Have you ever had a concert experience that just didn’t work out? I did on Saturday. Partly I think it was the result of having been to the opera the night before and then spent the afternoon listening to a bootleg of Norma, which is one of those things that is perhaps a questionable choice under any circumstances, and thus being a little worn out – but partly I think it was the fault of whoever decided on the programming for the New York Philharmonic’s concert.
I have said this before, but I need to stop stalking singers who specialize in bel canto, because it leads to absurdities like seeing the David McVicar production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda three separate times. And also owning the DVD recorded in early 2013. I think I can safely say that I have a handle on this one, interpretively.
I had been looking forward to hearing Jonas Kaufmann last weekend, but he was sick, and had to cancel a number of performances. I was disappointed. On the other hand, the previous week, due to the volunteering gig at Carnegie Hall, I scored a free ticket to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra (conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin) play Haydn and Bruckner.
I went into the concert thinking, “I’m here for the Haydn, and staying probably for Bruckner.” I had a bad Bruckner experience in graduate school, and my impression of his symphonies was what Henry James said about novels like Tolstoy’s – “large loose baggy monsters.” Also, this particular symphony, No. 4, had some sort of medieval theme to it, and 19th century people writing “romantic” things about the middle ages usually elicits a Homer-Simpson-backwards-through-the-hedge reaction from me.
But. I enjoyed the Haydn so much that I was not disposed to leave after the intermission. This was probably an intentional gambit on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s part – after all, who does not like Haydn? A Haydn symphony, operated correctly, makes everyone feel genial and contented. And if you’re lucky, you get one of the ones with a surprise or a drumroll or an imitation of a clock or whatnot. (The same is true of his chamber music. Though I’m still trying to work out why the last of the Op. 50 string quartets is called “The Frog.” According to one source I have read, it is “characterized by persistent bariolage,” which unless you know what bariolage is, could involve just about anything from anti-aircraft guns to some kind of specialized European pastry technique.*)
I will say this about Bruckner symphonies. My ticket was for the third row of the orchestra level, and I experienced much of the fourth movement through the floor as well as via vibrations in the air as is more customary. That shit is LOUD. It’s exciting, though, and by the end of the evening, I had mentally moved Bruckner symphonies to the same mental bucket occupied by Schumann’s “Frauenliebe- und Leben” song cycle: I’ll listen to it, but only live, and only rarely.
*Bariolage is basically what you do a lot if you play bluegrass fiddle, but it’s possible to play the violin for quite a few years without anyone telling you that there is a term for that thing.
I had a pleasant experience last night at Zankel Hall – Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante playing late baroque concertos and chamber pieces for violin, viola d’amore and small chamber ensemble. I’ve been a fan of Biondi’s playing for years, and for several months this past fall I was mopey because I knew this concert was on and it had sold out. But I snagged a ticket in the end.
The program was based on their album Il diario di Chiara, which is a collection of music that would have been played by Chiara della Pietà, a performer and teacher at Vivaldi’s famous post the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. Chiara, who was dropped at the orphanage’s doorstep as an infant, wasn’t trained by Vivaldi herself, but her own teacher Anna was.* The music is basically Vivaldi and a handful of other composers one rarely encounters (hi, Fulgenso Perotti! loved that thingy for violin and organ!), brought to life again by the brio of the solo and ensemble playing. I think last night was the first time I had heard a viola d’amore in a live performance; but more to the point, this was the type of baroque performance that made things we’ve all heard a thousand times, like the snippet of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” that they played for one of their encores, seem new. I mean, the guy sitting two seats down from me was gleefully air-conducting for several extended sections of the performance.
When I went to the concert I had not yet heard the Il diario di Chiara album, and I spent a few minutes stalking it on the internet last night. Apparently it comes with a bonus DVD, which the critic from Fanfare thought was nice, although “tame.” I am not sure what the rubric is for evaluating “making of” DVDs about baroque violin music; as a result, I got distracted thinking about what would render such an item “not tame” and didn’t buy the disc until this morning. But it is winging its way toward me even now.
*These ladies didn’t have conventional last names – both are surnamed “della Pietà” after the institution.
I had the good fortune on Monday to hear a P.D.Q. Bach concert, presented by the inimitable Peter Schickele at the Town Hall auditorium. I had Schickele/PDQ’s music inflicted on me repeatedly at an early age (thanks, Mom!) and I’ve got all the CDs, etc. etc.
This concert was a riot. Most of the material was pretty familiar – who among us, after all, has not heard the Beethoven sportscast number? – but that even the umpteenth time, that shit is STILL FUNNY. Schickele is getting on in years and can no longer swing down onto the stage on a rope as he used to, but his comic delivery hasn’t changed, and as he demonstrated in the excerpts from Oedipus Tex that closed the concert, he can still belt out a Texas-sized aria. (And play continuo on a wheezy little keyboard/accordion thing that I couldn’t identify.)
