We just got around to viewing this lovely movie (thank you, Amazon Instant Video) and it's a thorough delight. Set in a fictional English retirement home for musicians called Beecham House (modeled on the famous Casa di Riposo per Musicisti in Milan founded by Verdi) it stars Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, and Billy Connolly (an actor with whose name and work we're totally unfamiliar but who is so much the spitting image of John Cleese in face, figure, and voice that it was not until the movie's closing credits we learned it was not John Cleese playing the role) all of whom turned in touching performances in this touching little tale which film critic Stanley Kauffmann described in his review for The New Republic as being "a bit thin" (which it is) but then went on to astutely observe that it really "doesn't matter. The important thing was to spend a hundred minutes or so [i.e., the length of the movie] with these people in that place," which people also included a singing cameo role for the great dramatic soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones who played Anne Langley, one of the resident guests of Beecham House. Lots of fine music-making to be heard throughout the movie all of the instrumentalists involved being real-life retired instrumentalists playing resident guests of Beecham House who actually performed the instrumental music seen in the movie themselves.
If you haven't seen this movie it's well worth at least renting from Amazon Instant Video for three bucks (we bought the film from AIV for eight bucks) and some 100 minutes of your time.
Alex Ross, classical music critic for The New Yorker, notes on his blog The Rest Is Noise:
Russell Thomas, speaking to Anne Midgette [here]: "The conversation about blackface is a distraction. It’s not about whether or not Mr. Antonenko was painted dark. It’s also not about whether whites should be allowed to sing Porgy and Bess. It’s about this: Why aren’t the stages representative of the communities in which they are located?"
Answer: Because it's unimportant, no pressing matter, and "a distraction". What matters on theater stages, the ONLY thing that matters — whether what's being presented is straight drama, musical comedy, opera, or what have you — is the excellence of the presentation and performance of the artwork being staged. Period. Full stop. Everything else — everything — is but of ancillary importance and only a hypersensitive, corrupted postmodern sensibility would argue otherwise.
Over the decades, we've viewed Citizen Kane some two- or three-dozen times and each time it seems as fresh as our first viewing. We viewed it again last night and it still raises the hair on the back of our neck, even at times brings us to tears so consummate a work of art is it.
How was it possible for a 24-yr-old, filmmaking-ignorant Orson Welles to create such a film — his very first — right out of the box, so to speak? It's akin to, say, Richard Wagner creating a Tristan und Isolde the very first time he put pen to manuscript paper. Impossible, of course. Yet what Welles accomplished in creating Citizen Kane is its rough equivalent for he both shaped and controlled every aspect of the film's making from its scripting to its actual filming and editing.
Clearly, Welles's accomplishment required an authentic cinematic genius — a genius of the most prodigious sort for which no explanation is sufficient or can even be conjectured. Whatever else Welles may have been he was indisputably that and in our estimation is to world cinema what Bach is to music and Mozart to opera.
For the most part, commercial TV spot commercials today, either of the 30-second or 60-second sort (rarely longer or shorter), are each a kind of micro-drama; quite sophisticated and very well produced. They all have the same purpose, of course, which is to sell you something; either a specific product or a corporate image and sometimes both in the same TV spot. Except for TV news shows, we never watch a commercial TV show "live" but DVR it instead so that we can fast-forward through spot commercials which commercials are typically intrusive beyond tolerance as they break for too long the "rhythm" and sense of the show they're interrupting to pitch their message.
There exist, however, certain TV spot commercials which are so enjoyable in themselves (and which we learned of when watching commercial TV news shows live) that we let them run in their entirety instead of fast-forwarding them when watching our DVRed copy of a commercial TV show. This new, ongoing series of S&F entries will be dedicated to showcasing those commercial TV spots which, in our not so humble opinion (IONSHO), qualify.
Herewith, our first three commercial TV spot commercials for inclusion in our own little Hall of TV Spot Commercials Fame (with gratitude to YouTube, our sine qua non in this enterprise):
(Song: "Feeling Good", Vocal: Audra Mae)
(Music: "Zadok the Priest" by George Frideric Handel)
In yesterday's New York Times there appeared an article titled "Debating 'Otello,' Blackface and Casting Trends" wherein Ben Brantley, the Times's theater critic, and Anthony Tommasini, the Times's classical music critic, discussed (via eMail exchanges between the two) the Met's new, no-dark-skin-makeup-for-the-Caucasian-Otello staging of Verdi's Otello. Instead of a trenchant discussion of the very real dramatic problems presented by such a staging (which problems we discussed here), these two New York Times critics engaged in a near-worthless, mealymouthed back-and-forth that even the PC-friendly Times ought to have been embarrassed to publish. We especially liked this unintentionally revealing bit of idiocy from Mr. Brantley:
Seeing "Otello," I tried to imagine how I would have responded if I hadn’t known the story before. Would I have felt something was missing without the makeup? And no, I don’t suppose I would have.
