Friday, January 27, 2012

Introspective Friday Music; a review of the Berliner Philharmoniker from the Digital Concert Hall

"What kind of music," asked Sir Simon Rattle in his preconcert interview, "do you write in the middle of a world war?"

He was introducing Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel, which opened a performance that was transmitted live through the digital concert hall and was also the second of three programs this season that will also be beamed to cinemas in Germany, London, Berlin, Prague, Dublin, and Austria. The program itself allowed the great Berliner Philharmoniker an opportunity to express warmth in a collection of works that each sought a better world during a time of personal crisis.

"Often before these great conflicts," said Rattle, "people write music full of tension. Often during the conflict people are writing music that looks back to some kind of idealized past." Ravel dedicated each movement to people he knew who fell in the great war.

Rattle found a quiet ecstasy in this performance of Ravel. He shaped textures with caresses, often looking deep into background textures to focus details. There was a brilliant awakening of sound in the codetta of the Forlane, where the Philharmoniker produced glassy clarity as they tuned the whimsical and unexpected close of this mosaic movement.

The Biblical Songs Op. 99 by Antonín Dvořák and Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, both featuring mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, were the centerpiece of the program, which closed with Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.

Kožená was able to channel the dramatic intensity of the texts in the Biblical Songs while keeping their fragility intact. After intermission we heard the Rückert-Lieder. These songs are performed in one of several different orderings--in this program Rattle performed them as follows:

Liebst du um Schönheit
Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder
Um Mitternacht
Ich atmet einen linden Duft
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Usually I prefer to hear Um Mitternacht last, because then it creates the kind of questioning in line with the finale of the Mahler's seventh symphony. In this program the quasi-religious closing of Um Mitternacht allowed it to resonate with the Biblical Songs, and its ending seemed sincere and free of paradox.

Closing with Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was a perfect bridge into the sound world of the unfinished symphony by Schubert..

Rattle led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance that voiced the dynamics of this work as Schubert marked them; this is music that presents itself on the verge of the inaudible. The dynamic level changed the meaning of the music itself. The second theme group in G major often sounds joyous in performance. It shouldn't. It is marked pianissimo. It should sound like you are outside on a day like today hearing other folks being happy.

Rattle found the ache within the unfinished and sent it through the digital concert hall intact. Introspective music is especially attractive on cold, rainy days. This program allowed us to make new connections with the music itself, as we shared it live among invisible friends.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How Sycorax got her groove back; a Review of The Enchanted Island Live in HD

Photo: Nick Heavican/Met Opera

"Then what I desire should be simple," sang countertenor David Daniels as Prospero, "A storm!"

"What kind?" replied Ariel, "Snow? Sand? Hail?"

It was a "simple" storm at sea that Prospero requested during the opening scene of The Enchanted Island transmitted Live in HD from the Met. But Ariel saved her snowstorm for the Northeast, with a timing that made it a challenge for many of us to get to the cinema to watch this newly created Baroque opera, assembled from forgotten gems of operas few of us will ever hear live in their original settings.

The character of Ariel, performed by Danielle de Niese, was the central thread that focused the first act, and de Niese impressed with chiseled passagi matched with an ability to guide a caffeinated character through swiftly defined emotional shifts.

Joyce DiDonato brought the character of Sycorax through an arc that began somewhat like the Act I Kundry; she was so connected to nature that she wore roots. Gradually her transformation led to a final appearance that glittered. DiDonato shaped these shifts through her posture and movements, but also by allowing brighter vocal resonances to unfold as her character changed.

Luca Pisaroni as Caliban looked like most members of the audience in a concert by the rock band Kiss. (He also got to "Rock and Roll all Nite and Party Every Day" during the Masque). His skill became making us feel for Caliban when the character hit bottom. Pisaroni was believable. We did care.

The libretto by Jeremy Sams was witty and came across in English without sounding stilted or foreign. Sams also chose most of the music, along with some help from conductor William Christie with occasional suggestions from other members of the cast. Considering that there were 44 numbered arias on the Met website listing the repertoire for this opera, the succession was often effective.

