Category Archives: Music

OPERA AT THE EDGE ·

Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)

 Lear

an opera by Aribert Reimann, at the Paris Opera, November 21–December 7, 2019

Orest

an opera by Manfred Trojahn, at the Vienna State Opera, November 14–20, 2019

Heart Chamber

an opera by Chaya Czernowin, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, November 15–December 6, 2019

 

Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

Last November, having just put the final touches on Eurydice, the opera I’d been working on for several years, I paid a visit to Europe to hear operas by three fellow composers, none of whose stage works are performed in America with any regularity. In spite of the uncanny ease with which music can be distributed online, and in spite of the popular notion of music as a “universal language,” contemporary opera in America can feel like an insular endeavor: the flip side of many American opera companies’ laudable support for homegrown composers is a cautiousness that verges on xenophobia. When it comes to new works, the thinking goes, why import a challenging piece in a foreign language when a local composer could write one in English? In past centuries, American companies almost exclusively imported European works; these days, new European operas are sometimes assumed to be excessively strong meat for the teeth of American audiences.

The chaos of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the following essay, written before it began, feel suddenly like an artifact from a distant time. This crisis will wreak havoc in all sectors; for the world of the arts, it is already a devastation. Classical music has long been an art form centered on live performance, ever more so since the collapse of the classical recording industry, and it’s hard to imagine when music lovers will again be willing to form the human petri dish that is a concert audience.

Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.

Composers who adapt Shakespeare must inevitably perform surgery on the Bard’s lengthy, poetically exuberant plays: Verdi cut an entire act to turn Othello into Otello; Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes condensed the winding rhythms of Shakespeare’s pentameter into clipped doggerel for their adaptation of The Tempest. The German composer Aribert Reimann, who composed his Lear in the late 1970s at the request of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, performs his surgery with a sledgehammer. He and his librettist, Claus H. Henneberg, burn away nearly all traces of compassion and complexity from the play’s more sympathetic characters, including Lear, and abandon the play’s essential trajectory, of a tenuous political order unraveling into chaos, instead depicting a world that is darkly chaotic from the outset. The leveling winds of the heath blow all night through Reimann’s score.

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HEAR BOB DYLAN’S ABSOLUTELY MIND-BLOWING NEW SONG ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’ ·

(Brian Hiatt’s article appeared in Rolling Stone, 3/27; Photo: Rolling Stone.)

Bob Dylan, who hasn’t released an original song since 2012’s Tempest, unexpectedly dropped a previously unheard, nearly 17-minute-long new track, “Murder Most Foul,” late Thursday night.

Dylan didn’t say exactly when the song was recorded, but his delicate vocal delivery resembles the way he’s been singing in his live shows in the past couple of years. “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty over the years,” Dylan said in a statement. “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.”

This dizzying, utterly extraordinary song — as allusive as it is elusive — starts off seeming like it might be a straightforward recounting of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but expands into an impressionistic, elegiac, increasingly apocalyptic journey through what feels like the entire Sixties (complete with references to the Who’s Tommy, Woodstock, and Altamont) and then perhaps all of 20th-century America, especially its music.

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BACK ON CATFISH ROW ·

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera

(Geoffrey O’Brien’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 11/21.)  

Porgy and Bess

an opera by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, September 23, 2019–February 1, 2020

Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music

by Richard Crawford

Norton, 594 pp., $39.95

Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, to mixed reviews and insufficient box office receipts, but I am unable to disassociate it from the musical culture I grew up with in the 1950s, a decade when George Gershwin’s opera seemed to be everywhere. In 1951, at the dawn of the LP era, the first ostensibly complete recording was released by Columbia Masterworks.1 Earlier recordings had consisted only of hit songs from the show—“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Columbia’s lavish three-record set offered more music than the original Broadway version, which had been shortened by at least thirty minutes before the New York opening. More crucially, it presented Porgy and Bess as an opera of densely interwoven parts, unlike productions that in the decade following Gershwin’s death in 1937 had made drastic cuts and replaced recitatives with spoken dialogue, turning it into something more like a musical.2

For my oldest brother, Robert, a precocious student of musical theater and orchestral arrangement, the Columbia recording became a constant object of study. At mid-decade, when he was fourteen and I was seven, I had the benefit of hearing many passages played repeatedly, along with a running commentary on fine points of harmony and instrumentation often beyond my comprehension. Robert’s ultimate concern being formal, he impressed on me the sense of an invisible architecture beyond words, delineated by the baton he sometimes waved in accompaniment.

