Monday, February 27, 2012

Some Thoughts on Being Born February 29

One of my earliest memories is of my first birthday. I remember it with unusual clarity because I was four years old at the time. This year is a “Golden Birthday:” I will have my 12th birthday in 2012 but I was not born in 2000.

Leap year has been around since it was ordered by Ptolemy III in 238 B.C. because calculations for an accurate solar year were beginning to be determined. A solar year is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and roughly 12 seconds. The figure is just short of 6 hours, and six times four is 24, which is the number of hours in a day—so if you add an extra day every four years (creating leap year) the calendar becomes fairly accurate.

But not accurate enough.

The calendar would run too fast if further modifications were not made. So every century year (like 1700, 1800, or 1900) does not have a leap year. But every fourth century year, like 1200 and 1600, there is a leap year. I had a birthday in 2000 and did not take it for granted--it was required to make our calendars reasonably accurate. I was born on a day that was an indefinitely extended truce between the cosmos and our need for a workable calendar.

What is it like to have a birthday on leap year?

It means that one pays attention to exceptions. It is also a four-year cycle that encodes part of my life with its meaning. I can flip through them as quickly as a mahjong player sorts tiles and remember where I was and who I spent time with on each of them. Since I have lived in so many places this has been of value.

Most people born on leap year have been rejected by computers at several points in their lives. Many have been asked to have drivers licenses renewed before February 29 of a year that only had 28 days in February, because the expiration was linked to a birthday without consideration of the uniqueness of their birthday. But before computerization it seemed less common to run into folks with a birthday on leap year. I once received a free cake simply by proving by birthday to a store owner. He never met someone who was born on such a strange day. I told him I planned it.

The composer Gioachino Rossini was born on leap year in 1792. He would have been 52 on his 12th birthday in 1844, and was long since retired. That is four years older than I am on my 12th birthday. Rossini was unlucky enough to have passed the threshold of 1800 and would therefore not have had his second birthday until he was 12 in the year 1804. But just a few birthdays later and he was already immortal; known forever as the composer of Tancredi and L'italiana in Algeri.

Leap year also figured in the plot of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance.” Frederic is required to be an apprentice until his 21st birthday. When he turns 21 and completes his apprenticeship he meets his lover Mable, but was then told by the pirates that since he was born on leap year he owed them another 63 years. If the pirates did not know about the century rule Frederic might have gotten out four years early.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ernani und Isolde; New Twists from Met Live-in-HD

In the scripted introductory segment to the Met Live-in-HD transmission of Verdi's Ernani, host Joyce DiDonato described its plot as "convoluted." Anthony Tommasini's review began with the idea that "even with several strong contenders for the title, 'Ernani' may have the most implausible plot of any Verdi opera." And Met commentator William Berger wrote in his book on Verdi operas that the story "is a trial to modern patience."

The problem? It is not. Not necessarily.

With strong performances by Ferruccio Furlanetto as Silva and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Carlos, and a sudden plot twist at the ending, this production forged some new possibilities and insights.

Hvorostovsky brought an elegance to the self-reflective arias of Carlos. He revealed subtle clashes of style in adjacent passages of the music by altering vowel shadings and placements. In the Act II aria "Lo vedremo, veglio audace," Hvorostovsky contrasted bluesy bel canto phrases with singing that seemed to absorb the military sounding trumpet that occasionally doubled the vocal part. There was more wry humor in the music for Carlos than I realized.

Furlanetto channeled pure evil and made total destruction seem a natural consequence. He made Ernani respond to his vortex; it was the musical force of Silva's singing and not the exercise of an honor code that led to Ernani's suicide.

And in a great twist at the end, Angela Meade as Elvira grabbed the knife from Ernani after he stabbed himself and plunged it into her own heart. Both of them fell to the stage floor to sing the final duet as they both died. It was music that seemed as tense and eerie as the key of G major could ever sound. The opera closed in this tonality that seemed as distant and cold as the single figure left alone on the stage: Furlanetto.

