Sunday, August 31, 2008

Musician Quotes: A poem for David Markson

I have been a fan of the unconventional fiction of David Markson, since I randomly picked up one of his "novels" called, interestingly enough, 'This is not a novel.' Like all of his recent work, it is a collection of pithy observations, biographical trivia on the lives of artists, interspersed with an occasional self-referential nod to the idea of readers and writers having identities within the work.

So, I collected some quotes on Puccini earlier this summer for a seminar Amy and I did for the Washinton and Lee Alumni College. This practice caused me to begin peppering my journal with interesting quotes by and about other artists. The quotes by the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, are from the elegant documentary on the composer by Christopher Nupen.

This is the first in what I imagine will be an ongoing series of entries, and is humbly dedicated to the artist who inspired it.

Quotes (for David Markson)

I. Puccini & co.

“He wrote marvelous operas,
but dreadful music” Shostakovich said of Puccini.

“A sin against art” is how one critic
decribed Puccini’s second opera, Edgar.

“After the piano, my favorite instrument
is the rifle” said the same composer.

“The simpler the surface of the music is,
the more difficult it is to find the inner truth in it”
Bernstein shrewdly observed.

“You have to have maturity to understand beauty”
commented Bruno Walter, on the late arrival in his career conducting Mozart.

Fritz Reiner challenged his students, Bernstein among them, saying
“You have to have the right to conduct.”

“Like a beautiful painting without a frame” is how Daniel Barenboim described Martha Argerich.

II. Sibelius

“The mysticism of nature and the agony of life” is how the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius described the shrill call of the swan.

“I do not know how many times I have considered giving up music completely and becoming an idiot,” said Sibelius, quite early in his career.

“A role for which I have always had the greatest inclination” concluded the same composer, whose last work appeared in 1925.

Sibelius lived over 30 years longer, dying in 1957 at age 91.

PS: “Culture is for living, and art should be about taking part.”
said director Lee Hall.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mostly Mozart Festival

As I await my flight from NY to VA, I thought I'd share a bit about the closing concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. I was in the tenor section of the Concert Chorale of New York, one of the city's premiere professional choruses, prepared by my friend and colleague, James Bagwell, who is one of the best choral conductors in the country. We met on Tuesday for 5 hours to learn the work, rehearsed with the inspiring conductor and Music Director of the Festival, Louis Langrée Wednesday, then rehearsed twice with the orchestra, Thursday and Friday, in advance of Friday and Saturday evening performances. This gig is typical of the NY pro choral scene, where 40 or so singers show up, read and rehearse a piece in a couple of days, and perform it that weekend.

Mozart's C Minor Mass was the centerpiece of this final concert of this year's Festival, whose theme was "Loss and Transfiguration." The Mozart was paired with Stauss' autumnal masterpiece, Metamorphosen, a haunting, rhapsodic elegy for 23 solo strings. First, a digression on Richard Strauss (1864-1949):

Written at the end of WWII--and the octogenarian composer's career--the work reflects an artist's despair at the devastations of the war--in particular the bombings of theaters in Munich, Dresden, and Vienna (for Americans to empathize, cultural institutions like the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall would have to be destroyed in bombings, as the program annotator, David Wright wrote). Yet this work exists in the matrix of its composers complicated life. The conductor, Louis Langrée, opined in the final dress rehearsal that Strauss here expressed his remorse for his naive complicity with the regime (he was the chair of the Reich's music division for a short period). That is a topic for a dissertation on cultural politics. Langrée also shared an appropriate poetic link from T.S. Eliot, the last of his Four Quartets, Little Gidding: "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." (he did not cite the source, but this famous quatrain has long been a personal favorite). It is an appropriate connection, even if the title, Metamorphosen, refers to Goethe's work as both a poet and scientist. Wright quoted Goethe's poem "Niemand wird sich selber kennen" (No one will ever know one's self) as "A dark and prophetic meditation on civilized people's capacity for evil."
Metapmorphosen is a Wagnerian adagio that unfolds in a continuous web of melody for 25 minutes, quoting the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica symphony and referencing the composers own works. It is a fitting testament to a great and complex composer.

