Wednesday, February 27, 2008

New York Philharmonic's Musical Diplomacy

Here's the New York Philharmonic's final encore from its historic concert in Pyongyang. It's called "Arirang," a traditional folk song that is treasured by both North and South Koreans, and it's actually quite beautiful. The concert featured Wagner's Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, Dvorak's Ninth Symphony (From the New World), and Gershwin's An American in Paris.

This orchestra's trip to North Korea has generated considerable debate among critics. Alex Ross has posted a handy collection of links to some of the major commentary.

Personally, I'm skeptical of the lasting impact this performance will have on American/North Korean relations. Unlike some, I do not object to the concert itself. The prospect of Kim Jong-il using the orchestra as an effective propaganda tool is ridiculous. As his people are dying of starvation, Kim and his regime can't even provide electricity for much of the county. Who cares if he tries to spin it as a victory for the government? No one listens to him anyway. I'd like to believe that music has the capacity to transcend the sizable gulf between our two cultures. That's a idealistic view within the harsh reality of international power politics, but what's the harm in trying?

The Dudamel Phenomenon

It may be an exaggeration to call Gustavo Dudamel the savior of classical music. He's only one man, but the excitement he has generated is unbelievable. Unfortunately, I've never seem him in person, but thankfully there's YouTube. This clip is the 2nd movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 from a BBC Proms concert with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The size of the orchestra is obscene–huge strings, double winds and brass–but the performance is electrifying. Just make sure you're sitting down to watch it!

Dudamel was also recently interviewed for 60 Minutes on CBS. That profile can be seen here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Rossini's "Barber" at the Met

I don't like Rossini, and I've known this for quite some time. The beauty of student ticket prices lured me to a performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia on Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera, and to my great surprise, I had a wonderful time.

Vocally, the cast was acceptable. The three principals–Franco Vassallo in the title role, Elina Garanca as Rosina, and Jose Manuel Zapata as Almaviva–dispatched their many coloratura lines with ease and agility, but in the rapid-fire dialogue passages were often muddled and unintelligible.

Musically, I can't get excited about any of Rossini's music. His melodies aren't that memorable; his orchestration is bland; and his structure is maddeningly predictable. First, the aria or ensemble will start off with a simple tune, which is then elaborated by some impressive vocal fireworks. Finally, it concludes with everyone singing faster and the orchestra playing faster–the famous "Rossini Crescendo." Is this supposed to be exciting? Maybe once or twice. But how many different pieces in one opera can follow this pattern? Pretty much all of them.

What took me by surprise was the production's endless humor. After seeing Macbeth, Die Walküre, and Otello in recent weeks, an emotionally light evening was much needed. The cast's charisma was sparkling, with a sharp sense of comedic timing that was most evident in the recitatives. Some of the laughs originate with Rossini's music, but much of them came from a staging that clearly placed humor as a top priority. After all, they brought a mule on stage for seemingly no reason other than the fact that mules can be funny without doing anything.

For people that are convinced opera is large women with breastplates and horns, the Met's hilarious production is welcomed and refreshing. But for people that go to the opera to be emotionally affected, they should probably look beyond the frustrating music of Rossini.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Otello" at the Met

Otello is generally considered Verdi's dramatic masterpiece, and even though I am not the composer's biggest fan, the drama and power of his penultimate opera is undeniable. Gone are the clear recitatives, arias, and ensembles that marked his previous works; Verdi creates an environment in which the music and action evolve seamlessly. Many people can whistle Verdi's famous melodies, but leaving the theater after seeing Otello, you probably won't have any of its tunes stuck in your head. If you're anything like me, however, the tragedy will simply leave you stunned and emotionally exhausted.

The title role makes tremendous vocal demands on any singer, but the acting requirements are even greater. Otello's entrance as the victorious hero and loving husband quickly deteriorates into the suspicion of his wife's infidelity before culminating in a murderous rage, and the tenor must project this psychological spiral. It's no surprise that the Moor of Venice has been a signature role for singers like Placido Domingo and Jon Vickers, two men who brought both a strong voice and powerful emotions to the stage.

