You know how sometimes you listen to music and go all cold and tingly because it’s so beautiful?

Apparently this phenomenon has a name, as noted in this New York Times article about a slightly different brain thing called autonomous sensory meridian response or ASMR, a rare neurological disorder most often diagnosed in people who make maps for a living.


E quanti mai?

Have you ever read John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor? I mention this because there is a bit in it where the main character, poet-laureate of colonial Maryland Ebenezer Cooke, finds that he cannot find a rhyme to the phrase “a-coloneling”, spelled “a-kernalling” (I think this is the spelling – I am away from my books at the moment, so I can’t look it up). His friend Henry Burlingame ponders this, and then replies, with an evil gleam in his eye, that he too “cannot rhyme the infernal thing.” Ebenezer is just starting to get even grumpier when Henry starts spouting paragraph after paragraph of couplets that rhyme with “kernalling”, “infernal thing” “vernallings” “sempiternal things” and so on – at one point, he gets stuck, and then suddenly explodes with “Ha! ha! I have hatched more!” and then goes on for another page. It’s quite funny.

I bring this up because it seems to me that obscure non-Mozart Baroque versions of La Clemenza di Tito are a bit like English rhymes for “kernalling.” Just when you think you have found them all, someone hatches another one.

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Ariodante – Festival d’Aix 2014

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 8.56.28 AMThis production of Handel’s Ariodante has a little twist at the end that I rather liked – it was particularly effective in that the production itself on average does not scream “weird!” or “we’re going to mess with this opera!” It’s set in what looks like a farmhouse in Scotland in the 1940s. (Or, based on the amount of hair and mild griminess and puppets and lots of chunky sweaters, possibly in the vicinity of the Evergreen State College in the 1990s.) During the overture, we see a minister, who turns out to be Polinesso (Sonia Prina) leading a religious service around the table – Polinesso reminds everyone of the evil of women and so on and so forth.

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Stewart Goodyear / Beethoven Piano Sonatas 7-6-14

One might look at the program for this recital and be forgiven for thinking that it is insane. Goodyear is performing a series of concerts at Bargemusic that will eventually include all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas; this is concert number three of four. So, seven piano sonatas in slightly more than two hours. I admit, by the end, my attention was wavering.

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Weekend 7-6-14

I spent some of yesterday watching a DVD of Verdi’s Aida, the one from Zurich with Nina Stemme in the title role. I’ve seen this one before, ages ago, and I remembered the split screen video direction (for example, in several scenes, you see say, Amneris in one part of the screen, Aida in another, and a long shot showing the entire stage at the bottom) and the general concept, which places the story in late nineteenth-century Egypt, when the country was occupied by the British.

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Purcell – The Fairy Queen / Styriarte Festival 6-21-14

The recent production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen broadcast live from the Styriarte Festival reminded me again how much I enjoy Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s conducting. This came to mind during the overture, at various little moments of transition from one mood to the next – and just in general at many points throughout the performance. It’s something about the pacing, or the rhythm – hard to pin down in words, but Harnoncourt conveys just the right amount of energy with this music, so it’s engaging to listen to, but not in a way that sounds unidiomatic for Baroque music. (It feels not like “baroque music” but just simply “music”.) For me, watching this was essentially a very pleasant two and a half hours of well-executed Purcell, punctuated at intervals with “hey, there’s Dorothea Röschmann again!” (and Florian Boesch and Martina Jankova and a number of other people whose names I did not recognize, including a tenor, Joshua Ellicott, who gave a very lovely rendition of the autumn song in the ‘four seasons’ section in the second half.)

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Music for the Interregnum

My week has pretty been much all this:

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That is to say, bits of orders and meeting minutes from various committees of the English Council of State in the 1650s. The English National Archives have digitized most of their state records from the 1500s and 1600s, and if your institution has the money (or, if you can sneak into the library of an institution that has the money) you can have access to them. It’s easier in some ways than reading the originals. You can zoom, you can download, etc. And it’s certainly better than reading the microfilms, which with some of this stuff you would have to do anyway even if you went all the way to London.

But when I did my dissertation research in 2004 and 2005, a lot of what is now digitized hadn’t been yet, and I got to read the originals, which was fun, if sometimes headache-inducing. Not to mention the layer of manuscript grime that got all over my hands and all over the keys of my laptop. (And I got to live in London for several months, which was an added bonus, even if the air pollution there made my skin break out like a mofo.)