This production was entertaining in the cinema. The camera angles helped to create subtle movement onscreen even when the characters themselves were standing still. The filming created impulse that was not distracting but rather seemed to add to the development of the music and the plot.

We also got to hang out with Stephen Diaz, the Met's master carpenter. During the amazing set change between scene 1 and 2 of Act I and between Act 3 and 4 his voice was transmitted continuously into the theater. He issued the most unlikely commands like "don't trap the foliage." Gotta love it.

So from here on out let's agree that any reference to the plot of Ernani as being convoluted or implausible is trite. Why create extra barriers to distance ourselves from it?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thoughts on The Tristan & Isolde Fantasy by Franz Waxman

The Tristan & Isolde Fantasy (for Solo Violin, Solo Piano and Orchestra) was written by Franz Waxman in 1947. Like many talented musicians and composers, Franz Waxman fled pre-war Germany and came to settle near Hollywood. Trained in Dresden and Berlin, Waxman briefly travelled to France after the Nazis came into power and was acclaimed for his film score to Fritz Lang's movie called “Liliom.”

The blossoming film industry needed composers who were both musically flexible and who could work quickly, and Waxman’s first American success came with his score for the “Bride of Frankenstein.” During his long film career, Waxman collaborated four times with Alfred Hitchcock, but is best known for his score to “Sunset Boulevard” which won an Academy Award in 1950.

Anyone who has seen the movie “Jaws” quickly learns to identify the presence of the shark through purely musical means. The score to that movie, written by John Williams, was inspired by Richard Wagner’s use of leitmotifs.

Wagner used leitmotifs as a web of developed and altered musical signals for everything from emotional states to objects. Scholars have labeled more than 45 leitmotifs in Wagner’s opera Tristan & Isolde. Imagine the density in a movie like Jaws if in addition to the “shark” motive there were forty-four other significant musical gestures, each of which could be altered or developed throughout the film.

The communicative qualities of the leitmotifs in Tristan & Isolde are compelling. Once one absorbs them it is tempting to want to further extend and develop the ideas inherent in them. In his Fantasie Franz Waxman used a technique idiomatic within the film industry—the splice—to create new associations among a collection of leitmotifs.

The work opens with seven notes in the bass drawn from the transition between the Prelude and Act I during which the curtain opens on the drama itself. Both the solo violin and solo piano that are used characteristically in this work are introduced when they play the “desire” motive in a long splice from the prelude that is simultaneously familiar and changed. The splice concludes a famous and often analyzed passage of the prelude, but neither solo instrument is used by Wagner in Tristan & Isolde, and we enter the passage midway—as if we had just tuned into a radio program. Several other ideas from the prelude are then spliced into this opening section, including motives with colorful names like “glance,” “deliverance by death,” and the “magic casket.”

With a sudden shift into D-flat major, the violin and piano soloists begin to work through ideas from Act II of the opera. Beginning with the “ardor” motive that marks the sense of anticipation before the secret meeting of the lovers. Waxman then explores an extensive collection of splices from the famous duet between Tristan and Isolde: “O sink hernieder, nacht der liebe (Descend upon us, night of passion).”

Waxman’s final collection of splices flow from the “Liebestod” by that ends the opera. This section is introduced by four-note arpeggiated figures in the solo piano while the tune begins to sound in the orchestra. From the time that the solo violin takes the tune, Waxman’s music opens and gradually breaks free from splicing. He expands upon the glorious climatic writing of the Liebestod and guides it gracefully back to quiet textures that recall Wagner’s ending—a splice that recalls the opening of the prelude.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Union of Two Families; a Review of Mahler 8 on LAPhil Live-in-HD

Mahler's massive Symphony No. 8 was a work engineered to make an impression.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela joined together on the same stage in Caracas, Venezuela to close the Mahler Project undertaken by conductor Gustavo Dudamel with a massive performance of Mahler 8 that was transmitted as part of the LAPhil Live-in-HD series.

