The gifted humorist, essayist, journalist, screenwriter, and filmmaker Nora Ephron died today at age 71 from pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia according to The New York Times.
We first encountered Ms. Ephron's work in a short humor piece she did for Esquire magazine in the '70s, if our memory can be trusted, titled simply, "Crabs" (we can't seem to locate it online and so can't link to it), which, it struck us at the time, was one of the most perfect pieces of humor we'd ever read. She once said of writing (this a close paraphrase as we can't locate the source of the verbatim quote): "Beginnings and endings are easy. It's the stuff in the middle that's hard." That's no doubt true (as it is of life as well) but one would be hard-pressed to discern that in Ms. Ephron's writing so effortlessly does it all seem to flow whether it be for the page or the screen. The film When Harry Met Sally for which she wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay is a case in point and a sterling example of Ms. Ephron's pitch-perfect, bitingly humorous but deeply sympathetic and insightful commentary on contemporary male-female behavior and interaction, and her short, best-selling, thinly-veiled autobiographical novel Heartburn another case in point and a sterling example of her ability to find humor (if at times of the dark sort) in even the most painful personal experience. Hers is a voice absent which the world will be a poorer and less bright place. She will be sorely missed.
Atque in perpetuum, Nora, ave atque vale.
It began late yesterday innocently enough as these things go: a naïve inquiry on an online opera forum by someone who wondered whether Regietheater stagings of opera are "really drawing people to go to opera live? Or buy it on DVD, etc.? Or is it driving people away?"
As we don't really know the answers to those questions in hard-facts terms we felt fairly certain we could easily avoid becoming involved in any back-and-forth arguments that ensued on one side or the other — that is, until we read this from a steadfast cheerleader for and champion of Regietheater of even the most extreme sort (i.e., Eurotrash):
For most of us [Americans], our experience with Regietheater is at [a distance]: we read a review or two consisting of a sort of laundry list of "shocking" effects: nudity, urination, bloody violence, depictions of drug use — or even something as minimally titillating as setting the action of "Il trovatore" in a hotel suite. This type of review represents a failure of arts criticism because there is no attempt [by the arts critic] to put these elements in context, or, more to the point, to try to grasp the drift of the director's take on the work.
Say what? "A failure of arts criticism because there is no attempt [by the arts critic] to ... try to grasp the drift of the director's take on the work"(!)? That's a bit like saying that it's a journalistic failure because in merely describing the brutal murders perpetrated by a particularly sadistic serial killer the journalist made no attempt to try to grasp the killer's view of the matter.
That was just one perverse, purblind step too far for us, and so we shot back:
"The director's take on the work"(!)? Why should anyone be concerned with an opera director's take on the work? It's of no importance whatsoever. It's not — or, rather, ought not to be — part of an opera director's job to have a "take on the work". His job — his sole job — is to realize onstage, in the most vivid and compelling manner possible, the opera creator's take on the work; i.e., to realize onstage the concept and vision of the opera's creator as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions). Period. Full stop. Any opera director who goes beyond that in his staging of an opera is involving himself in areas he has no business being much less meddling in. And to preempt the favorite straw man of Regietheater cheerleaders and champions, that does NOT mean or even imply that opera stagings should be of the "Tosca with bonnet, shepherd's crook and Empire waist, [or] Valkyries with horns, or humped Rigolettos wearing funny hats" sort, as one [forum member] here put it. It means that honest and conscientious opera directors must find evocative and resonant new ways to stage an opera for contemporary audiences without tossing aside or ignoring in any meaningful way the full spirit and sense of the opera creator's concept and vision as made manifest in the score.
Any hack opera director can be outrageous and provocative in his stagings of opera. It takes an opera director of genuine gift to be able to stage an opera in conformance with the inviolable (or, rather, ought to be inviolable) principle above set forth.
We await a coherent, reasoned rebuttal.
Now out of bankruptcy, the Philadelphia Orchestra, our "native" orchestra so to put it, under the leadership of its new music director-designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is holding this Thursday through Saturday (21 June-23 June) at the orchestra's old home, Philadelphia's Academy of Music, a centennial celebration of the orchestra's beginnings as an internationally recognized ensemble under the leadership of the flamboyant Leopold Stokowski, the brilliant but eccentric conductor responsible for the orchestra's world-famous signature "Philadelphia sound" (which, alas, we fear is no more) and for raising the then young and decidedly provincial orchestra to world-class status (Stokowski was the orchestra's sole conductor from 1912-1936).
