Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Howard Gardner on Mozart's Figaro

"The Disciplined Mind," a book by Howard Gardner from 1999, pleads for consideration of what he considers to be the most essential purposes for education. He articulates three "realms" that he believes "should animate education:" truth, beauty, and morality.

His example from the realm of beauty is a trio from the first act of The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. Gardner admits early in the text that his choices for “realms” are personal and somewhat arbitrary, but by drilling down on his realms in stages throughout the text he creates a model for how an educator might develop their own examples.

Gardner has chosen an opera familiar to music lovers, but one which also presents considerable challenges. The Marriage of Figaro is long, and is one of the most complicated plots in the Mozart canon. Characters assume you know who they are, their backstory, and the nature of their intentions throughout this opera.

"Works of art, wrote Gardner, "call for many forms of understanding, at different levels of sophistication." Gardner asks us to understand the "choice of words," the "narrative sequence," and the way in which this opera deals with themes that were controversial at the time. He also asks us to seek to understand the music, "how it was constructed, which effects it achieves, how and why particular examples are wrought."

His presentation is mostly descriptive, and he divides the scene into nine sections. Here are Gardner's nine sections mapped onto the scene in the famous film of the opera by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle:

I. Agenda Setting [0:00]
"Each protagonist reveals goals (to himself or herself and to the audience)."

II. Susanna'a Alarm [0:47]
Gardner segments this section on Susanna's high A-flat where she "captures the attention of the men." A division created by the music rather than the text would start the section at the shift into F minor at [0:32], where Susanna begins to feel anxiety. There could also be a division at [0:58] with the shift into F major as Basilio and the count support her and "try to revive her."

III Recovery [1:25]
This section would also seem to start earlier than Gardner indicates, perhaps with the cadence at [1:16]. He marked the sectional change based on Susanna's first words rather than where the music itself shifts.

IV. Calming Susanna [1:33]
"Another key change, this time back to a stable 'home base' of E-flat."

V. Back to the Page [1:53]
"singing in an apologetic tone, with oboe accompaniment, Basilio backpedals on the gossip that he has been spreading about Cherubino's involvement with the Countess."

VI Banish the Page [2:15]
"All three protagonists refer to the page as 'poverino'--poor lad--in brief duets as well as in antiphonal passages."

VII What did Cherubino do? [2:34]
Gardner includes the "set of rising scalar tones" in which Susanna and Basilio ask the count to explain. Perhaps it would make more sense musically to simply start this section with the count's recitative [2:42] that explains what Cherubino did.

VIII Revelation [3:16]
The Count uncovers Cherubino under the blanket of Susanna's bed. "The orchestra joins in a lengthy A," writes Gardner "one long enough to allow the audience to appreciate the shocking discovery and to laugh heartily."

IX Three Tables Turned [3:19-5:05]
"Susanna, the Count, and Basilio," writes Gardner, "sing simultaneously, revealing their innermost thoughts to themselves and the audience but not, presumably, to one another." In this filmed version of the opera the trio takes place as if only the count was singing, and as if Basilio and Susanna are only thinking their parts.

Gardner challenges his students with this trio. It is a passage that is a mosaic of tightly constructed musical wit.

By using this passage Gardner gives us an example of a disciplined mind at work. It is not only a mind capable of internal rigor and discipline, but also one shaped by the "shopping mall of the disciplines." It is a mind that synthesizes ideas and that values creativity.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Back to School as Opera; a scene from Rossini

With a loud A-flat major chord that quickly becomes a german sixth, the music swings into C major. Rinaldo's friends have shown him his face reflected in a shield. He has spent so much time in the pleasure garden that he no longer recognizes himself. He is relaxed, wearing summer clothes, donning a hair wreath.

Like us, he has spent the summer away from University:

"What adornments are these," sings Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo [0:26], "what have I become?" His friends, Ubaldo and Carlo, have come to convince his to leave these illusions and re-enter his life as soldier on crusade.In one of the rare passages for three tenors in operatic literature, they all sing as Rinaldo warms in his realization.

Were there a fourth voice in this passage it would be mine. "Where did the paper for the photocopier end up?...My syllabus is almost finished." Perhaps, as a crusader, I have a more practical bent at this time of year.

In a magnificent vocal display, Brownlee takes the wreath from his head [5:10]. "I am still Rinaldo!" he sings [5:22].

We are all Rinaldo, still. And it is time to get back to school. Leave the pleasure garden. See you in class.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rhythmic Urges and the Bass Drum Solo in The Rite of Spring

"Keeping Score" is a series of programs centered on specific works of classical music created by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony. The series is articulate, charismatic and fun.

The episode on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring includes a section that explores the role of the bass drum in the "Danse de la Terre (Dance of the Earth)" that closes part one of the Rite [3:03]:

Jack van Geem, principle percussionist of the SFS [3:12], says the bass drum solo "is used for every audition that a percussionist has to take, because it is the first time that the bass drum is used in this way; as a solo instrument. What makes this piece stand apart from anything written before is that rawness and vitalness of the rhythmic elements."

The bass drum establishes a rhythmic field of triplets in this "solo." At first it is completely alone in this division; all the other parts subdivide in duple divisions, or are parts of quick gestures that divide in fives and sevens. Gradually the bass drum triplets attract, absorb, parts of these gestures; as one can hear in the brass and winds at [3:54-3:58]. At this moment the tam-tam gesture (supported by horns, clarinets and flutes) cuts across the triplets, and the bass drum seems moving with the current for the first time.

[4:00] "There really are no themes here," says Thomas, "it is all just a bunch of rhythmic urges that have been set down into different parts of the orchestra. Later [5:05], as Thomas highlights the violas and horns playing triplets, this is yet another configuration that is pulled into the vortex of the bass drum.

The cross-currents in this passage are articulated with great clarity by the San Francisco Symphony. "Everything drives on," says Thomas [5:31], "building and layering until it is just so crazy that it just can't be sustained. The rest of the band gives up with a bunch of whoops and shrieks." (The film is layered over whoops and shrieks from a russian folk ensemble to show similarities).

"Party's over," says Thomas [5:48], "Blackout."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bream, Stravinsky; and the Voice of God

"Stravinsky is waiting," says the voice of God.

Julian Bream (bn 1933) is introduced to Stravinsky. Bream brought the lute into the modern age. He also commissioned or premiered a significant repertoire of 20th century classical guitar music from composers like Benjamin Britten, William Walton, and Hans Werner Henze:

[0:23] "Julian Bream," says a voice from the Twilight Zone: "is the world's best player of the lute."

Bream has always wanted to play the lute for Stravinsky because Stravinsky found the lute "a beautiful and expressive instrument." Stravinsky had also become influenced by the sound of early music and had incorporated influences from composers as diverse as Gesualdo and Machaut into his music.

[1:13] "Would you like to see a lute?" Bream holds cheese in front of a mouse. What could possibly happen?

"Stravinsky is excited by the physical presence of musical instruments." Hmm. The voice is too serious to pull off a line like this one, which could be from the pay-per-view version of Fantasia.

Then in the midst of distractions from every corner [2:00], Bream starts playing a pavane based on the Air called "Flow my Tears" by John Dowland. The text upon which the lute pavane is based glows quietly, concealed deep within in the background:

"Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn."