In the Metropolitan Opera's current production of
Otello, South African tenor Johan Botha undertakes this challenge and succeeds only partially. His voice was beautiful, with power and pure, golden tone, yet I never felt Otello's paranoia or fury. The climatic scene in Desdemona's bedroom was a particular letdown. As Otello accuses his wife of betrayal and sentences her to death, Desdemona begs for her life, but to no avail. Otello's hysteria builds, and he murders her. At this most frenzied instant, Botha seemed cold and detached–a heartless executioner more than a betrayed husband. (By comparison, at this moment in a 1971 live performance with Herbert von Karajan at the Vienna State Opera, Vickers seems to literally go insane right on stage–one of the most truly horrifying moments I have ever heard.)

Much like Botha's Otello, the Iago of baritone Carlo Guelfi was technically well-sung but lacking in spirit. Iago is surely one of the most vile characters in the opera repertoire–he even refers to himself as "primordial slime"–but Guelfi never explored those emotions. It's not about singing the all right notes; he does that beautifully and resonantly. For me, it's about creating an entire personal. This can be done in any number of ways: the manner in which you carry yourself on stage, a specific inflection on a revealing word or phrase, a special quality to the voice, etc. I despised Iago for his jealous and destructive manipulations, yet Guelfi could have pushed his character much further, into even greater depths of evil.

Renée Fleming, on the other hand, excelled vocally and dramatically as Desdemona. For a singer of her stature, it almost goes without saying that her voice is gorgeous, but unlike Botha, she was willing to sacrifice sonic quality when appropriate, particularly as she prayed for forgiveness and compassion in her poignant "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria" at the beginning of Act IV. In fact, in her several duets with Botha, Fleming's charisma and magnetism overwhelmed her co-star.

The rest of the cast and chorus were all very good, if unspectacular. Conductor Semyon Bychkov kept the Met Orchestra on a short leash, never really allowing their full might to be released. After hearing James Levine and Lorin Maazel conduct the orchestra in January, I know it's capable of far greater levels of expression. His tempos were fairly brisk, and the orchestra did achieve a full-blooded climax as Otello smothers Desdemona. But there were many other significant moments leading up to that point that I felt were dramatically underplayed.

Despite my complains, I have to admit that the production had a great effect on me. Such is the visceral power of the music and the story. Some have suggested that Verdi's setting of Otello is an improvement on Shakespeare's original place, and, while that's a limb I'm not willing to venture out on, the opera is unlike anything I've ever experience. Its brutal portrayal of jealousy and shame will remain with me, a reminder of the darkness of the human soul.

(Photo of Placido Domingo as Otello at the Vienna State Opera)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fleisher Op-Ed Reveals Moral (Political?) Dilemma

Pianist Leon Fleisher is back in the news, but not for his playing or his recent Kennedy Center Honor. In Saturday's Washington Post, Fleisher writes about the deep moral struggle he faced. On the one hand, he received a prestigious award that recognized his lifelong contributions to American arts and culture; on the other hand, he received that award from President Bush.

Seven years into the Bush's presidency, I think most Americans--even those of us who initially supported him--now disapprove of a majority of his administration's policies. Fleisher acknowledges that he deeply respects the Office of the President, but confesses that he is so "horrified" by the president's actions that he didn't even want to even step foot in the White House for a pre-gala reception. Eventually, he decided to attend.

I'm no longer a Bush supporter, and some of Fleisher's complaints--particularly concerning torture and the environment--are valid. Yet I have a significant problem with his fundamental dilemma. Attending a White House function does not imply complete agreement with the administration's politics. And using this stage as an opportunity for political protest, in my opinion, would have been disrespectful to both the award and the Kennedy Center itself; it's a fundamentally apolitical event.

