Monday, February 28, 2011

Little Star; Mussorgsky invokes music of the past

Mussorgsky had an uncanny ability to shape the simplest of materials into highly individualized musical constructions. One can observe this gift in almost every detail of his first surviving song, written at the age of 18 in 1857. Called "Gde ty, zvjozdochka," this song title is often translated "Little Star" in English.

The text is based on parts of a short poem by Nikolai Porfiryevich Grekov (1810-1866). Grekov was a misfit who eked out his living as a translator. Never highly respected, his poems nonetheless were set with some frequency by composers like Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein.

Gde ty, zvjozdochka, (Where are you little star?)(akh,) gde ty, jasnaja? (Ah, Where are you pretty one?)
Il' zatmilasja (Or are you covered)
tuchej chjornoju, (by a dark cloud)
tuchej chjornoju, (dark cloud
tuchej groznoyu? (dark, and menacing?)

Gde ty, devitsa, (Where are you maiden?)
gde ty, krasnaja? (Where are you fairest?)
Il' pokinula (or have you abandoned)
druga milogo? (thy beloved)
Druga milogo, (thy beloved,
nenagljadnogo? (one and only?)

Tucha chjornaja (A black cloud)
skryla zvjozdochku, (covered the little star)
Zemlja khladnaja (Cold Earth)
vzjala devitsu. (covers my maiden)

I've arranged the lines differently than they appear in anthologies to show that they are comprised of 5-syllable groupings. We have lost the ability to think in poetic meters, but the ancient feel communicated by this formality is structural to the setting: the texture of the piano writing evokes the bard's harp.

Mussorgsky varies the emphasis of each 5-syllable set using melismas that allow the lines to float. The second line contains an extra exclamation common to the oral tradition and heard from time-to-time in the Milman Perry recordings.

The song opens with an unaccompanied piano line; a most unusual texture. One might expect a line like this to be doubled at the octave below, perhaps set against a simple drone. The spareness evokes broken loneliness.

The chords in the opening stanza explore the relationships between progressions by fifth and linear motions in thirds, particularly as the section approaches its cadence.

The middle stanza [1:09] brightens into the relative major with rustic drones and internal cadences on the mediant (the dominant of the larger tonal structure).

There is a wonderful collision as the last pitch of the central section rests on F-sharp [1:56], which becomes a dissonance as the music shifts back into G-sharp minor. Somehow our minds find a resolution that is unvoiced; a powerful symbol within the matrix of images in this song.

The final stanza [1:57] alters the pattern established in the first stanza. The powerful crystal-clear high G-sharp [2:23] sung and sustained clears away a space for the final phrase to quietly flow. The music shifts to the parallel major as the death of the maiden becomes clear to the listener [2:48], and as soon as the major tonality is understood it is taken away [3:00]. The highest note of the piece is the minor third, voiced in octaves on B-natural, just before the closing line.

This song intentionally invokes a music of the past to illuminate a grief that remains connected to nature. Its realizations come through images of stars and clouds and finally of Earth.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Met Live in HD Review; Iphigénie en Tauride. An Opera of Opposites that Attracted

Stephen Wadsworth's production of Iphigénie en Tauride did not start with music. It started with the opposite of music; a silent dream. In the dream Iphigénie recalled that she was sacrificed by her father in order to gain favorable winds for the army to sail back from Troy. The Goddess Diane descended on a cable. Seconds later she and Iphigénie gracefully ascended until they vanished from sight. Then music; momentarily calm and sweet in D major.

More than simply detailing the back story, Wadsworth helped us to feel these events from the past in the present. When the storm music in the opening orchestral passage broke we were reminded of the winds that motivated the dream-like sacrifice we had just witnessed.

There is no overture to this opera. The opera opens with the opposite of an overture. Susan Graham, as Iphigénie, sang her opening lines; "Grands dieux! soyez-nous secourables!" within the energy of the storm itself. This production made an important distinction: this is no ordinary musical is a storm of emotions.

Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride is an opera immersed in the darkest psychology of guilt, mourning, and the trappings of unfolding consequences. Emotion and its opposite: fate.

The intensity of the emotional states required a patient, slow unfolding that, in perfection, would hover just north of boredom. Wadsworth kept us in the right places without distracting from an essential stillness. Yet he also interjected fascinating projections, presented a ghostly visitation by Clytemnestre who is able to magically embrace both her children from within a barrier wall, and he also silently re-enacted the family murders that torment Orestes and Iphigénie.

"Perhaps more complicated than the plot of our opera today is the health of the Met singers," said Met General Manager Peter Gelb in a special announcement just moments before the Live in HD transmission started. "Both Ms. Graham and Mr. Domingo have been suffering from bad colds...[but] they are bravely soldiering on. However, the occasional cough from the audience might be supplemented by one or two from the stage."