This text is John Dowland's voice, and it is the real narrator for this video; "night's black bird" [2:21] set in G minor.

At [2:44] Bream skips ahead to the closing stanza of the original air:

"Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite."

In whatever way Stravinsky has become connected to this sweet and unexpected performance, one can be certain he is not so disengaged that he is contemplating experiences from his childhood in Russia. But if one can hear beneath the babble that the voice-over has become there is a lute singing quietly about the strange advantages of being in hell: one need not feel "the world's despite."

[3:35] "Why don't you continue this in the next break, because..." says the world.
"The world pays homage. [3:53]" says God...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Stravinsky to Audience: ----- "Go to Hell!"

They were strange times; tense. Any established order was shifting, unsteady, swaying. Things exploded on a Thursday evening: May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. There was an infamous riot during the premiere that evening of "Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)" by Stravinsky:

Stravinsky begins this clip by talking of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) who commissioned the early ballets by a young Stravinsky who was still largely unknown at the time.

Stravinsky's affection for Diaghilev is unconcealed [0:00-0:59]. He calls him "a kind of Oscar Wilde," which is a reference to his sexuality as well as his energy. He was "Oh...very elegant, very chic." Listen to the pop in the way Stravinsky pronounces the word "chic" [0:29]; it relays the charm and charisma of Diaghilev. Stravinsky chose to be buried near Diaghilev on the cemetery island of Venice: San Michele.

The young Robert Craft is featured on the next segment of this film [1:00-1:37]. He shares the insightful idea that the ballet form had been in a "barren period." Diaghilev saw that Stravinsky could revitalize the artform.

[1:37-2:04] Stravinsky talks Petrushka.

[2:05] The "historical scandal of Le sacre du printemps." Stravinsky describes the audience: "They shouted, [2:16] they whistled...from the beginning. [...] Then when the curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided lolitas jumping up and down; 'Danses des Adolescentes;' the storm broke."

Stravinsky, sitting in a chair in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées [2:44], recreated his impression of the evening: "It was full," he said sweeping his left arm, "of very noisy public. I [got] up, I said 'Go to Hell!' excuse me, monsieur, madame!"

The re-enactment: priceless.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

“Trouble in Tahiti, indeed! -----Trouble in Tahiti, imagine!"

"Trouble in Tahiti!," sings Nancy Williams in this great clip from the 1973 production by Amberson Video, "Indeed!"

Williams plays the character Dinah in this one-act opera by Leonard Bernstein written shortly after his marriage to Felicia Monealegre. He must have found its construction to be endlessly entertaining at that time, and he wrote both the words and the music.

The plot is about emotional isolation in the suburbs. This is a couple that has everything they could ever need; but they have lost themselves, lost one another.

In scene VI, Dinah has just come from a matinee and is in the process of getting a makeover. The beauty shop in this production is symbolic of transformation, but the text speaks in excited stream-of-consciousness. The music veers away from A-flat major, always to return until the Hollywood grand ending. The energy is playful, and if politically incorrect, at least its over-the-top:

[0:00-0:26] Opening Recitative
What a movie!
What a terrible, awful movie!
It’s a crime what they put
on the screen!
I can hardly believe what I’ve seen!

Do they think we’re a lot of children?
It would bore any four year old!
What drivel! What nonsense!
What escapist Technicolor twaddle!

[0:27-0:59] An exotic world: gongs, flutter-tongue flutes and other strange colors:
“Trouble in Tahiti,” indeed!
“Trouble in Tahiti,” imagine!
There she is in her inch or two of sarong
Floating, floating, floating, all among the
floating flowers.
[1:00-1:13] In A-flat major: Hot-cha, Hot-cha rhythms and syncopated thinking:
Then she sees him, the handsome American.
(I must say he’s really a man,
Six feet tall, and each foot just incredible!)
Well, they’re madly in love,
But there’s trouble ahead;
[1:13-1:20] A parenthetical musical detour through bVI (F-flat major):
Bernstein asks that it be sung in "South Pacific Accent:"
There’s a legend:
“If a princess marry white man, and rain fall that day,
Then the white man shall be sacrifice without delay.”

[1:21-1:32] Back on track in A-flat Major:
Sure enough, on the night of their wedding day,
There’s a storm like nothing on earth;
Tidal waves and siroccos and hurricanes;
And to top it all off,
The volcano erupts
[1:32-1:42] Nasal singing of a riff that sounds vaguely Gamelan [Eb,G,Ab,Bb,Db]:
As the natives sing: Ah! Ah! Ah! Olé!

[1:43-1:49] A parenthetical musical detour through bVI (F-flat major):
They go crazy with the drumming and the chanting and ritual dance,
While the lovers sing a ballad of South Seas romance.
[1:50-2:02] Back on track in A-flat Major:
It’s so lovely, I wish I could think of it;
Da da dee da da…
It was called “Island Magic,”
I think it was.
Oh, a beautiful song!
I remember it now:
[2:03-2:16] Island magic: also in bVI (F-flat major]
“Island Magic, where the midnight breezes caress us,
And the stars above
seem to bless us,
That’s Island Magic, Island Magic.”

[2:15-2:23] A parenthetical musical detour through bVI (F-flat major):
Well, in any case, the hero is tied to a tree.
(Did I tell you he’s a flyer
who got lost at sea?)
[2:23-2:36] Back on track in A-flat Major:
Anyway, all the natives are crazy now,
Running wild with lances and knives;
Then they pile up the wood for the sacrifice,
And the witch doctor comes,
And he sets it on fire.

[2:36-2:45] Gamelan-like riff returns:
As the natives sing: Ah! Ah! Ah! Olé!
[2:45-2:54] Detour through bVI (F-flat major) with fifes and military drums:
But at this point, comes the good old U.S. Navy,
A-singin’ a song.
They come swarming down in parachutes a thousand strong!
[2:55-3:18] Finale: Sudden shift to A major...bright as sunlight and faster!
Everything now is cleared up and wonderful:
Everyone is happy as pie;
And they all do a great rumba version of “Island Magic” of course!
It’s a dazzling sight;
With the sleek brown native women dancing with the U.S. Navy boys,
And a hundred-piece symphony orchestra:
[3:19-3:35] Island magic:(F major]“with background singers
Island Magic! Where the palm trees whisper together,
And it’s always warm summer weather,
That’s Island Magic,

[3:35-3:44] Island Magic in B-flat minor
Island Magic! With the one I love very near;

[3:44-3:44] Island Magic in G-flat major
Island Magic, Whispering native words in my ear.

[3:44-3:44] Island Magic Cadence that prolongs an E-flat dominant 7th chord
Island Magic,
Only you, my darling, could weave it,
And I never ever will leave it,
[3:44-3:44] Island Magic: deceptive resolution to F major
And I simply cannot believe
It really is mine!

[3:44-4:22] On its way somewhere else
Island Magic!
Island Ma…”
[4:23-End] Dinah suddenly regains focus and jumps back to the opening recitative:
What a terrible, awful movie!!!
How long have I been standing here chattering?
If I don’t get going this minute, there won’t be any dinner
When Sam comes home!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Intensities and meltdowns; Behind the scenes of the West Side Story Recording

The recording industry for orchestral music is a breeding ground for meltdowns, but was particularly so when recordings were done in live sessions without click-tracks. Orchestras are expensive and run by union regulations. Time is of the essence. Fifty people or more are listening, playing, observing--even when a film crew is not present.

