Today in More Ideas We Ought to Drop

This thing where “classical music” is “calming.”
IMG_0508This is from a bulletin board at the gym on how to reduce stress during exam week. I don’t know about you, but I do not normally emerge from Carnegie Hall in a stupor. I’m usually sort of twitchy and hyper and excited.

The thing is, of course, listening to classical music can be calming, because if you are focusing completely on what you are listening to (even if it’s a barnstorming rendition of Lady Macbeth’s “or tutti sorgete” which is not what I would call calming, unless perhaps you are Lady Macbeth) you are probably not thinking about what is stressing you out, and thus you’re giving yourself a break from the stress – but this effect can be achieved with any music that is interesting enough to hold your attention. Possibly this effect is more powerful with more abstract music – it’s not “about” anything (sort of like how asking what a Rothko painting is “about” is the wrong question, you know?) and so even if it evokes a strong response in you as a listener, that emotional response is unlikely to have any direct relationship to, say, your organic chemistry final. Or, you could treat yourself to a good cry over some Wagner, and even if you were dissolving your mascara in the Liebestod and thus not at all calm, you would – again – have at least had a rest from Spanish verbs or marketing jargon.

Concert Etiquette: a proposition

Having read Anne Midgette’s discussion of concert behavior I propose two rules for going to concerts. 

1. Wear whatever you want. I can pretty much promise you that everyone else in the audience gives precisely zero fucks about your outfit. There are some things that you probably should not wear, but only because they are disruptive and/or unsanitary – e.g things with bells, stovepipe hats, assless chaps, etc. etc. (I gave this some consideration, and the only reason I can think of for wearing chaps to a classical concert is that you went clubbing with Anna Netrebko, and at 5.00am in a warehouse outside of Amsterdam she gave you a friendly hug and whipped a sharpie from her $5000 diamond-studded clutch and suggested that you autograph one another’s asses as a souvenir of the evening. In this case and this case only you may wear assless chaps. Because you’ve earned it.) 

2. Be quiet during the music. Be quiet be quiet be quiet. Be quiet. Do not snore. Do not snap your water bottle. Do not rustle around in bags looking for things. Be quiet. I say this as someone who still has relatively young hearing and can filter out noise to some degree. But other music lovers do not have young hearing. They do not need your noise. They do not want your noise. Besides, concert halls are designed to carry sound. None of us want your noise. So be quiet. Be quiet.

Just when you think you don’t need another Handel recital . . .

It turns out that you do. I went through an intensive Handel buying phase between about 2003 and 2005, so I have a lot of CDs that came out then or a few years before. I haven’t bought many Handel recitals (as opposed to complete operas) in a while, because after a certain point you realize that you have on your shelf fifteen different people singing “scherza, infida” and a different fifteen singing “se pietà” and in at least one case the same person singing each of those but on different CDs, and after a certain point you begin to experience diminishing returns.

IMG_0558On the other hand, there is this recital CD by Alice Coote, with the English Concert and Harry Bicket, that is really very arrestingly good. I particuarly liked the excerpts from Alcina  – “mi lusinga il dolce affetto” has the same delicacy and intimacy that I remember from hearing Coote in that concert performance of this opera last fall, and in “verdi prati” she has this way of stretching out the phrases but in such a way that there is a sort of springy energy holding them together. You know how sometimes singers are criticized for “limp” phrasing? Well, this is the opposite of that. Every moment expresses Ruggiero’s sense of vanishing beauty.

The sections from Hercules are also a highlight – I always find myself thinking it kind of a bonus that Handel ended up in England and thus wrote several oratorios to English texts. With “Cease ruler of the day to rise” the contrast in my head was DiDonato, whose renditions of this express a kind of beautiful anguish; Coote’s offers a deeply felt sadness and regret. Different, but I am more than happy to have both.

Dorothea Röschmann and Mitsuko Uchida / Carnegie Hall 4-22-15

This recital almost – almost – brought me around to Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben. Only to the point where I will listen to this cycle if 1) Dorothea Röschmann is singing them 2) live.  I realize that this is a fairly specific set of conditions, but keep in mind that it’s a fairly irritating set of songs. 