But keeping me company through this Great Order Book Adventure was Jonas Kaufmann. I got his Verdi album earlier this week, and I have been listening to it on repeat (I am saving a certain video of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen for the weekend, when I can take it in properly.) Other than enjoying the Verdi, it did make me realize what a taco party my recital album collection is – other than this, and some of Werner Güra’s recitals, and one of Christian Gerhaher’s, it’s pretty much all sopranos and mezzos. Possibly it is time to branch out a little for a change.

Sunday Probability Calculations

So, I missed a video broadcast of some Purcell from the Styriarte Festival yesterday because, not knowing that it was going to be broadcast, I had gotten ballet tickets. Bummer. (The ballet wasn’t bad, though – it was the American Ballet Theater doing Giselle, and the second half was more than worth the price of admission. But why do ballet sets always have to be so twee? I think I’d enjoy it more if it was a little more abstract.)

But it has come to my attention that the Purcell will be broadcast via Ö1 radio on 12 July. When I have tickets to a kabuki performance. No joke. What are the odds of that? (It’s actually trickier than I first thought to figure this out. The probability of two independent events with an equal likelihood of happening on any day in a particular year happening on the same particular day is 1/365 times 1/365. But that is not quite what is happening here. All the events have to do is happen on the same day, not any one particular day – and this has to happen twice.

Although I suppose we could set it up as “given that these two broadcasts are definitely happening June 21 and July 12, and given that I could in theory buy a ballet or theater ticket for any day of the year – just to generalize – we could set it up as, if I buy two theater tickets in 2014, how likely is it that I would buy a theater ticket for each of those days. Which brings us back to the 1/365 times (odds of my buying a ticket for June 21) times 1/365 (odds of me buying a ticket for July 12), I guess. Which is 1/133,225 = very, very small.) Although this assumes that the two tickets are independent, and that I could buy two for the same day. Which I am more than capable of doing, depending on circumstances.

But numbers aside, I believe that Ö1 usually archives their broadcasts for a week or so, so even if I miss it on the 12th because of the kabuki, I’ll catch it eventually. (Or maybe a bootleg of the video broadcast will pop up somewhere . . . a girl can dream, I guess.)

Music for Getting Shit Done

I have always been on the fence about listening to music while working. If I am writing (which my job requires! it’s kind of awesome, being a history professor) I find music distracting: the result is usually me staring off into space thinking about Handel rather than text about colonial America appearing on the page.

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Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier / Glyndebourne 6-8-14

I very nearly missed seeing this. It was broadcast on the same day as Röschmann’s Wigmore Hall recital, and that pushed it out of first place on the operatic priority list, and then despite knowing that Glyndebourne had put the video up for a week, I managed to forget about it for about six and a half days. But fortunately I remembered late on Saturday night. Anyway.

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Deep thoughts about elk

I was listening to an older recording of Don Carlos, one from the Théâtre du Châtelet from 1995 (Van Dam – José, not Jean-Claude – as Philip, Roberto Alagna as Carlos, Karita Mattila as Elisabeth, Hampson singing Posa, and Pappano conducting.)

I have never heard a rendition of this where Elisabeth’s big high notes in “de quels transports poignants” (text, in either French or Italian: “Ah!!”) are so bright and gleamy and seem to come as effortlessly as they do here for Mattila. It’s really kind of perfect, like Elisabeth’s poor happy little teenaged soul is just shining in the air there for a second or two. Also, Waltraud Meier (Eboli) cheats a bit on some of the ornaments in “au palais des fées” but that slower middle section of “o don fatal” was pretty magic. See also Posa’s death scene. Some day I will have listened to every extant recording of this opera, and if each of them has one or two moments like this that make them distinct, then the time will not have been misspent. Either that or I will have been institutionalized. One or the other.

Another thing I learned today: apparently in Finnish there is a word specifically for a car accident involving elk. This has nothing to do with Verdi, but I wanted to get it out there.

Deep Thoughts About French Songs

I am aware that this blog has a tendency to devolve into fits of Röschmann worship at fairly predictable intervals. Here is another instance of it: Frau R singing some French material she doesn’t often perform, via BBC3, followed by more familiar Strauss, Liszt and Wolf, and a Schubert encore. I wish she sang Fauré more often – I like Strauss and Wolf and all that, but I enjoy hearing her sing things I’m less familiar with.

Also, did you know that Fauré once played his song “Le secret” to Henri Duparc, and Duparc was so impressed with it that he shouted “You savage!” and punched Fauré in the face? I am not making this up; it’s in the BBC intro to the first set.