One weakness in the ordering was that it took too long to get away from G minor at the opening of the first scene. We met both Prospero and Ariel in this key, and when DiDonato also sang her first aria in G minor the key no longer seemed fresh. Too bad, because the aria "Maybe soon, maybe now," with its oboe echos was the perfect way, and the perfect key, to introduce us to Sycorax.

The production was directed and designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (who are familiar from their work on Satyagraha this season). Their concept was to conceive of the island using a visual metaphor of a brain. The left hemisphere was dominated by Prospero and his books. Even spells were cast using recipes. The right hemisphere was the world of Sycorax. Thinking through the blocking in this metaphor allowed us to imagine Neptune as being a deeply seated part of the unconscious mind. I will need help from friendly Jungians to sort out the details.

The Baroque was never meant for houses as big as the Met. Until now. After Rodelinda and The Enchanted Island...bring on the Baroque.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Program Notes for March 2012 Concerts

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Suite from “Rodeo”
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, slapstick, snare drum, triangle, wood block, xylophone), harp, piano, celesta, and strings.

In 1942, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo chose Agnes de Mille (niece of the actor Cecil B. DeMille) to choreograph and help create the scenario for a new ballet, that eventually became “Rodeo” (pronounced Ro-DAY-oh). It was Agnes that chose and convinced Aaron Copland to compose the score.

Throughout the working process De Mille gave Copland very detailed musical requests and instructions, sometimes even demanding a particular number of measures at a given point in the score. Copland responded with generosity and the score sounds so spontaneous and rich that one would never imagine it was fit to order with such precision. The year after the successful premiere of the work at the Metropolitan Opera, Copland arranged four of the five pieces that comprised the original ballet into this suite.

De Mille described the storyline of the ballet as one solution to “the problem that has confronted all American women: how to get a suitable man.” She created a character called the “cowgirl,” played by herself, who was cast as a loveable kind of Lucille Ball character in an age just before television.

We meet this character in the first movement, called Buckaroo Holiday, during a vamping vaudeville episode. Later, the music comes to a sudden halt with sarcastic sounding bassoon music. A solo trombone then introduces several settings of a folk tune called “If He’d Be a Buckaroo” while the cowgirl attempts to ride a bronco, hoping to endear herself to the right man. The plan fails.

The second movement is called “Corral Nocturne.” Nocturnes were inventions of the 19th century that invoked qualities of twilight, of transition, and sometimes of darkness. In this 20th century nocturne the cowgirl was imagined as sunset gave way to darkness, moving “through the empty corrals intoxicated with space.” The diatonic harmony and standard progressions of this music that opens in C major is filled with sonic innocence. But the keys change suddenly and the passage is set with five beats per measure, making the music feel stretched and unsettled; on edge. There is a heartfelt duet for bassoon and oboe who shadow one another in a confessional interlude just before the nocturne returns to close the movement.

Two group-dance movements close the suite. The first of them is the third movement, called “Saturday Night Waltz” which begins with the sonority of open strings in tuning gestures that preface an old folk tune called “I ride an old paint, I lead an old dam.” A central section in A-flat minor casts a lonely shadow on the dancing until old “paint” returns again in E-flat major to close the movement.

“Hoe Down” is familiar to everyone through its use a few years ago in an advertising campaign to promote the sale of beef. Few know that the famous tune is actually based on a recording of an old Kentucky fiddle tune called "Bonaparte’s Retreat." Copland heard a transcribed version of a recording by fiddle player William H. Stepp (1875-1947), and even used most of Strepp’s ornamentation in his setting.

After the first full setting of the “retreat,” listen for a vamping passage that happens after the rustic trio led by solo trumpet. During the vamp the trombone enters and the music sways and sinks in chromatic motion. Then, for a fleeting moment, you will hear an E-flat major chord that represents the cowgirl kissing the man of her dreams.

Almost instantaneously "Bonaparte’s Retreat," returns in its most brilliant setting and closes the suite in jubilation.

John Corigliano (Born February 16, 1938)
Chaconne from “Red Violin”

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 C or D trumpets , 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), harp, piano or celeste, and strings

Most of the violins being played onstage by members of the GBS were made in the 19th century, perhaps some even earlier. Imagine the stories that these instruments could tell. Among many attempts explore this concept, the Canadian movie “The Red Violin” (made in 1998), tells the journey of one instrument: a violin of uncanny perfection.

