One of the great gifts I received in 2012 was the chance to review Song for the theatre section of Time Out New York. New Amsterdam is an intrepid outfit that has continued to do excellent work despite having been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Their recordings reflect the most discerning standards, both musically and in terms of visual presentation.
Alas, I am not a Grammy voter, but I hope that all those who have the privilege of casting ballots will consider supporting a beautiful recording of a beautiful opera, composed and performed by two smashing young women.
Though I’m not familiar with the specific categories in which Song is competing, I would say: Wonderful as they are, haven’t the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Renée Fleming, and John Adams gotten plenty of love already?
Tuesday’s concert was very much sous le signe de la France, opening with Jacques Ibert’s 1944 Trio for Violin, Cello, and Harp. Cellist Michal Korman and violinist David McCarroll turned in supple, slithering, luminous playing in the first movement, a watery Allegro, while harpist Sivan Magen worked his usual magic in the Andante (its final note dusky and tinged with menace) and the Scherzando, which he cloaked in a thousand iridescent colors.
(Incidentally, Tuesday’s program and Magen’s playing on Nicholas Phan’s Britten CD Still Falls the Rain [Avie], which I reviewed for WQXR, make me long to hear him in the otherworldly final scene of Verdi’s Falstaff, when the harp at long last enters for Fenton’s sonetto, evoking Orpheus’s lyre, troubadour song, and enchantments that are achingly, piercingly ephemeral. Oh, well, a gal can dream!)
Mordechai Seter with Alexander Boskovich c. 1940.
Clarinetist Tibi Cziger described Mordechai Seter’s 1973 Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Cello as an “anti-virtuosity political statement.” It is music deeply bound up with silence, perhaps not to the extreme degree that one encounters in Salvatore Sciarrino’s works, but bearing markings such as morendo, cristallino, and senza colore. At times, the notes emanating from the instruments seemed reduced to their rawest, most elemental state: Cziger’s clarinet sent forth whispery rushes of air, Korman’s cello almost toneless rubbing sounds, and Assaff Weisman’s piano desolate, chilly chords the color (or non-color) of unpolished onyx. The gluey, uncanny silences around which the playing sounded brought to mind Daniele Gatti’s inspired conducting of Wagner’s Parsifal at the Met last season. Seter, whom Cziger called “the founder of artistic classical music in Israel,” was born in Russia in 1916 and influenced by the French avant-garde; I for one would be grateful to hear the ICP in an all-Seter program, perhaps on a future CD.
McCarroll and Korman (who deserves a medal for stamina in addition to praise for her unfailingly inspired playing) returned for Ravel’s 1922 Sonata for Violin and Cello. Here, too, the sheer range of hues and musical effects summoned by the players astonished. In the first movement (from which Bernard Herrmann may have lifted a theme for his Vertigo score), the violin and cello perform an intricate dance, sometimes echoing each other, sometimes moving to and fro against each other. Korman and McCarroll bathed the music in the quiet radiance of a stained glass window glimpsed on an overcast morning. The smashing Très vif movement overflowed with sassy pizzicati, ill-bred trills, and “grungy,” bluesy playing, all of which should be taken as high praise; the Lent section opened with a gently rocking figure that gradually turned uneasy, and ended in a soft sigh into nothingness. The final movement, in which Korman shifted seamlessly between tender, elegant playing and dense, rubbery sounds, built to a confident, exhilarating conclusion.
Korman and Magen returned after intermission for Philippe Hersant’s 2004 Choral for Cello and Harp, which opens with a fog of harp overtones. Like Seter’s Trio, Hersant’s music seems to gaze longingly at soundlessness, and it toys with sonic extremes, with the harp sometimes sending forth tinny and metallic pin-pricks while at other times weaving a sweet, pastel backdrop for the cello’s gravitas. At the work’s conclusion, the two instruments play together, the cello in its highest, most hissy register.
The program’s final offering, Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, is on the ICP’s Opus 1 recording (with Itamar Zorman taking the violin part). A divine musician, Cziger summoned Pied-Piper brilliance and seductiveness as well as a sense of cool, oblique mystery in this music written for and commissioned by Benny Goodman. Weisman played with quiet authority in the Piheno movement, and the raucous virtuosity of all three musicians in the finale drew whoops and roars of approval from the audience.
