Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bearing the music in the heart...

I'm not sure how many times I picked up and put down Lawrence Kramer's recent book, "Why Classical Music Still Matters" (University of California Press, Berkeley. 2007, 2008) before finally buying it earlier this month while at the Bard Music Festival. Perhaps it helped that the author was present for a panel discussion on Wagner and aesthetics. Regardless, once I picked it up this time I couldn't put it down.

Maybe it was the defensive-sounding title, or the notion I have of being one of the many (lesser) disciples of Robert Shaw in "preaching the gospel of the arts" which told me I didn't need to read this book. I was wrong. Kramer's engaging, thoughtfully presented book is one I'll be recommending to colleagues, board members, patrons, and anyone else who'll listen.

"Classical music has people worried. To many it seems on shaky ground in America." In the introductory chapter, Kramer spells out some of the reasons for this. And while written before the current recession's effects were fully felt, his provocative reasoning is still relevant as classical music ensembles and organizations struggle with how to not only remain relevant, but remain open. Many anxious performers & presenters have been clamoring about the "danger of extinction." If Kramer's dismissal of this seems untimely given the subsequent (& ongoing) financial meltdown, consider this:

"The problem is perhaps less economic or demographic than it is cultural, less a question of the music's survival than of its role...For what it's worth, my anecdotal impression is that people are generally less knowledgeable about it than they were even a generation ago...We know, some of us, how to enjoy it, but we don't know what to do with it."

I couldn't agree more, and if worried producers and planners dismiss Kramer's initial diagnosis--that the "crisis" is less economic than cultural-- he backs up his claim with the following:

"One reason why [classical music may be in trouble] is the loss of a credible way to maintain that people ought to listen to this music...Our growing reluctance to impose prescriptive or judgmental shoulds has obscured the power of the should that says, 'Don't deprive yourself of this pleasure, this astonishment, this conception.'...No wonder, then, that many culturally literate people who visit museum exhibits and keep up with the latest books, movies, and ideas think nothing of being classical-music illiterates. There is nothing, any more, that one just has to hear."

Before embarking on the body of the book which does answer the statement claimed by the title, Kramer warns against a couple lines of reasoning many of the above-mentioned "preachers of the gospel of the arts" revert to time and again. The first is the one famously dubbed by the acerbic critic, Virgil Thomson, as the "music-appreciation racket." If you've not heard the term, you've heard the argument. If you've read one of my letters to Virginia Chorale supporters you've heard the so-called "racket:" that classical music is good for you--body, mind, and soul. From "The Mozart Effect" on down, the notion that this music makes its particpants better human beings is a timeless argument. And the argument is no less valid than the more elitist one that seeks to shame the unwashed into submitting to the greatness of the (usually dead) masters. Kramer debunks both approaches. He says,

"This music provides as much insight as it invites...[it] is full of powerful feelings, but they're feelings that are always pushing beyond their own boundaries to open and refresh these questions. The music stimulates my imagination and my speculative energies while it sharpens my senses and quickens my sense of experience."

In not taking the music-appreesh or the elitist route, he is sensitive to the competing genres of musics like pop and jazz. Throughout the book he carefully balances arguments that don't elevate classical music at pop music's expense (even if many of us might want a more level playing field). He finds creative ways around this challenge by returning to classical music's "advantage in the rich vocabulary available to describe it." Language is one of--if not THE--primary means we have of not only articulating experience but ascribing meaning to the experiences that add up to make what we call life. And music--specifically classical music (in the broad sense from the 18th century baroque up through the present)--is one of the richest repositories for such linguistic performance. The other principal means of experience Kramer explores is the act of listening. This is music to not only be listened to, but "to be listened into."

In the span of a few pages--the book is imminently readable--Kramer traces the importance of the act of listening itself in the digital age to the shifting relationship between music and audience from the 19th century forward. One of his professed aims is "to refresh listening: to reconnect the listener with a community and culture of listening," and he cites a few poignant examples of this both in his introduction and near the book's conclusion.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, "classical music provided a perhaps unexpected, perhaps momentary, but nonetheless real resource, consoling in both an emotional and something like a metaphysical sense." He cites performances by the New York Philharmonic, the MET, and the Louisiana PO.

As a personal anecdote, I was scheduled to give the first of my doctoral recitals for the University of Maryland that very day. That recital was delayed one week, and the final lines of Lee Hoiby's setting of Dickinson's "There Came a Wind Like a Bugle"--"how much can come/and much can go/and yet abide the world!"--proved again the fact of music's rare gift of transcending time & space. If it is not the "universal language," it still is as close as we have come to one.

The body of the book is devoted to chapters on "The Fate of Melody" and how centrally important the "tune" is--what it says, how it changes, and how it affects and changes the listener in the process of participating in performance. He cites examples from three very different films in the third chapter, engaging evidence that this music really can transcend specificity to apply to a range of meanings. Or in the singleness of its expression, music can not only identify an emotion or state, but embody such feeling, so that the listener experiences it as real (even though it is "merely" simulated). Of Mahler's beloved "Resurrection" Symphony, he says "the effect of transcendence is less something the music expresses, as something it does, something it accomplishes."