But before those, we had Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis and Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs. I have heard several live recordings of Frau R singing the Liederkreis, and I’ve said my bit about that elsewhere. What marked this performance out for me was Uchida on the piano – there was something slower and more meditative about this performance than those others. “In der Fremde” (the first song) was gentler than I remember, and “Intermezzo” was similarly more relaxed. I also noticed with these first two songs that beginning-of-concert feel where the singer’s voice sort of stretches out and fits itself into the space of the concert hall. Having heard our friend Röschmann in recital in both the smaller Zankel auditorium at Carnegie Hall as well as the bigger main stage, I will say that there is nothing in my memory that quite compares to being in the front row in that smaller space – you miss nothing. That said, I was sitting for the first time in the First Tier in the big hall, and while one might miss a few subtleties of acting, the sound from that part of the auditorium is excellent. If my memory is correct, Röschmann is not on the schedule for Carnegie Hall’s 15-16 season, so I might not hear her voice for a while; part of the pleasure of the Liederkreis for me was just savoring how she sounds. (Including her low notes. Based on a cursory reading of the internet I have gathered that not everyone likes those. I like them. They have a different color than the rest of her voice, and – well, I like them. That’s all.)

That said, my favorite bits of that cycle have not changed, e.g. the ache of the “wie bald, ach wie bald” line in “In der Fremde,” or the last lines of “Waldesgesprach” where the witch reveals to the traveller that he is in the woods for the duration, or – speaking of low notes – the last stanza of “Zwielicht,” especially the “hüte dich, sei wach und munter!” line. In “Die stille” I was reminded again of how she can turn a little song into a miniature opera. 

I had heard the Alban Berg songs before, but I never really absorbed them. Between Röschmann and Uchida I had a sense this time of understanding much better how they work – “Shilflied” and “Die Nachtigall” were particularly beautiful (I have “I get it!” written in the margin of my notes). 

Finally, that other set of Schumann songs. First – a point that emerged with bell-like clarity in “seit ich ihn gesehen” – it’s hard not to like something thing that is sung so beautifully. But what did it for me was something characteristic of Röschmann’s interpretive style. Her performances always come with great force of feeling, and what she did in “er, der herrlichste von allen,” for example, was to take the youthful innocence of the character, the force of the young woman’s love and desire (e.g. in the line “holde Lippen, klares Auge”) and present them so honestly that my resistence to the treacly text was just – knife edge, here – overcome. The same is true of the deep earnestness of the protagonist in “du Ring an meinem Finger.” Throughout the cycle, we’re given the music and text as simply: this is how this young woman feels. And because she (Röschmann) is so in character, it works. Apparently the trick of this cycle is to take it at its word and go with it. And the end of the last song, when the Magic Husband has died – those last lines were quiet, intimate and charged with grief. 

Röschmann and Uchida did two encores, Schubert’s setting of “Nur wer die Sennsucht kennt” and Wolf’s “Kennst du das Land.” I loved Uchida’s playing in the second in particular – especially in the wave of sound before “kennst du es wohl?” and the drawing back afterward. 

I came out of this recital feeling very satisfied. I think I may be experiencing with Röschmann’s song recitals what I have been experiencing with Joyce DiDonato’s opera performances: one is chasing the dragon to some exent, since it’s never going to be quite like the first time, but it’s always worth it. 

Purcell – Dido and Aeneas / Les Violons du Roy / Carnegie Hall 4-12-15

I was reminded of one thing during this concert, and I think I may have learned a second thing. The first is the difference between your average run of the mill good but not stunning soprano voice and your international-stardom-and-obsessive-fanbase-creating voice. Except for Hélène Guilmette (Belinda) and Hank Neven (Aeneas) the other singers in this concert (a series of scenes and arias and instrumental music from Purcell’s operas in the first half, and then Dido and Aeneas after the jump) were also members of the chorus. I registered a series of light pretty soprano and mezzo voices in the various scenes – and then when Frau R sang “oh, let me weep” from The Fairy Queen suddenly every molecule of air in that hall was alive with sound.