Mozart's C Minor Mass reminds me of Rilke's great sonnet, "On the archaic torso of Apollo"--a poem which describes a broken, headless, trunk of a statue of the Greek Sun god that still manages to reflect the brilliance and power of its subject. It ends with another famously memorable couplet: "For there is no place that does not see you:/You must change your life." That quote has a double meaning for me--Mozart's Mass, like his Requiem, remained unfinished, a "trunk" if you will; great art, like the works on this program, move and inspire one to reflection, consideration, and that can literally be life-changing.

Anyway, the C Minor Mass is a great work. And unlike the Requiem, it really does not need to be finished. It is in the 18th century style of a "cantata" mass, which means the central movements, the Gloria and Credo, are separated into individual movements by subdivisions in the text. Whereas a Missa Brevis would have a single movement Gloria, Mozart gives us a 7 movement tour de force of dramatic vocal writing and scoring. Haydn's 6 great masses and Beethoven's Mass in C and Missa Solemnis both follow this model.

Coming in the middle of his brief career in 1782 (Mozart lived from 1756-1791), it contains some of the best music for soprano he wrote (fittingly, as his wife, Constanze, was the soloist in the 1783 premiere in Salzburg). And not just for one soprano, but two (the second soprano part is often sung by a mezzo-soprano). The soprano deut, "Domine Deus" contains vocal fireworks and gymastics where the pair trade off sequential melismas and acrobatic upward leaps. Listening to that duet would be like watching two Olympic gymnasts--Nastia Liukin and He Kexin, say--on the uneven bars doing virtually the same routine AT THE SAME TIME ("Yeah, I got your triple-twirly-tucky-twist right here!"). Good stuff.

This Mass is also central for its use of Baroque-inspired counterpoint. We know Mozart studied the works of Bach and Handel, in particular the former's motets and the latter's oratorios. Both the Cum Sancto Spiritu which closes the Gloria, and the Osanna sections of the Sanctus and Benedictus contain fugues inspired by the Baroque masters. But it is not just the counterpoint which reflects a Baroque influence. The grandeur of the French Baroque is present in the double-dotted rhythms of the Qui tollis--an intense, double-chorus plea, which Langrée conducted with remarkable passion and intensity. Mozart exploited the tensions in the musical language of his forefathers, while presaging the harmonic innovations of the Romantic period. The Gratias movement opens with a sustained c # dimished chord--not just one tritone, but two (the "devil in music" as the dimished fifth interval was called, and therefore prohibited, in earlier music) This opening packs an added punch when the basses enter in the next bar with a dissonant d pedal. If that is too theoretical for any non-musicians with time enough on their hands to read blogs (LOL!), suffice it to say it is a bold and striking opening, all the more surprising given the text ("We give thank to Thee")

The truncated aspect of the work appears in the Credo, where only two movements of the text exist (Bach's B Minor Mass divides the Credo into 9 sections). Following an exuberant chorus, Mozart wrote one of the most sublime arias in all of music. "Et incarnatus est" is a pastoral nativity scene and chamber quartet for the soprano, flute, oboe, and bassoon. The four soloists share the melodic material in an interwoven fabric of felicitous beauty. The cadenza Mozart wrote for this colorful quartet is an extraordinary coda to one of his greatest individual movements.

The Sanctus--double chorus with an exuberant fugue for the "Osanna"--is scored for the colorful timbre of the wind-band (which includes woodwinds and brass instruments). The Benedictus is for the solo vocal quartet, and concludes with a reprise of the Osanna fugue, and as it stands, is a fitting close. The brooding Kyrie which opens the piece and establishes the sombre key of c minor metamorphoses through the 45 minutes of music Mozart composed to end in the sunlit key of C major.

