The musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker yesterday overwhelmingly elected Kirill Petrenko to be their new chief conductor on the resignation of Sir Simon Rattle in August 2018. We don't have enough experience with the work of Maestro Petrenko to know whether this is something that ought to make us happy or not but we're most happy that the deciding choice was that of the musicians themselves and not at all dependent on "civilian" members of the orchestra board. So should it be for all orchestras the world over, the United States very much included.
Those who really know what's behind what actually happened here have so far remained strangely silent about it publicly and the press can offer only guess and conjecture concerning it, well-informed or otherwise. Our guess — and it's only a guess — is that it has something to do with Katharina's latest attempt to establish herself as a bona fide, contemporary-minded opera Regie with her new production of Tristan und Isolde which is to premiere at this year's (2015) Bayreuther Festspiele and which production, we're also guessing, is such an outrageously grotesque example of Konzept (Eurotrash) Regietheater (after all, she has to compete with the current outrageously grotesque Castorf Ring which is being presented again at this year's Festspiele) that half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who has at least half a rational brain when it comes to such matters, felt she needed to make her objections known, if only within the confines of the Festspiele itself.
As we've said, only a guess.
Prompted by our rereading of Kafka's The Trial (we'd just added it to our Kindle after realizing it was missing from our Kindle library) we downloaded from Amazon Instant Video the 1963 Orson Welles film adaptation of the novel (about which more at a later time on our potpourri blog This & That) and were immediately struck by what might be called the film's theme music: a hauntingly tragic, meltingly beautiful piece of music we recognized instantly but could not, for the life of us, identify; either the piece or its composer although both are well known to us.
A Senior Moment, of course (being old really sucks but preferable to the only other alternative, we suppose). However, we knew the identification of both piece and composer would, as per usual, be given in the film's closing credits (as we typically do, we had let the opening credits roll by without giving them notice) but had to run those closing credits twice before spying the composer's name (but, amazingly, not the name of the piece which is not given anywhere) listed on a lowercase line headed "music:" and after the name of another composer both names listed not on their own "card" as might be expected but included in a list of other same-size credits: Tomaso Albinoni (1671–1751), on spying which name we knew instantly that the piece was none other than his justly famous G-minor Adagio For Strings And Organ. Since hearing that music anew it's refused to let us be and now plays nonstop on what we laughingly call our "sound system" and in our head as well.
Such "earworms", as they're called, are hardly unusual but there's something especially unsettling about this one; especially unsettling because, for starters, we can't quite puzzle out whether it's the hauntingly tragic, meltingly beautiful music itself that's responsible or its Welles-imposed association with and insinuation into Kafka's hauntingly strange, quietly but persistently and relentlessly nightmarish, unbeautiful tragic tale.
We're determined to work this through.
We just viewed our DVRed copy of Friday's new PBS Great Performances telecast of the inaugural concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra with its new music director the Latvian Andris Nelsons on the podium which concert took place last September in Boston's superb Symphony Hall and a gala event it was with star soloists the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais (who is also Maestro Nelsons's wife) and the superlative German tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
The first half of the program was devoted to works by Wagner and opened with the Tannhäuser Overture (Dresden version).
"The whole duty of a conductor," wrote Wagner, "is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right TEMPO [Wagner's emphasis]. His choice of tempi will show whether he understands the piece or not."
Absolutely true (and Wagner would know better than anyone as in addition to being an opera composer of transcendent genius he was also recognized and acknowledged in his time as a first-rate conductor and not merely of his own music) and by that standard Maestro Nelsons evidenced no understanding of the Tannhäuser Overture whatsoever.
Where did he go wrong? We can do no better by way of explanation than to quote our own good self from a 2004 S&F piece titled "A Question Of Rhetoric":
In the [Tannhäuser] overture's opening episode, the chorale (called the "Pilgrim's Chorus") represents merely the weary progress of Christian pilgrims, first toward, then away from an imagined physical point; i.e., a pretty much matter-of-fact affair. In the closing episode of the overture when the chorale reappears with a ff return to triple measure in the trombones rising above, against, and in opposition to the furious, frenetic, and insistent ff rapid runs of duple measure 16ths in the strings (representing the dithyrambic claims of the Venusberg), it's not merely a recap of the chorale of the overture's opening episode but its apotheosis, a declaration of the triumph and redeeming power of self-sacrificing love over the selfish, ensnaring claims of the flesh promoted within the Venusberg.