It was a difference of volume and color and also a difference in style. One could probably claim with some justification that Röschmann was not operating in quite the same mode as the other singers. This is an opera with cackling witches (ably and humorously sung by Vicki St. Pierre, Lesley Emma Bousa and Shiela Dietrich), a light-hearted sailor song and charming little interlude airs in odd places, like the Second Woman’s “oft she visits” number in the hunt/storm scene. The scene from The Fairy Queen during the first part of the concert, with the belching drunken poet in which the music itself sounds a little drunk to match, or the chaconne from ditto a little later, is from a different opera, but not a different planet. It’s not that Dido and Aeneas isn’t the intended to be serious or moving – the beauty and delicacy of the instrumental music is proof enough of that – it’s just seriousness of a particular style.  And then you’re hit with Röschmann’s “peace and I are strangers” and it’s like whoa where did THAT come from. But of course it’s obvious where it came from : it’s Dorothea Röschmann offering us her whole soul and beating heart from the very first moment of the performance. Whether that is how you like your Purcell is a different question. I am happy to go on record stating that I am more than happy to hear Purcell performed like Strauss if it works – and as far as I’m concerned, in this case it worked.  The duet with Aeneas before he leaves Carthage, which appears in so many musical and textual guises in so many different operatic versions of this story that I have simply tagged it in my head as “Dido and Aeneas are fighting” – whatever you call it, it was electric. And Röschmann’s characteristic  style does not rub the music the wrong way – in both “oh, let me weep” from The Fairy Queen and in Dido’s final lament, the instrumental accompaniment is subtle rather than torrential (in some parts, just the harpsichord, lute and a violin) but it’s more than capable of holding everything that she was pouring into it. (No doubt Richard Egarr, whose harpsichord stylings I have long admired, and Les Violons du Roy had something to do with the this too.)

And by the end, the drama had caught up to the interpretation. Dido* as performed by Frau R operates with this massive emotional force that makes the other characters seem less substantial – not poorly sung by any means, just not as powerful or vibrant, while Dido is just a sort of continuous storm of feeling. The “thy hand, Belinda” recitative that leads into “when I am laid in earth” was incredible – it was suddenly so intimate, and yet the overall scale had not changed: this was big enough for an opera stage but subtle as a song recital, and the way Röschmann shaped the music and text right then was one of those moments where she’s singing in English but it feels and sounds the way her singing does when she’s singing in German. I felt as if I was being shown precisely how opera is created, how something done on so large a scale can also be so subtle.

Stray observations: the scene where Dido and Aeneas are about to fall into one another’s arms – it is unclear to me why Belinda is in the room, other than to urge Dido on. Seems to me like that could get awkard real fast. Also, if you ever wondered how to say “come on, what could go wrong?” in sevententh-century English, I think it’s “fear no danger to ensue.”

After sticking around to clap for a very long time with everyone else, I went over to Alice Tully Hall for a second concert that I do not think I did full justice to as a listener because I was kind of wiped from the first one. This was a song recital by Sarah Connolly. (Where I wolfed a brownie during intermission in order to remain alert and also got to meet some Twitter buddies!)

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*Every time I type “Dido” and then a space, my phone thinks I’m trying to type DiDonato. I guess this is what you might call a textbook case of reaping what you sow.

In Which We Have A Plan

Just like the Cylons of celebrated memory. My plan, however, is both more and less complex and far-reaching than theirs. I have two tickets for concerts on Sunday, April 12. One is to hear Les Violons du Roy and some other people perform Dido and Aeneas at 2:00 at Carnegie Hall. The other ticket is for Sarah Connolly’s recital at Alice Tully Hall which starts at 5:00.

The plan is as follows: Go to hear the Purcell. Then RUN to Lincoln Center and possibly miss the first part of Connolly’s recital. But maybe make it. At least, make the second half. Or, if there are any cancellations or whatnot vis-a-vis the first concert, proceed at normal speed to Lincoln center and hear the whole of the recital.

I run about an 8:35 mile, but that’s on a trail, not in Manhattan, and I will probably be wearing non-optimal shoes. We shall see how well this works.