In the movie the violin is stained with a solution mixed with the blood of Anna Rudolfi, wife of violin maker Nicolò Bussotti, who had just died in childbirth. The heartbroken Bussotti makes no more instruments, but this one haunts every musician who comes into possession of it.

“A story this episodic needed to be tied together with a single musical idea,” wrote Corigliano about this work. “For this purpose I used the Baroque device of a chaconne: a repeated pattern of chords upon which the music is built.”

“Against the chaconne chords,” he wrote, “I juxtaposed Anna's theme, a lyrical yet intense melody representing the violin builder's doomed wife. From these elements I wove a series of virtuosic etudes for the solo violin, which followed the instrument from country to country, century to century.

“While I scored the film just for the soloist and string orchestra (to emphasize the ‘stringness’ of the picture), I composed this seventeen-minute concert work for violin and full orchestra.”

Corigliano described the opening of his Chaconne as powered by “diaphanous ascending string lines [that] unveil the chaconne chords, voiced in incantatory dotted rhythms, in low winds and brass.” It is Anna’s theme that follows. “Virtuosic etudes quicken the pace,” he wrote, “lead to a rushing climax; these yield to a stratospherically high, gravely slow melody, which remembers, against slowly shifting string sonorities, Anna's romantic theme.”

“The string chords louden, strengthen with winds and brass: then the soloist reclaims, in determined accents this time, the diaphanous string line that opened the score. The orchestra halts to launch the soloist's cadenza, impetuous and songful by turns: then the chaconne, in strings chords rendered brittle by sharp attacks with the wood of the bow, gradually climax in a grand tutti restatement of the incantatory opening and a whirlwind coda for all.”

There was a Roman proverb often inscribed on the wood of musical instruments: “Dum vixi tacui mortua dulce cano. (While living I was silent, dead I sweetly sing). Perhaps, as the music of Corigliano reminds us as it is being performed, the violins onstage do speak a language we can understand.

Robert Carl  (b.1954)
White Heron; for Orchestra

Instrumentation: 3 Flutes, 3 Oboes, 3 Clarinets in Bb, 3 Bassoons, 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in C, 2 Tenor Trombones, 1 Bass Trombone, Tuba, Harp, Timpani, 3 Percussion, Strings

Robert Carl received his musical training at Yale, Penn, and the University of Chicago. He also studied in Paris during 1980-1 as a Lurcy Fellow at the Conservatoire Nationale Supérieure and the Sorbonne. His teachers include Iannis Xenakis, Betsy Jolas, Ralph Shapey, George Rochberg, Jonathan Kramer, George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Robert Morris. Mr. Carl has received prizes and fellowships from such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, American Chamber Symphony, NACUSA, and Tanglewood. He is the recipient of a 2005 Chamber Music America commission for a string quintet premiered by the Miami String Quartet and Robert Black, contrabass.

“White Heron” is dedicated to Gustav Meier and the Greater Bridgeport Symphony Orchestra, and this is the world premiere of this nine-and-a-half minute work.

The composer made the following remarks about this work in his score:

“In January 2012, Karen McCoy and I traveled to the Florida Keys, where we rented a home in Marathon, whose back yard was the Gulf of Mexico. One of the best things was that about a quarter mile away was an uninhabited island which served as a rookery for hundred of birds. As a result, we saw a constant parade of fowl, in particular cormorants, ibises, and pelicans. And most striking was a single white heron that staked out the house's little swimming pool as its private domain, for drinking and long still moments of reflection. The intersection of the paths of all these birds began to suggest a musical form to me. When I wrote the piece, it was though I was taking dictation from them.

The individual birds are represented quite explicitly (their first entrances are marked in the score). As a backdrop, a series of overtone-based “harmonic waves” moves through a 13-chord progression over the entire course of the piece, suggesting to me the presence of the ocean in its vast, neutral grandeur. And periodic moments of lyricism and gentle ecstasy suggest the reactions of the human observer.”