This infamous film of the recording process for "West Side Story" from 1985 documents a fascinating series of obstacles.

It was intended to be Bernstein's signature recording of this work as a conductor. Under his supervision it would be authoritative. What happens when unfixable problems begin to surface? What happens as these problems seem to multiply and threaten to overwhelm the process? Bernstein drops the F bomb.

José Carreras was chosen to sing the part of Tony. Carreras is a gifted singer who has had a major career. But he was not used to the rhythmic language of this music. The English language is also extremely difficult to sing--even for a native speaker. Most people agree that the end product, while not perfect, has gorgeous moments.

Reactions to this video, as documented by informal responses on Youtube, run the entire gamut: pro-Bernstein, anti-Bernstein, pro-Carreras, anti-Carreras, and several combinations of two or more categories...

This clip is not a battle with a winner and a loser. It is a lesson in the dynamic of intensity, and how, even though it was not always delicate, things got done back then:

[0:00-1:41] A quiet and ordinary rehearsal with Carreras, a pianist, and Bernstein.
It is an ordinary day; details are being worked out. Bernstein is very complimentary to Carreras in the voiceover, recognizing that "Carreras is a fresh element; that I can tell you."

[1:42-2:25] The rehearsal is already running late and Bernstein is becoming increasingly impatient. He asks Carreras to take a breath at a very specific location in order to have wind to carry the rest of the phrase.

[2:26-3:28] "What happens!?"
Bernstein discovers that his markings were not transferred to the parts and vents anger toward his assistant.

[3:29-3:52] "Carreras, I'll never stop saying Carreras"
A pun that does not relieve tension for anyone else given the intensity of concentration.

[3:53-6:34] A run-through that derails. Carreras asks to work on three bars alone so that he can get his bearings. The rehearsal, already running late is stopped. Carreras reacts. Bernstein reacts. Bernstein lights a cigarette...imagine. "Such problems."

[6:35-6:52] "At that moment I was...not too happy" says Carreras.
[6:53-10:04] "One More Time"....."Great Take."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Don't be frightened, Mr.Gould is here: Bernstein vs. Gould: 1962

The New York Philharmonic performance on Friday, April 6, 1962 became legendary. It has rolled downhill to create 48 years of water-cooler conversation.

Glenn Gould had ideas about tempo relationships between sections in the Brahms first piano concerto that differed so fundamentally from the current performance practice that there was no way to find common ground with conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein respected Gould as an innovator and as a "thinking performer," so he did not cancel his own performance. He came upon the idea of distancing himself from the interpretation by making prefatory remarks.

The ethical implications of these remarks are still being discussed. But they show Bernstein at his most charismatic and charming, with his best line being delivered at [2:10]. Still, he was always able to frame complicated ideas with clarity and great diplomacy.

Bernstein's first remark was to confirm that Gould would be performing and had not cancelled at the last minute:

[Radio Broadcaster:]
"The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould is to be soloist now...Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic...in a performance of the piano concerto No. 1 in D minor by Brahms. [applause] I think Mr. Bernstein will have something to say to the audience...so, down to the stage:"

[Leonard Bernstein:]
[0:26] "Don't be frightened...Mr. Gould is here. (audience laughter) [He] will appear in a moment.

[0:32] I am not — as you know — in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two.

[0:46] You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I've ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms' dynamic indications.

[1:09] I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception. And this raises the interesting question: "What am I doing conducting it?" (chuckles) I'm conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist, that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.

[1:40] But the age-old question still remains: "In a concerto, who is the boss — the soloist (chuckles) or the conductor?" (laughs) The answer is, of course, sometimes one and sometimes the other depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together, by persuasion or charm or even threats (brief laugh) to achieve a unified performance.

[2:10] I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept, and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. (extended laughter).

[2:27] But this time, the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.

[2:41] So why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why do I not make a minor scandal — get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct it?

[2:53] Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much played work; because, what's more, there are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist who is a thinking performer; and finally because there is in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call "the sportive element" (chuckles) — that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment, and I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week (chuckles) collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto; and it's in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Art of Fugue in a Novel: An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth's novel "An Equal Music" is a fabulous account of a violinist haunted by his past.

The Art of Fugue develops as a symbol in the book as his quartet undertakes a recording of the complete work. The idea materializes after the quartet plays Contrapunctus I as an encore. Michael, the second violinist of the quartet in "An Equal Music" described how it happened:

"I have made a small adjustment to the Tononi backstage. I now check it almost silently, and tell it not to let me down.

Normally Piers would announce the encore. Instead, he and the others look at me and nod almost imperceptibly. I begin to play. I take my first two notes on open strings, almost as if they were a transition from tuning into music.

As I play the first few slow notes I hear from different points of the dark hall the indrawn breath of startled recognition. After my four lonely bars, Piers joins me [0:16], then Billy [0:24] and then Helen [0:31].

We play almost without vibrato, keeping the bow on the string, taking open strings where they fall naturally, even if that means our phrases do not exactly replicate one another's. [...]

As I move to the tiny quaver, the minuscule quibble of a note that was the source of all my anxiety, [1:16] Helen, who has a rest here, turns her head slightly and looks at me. I can tell she is smiling. It is the F below middle C. I have had to tune my lowest string down a whole tone in order to be able to play it."

Michael refers to the second 8th of the third measure in the second violin part.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Milan Kundera on Bach's Art of Fugue

Milan Kundera drew the theme of the "Art of Fugue" in his own hand to support his meditation on the work in his "Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky," from his "essay in nine parts" written in 1995 called "Testaments Betrayed." Not only the notes but the staff itself was drawn; with quick fast motions. Kundera has a musical hand.

Kundera imagined the history of music dividing into segments at the age when polyphony gave way to the classical style. He heard the Art of Fugue as a "symbolic apogee" that closed the first segment.

"I like very much," wrote Kundera, "Hermann Scherchen's orchestration and recorded interpretation; for example Contrapunctus IV, the fourth single fugue:"

"Immediately, at that slow tempo," wrote Kundera, "the whole of its unsuspected melodic beauty is revealed...what I hear is...elusive, unmemorizable, irreducible to a brief phrase, a melody (an entwining of melodies) that bewitches me by its ineffable serenity."

He views the emotion created as being meditative: in Bach we "contemplate a beauty of being that is outside our moods, our passions and pains, ourselves." He contrasts the romantic melodic ideal which makes us "plunge into ourselves, feel the self with a terrible intensity, and forget everything outside."

The speculative serenity that caused this work to seem "outside ourselves" led Wilhelm Rust, during the preparation for volume XXV of the Bach Gesellschaft, to conclude that it was a purely theoretical work. Even as late as 1896, Jadassohn suggested that the voices be conceived as imaginary; that the work was not meant for practical performance. Consistent with Kundera's inspiration, at the height of the romantic age it was not possible to imagine that this work could even sound.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bruce Berger; Musical Poet

For a long time now I have carried around a collection of poems by Bruce Berger called "Facing the Music." It was an unexpected find in a old and quiet used bookstore on the upper west side in the late 1990s when quiet old used bookstores existed.