Rossini – La Donna del Lago / Metropolitan Opera 3-10-15

I have said it before, but I have yet to leave a performance of anything involving Joyce DiDonato without a big silly grin on my face by the end. This performance resembled the one of La Cenerentola that I saw last spring, in that 1. It also involved Juan Diego “Watch how long I can hold this high note! And now I’m holding it even longer! Did you catch that? No? That’s ok, because I’m still doing it!” Florez and 2. JDD did the usual grin-making JDD thing in the opera’s final big number (here, “tanti affetti”). I enjoy her performances of Baroque material more than the bel-canto reperatoire, but hearing her voice go zooming around in all that ornamentation is still a pretty rip-roaring good time. 

This is not an opera I know well. I’ve never seen it, and I’ve heard only the arias that tend to end up on recital programs, like the aforementioned “tanti affetti.” It is one of those 19th-century history-with-the-politics-taken-out operas – the story centers around a bunch of highlanders who are at war with James V of Scotland for reasons that are apparently unimportant; one of them, Ellen (Elena in Italian), is loved by both a highland chief named Rodrigo and this other guy who turns out to be James V; she prefers a mezzo named Malcolm, and it all turns out fine. I think Rodrigo dies, but that is probably not important either.

Two stray observations about the staging. One, I think they stole the patch of barren heath that represents Little Mankie or wherever the hell this takes place from their production of Parsifal. Either that or the Met has two big movable patches of grayish ground that can split open in the middle.  Two, during the first act when everyone is cheerfully celebrating the betrothal of Elena and Rodrigo that they assume will soon take place, Elena has to just sort of stand there looking agitated and twisting her hands together for quite a while – from the cheap seats, the stage direction gives the impression that Elena definitely doesn’t want to marry Rodrigo, and that additionally she really really has to pee.

Finally, one unexpected bonus was mezzo Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm. She got overpowered by the orchestra now and then, but the solo moments, both early on and in Malcolm’s last aria in Act II were impressive – committed acting and some very smooth and well-executed Rossini singing.

I’m thinking about emailing Steve Reich

I spent the afternoon trying to figure out whether the person who did these track divisions  a) is part of the tinfoil hat wing of opera fandom, who thinks, for example, that one ought to be able to catch the Marschallin in mid-word to truly appreciate the subtleties of the performanc b) knows something I do not about this opera c) used a silence-finder in some program like Audacity, but fucked up the settings such that they find silences between the heartbeats of hummingbirds on Mars or something like that.  





On the bright side, I have become much more closely acquainted with the libretto than I was previously. 

Also, now that I have Der Rosenkavalier cut up into tiny pieces, I can create little loops of the Marschallin saying “stop the clocks” over and over, or Sophie squeaking out “Himmel!” and make myself some little pomo short pieces or something. I guess. 

In which German art songs converse with the introduction to a book about Puritanism; Or, Sometimes Music Is A Distraction from Work

Lied: Guten Tag! Ich bin ein art song.

Puritanism: Are you a psalm?

L: Nein.

P: Would you please speak English. Or, alternately, Latin.

L: Ich bin kein Psalm.

P: I conclude from your strange behavior and stretchy meter that you are not a psalm. You should therefore not be sung, because you will lure the weak from the path of righteousness.

L: Ist that path of righteousness in the forest? Because I do like the forest.

P: I see you are speaking English now. Very good.

L: Ich am not sprechend the English; it is simply easier for us to have this conversation if what I say is rendered in your bizarre Frenchified version of Deutsch.

P: So how does this work precisely? Also, I take exception to “Frenchified.”

L: Do you want to go for a walk in the forest? There is a Bächlein – I hear the rauschending is good this week. And some birds.

P: I think perhaps we should discuss clerical vestments, and how I prefer not to wear them.

L: Because it tears at your soul, and draws you you know not where?

P: [brief pause] Well, actually, kind of, yes.

L: I think someone needs to go listen to the Bächlein.