The Greater Bridgeport Symphony first played the music of Robert Carl on played January 27, 1990, and between then and 2008 has played four of his works: “The Stars' Harmony/The Night's Pleasure,” “Liberty for Orchestra,” “The World Turned Upside Down,” and “Memories of Forgotten Ancestors.”

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Instrumentation:.3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 6 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 saxophones, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, euphonium, tuba, timpani, 5 percussionists, harp, piano and strings.

West Side Story came together as an extended and tangled collaboration among four visionaries: Arthur Laurents for the script, Stephen Sondheim for lyrics, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and music by Leonard Bernstein. Caught-up in waves of distraction and delays, it took eight years from the first inspirations to the time that the finished product opened on Broadway in the fall of 1957. (The same year in which Bernstein was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic). This original production met with positive reviews and, with time off for a tour, ran almost one thousand performances at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Four years after the original Broadway production, the famous film adaptation of the musical was created. Winner of ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it was the film version of the musical that comes to mind even today when most people think of West Side Story.

The Symphonic Dances were developed by Bernstein in 1961 during the making of the film, and were premiered by the New York Philharmonic in December of that year conducted by his friend and colleague Lukas Foss.

The music is often not presented in the order in which it appears in the musical, or in the film, but is molded by purely musical logic instead. The orchestral score divides the work into nine titled sections. The lengths of these sections vary considerably from under one minute to four and a half minutes.

Prologue: Opens with a fanfare followed by rhythmic finger snaps. Depicting the attitude of the rival gangs the “Jets” and the “Sharks,” this long segment shifts through multiple dances, a trio, and several interludes. It culminates in a developmental section that combines musical fragments and attitudes culled from all of the material thus far presented. The close of the development is marked by the sounding of a metal pea-whistle.

This prologue is a great place to contemplate Leonard Bernstein’s unique musical personality. You will hear jazz and Cuban inspired rhythms powered by a drum set, walking basses, and brass sectional playing inspired by Latin music from the 1950s. But you will also hear that the techniques Bernstein used to develop these jazzy materials come straight from Beethoven and Stravinsky.

Somewhere: “There's a place for us,” sings the solo viola accompanied by other first chair strings, “somewhere a place for us…” The elaborated restatement: “There’s a time for us” is led by solo horn, and the bridge is voiced by the section strings.

Listen for the elaborate transition after the pedal-filled postlude that is marked by a cymbal crash and loud two-note fanfare in brass. During this passage the two-note phrasing of “Somewhere” is transformed into the obsession with two-note groupings in the scherzo, to which it connects without seam.

Scherzo: (1.5 minutes) A gentle and light interlude set in an AABA structure, where the B section has finger snaps.

Mambo: This dance comes crashing in with an interlude for Latin percussion. It is filled with brilliant writing that is rhythmically precise but also needs to groove in order to come alive. If it does the joint-will-be-jumpin! There is a long-standing audience tradition of joining the orchestra is shouting the word “MAM—BO” twice during this lively section. If you are feeling the spirit, watch the conductor and let it rip! The mambo freezes in place to make room for a cha-cha.

Cha-Cha: Lasting less than a minute, this cha-cha is articulated as a flute quartet with hesitations. It depicts the two lovers dancing together, and you will hear reference in the music to the words: “I just met a girl named Maria.”

Meeting Scene: Also less than a minute, this dream-like passage is led by solo violin with other single strings who meditate on the name “Maria”

“Cool:” (three-and-a-half minutes) Obsesses over three-notes motives and brings back the jazz-inspired world of the prologue. A bewildering array of solo passages for winds, brass and percussion glitter throughout. The section ends with finger snaps.

Rumble: This music accompanies the stylized dancing gang-battle during which leaders from both sides are killed. A five-note ostinato fuels the opening of this section which leads to a quieter passage of scurry music before culminating in fierce and ragged gestures.

Finale: (Four minutes) Opens with a flute cadenza and closes with an instrumental setting of Maria’s response to Anita’s pleas to move on to a different man: “I have a love, and it's all that I have/Right or wrong, what else can I do? / I love him; I'm his, / And everything he is / I am, too.” The pedal-tone refrain from “Somewhere,” returns to close the work in quiet meditation.
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