What I did miss, in the production’s first half, was any sense of what set Otello apart. Aleksandrs Antonenko, in the role, tended to blend into the crowd in the early scenes. Even a red scarf, anything, to set him apart might have helped relieve that black-and-gray canvas, and something to indicate that he had come from a culture different from the one he now inhabits.
How about markedly darkened skin (but not grotesquely darkened as in "blackface") that would instantly have shown Otello to be "from a culture different from the one he now inhabits" — you know, just as Shakespeare intended? You think that might have done the trick?
Of course it would have, you mealymouthed twit. It's not for nothing, you know, that Shakespeare didn't title his play merely Othello but Othello, the Moor of Venice.
What damage, if any, would be done to world culture were it the case that in no competent public venue (competent meaning they've the wherewithal, talent, and facilities to do the job properly) could the plays of Shakespeare be seen presented fully true to the way Shakespeare set them down using his own settings and plots and in his own language (Werktreue presentations to use the handy German term which translates literally as "work-true" meaning "faithful to the original")? Appalling damage would be the informed consensus; damage so appalling as to be virtually unthinkable.
The first commission given newly naturalized British citizen George Frideric Handel by George I of Great Britain in 1727 was to write music for the coronation of George II which, as it turned out, took place that same year. Handel composed four anthems known collectively as "The Coronation Anthems" which anthems have been a part of every British coronation since and the first of which is titled "Zadok the Priest".
And here is how we Americans made use of that anthem.
We don't know whether to pat AT&T on the back for coming up with a truly brilliant commercial or sit down and weep.
You decide for yourselves.
Our S&F entry "The Met Panders To The Sensibilities Of Simpletons — Again" of 5 August addressing an aspect of the Met's new production of Verdi's Otello has had appended a significant update that might be of some interest to our readers. Click on the above embedded hyperlink to access the updated entry.
You all (or rather, most of you, even if you're not Jewish) have at least heard of Kol Nidre, the ancient Jewish prayer and rite that, in synagogues worldwide, ushers in Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the holiest and most solemn day in the Jewish calendar which this year begins at sundown this coming Tuesday (22 September), and have heard as well its ancient, haunting, plaintive melody which has moved several classical composers, none of them Jews, to set it for various instruments or instrumental ensembles, right?
Would you be surprised to learn Kol Nidre is no prayer at all but a legalistic formula for the annulment of certain types of vows (Kol Nidre translates as "All Vows")?
There's much that's surprising, even mysterious, about this ancient formula and its melody, a melody that survived for centuries via person-to-person sung transmission, and you can read all about Kol Nidre in this superb, scholarly but lucidly written 1968 article by Rabbi Herman Hayyim Kieval (1920-1991) for the excellent and venerable magazine Commentary.
And let us take this opportunity to wish our Jewish readers Gmar Chatimah Tova, for you and all your loved ones.
We mean the above in earnest. Danny Kaye, the great comic actor, is actually conducting the NYP (1981), not merely waving his arms around following the music in comic imitation of a symphony orchestra conductor but actually conducting the orchestra — perfectly — just as would an actual professional symphony orchestra conductor who knows the music inside out, measure by measure, except Danny Kaye has never studied conducting and can't read music. And seamlessly integrated within the context of his serious music-making, Danny Kaye the conductor often takes time to be Danny Kaye the comic actor and when he does he's, as always, hilarious. This concert is a benefit concert for the musicians' pension fund, one of numerous such concerts Kaye conducted over some 20 years with and for symphony orchestras all across the nation.
What an astonishing talent he was.
Here. Judge for yourself (you'll first have to put up with the NYP's then music director Zubin Mehta butchering the overture to Strauss' Die Fledermaus).
Few have done it better than The New Yorker's classical music critic Alex Ross here taking a break from his seemingly endless (but we confess necessary, even obligatory, though we're often at odds with what he has to say) promotion and championing of new music and new musical trends in this 2012 talk on Wagner given at The New Yorker Festival of that year.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 11:55 PM Eastern on 30 Aug. See below.]
When asked at age 5 what he liked most in the world, neurologist and celebrated author Dr. Oliver Sacks replied, "smoked salmon and Bach." Some 70 years later he had occasion to remark that his answer to that question remains "basically still the same." That, coupled with his admiration for the intelligence of cephalopods, and we knew he was a man after our own heart and a man to be paid attention to.