This goes to the heart of why we continue to be moved by such works, and why, as Kramer says, the works seem to take on a personality and life of their own. When we talk about our favorite popular music, one of the only occasions where a song is separate from a performer is when a "cover" artist is involved. We might have a favorite Beatles song or album, but it's the band that's the thing. "Abbey Road" does not exist as an independent score or work, nor take on a life of its own apart from its status as one of the greatest albums ever recorded by a particular band. And while you may prefer Solti's Mahler 2 to my Mehta (or Bernstein, or Klemperer, or...), the fact is Mahler's 2nd Symphony has a life of its own. It exists in a discernable, transferable yet individual body in the specific score that bears its name.

The two middle chapters deal with the special worlds of art song and solo piano music, the intersection of music and society, performance and reception, and again, the difference between these forms as composed scores in the classical genres they inhabit. Even more important is the light Kramer sheds on the music's engagement with subjectivity and all the implications of the term--emotion, feeling, meaning, interpretation, reception, etc. I love the following:

"Our times may be telling us that subjectivity itself is old-fashioned, but perhaps that just makes us hunger for it more. The signs of the times suggest as much. Classical music can help fill our emotional needs; all we have to do is let it."

He cites both the 19th century art song and solo piano piece (exemplified by Schubert & Chopin) as paradigms of culture's first representations of modernity vis-a-vis the formation of the individuated self. Not only does such music help define the very idea of "the self" but it has the power to help that "self" understand & deal with the conflicts of modern life. No wonder we refer to such music as being "therapeutic."

The penultimate chapter returns to musical meaning in the wider community, tracing an arc from Beethoven's symphonies (appearing in the midst of early 19th century war and political upheaval) through one of the works written in response to 9/11, John Adams' arresting elegy, "On the Transmigration of Souls."

Along the way he cites the British novelist E.M. Forster's argument that art does not just lead to the ideal, "it is the ideal." In the essay "Art for Art's Sake" Forster argues the requisite order of art (ie: its form, and the technique required to create it) makes it the best model for social effectiveness we have.

The final chapter, "Persephone's Fiddle: The Value of Classical Music" is Kramer's impassioned finale. And like a great 19th century symphony, the author culls and gathers his work's themes and presents them with a forward moving, organic unity that not only makes a strong impression, but lingers and invites further consideration.

He quotes from a 1903 study by the sociologist Georg Simmel who's findings ring even more true today. Technological advances have increased the number of external stimuli, quickened the pace of everyday life, and have had deleterious effects on the attention spans of the beings inhabiting the modern world. To defend ourselves, we pretend indifference or build walls to distract from the outside. Thus, we find ourselves "the furthest removed from the depths of the personality." One antidote to the maddening pace and consequence of modern life was & is music. Kramer poetically summarizes Simmel by saying "listeners to a composition could compose themselves by their listening."

He concludes by relating an unlikely experience in the NY subway system that involved a small crowd gathering around a young violinist playing perhaps the least likely music to be heard--much less appreciated--in the loud, crowded, unpleasant environment underground between the local and express tracks at Times Square.

The passersby who stopped to listen to what they could hear of the Bach partita being played were offered "the chance to experience the depth of the inner life--by which I mean to enact it, to produce it."

He quotes T.S. Eliot's couplet about this active experience of listening:

"Music heard so deeply that you are the music/While the music lasts."

This music "offers an antidote to both the distractions of a complex world and the adaptations required to navigate them."

Classical music matters for many reasons, And many of those reasons are explored in this gem of a book. "Falling in love requires three things--being with the right person at the right time for long enough time." So Robert Shaw said in relationship to falling in love with Bach, Beethoven, and company. I think Kramer might agree with that. Regardless, we who spend time with classical music do it because it matters to us. And the "things that matter are things we bother with."

Kramer closes by quoting the great English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, who's "Solitary Reaper" plays an important role:

I listened, motionless and still,
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

BMF: Music and German National Identity

Since I don't appear until the last act of the final program of the Bard Music Festival, "Wagner and His World," I thought I'd write about it. My first entry connected to this summer's festival was on Meyerbeer's grand opera "Les Huguenots." It was a huge success from its premiere in 1837 through the first decades of the 20th century. Wagner was one of its early admirers.

Meyerbeer was also the primary victim, along with Mendelssohn, of Wagner's anti-semitic diatribe that first surfaced anonymously in 1850. It was updated and appeared with his name a decade & 1/2 later. It should give us pause that the 2 composers whose reputations most suffered from Wagner's attacks were 2 of the composers to whom he owed the biggest debt of influence.

Telling then, that "Ein feste burg" ("A mighty fortress") the Lutheran chorale that is a unifying (ie: leitmotivic) motive in Les Huguenots appears in Wagner's paean to German nationalism and her victory in the Franco-Prussian war.

The Kaisermarch is the opening work on this program of "Music and German National Identity" and excerpts from Wagner's operatic pageant to German art, "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" is the closing act. In between are topical works by Bruckner and (perhaps the last composer we'd identify with nationalism), Brahms ("Triumphlied" is a work that should have found its way into Brahms file 13. It is a derivative work that sounds like Handel on a revved-up cocktail of steroids and red-bull).