We're of course far too young to have heard the orchestra live under Stokowski's direction during those years, but we did hear the orchestra live with Stokowski on the podium once: at a 1962 concert by the orchestra at its admission-free Philadelphia outdoor summer performance venue, the famed Robin Hood Dell (renamed Robin Hood Dell East in the '70s and no longer a summer venue for the orchestra or for classical music performance). Stokowski had been invited there to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his assumption of the orchestra’s leadership in 1912, and it would be the first time he'd stood in front of the orchestra since 1939 or so. Needless to say, the Dell was packed and not so much as a square foot of unoccupied ground could be seen. When the 80-year-old Stokowski walked onstage and mounted the podium the greeting from both audience and orchestra, all on their feet, was long, vocal, and thunderous. When things finally quieted down, Stoki addressed all assembled beginning with the words, "As I was saying when I last stood here...."
The crowd — orchestra included — went crazy.
When things again finally quieted down, Stoki briefly but graciously thanked everyone and then abruptly turned his attention to the opening number: Debussy's La Mer, if we remember correctly. He hadn't gotten through more than the first twenty or so pages of the score when the raucous sound of a low-flying military helicopter rent the air. Stoki calmly stopped the performance in mid-paragraph, waited until all was silent, then began again — from the top. He had to do that three times during that concert, each time beginning again from the top of whatever piece was interrupted and the audience — and, mirabile dictu!, the orchestra — loved him for it.
Today in America, no conductor could get away with that. Today in America, no conductor would even dare try. But this was Stoki and this was Philadelphia and this was the early 1960s when classical music was still of cultural importance to educated-class Americans. Today, along with Stoki, those long-past days are gone forever and we suspect their like will never again be seen — not in our lifetime at any rate.
We've just come across a posting by theater critic, playwright, and author George Hunka on his blog Superfluities Redux titled "The Complete Critic’s Qualifications" wherein he reiterates theater and drama critic Harold Clurman’s 1964 list of the so-called "12 commandments" for theatre and drama critics and comments on same. It struck us that those 12 commandments are equally valid for classical music critics (classical music including opera of course) and so herewith reprint that list below, mutatis mutandis.
Besides having cultivated taste, feeling and a talent for clear observation of all classical musics:
1. The critic should know the greater part of historical and contemporary classical music as written and performed. Added to this, he must be conversant with general literature: novels, poetry, essays of wide scope.
2. He should know the history of classical music from its origins to the present.
3. He should have a long and broad concert- and opera-going experience — of native and foreign ensembles.
4. He should possess an interest in and a familiarity with the arts: painting, theater, architecture and the dance.
5. He should have worked in classical music organizations in some capacity (apart from criticism).
6. He should know the history of his country and world history: the social thinking of past and present.
7. He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.
8. He should write lucidly, and, if possible, gracefully.
9. He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.
10. He should be aware of his prejudices and blind spots.
11. He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.
12. He should seek to enlighten rather than carp or puff.
Mr. Hunka remarks of the original list that "of contemporary critics, and judging only by what they publish under the guise of criticism, I can count the number of both online and print reviewers who meet [these] qualifications on the fingers of one hand."
Word!, re, the above list.
The link to a just-posted new entry ("A Lecture Of Unparalleled Brilliance") on S&F's Off-Message Rants & Screeds blog is now up on our sidebar under the Most Recent On Rants & Screeds section.
A law school professor and former criminal defense attorney explains why, when questioned, you should never, ever talk to the police without a skilled criminal defense attorney present and representing you....
We've begun to detect in the classical music blogosphere the beginnings of a new outbreak of a very old argument concerning attracting new and younger persons to the audience for classical music to take the place of classical music's now graying and diminishing present audience. The cause of classical music's current problem in this regard and the solution offered are the same-old-same-old: our culture has changed radically from times past where classical music, although never of popular interest (contrary to what one reputed expert bewilderingly claims), was nevertheless one of our culture's mainstream interests and in order for classical music to be rescued from its present position deep in the bowels of our culture's cultural margins and once again become one of our culture's mainstream interests it must "adapt" — to use the insidious codeword used repeatedly by one reputed expert — to the new cultural realities. Invariably, and no matter how high-minded the language used, that solution always translates into pandering, to some meaningful measure or degree, to the tastes and sensibilities of the Great Unwashed; a strategy that, by its very nature, will always result in meaningfully diminishing or outright destroying the very thing it's attempting to rescue. To this reality these well-meaning and well-intentioned champions of "adaptation" seem willfully deaf and blind. It's quick fixes these champions are seeking and it's a circle-squaring exercise. There are NO quick fixes for this particular problem and it’s a failure of recognition and acknowledgement of that fact that will continue to keep the problem intractable and devoid of any meaningful, lasting, and satisfactory solution.
