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.
He's back! Just as we all knew he'd be. Time & place: PBS, 19 January 2014, 22:00 Eastern (but check your local TV listings). Following, a modest but delicious Christmas present for all Sherlockians from Gatiss & Moffat.
Given our previously acknowledged ignorance of the workings of symphonic orchestra management procedures and dynamics, we were understandably hesitant to comment on what struck us as a most disturbing closing sentence in the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra's announcement of their planned series of self-produced concerts to be given this upcoming season. That closing sentence reads:
If the lockout of the Orchestra ends, the Musicians could work with management to merge any planned concerts produced by the Orchestral Association with those produced by the Musicians.
Our ignorance of the workings of symphonic orchestra management procedures and dynamics notwithstanding, we feel compelled to issue openly the following brief letter of admonition to the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra (with apologies for our temerity):
STOP! Don't even think about it! If you manage to successfully self-produce your planned concerts you're already more than halfway home. If the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) shows signs of wanting to lift their lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians and settle the matter, make certain in that settlement that, when all is said and done, the MOA ends up working for YOU, not you for them as in the past. Always remember and keep foremost in mind that YOU are the sine qua non here, in some respects the unique sine qua non, not the MOA which is made up of mere money-men(-women) and therefore freely replaceable and interchangeable. Money is money and always the same everywhere and at all times no matter from where or from whom it comes.
STAND YOUR GROUND!
That is all. As you were.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 6:52 AM Eastern on 14 Dec. See below.]
Frank J. Oteri, Senior Editor of NewMusicBox, an online publication "dedicated to the music of [living] American composers and improvisers and their champions", has written an article for that publication bemoaning America's trailing position in the matter of "gender parity" in our "cultural sector", especially in the domain of new music, when compared with other nations. Bypassing the non-importance, even irrelevance, of this "issue" in the domain of new music (after all, we no longer discriminate against living composers on account of their gender), one of the explanations put forward by Mr. Oteri runs thusly:
The biggest part of the problem is the Great Man myth that still permeates classical music and which has also found its way into the new music claiming its lineage from that tradition. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born, we will never have programming that truly reflects the vast array of musical creativity all around us. It’s the same myth that locks American repertoire out of most programming at opera houses and symphony orchestras as well as music by anyone from anywhere who is currently alive. When a work by someone who is alive, American, or female (or a combination of those attributes) is played, it’s inevitably a single work wedged in between the obligatory performances of works by Great Men. Heaven forbid a major opera company or symphony orchestra would most [sic] a season that included a broad range of works that were not penned by Great Men!
If "the biggest part of the problem" is truly the Great Man Myth (and we don't for an instant imagine that it truly is) which has it that "the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born," then we've news for Mr. Oteri: the "problem" is indissoluble and will remain so for even the most remotely foreseeable future. For the "Great Man Myth" as above defined (except for the "more than a century" part which more accurately should have read "more than a half-century or so") is in large part no myth but a demonstrable truth that no amount of wishful, PC, or delusional thinking can make disappear or cease to exist. It's time living composers (and incidentally, their champions and cheerleaders as well) accepted and got over that demonstrable truth and their destructive "anxiety of influence" response to it, to borrow Harold Bloom's neatly and aptly named formulation, and instead got on with the business of composing new music as best their native gift will allow without the need to attempt to demythologize or pooh-pooh a purported myth that's no myth at all and never was.
Yes, we understand your pain. But instead of railing at us for the above as you may be wont to do, you would do better to consider it our sincere if modest contribution to the furtherance of new music worldwide.
Update (6:52 AM Eastern on 14 Dec): We've been informed that our calling new music "so-called New Music" and our style of capitalizing the words new music and enclosing them in quotes is deeply offensive to the new music community. We apologize for that as it was not our intention to make commentary by it. We simply thought it proper form. We now know better and have accordingly made the necessary corrections to this entry.
It's been threatening for about a year now and, on the evidence of countless instances on TV news shows, interview shows, talk shows, and the like, as well as from randomly overheard conversation, has finally gone viral — or more properly pejoratively put, gone epidemic.
That is, the practice of beginning a spoken response to a spoken question — any question, any question at all — with a free-floating "So,"; a "So," referring or attached to nothing at all.
How do these mindless, half-imbecile tics get started and what keeps them alive? If you were to articulate that question in spoken form and we were afflicted with this tic we might answer you thusly: "So, it's a bit of a mystery the solution of which only The Shadow knows."
The real question is, of course, How do we go about stamping out this contemptible tic? Were this question put in spoken form, the tic-free, straightforward, spoken answer to the question might be: "It's a bit of a mystery the solution of which only The Shadow knows."
Would that we were The Shadow.
We just discovered with some measure of surprise that we've not updated our sidebar's Featured Past Post item since January(!). That simply will not do. Accordingly, we today correct that oversight by featuring what seems a fairly if not strictly appropriate past post from 2007: "A Confession And Apologia Of Sorts" the link to which is now up on our sidebar.