Meistersinger is problematic in our post-WWII world for two main reasons. The arguably/allegedly/credibly anti-semitic portrayal of the clumsy, awkward & inept Beckmesser, and the philo-Germanic exhortations of the work's protagonist, Hans Sachs.

The program notes (again by co-artistic director, Christopher Gibbs) quote one infamous admonishment from Sachs:

"Beware! Evil blows threaten us if one day the German people and kingdom decay under a false foreign ruler...therefore I say to you: honor your German masters!"

I believe it is time to wrest Wagner from the stranglehold of our reverse-perspective view of history following the Holocaust. At the same time, it is impossible to overstate the horrors and atrocities committed against European Jewry in the death camps of the Third Reich.

We are right to employ a hyper-vigilant, scrutinizing sensitivity to not only the Shoah itself, but the near and far reaching effects of anti-semitism leading up to it.

Wagner died before Hitler and his henchmen were born. Without getting into territory I have neither the time nor qualifications to navigate, I am inclined towards the argument of the mastermind & maestro of this festival, Leon Botstein. Botstein, a non-practicing orthodox Jew of Russian descent, argues forceably against the Wagner ban in Israel and Wagner censorship in general. He has made the central contribution to the festival's book, "Wagner and His World" in his provocative and illuminating essay "German Jews and Wagner." First, he states that censoring Wagner, especially in Israel, poses the dangerous risk of misplacing blame and stealing focus from the real causes and effects that led to the Holocaust.

He then maps out the complex web of Wagner reception--especially among Wagner's Jewish contemporaries--and how reexaming contemporary (ie: 19th century) criticism & reception is essential in avoiding the slippery slope of a retroactive misreading of history.

Gibbs makes a similar observation in his program notes, suggesting that Wagner's contemporaries--which would include many of his Jewish followers & supporters (yes, he had a number of Jewish patrons--another point to be noted)--would not have been uncomfortable with the nationalist elements of Meistersinger. Indeed, nationalism was widespread throughout 19th century Europe, and when paired with, say, American "exceptionalism" it is not necessarily the xenophobic, racist sickness it all too easily becomes in our post-modern world. Tellingly, Botstein claims there are 3 unassailable facts about Wagner at the height of his notoriety in the 1870's: he was an outspoken anti-semite, an adherent to a growing, philo-Germanic nationalist movement, and Jews numbered many of his most ardent supporters.

There is nothing remotely anti-semitic in the repeated choral exclamations of "Heil, Heil, Sachs!" (Sachs is the eponymous Master singer, and mentor to the romantic hero, Walther). Yet the anachronistic leap modern audiences cannot help but make should be put into its proper context and the retroactive "evil" of the libretto deflated and terrestrialized.

As much as anything, I am grateful to have been a participant in this engaging, provocative, and ultimately rewarding festival. By putting Wagner in context & presenting front-and-center the masterworks of the two Jewish composers who felt the harshest blunt of his racism, we are confronting Wagner the artist AND man. We also confront the paradox by taking his masterworks out of the holy grail of self-serving sacrosanctity (perpetuated by his family & heirs, to the detriment of his reputation) and meeting them where they are. No artist has been more contentious nor more influential in history. Wagner challenges us to consider questions of enormous value where politics & society, art & culture, and history intersect. There is no question of the enduring cultural debt to his art. But we owe ourselves better than the censorship that avoids the discomfort of confronting such contentiousness. For a man whose worldview and behavior appear beyond the pale of the acceptable, it is remarkable so much of his work concerns the redemptive power of love.

Censoring Wagner runs the risk of rewriting history by assigning too large a retrospective role to a megalomaniacal artist who's works were easily manipulated into propaganda. Auden was mistaken in his claim that "poetry makes nothing happen." The extent Wagner's anti-semitism affected (or infected) his works is cause for attention, investigation, and deliberation. If this process renders Die Meistersinger the problematic work it has been in the Wagner canon, then it is a judgment better served by considerate debate than ignorant censorship. If Wagner the man doesn't deserve redeeming, the victims of those who propogated his nationalist opera for their murderous ends deserve that and more--the truth.

BMF: Engineering the Triumph of Wagnerism

This month I've been writing about my time at Bard College for their annual Summerscape festival which culminates in the Bard Music Festival, "part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit" (New York Times).

We are in the middle of the final day of the second weekend of "Wagner and His World." I've already written about the first weekend, and the two major works that framed the festival the first week of August.

I left off with Wagner's apprenticeship in Paris, and so I'll pick up with a program that featured a good dose of (French, German, and English) operetta, some imitating and some spoofing Wagner. Amy was joined by Jennifer Rivera, Jon-Michael Ball and Jonathan Hays for an enjoyable recital entitled "Bearable Lightness: The Comic Alternative." My friend and colleague, James Bassi, directed the musical shape and pace of the program from the piano. The composer and professor Richard Wilson provided droll and insightful commentary between the sets of songs, arias, and enembles.

Arthur Sullivan (the musical half of Gilbert & Sullivan), famously dismissed Wagner's music as "intolerably dull and heavy, and so undramatic." Yet one of his most sophisticated scores, "Iolanthe," betrays a heavy debt to Wagner. Amy and Jon-Michael sang an energetic love-duet, Jennifer was an impassioned Iolanthe, and Jonathan stole the scene with one of the cleverest of the G&S patter songs, "Love Unrequited, Robs Me of My Rest."

