Saturday, February 26, 2005


When my son Chris and I are together, we talk about abstractions. He says stuff like, “The practice of motivic development was completed by Beethoven.” And I answer something like, “Wagner carried it one step further.” This is pathetic.

Beethoven carried the process of motivic development within the structure of the sonata form as far as it could be carried. He stretched and rearranged the sonata form quite a lot, but it remained the conceptual framework for all his work. Wagner divorced the idea of motivic development entirely from the sonata form, from virtually any form unrelated to plot, and expanded it to gigantic proportions. He forms the logical conclusion of the idea, making him the culmination of the past and not at all the music of the future that he imagined.

If you don’t mind all that constant modulating, Wagner is wonderful. Except for Parsifal, of course. His use of the borrowed theme of the Dresden Amen which he repeats ad nauseum, always in its original borrowed harmonization, cannot be considered thematic development in any sense. It’s a mistake, a serious lapse in judgment, maybe even a sign of senility. The emperor has no clothes.

I apologize for telling such a sad story.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Gates

I rode a bus so I could see what New York City looked like. Next to me was a woman who complained loudly as we passed Central Park about how much she hated the Gates exhibit. It was too orange, too expensive, too solid, too ugly, attracted too many people.

The next day I rode the same bus past the same part of the park and asked the woman next to me if she was from New York and if she liked the Gates—she answered yes and yes. She told of taking her 5 year old grandchild to walk in the park under the gates and that he said, “It makes you feel happy.”

Thank you Christo and Jeanne Claude. Thank you five year old. I hope you always remember it. It made me feel happy, too.

The composer’s wishes have nothing to do with it

Stravinsky conducted his own pieces. I remember listening to a recording of Stravinsky conducting one of his late choral pieces. It was all right there. Everything you heard in the performance was right there in the score. He added nothing—he took nothing away.

So was he right? Should we just do whatever is written down and quit making up our own meanings? Stravinsky is known to have wanted this. Nowadays this is actually possible. You can scan in a score and play it back as a midi file. You can find these kinds of files all over the internet. Ugh!

Life takes place in time and space. The experience of music changes with the passage of time, and performers are required to bring the music of the past into the present. The 100th time we hear something it goes dead on us. We can’t help that. That’s what the billboard 100 is about. It is a great challenge with wonderful rewards to make us hear the music again.

Carnegie Hall

In the middle of her career Renée Fleming began to emphasize the Richard Strauss repertoire, and by now she may be considered the reigning queen, especially now that Kiri and Jessye have moved on. In her recital at Carnegie Hall on February 21 she did some Strauss as encores, including my favorite “Wenn du es wuesstest”—or whatever the actual title is—which translates roughly as “If you only knew.” It can be described as a joyous outburst. It was a long and difficult recital, and she ran out of steam right after this and stopped. It certainly wasn’t because of loss of audience interest which reached its screaming peak here.

The Strauss style of singing, characterized by lightness of tone, silky smoothness in the legato and sweetness of phrasing, now permeates all her work.

The trick is to find where your own personal music intersects this piece. In the greatest artists this usually results in a personalization of expression that becomes that singer’s style. The music is different, the technical requirements are different, but the process itself is the same as it is for a pop singer. Billy Holiday made everything her own. Luciano Pavarotti makes everything his own.

And now Renée Fleming may be allowed to enter that company. She has owned Handel certainly. She did by far the most legato “Oh had I Jubal’s lyre” I’ve ever heard. Perhaps anything can benefit from the Strauss legato.

Schumann may be considered a precursor, an essential step in the path to Strauss. But Schumann is ever in danger of turning too sweet, and that occurred occasionally here.

I loved her exquisite presentation of Schumann’s “Mondnacht” with its complete lack of fear of too slow a tempo. I was beginning to think only Italians remembered how to do slow pieces. Breathtaking.

She did an interesting group of early Alban Berg (c. 1905) that she performed as if they were Debussy, giving them a marvelous sophistication. 1905 is after Berg began studying with Schoenberg and before Schoenberg’s breakdown into atonality in 1908.

If I were writing a real review I would have to talk about her gorgeous, glittery pink gown. I would have to mention Rebel, the players for the Purcell and Handel groups. That tall guitar was a theorboe. There was excellent integration between them and the singer. All were moving in the same direction to express her interpretations.

And the pianist's name for the second half was Hartmut Hoell.