“Opus 1,” the Israeli Chamber Project’s début recording.
“The Israeli Chamber Project is that rarest of creatures: a band of world-class soloists that is not a muster of peacocks, but a hive mind in which egos dissolve and players think, breathe and play as one. Founded in 2008, the ensemble has at its core five Juilliard alumni in their thirties from Israel: clarinetist Tibi Cziger, cellist Michal Korman, harpist Sivan Magen, pianist Assaff Weisman and violinist Itamar Zorman.”
Clockwise from top left: David T. Little, Missy Mazzoli, Mohammed Fairouz, and Paola Prestini.
“An enduring canard in opera histories is that Verdi did not have ‘much noticeable influence on younger generations of composers.’ (The quote is from The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas by Roger Parker.)
The claim holds up well in the case of Italian composers: in Puccini’s music one catches frequent whiffs of Wagner and Debussy but relatively little Verdi. And esterofilia—the abject, knee-jerk predilection for all things foreign—was already the cancer of Italian culture in Verdi’s day, as he often lamented in his letters. (In its current, terminal stage it has brought to virtual extinction the heritage of Dante and Caravaggio, Luchino Visconti and Oriana Fallaci.)”
“Turnage’s Frieze looks back at Beethoven by way of both Klimt and the post-Beethoven musical fin de siècle. Its massive forces include Wagner tubas, cowbells, a celesta, and a large and clattery array of bells, gongs, and the like. As befits a work of our troubled time, it is almost unremittingly tense. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, it begins with an open-fifth interval, here made sour and metallic with a percussive clang. Marked ‘hushed and expansive,’ the first movement’s expectant hum suggests less the Promethean potential of Beethoven’s music than a question none-too-hopefully awaiting an answer. Its dense layers superimpose dark brass groans and glassy sounds; four thumping chords return us to the opening figure, poisoned with dissonance.”
Christopher Alden’s gloriously dystopian “Così fan tutte” at NYCO.
“‘Indispensable’ or not, [New York City Opera] was a company whose best work was invaluable and not all behind it. For all New York’s wealth of spunky and inventive troupes, the city’s luster is dimmed and its song less resounding today.”
“Revived at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon, The Nose rattles conventions at every turn. Scored for a chamber orchestra of relatively modest size, it is nonetheless an exceedingly loud work, making use of fourteen different percussion instruments: one of its extended musical interludes is in fact played by unpitched percussion alone. Rude trombone slides abound. Instead of singing, cast members sometimes speak, yelp, and blow raspberries, and human laughter can take on the mechanical cadence of munitions fire. So-called ‘folk’ instruments (domras and balalaikas) play alongside conventional ‘classical’ forces. And the opera’s title character is neither a bewitching diva nor a swashbuckling hero but instead, yes, a nose. With a pimple for good measure.”
Here is my Time Out New York review of the gorgeous new Sony recording of Mahler songs by Christian Gerhaher and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano.
I direct you to my earlier post for SoundCloud samples. I’m still not sure Gerhaher is my new husband, but he is very wonderful.
I am looking forward to hearing Peter Mattei sing the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen under James Levine at Carnegie Hall come December. Mattei, too, is one of the papabili. (And, yes, I have been on to Mattei for a decade; the Amfortas came as no surprise to me!)
“[The] deficiencies [of the Met’s production] are all the more evident in light of two shattering Così stagings mounted in New York only last year: Stephen Wadsworth’s at Juilliard and Christopher Alden’s for New York City Opera. On the surface they looked very different—the former in eighteenth-century dress and the latter set closer to our time—but both were shot through with the icy darkness of Marivaux and Sade and keen to the anxieties of Mozart’s age, which saw radical changes in ideas about the human being: less a creature in the divine image than one suspended between beast and machine, fallible and subject to obscure urges.”
The question arises: Why would The New York Classical Review cover a concert by Patti Smith? True, the event took place Friday within the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s hallowed confines, and it was billed as a tribute to Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century polymath lately turned chart-topping composer and Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, one of only four women so honored to date.