No, we refuse to here again argue for the umpteenth time the particulars involved, and refuse as well to link to the instances of this new outbreak of a same-old-same-old argument as doing so will serve only to encourage the perpetrators who we also refuse to name for the same reason. We here make note of the matter only by way of a heads-up and a caution.
As you were.
Mark Edmundson, a university professor of English at the University of Virginia, had published in The Chronicle of Higher Education last week an interesting article titled "Can Music Save Your Life?" wherein he concluded:
My wonderful former teacher, Geoffrey Hartman, said that most reading was vague and lazy, like girl watching. Feminists gave him the bastinado for that, but he was right. Something similar is true about listening to music. Usually it's about getting your emotions packaged for you, quieting the static inside, fabricating an exciting identity ... to counteract one's commitment to a life of secure banality.
Most music listening, like most reading, is passive. It's about girl watching rather than woman wooing, which is a tougher game. Schopenhauer says that most reading is letting other people think your thoughts for you. I'd add that most music listening is about letting other people feel your feelings for you.
While I take Dr. Edmundson's point, I think he's rather missed the mark. Music listening can go far deeper than that.
A personal experience:
I've been on serious dope for a period of time but once in my life: during a one-year recovery from a particularly nasty and should-have-been-fatal motorcycle accident in the early '70s. That experience with dope was an eye-opening and consciousness-raising one which to this day remains unforgettable. The dope was administered intravenously by medical personnel for the first month or so and self-administered orally thereafter for a period of another few months. That first warm rush and the immediately ensuing feeling of transcendent wellbeing after each dose simply has no equal in ordinary life — at least not in my ordinary life.
Needless to say, I became hooked on that feeling and slipped into the habit of checking my watch repeatedly to see whether it was permissible to administer another dose without exceeding the safe limit. One day I caught myself actually doing that and it scared me straight. On the spot and cold turkey I ceased taking the stuff and depended thereafter on aspirin alone for whatever pain relief it could offer.
While it's not quite the same thing, I today, in the closing years of my life (I've passed the biblically allotted three-score-and-ten and so figure I'm now living on borrowed time), experience much that same feeling of transcendent wellbeing and when the music's over the need for "another dose" every time I listen to a Glenn Gould performance of a Bach keyboard work; the Partitas, the Goldberg, and Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier most especially. Once the CD gets going in the player with the repeat set to ALL, it requires a substantial effort of will on my part to stop it going so that I can get on with other things no matter how long it's been going which at times could be an entire day without break.
I've of course attempted many times to analyze and explain this phenomenon to myself, a phenomenon I experience with no other music and performer, and of course always come up with an answer. But in the end, that answer, no matter how well-thought-out and detailed, always turns out to be woefully inadequate and no explanation at all. I know the phenomenon has something to do with Gould's unique and uncanny ability to delineate each voice in the music's dense polyphonic texture with perfect clarity as if he had a separate hand devoted to each yet maintain at all times a perfect horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) contrapuntal coherence in the gestalt and in so doing seems to be inhabiting and giving voice to the very mind of Bach himself which, in turn, seems, in this one respect, the very mind of God. No other so-called "absolute" music and no other keyboardist of my experience comes even close to being able to accomplish that in my case. But, by itself, that's no real explanation either.
Am I merely "getting [my] emotions packaged for [me], quieting the static inside [me], fabricating an exciting identity [for myself] ... to counteract [my] commitment to a life of secure banality" by "letting other people feel [my] feelings for [me]" as Dr. Edmundson suggests?
I seriously doubt it. But, then, there's always the possibility, no matter how disquieting, that I might be doing just that. If so, I'm content to let it be so — that is, as long as I can always get another dose.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 11:54 AM Eastern on 11 Jun. See below.]
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 6:16 AM Eastern on 6 Jun to insert the inadvertently omitted critical qualifier "secular" in referring to Jewish law.]
As a general matter, this is the kind of thing we expect from a university under Sharia law within an Islamist state, not from a university under secular Jewish law within a Jewish state, especially where matters of high culture are concerned.
Tel Aviv University, the venue for a symposium on [Richard Wagner] on 18 June culminating in a musical performance, has cancelled the booking made by the Israel Wagner Society following a wave of protests.
"We have received complaints and angry protests calling for the cancellation of this controversial event, which crosses a red line and would deeply offend the Israeli public in general, and Holocaust survivors in particular," [said the university in a letter released to the media].
Update (11:54 AM Eastern on 11 Jun): This is absolutely disgraceful!
The Israel Wagner Society is continuing in its efforts to find a venue for a concert of pieces by Richard Wagner, without much success.
Last week, the society found a venue in which to hold a concert this coming Saturday, the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel. A few days later however, hotel ownership changed its mind and cancelled the show.
