I listened to the Met's season-closing _Die Walküre_ yesterday via WQXR's excellent live feed and found the performance to be largely disappointing both musically and dramatically. What I don't know and can't determine is how much was due the vehicle (i.e., the streaming audio feed) and how much the actual performance as it was heard in-house. To bullet-point what was heard via the streaming audio feed: * Kaufmann (Siegmund): a lovely, lyric, German tenor voice with baritonal colorings but still not quite suited to this role (too light). Also, he sang the role far too lyrically; better suited to Verdi than Wagner and, surprising for a native German singer, his declamation here was also better suited to Verdi than Wagner. Not my idea of an ideal Siegmund.
* Westbroek (Sieglinde): strong but not particularly beautiful soprano voice; a voice largely absent any real dramatic nuance. Also, her German is positively atrocious.
* König (Hunding): A fine performance all round. Voice nicely matched to the role.
* Terfel (Wotan): Fine all-round job musically and dramatically. Voice too light for the role but that disability was largely overcome by his understanding of the role and his dramatic realization of that understanding.
* Voigt (Brünnhilde): Fine, big voice but still not entirely comfortable with the role either dramatically or vocally. She gives promise of becoming one of the best of the current Brünnhildes once she has more experience with the role.
* Blythe (Fricka): An exemplary performance of this role were it not for a single misstep that all but made the entire performance false dramatically: the perfectly idiot, grotesquely-Italian-opera-sentimental [and inappropriate] breaking down in sobs at the close of her line, "die Göttin entweiht er nicht so!". Whether that was something she decided to do herself or was directed to do I have no idea, but it really must be done away with!
* Jimmy and The Band: Something was very wrong there yesterday. The music came across not as a single, seamless dramatic narrative and commentary beginning to end but as a stringing together of many individual sections. That could have been the result of poor or inappropriate miking but I have no way of determining that and so will comment no further on it here.
The eyes and ears of the music world were supposed to be magnetised by this epochal Rheingold. As a quixotic fate would have it, the ears fared better than the eyes. Much better.
In the first part of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the god Wotan uses his sister-in-law as collateral for a new home. In a similar fit of recklessness, the Metropolitan Opera has bet its own house on a new Ring. The production by Robert Lepage, which will roll out over the next two years and serve the Met for many more (unless it bankrupts the company first), begins with a whiz-bang but verveless Das Rheingold, in which miracles of stagecraft alternate with long stretches of standing around, waiting for the computer-guided set to trundle into place.
Lepage's Ring is utterly traditional: All the characters are taken at face value, with little effort to delve beneath the surface. All of the creative energy went into the set.
Director Robert Lepage’s production is a work in progress. The first two nights of the show had technical issues, and when the set stopped moving, the singers looked as though they were fending for themselves. The costumes were gaudy and the props not very godlike, making arrogant deities come off as glum and monochromatic.
How competent is Mr. Conlon to conduct the Ring as staged music-drama as opposed to orchestral excerpts?and answered it by writing:
Our provisional answer ... is not a happy one. Nothing of what we know of Mr. Conlon's work leads us to believe he's up to the formidable task of conducting a staged Ring with anything more than mere technical excellence. Needless to say, that's not nearly enough, but we're willing to believe that he may rise to the challenge once confronted.As of late this afternoon, we have a less provisional, more definitive answer to the question (or, rather, as definitive an answer as can be gotten from an MP3-quality webcast* of an LAO-approved recording of a single live performance of the LAO's new production of Das Rheingold auditioned over a typically crappy computer sound system). And that answer is that Maestro Conlon's reading displayed a thorough knowledge of the score, which score he conducted with admirable technical excellence, drawing technically flawless performances from both orchestra and singers alike (we were especially impressed by the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, and most especially by the orchestra's brass section which performed splendidly, and the horns most notably so). But as we previously remarked, that's not nearly enough where a Wagner music-drama is concerned. So, what was amiss with this performance of Das Rheingold? To state it in short: Maestro Conlon's conspicuous lack of an intuitive sense of Wagnerian rhetoric. This performance was polished entirely too smooth throughout. One might even go so far as to say the performance was sedate (or as sedate as a technically excellent performance of this work's music is capable of being); a troubling quality most distressingly apparent in the lynchpin episode of Wotan's theft of Alberich's ring. The question then remains, Can one really fault a conductor merely because he lacks an intuitive sense of Wagnerian rhetoric? The first answer that wants to escape our lips is, Yes, one can when the performance of a Wagner music-drama is being assessed. But when we think back on the technical excellence of this performance which was proof positive the conductor knew the score thoroughly and was able to communicate its requirements to the performers, then we're not at all sure such a conductor should be faulted merely for his lack of what is, after all, a specialized and peculiar gift; one that's essentially innate and can neither be taught nor learned in the ordinary sense of those words, which gift we long ago dubbed metaphorically the "Wagner Gene". It's a question difficult to answer fairly and neatly, and so one must be content to spell things out in one's assessment of such a conductor as we've above done, and leave the reader of that assessment to draw his own conclusions regarding the matter.