During the preconcert documentary, Dudamel called the endeavor "the union of two families."

It was an orchestra of more than 200 players and more than 1,000 choristers, and the sound was big. Really big. But the event itself had a significance that transcended its massiveness.

The National Youth Choir of Venezuela was grouped in front, and one could hear gradations of older singers behind them that seemed to stretch in every direction. Some camera angles that revealed the vast number of singers present were simply amazing. The musicians of the Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the singers documented the range of ages and experiences from the entire system of musical education called "el Sistema." It was a sounding index of miraculous successes. It was inspiring.

Mahler 8 has a significant chamber music side that was infrequently captured in this performance, and it was hard to gauge the balances of the soloists in the cinema--particularly in the solo ensembles. There were so many singers that there was no room for benches. The singers stood throughout the performance. This caused noticeable fatigue by the end. But the sweep of the symphony was still delivered intact.

A dramatic touch was created when the Mater Gloriosa came into position on the balcony just after the Doctor Marianus episode with the choral line "Dir, der Unberührbaren (To you, the immaculate)." The presence of the Mater Gloriosa this early in the second movement helped us to properly place her significance. Kiera Duffy sang this brief but structural music with tenderness and fire. I first reviewed Duffy in 2006 at Tanglewood as Rose in Carter's "What Next" and the next season as Despina in Ira Siff's production of Così.

Dudamel was superb in his preconcert discussions of the music. However, because this work consists of two huge panels of complicated music, it would have been better to have even more narrative around the kind of listening strategies he advocated. There was a 20-minute intermission just before the concert started and then both movements were played without break. The design felt strange at first but it worked, even though we did not need a full 20-minute break.

The cinema in which I watched the event had a solid audience. Bring these events with more regularity and this following will expand. The only other announced event will not be a live transmission but a screening of the LAPhil season opening Gershwin concert featuring Herbie Hancock. That event will be in cinemas on March 18.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Six Hours in the Mall; Thinking about Götterdämmerung Live in HD

In 1980 a film crew came to Bayreuth to capture Wagner's Ring cycle at the close of the infamous centenary production by Patrice Chéreau. The Chéreau Ring opened amidst controversy and outrage and divided the public in debates that spread over years. In a documentary about that filming the point is driven home that filming the complete ring cycle for television would bring this music to a new audience. They did not film in front of a live audience but did capture each act from start to finish without stopping. Looking back at the Chéreau production, the use of media as a form of documentation was part of its visionary appeal. 

A new audience was exposed to Wagner's Ring Cycle through the Met's Live in HD technology, and though we have grown accustomed to the technology, it remains a miraculous system worth pausing to consider. The complexities of transmitting these operas as live events was significant, but a new and much wider audience has been able to understand the amazing physicality of these works; qualities that can be disguised through the editing of recordings.

Anyone emerging from the six hour event found themselves in a cinema, and would have discovered when they walked into the lobby how strange it is when the mythological is incongruously juxtaposed against the ordinarily commercial.

Listening to Wagner requires a special kind of meditation. One must be able to follow his arc into motions that are almost completely still. The 21st century asks that we do this in cinemas and shopping malls. And we did.

The Lepage production, like the Chéreau before it, has generated new conversation. Though its use of technology has been fairly criticized, it is worth remembering that the technology was not only "the machine" itself, but was also the inclusiveness of the transmission and the context in which we shared these events.

This production of Götterdämmerung opened with the norns weaving ropes suspended from planks that resembled part of a bifurcation fractal. The ropes seemed to extend as they twisted and to even become braids of hair. The prolog of the opera sets a diabolically referential musical language against alliterative refrains and a structure (3 norns each speaking in turn 3 times) derived from the oral tradition. The machine was dazzling as this scene was introduced, and then just as importantly, it became still so that we could absorb the rest without distraction.

But the Immolation scene was a disappointment. It was THE place where we would have expected the most remarkable fantasy of which "the machine" is capable. In the cinema it looked like Deborah Voigt rode a merry-go-round horse to a Barbecue.

