Sunday, February 26, 2006

Mixed Music

A friend writes, "I think I will now consider your blog as a chorus -- in mixed music?" I have been mixing it up quite a lot. My tastes are a bit in the "anything but rap" category. However, she should know that Golijov is considered classical. Go figure.

Friday, February 24, 2006

St Mark

I'm going to try to describe Osvaldo Golijov's The Passion According to St. Mark, performed at Barbican Hall and conducted by Maria Guinand. It isn't going to be easy.

You start with a string orchestra about the right size for a Vivaldi concerto, then you add a lot of bongos and other drums, a guitar, a coloratura soprano (Anne-Carolyn Bird), people calling themselves "vocalists," a couple of dancers, a Bulgarian chorus.... No, they're not really Bulgarian, but they sound exactly like a Bulgarian chorus I once heard. They're Venezuelan and sing with an open throated, sometimes crude but very emotional style.

I said Ayre was klesmer. This is the Buena Vista Social Club with chorus.

This should not be mistaken for criticism. I'm just trying to give you the idea of it. It's very intense, the poor man's death of Jesus. Jesus was a poor man when seen from our point of view.

Golijov doesn't care where the idea came from, he just uses it. He is world music all wrapped up in one person. The package he creates is very involving and moving. You can listen to bits on Amazon.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Missa Solemnis

I went to see the Missa Solemnis by Beethoven at the Barbican on Tuesday. This was my second try. I went on Sunday, too, but arrived just as the downbeat could be heard through the doors, and they wouldn’t let me in. The work is too short for an intermission. It was raining and dreadful that night. The Barbican tube station was closed. Even the San Francisco Opera isn’t that rough. I have arrived late and been allowed to stand in the back. Sigh. I treated myself to a cab ride back. I was interested enough to try again.

The Barbican is an odd place in the center of a forest of high rise apartments. The cab driver said thousands of people lived there, but the streets are barren and empty, with no people, no shops, no restaurants, just cold buildings. There is a yellow line on the pavement leading you from the tube station to the theater complex. The confusion doesn’t stop there. Once inside there are ramps leading up and down with many dead ends. To reach the lift requires going outside. There are two ticket places on two different levels. Once you are inside the hall it’s actually quite symmetrical and organized, with good sight lines and acoustics. My girls have both sung here this year and have their pictures in the lobby.

There were odd statements in the program notes. It called this an unfamiliar text, this most composed of all texts. Though I have never studied Latin and my own religious background is quite different, I know what they are saying most of the time because I have sung the same texts in Latin and English, in chant, in both Catholic and Episcopal services, in concerts, in all imaginable guises, and find them part of my mental landscape. In a secular world they are unknown.

This is what is called a symphonic mass, a form invented by Haydn, I think, where the composer moves from the alternating chorus movement with aria movement format of the Baroque to one where the vocal soloists sing in the same movements as the chorus and orchestra. Mozart composed works in both styles. Beethoven doesn't break up the sections and even does the entire credo as a single movement.

Robert Shaw had an arrangement of the Bach B minor Mass where he tried to turn it into a symphonic mass by taking some of the choral passages and assigning them to soloists. I don’t think there is any authenticity to this, but it changed the perceived texture considerably. The Messe in H Moll was an abstraction for Bach like Die Kunst der Fuge. I digress.

In a real sung mass they work quickly through the wordy parts. Beethoven will often get through the entire text before turning back to develop the themes and words that most interest him. He repeats much like in a symphony. His treatment is unusual.

The program notes focused on what each section would have meant to Beethoven, which of course we don’t know. I prefer not to speculate. Beethoven considered this his greatest work, but there are weak sections. He does fairly well with the long text of the credo. He emphasized “Et vitam ventura saeculi,” the life of the world to come, by repeating it several times.

In a requiem mass it is possible to choose ones ending. The composer can end loud with the repeat of the dies irae theme or go soft like Faure with the text at the graveside. In a true mass it ends with “grant us peace,” the text immediately before communion. It is a soft ending and robs Beethoven of his big finish. As a dramatic arc, the ninth symphony works better. The dramatic peak of the Missa Solemnis is in the Gloria, a thrilling piece. The intensity is overwhelming.

There should always be a special bow for the sopranos of the chorus in this piece for they have shouted at the tops of their voices for two solid hours. Beethoven shows no mercy. He shows more mercy to the soloists who don't have to sing that much. In this performance there was a quiet intensity to their work: soprano Soile Isokoski, alto Sara Mingardo, tenor Pavol Breslik and bass Alistair Miles who was a replacement. It was a fine performance, conducted by Colin Davis, and starring the London Symphony Orchestra and chorus. I'm glad I went back.