Oliver Sacks died today of cancer at his home in New York City, reports The New York Times. He was 82. Below, he discusses his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
In the closing graf of a thoughtful, well-considered, 1500-word 2001 New York Times piece written by (now) chief classical music critic for The Washington Post Anne Midgette titled "Daniel Barenboim: The Conductor Who Would Own Wagner", we find this concerning Barenboim's reading of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde:
A highlight of [Barenboim's] 1995 "Tristan" recording is King Marke's Act II monologue, where he tenderly conducts a noble Matti Salminen. But at the pivotal moment earlier in the act, where the lovers are reunited, the music rushes impetuously through the scene without deeply taking hold. Mr. Barenboim, of course, doesn't have the Isoldes of the past. The truest emotional record of that moment remains, to these ears, that of Kirsten Flagstad on the 1952 Furtwängler recording (on EMI); despite less than ideal casting, with Ludwig Suthaus as Tristan, the music — to resort to Wagnerian cliché — achieves the kind of transcendence the moment requires [emphasis ours].
Excuse us? A "Wagnerian cliché" to use the word transcendence here(!)? We of course understand Ms. Midgette's preemptive self-defensive apology for her use of the word as it's used often in connection with any number of things having to do with Tristan, but calling the word's use here a cliché does Wagner, Tristan, and, in this case, Furtwängler a deep injustice. What other word would serve better or even just as well? None we can think of. There's simply no help for it.
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 11:04 AM Eastern on 13 Aug to clarify and sharpen language and add remarks unintentionally omitted.]
Courtesy of YouTube contributor "Logan D" we've now been able to view an HD video of the complete 2015 Bayreuther Festspiele Tristan und Isolde, a new production conceived and directed by Wagner great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner. We've had occasion to say something about this production in the S&F entry titled "The 2015 Bayreuther Festspiele Tristan From A Distance" based on a live audio stream of the premiere by BR Klassik Radio as well as on act-by-act production photos and verbal descriptions of the physical action so this new HD video held no surprises for us as far as the staging is concerned.
We previously called that staging sophomoric and sophomoric is what it proved to be, from the conceit of Act I's blatant if only tenuously symbolically apposite allusion to M.C. Escher's impossible staircases leading nowhere, to the bizarre sci-fi futuristic prison of Act II (yes, this is a Regietheater staging — what else? — and Act II is set in a prison run by the henchmen of this production's tyrannical König Marke wherein Tristan and Isolde are held captive along with Kurwenal), to the imagined symbolic rightness of Act III's utterly black, all but featureless blank stage and background with its reappearing, floating, Isolde-filled triangles of light (perhaps a reference, if reference they indeed are, to the tent-like structure Tristan and Isolde jerry-rigged in the prison of Act II to hide them from the searchlights of König Marke's henchmen, but given Katharina's sophomoric Regie mentality we shudder to think what else those triangles might be a reference to), not to again speak of the imbecile close of the music-drama in this staging wherein Isolde, at the close of her Verklärung, is ripped away from Tristan's corpse and dragged off by König Marke very much alive as if she were mere chattel (as indeed she was originally intended to be). Finally, after having seen the full production, to all the above we now feel compelled to add how appalling the disconnect is, emotional and intellectual, between this staging and the nonpareil transcendent work created by Katharina's great-grandfather more than 150 years ago in what proved to be an ironic attempt to compose an opera that could be mounted quickly and easily even by theaters of modest means. We do, however, have to give Katharina credit for cleverly and neatly doing away with the magic love potion thing upon the magic of which potion even those who ought to know better are still wont to lay blame for the lovers' out-of-control passion for each other.
While the staging held no surprises for us, what was a surprise — and a welcome and most pleasant one at that — were the performances themselves.
We previously wrote that, overall, this Tristan was merely "adequate" performance-wise with the great Wagner conductor Christian Thielemann markedly off his game in the music-drama's Prelude and Act I. With Wagner, if the conductor is off his game the game is pretty much over for the whole show. This time around, however, Thielemann was on his game in spades right from the music-drama's first measure through its very last which is another way of saying you'll never hear a more superlative reading of this score than this one, not even from the Wagnerian podium greats of the past. And as for the singer-actors, this time around all of them seemed to be performing at the top of their game as well, both musically and dramatically, their physical acting very much included.