This was preceded by a set of Chabrier songs that featured both sides of the "light" response to Wagner's music in Paris. "The ballad of the fat turkeys" and "Villanelle of the little ducks" were comic character songs (engagingly sung by Amy and Jennie, respectively). In between the caricatures, Amy offered a beautiful, Tristan-tinged "L'ile heureuse" (the happy island).

If Chabrier wavered in allegiance to Wagnerism, Jacques Offenbach was one of Wagner's most visible Parisian critics. He turned to operetta as a melodic and immediately appealing alternative to Wagner's "music of the future." I am indebted to the excellent program notes by Byron Adams for the quotes herein; here is one from Offenbach: "to be erudite and boring isn't art; it's better to be pungent and tuneful."

The beautifully simple & tuneful duet opera lovers know as the "barcarolle" from "The Tales of Hoffmann" first appeared in Offenbach's Rhine-inspired opera, "Die Rheinnixen." Despite the fact Offenbach could not have known Wagner's "Das Rheingold," the fortuitousness of the pairing is deliciously ironic.

The program also included piano music by Faure and his student, Andre Messager, as well as music from German operetta. Suppe's "Lohengelb" IS a deliberate spoof on Lohengrin, as Oscar Strauss' "The Merry Nibelungs" is on Wagner's Ring cycle.

The Ring Cycle was the theme of Saturday night's concert, "The Selling of the Ring." As I mentioned in a previous post, the festival is programming excerpts from the operas Wagner himself arranged and conducted. His practice was to select the most accessible and extractable passages (no mean feet in the "unending melody" of operas whose individual acts last 1 1/2 hours alone) and close with the overture.

Since the Ring tetralogy dispenses with the traditional overture, this program featured orchestral excerpts from within the operas themselves. (Das Rheingold does open with a 136 bar prelude that is a study itself in Wagnerian unfolding--the spinning out of a single idea over a length of time with accumulating motion & force. In this case, a single E-flat chord is repeated and varied, gathering momentum over nearly five minutes of scales and arpeggios until it spills seamlessly over into the opening scene of the Rhine Maidens swimming in the Rhine with their gold).

The concert did not feature the prelude but rather the other bookend to Das Rheingold, "The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla." The unfolding technique is used in this scene as well, which begins with Donner using his hammer to evoke the thunder and lightning and literally clear the air. He urges his brother, Froh (the part I sang) to build a bridge to lead into their new fortress (Valhalla). 12 bars of shimmering G-flat, accompanied by the harps and strings, feature a rising Valhalla-inspired motive that is introduced by the lower strings, winds and horns. Though I only sang one page of Froh's music, it was a glorious page to sing. Wotan and Loge finish the scene, though they are interrupted by the complaining Rhinemaidens (who's stolen gold Wotan promised to return--the god of contracts is notorious for breaking them in Wanger's cycle).

Das Rheingold was the first of the tetralogy to be composed, but the last "poem" to be written. Wagner thought of his libretti as independent poetic dramas and published them separately, ahead of the operas, for commercial, promotional & aesthetic reasons. He started with "Siegfrieds Death" which became "The Twilight of the Gods." Then he wrote a prelude to it describing the life of his hero, "Siegfried." Then he decided he needed a prelude to explain Siegfried's background and wrote the story of "The Valkyries." Finally, he decided to append a prelude to contextualize the trilogy, and wrote "The Rhine-gold." Oy.

After finishing the scores of the first two operas, and realizing his epic efforts would yield scant compensation in their gestating state, he paused. "Tristan und Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger" (originally intended to be short operas on tragic and comic subjects, respectively) were composed in the late 1850's in the hopes of immediate success and multiple productions that would bring the struggling composer some much-needed funding. The final two operas of the tetralogy were completed in the 1870's. The decade-wide gap between "Die Walküre" and "Siegfried" & "Götterdämmerung" is an especially wide one, even more so considering the intricate motivic integration of "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

Much ink has been spilled on the gap in Wagner's style as a result of both the long lapse, and the stylistic evolutions of Tristan and Meistersinger. I think this point is exaggerated. Already in Act 1 of "Die Walküre" we hear the musical evocation of love & desire that would perfume the 4+ hours of "Tristan und Isolde." Once Wagner hit his stride with the Ring, his style was achieved. And though the inflection of his voice may evolve from opera to opera, it remains the same expressive voice.

I had the extraordinary opportunity to apprentice at the Young Artists Festival in Bayreuth in 1996, and return in 1997 as an assistant professor. Within a span of 8 days in August of 1996, I saw the Ring Cycle, Heiner Müller's stunning, instant-classic-upon-its-conception production of "Tristan & Isolde" (and now available on DVD), and "Die Meistersinger." The following year I repeated the experience of seeing my two favorite Ring operas, "Die Walküre" and "Götterdämmerung," "Tristan" & "Meistersinger" and added Wagner's sublime final opera, "Parsifal" to the docket. These were--and remain--overwhelming and unforgettable experiences. I was unprepared for Wagner's impact. Having long been an admirer of the generation of composers he influenced (namely Mahler and Richard Strauss), I never really "got" Wagner. And what I read about his life, and the infamous association of his works with Nazism, only reinforced that predisposition.

