Wednesday, June 29, 2011


While I sit merely fooling around, Intermezzo here and here and Opera Fresh here have all the cool Cecilia Bartoli pictures. Cecilia is in wax at the Musée Grévin in Paris. I think my favorite of these is the one in Opera Fresh where she appears to be flirting with herself.

Monday, June 27, 2011

May the Gods Forgive me

Somebody on the forum has found this film of a countertenor imitating Cecilia. He's really pretty good, though certainly not divine.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nerd Alert

Someone has written a book about musicology:  Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music.  For me this is interesting stuff.

Part I

To start with he worries about why musicology.  Musicology, the study of music in history, is basically the same profession as art historian.  Does anyone ask why art history?  If you go to a museum, there are pictures hanging.  Someone has to decide what you get to see, and that person is an art historian.  They decide what is worth looking at and what isn’t.  Art is interesting, so people study it and become art historians.

Musicologists have a similar function, but there are subtle differences.  Music is interesting, so people study it.  But unlike art which exists whether anyone looks at it or not, music only exists if someone is listening.  It exists only in the moment.  Musicologists spend a lot of time on studying old manuscripts, transcribing them into modern notation and creating critical editions for potential performances.  To create the moment of existence. 

The reason for musicology is love.  Someone loves a particular music and studies it.  Usually Germans study German music, British people study British music.  Only Americans appear to be generalists and study music from other countries.  He complains that there is little evaluation of whether or not the particular music being studied is worthy of the attention being paid to it.  He complains a lot.

He traces the history of musicology back to the rediscovery of Bach early in the 19th century.  The primary focus of musicology is what he calls western art music.  However, his primary focus is the entire intellectual musical landscape of the post WWII period.

The closest I came to musicology came from having failed the history portion of the entrance exam to Indiana University.  My repertoire and therefore my knowledge was from the Romantic and Modern periods, so I breezed through those.  I recognized the Lied that was asked about.  I recognized the peculiar chord from the Symphony of Psalms.  But earlier periods were something else entirely, and I had to study them painstakingly from a real musicologist.  He wanted facts and lots of them.

One of the results of all this is the history book posted in the links at left.  I found it useful and fascinating to group music into generations and recognize that there were common features to all the music of a single generation, that things changed in discrete chunks of time.   You could teach yourself to recognize the dates and identities of composers and pieces of music just by pegging them on one of these style periods.  I felt a sudden useful clarity.  It is a conceptual generalization and not a set of facts.  If I were to try to improve it today, I would add more style information.

[Please note. Just as I am not an opera critic, I am also not a book critic. I review based on what thoughts the book stimulates while I am reading it. The more diverse the thinking, the better the book.]

I am finding Kerman's book fascinating, even though I don’t always get what he’s talking about. Kerman talks about generalizations a lot without really tying them to the specific examples. Positivism, for instance. He appears often to be preaching to the choir. These guys all know what he’s talking about, I suppose.

There is a nice section in Contemplating Music about the progress of Bach scholarship since WWII. It is fascinating to think that the same composer that set off the existence of musicology continues to stimulate thinking. His dates of composition have all been rearranged to put all the church cantatas before the Matthew Passion. This is fact based musicology.

There is something very satisfying about studying Bach. For instance, he was a master of counterpoint in a way that perhaps no one else was. Kerman talks about his use of prima pratica, the style of composition that points back to Palestrina, and says that parts of the B minor mass are in this style. He also talks about Bach’s familiarity with the very Rococo Pergolesi and his son CPE Bach. I was taught that Bach was stuck in the past, that by 1740 the world had passed him by. It would be nice to think that this wasn’t true. What would make this really interesting for me would be a list of specific examples. This is the world of YouTube. We never have to go without examples.

The big topic seems to be musicology vs. criticism. Our art historian would not worry about this. If he is picking out pictures for the walls of the Metropolitan Museum, he requires critical judgments and not just facts. Usually the musicologist isn’t the one who selects what pieces are played, but perhaps this is changing.

Part II

I am not having the easiest time with Kerman's book.  I am making a bigger effort not to schmooze while discussing this very intellectual writing.

I'm pleased to see he validates one of my perceptions.  Intellectual writing about music tends to focus on form and analysis--the process of evaluating the overall structure of a piece.  This process puts all Italian music at a severe disadvantage, since that simply isn't what it's about for them.