Evelyn Herlitzius, this production's Isolde, while possessing a big voice that's sharp-edged rather than beautiful and with a tendency to shrillness when going flat-out, was powerfully moving, especially in tandem with her excellent physical acting. Stephen Gould, the production's Tristan, more a big-voiced dramatic tenor rather than a true Heldentenor, was also powerfully moving and, like his Isolde, his physical acting was excellent. A standout, both musically and dramatically, was Georg Zeppenfeld, this production's König Marke, whose darkly rich bass and first-rate acting skills made even this staging's tyrannical König Marke believable and sympathetic (well, almost sympathetic). Christa Mayer and Iain Paterson, the Brangäne and Kurwenal, respectively, did excellent musical and dramatic duty in their supporting roles adding immeasurably to the first-rate musical and dramatic success of this production on this video, never mind the sophomoric staging.
Typically, our advice to those contemplating spending time viewing this video would be for them to shut their eyes and just listen. But we can't really do that in this case as then the excellent physical acting done by the singer-actors would be missed and thereby the viewers short-changed. All we can do here by way of advice, then, is to lamely suggest that viewers ignore the staging for the duration as best they can manage the trick and their more hungry theatrical sensibilities take the hindmost.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 12:54 AM Eastern on 25 Sep. See below.]
In 2014 Peter Gelb, General Manager of New York City's world-important Metropolitan Opera, decided to stage The Death of Klinghoffer, a fairly infrequently performed 1991 opera by the famous contemporary American composer John Adams, and immediately a storm of protest erupted as the work was perceived by a number of people to be markedly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. In order to appease these objectors Mr. Gelb decided to pander to their sensibilities by withholding the opera from presentation in the Met's hugely popular "Live in HD" series, movie house and TV, as well as in a planned audio broadcast of the opera on the, um, questionable grounds that such presentations "might be used to fan global anti-Semitism" and that such presentations "would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe".
On 21 September the Met will open its 2015-2016 season with Verdi's great masterpiece Otello staring the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role of the black (or "Moorish") military hero but, breaking more than a century of tradition, makeup will not be used to disguise the white tenor's visage or skin color to make him appear black (or "Moorish"), never mind the underlying essential dramatic and tragic centrality of the hero's blackness (or "Moorishness"). And the reason? Because it's an "old-fashioned, out-of-pace-with-the times approach" and distressing "in this time of anti-racist urgency," says Mr. Gelb.
And so, once again, the Met panders to the sensibilities of simpletons and PC automatons, this time by obliterating the central underlying dramatic and tragic linchpin of this great opera (and the great play upon which it's based) — the hero's blackness (or "Moorishness"), the signifying outer expression of his otherness, an otherness that underlies and drives his every action and reaction in the drama — absent which the drama is robbed of its essential underlying tragic element (after all, Shakespeare did not title his play Othello but Othello, the Moor of Venice) and is thereby emasculated both as drama and as tragedy.
Way t'go!, Mr. Gelb. You're truly a man of your time.
O tempora! O mores!
Update (12:54 AM Eastern on 25 Sep): Subsequent to the premiere of the above referred to new Met production of Otello (21 September 2015) a discussion took place on the Opera-L opera forum (eMail list) on same to which discussion we contributed and which contribution we below reprint strictly for the purpose of making an S&F record of it as is our usual practice.
In Anne Midgette's review of the Met's _Otello_ for _The Washington Post_, she writes:
=== Begin Quote ===
Before the opening, the Met announced it was dispensing with the usual dark makeup, a wise decision because it didn’t affect the drama a bit....
=== End Quote ===
I, of course, didn't see the production but if what Ms. Midgette wrote is really true, there's something terribly — fundamentally — wrong dramatically with this production. With an un-made-up Caucasian Otello it's not possible theatrically to establish and maintain what is absolutely essential — absolutely central — to this tragic drama: Otello's "otherness" as I put it some two months ago [i.e., in our above S&F entry] as outwardly signified by his blackness (or "Moorishness"). Absent that outward constant signifier of Otello's otherness, which otherness "drives his every action and reaction in the drama", we're left with nothing more than a half-demented, murderously jealous brute blindly acting out his mad rage.
Hardly a tragic hero.
Dennis ______ wrote:
>Otello's blackness is the essence of his standing as a Romantic hero.
>That blackness is vital to the character and all that stems from it to
>form the action of the opera. It may be subtly suggested, or it may be
>overtly shown; but it needs to BE THERE. It simply cannot be ignored:
>forcing Otello's "blackness" to be a product, merely, of the opera
>goer's imagination is a totally modern approach. It's a perfectly valid
>approach in SOME works, as Paul _______ notes in his post; but it is
>one totally inappropriate to an opera steeped in Romantic tradition.