The biographical statement on the back flycover said Berger "attended Yale University and did graduate work in English until, "wondering what Crater Lake looked like in the snow, he left academia for good."

It did not say that he was a musician. No need.

There are musical insights in these poems. A schematic called "Opus 28, The Preludes" invokes each of the twenty-four preludes with the actual keys listed along the outer left and right margins:

"The agitated aftervoices pour
Their Chilling pulses and harmonic shocks
Into Chopin's closing music box,
Saving one hid fuse of energy
To detonate death's thrice-resolving D."

The margins show that the first two lines summon the g minor prelude, the third line invokes the F major prelude and the last two two lines the d minor prelude.

In his poem called "Enigma Variations," Berger explores the meaning of "gone." It was a lesson he "had to unlearn:"

"Now nears that someday when I should understand,
The master tune, we probably agree,
Is memory,
All sound mere variation. I buy
New releases, a fresh try."

Other imaginative poems contemplate the "secret laughter" of an acquaintance who had given the poet a copy of Gaspard and committed suicide years later, "And tough little Scarbo, who dances and disappears."

There is a poem called "Late Sibelius" that voices silences and "after-silence:"

"Disconnections brought to a final ripeness
In the full silence of the awaited Eighth
Promised, denied, destroyed. Or never begun."

At the close he gives advice: "Put this down and listen to late Sibelius."

My favorite is the final poem, "These Arias." It is a melancholy meditation about the "inflammation of the unceasing lastness / Of every untorn thing." Berger says that these disappearances repeat "useless the way Addio / Runs through Italian opera:"

"Goodbye old car.
Forgive tomorrow's absence, fond cafe.
Poor faithful chair, abandoned at Goodwill.
Any you, unexpected friend. Addio. Addio."


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Don Giovanni as fiction; a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann

On March 31, 1813, an anonymous story appeared from a writer on the verge of discovering a voice, hidden among his other talents, that would directly influence fiction about classical music for better than a hundred years.

"Don Juan: A Fabulous Incident which Befell a Travelling Enthusiast," is a short story shaped as a letter written in dream-language by an unidentified composer who has summoned the spirit of Donna Anna during a performance of Don Giovanni.

In 1813 E. T. A. Hoffmann was among the first to write beyond plot description about this opera; he attempted to grapple with its indeterminism. Hoffmann was not explaining the meaning of the opera, but instead letting fiction explore and develop one corner of a possible interpretation. He used variables from within the libretto to inspire a new fiction.

In Hoffmann’s story Donna Anna was raped by Don Giovanni before the opening scene.

“The fire of a superhuman sensuality, a fire from hell, surged through her being and she was powerless to resist. Only he . . . could arouse in her the erotic madness with which she embraced him.” This is the reason she will not let him escape in the opening scene. Hoffmann views her interaction with Don Ottavio as surface gesture concealing a broken reality underneath.

In a lovely and poetical book from 1975 called “E. T.. A. Hoffmann and Music,” R. Murray Schafer states gently that “numerous commentators have pointed out that Mozart’s opera does not possess the qualities Hoffmann read into it.” But Mozart’s opera does not exclude corollaries built off from its own inherent indeterminism. Fiction, an independent medium, creates its own potentials.

Like the opera that sounds throughout and inspires the attitude of the fiction, the story is organized in two parts. First, the narrator hears a live performance of Don Giovanni. We are given detailed musical c[l]ues as to his continuing progress in listening.

He is aware of a presence in his private Loge; it is Donna Anna, dressed exactly as she appeared onstage. Inexplicably, he even felt her presence behind him as she was singing onstage during the masked terzetto scene. During intermission he engages her in conversation, then hears the remainder of the opera caught in her web.

The second “Act” of the fiction proceeds without formal marker. It reveals the reaction of other, less sensitive, less informed members of the audience. Then the narrator reveals himself as writing the letter to Theodore in the empty darkened theater.

“A warm, electrifying breath glides over me.”

The story closes around a fantastic collection of alignments: as the clock strikes two, the narrator completes his letter. This is the time, "due della notte," mentioned by the Don in scene twelve as he enters the graveyard to await Leporello. And we discover in the final words that it is in an exact synchronicity with the time the actress who sang Donna Anna dies. "Due della notte" becomes the portal back out of the opera’s strange perfect unison.

Fellow blogger Douglas Robertson translated this story in 2008.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Don Giovanni as film; the overture from Losey 1979

Don Giovanni can be an intoxicant. It speaks of sexual freedom, of high-spirited escapades, dances, wine, and an escape into a moonlit cemetery. But it also speaks of reckoning. Murder, broken lives, obsession for revenge, and supernatural retribution fuel its dark side.

Is Don Giovanni himself a playful comedian who attempts but seldom attains? Is he a villain to be despised for self-absorbed, scheming lies? Has he committed rape? He is dragged to hell by the ghost the Commandant—not for his sexuality—but for murder, and he does not repent in the face of damnation.

So, which is it? The debate continues. Da Ponte and Mozart created the first indeterminate opera: dark, light or both simultaneously. Meaning depends upon cumulative effects; a mixture that has proven to be infinitely faceted.

This famous version of Don Giovanni made in 1979 by Joseph Losey (1909-1984) develops mixtures from the possibilities of film. In the overture, anticipation is developed as preparations are made, candles lit. We get our first look at the Don, played by Ruggero Raimondi, as he comes toward us, walking past without recognition. A crowd follows. The horizon darkens and the famous chromatic lines are harmonized with dizzying visual effects.

The allegro molto is set as an entrance to a masked ball near a glassblowing furnace. It is as if Don Giovanni is visiting hell on earth to gauge what the end of the opera will hold.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Randy Schoenberg and Hilary Hahn

Violinist Hillary Hahn has been an advocate for the Schoenberg violin concerto in an age that has seen far too few performances Schoenberg's post-Verklärte Nacht works. She makes Schoenberg's music seem fun.

This light-hearted but clever interview introduces us to Arnold Schoenberg's grandson, Randy, who asks her the questions that Arnold Schoenberg asked Louis Krasner (1903-1995), the violinist who premiered the work in Philadelphia on December 6, 1940:

First, one cannot help but notice the resemblance between Randy and Arnold. So cool.

In a detour during her second question, Hahn develops an important idea [0:53]: "sometimes you have to work on it...so the orchestra relaxes enough to not play too loud. [...] When an orchestra doesn't know a piece very well, sometimes they will play louder and stiffen up, and it sounds better when its more flexible, and lighter."

It is also true that one of the most characteristic aspects of the orchestration in this work is the almost complete lack of octave doublings. An unusual number of unisons, often of radically different colors, are piled-up and present real challenges to intonation. These sonorities take time to hear and manage.

In the third question [1:09], "hauptstimme," or "primary voice" is a term and symbol that Schoenberg frequently marked in his 12-tone scores to help clarify complex textures. He felt that it was no longer always possible to surmise where these primary lines were in a work not based on traditional tonality.

Randy inserts his own question into the mix [1:32] about whether the hauptstimme is always marked in the solo part. There are certainly many places where the violin soloist is not the hauptstimme, according to the score itself.

[3:14] "The whole thing holds together," says Hahn, "and the whole thing is enjoyable to play. Hopefully that carries over to the audience." With an advocate as charismatic as Hahn, this concerto has had the opportunity to speak to a new and wider audience.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me; by Sheila Hayman

"Almost nobody knows about it," says Sheila Hayman, "I only know because it is also the story of my own family."