In all the readings of this overture we've heard to date [now including the present reading by Maestro Nelsons], the chorale's appearance in the overture's opening episode is taken almost as broad, slow, and triumphant (in the trombones) as its reappearance in the overture's closing episode, which is, of course, rhetorically absurd, both musically and dramatically, and, further, serves to blunt that closing episode leaving it nowhere to go dramatically except into the dumper. The Venusberg episodes (the overture's center episodes) are then taken too slow as well, both as a matter of proportion (to the too-slow opening chorale), and also as a misguided attempt at the sensuous rather than the dithyrambic for the Venusberg center as a whole, which is also wrong rhetorically, both musically and dramatically.
So much for Maestro Nelsons's reading of the concert's opening work.
Next came the aria "In fernem Land" from Act III of Lohengrin with Mr. Kaufmann as soloist who here turned in his typically superlative performance both musically and dramatically and by so doing all but forced Maestro Nelsons to get his reading right as well. Closing the concert's first half was the famous (and famously misnamed) "Prelude and Liebestod" stitched together from Wagner's great(est) masterpiece Tristan Und Isolde with, of course, Ms. Opolais as soloist who here acquitted herself competently and most bravely as did Maestro Nelsons.
The concert then undertook an abrupt descent from the sublime to the soapy and we were treated so some Italian opera goodies which delighted the audience no end and with which Maestro Nelsons seemed more at home. We were given, one after another, "Mamma, quel vino è generoso" from Act II of Cavalleria rusticana (Mr. Kaufmann); "Un bel di" from Act II of Madama Butterfly (Ms. Opolais); the "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria rusticana (the BSO); "Tu, tu, amore?" the love duet from Act II of Manon Lescaut (Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann); and "O soave fanciulla" the Finale from Act 1 of La Bohème (Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann). As we've only passing familiarity with all these works as with Italian opera generally we can say only that they all sounded just fine to us but, for the aforementioned reason, no great confidence can be placed in our judgment on this matter.
The concert closed in spectacular fashion with Respighi's spectacular orchestral tone poem The Pines of Rome complete with auxiliary brass choirs placed in several strategic locations around the great auditorium's balcony. Most impressive, both the work (which has one of classical music's most stirring closing movements) and the performance itself albeit, again, Maestro Nelsons's tempi were markedly on the draggy side.
All in all, an inaugural concert of which the BSO, Maestro Nelsons, and Boston need not be ashamed although it struck us as more than a little, um, curious that the inaugural concert of a symphony orchestra with its new music director on the podium should be programmed by that music director almost entirely with music of the opera and with opera stars as soloists.
Several years ago we made a New Year resolution that with each passing month since then, or so it seems, we find is becoming more and more difficult to live up to. This week we finally reached our breaking point and posted the following tweet to Twitter:
I challenge @alexrossmusic to defend (or at least explain) promoting this "music" by giving it notice.
The Twitter ID "@alexrossmusic" belongs to Alex Ross, one of the nation's most prominent and respected classical music critics, a best-selling author (The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century), and the classical music critic for The New Yorker, one of the nation's most prominent and respected journals, and the "music" referred to is this; something only a Cagean or Stockhausean fundamentalist gone off the deep end would or could mistake for music. Mr. Ross's responding tweet — deleted by Mr. Ross almost as soon as it was posted and which tweet we didn't think to make a verbatim record of simply because we never imagined it would be necessary — was brazenly and uncharacteristically arrogant and self-important and made no attempt whatsoever to either acknowledge or answer our challenge.
As Mr. Ross is hardly the only classical music critic, print and/or digital, professional or amateur, guilty of promoting cacophonous noise (literally noise) masquerading as music under cover of being "performed" by legitimate musicians and being declared music by one or more classical music critics, one might imagine we're here picking on Mr. Ross for personal reasons but in so imagining one would be wrong. We singled out this particular instance because it's so off-the-chart egregious and because Alex Ross is Alex Ross who in his intensified zeal to promote new music (a perfectly honorable, necessary, and, especially for one in Mr. Ross's position, obligatory enterprise) since the publication of his above noted bestselling book has here done all classical music a grievous disservice. No matter how illustrious one's professional stature, one cannot hope to convince or persuade a potential audience for classical music, whether classical music of the new or canonical sort, by treating that potential audience as if it were made up of tone-deaf idiots who can be persuaded that actual noise is actually music simply on the say-so, explicit or implied, of an acknowledged expert.