Musicologists write about whatever is at hand, and this used to be mostly music of the Renaissance.  Audiences are interested primarily in music of the nineteenth century and the neo-Romantics that lap over into the twentieth century like Mahler and Strauss.  Musicologists haven't really been worrying about what pictures to hang on the walls of their museum.

(Classical / Western Art) Music used to be about music.  Tonality was well established by composers before Rameau came along to propose the fundamental bass.  The composer dog created the material for the analyst tail.  Now music is about inventing a theory and then composing stuff to fit the theory.  The tail is wagging the dog. Evaluation is based on how complicated the theory is and not on whether or not anyone would want to listen to it.

My flaw, I know, is that I can't help editorializing.  For me editorializing is the whole point.

Bottom line:  there isn't necessarily any correlation between the musical value of a piece and how fun / interesting it is to analyze. I would go to a ridiculous extreme: you are only allowed to evaluate the music if upon hearing it you are absolutely unaware of the theory upon which it is based. You might still like it, but it won't be because the theory is cute.

I, for instance, am well aware that Messiaen composes based on his own complicated theory. I have no idea what this is, but when I listen to his music, I like it anyway.

Part III

I have no excuse for writing about this. By all means please skip this.

I love reading books about music and the brain because it is our brains that create the music. The only theoretical analysis that means anything is the one that our brains do all by themselves. We can help it along, but the brain does all the heavy lifting.  This is why the case of tonality is so interesting.

What is tonality? It's the idea that at every point in the phrase, on every chord in the phrase your ears hear the pull to the tonic or key note. The English invented it. Dowland's music is fully tonal. 

Anecdote: At a Mu Phi meeting one of the members played a piece by Froberger. At the end another member said, "Interesting chord progressions." They would be interesting because they weren't chord progressions at all. Though he was after Dowland, Froberger was still pre-tonal. It is tonality that creates the idea of a chord progression. Froberger just wrote triads that didn't go in any particular order except at the end.

Dowland spent time in Italy, and once the idea of tonality had taken root in Italy, it quickly spread to all of Europe. Arcangelo Corelli was the first Italian to immerse himself in the idea. With their dominant position in music at that time, the Italians carried the concept everywhere. By 1700 everything was tonal and pretty much still is today. Bach's understanding of tonality as reflected in his music may have been the most sophisticated of his era, as is the case with most features of his style.

This idea swept Europe entirely without the benefit of a theoretical explanation. Composers of the Baroque understood harmony as it was outlined in the figured bass, but clearly chordal function and not the bass note creates the sensation of gravity toward a single note. It wasn't until Rameau in the 18th century invented the fundamental bass concept that we understood how tonality actually works. Or at least were able to explain it to our verbal brain.  This idea of Rameau's, after a lot of tweaking, is what is taught in theory class.  (Later came Schenker, whom we will ignore.)

Theory is basically just verbal explanations for musical concepts.  The musical concepts do not actually require any verbal explanation. The brain forms its own explanation, and this explanation is not expressed in words.

The thing we are trying to communicate here is that the idea of tonality was created in the minds of people who were creating and hearing music. It existed for 100 years entirely without the benefit of a theoretical explanation.

I suppose I'm a radical. I kind of think you must create the music in my brain using nothing but the sound of notes in the air, and that it doesn't matter how you explain it on paper. Music never becomes words.  Teach me how to understand your music with the music itself, and my brain will do the rest.

Theory is lots of fun but basically irrelevant.  I think it's relevant to training musicians.  It helps you think about things you wouldn't necessarily have thought of without it. The problem comes when you get so caught up in it you start to think it actually explains music.  It doesn't.  Your brain does that.

Carry on.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I stopped photographing the screen in the movie theater because the pictures came out really bad. Oh well. For some reason I decided to try again last night and came up with these two really fascinating double exposures.

The bottom one of two scenes from Faust is fascinating. I sort of like these two as well.

Here is another double exposure.

Rerun of Don Pasquale

I saw Don Pasquale from the Metropolitan Opera yet again.  It was utterly charming once again.  I noticed the tenor, Matthew Polenzani, a lot more this time. While everyone else is hamming it up like crazy, he just sings sweet sad things. Very sweetly and sadly. He is excellent in his lyric tenor Fach, but Anna Netrebko's Norina will eat his Ernesto alive and spit out the bones.