Weekend Bootleg

I spent part of yesterday listening to an “unofficial” recording of the concert version of Alcina that I heard last fall in New York. This was a different performance – I know this not because I have the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory, but because the horn flub in “Sta nell’Ircana” was a slightly different sort of flub – but it had the same strengths as the performance that I saw. I’m pretty sure this was recorded on someone’s phone because of how the applause sounds (claps are right there by the microphone). It’s striking how differently a microphone and a human set of ears pick up sound in an auditorium, even when placed at pretty much the same spot – the voices sound echoey and a little distorted, like the sound is being pulled at the edges, and the loudest moments push the boundaries of the mike. The orchestra, oddly enough, sounds much more natural. The whole thing left me wishing they’d collect all these people in a studio and make a recording (or that there would be an official one of one of the live performances!) but I am not holding my breath. Also that Apple or Samsung or whoever made the phone that I am assuming is the source of this thing needs to step up their game, microphone wise, if they want to be The Phone that opera maniacs use to surreptitiously use to record concerts. Imagine if your iPhone 6 came with a little opera app that was of course solely for the use of recording private opera performances in your home?

I guess the problem is that phones generally have line-out jacks for headphones, but not a line-in that you could hook a small but better quality microphone to, unless the charger/USB plug could be used for such purposes – data can clearly travel along it to the phone, after all. I’m thinking one could just tuck the phone into top of one’s shirt, or a blazer pocket or something, wear a big scarf and have the microphone poking out somewhere. Provided one didn’t move too much, it might work.

We can add this idea to the list of Ways You Can Get Banned From Carnegie Hall. I think it comes right after You Saw The Ricola Dispensers And Started Filling Up Your Bag By the Handful and You Rushed The Stage During Natalie Dessay’s Encore.

More Lohengrin

I spent a few hours this morning watching Richard Jones’s production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Bayerische Staatsoper, with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Anja Harteros as Elsa. I am not sure that even this production, which was a worthwhile concept performed well, has brought me around to this opera. In part, this was because I was watching it with le spouse, who started laughing and snorting coffee when Mr. Kaufmann came in cradling that animatronic-ish swan and who proceeded to sit there and nitpick the logic of the entire thing and then went and sat on the other side of the room reading a treatise about thermodynamics and enjoying the music.

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Deep thoughts about Wagner’s Lohengrin

vlcsnap-00012Led by some excerpts on one of Karita Mattila’s recital CDs and one too many evenings with Tristan und Isolde, I watched a 1980s Met production of Lohengrin because it was the only one that the library has. The hair was a little big for my taste, but at least I know what the whole thing sounds like now.

By the end of this opera, both the women are either dead or banished and the Duchy of Brabant is in the mature hands of a twelve-year-old kid. Order has been restored, I guess. Then again – perhaps this is just me – when I am told that the opera takes place in Belgium, something in me knows from the get-go that this is probably not going to turn out well. (The scene is given as Antwerp, which is in modern-day Belgium, but the medieval Duchy of Brabant if I remember correctly included areas that are now part of the Netherlands).

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Monday Lieder Interlude

I was listening to Frau R’s Portraits CD this afternoon. It made me think of the first recital recording of hers I heard – by the end, the intensity of it left me with a pleasant feeling of exhaustion. This recording has the same quality; you get to the end with an awareness of the distance you traveled between the Schubert songs and the Wolf and Strauss. Also, those few bars in “Gretchen am Spinnrade” at about 1.30 (“sein hoher Gang . . .”) where she and Martineau draw out the tempo just a little with the growing drama in the text are one of the best moments in this. I think my colleagues can hear my music through the office walls – I know I can hear theirs sometimes – so my colleague who likes indie rock and alt-country was subjected to about ten minutes of Gretchen on a loop, for which I absolutely refuse to apologize.

vlcsnap-00010And thanks to my mom, a massive box of Haydn string quartets turned up on my doorstep yesterday, along with a toy for Finn. So Finn chewed on his new ball and I listened to Haydn, which for all practical purposes I can do indefinitely; this is probably a good thing, because Haydn wrote 19 CDs worth of string quartets and I haven’t been in the mood for sitting down and listening to much opera lately. This is indicated by the fact that I watched the Decker production of Verdi’s Otello last weekend, and my sole critical reaction was that it seems that Venice was populated primarily by Lord and Lady Whiteadder.