This brings to mind one of the best lessons my undergraduate mentor, "Daddy" Dave Watkins taught his students: you can not judge a work until you really know it. This is true in the music of Wagner, even more so for the retroactive guilt to which modern history has subjected him, given the coincidence of his racist views with Nazism. I'll write more about that later. For now, I will repeat what I've said before, that one judge the work on its merits, and the life on its terms. When the two intersect, collide and/or explode, then the makings of contentious symposia (like "Wagner and the Jewish Question") is engaging and worthy grist.

Amy, who has had little experience with Wagner live, was completely overwhelmed by last night's concert, as I expected she woud be. She also agreed with me with her two favorite operas. "Die Walküre" includes some very appealing excerpts. Siegmund's "Love Song" and the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" and Wotan's powerful "Farewell" to Brünnhilde make the second opera in the Ring cycle the most popular, and among the most beloved. Gary Lehman and James Johnson were both outstanding as Siegmund & Wotan. What a thrill to share the stage with such distinguished Wagnerian singers!

"Götterdämmerung" has a pair of great orchestral excerpts--Siegfried's "Rhine journey" and his death and "Funeral music." The closing "Immolation" scene with Brünnhilde features a crash-course of intermingled Leitmotiven (leading motives) that encapsulate the entire cycle. "Wagner thus recreates a musical ring" (the annotator Christopher Gibbs noted), as the epic 18-hour tetralogy comes full circle to close.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wagner: The Triumphant Revolutionary

In my last post I wrote about the Bard Music Festival in general and this year's specific programs devoted to "Wagner and His World." If the opening concert exposed how far the journey was from derivative apprentice composer to "Master of Bayreuth" some 50 years later, Saturday night's concert traced a more logical line in this development.

"The Triumphant Revolutionary" was the fourth concert of the festival's opening weekend, and it opened with music Wagner wrote to be inserted into other composers' works. I wrote about 19th century Italian opera in the context of Verdi's world last month. A comparison of the lives of these two exact contemporaries is not necessary here. Verdi deplored the practice of these "substitution" pieces (at least in his operas). It is interesting how later in life Wagner (and his heirs) would exert such control over the sacrosanctity of his scores. It did not prevent him as a young composer, however, from literally inserting himself into the works of others.

The curtain rose, figuratively speaking, on what sounded like a circus chorus from a French operetta. Indeed, "Descendons gaiement la Courtille" (1841) was written to be inserted into a vaudeville show, while the struggling young composer was down and out in Paris. Those struggles, moreover, would be repressed, only to resurface as bile when Wagner dismissed his earlier admiration for Paris in diatribes about Meyerbeer and the "effects without causes" of French grand opera (more on "Wagner in Paris" below...)

Following the festive opening, I sang what was one of the most exhilarating arias I've ever attempted. Heinrich Marschner was the most famous German opera composer of his day, a highly successful early romantic composer following Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber. His opera, Der Vampyr (yes, The Vampire) is based on a Byron sketch. Wagner wrote a new allegro to be performed following a bucolic andante in Act II of the opera. The lead tenor is Sir Aubry, who has sworn to protect his friend Ruthven's identity for 24 hours. Ruthven is, you guessed it, the title character. Unbeknownst to Aubry, the Vamp needs to find 3 more victims in this time, and of course chooses Aubry's love, Malvina, as one of them. Aubry will turn into a Vampire himself if he breaks his promise, so he is somewhat distraught at the thought of his beloved becoming his friend's next victim. He sings a beautiful, Mozart inspired andante about Malvina's beauty and their (soon to be lost) love. When he confronts the literal horror of the situation, Wagner interrupts with a crazy sturm und drang (storm and stress) allegro with an original text and 28 high a-flats. They would not be so difficult were they not so close together and in the middle of cascading coloratura runs that span an octave & 1/2 range! So, when Mo. Botstein took a faster tempo in the concert, it was a wild ride, and like Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods, I was excited, "well, excited AND scared." The audience appreciated the accomplishment, and it was the first time in my career I've been encored back to the stage during the first half of a program. In fact, at dinner the next night, as I was excusing myself before settling the bill, the couple at the table next to ours said (within earshot of Amy, who responded) "I think that's Scott Williamson." It was surreal. They had attended the concert and we ended up having an enjoyable conversation about it and the festival in general. If my proverbial 15 minutes of fame don't surpass the 6 minute Marschner-Wagner Vampire aria, so be it. I'll keep enjoying the ride.

The ride of this particular concert continued with a great bass aria Wagner wrote to be inserted into Bellini's masterpiece, Norma. The bass for whom it was written declined to perform it, but it is worth hearing, especially by a singer of Daniel Mobbs' calibre, and it offers another window into Wagner's assimilation of the styles of his day. As the festival's co-artistic director Christopher Gibbs points out (in his illuminative program notes), this aria "must be regarded as an attempt to 'out-compose' the Italian with his own musical language."

