Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don’t “Listen to This?” Too much Ross in a review of Ross by Lebrecht

In a recent review of “Listen to This,” by Alex Ross, Norman Lebrecht is critical of what is not present in the book: dislike. Perhaps Ross should develop a third volume called “Don’t Listen to This.”

“Great critics are measured more by their courage to be disliked,” wrote Lebrecht, “by their capacity for dishing it out and taking the inevitable backlash, by their willingness to face the music.[…] The greatest critics do not mind being proved wrong.”

Critics do need to be independent and willing to state unpopular views. But is that the most important means by which they should be measured? This would be like defending the entries in Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” by noting that it took courage to express those views which have been soooo “proven wrong.”

“Eduard Hanslick,” writes Lebrecht, “is better remembered for caustically hating Wagner in 19th-century Vienna than for tamely admiring Brahms.” Maybe, but Hanslick also wrote that the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is music “which stinks to the ear.” Shouldn’t Hanslick be remembered instead for “On the Beautiful in Music,” one of the great early texts on aesthetics?

It is insights that one seeks, not likes or dislikes. Value judgment seems less important than rationale. I am less interested in what Ross dislikes than I am in his insights.

Many of the best insights in the Lebrecht review are positive:

“Ross is an avowed buff. He loves music with a nerdish obsession and he wants you to love it as much he does. […] Ross drew creative links between serious and popular music. Music is music, he argues. […] Ross is also credited with […] making new music an acceptable topic of dinner-table conversation.”

I would like to see Ross invest his charisma in deeper levels of analysis. To go beyond the journalistic into the kind of thinking represented by a book like “On the Beautiful in Music.”

Still, it is the educational potential in both books by Ross that makes them worthy. One imagines that people who are fascinated by other styles of music might pick up one of these Ross books and join the conversation with those of us who find energy, and relevance, in classical music.

I enjoy both Lebrecht and Ross; I am so sorry.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Insights on Don Carlo from Ferruccio Furlanetto and Simon Keenlyside

Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

This particular trasmission of Don Carlo, which was part of the Met Live in HD had aa rich collection of mid-production interviews with the cast. During the live transmission of Don Carlo, Deborah Voigt interviewed both Ferruccio Furlanetto and Simon Keenlyside.

She asked about Furlanetto about his motivation in the great duet between Philip and Rodrigo that closes Act II:

"Philip," replied Furlanetto, "in his court cannot find anybody that he can trust. He has a very bad relationship with his son [Don Carlo], and Rodrigo is the only man in his court on whom he can rely. He is the son he would have loved to have, instead of poor Carlos."

"Therefore it is the only moment in which you can see Philip opening his heart to somebody. You will never see it in the rest of the opera, except in the big aria (act IV scene I) when I am alone, and am opening my heart. But to another person this is the only time."

It is wonderful how Furlanetto switched from pronouns that signify his character to those that signify himself. Voigt asked Keenlyside what fuels the relationship between Rodrigo and Don Carlo:

"I must be manipulative," responded Keenlyside seemingly in character, "but not too manipulative. Because the ring-master in this piece is Philip. And this scene that you've just seen (Act II scene II) that through coercion, through persuasion, through flattery, Philip gets what he wants from the young idealist. An idealist and a zealot I must be. But at the same time, Carlos is fragile, and I want him to do something for me. I need him to maintain this pact we've had since childhood about freedom for Flanders. So I have to try to be manipulative as a character, but not too much so. I don't want to be in the same camp as Philip, otherwise I ruin the dynamic between the two of us."

Keenlyside is the inversion of Furlanetto--he starts in character then suddenly, and seemingly unconsciously, breaks free to speak about "the character." Voigt moves back to Furlanetto:

"This man, historically at that time," said Furlanetto about Philip, "was the most powerful man on Earth. Nevertheless he had terrible moments of solitude; he was just a normal human being. Therefore he is very happy because of the relationship he has with his son. [...] And of course there is this political turmoil in his brain because even though he is the most powerful man on Earth, he knows that the Church is over him. Every major decision will be made by the Church and not by the king."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Marina Poplavskaya; Verdi is so Russian! Her interview with Debra Voigt during Live in HD Don Carlo

Marina Poplavskaya and Roberto Alagna in Don Carlo
Photograph by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

One of the pleasures of the Met Live in HD is the mid-production interviews with the cast. During the live transmission of Don Carlo, Deborah Voigt interviewed Marina Poplavskaya.