My favorite parts, though, were the arrangement of “Swing low, sweet chariot” and the “Uptown Hoedown.” Like the “Unbegun Symphony” and a few other similar pieces Schickele has written, these are pastiches of whole bunches of tunes; every time I hear one of these, I catch more references in it than I did the previous time. In this case – did you know that you could arrange “Swing low, sweet chariot,” in such a way that the vocal part (sung by tenor Brian Dougherty) consists entirely of “Danny Boy”? And also that the whole thing can get mixed up with the Battle Hymn of the Republic and end on the final chords of Tristan and Isolde?
I am on a roll as far as not getting thrown out of concert halls is concerned. (Has anyone ever been? I have never seen a concertgoer forcibly ejected from a venue, but the venues I frequent tend to be fairly staid – perhaps if I attended more song recitals in rough areas of Jersey there might be more action. You know, like in Blues Brothers where the band is behind chicken wire because the audience yells and throws beer bottles until they hear something they like. “Heidenröslein! Heeeiiidenröööööösleeeeeiin!”)
This recital started late enough that I was tempted to get up on my seat and start chanting “Lie-DER! Lie-DER!” but since I wanted to hear the concert and did not want to write about How I Got Permanently Banned From Carnegie Hall Due To Excess of Impatience I restrained myself.
Not getting thrown out turned out to be the right choice. The concert was in the Weill recital hall, one of the two smaller auditoriums at Carnegie Hall, and the space was just about the right size for a concert like this. The sound was very close and vivid – I can’t imagine anyone had trouble hearing or missed any nuances (I remember thinking very distinctly during Liszt’s “Die Loreley” that the loud bits were definitely loud).
I have spent more time than I ought to this week playing an extended game of What the Fuck Is That Song. This is because I got a bootleg recording of a recital by Sondra Radvanvosky, recorded back in 2004. There’s no indication of what’s on it, so I have 19 mystery tracks to identify. Some of them are easier than others – e.g. if it’s about fourteen minutes long and begins with “Ah, perfido!” it’s probably Beethoven’s aria of the same name because there are only so many things in the world that are fourteen minutes long and begin with “Ah, perfido!”
But in non “Ah, perfido!”-type situations, one is reduced to trying to catch the first line, googling the first line, and then either checking an aria or song database to match the text or finding clips of whatever it might be on YouTube and listening to see if they are the same. I have had more success with some tracks than others: it’s amazing how much more intelligible sung Italian is when you know the words already.
So I have developed a pincer strategy. One side of the pincer is the abovedescribed listening and googling; the other is finding reviews of Radvanovsky’s recitals that list the things that she commonly sings, and then seeing if those are the things that I am hearing on this particular recital. Maybe by the time I have made myself thoroughly sick of the recording, I will know what is on it.
Well, don’t I feel dumb. A while back I ordered an “unofficial” recoding of Don Carlos from one of the usual places, because Sondra Radvanovsky was singing Elisabetta and I wanted to hear it. When I got it, I was disappointed when the first disc began with the San Yuste scene (“Carlo il somno imperatore”). I thought Act I was missing, because although I knew there were various longer and shorter versions of this opera with different sections added, removed or revised, I had never yet heard one that began at that point of the story. So, I wrote a polite email and they sent me another copy of the recording. This one was identical to the first. So I wrote another polite email and they offered to send me something else instead. I figured their recording was just missing a piece and that was that, so I accepted a bootleg of Norma also involving Sondra Radanovsky in its place. Because of the sort of operation this is, I didn’t have to return either iteration of Don Carlos.
Then, this morning, I had one of those “hm, I wonder” moments and I discovered that there is in fact a version of Don Carlos that omits Act I and begins with the San Yuste scene, and it was this truncated version that the San Diego opera elected to perform back in 2003. It’s a rarity in some sense, I guess, because I have never before either on CD or in an opera house encountered the opera in this particular form. After all, as these things go, Act I is a pretty good act. I rather like the Carlos/ Elisabetta duet – in fact, I was particularly looking forward to hearing Radvanovsky letting fly Elisabetta’s excited high notes toward the end.
So, I suppose we can say that I have learned something. We could also say, however, that I have probably convinced the customer service email person at PremiereOpera that I’m either an idiot or wicked sneaky – but fortunately, that is all in the past now and I can go and listen to my new recording of Norma. Ita sul colle, Druidi, etc. etc.
1. I went to the concert performance this past Wednesday of Strauss’s Elektra at Carnegie Hall with Christine Goerke in the title role. I normally prefer my operas four hours long and highly stylized; there is however much to be said in favor of brief and terrifying. I believed every word Goerke sang. It was hair-raising, in the best possible way – hearing her voice at full power with the Boston Symphony right behind her instead of in a pit was unforgettable. We should have more concert performances of Strauss operas around here. Elevating the orchestra (literally and perhaps a bit figuratively too) really works.