She is ready to make the transition to goddess.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Paths to Expression

There are different paths to expression. I have been urging that a path be sought, that singers should remember the necessity to express and not merely to make beautiful sounds, but different composers, different eras, different personalities lead to different modes of expression.

The life of a professional singer usually consists of going from conductor to conductor, from coach to coach with each trying to impose his interpretation on the singer. It may in certain situations be necessary to resist this.

What is this about? You may have been wondering. This is part of worrying about Ben Heppner. The big voices in the heaviest repertoire must seek their own path.

The ideal for Wagner is the work of Kirsten Flagstad, a singer of awesome expressive abilities who expressed at the level of whole phrases, who made meaning in large masses while hardly seeming to notice the individual notes.

It is necessary in the heavy repertoire to stay safely within ones own limitations, to scale the performance to ones own voice. To withstand the conductor means knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and sticking to them.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

3 Singers

I found Classic Arts Showcase early on Saturday morning on a community access cable network. I was immediately treated to 3 singers:

Marlene Dietrich singing “When the World was Young”
Gisela May doing two songs by Kurt Weill
Renata Scotto singing Liszt’s “Angelici Costumi”

I was not familiar with Gisela May but found her fascinating. The internet tells me she was “geboren am 31. Mai 1924,” and was the “star of Bertolt Brecht's East German ‘Berliner Ensemble’ theater.” The internet is so cool.

German is supposed to be spoken with a uvular R made by vibrating the uvula against the tongue, though classical singers are taught not to use it. My Spanish friend Dolores used to joke about it. She could do it but only on the word “Brot,” which she would then demonstrate. I couldn’t do it at all. Gisela May not only does it, she flaunts it. She can sustain it for an amazingly long time and makes it part of her interpretation of the song, especially in “Mackie Messer,” giving the whole thing a growling/purring tiger-like quality entirely compatible with her smoky voice.

The other two women we know very well. Dietrich was seen in a 1972 concert film. She is simply telling you a story about her own life, speaking directly to the audience in a very personal way.

And Renata Scotto is always herself, gesturing more than the other two women and bringing drama into even the smallest piece.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


In California I used to get the Classic Arts Showcase on channel 32.

This is a network of short films about the arts. They put on a caption telling you what you are about to see, run the film, which is never longer than 5 minutes to avoid fees, and then show the caption again at the end. That’s it. They run concert tapes, opera, ballet, pieces of movies and animated music. I would surf through the channels and occasionally strike gold.

One day I came upon a mysterious, dark young woman singing in English with wonderful intensity and nuance against a noir backdrop. I kept thinking, “I know who this is,” but could not retrieve a name. It gives me shivers now just thinking about the thrill I felt when I suddenly realized I was seeing a very young Ethel Merman. Who knew Ethel Merman could be this?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


I like Anna Netrebko very much. She is one of the blessed ones who receive their own spot on 60 Minutes, where she appeared walking through the Haight in torn $1200 jeans.

I first heard her in the role of Lyudmila in Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila where she made a huge impression on all my friends. She has a large voice with flexibility, trained in the dark Russian style. I like her not only for what she is but for what she aspires to be—an Italian opera singer. She assumes, correctly, that she cannot become the great star she wishes to be without transcending Russian repertoire.

Her Puccini is coming along very nicely, and she is acquiring more and more Italian phrasing. Recently I saw her in La Bohème where in the role of Musetta she burned up the stage, with small bursts of flame flying up wherever she stepped. She is cultivating her star quality.

Of course, my idea of proper Italian phrasing comes from the great Italians Jussi Bjoerling, Maria Callas and Kiri Te Kanawa. Why not a Russian Italian? "Room with a View" was recently released on DVD, including the two godlike performances of Italian arias by Kiri. Be sure to catch this.

I suggest to Anna that she focus on acquiring perfection in Italian repertoire and not try to conquer everything at the same time. I saw her in a recital where she displayed a completely clueless performance of some Strauss songs. Someone should have realized that she does not get these and prevented it.

This recital ended with a group by Rachmaninov. I am ok with the idea that she should avoid Russian opera for the sake of her larger career, but for the benefit of all of us she will please, never feel the need to rise above Russian song. Only the Russians have any idea how to properly perform these. What hope is there that the rest of us will achieve the truly Russian? Her performance was definitive.

It is important to aspire to greatness to have any hope of achieving it. I wish her the best.