Felix Mendelssohn was her great, great, great, great uncle, and in her documentary "Mendelssohn, The Nazis and Me" Hayman has written and directed a probing documentary on "mysteriously shifting identities" that changed in the intersection of religion, history, culture and ancestry.

In this DVD, which was released on Kultur Video, Hayman finds analogy in metamorphosis as portrayed in the Shakespeare play "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Mendelssohn was drawn to this play and set some of his most famous music as incidental music. "The story in the play," said Hayman, "became Felix's own story."

"The play's theme of transformation," said Larry Todd, "is knitted right into his music." Todd, from Duke University, works us through the way motives from the opening four chords morph into melodic strands used throughout the work. "The idea of metamorphosis and new identities being mixed up and being corrected," said Todd, "is something [Mendelssohn] probably would have reflected on, in terms of his own situation, in figuring out who he was."

The documentary reflects on Moses Mendelssohn who entered the city walls of Berlin at age 14. "Once he is inside the city," says Norman Lebrecht, "he is almost immediately liberated because he has come into the world of enlightenment, where the curious can educate themselves and become thinking members of society." Her father's cousin Cecile loved Moses Mendelssohn because he "found common ground between people," says Hayman.

The film explores the connection between Mendelssohn and Bach, both musical and historical and meditates on musical "professions of faith." Jeffrey Sposato contemplates the implications of common early 19th-century German text setting practices that portray depictions of Jews in very negative terms. What does it mean when Mendelssohn follows this practice in the Saint Paul oratorio?

In his book on the Bach Cello Suites, Eric Siblin writes of a more famous instance in the St. John Passion by Bach. "Might Bach," wrote Siblin, "ever have known a Jewish person?"

Stephen Isserlis explores "moments of Judaism" that are juxtaposed with Protestant music. The third movement adagio of the second cello sonata according to Isserlis, "starts with a Christian chorale [played by piano alone], then the cello enters with a line like a cantor; a cantor improvising. And then the piano restates its chorale with the cello making Jewish comments on equal terms. And then, to my great pleasure, the last phrase...the piano has been converted, and we hear the Jewish line from the piano."

But it is not so simple. The film delves into the concept of "mischling," the Nazi scheme of classifications for partial Jewish ancestry.

The resulting patterns created from the overlay and juxtapositions of music, dark times in human history, and one family's very personal struggle for identity make this a documentary that is memorable and worth seeing.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Adele Marcus; an early recording of Rachmaninoff

Several recordings made by pianist and master teacher Adele Marcus in the 1940s were just made available on pianist Jeffrey Biegel's website. One of the most striking is a performance of the opening movement of Rachmaninoff's second concerto, led by conductor Alfred Wallenstein.

The concerto opens [1:00] with bell-like chords that require enormous stretch. Marcus breaks them, common enough, but also accents the break rather than trying to hide it. Exposed, honest and confident, it created a syncopated feel that gave these chords a jazzy sway.

She voiced the bass with clarity [1:23] during the dark march of the first theme group, and found ways to voice phrases that articulated a sense of struggle overcome through a determination to be heard.

The second theme group [3:10] is a lesson in how to advance lyricism. The singing quality of touch that Marcus used allowed her to embrace detail without losing large gestures and motions. The interaction between the piano and the oboe and clarinet at [4:38] is haunting and leads to cadence [4:54] that absolutely floats. And...

(In case you happen to be a millennial or have not had the pleasure of playing discs like these on an old turntable, the interruption you hear at [5:26] is the end of the first record that comprises this recording. You can hear the needle tracking again after the second side has been placed at [5:35]. This recording required three 78 rpm discs. One can hear the tensions between how this music resisted and fought a technology that tried to contain it, and yet how that same technology managed to preserve it for us to hear today.)

[5:41] just like that we continue mid-thought toward the development.

The opening bars of the development are the only extended place where the piano is silent. The fleeting transitory music of the exposition is developed before ringing repeated chords [7:05] lead us to the recapitulation.

The sound that Marcus produced in this section is thrilling, and the tempo pressed slightly faster [7:38], to allow the piano to break free from the march. There is something very consistent, and personal, in the way Marcus created this moment from potentials within the very first chords that opened the movement. Very powerful.

One of my favorite moments anytime I hear this movement is the surprising gesture at [9:08] when we expect the clanging transition, but in one of the great surprises of the movement get a horn solo in A-flat. This music sinks back to G major (V) at [9:38]

Then, the twilight moment of the work. The memorable tune of the second theme group is altered, varied, teased, and barely recognizable—yet it is there. It is music that holds its breath. The fast music returns [11:08] to close the movement, but meno mosso at first, taking time to regain its speed as if snapping from a daydream.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Adele Marcus; early recordings made available

Big news broke yesterday with the word that several early recordings by the legendary teacher and pianist Adele Marcus (1906-95) were available to hear in mp3 format on her former student Jeffrey Biegel's website.

In the obituary written for her by Bernard Holland, Marcus was called "teacher to two generations of outstanding pianists." Most of us know her through the echo of a significant list of former students: Byron Janis, Jeffrey Biegel, Santiago Rodriguez, Jeffrey Swann, Neil Sedaka, and many, many others.

We also know her through a book of interviews published by Paganiniana in 1979 called "Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus." Now for the first time we can get to know her playing directly.

She was born in Kansas City, Missouri to Jacob B., and Rebecca Marcus who immigrated from Russia in 1886. She was born into a large family; she was the thirteenth child. The 1920 census finds the family living at 906 East 25th Street in Los Angeles, near Griffiths street, on a location that is now a parking lot.

Her older sister Rosamund (b. 1900) was also a pianist and the two frequently performed together. An article from Clavier magazine in 1976 indicates that the two were able to pay for their own lessons and even bought a small grand piano with the proceeds of their private concerts.

Marcus dropped out of high school after her freshman year and moved to New York to study with Josef Lhévinne at what was then called the Julliard Graduate School. She also studied musical composition with Rubin Goldmark.

In 1928, in only the fourth year that the competition had existed, she won the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Award, and was able to give her New York debut in Town Hall in February 1929.

The unnamed review from February 26th in the New York Times called it "the most promising debut of the season." She played the Liszt sonata in B minor, "and short works of Brahms, Chopin, Scriabine and Albeniz" along with the French Suite in G major, which she played "with notable warmth and color."

The review described her playing: "Her tone is warm, her style fluent and stamped with the authority which reveals a sound technical foundation."

Then the unexpected: "She began an encore, but after a few bars suddenly stopped playing and left the stage. She explained later that she had risen from a sickbed to fulfill her engagement and had felt herself on the verge of collapse after completing her arduous program."

She studied with Schnabel in Europe and then began touring. She became Lhévinne's assistant for seven years and joined the faculty of Julliard in 1954 where she taught until her retirement in 1990.

"Fluency and charm were present to an unusual degree in the superior playing heard from Adele Marcus at her piano recital in Town Hall last night," read another NYT review from 1937. "Miss Marcus could make her work sparkle and glitter..."