The Mass has not been as popular as the Requiem for several reasons. Not least of which is the cult of mystery surrounding the composer's "swan-song" exploited in the play and film "Amadeus." That Mozart's pupil and assistant, Süssmayr, completed the work far below the standards of his master has not had an adverse effect on its popularity--testimony to the Requiem's staying power. Arguably a more difficult work to execute, and in my humble opinion a superior one, the C Minor Mass deserves at least an equal place.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mostly Mozart & Prokofiev

So. This is the first of what is intended to be a series of blogs between me, your (ie: the Virginia Chorale's) Music Director, and whomever may have enough time on their hands to actually read such blogs. Since I happen to be in the middle of a very eventful month of concerts, I thought I'd start by sharing what I've been up to. I just finished a weekend of concerts at the Bard Music Festival in the Hudson Valley of New York. The Bard Festival is unique among summer arts festivals for devoting its attention to one composer "and his world." This year the composer was Sergey Prokofiev, best known for his educational, fairy-tale orchestral suite, Peter and the Wolf, the "Classical" Symphony, and his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The Festival features the world's leading scholars in residence, giving lectures, writing articles (published in a Princeton University paperbook that bears the year's festival name, "Sergey Prokofiev and His World") and participating in discussion panels. If that sounds too dry and academic, the festival also boasts a 19th century-style carousel or circus tent, called the Spiegeltent, which is open nightly for dining and entertainment that ranges from topical cabaret and recital music to DJ's and dance music. A film series accompanies the concerts, in additon to operas, plays, and musicals that precede the Festival's two weekends worth of concerts. Should you have so chosen, you could have seen the film actor Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) star in a new production of Checkhov's play, Uncle Vanya, attended a rare production of Gershwin's political satire of a musical, Of Thee I Sing, or a double bill of the polish composer Karol Szymanoski's operas. That is all to say that Bard offers a veritable wealth of cultural opportunities under the seemingly narrow umbrella of one composer and his world. I was brought in to sing on two different programs during the Festival's second weekend. The first was a recital devoted to the music Prokofiev and his contemporaries wrote as citizens in the Soviet Union. Like his older colleague, Stravinsky, Prokofiev (1891-1953) achieved early success as an enfant terrible (literally "terrible child" --a term with which any parent can identify, but in artistic terms here refers to the manifestation of prodigious talent at an early age accompanied by equally prodigious ego/issues/etc...). Prokofiev left Russia as a young adult to win fame and acclaim abroad in the US and Paris (as did Stravinsky), was disillusioned by his emigration, and seems to have returned to the USSR a faithful party member. While the first weekend of concerts was devoted to his early successes and the works composed abroad, the second weekend focused on the works of his Soviet years, and as such, represent a more ambiguous, complex, and uneven body of work. Since this is already turning into too long-winded an entry, I would direct the curious reader to the BMF website, or any number of books, articles, and sources on music and culture under the Iron Curtain & Stalin in particular. Composers in the USSR were called on to write music which uplifted the Soviet people, towed the party line, was uncorrupted by Western, "bourgois" influence, and fit within the difficult-to-define category of "Socialist realism." Prokofiev's opera 'Semyon Kotko' attempted to be such a work, and I had the interesting task of singing the title character's first aria "A soldier home from the front" (but in Russian, of course), depicting the peasant Semyon's return home after 4 years of combat in WWII, his hopes of being reunited with his fiancee, Sofya--a union opposed by her wealthy, land-owning, German-sympathizing father. In a comic aria from Prokofiev's last opera, "The Story of a Real Man" I had the pleasure of singing--in Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired rapid patter (in Russian!)--an aria about Anyuta, the alluring pen- pal of many a Red Army soldier whose love-letters are reducing the valiant commanders of Russia to ineffectual drivel, and thus deleteriously affecting the war effort! The final concert of the festival was devoted to large-scale works by Prokofiev and one of his colleagues, Vladimir Dukelsky (more widely known here as the song-writer, Vernon Duke). I sang Prokofiev's early cantata, 'They are Seven' with the largest orchestra in front of which I've ever stood. A wild and dramatic evocation of an ancient, Arkkadian epitaph, the poem depicts 7 god-like figures who have power over all the elements and are rendered as cold, evil destroyers whose power may be conjured with the proper incantation--in this case, a screaming tenor soloist, a large chorus, and a sprawling orchestra of about 100 players!