Donizetti / Anna Bolena / Wiener Staatsoper 2011

I watched this on a whim after going through the Met’s Maria Stuarda on DVD again. I had only ever heard Anna Bolena in audio form before, an older recording with Beverly Sills and Shirley Verrett in the two main roles (Anna and Giovanna). Anna Netrebko and Beverly Sills are apples and oranges in a lot of ways. Netrebko has a sumptuous voice, but I have never really warmed to her acting – this is weird, but I find I often prefer to listen to her sing rather than watch her because often her face is so oddly immobile. Not all the time, but enough that you just want to ask her to furrow her brow, just a little, to show that she can, you know? Sills, on the other hand, could sound shrill sometimes, especially later in her career, but she inhabited those Donizetti queens. Verrett, too – the scene in Part II when Anna and Giovanna figure out what the score is and Giovanna feels awful and Anna forgives her is dynamite on that old recording. (It’s the one with the London Symphony conducted by Julius Rudel, from 1972).

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Signs I should be working harder

Had a dream about the library of my undergraduate alma mater, but there was also this weird version  of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda being performed that involved French baroque drums and a tambourine.

I spent the morning listening to that Il Complesso recording of Handel’s Floridante and shopping for speakers rather than in deep consideration of the  colonial volumes of the Calendar of State Papers – there is some really nice music in it. (I was worried it might be one of those Handel operas you never hear about for a reason). Highlights included Elmira and Floridante’s Act 2 duet and Rossane’s “si risolvi abbandonarmi.” One review I read emphasized Marjana Mijanovic (Floridante) as a weak link – the criticism was that the technique was not up to what she was trying to do. Other than registering that she sounds uncannily like a countertenor and this is not unmitigatedly wonderful, nothing horrible about her performance jumped out at me.

Toshio Hosokawa / The Raven / Gotham Chamber Opera 5-31-14

If you have ever wondered how Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” would work as the libretto for an opera, there is now an answer. Toshio Hosokawa has written the music, and Gotham Chamber Opera has produced it – the production involves a chamber orchestra, a mezzo (Fredrika Brillembourg) who sings/narrates the poem, and a dancer (Alessandra Ferri, a former professional ballet dancer).

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The first item on the program was a separate work, a piece for string quartet with harp by André Caplet inspired by a different work of Poe’s, his short story “The Mask of the Red Death.” This involved some unusual harp sounds, i.e. hard plucking and banging on the harp’s frame, which looked forward to some of the tapping and rattling noises produced by the orchestra in “The Raven.” There were also projections on the screens at the back of the stage, which was a series of gray panels: one sees a moon, a moon with an eye in it, oblongs of light, sometimes filmed projections involving the faces of the singer and dancer in the later piece, with some movements – the dancer covering the singer’s face – that recur in “the Raven”; and at times an ominous golden light visible through the gaps between the panels.

According to the program notes, the production is influenced by both opera and Noh plays. As far as opera is concerned, the work strips the art form down to its most basic elements – a text, a singer with accompaniment, and some visual aspect (here, lighting and a dancer) that works in conversation with what one hears.

The text is sort of a narrative, sort of not – as the booklet points out, it’s more a “series of discomfiting moments.” (Although there are some conventional opera librettos that purport to be narratives but which could also be described in this way, whether intentionally or not.)

The opera began with speaking rather than singing. The singer’s delivery was slow and rather dreamlike, like someone drugged; by the second or third stanza of the poem she moved into singing, and back again. The spoken sections near the end were more natural, with the last “nevermore” whispered; the sound of the whisper faded into the breathy sound of wind players blowing through their instruments (this sound had occurred before, toward the beginning). There was no repetition or expansion of Poe’s text, and not much “operatic” ornament of the words, except for the bit right around the raven’s being from the “saintly days of yore.” The music reminded me of John Adams’s opera about Oppenheimer. Not in the sense that it sounded the same, but in that it’s not something I would seek out in audio-only form.

The role of the dancer seemed to be to express some of the interiority of the poem and to add tension, commentary or emphasis – at times the singer was supporting the dancer’s full weight, or was held in place or moved around by her; the dancing also evoked the narrator’s reactions to both his own memories and to the raven perched in his study. It felt well integrated with the musical aspect; not too obvious (the dancer doesn’t “represent” the raven in any obvious way) but not so abstract as to feel artificial or extraneous.