Now we can hear it sparkle and glitter for ourselves.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I'm American. I'm eclectic: Renée Fleming

In an interview between Renée Fleming and Paula Zahn that originally aired on Sunday Arts on April 22, 2010, Fleming described herself as a "voracious musician" centered by her interest in learning.

After a brief discussion of Fleming's performance on opening night of the Met 2008-2009 season, Zahn opened a new thread by quoting from an article written by Matthew Gurewitsch in the New York Times on October 22, 2009. Fleming said:

"I was constantly being pushed toward a European ideal of what it means to be a classical or opera singer, let’s say in the Renata Tebaldi mode. I reject that. I’m American. I’m eclectic. I’m going to follow my musical passions."

Fleming deflected with oft-repeated stories, but she reengaged in her discussion of the opera Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss. She demonstrated her "voracious" interest in learning new roles, guided by planing and strategy, and tempered by the "eclectic."

She performed the Marschallin in several productions "and I said: I'm going to put this away now, I can sing this role later, and focus on much higher repertoire. I focused on Manon, Traviata, Thaïs, that I knew I wouldn't be able to sing later." But she lights up when she thinks of the Marschallin, "It was so wonderful to come back to it!"

There is a lovely articulation of the passage of time in Rosenkavalier: "There is something strange about time," sings the Marschallin in soliloquy, "day follows day and time is like nothing, but one day it happens, and all you feel is time."

Time led Fleming back to the Marschallin. She had absorbed this opera to such an extent that her increased sense of being "authoritative in the part" was more deeply harmonious and sympathetic than she realized.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reading Traviata; Opera in Fiction

Marcia Davenport was the daughter of the legendary opera singer and early recording artist Alma Gluck (1884–1938). Just two years before her mother's death at age 54, Marcia published a novel called "Of Lena Geyer" that develops the life story of a soprano with many similarities to her mother.

Early in the novel an infamous vocal coach named Pizzetti begins to improvise after an informal diner in his New York apartment. Lenzka, who with her mother had followed him to the new world from Prague:

"One evening they were talking about Traviata, with Pizzetti sitting at the piano. He began the introduction to "Ah fors' e lui che l'anima," making comments about the Violetta he had heard the week before.

She should have done it this way," he said, playing, and presently he found Lenzka standing at her elbow. Her lips were moving and her fingers clasped tight together. He looked over his shoulder and nodded his head.

'Cone on, Lenzka,' he said. He played with his left hand and beckoned her with a circling motion of his right arm. 'Come on, sing.'

She began, piano, with a smoothness that Pizzetti said made his insides melt. He thought she had probably never seen the score. She had heard it in Prague and had probably heard him talk about the right way to sing it. How she knew the words he never stopped to think. Actually she had picked them up down on the East Side where everybody walked around singing Verdi arias. In the same way, as a child, she had picked up the German words of Don Giovanni in Prague. As time went on he was to marvel more and more at her extraordinary memory.

She sang through the first part; then at the change to F major she let out "A quell'amor," in full voice, childishly unconscious of what she was doing, but standing like a statue with her head thrown back and her big chest expanded. Pizzetti said that something inside him curled like fire licking at a log. He said her voice was not so big but alive and glowing with force that almost frightened him. Its quality was earthy."

The place in the opera that is quoted is near the end of Act I [1:07] in this recording:

The "change to F major" happens at [2:16]. This is a significant moment in the opera because Violetta is quoting the tune, and key, that Alfredo sang to her in the waltz-duet earlier that evening. The same music is used in act three in G-flat major as Violetta reads the letter from Germont and moments before she dies it is heard in the orchestra, played in A major.

Davenport uses this theme as a form of vocal discovery comparing musical discovery with the discovery of love through this reference to Traviata.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Would You Traviata? Which answer would you give to your prospective father-in-law?

You are in love. You meet your prospective father-in-law for the first time. He stops by when your lover is gone.

He says that because of your past his youngest daughter will not be accepted by the new family into which she is marrying. He asks to you abandon your love.

Do you:

1. Tell him he confused your show with The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

2. Open a pre-marked chapter in the book "How to work with people you hate."

3. Remind him that you don't speak English.

4. Agree and comply immediately.

If you answered No. 4 you are Violetta in La Traviata. Continue reading this blog entry, but first take a moment to check-in with your primary care physician. We will wait for you:

In Act Two of La Traviata, Violetta agrees with Giorgio Germont, who is the father of her lover Alfredo, to abandon her relationship because it would be best for his family. She also believes that through this sacrifice she might be forgiven for her past as a courtesan.

The aria, Dite alla giovine (Go tell your daughter), sung in this clip by Mirella Freni from a 1973 film of La Traviata, is the place where Violetta articulates her sacrifice. The music makes for a powerful case of building intensities.

The interjections made by Germont [1:22], here played by Sesto Bruscantini, indicate that because of the emotion, because of the music, he realizes for the first time how great a sacrifice he is asking her to make. Hmmm.

Why does Violetta agree to do this, and why does she agree without even talking with Alfredo? Is this an impulse that is particular to the 19th century or does it continue to exist in the text-message age?

Monday, August 9, 2010

More Informal Traviata; Netrebko and Villazón

Today I am thinking about Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón rehearsing the opening of Act II for the 2005 Salzburg Traviata--in bathrobes.

Director Willy Decker envisioned the opening of act II with both Alfredo and Violetta onstage, even though it is is traditionally set for Alfredo alone. The change creates a thread of humor and irony in his lines and with Netrebko around the recitative can be made full of interaction and playful colors:

"Life is so idle," said Alfredo, away from Violetta! Three months have passed since she deserted Paris, abandoning her pleasures, her lovers, and all those brilliant parties, where she reigned over countless admirers."

It is great to have the opportunity to hang out with singers of this calibre at a time when they are rehearsing, calculating ideas, and simply stretching into possibilities. The stage is in the process of being constructed and has not been painted. It looks like they are singing in the Home Depot.

The singing continues with the Andante. "Now she is happy," sings Alfredo, "living in this country." And when he sings the next line; "Living only for me," Netrebko slips away from his embrace and disappears.

"Life has new meaning," sings Alfredo as the music shifts suddenly into D-flat major. Netrebko reappears on the other couch, seducing him.

Shifting meanings and attitudes. Having fun. Opera.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

La Traviata on The Odd Couple 1971

"Dick...," said Felix Unger, "...Mr. Dick."

He had just been introduced [1:53] to Baritone Richard Fredricks in a classic episode of The Odd Couple from its second season that aired on November 5, 1971. But surely that was the last of the bizarre double references to sexuality...

"He's got a million dollar throat," says Unger to Oscar. "I don't suppose you'd favor us with one teeny selection, would ya?" Unger asks Fredricks. "No relax Oscar," replies Fredricks [2:07], "I wouldn't be in this business if I didn't have a little ham in me."

Ahh, the 70s.

And there, in sweats, the great Richard Fredricks sang the second verse of "Di Provenza il mar, il suol" from La Traviata, on television screens all across America:

Fredricks sings without translation and without transposition [2:35]. He sings for more than two minutes and knocks every high G out of the park as Oscar listens with his baseball cap turned around backwards. He walks over to the two girls who are models at the Unger photography studio, and sings the second stanza to them directly: "With you so far away [my] house is filled with misery." It becomes a snapshot of the juxtaposition of opera high culture stereotypes and American popular culture. It remains weirdly funny and poignant forty years later.