* The webcast was by Los Angeles public radio station KUSC, "the largest and most listened-to public radio and non-profit classical music station in the country" which is webcasting recorded live performances of each of the four music dramas of the LAO Ring each Saturday at 1:00 PM (EDT), this Saturday having been the first in the webcast series which series will continue over the next three Saturdays.
We trust the foregoing will forestall any further admonitory e-missives along this line.
Deutsche Bank will present a free webcast of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle performing Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies on Monday, 9 November 2009 at 8 PM EST (GMT-5) on its website. To register for the free webcast, follow the link to the webcast on the Deutsche Bank homepage. Click here for the Deutsche Bank website (www.db.com).
We've just finished watching a video of Duddy's (that's Gustavo Dudamel to you) much and widely ballyhooed inaugural concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its new Music Director, the video courtesy of the LAP's website (and with thanks to classical music critic and blogger Robert D. Thomas of Class Act for the heads-up and the link). The single work given (or at least the single work on the video) was Beethoven's No. 9, and it was not, how shall we put it, a performance for the ages — a performance twice jarringly interrupted by inappropriate applause (don't get us started!) — notwithstanding the fireworks show accompanying an encore of the choral section of the last movement. (The concert, we hasten to add for those who've been living under a rock for the past couple months, was given free at the Hollywood Bowl, and, no, we're not going to give you all the gory details of the performance. Watch and listen to the video for yourselves if you're interested.)
But there's time for stellar performances by Duddy and the LAP of No. 9 and of other great music. What was extraordinary about this concert was not the performance or the fireworks in the sky, but the fireworks in the audience. One would have thought Duddy a rock star of the very first magnitude so charged-up and unrestrainedly enthusiastic were they. And this for a mere conductor of a symphony orchestra!
Things seem to be looking up thanks to a gifted, charismatic, 28-year-old, afro-coiffed Latino.
Who woulda thought.
[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 1:44 PM Eastern on 25 Apr. See below.]
This afternoon, beginning 12:00 PM EDT, the Met closes its current Ring cycle with a performance of Götterdämmerung which performance will be aired via the Met's regular Saturday afternoon opera broadcast, and also via the Met's own webcast which can be accessed here. For some of you, this 2005 commentary on Götterdämmerung titled, "The Trouble With Götterdämmerung", might be of some small interest, and so we accordingly recommend it to your attention.
Update (1:44 PM Eastern on 25 Apr): After hearing the Norns episode, we thought there might be a chance for this performance. No such luck. The thing is a veritable train wreck — from Levine on down. We're off. We've had it. We're no masochist.
After hearing the rousing audience reception of Die Walküre tonight, we're forced to the sad conclusion that the Met's audience has got to be among the most undiscerning opera audiences in the world.
Has it always been thus?
Our memory is not what it used to be, but we don't think so.
