Musicologist, author, critic, essayist, and emeritus professor of musicology at University of California, Berkeley Joseph Kerman is dead at 89 after a long illness reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Among his many notable papers and publications on music his slender but brilliant and seminal 1956 volume (revised, 1988) Opera as Drama, his first book which book (in)famously and deathlessly dubbed Puccini's Tosca "a shabby little shocker" and which book we first became acquainted with only in the early 2000s, reshaped the thinking of scholars, students, and serious fans of the artform everywhere concerning the structure and nature of opera and served us in particular for what turned out to be the book's incidental validation of our own less well formed and less than popular thoughts on the matter. Professor Kerman's critical voice will be sorely missed and we mourn his passing.
The Chronicle obituary can be read here.
Atque in perpetuum, Joseph, ave atque vale.
Her co-directorship contract set to expire in September 2015 along with that of her half-sister and co-director Katharina Wagner, the 68-year-old Eva Wagner-Pasquier has asked the board of the Bayreuther Festspiele, the world's oldest music festival established in 1876 by Richard Wagner himself, to not extend her contract as co-director of the festival but merely to involve her in future as "an advisor" to the festival, whatever that's supposed to mean. That would, of course, leave the 36-year-old, Eurotrash besotted Katharina in sole directorship of the festival, a position she would never willingly abandon or give up.
It seems to us this is the perfect time and opportunity for the board to relieve the perverse Katharina of her duties and install an entirely new directorship for the festival; one dedicated to the restoration of the festival's founding purpose, a restoration to go along with the present ongoing restoration of the physical Festspielhaus itself: viz., to present model productions and performances of the operas and music-dramas of Richard Wagner as Wagner himself ideally envisioned them in his mind's eye and ear during their creation but incorporating, mutatis mutandis, resonate contemporary imagery and today's very latest and most advanced stage technology.
Toward that end, the board should, in writing, set down two inviolable staging principles that must be met by any stage director/designer who desires a commission for the Festspiele stage:
1: No so-called Konzept stagings by the stage director/designer permitted. In each case, the only Konzept permitted is that of Richard Wagner himself as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions).
2: It shall be the stage director/designer's prime responsibility to realize onstage, in the most vivid and compelling manner possible, Wagner's concept and vision of the work to hand as made manifest in the work's score and the stage director/designer's involvement in anything beyond that will be viewed as his operating in territory in which he has no business being much less messing about with.
Simple, straightforward, and to the point but requiring a stage director/designer possessing a prodigious creative gift to carry out effectively and successfully — a most rare commodity indeed but nevertheless no unicorn. Such directors/designers must be sought out as, next after the conductor and performing musicians, they are essential to the future artistic success of the Bayreuther Festspiele.
Comedy innovator and for many years early TV's guiding comedic genius Sid Caesar is dead at 91 after a brief illness family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld confirms. For those old enough to remember (and for the enlightenment of those too young)...
Full obituary can be read here.
Atque in perpetuum, Sid, ave atque vale.
We watched the two-and-a-half hour tribute to the Beatles on CBS last night on the 50th anniversary of their first live performance in America which took place on the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1964. There was no nostalgia involved for us as we're no child of the '60s and lord knows no fan of popular music but over the years did become an admirer of some of the music of the Beatles; ergo, our reason for watching last night. And we found watching the tribute to be a most satisfying experience even though the show's playlist was missing many of our favorite titles as almost all the bands and individuals who performed the Beatles songs in their own arrangements made some very fine music indeed and the response of the huge studio audience, both during and after each song and which audience included none other than the two remaining Beatles (Paul and Ringo) who also performed a number of Beatles songs, severally and together, at the end of the show, was truly heartwarming and a pleasure to witness.
It then struck us we had not so much as a single Beatles song in our library and that in order to download MP3s of our favorites recorded by the Beatles themselves we'd have to buy them and, to our dismay, would have to buy them through iTunes even though we'd long ago sworn to never again install a piece of Apple software on our Windows machine.
Well, there was nothing for it and so we downloaded and installed the iTunes software, opened an account on iTunes, and then searched a complete list of Beatles songs to see just how many songs would be involved and were shocked to discover our favorites numbered no less than 21(!). We suppose that makes us a sort of crypto-Beatles-fan of many years standing but let's just keep that juicy bit between ourselves, if you'll be so good. After all, we have a reputation to maintain.
Although this last episode of Sherlock - Series III is the most successful of the three Series III episodes, it has far too many bizarre, even preposterous, contrived twists and far too many contrived glimpses into the supposedly character-revealing personal lives of Sherlock (and Mycroft) and Watson to make it any more than the best of a bad lot all of which played themselves out in lieu of whopping good contemporary Holmes-Watson adventures told in the best Sherlockian manner as were all the episodes of Series I and II.