One would never have guessed that Graham was working against a cold. Her voice was clear and still flexible as it came pouring into the movie theater. One could hear interference in Domingo's voice, but it was still a pleasure to hear him sing this role. Tenor Paul Groves, apparently healthy and singing Pylade, was also able to convince with effective and lovely lyrical colors in his voice.

The act two ballet/pantomime of the furies was done without dancing or pantomime. Orestes is not supposed to be able to see these furies, they torment him on a purely psychological dimension. But we are supposed to be able to see them; and we did not because Wadsworth chose to have the music sung off-stage while we focused on Orestes. This unnecessary inactivity made the second act seem too long.

Yet, I found it curious that the chorus 'Contemplez Ces Tristes Apprets' was not played just before the close of the second act. It is gorgeous music and was cut. In this sense intermission also came too soon.

Conductor Patrick Summers took quick tempos that produced a buoyant quality. He took the act one aria for Iphigénie: "O Toi, Qui Prolongeas Mes Jours," at such a quick tempo that the music felt like a dance. Graham benefited from these tempi and was able to shape phrases with delicious rhythmic delicacies.

Graham and Domingo had great chemistry and the third and fourth acts further intensified as a result of their ability to interact. When Diane descended from the rafters to call the action of the opera to a close it felt balanced and strangely logical.

Iphigénie en Tauride is an opera where all the main characters escape alive; where there is no comedy at all, no romantic entanglements, no courtesan, no seductress, no masks. It is an opera about the opposite of opera.

But this opposite attracted.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Recitative from the Shostakovich Aphorisms; A short meditation on February 25

1. Recitative

There is hope of a better time not farre off, for this in it selfe is little comfortable: and for the small pleasure that I find in it, I will this briefly conclude of it: It is the poor mans pick-purse, and the misers cut-throat, the enemy of pleasure, and the time of patience. Farewell.

Nicholas Breton understood February. This short quotation about February, from a work written just before he died in 1626, was called “Fantasticks.” Breton saw the cyclic year with immediacy, a wheel in turns tender and treacherous. Unsafe.

Dimitri Shostakovich wrote the opening movement of his Aphorisms, Op. 13 for solo Piano, on February 25, 1927. “I conceived these pieces in the beginning of February,” he confided, “while I was going to bed, in Berlin. During that time, I was thinking a great deal about a particular law of nature, that served as an impulse for composing Aphorisms, which are all united by the same idea. I don’t want to say right now what that idea was.”

"The waters now alter the nature of their softnes," wrote Breton "and the soft earth is made stony hard: The Ayre is sharp and piercing, and the winds blow cold."

Not from within the language of opera, Shostakovich's recitative sings the language of the unconscious: a series of cabaret gestures, broken toys, floating within a chromatic stream. It closes with syncopated dancing music. No point in articulating a unifying idea during February.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thinking LA Phil Live in HD; The March 13 Program

I encourage you to try something different...something a little 21st century:

On March 13 the LA Philharmonic will continue its new "Live in HD Series" in selected theaters. You can find the location closest to you on this site.

There has been significant discourse about the pros and cons of hearing an orchestra simulcast played through a movie theater sound-system. We are given to experiencing live orchestral sound as a complexity akin to sonic wine-tasting. "I thought the sound ineffective," wrote Mark Swed, "the concert experience dulled."

I can understand Swed's complaint; hearing a live event that is simulcast is different from hearing live sound. One loses the seemingly infinite delicacy of live sound anytime it is processed. But for me the overall experience was not dulled. Without the transmission I would not have had the experience at all. The new medium created a new availability.

One still gets a sense of shared experience with Live-in-HD. We had gathered.

Like Swed, I also attended the first transmission of the LA Phil Live in HD in January and reviewed the event here on Sonic Labyrinth. That program featured a tasty performance of Leonard Bernstein's first symphony with lovely singing in the third movement by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor. The program--Adams, Bernstein, Beethoven--was engaging. To include Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 1 in particular was to chart a worthwhile course. This was not pops. It was the real thing.

Cinemas are a place where people come to relax, but also to become engaged. Movies require uninterrupted concentration. Cinemas may be the perfect place outside of a concert hall to develop new audiences inside the concert hall.

I believe that high quality performances like these, made broadly available in cinemas, will allow us to re-energize the conversation about how to develop younger audiences for symphonic music; about how to make classical music relevant to the digital age.

The program on March 13 is also creative and worth your consideration. It will be centered on three works by Tchaikovsky inspired by Shakespeare plays: The Overture-Fantasy on Romeo and Juliet, the rarely played Overture-Fantasia on Hamlet op. 67, and the earlier Symphonic Fantasia after The Tempest, Op. 18. Readings from the plays will be interspersed within the program.