Monday, February 20, 2006


Osvaldo Golijov, composer of the St. Mark Passion, Ainadamar, Ayre, and other works, is so hot right now! Dawn Upshaw's recording of Ayre --highly recommended-- has put him on the map. I'm going to hear his St. Mark Passion at the Barbican on Friday and will report. If his other stuff is anything like this interesting, it puts him well ahead of a long list of composers.

I am puzzled about why this is "classical music" and songs about people in WWII is not. Classical music is often a puzzling topic. A symphony is something that is played by a symphony orchestra. Opera is something sung by opera singers. Or what exactly is the definition?

I keep listening to Susan Graham's recording of Ned Rorem songs, but it simply never comes to life for me. Perhaps something interesting could be made of his songs, but I sure haven't heard it.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Last evening I went to see Dmitri Hvorostovsky at the Barbican, performing with the Philharmonia of Russia plus the Yale Alumni Chorus, which sang in about a half dozen of the numbers. It was a lot of fun. One wonders. Does he maybe wish he were a pop star? He looks good enough with his slim figure and completely white hair. In the second half he used a microphone like a proper pop star, keeping it a decent foot away at least.

This concert is hard to describe. The first half was standard Russian opera arias, Rachmaninov, Borodin, and most interestingly Anton Rubinstein, with a few instrumental numbers. And no microphone. Everything was translated on supertitles behind the chorus.

I hadn't heard the Rubinstein arias before, but they were very beautiful. I think these works are not performed in the places where I have been. He is a fine operatic lyric baritone.

The orchestra, conducted by Constantine Orbelian, is a little rag tag. The off rhythm triangle was especially amusing. My son assures me that it is normal for an orchestra to play behind the beat. This one was way behind the beat. My theory is that they are pretending to follow the conductor and making their own beat. Everyone has to be in on this for it to work at all, and perhaps the triangle was not.

I understand that the second half of the program is considered controversial. They performed a set of Russian popular songs from the era of WWII, the defining moment for many Russians. These were arranged for orchestra by Evgeny Stetsyuk who came up for a bow at the end. I would call the style early talkies with occasionally a bit of Doctor Zhivago mixed in. After all, movie music of the thirties and forties originated with expatriates from all over Europe, including Russia.

It's controversial because this is supposed to be pop music. I wonder how you tell. He is criticized for performing them as though they were great art songs when obviously they're.... I guess it wasn't that obvious to me. They were all about war, death in battle, tragedy. There is one in particular about cranes, where the narrator says that he imagines his dead comrades were all transformed into white cranes, that when he sees a gap in the formation, he imagines that is his place. I thought it was all very moving.

Dmitri is a beautiful and very sexy man with a lovely dark baritone voice trained in the Russian style. They can't all be born with these dark voices, can they? It must surely be training.

The audience loved it. Everyone was enjoying themselves, including me.


Remember Music, the Brain and Ecstasy? One of the books it is based on is called Emotion and meaning in Music by Leonard B. Meyer, which tries to evaluate the roles of consistency, variety, anticipation and surprise in creating emotion in music. We were supposed to be set up by consistency and anticipation while variety and surprise created the emotion.

I've often wondered how this fits with ones real listening experience. It's quite true that replaying the same piece over and over eventually loses its charm. The Ecstasy book says this is due to the fact that our brains are geared to notice movement and change, that mere repetition soon recedes from our awareness.

Where the concept seems to fall apart is in the truly subtle performance. What explains the performance that grows in our awareness with each hearing? And what explains the ecstatic anticipation of a particular joyful climax? Pieces like the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde grow in our imaginations and are profoundly enhanced by our knowledge of where this particular phrase is going. It is a sign of a performers supreme mastery, for instance, if they are able to subtly delay the climax of a phrase. This is one of the greatest tools of the performer's trade.

In my own life I know that to have studied and performed a piece enhances my own awareness of a truly great performance. Knowledge is bliss.

Can a particular performance of a work be so subtle that you don't hear its beauty in the first hearing and in the tenth it continues to grow in your awareness? Of course.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Le Spectre de la Rose

To quote my advice to Tracie Luck: "Sing it like it was the most beautiful song in the world, which it is." Régine Crespin does this.