No technical explanation was needed to grasp the tidal power of Gershwin’s music in the choral surges and Porgy’s final departure, especially at the volume my brother preferred. At the same time, an intimacy of feeling throughout suggested a community, almost a household, of voices running through all the possible levels of speaking, singing, crying out. To listen closely was to be pulled into an encompassing sonic environment within which lives were being lived under constant stress, in the imaginary but very real space around the record player.

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Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

WHY DID THE SOVIETS NOT WANT US TO KNOW ABOUT THE PIANIST MARIA GRINBERG? ·

(Damian Thompson’s article appeared in the Spectator, 9/7.)

She was one of only four women to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas but the state kept her in obscurity

Only four women pianists have recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas: Maria Grinberg, Annie Fischer, H. J. Lim and Mari Kodama. I’ve written before about the chain-smoking ‘Ashtray Annie’ Fischer: she was a true poet of the piano and her Beethoven sonatas are remarkably penetrating — as, alas, is the sound of her beaten-up Bösendorfer. Lim produced her cycle in a hurry when she was just 24; it’s engaging but breathless. Kodama’s set, just completed, is a bit polite.

Which leaves Maria Grinberg (1908–78), whose recordings remain just where the Soviet authorities wanted them. In obscurity. That is shameful — and not because she was the first woman and the first Russian to record all the sonatas. (In those days Jews from Odessa in Ukraine counted as Russians.) This is an unforgettable cycle. Unforgettable, that is, in the unlikely event that you’ve heard it.

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‘THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE’ FROM GILBERT & SULLIVAN PLAYERS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Culturally, winter holidays and families may be more important to Arts curriculum than what is taught in schools.  During the recess, children can be exposed to The Nutcracker or Hamilton, see a movie, receive a book, or listen to show tunes—and something in them may open up.  Hopefully, they will feel surprise at what they discover, and suddenly, have a memory to savor for a lifetime.  The occasion can give a student special definition or identification, which has nothing to do with grades or societal programming, expectations or approval.  Some may even believe that such a turning point has the potential to turn the young into future ticket buyers, but that is too crass an estimation.   Building this secret place might begin with Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Lion King, or learning about the settling of New Amsterdam  or Winston Churchill.  The subject might be old-fashioned or quirky, like first reading Alice in Wonderland, going to the circus, or listening to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. What is important is that, in a nation where most people do about the same things during a day, the mundane is broken and  individualism can emerge.

Cleverly directed, as well as conducted, by Albert Bergeret and choreographed by Bill Fabris, with ballet, comic marches, and even a nod to A Chorus Line, The Pirates of Penzance, from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (which ran at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College from December 27-30) strikes this reviewer as a production with ingredients to inspire—coming from the kind of theatre company you always hoped was out there and getting supported. The cast, on the evening of December 28, included David Macaluso, Mathew Wages, James Mills, Carter Lynch, David Auxier, Katie Dixon, Hannah Holmes, Abigail Benke, Merrill Grant, and Angela Christine Smith, among other well-trained singers in an ensemble of pirates, police, and wards, working with good humor and high spirits. The set, an old-fashioned painted backdrop with rainbow lighting—including a Celtic ruin and the dangerous clifftops of Cornwall, England–was by Lou Anne Gilleland (scenic design) and Benjamin Weill (lights)—the period costumes come from Gail J. Wofford & Quinto Ott W.S. Gilbert’s libretto is nonsensical, using Queen Victoria as a deus ex machina, but there are moments in Shaw and Shakespeare that seem about as contrived, as well.

What is noticeable, however, is how well the tuneful music continues to captivate and flow–and here its orchestration is superior to the rather tinny, electronic hurdy-gurdy sounds used for the Joseph Papp production of 1980, starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.  Maybe this is all a way of saying that this reviewer had something of an epiphany himself regarding Gilbert and Sullivan, after assuming that such a piece would be rather moldy.  But the presentation, played at a human scale, glistens like the bright, sparkling earrings worn by Dixon’s Mabel. Tell someone about the integrity of this company and perhaps recommend it to a young person looking for purpose—maybe he or she will ask the artists what they did over their holidays as kids.

Visit New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players 

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.   