I've, of course, been forced to abandon this process in writing entries for Sounds & Fury with the result that there's not a single entry on this blog — be it 100 words or 1000 in length — that has not been edited, typically several times, subsequent to its posting.
In 2005, we wrote the following as the lede graf of an S&F entry commenting on our experience attending a screening of the hit movie Batman Begins titled "ACD Goes To The Movies" (which entry can be read in full here).
In 1977, after two decades of ardent and involved devotion to the cinema, I attended a screening of the original Star Wars movie drawn there against all my best instincts by the phenomena of the huge adult crowds lining up at the box office to see this putative kiddie flick, and by the largely positive reviews from certain film reviewers who ordinarily would dismiss such a movie almost out of hand. An hour after it began, I left the movie theater mid-show, dismayed and angered, and with but two exceptions (Schindler's List, and the showing of a print of the newly restored Lawrence of Arabia), haven't entered a movie theater since.
And with the single and singular exception of the aforementioned 2005 experience, so has it remained to this day.
There is today an ancillary experience: We cannot today find so much as a single movie reviewer (forget about critic), online or in print, in whose writings we can place any aesthetic trust, or who writes with the panache, eloquence, grace, and intelligence of film reviewers and critics of days past. Gone are the likes of Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Bosley Crowther, and John Simon. (Mr. Simon is still alive but no longer regularly reviews movies in print. He does, however, have an online blog — Uncensored John Simon — but which blog is, unhappily, not devoted to reviewing anything.)
Much of the blame for the debased quality of today's critical writing on movies can be laid squarely at the feet of TV's Dynamic Duo, the late Gene Siskel and his late partner in crime Roger Ebert, the modern-day originators of the thumbs-up-thumbs-down school of movie reviewing. One can readily understand the appeal of such reviews both for reviewers and their audiences. They're relatively easy and quick to write, and for their audiences, infinitely easier to assimilate and understand than are the deeper-thought-out, more deeply examined and researched criticism of the best movie reviewers and critics of yesteryear. But that's hardly a justification of the practice. Merely an attempt at a partial explanation, superficial and true though it may be.
Oh!, where have all today's true movie reviewers and critics gone? Are they all hibernating, awaiting a more propitious cultural time to make their reappearance? Or is it the case that the species has simply outlived its appeal and usefulness and consequently gone irretrievably extinct?
O tempora! O mores!
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 1:13 PM Eastern on 5 Dec. See below.]
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 4:21 PM Eastern on 3 Dec to restore several unintentionally omitted words including one word in the entry's title.]
Independent blogs (i.e., blogs written by individuals outside the editorship of corporate or commercial interests) are (in)famous, even notorious, for their occasional nasty, overblown rhetoric and S&F is no exception. S&F is in fact a blog set up originally in 2004 and still written expressly for the purpose of giving us "a more satisfying alternative to arguing with and raging at insensate objects such as books, newspapers, magazines, CDs, [DVDs,] computer displays, and TV sets in respect of their wrongheaded, in-error, or otherwise imbecile content." So reading the following in a blog post elsewhere should have caused us no surprise nor been in any way repulsive:
December the second was the 90th birthday of poor Maria Callas. The encomiums of hysterics appear on the opera lists. Isn’t that a bore? Let’s forget that most of the people on those lists are idiots; let’s also forget that most of our American Musical Journalists are idiots too. Even when one trips in the dark that is arts commentary in Fecund America Today (as Emerson put it) and finds somebody with half a brain, it’s still a bore.
Like the elderly tenorino, Placido Domingo, who lately cracked on a high note while trying to sing the Verdi baritone role of The Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, Callas has become an over sold, tired commodity, a testimony to the empty existence of opera lovers, and the pointlessness of opera in today’s world. Oh yes, Domingo in a disgusting display of “Let’s help the hype” told the ridiculous Anna Netrebko that she was “like Callas”. So Callas has become a decorative robe for whichever nonentity the whore house of the music business is pimping out.
In all the Internet commentary that followed the crack and the comparison, few mentioned that Domingo is awful in general. He’s not a baritone, not even in the limited way he was a tenor. He’s just a puppet of media, a tenor preposterously compared to the very good he could never match and even to the greatest tenors, beside whom he sounded like a singer of bit parts. Now he’s an elderly footnote with too much ego to retire and spend hours on his knobby knees thanking Mammon for being able to fool so many people for so long. On Netrebko’s recent ghastly CD devoted to destroying Verdi arias, she committed musical atrocities that Callas could hardly have conceived of, let alone have been willing to put on something as durable as a CD. So the only real world use of poor Maria is to puff up every fraud that dances along the yellow brick road to sell out the enormous Metropolitan Opera. Even a fake baritone who was a second string talent like Domingo can use Maria as a bandwagon. And everybody’s happy, except maybe the ghost of Maria Callas.