Wagner finally found his own style with his fourth opera (the first "staple" of his in the repertory) The Flying Dutchman (1841). Many of the seeds that would germinate over the next two decades to appear in glorious blossom in Tristan and the Ring cycle are here. The searching chromaticism, the recurring use of motives to identify both character and emotion, and the large-scale canvas of the score's sound-world first emerge from the mist of Dutchman. Verdi conjured storms in his operas, from the "mad scene" in his first operatic hit, Nabucco, to the famous trio near the tragic end of Rigoletto, to the marvelous opening of his final tragedy, Otello. The Flying Dutchman's storm music--so "Wagnerian" from the opening of the fiery overture--would reappear with volcanic force in Die Walkure. Although the Ring cycle contains very little for chorus--a medium the composer professed to disdain--Wagner learned his lessons from Meyerbeer and the Italian bel canto composers and wrote rousing choruses. The sailors' chorus from Dutchman was described by one of my friends and colleagues (who shall remain anonymous) as an "anti-semitic show choir." It is actually the final solo and chorus from Die Meistersinger that make most post-WWII listeners uncomfortable, but I am a few programs ahead of myself. "Wagner and German Nationalism" is the 12th and final program Sunday afternoon, following a symposium on "Wagner and the Jewish question." Back to "the triumphant revolutionary."

If I had a great time singing my little insert aria, I was only part of the opening act for the queen of the evening, Christine Goerke. Christine outdid herself Saturday night, in excerpts from not only Dutchman, but the second half of the program's selections from the next two operas, Tannhauser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848). We bantered backstage about whether my Vampyr aria was more awkward than hers from Die Feen. No matter, from his first great dramatic soprano roles--Senta, Elisabeth and Elsa--Wagner displayed his hard-won gifts for writing engaging & inspired vocal music.

(for the NY Times review of weekend one, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/arts/music/18wagner.html?emc=eta1)

Excerpts from Tannhauser offer an ideal entry into the Wagnerian world. From the overture to Elisabeth's "entrance" aria "Dich teure Halle" and (among others), the beautifully lyric baritone soliloquy, "O du mein holder Abendstern" this triptych of excerpts are immediate in their appeal. I have the privilege of playing John Hancock's brother (Froh to his Donner) in a brief Rheingold excerpt this weekend (the 10th program, "The Selling of the Ring" to be discussed later). John was wonderful as Wolfram in the "Song to the Evening Star" (which was how the famous baritone aria was listed in the program book).

All of the "suites" of excerpts from the ten mature operas are being presented in concert formats Wagner himself programmed, with the titles he assigned. Thus, without mounting a single Wagner opera (or even an entire single act) this festival is offering a unique view of the composer's world. Wagner was perhaps the most shameless--and ultimately successful--self-promoter in music history. For these concerts, he lifted the best-suited arias, often wrote new endings or arrangements to tailor them to the concert setting, and ended the excerpts by placing the overture last. Not so far off from the movie trailor format--just extended from 20 seconds to 20 minutes, with the theme music the closing punctuation of the image. Adorno (see previous post) would surely approve of the analogy, since he viewed Wagner's pervasive influence on film music so dismissively. Perhaps such disdain arises from the deflating sensation of having the suspension of one's disbelief itself suspended. Like a child who resents the magician after he figures out the tricks aren't magic but simply technique, craft, and talent.

There was certainly a lot of craft and talent in Paris in the early 19th century, making it one of THE cultural centers of the world. Home to a leading conservatory and arguably the best opera house of the day, Paris was a center for all of the arts. No wonder composers from Chopin and Liszt to Rossini and Verdi had extended residencies there (even if they made the complaint, still heard today, that "the only problem with France is the French!"). Wagner hoped for an apprenticeship with Meyerbeer, and lived in Paris from 1839 to 1842. I wrote about the latter's grand opera Les Huguenots in an earlier post. Sunday's concert, "Wagner in Paris" featured works written by Wagner, but more importantly by Parisian composers and transplants whose music thrived in the French capital while the young German composer struggled for a foothold that did not materialize. The brilliant young coloratura soprano, Erin Morley (the outstanding Queen Margeurite in the Meyerbeer opera) sang some of Wagner's early french songs and a Bellini aria. Chamber music by Cherubini, and Meyerbeer's grand opera colleagues, Auber and Halevy offset the solo vocal selections. My contribution was in a Meyerbeer chamber trio for voice, clarinet and piano. Modeled on Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock," Meyerbeer's "Hirtenlied" (Shepherd Song) is a beautiful scena-like setting of the German romantic poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab. Most famous for the poems Schubert set in his posthumous song-cycle, Schwanengesang, Rellstab's poem is an idyllic landscape where the sounds of nature and the shepherd's pipe coexist in imperturbable harmony. The composer writes lyrical and playful duets for the voice and clarinet, and I thoroughly enjoyed rehearsing and peforming the charming piece with the ASO's principal clarinettist, Laura Flax, and the excellent British pianist, Danny Driver. Speaking of excellent pianists, the headliner on the program was Jeremy Denk (equally well known as Joshua Bell's collaborative pianist) who rocked on a Chopin Polonaise-Fantasy and tore up the stage with Liszt arrangements of Berlioz and Meyerbeer.