Ah! il tuo vecchio genitor (Ah, your old father --)
tu non sai quanto soffrì! (You don't know how much he has suffered!)
tu non sai quanto soffrì! (You don't know how much he suffered --)
il tuo vecchio genitor (your old father!)

Te lontano, di squallor (With you far away, with misery)
il suo tetto si coprì. (has his house become full.)
il suo tetto si coprì. (has his house become full)
Te lontano, di squallor (With you far away, with misery!)

Ma se alfin ti trovo ancor, (But if in the end I find you again,)
se in me speme non fallì, (if hope did not fail within me,)
Se la voce dell'onor (if the voice of honor)
in te appien non ammutì, (didn't become silenced in you,)
Ma se alfin ti trovo ancor, (But if in the end I find you again,)
se in me speme non fallì, (if hope did not fail within me,)
Dio m'esaudi'! (God has heard me!)Dio m'esaudi'! (God has heard me!)
Dio m'esaudi'! (God has heard me!)
Dio m'esaudi'! (God has heard me!)
Ma se alfin ti trovo ancor, (But if in the end I find you again,)
se in me speme non fallì, (if hope did not fail within me,)
Dio m'esaudi'! (God has heard me!)
Dio m'esaudi'! (God has heard me!)

But there is more complication. At [5:25] we discover that Fredricks was injured in the baseball game he played with Oscar. There is a wonderful WHA,WHA,WHA,WHA.... on the soundtrack. Opera and sitcoms...who knew?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The "Notorious Dr. August" meets Brahms

"Life is eternal," writes Dr. August, "but lives are short." Novelist Christopher Bram sent Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd into the world in "The Notorious Dr. August," written in 2000. "Perhaps," writes Boyd, blind narrator who is an improvisational pianist inspired by spirits, "the music is the true story and my words merely a way of beating time."

In a passage of quality imagination, Dr. August hears Brahms play:

"I attended the Kurhaus concert that evening, alone, [...] it had been announced that Brahms himself would perform. I had forgotten all about Brahms. There was no orchestra in the pavilion that evening, only the composer at the piano—short, square, and babyfaced—-and a quartet of string players. They performed his Piano Quintet in F Minor, spacious and dramatic. Brahms disliked concertizing, and his arpeggios were a bit rusty, but it was of no matter. I can be quite nasty about other musicians, yet I did not sneer that evening. His quintet was all of a piece, the instruments equal, their playing unmarred by showy displays. They wove a single skein of changing colors, emotional, thoughtful, intimate, the short musical phrases combining into long, elaborate sentences. [...]

He swayed like a bear at the keyboard, tensing into each transition, making endless faces. He was notorious for being critical of his own compositions. I sat close enough that I could actually hear him grumble and groan as he played. The other musicians swarmed and blended around him, intensely alert to Brahms and each other, a coven of musical conspirators.

They came to the slow movement, "Andante, un poco adagio," and I recognized the wander of notes: It was the passage I'd heard during my walk with Isaac, when Brahms blew smoke bubbles and I thought my world was solid. I sank back into my own troubles again, yet the music continued to move me, not just the music but the situation of its making. Five people made it together, a family of friends, a sonorous little utopia. [...]

There were the racing rhythms of the finale, a descent into a home not quite a home, and the piece ended. Brahms and his friends took their bows and applauded each other, the string players thanking the composer with a grasshopperish tapping of bows against music stands. The audience hurried off to cafés and restaurants. I remained in my chair, stranded under stars and mountains, thinking about music, thinking about life. Art seemed a beautiful consolation, but could it set right all that had gone wrong in my life?

I needed to think at a piano. A keyboard would concentrate my thoughts."

Dr. August thinks through the performance; improvising on the same piano that Brahms had just played. "If my emotions were too deep for tears," writes August "they were not too deep for a piano."

Brahms discovers him playing. "'We are wondering,' said the bearded friend, 'if you find your lost chord.'"

When you get the chance, look through this book. It will reward your efforts.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Conversation in a hall of mirrors; Schumann's adagio and allegro for horn and piano Op. 70

The "Adagio and Allegro" for piano and horn written by Robert Schumann in 1849 needs to be heard for what it is not.

It is not a work for natural horn--it was conceived for a technological advancement: valves. Natural horns could produce sound with notes from a single overtone series. Players quickly learned to alter this series to add extra tones to the palette, but the instrument became associated with fanfares, processionals, and hunting riffs.

The "Adagio and Allegro" confronts this persona in its first gesture. The opening line begins without introduction, quietly, in the world of altered tones possible with valves:

The adagio is conversational but its patterning is elusive. In the first stanza the piano answers the horn [0:14] with a compressed gesture in 8th notes. Both lines are set in dizzy-speak.

In mirrored balance the horn [0:22] develops the piano line and the piano [0:29] develops the opening horn line. It is built in an XY-YX pattern.

The continuation is set in echos and despite the gentle lyrical colors the music spirals dangerously away. Finally the horn line locks into D-flat major [1:33] and triplets begin to stir the surface of the music. The way back home is not the way we came. Though some shapes look familiar is it by means of alleyways and narrow passages that we return home to A-flat major at [2:38].

In an effective performance the closing section can simulate floating; its gentle syncopations and cadenza-like horn lines grounding mirrors and echos.

The Allegro is constructed as a rondo in seven sections:
Part 1 [4:00], Part 2 [4:29], Part 1 [5:10],
Part 3 [5:40] in B major,
Part 1 [6:37], Part 2 [7:07], Part 1 [7:47]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tonal Arousal; Carmen at Met Live in HD

Elīna Garanča can channel Carmen. Her performance filmed live on January 16, 2010 made the rounds in the "Met Live in HD Summer Encore Series" and has been broadcast on the Great Performances Series on PBS.

Garanča sang with sexual magnetism and developed a very believable chemistry with Roberto Alagna. In the Seguidilla from the end of Act One, Garanča displayed her charms:

The tonality is as elusive and playful as the physical suggestion of Garanča. The key is B minor, but it is articulated strongly in the dominant until the thought of the inn "Lillias Pastia" swings us into D major [0:12]. A flamenco progression takes us for the first time to B minor with a tonal motion that trips like Alagna [0:24]. The smile of Garanča at this moment is the smile of Bizet himself.

The second verse explores D major by draping chromatic lines across a strong pedal bass. The music begins to dissolve. Garanča blows a breath across the register on Alagna's desk [1:12]. The music is blown into a cadenza-like passage that leans and relaxes.

The first stanza is echoed [1:31] but then the pattern is suspended. "I'm not talking to you," said Carmen, "I'm singing to myself. And I am thinking--it's not a crime to think."

But she is not just singing. She is not just thinking.

She sings unexpectedly in B-flat minor [2:45] in a tonality dark and vibrant, spontaneous and erotic. Don José asks if she will love him in this same key--one-half step low.

The suspended pattern continues as the second stanza is echoed [3:49] in B major. The resolution that arcs across the span from when this music was heard in D major is tonal arousal in purest form.