I may not see you there, but I will be there, listening. I remain convinced that there is potential in this new venture.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Watching Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride Live in HD with Hector Berlioz

Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714-1787) is a name associated with operatic reforms that many of us learned about in music history classes while safely tucked into large, airy lecture halls.

But for composer Hector Berlioz the music of Gluck represented a world of "infinite passion." Several times in his writings Berlioz describes performances of Iphigénie en Tauride in detailed and electrifying prose.

"Short of fainting," wrote Berlioz as a student back home to his sister, "I could not have been more moved than when I saw a performance of Gluck’s masterpiece Iphigénie en Tauride." This early euphoria was captured in a fictional transformation in a book he wrote years later.

His book "Evenings with the Orchestra" is centered on discussions and storytelling among members of an orchestra while dull modern operas are being performed. No one talked during masterpieces.

On the twenty-second evening described in the book, Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride was performed. Corsino figured prominently in Evenings with the Orchestra. He was the concertmaster of the orchestra and was himself a composer. This passage, from the famous translation by Jacques Barzun, articulates the overpowering emotional impact that Berlioz found in Gluck. He takes us into the scene as it unfolds in present tense. Present tense was the 19th century version of Live in HD:

"The entire orchestra is filled with a religious respect for this immortal work and seems afraid of not being able to rise to the occasion. I notice the deep, sustained attention of the musicians as they keep their eyes on the conductor, the precision of their attack, their keen sense of expressive accent, the delicacy of their accompaniment, their ability to produce a wide range of nuances."

"The chorus also is impeccable. The Scythians’ scene in the first act rouses the enthusiasm of the select public that fills the house. Orestes is inadequate and almost ridiculous; Pylades bleats like a lamb. Iphigenia alone is equal to her role. When she comes to her aria “Unhappy Iphigenia!” whose color of antiquity, solemnity of accent, and desolate dignity of expression in melody and accompaniment recall the sublimities of Homer and the simple grandeur of the heroic ages, while filling the heart with the unfathomable sadness inseparable from the memory of a glorious but vanished past, Corsino turns pale and stops playing. He puts both elbows on his knees and buries his face in his hands, as if overwrought by inexpressible emotion."

"I can see his breathing become more and more rapid and the blood rushing to his reddened temples. At the entrance of the women’s chorus on the words 'To her lament we join our plaintive cries,' at that instant when the prolonged outcry of the priestesses blends with the voice of the royal orphan and swells with a heart-rending tumult in the orchestra, two streams of tears force their way from his eyes and he sobs so vehemently that I am compelled to lead him out of the house."

"We go outside . . . I see him home. Seated in his modest room, lit up by the moon alone, we stay a long time motionless. Corsino raises his eyes for an instant to the bust of Gluck that stands on his piano. We gaze at it. . . . The moon disappears. He sighs painfully, flings himself on his bed, and I leave. We have not uttered a single word."

Iphigénie en Tauride will be transmitted to theaters worldwide as part of the Met Live in HD Series this Saturday. See it and swoon.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review of the Met Live in HD Nixon in China; Live Cinema and Superhuman Orchestral Playing

(Photo by Ken Howard Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera)

According to one of the earliest credits at the end of the Met Live in HD production of Nixon in China this event was "directed for live cinema by Peter Sellars." Sellars created a stunning sequence of close-ups and elegant camera movements that added a structurally significant visual element to this production.

The curtain opened to a stage filled with silent motionless people. Sellars immediately began to show us individual faces and frozen expressions. Ingmar Bergman's 1975 film version of Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte opened in a related energy--it focused on individual faces in the audience while the overture played. Sellars tapped into this world while the John Adams score explored ways in which a rising A-minor scale can quietly shift into surprising modalities.

The public was an audience; both onstage and in cinema's across the world. "Just now," sang James Maddalena as Nixon in Act One Scene I, "the world was listening."

If the Sellars closeups were any closer we would have seen sinuses. But the cumulative impact of these angles was undeniable. We felt intimately connected to these characters.

The Met orchestra played with both patience and intensity. They articulated the rich complexity of rhythmic currents in this score with such focus and endurance that larger relationships, frictions, and cross-currents became newly audible and seemed to motivate and carry the singers.

The ending act of the opera was described as a "subtle large-scale decrescendo" by Thomas May in an engaging article in the 2010-2011 Met "Season Book."

This production did not sound this way. The subtle tensions produced by the Met orchestra and the stretto of simultaneous vocal conversations produced a gripping intensification throughout the third act that seemed to resolve only as Russell Braun, as Chou En-Lai, sang the closing reflection: "I am old and I cannot sleep forever, like the young."

Nixon in China was an idiomatic "Live in HD" transmission. Its cross-currents of musical style and complex rhythmic surfaces sounded at home coming across a cinematic sound system. It was music that spoke to the 21st century without an accent.
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