Voigt began with a simple question. Why has drawn Poplavskaya to Verdi heroines?

"[He] is so Russian," she replied immediately. One can imagine the ripples of amused laughter that echoed in theaters everywhere as it did in the one in which I sat.

"Because you see the Russian composers and poets always went to Italy...We love each other; these countries." One thinks of Glinka who travelled there for several years in the early 1830s. Poplavskaya always gets the last laugh.

"I think the greatest acting challenge [in Don Carlo] is to stay calm. Verdi put in so many colors and every color is right so you have to choose right on the spot. [...] I find most of the feelings in my heart. But I must say it is not very pleasant to dig in my own trash [laughs]."

"I see [Elizabeth] as a woman. Like all Verdi heroine [she] is vulnerable, strong, and a great human being. I learn so much from Verdi's roles"

In the dramatic centerpiece of her role as Elizabeth, the fifth act aria "Tu che le vanità," Poplavskaya taught us about Verdi's colors. She taught us about endurance and grace.

"Se ancor si piange in cielo, (if there is still pity in heaven)"

She sang this central stanza quietly in F-sharp major with the high G-sharps in each line dolcissimo, as marked, and with unbroken legato line. Her sound floated.

"piangi sul mio dolore, (mourn over my sorrow)
e porta il pianto mio (and carry my tears.)"

Poplavskaya was especially gentle in these lines and connected the three note melisma on the word "porta" using portamento.

She succeeded in "staying calm." The rest of is did not. We burst into applause. Brava.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Elemental Don Carlo; Met Live in HD Review

The new Met production of Don Carlo was just transmitted as part of the "Live in HD" season in theaters all over the world. It was a production of efficiencies that magnified elemental elements to help focus the power of this Verdian masterpiece.

Producer Nicholas Hytner, who also directs London's National Theatre, and Bob Crowley who was the set and costume designer, worked together to streamline this colossal opera by focusing on a limited palette of colors: blacks and grayish whites, bright reds and golds. There were also innumerable crosses--some in plain view as religious icons, others cut into negative spaces in walls.

The messages were clear. Gold was authority, red was blood but also power.

[Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]

This streamlining was helpful in providing a visual analog to the saturated emotional lines that run through the music in this opera. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin kept the sound leaning forward and on the edge of falling over. The first two acts were also linked together through clever transformations so that the action left a compressed and restless impression. The Met orchestra sounded fabulous--even over movie house-speakers.

Don Carlo is opera that is frictionized through a checkerboard of duets between characters. As the development of this opera unfolded, it was the infrequent but extended solo arias that cut through and left us breathless.

Marina Poplavskaya sang Elisabeth de Valois. When we first met her she came onstage and pointed a rifle at us; she was an outdoorswoman--a force of nature. This production followed the five-act 1867 version of the opera, but opened without the chorus of woodcutters and their wives.

Poplavskaya and Roberto Alagna (as Don Carlo) clicked.

Elizabeth blossomed in her brief love with Carlo in the Forest of Fontainebleau, but then as she was promised to Carlo's father Philip, she quickly became a queen with issues.

Poplavskaya brought out the complexities of this role and her voice seemed to strengthen as the work progressed. She sang "Tu che le vanità" in Act five with devastating fluency and controlled quiet singing that highlighted the primal drama of one who longs for death as a release.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II was also impressive. He was able to reveal the complex frustrations of this character and received thunderous applause for his act IV solo "Ella giammai m'amò."

Alagna was impressive as Don Carlo. He was able, both through his singing and his motions onstage, to signify the illogical and impulsive motivations of Carlo and yet also made us care about him.