The singing in this production, as in all three other operas, sustained interest. One of the unexpected treats was to hear the German soprano Waltraud Meier as the Valkyrie Waltraute. Her vocal presence gave immediate credibility to one of the most important, and easily overlooked exchanges in Götterdämmerung. Han-Peter König sang a resonant and chilling Hagen, and Wendy Bryn Harmer impressed as Gutrune.

It was amazing to observe how quickly tenor Jay Hunter Morris has become a fixture at the Met. He brought a welcome sense of humor to the role, and gave us a reason to rethink all stereotypes of the the heldentenor sound. Imagine what he will do next.

The Met orchestra, conducted by Fabio Luisi, made a deep impression with consistently clear textures powerful rhythmic drive. Sometimes lost in the conversation about technology is the simple reality that old-school virtuosity speaks for itself.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Guy Braunstein; The Brahms Ensemble Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker

It should be renamed. After hearing Guy Braunstein play the Brahms Violin Concerto on the Digital Concert Hall I want to petition to rename the work the Brahms Ensemble Concerto. Perhaps it could be called the "BEC" for short.

With the advent of the Digital Concert Hall it is possible that more people now know of violinist Braunstein in his role as First Konzertmeister of the Berliner Philharmoniker than know of him as a soloist, but he was trained, and developed his early career as a soloist and not primarily as an orchestral specialist. But it was as a soloist that Braunstein performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker on this occasion, and the fascination of his performance of the Brahms Concerto for Violin was that he played the work with a sound that seemed to come from within the orchestra.

He stood further back within the ensemble than most soloists position themselves, and he leaned in toward the ensemble. He was standing, but he was also part of the sectional violins. During the opening of the development, which is the first place after its entry when the soloist does not play, he instinctively moved away from the front of the stage, nearer to the sound, to join his colleagues and share the power of this moment.

Braunstein played with technical ease and fluidity but he did not seek an untroubled ease in the sound itself. He let the struggle between dance and torment that drives so much of the opening movement find expression in metric and bow-arm frictions.

There is an unexpected moment in the development of the first movement, marked tranquillo, where a new rhythmic figure of one 8th followed by two 16ths is developed obsessively. Braunstein allowed them to carry an almost baroque dance energy, and played tautly but without exploding with the trilled sequence into which this passage dissolves. He played the Joachim cadenza. Joachim was also engaged by this passage from the development and featured it in his cadenza. Braunstein made the connection apparent, then shifted the resonance of his sound to allow Joachim's vision of it to spin into a burning con brio.

The second movement benefited even more from being approached as orchestral music rather than music for soloist with accompaniment. The opening passage was played like harmoniemusik, not as a solo for oboe with wind accompaniment--the solo oboe playing by Albrecht Mayer sparkled with an embedded context.

After intermission we heard Ein Heldenleben, which is a work that celebrates extremes. But this Heldenleben needed more focus and control in order to persuade beyond beautifully played moments. Though I enjoyed Andris Nelsons when he conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2011, his presence during this performance was often distracting. He accelerated the burn of many passages too quickly and lost intermediary colors that are possible.

Still, there were brilliant passages, especially during the music often called "reflections on youth," from"Des Helden Friedenswerke," where themes from early works by Strauss were woven together with tenderness and fun. There was also an interesting (and I think new) angle from the production crew that was a close-up shot from just above one of the harps, just before the bassoon solo. The image made us seem to float just before the music itself floated.

I did not like the pairing of the Brahms Violin Concerto and Heldenleben on this program. During the extensive "hero's companion" section, the solo violin texture (and in spite of the fact that it was well played by concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto) did not have the sonic freshness that it would have had with a different companion work. The juxtaposition of the two works produced no significant insight, and so any comparison simply distracted and made it harder to integrate Heldenleben itself.

When the work is released into the archives of the Digital Concert Hall I look forward to the opportunity to hear it again without first hearing the Brahms Violin Concerto.
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