"Everything was agreed upon with the Hilton's management," said Jonathan Livni, founder of the Israel Wagner Society. "Even the type of chairs — we signed a detailed contract, including which pieces would be played," continued Livni. On Friday afternoon however, despite the signed contract, and after advertisements were posted in newspapers, the Hilton handed down the decision to cancel the show.
"We don’t know the reason for cancellation," said Livni.
It's an irony of sorts that the works of the rabidly anti-Semitic Wagner have, over the centuries, often been best understood and performed by Jews, from the hugely gifted Hermann Levi, a Jew and the son of a rabbi, who conducted the Bayreuth world premiere of Wagner's deeply Christian-themed Parsifal to the notable Jewish Wagner conductors of our own era such as Fritz Reiner, Daniel Barenboim, and the great Georg Solti. Here is yet another who speaks with deeply-felt passion about Wagner and his music-dramas and operas: Iván Fischer.
A sometimes heated skirmish erupted on a venerable online opera forum during the past two weeks concerning the seemingly evergreen subject of "traditional" opera stagings versus Regietheater stagings the skirmish involving all the usual forum suspects on each side of the argument; a skirmish that began with this (relatively) innocent comment by Yours Truly in response to a post by another forum member:
Your list of production failures during Gelb's tenure may all have been ill-conceived or inept productions, and most (but not all) might be legitimately classified as Regietheater, but NONE of those productions could legitimately be classified as Eurotrash (Regietheater and Eurotrash are NOT synonymous terms; all Eurotrash is Regietheater, but not all Regietheater is Eurotrash). One of the remarkable things about Gelb's tenure is that Met audiences have been spared and saved harmless from the contemptible grotesqueries of Eurotrash, a pervasive malignancy that today infects opera stages worldwide. For that, at least, U.S. opera fans and Met operagoers ought to be grateful.
My repeated use of the term "Eurotrash" in this and in my following posts in the skirmish and my contempt for such stagings provoked one forum member to label me a "narrow minded [person] who live[s] in the past" and another to declare me "a psychotic bigot". You know. All the par-for-the-course stuff as these skirmishes go and to be expected.
As a participant in the skirmish, I at one point wrote the following concerning the distinction between Regietheater and Eurotrash:
Any staging where the director in some way or ways reimagines the original creator's vision and concept by, say for simple instance, moving the location and/or time of the action to a different place or period, is, by definition, Regietheater. The director has altered the original creator's instructions regarding those elements and substituted his own for whatever reason; good, bad, or indifferent. Only when the director substitutes his own VISION AND CONCEPT in place of that of the original creator's as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions) does Regietheater descend into the malignancy that we today label Eurotrash, the very worst examples of the type being those where the director's vision and concept are, at bottom, a deconstruction of or critical commentary on the work to hand, a la, say (to use the current Bayreuth examples with which I'm most familiar), the Bayreuth _Parsifal_ of director Stefan Herheim, or the Bayreuth _Meistersinger_ of Katharina Wagner, or the Bayreuth _Lohengrin_ of Hans Neuenfels. These are all out-and-out Eurotrash and Eurotrash of the most malignant sort.
I'd seen detailed written physical descriptions and voluminous production photos of the staging of the Parsifal and had seen the full productions of both the Meistersinger and the Lohengrin as both were streamed live on the Web by the Bayreuther Festspiele and so felt fully confident classifying them all as out-and-out Eurotrash although I confess that confidence was momentarily shaken (but only momentarily) in the case of the Neuenfels Lohengrin when I read with utter dismay and something approaching utter disbelief The New Yorker's Alex Ross declare that staging "an austere, elegant, darkly enchanting piece of theatre" and a "great Wagner performance" that "made a particularly deep impression" on him.
Needless to say, that Eurotrash classification of mine didn't sit well with the Regietheater champions on this forum the chief of these even taking the trouble to give his take on Neuenfels's Konzept for the staging of Lohengrin. The take was quite intelligent, actually, but in making it this champion for Regietheater seemed totally oblivious to the fact that he was making not his case as a champion for Regietheater, but the case for Eurotrash Regietheater's most intransigent enemies among which I number myself. For whatever Neuenfels's staging of Lohengrin may be, there is one thing it most decidedly by any stretch is not: a staging of WAGNER'S Lohengrin. This Lohengrin is not Richard Wagner's Lohengrin but Hans Neuenfels's Lohengrin hijacking Richard Wagner's music and text for its own purpose, and that's a very definition of what it means to be Eurotrash. It also, at very least, makes the promoter and presenter of this production, the Bayreuther Festspiele, guilty of fraud.
Would that it were a class of fraud actionable at law.