Here's a video of an extraordinary conversation which yesterday aired on an extraordinary segment of (and for) PBS's Charlie Rose Show in celebration of the 100th birthday of composer Elliott Carter: A Conversation With Elliott Carter, Daniel Barenboim, and James Levine. Carter showed himself to be still sharp as a tack mentally, and, if you ask us, doesn't look a day over 80.
For us, one of the most telling moments of that conversation was Barenboim's explanation of why Carter's notoriously complex atonal music is perceived by audiences as genuine music. His explanation — which runs from 13:25-15:10 on the video — although expressed more eloquently, sounded remarkably like what we had to say in our 24 April 2008 post, "On Music And Gibberish"; viz.,
It's not atonality per se — i.e., the music's lack of a triadic tonal center(s); a "home base," so to speak — [that makes so much of atonal music sound so unmusical; even non-music], nor is it the almost unrelenting, unresolved harmonic dissonance that's the hallmark of the atonal. It's something much more fundamental: the lack of a perceptible and coherent musical narrative from work's beginning to end, which is to say the lack of the work's saying comprehensibly something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods which are — or ought to have been and be — but mere tools used in its making.
To put the matter more bluntly and much less eloquently, a composition absent a perceptible and coherent musical narrative from beginning to end is gibberish and not music.
And that's the test — the touchstone — that determines whether a work as a whole is genuine music or gibberish. Flashes of musical brilliance — even a sustained series of such flashes from work's start to finish — simply won't do to make that work a work of genuine music unless those flashes conspire to produce a perceptible and coherent musical narrative [from work's beginning to end].
That's genuine music's sine qua non — even its very definition.
This exceptional 32-minute video is well worth your time viewing in toto.
There's no way to discuss this matter without its seeming to come off appearing a thoroughly petty complaint when measured against the larger achievement, but it's so remarkable a matter that we simply can't let it pass absent remark.
We're talking about the absolutely wrong and wrongheaded realization, musically and dramatically, of the critically important opening two-measure phrase of the opening ten-measure paragraph of the Vorspiel to Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and the two-measure phrase's following second statement (as well as the second statement of the entire paragraph some six measures after the first) as they were realized by Daniel Barenboim in his debut on the Met's podium on 28 November; a realization repeated this past Saturday for the broadcast matinée.
That opening ten-measure paragraph is one of the small wonders in an opera filled with manifold wonders of magnitudes large and small, and which paragraph is perhaps the most concise, deeply affecting, and profound evocation of utter desolation and despair, external and internal, to be found in all of opera, perhaps even in all of music. And much of that paragraph's effect (and affect) can be attributed directly to its opening four measures — i.e., its repeated opening two-measure phrase — ergo, the critical importance of those measures, and the reason for this article which by its very nature cannot help but be somewhat technical, for which, our apologies.
Wagner notates the tempo for the Vorspiel, Mäßig langsam (moderately slow; the German, langsam, is roughly equivalent to the Italian, largo), and the meter, common time (4/4). The Vorspiel's opening ten-measure paragraph is played by the orchestra's string choir (violins, violas, cellos, and contrabasses) alone, and its opening four measures are hugely and hollowly dissonant the hollowness of that dissonance due largely (but not entirely) the violins sounding its prolonged, dissonant major-second G against the F tonic sounded in the rest of the string choir using the G of the violin's lowest open (i.e., unstopped) string. That open-string G is so important to the sound and sense of the Vorspiel's opening paragraph and of the Vorspiel itself that we'd almost be willing to declare that Wagner chose the nominal minor key of the Vorspiel (f-minor) precisely in order that the strongest dissonance of its opening paragraph would be produced using that hollow-sounding open-string G.
And what does Wagner write for the opening four measures of that opening ten-measure paragraph to produce its magic? It's utterly simple. The violas, cellos and contrabasses sound a chordal pedal using the tonic, sixth, fourth, and fifth degrees of the f-minor scale, while above, after a quarter rest, the first violins join them by first sounding a hollowly and hugely dissonant tied half-note and eighth open-string G, with the second violins joining at the same time sounding a dotted half-note open-string G which is tied to another dotted half-note open-string G in the following second measure of the two-measure phrase the entire string choir resolving at phrase's close in an f-minor triad, the triad's uneasy fifth degree sounding prominently on top.
