it on LP. It was an advantage in a way, because so many productions distract from the central core of the music. This production and its performance clarified that central core and honored the music.

The curtain opened to a memorable scene. During the brass interlude of the opening prelude the stage was filled with characters staring curiously back at us in the audience, seen through a hazy dark screen. They seemed to generalize the audience for this music—the living audience, but also somehow the 130 years of historical audiences. In one sense it represented those on stage joining us in continuing to learn this work. In another sense we joined the tradition; joined its own sense of communion symbolized in part within the music.
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