Alan Blyth in the liner notes says, "Crespin has thought herself completely into the mood of each song." Duh! Forgive me, but this is what you do. This is how it's done. The fact that someone thinks it's necessary to mention this means all too few are doing it. What is this song about? What is the feeling it tries to convey? All too often song performances are just rows of notes, perhaps technically beautiful, but emotionally empty. I could name names. Ann Sophie von Otter.

How can one resist a piece that says, "I am the ghost of the rose."

Virginia Woolf

I only know Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as Elizabeth Burton and Richard Taylor, a bonnie couple to be sure, but nothing at all like George and Martha. Kathleen Turner slips into Martha like a pair of well-worn shoes. She drinks and smokes and struts and swears like that was her normal life. Who knows? I did think her outfits were a little schlampig, though.

I missed only the Bette Davis imitation. Martha steps into the living room and says “What a dump!” Elizabeth gave her finest Bette Davis imitation in reading this line, but Kathleen knows she can’t do one. From the internet (don’t we love the internet, those of us who can’t remember a thing):

Bette Davis
"What a dump!" ("What's it from, George?") The film Chicago (1946), of course, unfortunately long out of print.

In case you were wondering.

Bill Irwin plays George, and he makes a very convincing college professor.

[Schlampig. German for sloppily dressed. It doesn't precisely translate.]

Monday, February 13, 2006

Schubert Lieder

I wish I could say I recommended these orchestrated Schubert Lieder with Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff, with Claudio Abbado conducting. It's a cute idea, but the fact is that without the percussive qualities of the piano, this stuff is just too corny. It has no edge at all, and the singers fall right into it. They have no edge either. Maybe it's more authentic to be corny, but I don't have to like it.

His interpretations are much better than hers. He gets it. It's too bad he has a wobble.

Liszt's "Die junge Nonne" is the most interesting orchestration. However, a corny junge Nonne really doesn't cut it for me. For me it's about religious ecstasy, or it's about nothing at all.

"An die Musik" may be the only one that is actually improved by orchestration. It's not an edgy song.

P.S. Thomas Quasthoff is an emotionally authentic singer who is fully present in his singing. It's still about feeling, and he finds it. His virtues very much outweigh his flaws.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Perhaps it is because it stands chronologically first in my own life that the Matthäus-Passion stands first in my heart. It is conventional wisdom to prefer the Mass in B minor, an artificial composition, a catholic text by a Lutheran composer, over the more real, though not precisely traditional passions of Bach. I sang all of these Bach pieces myself, both chorus and alto solo, at one time or another, but none ever went so deep as the Matthew Passion.

The Matthew Passion is a huge work that to make sense in performance needs to be gotten through with a certain amount of pace. Nikolaus Harnoncourt understands this. He seems to have conceived it as a whole. Excellent. This is also one of the 100 greatest recordings from Gramophone.

I see that Dorothea Röschmann, the countess of last week's Figaro, is the Soprano II here. Christine Schäfer, whom I saw in recital in SF, is the Soprano I. Oliver Widmer is the bass II. Matthias Goerne sings Jesus. He is the one who tours singing Lieder cycles--I've seen one of these, Schubert's Winterreise--and he's quite good.  Bernarda Fink is the alto.

It is very good indeed. One hesitates to write about it, because with Bach one wishes only for the truth to shine through, and for mere mortals to stand out of the way.

This performance is a unique personal vision. We could feel ourselves sitting in a pew in the Thomas Kirche and hearing this performance. "Here we sit with tears flowing down and call to you in the grave: 'Rest softly.'"

Régine Crespin

I have not listened much to Régine Crespin. Her style is one of extreme elegance. I don't know if her Berlioz Les Nuits d'Été will seduce me away from Victoria's, but I do know that her performance of Ravel's Shéhérazade, Trois Poèmes de Tristan Klingsor, also on this recording, is very seductive indeed. I feel a perfect marriage of music and performer. Her voice and style mix with the color of the orchestra in a perfect blend. It is simply perfection.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


I have bought a rather odd assortment of recordings.

Berlioz' Les Nuits d'été by Régine Crespin. This was one of the 100 best recordings from Gramophone and I'm anxious to hear it.

This time they had Harnoncourt's St. Matthew Passion.

The item that justifies my calling the list odd, I suppose, is this one of orchestrated versions of songs by Schubert. The orchestrations are by Reger, Webern, Berlioz, Brahms, guys like that, and the singers are Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff, the guy who won the classical singing grammy. It should be fun.

Saturday afternoon

On the spur of the moment I went to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Kathleen Turner. What a great play. It was fabulous--she was fabulous.

All these London theaters are not that large. The acoustics in the Royal Opera House, for instance, are excellent. The actors in Virginia Woolf spoke in normal voices and could be heard easily.