That is to say, the above should have caused us neither surprise nor repulsion had it appeared on an independent blog. But it didn't. It appeared in a blog post on a blog sponsored and published by no less than the venerable and widely read music journal Musical America; a blog and blog post written by one Albert Innaurato, the dependably bitter, angry, and foulmouthed Rumpelstiltskin of the opera world's yakking class. How Musical America could permit these near-libelous comments in a blog they sponsor and publish is beyond our understanding. That Mr. Innaurato is more than occasionally an idiot, his seeming encyclopedic knowledge of non-Wagnerian opera and the non-Wagnerian opera world notwithstanding, is well known. Musical America sponsoring and publishing Mr. Innaurato's "Musical America Blog" containing this sort of clearly inappropriate, over-the-top content makes us wonder whether Musical America is occasionally given to the idiotic as well.
Update (1:13 PM Eastern on 5 Dec): We've just heard from Susan Elliott, editor of Musical America, who informs us that Mr. Innaurato's above referenced and linked "Musical America Blog" post has been rewritten at editorial request. The rewritten blog post takes the place of the original blog post from which the above quoted excerpt was taken. All above links in this S&F entry are still good.
On an online opera forum, one Aussie forum member who identifies himself as one who "wear[s] [his] Wagnerian badge on [his] sleeve" writes mostly approvingly of the Neil Armfield staging of Opera Australia's new Melbourne Ring; a critical assessment to which we responded:
I confess it's beyond me how anyone who admits to "wearing [his] Wagnerian badge on [his] sleeve" could have any good words to say for the staging of the new Opera Australia Melbourne _Ring_. That staging is clearly and unmistakably out-and-out Eurotrash and should be condemned as ought all Eurotrash stagings of any canonical opera whatsoever. Such stagings are an especially pernicious malignancy no matter how well-designed and -executed they may be. Any directorial hack can come up with a Eurotrash staging of a canonical opera. There's no trick to doing that. The trick is to come up with a new, fresh, and revelatory staging of a canonical opera that's faithful to the full spirit and sense of the concept and vision of the opera's original creator (called in German, _Werktreue_). And the trick there is that such a staging requires an opera director with a deep understanding of the opera in question as well as a genuine creative gift, a rare commodity always. On the evidence of this Melbourne _Ring_, Neil Armfield is clearly no such opera director.
As always, the above reprinted here for the purpose of making a record of it on S&F.
But I do think that the [English National Opera] management has expended too much energy trying to please the critics and a metropolitan coterie of mavens and diehards with shows that are "ground-breakingly original" or "radically challenging" while failing to give enough thought and attention to presenting day-in day-out, bread-and-butter opera that offers less sophisticated or exigent audiences an enjoyable and modestly priced evening out....
So, pander to the tastes and sensibilities of opera-going proles in order to bring more cash into the ENO box office.
Wow! Now there's a new and novel idea.
Incredible. That's been the money-making solution since Day One of public
opera houses, and for opera as an artform it's always the wrong solution.
Some people never learn.
In response to our previous post in this thread on Opera-L (reprinted here on S&F) we received the following from an Opera-L member:
I have an opinion that is much simpler, lol. We're dealing largely with the world of myth. How does one "realistically" portray a world of mythical or fantastical creatures onstage? - Ancient gods with human behaviors, dwarves, giants, sea maidens, fates, magical birds and dragons, etc. Though the experiences and triumphs and foibles and emotions of these characters are of course meant to be universal, many of the characters themselves are not rooted in our everyday human reality. They are creatures of our imaginations, who live in imaginary worlds. How does one "definitively" or "realistically" portray this onstage, in a basic sense, let alone all the various "coups de theatre" events that take place?
[W]ith the Ring ... we're dealing with a much more intangible world of imaginary settings and characters. There is no definitive world here.
To which we responded:
Oh, but there is.
Does any sane, honest (as opposed to self-serving, self-involved) opera director/stage designer (or anyone at all, actually) imagine that Wagner's setting the _Ring_ in mythological time and space was done willy-nilly or because it was expedient?
Of course not.
Accordingly, in staging the world of the _Ring_, there are three fundamental, "definitive" requirements that must be met:
1: The overarching physical context of that world must be a recognizable (as opposed to metaphoric or symbolic) representation — abstract or literal — of raw Nature at whatever scale is called for in the score.
2: There must be NOTHING in that world that fixes the time of the action to any specific, identifiable real-world era or period — past, present, or future — beyond the action taking place at some time deep in mankind's prehistoric (literally pre-historic) past.
3: There must be NOTHING in that world that fixes the location of the action to any specific, identifiable real-world place beyond the action taking place somewhere along the length of the pre-historic Rhine River Valley.
Beyond staging the _Ring_ so that that staging first satisfies those three fundamental, "definitive" requirements, one is perfectly free to do pretty much whatever it is one's little heart desires provided it's at all points consonant with the full sense and spirit of Wagner's original vision and concept as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions).
Once again, the above for the purpose of making it part of the S&F record.