Production photos: Carol Rosegg   

 

VERDI REQUIEM AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL: PROM 64, 2018 ·

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Live at BBC Proms: Verdi’s Requiem with the London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra with conductor Orozco-Estrada and Lise Davidsen, Sarah Connolly, Dmytro Popov & Tomasz Konieczny Live from the Royal Albert Hall, London Presented by Georgia Mann Verdi: Requiem Lise Davidsen, soprano Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano Dmytro Popov, tenor Tomasz Konieczny, bass London Philharmonic Choir London Philharmonic Orchestra Andrés Orozco‐Estrada, conductor Rising conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada continues this season’s sequence of Requiems with Verdi’s mighty concert-hall setting – an ‘opera in church vestments’. Embracing the full gamut of human emotion, from the most tender and fragile of hopes to the visceral terror of the Day of Judgement, it’s a work that transforms private grief into an astonishing public statement. An international team of soloists includes the exciting young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen and renowned mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S NEW YORK (BERNSTEIN AT 100) ·

Listen on BBC RADIO 3

Tom Service travels to New York City to discover if Bernstein’s musical and social legacy continues to echo through the streets of the Big Apple and the lives of New Yorkers. Visiting key places where Bernstein lived and worked, Tom meets the musicians, institutions and ensembles of today who are working towards goals Bernstein championed as a musician, communicator and humanitarian. Tom visits Jamie Bernstein at the flat where the Bernstein family archives resides, while at the archives of the New York Philharmonic, Tom finds a musical score which reveals a fascinating self-insight by the maestro himself, and with the orchestra’s archivist Barbara Haws remembers her time working with Bernstein, how he changed orchestral relations, and how his conducting traditions are still in place today. Historian Julia Foulkes explains how resonances of West Side Story are found in the hit Broadway musicals of the 21st century, and with Deborah Borda, CEO of the New York Philharmonic and conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Joshua Weilerstein, Tom discovers initiatives aimed at bringing the joy of classical music to new audiences today, as Bernstein did. Tom visits National Sawdust in Brooklyn, which carries on Bernstein’s ideas on social and musical collaboration, and Humphrey Burton, Bernstein biographer, offers his views on where Bernstein’s legacy can be found today.

Photo: Chicago Classical Review

‘QUEEN OF SOUL’ ARETHA FRANKLIN HAS DIED ·

(Mesfin Fekadu’s and Hillel Italie’s article appeared on the AP, 8/16; via Pam Green.)

NEW YORK — Aretha Franklin, the undisputed “Queen of Soul” who sang with matchless style on such classics as “Think,” ”I Say a Little Prayer” and her signature song, “Respect,” and stood as a cultural icon around the globe, has died at age 76 from pancreatic cancer.

Publicist Gwendolyn Quinn tells The Associated Press through a family statement that Franklin died Thursday at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit. The statement said “Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute” in Detroit.

The family added: “In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”

The statement continued:

“We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

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Photo: BBC

KRISTEN SCOTT THOMAS AND THE LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA AND CHOIR PERFORM ‘PERSEPHONE’ BY STRAVINSKY ·

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Persephone begins at:  1:13:37

Composer Thomas Adès is fast becoming known as a conductor to be reckoned with, not only in his own music but also in a wide range of repertoire. This not-to-be missed concert begins with the suite from Powder her Face, the darkly comic opera which in 1995 helped established Adès as one of the UK’s leading composers.

‘I’ve never had any luck with sacristans,’ says Gerald Barry, whose youthful organ playing antagonised congregations and clergy alike. Barry’s new concerto, played by virtuoso Thomas Trotter on the spectacular instrument of the Royal Festival Hall, partly draws on memories of his Irish childhood. But don’t expect at pastoral idyll. Barry was also inspired by a picture of a cat to put the ‘fight for atonality against tonality into the concerto’ which ends with organ and orchestra (including 21 metronomes) joining in the hymn, Humiliated and Insulted.

The concert finishes with a rare performance of Perséphone, Strarvinsky‘s restrained and austere 1930s retelling of the Greek myth of Persephone whose descent to the Underworld to become the wife of Pluto plunges the world into winter and whose return to the living brings spring. Dame Kristin Scott Thomas narrates.

Martin Handley presents, live from the Royal Festival Hall.

Thomas Adès: Powder her Face Suite
Gerald Barry: Organ Concerto (London premiere)
Stravinsky: Perséphone

Thomas Trotter (organ)
Dame Kristin Scott Thomas (narrator)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Trinity Boys Choir
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Thomas Adès (conductor).