Hildegard’s music was piped into the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium before and after Friday’s concert, and Jesse Paris Smith (polymath Patti’s daughter) and techno drummer Eric Hoegemeyer sampled it in their suite of five pieces built around Hildegard’s visions. Many words by the abbess were spoken or intoned. But the musical highlights, including such classic songs as “Dancing Barefoot” and “Because the Night,” belonged to Smith and her co-writers and were performed in a straight-out rock-and-roll style.
Classical-music lovers sometimes fret over enforcing stylistic or generic boundaries, but maybe it’s time to relax and to acknowledge that maybe those boundaries don’t exist or aren’t always useful. And you needn’t take my word for it. Mere decades after the notion of “classical music” had been invented, Giuseppe Verdi wrote to a colleague about charges that he had “wagnerized” Don Carlos. “The question is not whether [it] is composed to this or that system, but whether it is good or bad. That question is clear and simple and, above all, legitimate.”
Let it be said that Verdi opened up a big, wriggly can of worms given that aesthetic appraisals, like all human things, take place “through a glass, darkly.” They are partial, time bound, and shaped by prejudices calculated and unacknowledged—anything but “clear and simple.” All the same, let’s cut the man some slack in honor of his 200 years and recognize that Smith, while not inside classical’s supposedly enclosed garden, is (very) “good” and important.
Like Maria Callas, she can’t be bothered to make music in a pretty or ingratiating way: she deals in matters far too primal and grave. Her quietly incandescent memoir Just Kids tells of hunger, cold, and sickness sustained for the sake of art and to escape mindless, soul-killing drudgery. She has plied her craft humbly, patiently, and painstakingly, a kindred spirit to the likes of composer George Benjamin (a fabled perfectionist) and Leonard Cohen. In fact, as I see it, Smith and Cohen are by a wide margin today’s most serious and important writers of song, “classical” or not. But that judgment, too, is partial and biased, as is the idea that a working-class woman with a nasal voice, unkempt hair, and a guitar could not possibly have things just as momentous to say as, oh, Mozart or Beethoven.
Smith’s program was a tribute not only to Hildegard but also to her fellow female visionary Julia Margaret Cameron, whose photographs are the subject of a Met exhibition through January 5. “I’m so beyond gender,” Smith joked after introducing the song “In My Blakean Year” as “a little nod to the fellows,” characterizing the remark as “part of [her] bronchitis.” But the idea of women’s vision remains fraught. Taught to be seen but not necessarily to see, women who put forward their views have suffered mockery (Cameron for her allegedly faulty technique) and belittlement (Hildegard downplayed her own efforts and attributed her music and theological texts to the Divine).
Alice Liddell, portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron.
The voices of many different women wove their way through Smith’s concert. Over flute sounds, xylophone bubbles, and the noodling of Tom Verlaine’s electric guitar, Smith improvised on an episode from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Projected on the screen behind her was Cameron’s photograph of Alice Liddell as a strong, challenging adult. (As a child Liddell had inspired Carroll’s novel.) Smith emphasized Alice as an active being: “She took the bottle that said ‘drink me,’ and drank.”
She declaimed Hildegard’s wild apparitions of “white fire” and “a man the color of sapphire” over the low drone of a guitar, samples of the abbess’s music, and gritty, inchoate, static-like noises: perhaps the earthly echoes of the “living light” that Hildegard heard (and not saw). Smith read Hildegard’s reflections on gold, silver, iron, and steel, which she saw not as the stuff of lucre or weaponry but as treasures infused with the same heavenly “vitality” that quickened “plants, trees, and stones.”
Smith connected her mother’s death in 2002 with the “sweet scent” that descended upon Hildegard in her rapture, “like a gentle breath exhaled by my mother.” Backed by her daughter on piano and the lustrous, dewy guitar playing of Verlaine and Lenny Kaye, she sang her own “Mother Rose,” telling of a woman who “turned to gold” and “rose into the light,” unleashing ripples of correspondences among earthly parents, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the miraculous rosebush of Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Hildesheim. (The Met has a Hildesheim show on view through January 5.)
“Das Weltall” from Hildegard’s “Scivias.”