Ah well. All things, even the best of them, must come to an end sometime, and so it seems has Sherlock. There is, however, one faint ray of hope left us and by no less a personage than the now presumed unambiguously dead and done for villain the deliciously demented Jim Moriarty who was killed off by his own hand in the last episode of Series II. Well, it appears Moriarty wasn't. Killed off and dead and done for, that is, as he now, seemingly out of nowhere, appears for a few brief seconds at the very close of the present episode asking us directly if slyly whether we miss him. To which we almost out loud replied, "Why, Yes!, my dear fellow. We do indeed miss you. Indeed we most certainly do."
Was that Moriarty's ghost taunting us maliciously?
We'll have to wait to see.
A carelessly written, less than insightful, but largely factually accurate old-news-regurgitating article in Slate by one Mark Vanhoenacker headlined "Requiem: Classical music in America is dead" complete with a lurid graphic by one Mark Stamaty has occasioned an outbreak of mass hysteria within the classical music community that has to be witnessed to be believed. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this outbreak is that every one of the hysterical responders to this article, including three professional classical music commentators who ought to have known better (Andy Doe, William Robin, and Anne Midgette), have responded, oblivious, not to the article itself which article, apart from an ill-chosen metaphor in a single sentence remarking on current trends in contemporary mainstream American culture as regards classical music ("Looking at the trend lines, it’s hard to hear anything other than a Requiem."), makes no claim or even so much as suggests that classical music is dead, but to the article's purposely sensationalist headline; a headline that almost certainly was not provided by the author of the article who typically has little control over such things but by the article's editor, a time-honored practice in the journalism biz.
So, what did the article actually have to say about classical music. Here are the article's lede (opening) grafs:
When it comes to classical music and American culture, the fat lady hasn’t just sung. Brünnhilde has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton.
Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither. Don’t forget the attacks on arts education, the Internet-driven democratization of cultural opinion, and the classical trappings—fancy clothes, incomprehensible program notes, an omerta-caliber code of audience silence — that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture.
Clearly, this is not claiming that classical music is dead in contemporary mainstream American culture but a suggestion that it finds itself in serious trouble; viz., as the rest of the article makes clear, relegated to the culture's deepest hinterlands, its outermost margins.
(Although the article negligently does not make note of it, this silent, insidious process had its beginnings in the mid-1960s and became more pressing with each passing year since and has today reached a degree that's perhaps the most extreme it's been since America became a fully developed nation sometime in the mid- to late-19th century.)
And following those lede grafs, that is what the balance of this article is all about; the thesis it attempts to support and prove using statistical evidence of the inarguable migration.
And that's it. No requiem, no funeral. The article's author even hopes classical music in American culture is due a comeback (see the article's closing graf).
The above commentary published here in an attempt to inject a modest measure of clear-eyed sanity into the presiding hysteria.
When we first heard that doctrinaire 12-tone composer Charles Wuorinen was at work on an opera(!) based on Brokeback Mountain, an essentially tragic short story by the brilliant writer Annie Proulx, our first thought was, "No way this is going to work." Everything about the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of Wuorinen's relentlessly intellectual/cerebral musical language is thoroughly antipathetic to the lyrically dramatic musical requirements of opera. And when we further heard that Annie Proulx herself was to be the librettist — her first attempt at writing an opera libretto — we were all but certain the resulting work would be a hands-down catastrophe — that is, if it ever came into being at all. For it's almost axiomatic in opera that the greater the writer, the worse the opera librettist for as is true of all great opera librettists their words are made to serve as armature for the music whereas is true of all great writers their words are the music and Annie Proulx is a very great writer indeed.
Well, Brokeback Mountain the opera did come into being and just had its world premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid and the first reviews have started coming in. A sampling:
⚫ Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times: Mr. Wuorinen has written an intricate, vibrantly orchestrated and often brilliant score that conveys the oppressiveness of the forces that defeat these two men, whose lives we follow over 20 years, starting in 1963 when they take a summer job herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. But the same qualities in Mr. Wuorinen’s music that can captivate listeners — ingenious complexity, lucid textures, tartly atonal harmonic writing — too often weigh down the drama in this work. To his credit, there is not one saccharine or melodramatic touch in the score. Still, you yearn for the music to sing, to convey the moments of romantic bliss and sensual pleasure that the uptight Ennis Del Mar and his more daring companion Jack Twist experience. For long stretches, though, Mr. Wuorinen’s music comes across as a little too brainy and relentlessly busy.