2. I have been dragged – well, not really dragged – to a number of piano recitals recently. Maurizio Pollini a few weeks ago, and again tomorrow because I am married to a piano nut, and then we scored some free tickets to hear Andras Schiff on the 30th. Piano nerds are real, and I was surrounded by them during the last recital. They do air piano on their programs during the encores. I am not making this up.
3. I got stuck on the subway the other day – one of the less attractive qualities of the New York subway system is that if a butterfly in Brooklyn flaps its wings in the wrong direction, all the express trains in Queens start running local, and it takes me an hour to get anywhere – and I was listening to that Mozart arias album again. It gets better on repeated listening. I always end up in this distressing epistemological quandry whenever I form an opinion about anything: I am never sure afterward whether my opinion was formed under the right circumstances and whether it might not have been different and which one would have been right.
4. As part of training to be a volunteer tour guide at Carnegie Hall, you have to tag a long on a bunch of tours to absorb what the other guides are doing and what the route is (there is also a booklet). I’m starting to feel like a regular at screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – I know what all the jokes are going to be in advance.
This recital is so very, very good that you just sit there stunned and then have to pick yourself up off the floor, regroup and sit there stunned for a little while longer. I heard the live version of this concert at Carnegie Hall last spring; this CD was recorded a few weeks later at Wigmore Hall, and I think the Londoners got the better performance, because again, while what I heard was good, this was utterly amazing. Every note of this performance is alive.
Röschmann and Uchida perform three sets of songs, Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis, Berg’s Seven Early Songs, and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben.
Uchida’s piano playing reveals that the piano part in these songs is not just “accompaniment” but rather a second voice in the piece. She brings out details that I had not registered before – the heartbeat pulse of the piano part in “Intermezzo” in the Leiderkreis, the way the piano lines wrap up the story of witch and wanderer in “Waldesgespräch”, the rushing of the little brook in “In der Fremde” or the simple glow of happiness in “Frühlingsnacht.” I was just listening to bits of the recital again as I write this (sometimes I can figure out what I was talking about in my original chickenscratch notes; other times – as is common with important historical documents – the notes are written in a left-handed scrawl so impenetrably awful that I have to go back and re-create the moment in order to interpret the record) and a second listen does nothing but confirm Uchida’s power to make the piano part speak.
The material on this album will be familiar to those who caught the concert broadcast version last winter. I knew going in that it would be mostly the same selections, but I wasn’t sure whether Röschmann, Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony would record it separately in the studio, or whether the album would be pieced together from the recorded concerts. It’s the latter (minus the piano concerto that the live audience heard). One might not immediately realize that this was a live concert, though – all the audience noises and applause have been removed.
It’s a disc of Mozart arias from roles that Röschmann built her operatic career on – the Countess’s two arias from Figaro, Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì”, Vitellia’s “deh, se piacer me vuoi” and “non più di fiori” from La Clemenza di Tito. There are also two arias from Idomeneo, one of which die hard Röschmaniacs will have heard her sing before if they’ve got the bootleg of her as Ilia at the Met in 2006, and another of Elettra’s. The program finishes with a concert aria that I had never heard before the broadcast last year, “bella mia fiamma, addio”.
The Met’s new production of Verdi’s Otello makes use of their projection system; the first image on the stage is that of the stormy sea as the people of Cyprus wait for Otello’s ship. These waves reappear in Act IV – stormy seas, stormy feelings, forces of nature, unable to control, etc. etc. The stage set-up is simple, a reflective V that sometimes echoes the waves, sometimes looks merely like reflective metal, but not mirrors – it’s a much dimmer, distorted reflection. There is also a series of clear plastic slices of wall with halls and stairs inside that resemble nothing so much as narrow versions of those glassed-in waiting rooms on train platforms, complete with moderate fog on the inside. They slide around to create the spaces of the palace, garden, bedroom, and so on. Near the end of Act II, they close in for Otello and Iago’s duet, transforming a public area into a bedroom with the same bed used for Desdemona’s room in Act IV – it creates an intimate space for Iago to manipulate Otello about an equally intimate matter. These plastic wall slices also make the lighting more obvious – they glow chilly blue for Iago’s “credo” monologue and turn to red or yellow as Otello plots vengeance. But they’re gone entirely for the last act, in which Desdemona’s bed, prie-dieu and a few chairs are placed alone – looking rather small and vulnerable, much like Desdemona herself – in that larger open space.
Ever have one of those moments where an opera you never paid an unusual amount of attention to before suddenly becomes more interesting? I had one of those this week with Verdi’s Otello. I have a ticket to see it on the 10th, and though I own both CD and DVD versions of this opera, it never really transfixed me. But I listened the other day to the CD version that I have (Domingo, Ricciarelli, Diaz at La Scala) and it became apparent that there was a lot of it that I somehow failed to really register before – most of the ensembles, for instance.