Correspondences prevailed in the final part of the performance. With a projection of William Blake’s The Death of the Virgin behind her, Smith observed that Hildegard and Smith’s mother shared a September 17 passing day, that a double rainbow like the one seen when Hildegard died shone the day that Jesse was born, and that the correspondences sung by Baudelaire and others were everywhere: “All we have to do is keep ourselves open and we’ll see them.” The repeated incantations of “Oh God I fell for you” from “Dancing Barefoot” took on new meanings, and Smith paid homage to her twelfth-century forebear by revising one of her most celebrated lyrics: “Because the night belongs to Hildegard.”
Smith closed the rapturously received concert with a prayer she had written as a child for health and love and the grace to be “a saint in any form.” That is a good wish for all of us who love classical music, too: that we be receptive to great beauty and artistry in whatever mode they come.
☛ Upcoming musical events at the Metropolitan Museum of Art include a museum-wide John Zorn celebration on September 28; Alarm Will Sound in a program of music by Adès, Ives, Ligeti, and Wagner on October 11; and the first concert in the Calder Quartet’s Bartók cycle on October 12. Janet Cardiff’s sound installation “The Forty-Part Motet” is in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters through December 8. Tickets and information: www.metmuseum.org or 212.570.3949.
Girls gone bad have been an operatic mainstay since the form’s fledgling days: think of Monteverdi’s Poppea or the witches and schemers (Alcina, Agrippina, Cleopatra) who sashay their way through Handel’s operas. The display of license undone is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy for the powers that be, allowing for both titillation and social containment, exploitation and a veneer of probity.
Anna Nicole, the 2011 opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage with a witty and outrageously vulgar libretto by Richard Thomas, is a bawdy addition to this venerable tradition. It is based freely on the life of bad girl Anna Nicole Smith, the erstwhile lap dancer, Playboy model, and “reality-television” performer whose thirty-nine turbulent years ended in a prescription-drug haze, amidst a flurry of paternity claims for her infant daughter.
The title character’s train wreck of a life mirrors the plight of New York City Opera, the company that has co-produced its United States premiere along with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Earlier this month NYCO artistic director and general manager George Steel announced that the company needed to raise $7 million by the end of September to go forward with its remaining 2013–14 productions, and an additional $13 million by year’s end to fund future seasons. At filing time, those goals seemed far out of reach, and some commentators have questioned whether NYCO in its current, drastically scaled-down form would even be missed.
If Anna Nicole were indeed to be the company’s swan song, the city’s cultural life would be the poorer for it. Fiscal and institutional mishaps notwithstanding, the company has mounted vibrant, memorable work in recent years, and this show is no exception. Richard Jones’s madcap production, created for the Royal Opera, replaces Covent Garden’s crimson curtain with a retina-searing Barbie-pink expanse and the royal monogram with that of Anna Nicole regina. The opera closes with the noise of modern-day carrion birds: dancers in black body suits with enormous cameras for heads who rustle through the dead woman’s garbage in search of posthumous tabloid trash
In between, sixteen energetic tableaux tell Anna Nicole’s story in flashback, from her early days in Texas longing to leave behind her existence as a fast-food waitress and Walmart drone, to her marriage to octogenarian billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, and on to her drug-addled, made-for-TV decline. What keeps Anna Nicole from being merely sensationalistic is the protagonist’s knowing embrace of her fate. When she confers with the plastic surgeon who engineers her pneumatic bosom, he warns her offhandedly of the chronic back pain that it will bring. Near the end of Act I, the perpetually eager-to-please Anna Nicole recognizes in a fleeting moment of self-awareness and rage that pills alone make her physical and psychic pain bearable. She swallows them anyway, and at opera’s end ingests a smorgasbord of tablets as her body bag is zipped up.
That dark instant of awareness gives Sarah Joy Miller’s Anna Nicole tragic stature. She plays the starlet as a twitchy, blinking, kewpie doll of a heroine with a ravenous hunger for affection and approval. Miller’s creamy lyric soprano is a size or two too small for the role, making for some strained and watery phrases early on, but she dispatches with eloquence and panache the roulades that are Anna Nicole’s inarticulate cries for chemical fixes, acknowledgment, and love.
As Marshall, Robert Brubaker creates a physical and vocal portrait of decrepitude that only an artist at the height of his powers can summon, and he rocks the feeble billionaire’s copper mylar track suit. (Nicky Gillibrand’s garish costumes, from fat-encrusted fast-food aprons to Anna Nicole’s bubblegum-pink bustier, are brilliant, as are Miriam Buether’s sets.) Rod Gilfrey commands the stage with reptilian charm and fluorescent-white dental veneers as Stern, Anna Nicole’s lawyer, lover, and addiction enabler.