⚫ Andrew Clements for The Guardian: [H]owever striking it is, Wuorinen's rather dry, often etiolated music, sometimes recalling late Schoenberg, sometimes serial Stravinsky, rarely transcends the text enough to enhance the drama rather than just adding rather terse punctuation and commentary to it. The tenebrous opening certainly signals the tragedy that is to come, but when it does, with Jack's death almost two hours later, there's nothing to deliver the gut wrench needed; Ennis's final monologue merely hints at the expressive world the music might have explored. [Wuorinen’s] generally sparse scoring at least means that a great deal of Proulx’s text gets across in the performance, but that’s a mixed blessing. There are far too many words: her original short story is a model of economy, but where most librettists pare down their sources, Proulx too often expands hers, adding explanations and back story, even whole scenes, that are not to be found in her original narration. Some subsidiary characters just aren’t needed, and though the opera is played straight through, in two acts of 11 scenes each without an interval, the pacing is uneven and the drama sometimes holds fire just when it needs to be moving remorselessly on.
⚫ Shirley Apthorp for The Financial Times: [T]here is nothing particularly provocative about Annie Proulx’s stark short story of two men sharing an impossible love in an inhospitable environment. It is very much the stuff of operas. Since Proulx wrote Wuorinen’s libretto herself, and the creative team stayed well away from the temptation of echoing Ang Lee’s film, the opera stands on its own. It is more explicitly tragic than the story. Ennis barely speaks at the beginning, but his part evolves as the work progresses, until finally, after Jack’s death, he can express his love in lyrical lines. Proulx’s text gives her characters words that were only implied in her original tale. Too many words; less would have been more. A superlative author is not automatically a consummate librettist.
Wuorinen’s score is as perilously close to sentimentality as it is possible for atonal music to be. Though he cites Moses und Aron as an inspiration, the music is unashamedly pictorial, echoing early Alban Berg more than late Schoenberg.
We've little to say about "The Sign of Three", the second episode of Series III of the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series Sherlock, beyond saying that the contemporary Sherlockian muse seems to have gone inexplicably AWOL and deserted writer Steve Thompson, the writer of "The Reichenbach Fall", the singularly brilliant closing episode of Sherlock, Series II. The present episode is a confused, intended-to-be-amusing concoction that fails almost every step of the way. Not even the always faithful-to-Conan-Doyle-in-spirit realizations by Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson could save it. We can only hope that Series III's upcoming concluding episode, “His Last Vow”, airing on PBS on 2 February 2014, will serve to redeem this so far hugely disappointing Series III and that Series II will not prove to have been Sherlock the series's very own Reichenbach Fall with no Return in sight.
I hate to see this, but Martin Bernheimer has grown OLD. He has forgotten the magic a fairy tale can evoke, he has forgotten the power a naive imagination can wield in the theatre, he has forgotten that all of us are, essentially, inner children using the beauty and magic of art as tools in our lifelong search for our outer adult. NO ONE has read "Alice in Wonderland" once too often; NO ONE has listened to the "Nutcracker Suite" once too often; NO ONE has seen "Fantasia" once too often. But lots of people have talked themselves into believing that they have. They blame their own jaded eyes and ears on "familiarity," instead of placing the blame squarely where it belongs: on their own paucity of imagination.
We find ourself in sympathy with this but mostly (although not entirely) disagree with the reasons given for Mr. Bernheimer's response. Rather, it is, we think, something more base. And that is that today it's not considered a "smart" critical response to praise any opera staging that hasn't been "relevantly" deconstructed socially and/or politically and/or psychologically and realized onstage in modern dress and with "kitchen-sink" realism. That such a staging is an absolute kiss of death for an opera such as Rusalka (or Frau or the Ring operas, etc.) seems to cause these "smart" critical types not so much as a moment's pause.
But then, it's the 21st century and postmodern lunacy still reigns supreme and, unhappily, there's nothing for it but to attempt to ignore it until the inmates no longer control the asylum and the postmodern ethos dies of its own demented imbecility.
The Empty Hearse" (what a dreadful Sherlockian pun!), the long-awaited (two years!) first episode of Season III of the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series Sherlock aired last night and we were both dismayed and angered by it. It was so bad, we thought, that it seemed as if it had been written by some fan-fiction moron. Turns out we weren't far wrong about that. We later learned that the episode's writer, Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss, was in fact, and with a sly and slightly malicious twinkle in his eye, actually paying, um, tribute to the mostly preposterous speculations by the series's more vocally vociferous wanna-be-a-detective fans on how Holmes, although now "officially" declared dead, had actually survived unscathed after his leap from that stories-high rooftop at the end of the last episode of Series II ("The Reichenbach Fall").
We're embarrassed to confess we just didn't get that at all our first time through this episode and actually bought whole the very first preposterous speculation which opened "The Empty Hearse" as being offered by Gatiss in earnest as an explanation of how Holmes survived his death-certain leap unscathed and it so poisoned our perception of this episode that it blinded us to everything that followed. After we were made aware of what was really going on here we re-watched the episode and indeed found it to be truly great fun — as a one-off, that is. We fervently hope Sherlock's writers will not in future make a habit of this sort of episode. Once is quite sufficient, thank you.