Wagner didn't achieve the success in Paris Meyerbeer did. But his older German-born colleague did help the struggling young artist procure a conducting post in Dresden, where Wagner was able to successfully mount, among others, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser. He was forced out of that position and into exile for his participation in the revolutionary uprisings of 1848. "The triumphant revolutionary?" Indeed.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wagner and His World: The Fruits of Ambition

I am in the middle of the Bard Music Festival's annual "Rediscoveries" series. "Wagner and His World" is the 20th annual festival devoted to a composer and his milieu. The festival "has established a unique identity in the classical concert field by presenting programs that, through performance and discussion, place a selected work in the cultural and social context of the composer's world." In addition to the centerpiece orchestral concerts (many featuring soloists and chorus), chamber concerts, recitals, lectures and symposia frame two weekends of programs that are also commemorated in an annual companion publication by Princeton University Press. These books of essays, commentary, and historical documents have become standards in the field of music research and in the wider culture of music criticism and appreciation. The festival takes place on the beautiful Bard College campus, in the Catskills/Hudson River valley region of NY state. The Frank Gehry designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts is a magnificent concert hall and one of THE destinations for classical music in the country. (For more info see: http://fishercenter.bard.edu/bmf/)

I have already written about my experience performing in Mendelssohn's Paulus (St. Paul) and attending Meyerbeer's grand opera, Les Huguenots. These were two works Wagner singled out for initial praise in the late 1830's and early 1840's, before finding his voice--both musical and polemical--and turning against these two composers in his anti-semitic writings first published in 1850.

The festival is programmed around two weekends of events. We are in the middle of weekend one, "The Fruits of Ambition" and I am preparing to sing on tonight's orchestral program of early Wagner, provocatively titled "The Triumphant Revolutionary." On Sunday I will sing a Meyerbeer chamber work for voice, clarinet, and piano (a cousin of Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock") on a program of "Wagner in Paris." I'll write about those concerts later. For now I want to share some thoughts and quotes about the opening program, "Genius Unanticipated."

If there is a composer with a wider quality gap between his juvenalia and mature works, I am at a loss to name one. Unlike Mozart, Mendelssohn, or closer to our day, Britten, Wagner was no prodigy. Composers like Beethoven, Verdi, and Debussy (an unlikely trio) all took time to find their distinctive voices. Leon Botstein (co-artistic director of the festival, president of Bard college, and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra) joked in rehearsal this week that the distance between Wagner's early and mature works is so great we could rightly suspect him of having used a ghost-writer!

This opening concert offered several angles from which to view such a prospect. The concert opened with the first of Wagner's operas whose excerpts have entered the repertory. The overture of Rienzi (1840) offers a few glimpses of the Wagner to come, while displaying his debt to the French grand opera of Meyerbeer and the German romanticism of Weber. The bel-canto modeled scenas from his first two operas, Die Feen (1833) and Das Liebesverbot (1834-35), however, are curiosities only. It has been a privilege for me this week to sing in rehearsals with one of the finest young dramatic sopranos around, Christine Goerke. In a piano rehearsal at Mo. Botstein's house earlier this week, I had the unenviable task of following Christine's ravishing "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde! Christine was valiant in the awkwardly written dramatic coloratura of Wagner first opera, and Daniel Mobbs was in outstanding voice in Wagner's 2nd opera, an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." In both excerpts, I know I was not alone in admiring the artists and their artistry over the art itself.

The next work was a fragment from a larger, unfinished symphonic work. Wagner's Faust Overture (1839-40) again shows seeds of his original voice. It also betrays the gap between his imitating Beethoven and assimilating the dramatic narrative style of this greatest of 19th century composers. Indeed, it is that gap between Beethoven's knack for development--for modulation & variation that propels the movements of his symphonies inexorably forward--and Wagner's lack of this compositional skill that was so glaringly obvious in this music. No wonder Wagner was so hostile to Brahms--the real heir to Beethoven's symphonic style. The Faust Overture--indebted to Berlioz and the romantic penchant for colorful dramatic effects in the orchestra--was interesting, but sounded like a series of moments and episodes rather than an integrated and cohesive piece of orchestral music.

That overture was rendered even more hollow by its juxtaposition with music from Wagner's last opera, Parsifal (1882). The program certainly lived up to its title of "Genius Unanticipated" in this instance. Parsifal contains some of the most sublime music Wagner penned, and raises unanswerable questions concerning the relationship of the work and life of the artist. How could so despicable a human being compose such beautiful music? Is the through-line of the power of redemptive love--more explicitly present in Parsifal than in any other opera--the expression of the composer's sub- or unconscious wish/need for salvation/redemption?

The second half of the program openend with Wagner's nearly forgotten (and forgettable) Symphony in C (1832). I have to disagree with scholar Thomas S. Grey's assessment that this is "a highly creditable amalgam of middle-period Beethoven with touches of Schubert." An amalgam, yes; highly creditable, no way. Nowhere is Wagner's lack of Beethovenian development more apparent than in the four movements of this symphony of dead-ends & unvaried repetition. It was if this self-forming composer listened and culled and imitated, workshopping his way through a series of derivative apprentice works, until he found a way around his limitations and forged an individual voice unlike any other.