Anna Nicole has a large cast, and other standouts include John Easterlin as a gaseous Larry King; Bridget Hogan, Marti Newland, Basia Ravi, and Megan Scheibal as Anna’s fellow lap dancers; Christina Sajous as a bold and imperious Blossom; Susan Bickley as Anna Nicole’s mother Virgie, once or twice truly loving in her hectoring and opportunistic way; Elizabeth Pojanowski as Anna Nicole’s needy and dentally challenged cousin Shelley; and Mary Testa as her kindly Aunt Kay. James Barbour, Stephen Wallem, and Richard Troxell turn in strong (and unsettling) cameos as Anna Nicole’s father, a trucker, and her plastic surgeon.
Turnage’s score opens with an ear-splitting dissonance and darts in perpetual motion among various idioms of American popular music including country, blues, and lounge-lizard jazz. (Think Leonard Bernstein without the Mahlerian grandeur or soaring melodic gift.) Its high points include Anna Nicole’s keening lament for the son Daniel she had borne as a teenager, who dies shortly after she gives birth to her daughter; Daniel’s own dazed litany of pharmaceuticals, intoned over chilly, unsettling chords; and the cataclysm of electronic chirps that accompanies Anna Nicole’s passing less from this earthly life than from her virtual simulacrum. Steven Sloane leads a lively reading of the score, and the NYCO chorus under Bruce Stasyna perform superbly as the media voyeurs who feed on and help craft the sorry spectacle that is Anna Nicole’s life.
The tenor Nicholas Phan.
If NYCO’s fundraising campaign is successful, its season will continue in February with Johan Christian Bach’s Endimione at El Museo del Barrio starring the marvelous young tenor Nicholas Phan. If not, Anna Nicole will stand as a reminder of two untimely ends: those of a girl gone bad who sought a better life in all the wrong ways, and of a battered opera company that went down despite having life and pluck to spare.
☛ New York City Opera performs Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on September 21, 24, 25, 27, and 28. Tickets and information: www.bam.org or 718.636.4100.
Some people I know seem to be pleased that Joshua Bell will serve as a judge for the Miss America Pageant, in the belief that this is somehow good for classical music. (For background, see articles at WQXR and npr classical’s Deceptive Cadence, neither of which takes a stand on the idea of Bell as a judge.)
I have interviewed Joshua Bell at least twice and have always found him to be a thoughtful fellow and a person of substance as well as a beautiful musician.
How on earth does it benefit classical music for him to be associated with an event that is intrinsically hateful, that reduces women to lumps of meat, and that has a long and sordid history of racism and discrimination? Miss America now markets itself as a “scholarship pageant,” but that is rot: if Bell and others wanted to support women’s education they could endow grants at any number of academic institutions.
Though I don’t know Bell well, he has never struck me as a bigoted person. Apparently he has taken part in the program Dancing with the Stars. Since I don’t watch television I have no informed opinion about that, but the gig seems to me anodyne: silly, perhaps, but basically harmless, and probably a plus in terms of iTunes sales and the like.
Miss America, though, is something else altogether, and taking part in that travesty of a “scholarship pageant” will besmirch Bell’s good name. (Answer me this: If Miss America is really about “character” and “talent,” why don’t participants perform behind screens, as musicians competing to be hired by orchestras do?)
Why don’t I see Bell as “low-hanging fruit” as I do Anna Netrebko in the case of the Sochi Olympics? Because, in my view, to serve as a Miss America judge is to endorse the pageant’s premises in a very fundamental way. That to me is many orders of magnitude more unsavory than singing at Olympics games held at or near one’s birthplace, even when the state has written hate into law. What’s more, I also believe that singling out Netrebko is a way of sidestepping our own responsibilities, as I explained in my earlier post. (We should boycott Sochi, but we won’t, because the all-powerful plug-in-drug tee-vee means vastly more to Americans than simple human decency.)
I urge Joshua Bell to reconsider his decision to take part in the sexist and repugnant Miss America pageant.