This impression was reinforced by a library DVD of a Met performance from 1995 with the ubiquitous Mr. Domingo in the title role, looking like he was dipped in deck stain beforehand – which has the effect not of making him look African, but of making him look like a white guy who was dipped in deck stain – and Renée Fleming singing Desdemona and James Morris as Iago (also: I kept registering the unusual mellifluousness of the tenor singing Cassio and I just looked to see who it was – Richard Croft! no wonder. The wig disguised him.) I am not a fan of the visual aspects of Fleming’s acting in this case – there is much cocking of her head in sweet puzzlement early on, and a lot of whimpering and cringing later – but if you shut your eyes, she’s pretty fantastic. I was listening with headphones instead of on the speakers, and this may be an artifact of my headphones or it may be the audio on the DVD, but the orchestra was more forward than on my CD recording, and this made a real difference for me. The whole thing jumped into focus.
This is a picture of the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall in the middle of a Monday afternoon. (Never mind the part of my thumb visible to the bottom left; that part of the image is not important.) I was there because I decided that it would be interesting to volunteer as a tour guide, and the new volunteers were being taken through the tour route, as prelude to further training. Unlike at Lincoln Center, you don’t have to pay (!) to be a volunteer at Carnegie Hall, so I’m out only subway fare and time. And one has been told that one occasionally might score some free tickets.
We will see how this goes. I have a lot of experience vis-a-vis conveying certain specific points of information in an entertaining way in less than an hour to people with varying levels of interest, but it’s been a long time since I’ve worn a name badge.
David McVicar’s production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena resembles his Maria Stuarda: there is a lot of gray and dull brown and white, with splashes of bright red. The red is hard to miss. Anna is wearing it for a while, and then at the beginning of Act II the red has moved to the bed in the room where Anna and Giovanna have their conversation, and by the time Giovanna is pleading with Henry (for consistency’s sake, I suppose I should refer to him as Enrico, but I can type Henry more times in a row without mistakes, so Henry he is) for Anna’s life she (Giovanna) is wearing a red dress, and the last time we see Anna she is wearing white – if red means you are the focus of Henry’s attention, for good or bad, Anna has escaped. The royal buck has been passed.
Like Prohaska’s more recent recital disc, Behind the Lines, this one, recorded in 2010, is a collection of songs from a wide variety of time periods and in several languages, held together by theme. In this case, the theme is the figure of the siren. (Also, some day, I would like to see a soprano not sport five different come-hither looks in the album booklet. I’m sure it is possible. Actually, I know it is – I have a Handel recital CD on the cover of which Maria Bayo is wearing a woolly turtleneck and looking merely friendly; it can be done. But anyway.)
The first item on the program of Tuesday’s concert was Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, which, like the Schumann symphony after the intermission, used the full orchestra; a smaller set of musicians remained to accompany violinist Joshua Bell for the second item, Bach’s violin concerto in E major, BWV 1042, which Bell directed himself.
This production of Handel’s Alcina, directed by Katie Mitchell and conducted by Andrea Marcon, turns upon the complex and many-sided relationship between sand, flasks of bright blue liquid, and a luggage scanner that spits out taxidermy specimens. There is also BDSM.
This collection of baroque songs for soprano and lute doesn’t have the manic bravura of some of Invernizzi’s opera aria performances – but then again, it’s not that kind of music. Probably the challenge with a recital like this is to introduce enough variety into the programming and enough subtlety into the performance to bring out the contrasts among these early seventeenth-century selections.
Invernizzi and lutenist Craig Marchitelli succeed in doing so. Many of these songs are miniature cantatas, with dramatic shifts of mood and tone, e.g. Giacomo Carissimi’s “piangete, aure, piangete” or several of the Barbara Strozzi selections. There are also some neat contrasts between pieces – the tone lightens with track five, “della porta d’oriente,” for example, and there are are a number of shifts between delicate and introspective songs and pieces that feel more popular in tone, or – alternately – a bit more sturm und drang (autocorrect: did you mean “strum and dang”?* Actually, since there is a lute and it’s very good, yes, in a way, but leave it alone please) like Strozzi’s “udite, amanti”.
Invernizzi is completely in her element here in terms of style, sound and vividness of expression; I also enjoyed hearing the lowest notes of her voice, e.g. at the end of the aforementioned “udite, amanti”. The recital also includes some solo pieces for lute, both brief little interludes and one or two longer and more dramatic items like track 10, a toccata by Kapsberger. This is one of those albums that sucks you in before you even realize what has happened.
*”Strum and dang” also refers to the less well known country-western version of the German Sturm und Drang.