Simon Keenlyside brought richness to Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. He played Posa as the brains of the operation, always thinking one step ahead. His scene with Furlanetto at the end of the second act was riveting and made the dark side seem even darker.

Verdi wrote this opera an ending of mists and questions; one never knows quite how things will go down. This production took a definitive course consistent with its elemental colors and forces: the kings guard stab Don Carlo and he dies in the arms of Elizabeth. The natural course, even when violent, wins out over the supernatural in this memorable production.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rachmaninoff, Marilyn Monroe and Milan Kundera; A Fantasia

In the 1955 film called "The Seven Year Itch," the character Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell imagines that he is able to seduce "The Girl," who is played by Marilyn Monroe. The plan for the seduction: classical music.

Sherman rejects a disc by Debussy and passes over Ravel before finding Stravinsky. But upon reflection; "Stravinsky'll only scare her."

It is the second piano concerto by Rachmaninoff that if perfect. As the bell-chords that open the work move into the opening theme Marilyn Monroe comes into is a fantasy sequence.

She wears a tiger-skin dress and is smoking a cigarette. Sherman reclines at the piano in a smoking jacket that looks like it came from the closet of Hugh Heffner. The conversation is deliberately campy and fabulous:

"Rachmaninoff... It isn't fair... Every time I hear it, I go to pieces... It shakes me, it quakes me. It makes me feel goose-pimply all over. I don't know where I am or who I am or what I'm doing. Don't stop. Don't stop. Don't ever stop!"

This scene is a lovely parody of what Milan Kundera calls "Homo Sentimentalis" in his novel "Immortality:"

"Homo Sentimentalis cannot be defined as a man with feelings (for we all have feelings), but as a man who has raised feelings to a category of value. As soon as feelings are seen as a value, everyone wants to feel; and because we all like to pride ourselves on out values, we have a tendency to show off our feelings."

"As soon as we want to feel...feeling is no longer feeling but an imitation of feeling, a show of feeling."

"Europe: great music and homo sentimentalis. Twins nurtured side by side in the same cradle. Music taught the European not only a richness of feeling, but also the worship of his feelings and his feeling self."

It takes Marilyn Monroe to play homo sentimentalis to the perfect laugh.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thinking December 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. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

The editor chose subtitles that set the mood for each month. December was inspired by images of Christmas. An additional epigraph from Korney Chukovsky sets the mood:

Décembre: Noël
Once upon a Christmas night the girls were telling fortunes:
taking their slippers off their feet and throwing them out of the gate.

Tchaikovsky celebrates the holiday season with a festive waltz memorable for its hesitation on the third beat of the second phrase [0:18]. This "molto ritardando" emphasizes all three beats of the measure, but when the waltz tempo resumes we want to hear the measure as a hypermetric downbeat and yet it is an upbeat because it is the cadence of a four-bar phrase. Our sense of dancing is confounded. Pleasantly confounded.

This sense of being confounded is developed in the transition beginning at [0:34]. Ideas are sequenced and cycled, cut and folded. A measure is dropped [0:42] and we enter the contrasting waltz [0:46] propelled and worried about tripping.

"It is now December," wrote English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626), "and hee that walkes the streets, shall find durt on his shooes."

His entry, from "The Twelve Moneths," talks of hard edges and even of suffering. "Now Hennes, beside Turkies, Geese and Duckes, besides beefe and Mutton, must all die for the great feast, for in twelue dayes a multitude of people will not be fed with a little."

But his mood lifts: "Now plummes and spice, Sugar and Hiney, square it among pies and broth, and Gossip I drinke to you, and I pray you bee merrie."

What about last minute shopping in 1626? "Strange stuffes will be well sold, strange tales well told,strange sights much sought, strange things much bought, and what else as fals out."

"To conclude," writes Breton, "I hold it the costly Purueyour of Excesse, and the after breeder of necessitie, the practice of Folly, and the Purgatory of Reason. Farewell."
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