Good points all. I would only further suggest that anyone who imagines Otello's visible blackness (or "Moorishness") is anything other than essential — central — to both the character and the opera should ask himself why Shakespeare made his wholly fictional Othello, from which character Boito's Otello is taken as is, of course, Boito's libretto taken from Shakespeare's play, a black (a Moor).
Does anyone seriously imagine Shakespeare did that willy-nilly just for the hell of it or, just as bad, to be true to his fictional source (a story titled "Un Capitano Moro" by Italian novelist Giovanni Battista Giraldi ("Cinthio"))? The very idea is, of course, thoroughly preposterous. Shakespeare made his Othello a black (a Moor) in an all-white society because Shakespeare saw in the device powerful and tragic dramatic possibilities and a perfect outer signifier of his character's otherness — an otherness that underlies and drives his Othello's (and Boito's Otello's) "every action and reaction in the drama", as I've previously put it, which is to say it's absolutely central to the character and to the drama both in Shakespeare's play and Boito's libretto and MUST be shown *explicitly*.
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 5:23 AM Eastern on 27 Jul to insert inadvertently omitted clarifying language, add external links to two eyewitness accounts of the production, and correct some typos and clumsy language.]
We tuned in yesterday to BR Klassik Radio to hear the live broadcast of the new Katharina Wagner production of her great-grandfather's Tristan und Isolde from the 2015 Bayreuther Festspiele with the great Wagner conductor Christian Thielemann on the podium and did something we've never before done with any opera: posted a comment to the Web while the music was in progress, in this case about three-quarters of the way through the Prelude to Act I. Our comment (in this case, a tweet to Twitter), posted in anger and dismay in response to Thielemann's fleet, empty, antiseptic reading of the score, read:
Listening to Bayreuth _Tristan_. What the fuck is Thielemann doing!? Can only guess he's adjusting the music to K's imbecile staging.
As we said, empty and antiseptic. Perversely empty and antiseptic (what goes on dramatically in Act I is anything but empty and antiseptic). And as for Katharina's Konzept (yes, it's a Eurotrash staging — what else? — and it not only got no boos from the Festspiele audience but applause and bravos, no less), from what we can glean from the above production shot and from other production shots from other acts of this Tristan as well as from verbal descriptions of the physical action in all three acts, this Eurotrash staging is more sophomoric than imbecile notwithstanding the imbecile close given the music-drama in this staging (Isolde is ripped away from Tristan's corpse and dragged off very much alive by this Konzept's tyrannical König Marke); Tristan as seen through the eyes of an au courant, postmodern PC feminist who needs to make a point about male hegemony. No wonder there was applause and bravos and no booing from the Festspiele audience. As for Thielemann, not to worry. He was back on his superlative game for Acts II and III, never mind the sophomoric staging. And as to the overall heard performance, it's most succinctly said in my concluding Tristan tweet of the afternoon:
Act III T&I done. CT on his superlative game again. Singers made it through in good voice. Marke again splendid. Overall, an adequate T&I.
Ah well. At least the staging wasn't grotesque Eurotrash. The Castorf Ring is also on the menu this Bayreuth season and that's more than enough Eurotrash grotesque for any single opera season anywhere.
Here are links to two eyewitness accounts of the production, one from The New York Times and one from The Guardian.
In one way or another I've been involved with music (mostly but not entirely of the sort that's referred to as "classical music") since my earliest remembered childhood and, as is common with such as us, have over the course of many years (I passed through my biblically allotted threescore-and-ten some time ago) arrived, pretty much spontaneously and entirely informally and absent any sort of agenda, at my own personal ranking of composers throughout history which ranking, ultimately, must be considered helpless of any wholly objective, wholly rational, wholly quantifiable justification. That notwithstanding, I, as is also common with such as us, maintain that ranking as if it were as objectively, rationally, and quantifiably justifiable as are the laws of, say, Newtonian physics.
My ranking is made up of four hierarchical classes of composers according to native endowment the separation between each successive hierarchal class consisting not of a line but of a chasm; an eternally unbridgeable chasm; a chasm that can never be crossed by the efforts of members of a class: the genuine craftsman, the genuinely gifted, the genuine genius, and the transcendent genius. Which composers I assigned to each class has varied over the years for all classes save one, the ultimate class: the transcendent genius. The composers I assigned to that class have never changed since the inception of the ranking and they number but three: Bach, Mozart, and Wagner (I at times considered assigning a fourth, Beethoven, on the strength of his last quartets but always in the end decided that was insufficient qualification over his lifetime of work).
I know I'm hardly alone in this sort of spontaneous personal ranking and wondered how others go about it. Feel free to express your thoughts on the matter below for which purpose I open the Comments Section on this entry.