Fleisher spoke out through his article and by wearing a peace symbol and purple ribbon--the First Amendment guarantees those rights. Would he have had the right to skip the reception in protest? Certainly. But I for one am happy that he chose not to. There are so many opportunities to debate what is right for our country, the Kennedy Center Awards should be nothing more than a celebration of our country's greatest artistic talent.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Slatkin, National Symphony at Carnegie Hall

Two years ago, I heard the National Symphony Orchestra give an overblown performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Granted, the piece itself is a little (a lot!) bombastic, but that doesn't mean there's no room for subtle, detailed playing when Mahler calls for it. Instead, the orchestra had a dynamic range that never dipped below mezzo forte, and many of the winds and brass simply did not seem up to Mahler's demands. On Thursday night, the NSO and its outgoing Music Director Leonard Slatkin traveled to Carnegie Hall and sounded like a whole new orchestra.

The centerpiece of their program was a powerful, multifaceted reading of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Tempos were brisk, but almost universally well-judged; my only disagreement was with Slatkin's "Promenade"--a tune that I feel needs a little space to breathe. The performance actually got off to a rough start. Slatkin almost fell of the podium, and "Gnomus" suffered through some sloppy ensemble and an embarrassing early entrance by the ratchet. However, it was quickly evident that Carnegie Hall had brought out the NSO's best. Most impressive were the dark, rich strings and brass in "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle" and "Catacombae." Lighter, more whimsical movements--"The Tuileries" and "Ballet of the Chicks," for example--were crisp and delicate. Even in "The Great Gate of Kiev," the work's unapologetically over-the-top finale, Slatkin maintained control. Unlike their Mahler performance, the loud moments had impact and weight, and never felt like glorified noise.

Noise, however, played a central role in Liquid Interface by Mason Bates. The work, which was given its New York State premiere at this concert, is scored for a large orchestra and electronics. While Slatkin conducted, Bates performed on his laptop, producing a number of artificial effects. According to the composer's program note, the music "examines the phenomenon of water in its variety of forms." Many of his computer-generated sounds were exactly what you would expect in a piece about water--splashing droplets, gurgles, etc. It felt like I was either inside a submarine or watching my bathtub drain. Despite the many interesting and beautiful tone colors Bates wrote for the orchestra, I was simply too distracted by the comical sound effects to pay attention. For me, they didn't create a sonic world for the piece; they were clichés.

It could be argued that a piece about water that uses electronic sounds should include actual sounds of water. After all, wouldn't it be irresponsible for a composer to ignore the technological possibilities available to him? Shouldn't a piece about water sound like water? I believe this was the easy solution, however. Thrown in sounds we all recognize as liquid-related and everyone will understand. There was certainly no confusion about Bates's subject; his sound effects ensured that. But water can be effectively depicted without such explicit detail--Debussy wrote La Mer without today's technology. I hardly believe a cracking glacier would improve that masterpiece.

The worst moment, however was in the third movement, "Crescent City," when a New Orleans jazz riff spontaneously broke out. The passage have no obvious connection to the rest of the music; the composer offers an unconvincing and possibly inappropriate explanation in the program notes: "In a nod to New Orleans, which knows the power of water all too well, . . ." The piece had the potential to be colorful and evocative, but it seemed to pander to the audience with easily-understood sounds, reducing the music to its lowest common denominator.

The concert also included Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 featuring pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. It's an unusual concerto--no defined movements, only contrasting sections that created a sense of rhapsody or fantasy. Liszt is considered one of history's greatest virtuoso pianists, so his music makes extraordinary demands on a soloist. Thibaudet breezed through the most volcanic passages, but he was hurt by a surprisingly poor piano. The lower register in particular was thin and metallic-sounding, and the orchestra, through no fault of its own, covered many of the piano's most dramatic sections.

While the loud, heroic moments were very powerful, Thibaudet and the orchestra excelled in the softer music. Expressive solos from the orchestra, particularly Principal Cello David Hardy, were matched by Thibaudet's subtle, yearning phrases. Hardy's sound seemed to float effortlessly, suspended above the surrounding drama and passion. Their duet was an otherworldly departure from Liszt's typical fireworks. And in a grandiose concert where the orchestra never shrank below enormous, this short, chamber-like interlude may have been the most impressive, memorable, and musical moment of all.