It's a lot of fun. The sound in my theater gets louder and louder week by week. This isn't what's supposed to happen when you get old, so I'm blaming them.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


We now know the "personal reason" why Elīna Garanča withdrew from the Met's Anna Bolena--she's pregnant. She is replaced by Ekaterina Gubanova. See here.

The sound quality of this video is terrible--phone recording no doubt--but it's still pretty wowie.

I won't be able to remember if she's a singer or a tennis player.

40 years of James Levine

Long before the Metropolitan Opera broadcast operas in HD into movie theaters there was a TV show called Live from the Met. It was still called this even after it was on tape. Many broadcasts from this series make up the material available on the Met Player. Almost always the first name in the series of names, the one indicating the conductor, is Levine. To us out in the hinterlands it looked like he conducted everything. After all these years James Levine simply is the Metropolitan Opera.

As a comment to a blog post, I was passed a link to a film on PBS about James Levine at the Metropolitan. I see that it is no longer available. I wish I could watch it again. It switched annoyingly around in the subjects, I recall. For me the most interesting parts were the ones where he is shown coaching Placido Domingo.

Levine is a great musician and a great opera conductor, but he is in every aspect of his career and life very much an American. In America we are taught that the music is all on the page. We find the "composer's wishes" by studying the page of music. The music that forms our own heritage is often quite different from the music of classical repertoire.

The part of the music that is not on the page is the part that comes from national tradition. Now Riccardo Muti, a purely Italian conductor, may indeed take it upon himself to purify a score of tradition, as he did in this DVD of Il Trovatore, but his natural Italian soul will prevent him from leaving out the traditional Italian expression.

If Levine has flaws, they lie in the area of making everything from all the different operatic traditions all sound the same.

So we see in the film Placido telling us that when he is learning a new part, he always goes to Jimmy [Levine]. Jimmy's coaching made possible his great achievement in being possibly the greatest Otello of all time. And we see Jimmy helping him work Simon Boccanegra into his voice. And what is the main criticism of Placido Domingo? He makes everything sound the same. I wrote about the Placido Domingo problem here. "He sings a lot of Italian repertoire, but isn't exactly Italian. He has always sung a lot of French opera, but isn't exactly French. Now suddenly in his old age he is a Heldentenor without ever sounding exactly German," I said. Apparently James Levine and Placido Domingo are one. Very interesting.

For me it is always about the music, and I am trying to explore that here.

Levine thinks of himself as the guardian of the past. He is carrying forward to future generations this great art of the past, specifically the past of the Metropolitan Opera.

This includes the heavy romantic sound of the orchestra applied to every era and national style.

This includes the type of loud, heavy voices that are hired for every period and genre. I want to change my mind from what I wrote here: I don't think they're amplified (maybe, maybe not). The Metropolitan Opera both chooses and trains singers to a particular type of brittle penetrating sound. This is felt to be the proper way for an opera singer to sing. The emphasis is very much on sound over style.

One of the results of this is the usual high standard in Verdi performance. Possibly it might even be said that the Metropolitan Opera sets the standard for Verdi performance. It brings power where it is needed in Verdi. There will be articles about Verdi voice, but nothing about Verdi style. People are cast into any role that fits their voice, whether or not they know anything about the style for that genre. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.  The Verdi of Maria Callas and Leontyne Price is each particularly wonderful because it succeeds both as voice AND as style.

Each of these opera schools arose in particular places with particular musical cultures. It is only modern life that mixes them all together in the same institutions and blurs the distinctions until these distinctions virtually disappear.

Thus the Metropolitan Opera would make no effort to return Le comte Ory to the more authentic score.

I think this tendency to amalgamate everything into one music that takes place in large institutions like the Met is the true source of the interest in original instruments orchestras. Because they simply cannot achieve the same sound as the traditional opera or symphony orchestra, they look for the music itself in a new place. They don't just sound different; they phrase differently.

The Metropolitan Opera is about standards, and they seem generally pretty high to me. Thus the shock of out of tune horns in Rheingold. It is opera with a generic, particularly American view. Once more we are the melting pot.

I enjoy more the differences. I think once more of the completely astounding Werther at the Paris opera. I had to travel to Paris to know that this was even possible.

There is a certain inevitability to this amalgamation process, especially at the Metropolitan.  In San Francisco our musical directors have come from other places.  Kurt Herbert Adler conducted himself and was a German.  Donald Runnicles is from Great Britain.  Nicola Luisotti, the current musical director, is from Italy.  They bring their national biases with them.