The world of classical music has lost another giant. Claudio Abbado, the justly celebrated conductor in both the concert hall and the opera house, died today at the age of 80. He leaves behind an extensive legacy of recorded performances that will continue to enrich the lives of classical music lovers now living and continue to do so for generations of classical music lovers to come. The New York Times obituary can be read here.
Atque in perpetuum, Claudio, ave atque vale.
Watched our DVRed copy of this Met HD film last night, our very first Onegin. Its drop-dead gorgeous music notwithstanding, we don't quite get its standing as an opera. Dramatically, it's as flimsy, banal, and melodramatic as any typical Italian soap opera; more than a bit surprising given that it's Russian through and through which led us to expect a work of more depth and gravitas. And the stage direction of this production bordered on the inept (for example, What's Tatiana doing in Act I wandering aimlessly all about the room when the words she's singing are the words she's supposedly writing to Onegin as she's singing them for our benefit?). With the exception of the Prince Gremin whose singing was thoroughly dreadful (was he just having a really bad hair day?), the singers were all splendid and a pleasure to hear and even to watch, and the acting all round was more than merely passable (although not even Netrebko could pull off a teenage Tatiana as the music prohibits it) which is always a good thing to see in opera. And even though the score of this work is largely unfamiliar to us, it struck us that Gergiev and the orchestra did it honorable justice throughout.
Would we go out of our way to sit through this opera (any production) again?
We stayed with this Web-streamed production until we were absolutely certain there was nothing there (about an hour and a half) and then we cut out. The staging was pleasing to look at but largely empty of sense and meaning; the onstage performers amazing as we can't imagine how they managed to perform the work at all; the music doctrinaire Philip Glass minimalist — mind-numbingly hypnotic and also empty of sense and meaning as is all Philip Glass doctrinaire minimalist music; the text, what little there was of it, intentionally mystifying; and the designation of Einstein on the Beach as an opera an aggressive, willful attempt to be transgressive.
In response to a number of requests, we offer as an elucidation of our New Year Wish and as our new Featured Past Post the August 2013 S&F entry titled "The Death Of Opera" the link to which is now up on our sidebar.
There is today a growing number of MSM classical music critics as well as ordinary operagoers who positively revel in the challenge of "unpacking" (to use their oft-used term) the meaning of Konzept Regietheater stagings of canonical operas as they might revel in the challenge of solving a clever rebus or acrostic....
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 1:34 PM Eastern on 4 Jan. See below.]
As it has been every New Year for the past several decades, our fervent but hopeless New Year Wish is that opera directors will finally be forced to recognize their proper place and Regietheater (i.e., Konzept opera stagings of established operas) disappear from the opera stage forever.
'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Happy New Year!, everyone.
Update (1:34 PM Eastern on 4 Jan): For an elucidation of the above sentiment, see our August 2013 S&F entry "The Death Of Opera".
As regular readers of S&F are aware, we're no admirer of popular music, generally speaking, although we're quick to recognize and appreciate a great song when we hear it and every once in a rare while a recording of a song will have just the right coming together of great song, great arrangement, and great performer and when that happens we simply can't get enough of it and replay the bloody thing over and over again for hours at a time. Two such recordings are the Carly Simon recording of the theme song from the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (which movie we never saw) titled "Nobody Does It Better",
and the Barbra Streisand recording of the title song from the movie The Way We Were (which movie we also never saw).
Last night we watched an episode of PBS's American Masters which episode was a first-rate telling of the life of the late composer Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012) whose name we knew from his nifty adaptation and arrangement of Scott Joplin rags for his score for The Sting, one of our favorite movies, and that's about all we knew of him and his work. For those more informed than we about such things it will be needless to say we were taken aback by his myriad accomplishments in the domain of popular music including the score for the long-running (6,137 performances) smash Broadway hit A Chorus Line but were positively gobsmacked to learn he was none other than the composer of both the aforementioned great songs.
We suppose we ought to begin paying closer attention to such popular music matters but we suspect that's just never going to happen. The gems are just too rare and too far between and the rest so indifferent or such utter dreck we know we'd never manage to persevere.
Pity — or so we suppose.
For the first time in many years we watched Christmas Mass from St. Peter's in Rome. Not as we remember it. It was hugely effete, even embarrassingly so. The music was lame and ineptly performed and inclusion of the crèche and its figurines were a jolting, tacky pop element, especially within the context of that astounding, awe-inspiring building, and especially the figurine of the infant Jesus, a figurine actually handled by the celebrant (in this case the Pope himself) as part of the Mass and looking for all the world like a doll purchased from Toys-R-Us.
A thorough rethinking and nontrivial changes by the Vatican in future are much needed here.