Garanča sings an unwritten cadenza at [4:05] to articulate the culmination released in one final motion of Seguidilla. Alagna swallows the final high B in a kiss.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How sowre sweet Musicke is; Thinking Rhythm

Ha, ha? keep time: How sowre sweet Musicke is
When Time is broke, and no Proportion kept?
So it is in the Musicke of men’s lives:
[Richard II., Act V sc.5]

The soliloquy of King Richard II, imprisoned in Pomfret, is interrupted and altered when he hears music outside his cell. He has lost his throne and will be executed in a matter of moments by Exton. His time will be broken. Richard’s thoughts channel through sound to observe a relationship between rhythm and proportion. It is not the decoration of a musical surface but is a proportion that creates expectations and guides experience.

Another insightful observation about rhythm was set within a book that insists on the development of a personal experience with works of art: “Art as Experience,” by John Dewey. In this book, rhythm is seen as a product of nature:

“Rhythm,” argues Dewey, “is ordered variation of changes.” It is hard to imagine a more chiseled and inclusive definition.

“A gas that evenly saturates a container,” writes Dewey, “a torrential flood sweeping away all resistance, a stagnant pond, an unbroken waste of sand, and a monotonous roar are wholes without rhythm. A pond moving in ripples, forked lightning, the waving of branches in the wind, the beating of a bird’s wing, the whorl of sepals and petals, changing shadows of clouds on a meadow, are simple natural rhythms. There must be energies resisting each other. Each gains intensity for a certain period, but thereby compresses some opposed energy until the latter can overcome the other which has been relaxing itself as it extends. Then the operation is reversed, not necessarily in equal periods of time but in some ratio that is felt as orderly. [...] Such is the generic schema of rhythmic change.”

The first stage of understanding rhythm, then, is to recognize variation. Variations marks time and Shakespeare’s “proportion” can be “kept.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thinking Mozart; Vesperae solennes K.339

Mozart wrote his Vesperae solennes de confessore K.339 at the age of 24, in the aftermath of discovering that the world was not quite ready for him yet.

He had essentially quit his musical job working for Count Colloredo in his hometown, had almost gotten his father fired in the process, and left for Paris seeking his fortune with his Mother as chaperon. He stopped in Mannheim along the way, and immediately fell in love with a soprano named Aloysia Weber. Accordingly, using post-adolescent logic, he wasted time and resources, and pressed the patience of his parents hoping to stay there.

Fortune finally persuaded him to move on to Paris, where he made all attempts to impress nobility and to find musical employment. Late in June his Mother developed a high fever, and died on July 3. This single event shook and changed him, in the midst of the realization that he would never receive a substantial offer for musical employment in Paris. He left for home embarrassed, depressed and bewildered.

On his way back, he stopped for consolation from Aloysia Weber, only to discover that she had forgotten him, and was already seeing someone else. Two years later, he married Aloysia’s sister, Constanze. His father had managed to plead with the Count, begging forgiveness for his son and eventually getting him his job back. It was in the year following these events that the Vesperae was created in Salzburg, for the Count.

The Vespers were a traditional part of the Roman Catholic liturgy, within the Divine Offices; which were services designed to take place from dawn through dusk. The Vespers were the seventh of eight offices comprising this worship, and were celebrated at sunset. It was the only office for which concerted music was allowed by the Church. The Vespers consisted of five psalm texts (#110, 111, 112, 113 and 117), a hymn, and it culminated with the Magnificat (which is the Canticle of the Virgin Mary from Luke 1:46-55).

Other composers set the Vespers, or adapted its texts in their own way both before and after Mozart, including Monteverdi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. Mozart set the complete Vespers twice (K.321 and K.339) both of which are in C major, and both leave out the hymn to create a six movement design. Six years earlier he had also set the Dixit and Magnificat texts in C major K.193.

Known during his lifetime primarily as an opera composer, the influence of operatic style was often present in non-operatic works by Mozart. It is fascinating to hear how Mozart infuses a sacred text with the spirit of opera, while still maintaining the strict and proper religious spirit of the times demanded by Count Colloredo. The operatic style is often introduced with music given to soloists. In the Dixit Dominus, in the midst of the contrasts, organizational complexity and juxtaposed styles, the soloists introduce an operatic style briefly and subtly in the final section, where they preface the re-presentation of music heard earlier in the movement with music and style unique to themselves. The middle section of the Confitebor is like an operatic scene, and is given entirely to soloists. In the Beatus Vir and the Magnificat, soloists alternate with the choir. Soloists, and operatic qualities are lacking only in the J.S. Bach influenced Laudate Pueri, which in its austerity helps to prepare the jewel of the collection, Laudate Dominum, set as an operatic aria for the soprano soloist.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rachmaninoff in Valhalla; directions to where he is buried in Westchester

It is surprising to imagine that the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff is buried on a hilltop in the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. The cemetery is about 30 miles from Manhattan.

Set your GPS for 273 Lakeview Avenue, Valhalla, NY 10595. When you arrive on Lakeview ave you will cross railroad tracks. Take the second left onto Uncas Ave. Turn right almost immediately onto Seneca Ave and follow it up the hill. Seneca curves to the left as you proceed.

Take a sharp left onto Pocantico and stay straight up the hill. As you proceed you will see the Actor's Obelisk to your right. Advance to the roundabout and bear right onto it. The Rachmaninoff site is on the outside of this rotary, just after you pass Katonah Avenue.

There are few indications in the Rachmaninoff literature about why Kensico was chosen over other possibilities. In 1992 the Times ran an article on the cemetery that is focused by the Rachmaninoff site. Roberta Hershenson interviewed Boris Nikitin, who had written a film script for a Russian television documentary on Rachmaninoff. When Rachmaninoff died in 1943; "someone told his wife this was a nice place," said Mr. Nikitin in that article. Since there was no way to transport the body to Switzerland or Russia in the midst of World War Two, Rachmaninoff ended up near Valhalla; in Kensico.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Thinking August with Tchaikovsky

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.

The editor chose subtitles that set the mood for each month. August was inspired by the "song of the harvest." An additional epigraph was given based on a phrase from a poem by Aleksey Koltsov:
"The harvest has grown,
people in families cutting tall rye down to the root!
Put together haystacks,
music screeching all night from the hauling carts."

August is full of fiery intensity and can be a spectacular showpiece. This performance is by the young Natalia Bezuglova, a Russian pianist who has already started to attract attention on the competition circuit.

August oscillates. Twice the opening section shifts between the vibrant chords of the opening measures to the widely spaced bass [0:06] of the second four measures. This phrase pair then oscillates to a syncopated development [0:15] which is stretched to five four-bar phrases before returning to the first theme [0:31]. The music breaks from oscillation [0:37] to create a cadenza closing for this section.

The central section is a collision: D major appears without warning. Gentle lyricism and extended rhythms seem super-charged after the aerobic energy of the music we have heard. Oscillation is developed by altering it toward dialog, with descending lines [1:01] balanced by rising lines [1:12], then a tow-bar ideas are echoed between the hands.

The return [2:18] becomes another oscillation.

"The pipe and the Taber is now lustily set on worke," wrote English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626) about August, "and the Lad and the Lasse will haue no lead on their heeles."

His entry, from "The Twelve Moneths," talks of harvests and reaping in August: "the new Wheat makes the Gossips Cake [...] and the Garland of Flowers crownes the Captain of the Reapers...In summe, for that I find, I thus conclude, I hold it the worlds welfare, and the earths Warming-pan. Farewell."
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