My personal bias is for a more diverse musical scene.  I especially don't like it if all the singers sing the same.  Before HD I was not as exposed to the opera product of the Metropolitan Opera.  The bias toward heavy voices at the Met undoubtedly predates Levine.  Beverly Sills stayed across the plaza.  Elisabeth Schwarzkopf came to San Francisco in 8 different seasons before appearing in New York.  Levine completely identifies with the traditional biases of the Metropolitan and actively works to preserve them.

What would be ideal for me would be quality and diversity together.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


I don't know about you, but I feel much better now. The YouTube comments slam the slow tempo and blame it all on Maazel, the conductor. My sense of this is that the tempo comes from Battle. Would her interpretation be so divine at the normal tempo? I think not. One should not sit in front of ones computer and imagine that the singer has nothing to say about the performance.

You might like this one, too, at the more normal tempo with Christine Schäfer.

San Francisco Rheingold

After seeing the dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold last night at the San Francisco Opera, I am starting to wonder if it is possible to do anything with this opera that doesn't seem silly. At least in this version the screaming Nibelungs sounded like eerie, frightened children instead of the laughable operatic screams at the Met.

Does it make sense that the gods are from the lost generation, people dressed for a cruise like characters from Now Voyager?

Mark Delavan as Wotan looks very dashing in his high riding boots and nautical blue jacket. Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) is just a jealous wife who would like her immortal husband to stay home more. In this version Freia (Melissa Citro) falls for the giant Fasolt and is heartbroken to see him killed.

Rheingold is useless without a great Loge, and we have him in Stefan Margita. Ronnita Miller is a wonderful Erda.

Donald Runnicles conducts. I always like his Wagner and did again, but the orchestra doesn't achieve the big tone of the Met orchestra.

But how do we make gods and heroes real to us? Do we dress them up in armor like Lord of the Rings or the Met Ring? Here they are like people in a Cary Grant movie, vapid but well-dressed.  An Affair to Remember perhaps? At the end the gangplank comes down and they leave for their vacation. Perhaps they are boarding the Titanic.

I want to add that I like Mark Delavan's Wotan very much.  His voice is right for the part.  He needs only to go deeper into the music than he has so far.

 [See Kinderkuchen History 1850-1870]

Gertrude Stein in Art

This is a kind of homage to the current exhibition at the San Francisco MOMA of paintings collected by members of the Stein family.





Rose--instead of the virgin enthroned we have Gertrude enthroned.  The white dog is Basket.

Three of these pictures were in the exhibition. The other two are around the corner at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.  There are actually quite a few more. I wonder why the attraction.

Friday, June 10, 2011


I hope I will be forgiven for stealing this picture from Erwin Schrott's blog. I have simply never seen the Tarzan yell notated before.

Wouldn't it be cool if we could get baritones to post recordings of themselves doing this to YouTube? We could have a contest. Never mind.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Cecilia the Intendant

Here is the announcement for the 2012 Salzburg Whitsun Festival as designed by Cecilia Bartoli. It runs from May 25 to 28, 2012, and the tickets go on sale next week.

The centerpiece for the festival was a staged Giulio Cesare, and quite a lot of very flashy stuff has been added on the central theme of Cleopatra.  Netrebko, Koch, Kasarova, Beczala, Jaroussky, Gens, von Otter, Scholl. This is a very impressive lineup.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Alabama Song

Anything Audra McDonald does becomes the definitive version.  I wrote about this here.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Die Walküre the Movie

I didn't stay for the whole of Die Walküre from the Metropolitan Opera at my cineplex last night. I went for the love scene at the beginning, of course, and I was not disappointed. The sound was a bit loud in my theater, but the fated twins were spectacular.

The Met is very proud of its machine. We started on time, but I know that in the live performance the start was delayed for 40 minutes. In the break someone explained that one of the tiny computers that control each arm had died.

The planks look sometimes flat, sometimes round, sometimes like planks of wood, sometimes like tree trunks. In the house this was not a distraction, but in the movie theater it was obvious that the different looks were achieved by projections that shown also on the clothing and faces of the singers.

Also in the intermission were bits of a film about James Levine which showed him coaching Placido Domingo, both in the recent Simon Boccanegra and in preparations for Placido's first Otello years ago. I love to watch musicians working. I always want to know how the rabbit got into the hat. This film is supposed to show on PBS, but I couldn't find it.