So what is this huge blast of sound in musicals about? Saturday Night Fever is basically a disco opera, and disco is nothing but loud noise, so that makes sense. And Elton John is a rock musician and probably wouldn't even think about not amplifying Lion King. But the music of The Woman in White isn't disco and isn't rock and roll. It just blasts you out of your chair to be doing it.

Musicals used to be about singing just as much as opera--witness Kenny's album of Broadway songs--but not any more. If you could get gorillas to sing on tune, they could do as well as the average singer in a musical. They bellow and scream, they can't integrate their registers at all, in short, they just plain stink.

We have compared notes and all agree we didn't detect amplification of the singers in Doctor Atomic, and were completely surprised to read about it in the New York Times. I'm good with that. If you can fool me, you can do it. You have my blessing. But the rest of you--just what is the attraction of all that distortion?

The only really good singing I have heard outside the opera house since I came was the woman who played Rafiki in Lion King, Brown Lindiwe Mkhize, from South Africa. Incredible. She was worth the price of admission. And!!! She also got the most applause at the end. People know.

Now I've got that out of my system.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White is the original mystery, the first novel about crime investigated and solved. There is a strong love sub-plot which makes it eligible for musical treatment. The show requires three young English women who must look similar and sing reasonably well. The plot depends on mistaken identity, which I thought worked extremely well.

My theory--I always have a theory--is that Andrew Lloyd Webber had been listening a lot to the King and I--specifically Tuptim's song and the King's soliloquy--just before he started writing The Woman in White. That is the problem with composing. How do you get all those other people's tunes out of your head? Sometimes the answer is you don't.

In this show only the actors are live theater--everything else is a movie projected onto large moving screens rather like Cinerama. Some of it is a kind of "Over Hampshire" film of English countryside. You get two for the price of one--stage show and movie. Am I giving it away if I tell that the villain gets it in the end by being run over by a film of a train bearing down on the audience?

Projections are a current fad in opera productions where they frequently interject irrelevant subject matter into the drama. In this musical they were used instead of sets, making for a uniquely varied and highly relevant setting.

I didn't cringe, except over the singing. This is what microphones do for us. Nobody bothers to learn to sing well, and if they did, would you be able to tell? Or would the distortion of the overamplification make everyone sound bad?

If I were giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down, my thumb would be a bit above horizontal.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Style changes

In the performance of Figaro I saw last week they all did little ornaments in the da capo sections of the arias. This has been standard for Handel for a few years, but for some reason no one before ever seemed to apply this performance practice to Mozart. No one gets too carried away about it, though.

Only Cecilia Bartoli seems to ornament for its true purpose, which is to show off how spectacularly fancy she can get. For this you must let yourself go.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


I wonder to myself if I am not too jaded to get really enthusiastic about anything new, but reviewing my blog entries for 2005 I find that I got really enthusiastic about quite a lot.

Got enthused about:
Anna Netrebko’s second aria album.
Alison Kraus and bluegrass
Reri Grist’s Ariadne (This is an old favorite.)
Cecilia’s Giulio Cesare
Licitra’s Tosca (I don’t know if he has a second opera.)
Beecham’s La Boheme (one of the 100, not really an old favorite.)
Gospel singing
Villazon’s French album
Proibita, both live and on CD.
Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini DVD (New for me.)
L'Amour de Loin (It doesn't get newer than this.)
Montserrat Caballe's video biography
Semiramide with Caballe and Marilyn Horne (Old favorite.)

Still, even now, it is Cecilia who stirs me the most. She is peaking now.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Tate Modern

It was worth hiking all around the Tate Modern to see something I didn't know existed: "The Backs" by Henri Matisse. These are four larger than life blocks of dark wood carved into the shape of women's backs. Awesome.

There was a sculpture called "looking into the corner" or something like that, of bald men looking at the corner of the room and laughing. I laughed. There was another with an old VW bus and sleds trailing out the back. I laughed. I frequently laugh in museums but find myself to be the only one laughing.

I urge you when viewing art to read about it in advance, to make your information gathering not part of your direct viewing experience. You should be there to take in the picture. Listening to someone else talk about it means you are seeing what they see and not your own thoughts and feelings.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Complete Operas of Rachmaninov

The CD of the complete operas of Rachmaninov is actually quite nice. Of course, you would have to want to listen to vocal music by Rachmaninov. My favorite music in this category is the Vespers for a capella choir which I have commented on before. If you have not heard this, make a point of finding out about it.