When taken at Wagner's indicated tempo, the prolonged, major-second dissonance of that hollow-sounding open-string G produces a sense of desolation that's all but unbearable which is precisely the effect it was intended to produce. In fact, experienced Wagner conductors typically prolong that hollow open-string dissonance slightly beyond the notated time value of the notes by introducing a slight rubato or quasi-fermata on the open-string G in the first measure of the two-measure phrase.
Which brings us to Mr. Barenboim's realization of those critical four measures.
First, he ignores Wagner's tempo marking entirely, and takes that opening ten-measure paragraph almost Alla breve. As if that weren't wrongheaded enough, he treats the tied half-note plus eighth open-string G in the first violins in the first measure of that repeated opening two-measure phrase almost as if it were a tied eighth plus sixteenth, thereby destroying utterly the effect intended by Wagner as indicated in the score.
Now, nothing could make those opening four measures and the remaining six of that ten-measure paragraph sound anything but doleful. That's a function of the notes themselves no matter what the tempo taken. But Wagner didn't intend to express the merely doleful. He intended to express an external and internal landscape of utter desolation and despair as we've noted above. A sympathetic reading of the score tells us that, and all one need do to realize in performance what Wagner intended is to follow his notation as written. Mr. Barenboim, however, and for reasons which elude us entirely, chose not to do so, and instead of evoking a landscape of utter desolation and despair, ended up evoking a landscape merely doleful which robs the Vorspiel of its special genius, and this closing act of the opera a fair measure of its opening gravitas which is a matter not to be taken lightly (NPI); ergo, this complaint. And if the complaint appears petty measured against the larger achievement, well, then, so be it. We lodge it that notwithstanding.
This PR release just received from American Public Media:
(St. Paul, Minn.) August 27, 2008—Capping a 53-year career, one of the world’s best-loved chamber ensembles, the renowned Beaux Arts Trio, played its final American concert on Thursday, August 21. American Public Media’s Performance Today is offering an exclusive podcast of this historic concert. Beginning on Wednesday, August 27, the concert at Massachusetts’ Tanglewood Music Festival will be available in its entirety, in two segments, by visiting www.performancetoday.org.
Led for more than half a century by pianist Menahem Pressler, the legendary Beaux Arts Trio will disband after a series of European concerts in September. With the concert at Tanglewood, the ensemble returned to its place of origin — it played its first concerts there in 1955. The occasion also marked a return to repertoire it made American audiences familiar with over the decades: Franz Schubert’s magisterial Opus 99 and Opus 100 piano trios. The group’s three encores will also be included in the podcast.
Fred Child, host of Performance Today, served as host for an exclusive live Webcast of the August 21 concert, and he’ll provide commentary, features and interviews with the members of the trio: pianist Menahem Pressler, violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses.
We've just been made aware of what turns out to be a valuable online classical music resource. It's a new website called Classical DJ, and the name is most apt. Classical DJ is a worldwide compendium of online commercial (broadcast) classical music radio stations neatly organized and hyperlinked for your convenience. We've added Classical DJ to our exclusive listing of Culture Sites on our left-hand sidebar.
(Note to those contemplating eMailing us to announce the existence of a new website or blog and requesting a link on Sounds & Fury in exchange for a link to S&F on the new website or blog.
Although we're most gratified when linked to by others, we don't engage in link trading on S&F. We almost dumped the eMail that came to us announcing the above website as it suggested such a link exchange. If you have a new website or blog that you think would be of interest or use to S&F's readers, by all means let us know about it. If we think the website or blog worthy of a listing on S&F, we'll list it. If not, not, regardless of whether you post a link to S&F on your website or blog or not. We trust we make ourselves clear.)