It's time, long past time, that classical music critics of all statures within the profession embarked upon a searching, brutally frank, no-holds-barred reassessment of their professional selves and the effect of their work upon classical music audiences both existing and potential.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 2:01 AM Eastern on 21 May. See below.]
The always worthwhile reading philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton has some apposite observations published on the Future Symphony Institute website regarding so-called Konzept opera Regietheater. His essay brought some interesting attached comments as well among which is one by Yours Truly (a reply to another comment).
Worth your time reading, we think.
Update (2:01 AM Eastern on 21 May): We suppose we should include here the full text of our above noted comment reply just to make a record of it here on S&F. Text follows.
IAN wrote: "How dare something like politics, imperialism, contemporary audiences or that Butterfly is a child interfere with all the twirling parasols and cherry blossoms out the wazoo! And a great big cheery hello to that evergreen bete-noire of people who’d rather spend the day with a recording and posting outrage on Opera-L than darken the lobby of an actual opera house, the Bieito Ballo."
And speaking of politics, imperialism, contemporary audiences and bêtes noires...
The first thing one must understand about so-called Konzept opera stagings such as the Bieito _Ballo_ horror noted above (or pretty much any Bieito Konzept opera staging) is that they're NOT undertaken to make an opera "relevant to modern audiences" although that's the most common defense/justification in behalf of such stagings as IAN's above remarks demonstrate. The very idea is preposterous. Konzept opera stagings are almost always undertaken for a dual purpose: to energize the jaded operagoer and to give the Regie the opportunity to establish himself (or herself as the case may be) as a unique and separate creative entity (i.e., separate from the opera's original creator) never mind that it always involves the hijacking of the work of the opera's original creator. And there's also a more practical reason for undertaking a Konzept opera staging: it's a piece of cake, creatively speaking, as opposed to coming up with a new and resonant Werktreue opera staging fully faithful in sense and spirit to the opera creator's original intent as made manifest in the opera's score (music, text, and stage directions). Any hack can do the former. It takes a Regie of genuine and uncommon creative gift to accomplish the latter. Unhappily, as Regies go, the former are legion, the latter almost as rare as unicorns.
Apparently determined to mount for the Bayreuther Festspiele an outrageous catastrophe even more egregious than the outrageously catastrophic 2013 Castorf Ring, Katharina Wagner signed up the famous German painter, sculptor, installation and performance artist Johnathan Meese to create and direct a new 2016 Bayreuther Festspiele production of Wagner's Parsifal (that's right; Meese never before directed any opera). As many of you already know, however, the Festspiele's commercial director Heinz-Dieter Sense put an end to that by cancelling the contract on the grounds that "Substantial financing problems emerged from the very beginning with regard to the planned stage sets and costumes. The available budget would have been substantially overrun and this is not acceptable." (We just love Meese's revealing response to the cancellation: "Meese has not failed Wagner but Bayreuth has failed Meese." Bloody self-important schmuck.)
Well, we suppose those of us who care about such things can breath a sigh of relief that Katharina failed in this her latest attempt to continue with her corrupting betrayal of the Festspiele's founding principle (i.e., to present model Werktreue performances of the operas and music-dramas of Richard Wagner) but our relief should be tempered by the sure knowledge that this failure will not dissuade her from making future such attempts. The only way the Festspiele can assure an end to the destructive path willfully adopted by Katharina is for the Festspiele's board to oust her permanently from her position as the Festspiele's Director and replace her with someone fiercely true to the Festspiele's founding principle and very raison d'être (as we've noted previously, since Katharina assumed the Festspiele directorship along with her now retired half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier not so much as a single Wagner opera or music-drama has made its way to the Festspiele stage). One would have thought the Castorf catastrophe would have given the board all the ammunition it needed to accomplish that end. Clearly not. It seems the only thing that will work is a catastrophe of Götterdämmerung-like proportions after which there would be no Festspiele left to save or resurrect.
And so it goes.