There isn’t a huge demand for short operas, though there seem to be quite a lot of them around. Stylistically the Vespers is ethnic Russian. These operas are very much in the European post-Romantic idiom, especially Francesca da Rimini which includes an extremely assertive humming chorus. Humming choruses are the fault of Debussy, I believe, and were in vogue for only a short time around the turn of the twentieth century.

[BB -- post script -- I suddenly recalled humming chorus in Rigoletto. Maybe it's all Verdi's fault.]

Rachmaninov’s Francesca is seen from the point of view of Dante who sees the afterlife as a freezing of a moment in the person’s actual life. Francesca and Paolo were killed in the act of ecstasy and are condemned to live that moment forever. I always feel that if this is God’s judgment, then he is mistaken. Why isn’t Lanceotto the one rotting forever in hell, since it is he who committed deception and double murder? I always feel that God made us to love and will forgive this first.

The recording is Deutsche Grammophon with Neeme Jaervi. The singing, all in Russian, is excellent: Maria Guleghina, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sergei Leiferkus and Sergei Larin, among others.

Le Nozze di Figaro

Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Production: David McVicar

Figaro:  Erwin Schrott (bass)
Susanna:  Miah Persson (soprano)
Marcellina:  Graciela Araya (soprano)
Count Almaviva:  Gerald Finley (bass)
Countess Almaviva:  Dorothea Röschmann (soprano

I think Gerald Finley must be stalking me. When I’m in San Francisco, he’s there. When I am in London, there he is again. Don’t get the wrong idea – I don’t mind this. He’s a nice looking young man, but really, Gerald, I’m too old for you.

He is actually here at the Royal Opera playing the count in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro – for me the essential Mozart piece for this Mozart year.

In this conservative Figaro production the stage was occupied by people not written in by Mozart and da Ponte, namely the count’s rather large staff of retainers, of which Figaro and Susanna are two. They are seen mopping, dusting, carrying, standing about and eavesdropping on everything. They come eagerly to the windows and doors to stare in at the action. One woman appeared to be a kind of housekeeper or mistress of ceremonies. I felt this worked extremely well, giving the drama a context in reality.

All three of the Mozart / da Ponte collaborations have the unique power of feeling contemporary in every era. In the case of Cosi we see ourselves and wish we didn’t. Perhaps this is true of Don Giovanni as well, but Figaro is the essential Mozart because we never feel the separation from the characters at any point. They love and hurt and feel jealousy exactly as we do. The opera keeps this sense of essential humanity as the decades and even centuries pass.

A complaint: Who knew that Marcellina had an aria? Who knew that Don Basilio had an aria? Why do I need to know this? Though I must admit that it is amusing to hear Marcellina, sung by Graciela Araya, take Susanna's side in the conflict between Figaro and Susanna now that she is her daughter-in-law and not her rival.

Gerald Finley is a lovely singer and he had some very nice music to sing here. I didn’t quite realize before how beautiful his voice is. All were very good without being great. This is only as it should be, because in Figaro life is the star.

I would have to ask my memory (DE) if I have seen any of these people before besides Finley. I rather liked the countess of Dorothea Röschmann, but then it’s hard to completely mess up her glorious music. Erwin Schrott and Miah Persson made a very attractive Figaro and Susanna.

At the end of the opera where they all sing about the joy of love, the lights came up to include all of us.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Henri Rousseau

I happened to be channel surfing on Tuesday evening and came across a man walking down a row of paintings, all by Henri Rousseau, and making the usual intellectual comments that seem to be what people do with art these days. I call this the Sister Wendization of art. They drone on and on about who is in the pictures and have nothing to say about how they look.

"Oh my God, someone is doing an exhibition of Henri Rousseau!" was my reaction. Naturally, they said nothing to give you a clue who this was. At the end I scanned the screen of hundreds of credits and thought I saw the word "Tate." Yes! It was / is until Sunday at the Tate Modern. I left work unexpectedly yesterday to go all the way across London to see it. Glorious. The tiger painting is now my wallpaper. I was planning to retire last month, so it isn't like they could fire me for malingering. The worst that could happen is that I would have to go home. My plane ticket is already paid for.

Art is for looking. Being trained to make music teaches you exactly the things you need to know to hear music. Music is about listening, and everyone seems clear about that. No one seems to get that art is about looking. Experience the way the deep blue-greens saturate the picture, the way the snake charmer is so dark you can hardly see his/her features. Experience the way it looks. The man was a genius at creating a look you have never seen before. It doesn't matter at all what it refers to in the real world.