That voice is most famously present in the opening, tonally ambiguous strains of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1857-1859). While Wagner's debt to Berlioz (especially the love-themed adagio from Romeo et Juliette) is clear, the style Wagner fashioned was entirely his own: "unending melody" via long, chromatically winding phrases, the integration of the different sections of the orchestra into a unified canvas of sound, and the elevation of the "leitmotiv" from signifier to the substance of both the individual characters and the character of the works themselves.

Tristan ranks as one of the greatest works of classical music from any period, and remains one of my favorites. Listening to the fluid and sweeping strains of the Prelude last night, on the heels of the derivative and formally vacuous symphony, I was struck by how effective Wagner was at manipulation. The music of Tristan doesn't "go" anywhere: it's repeated and varied through color & dynamics, not (harmonic) modulation or (symphonic) development. Maybe it is to music what the stream-of-conscious style is to narrative fiction. Interesting and engaging, but best appreciated on its own terms. Regardless, it can be mesmerizing & intoxicating, which are at least a couple of the effects the composer wanted.

If my take on Wagner's development vis-a-vis his early style seems harsh and polemical itself, perhaps some quotes from the modernist scion of criticism, Theodor Adorno, are in order. I have been reading his engaging set of essays "In Search of Wagner" written amidst the rise of Nazism. This work was a major factor in the reevaluation and criticism of Wagner that reached a fevered pitch in the wake of WWII, and from which it has not since waned.

Adorno's polemic shoots holes in the "Revolutionary" Wagner's "Music of the Future" claims by dissecting the very features that distinguish his art. He attacks the leitmotiv as "commodity-function" likening the identifying motives as an "advertisement" it is "music intended for the forgetful." In the context of examing the leitmotiv or musical "gesture" he hits upon the difference between Wagner and Beethoven, say, argued less forcefully above by yours truly (the quotations are from the Verso paperback (c. 2005, reprinted 2009) translated by Rodney Livingstone).

"Faults of compositional technique in his music always stem from the fact that the musical logic...is softened up and replaced by a sort of gesticulation, rather in the way that agitators substitute linguistic gestures for the discursive exposition of their thoughts. It is no doubt true that all music has its roots in gesture of this kind and harbours it within itself. In the West, however, it has been sublimated and interiorized into expression, while at the same time the principle of construction subjects the overall flow of the music to a process of logical synthesis; great music strives for a balance of the two elements. Wagner's position lies athwart this tradition."

Put another way, "his aim is to reconcile the lack of development in the gesture with the unrepeatable finality of the expression...the eternity of Wagnerian music...is one which proclaims nothing has happened."

The leitmotiv "leads directly to cinema music where the sole function is to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience orientate itself more easily." He's on to something here. Even if he treats one of the defining features of Wagner's genius dismissively. Lesser composers would demean the leitmotiv of the "Gesamptkunstwerk" (total-work-of-art) into the derivative and merely descriptive function of much film music.

Adorno goes on, and it is an entertaining and intellectually stimulating screed. Keep in mind this is from the critic who famously claimed that "after Auschwitz, there can be no poetry." His post-modern, Marxist criticism paved the ground for the anti-Wagnerian, anti-Romantic avant-garde that embraced the serialism of Webern and led to the gulf between the composer and the public that still haunts contemporary classical music. It is supreme irony and/or poetic justice that Adorno tempered his view towards an appreciation of Wagner later in life. The Master of Bayreuth could certainly cast a spell.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mendelssohn's St. Paul

Yesterday I had the privilege of singing the tenor role in Mendelssohn's Paulus, op. 36, "An Oratorio, the Words Selected from the Holy Scriptures."

Paulus was written between 1834 (when its composer was 25) and 1836, when it premiered to great acclaim throughout Germany and England, before traveling across Europe to Russia and abroad to the U.S. It was among the most popular works of its time and the most successful of Mendelssohn's works in his lifetime.

The performance yesterday marked both the Mendelssohn Bicentennial (1809-1847) and with Meyerbeer's opera, Les Huguenots (see "Meyerbeer and Mary Stuart" posted Aug 9), framed the upcoming Bard Music Festival, "Wagner and His World." Besides being hugely popular works of their day who have unfortunately been neglected in recent generations, both the opera and the oratorio occupy singular places in the controversial world of Richard Wagner.

Both Paulus and Les Huguenots premiered in 1836, and both works impressed and influenced the young Wagner. The impresario behind the 2 current productions, Leon Botstein, programmed both works in order to open up two windows through which to view angles of Wagner the composer deliberately tried to obfuscate through his writings and self promotion.

If there is an artist in history more manipulative, self-serving, and racist than Wagner, that artist is certainly less central & controversial. And there is no case where the gulf between the quality of the artist's character and the artist's creation is greater than in the life and music of Wagner. This very subject is making arts headlines as I write this. A bruhaha is unfolding in LA over an upcoming Wagner festival, owing to the composer's infamous anti-semitism, and his subsequent notoriety as the favorite composer of the Nazis. Without getting too far afield from my intention to write about Mendelssohn and Paulus, I bow to Daniel Barenboim and James Levine, the greatest living Wagnerian conductors who are also Jewish. It is not for me to say we should not program an artist's work because we despise the artist. We should not ignore the character nor the biography of the artist, but should put both in the context of better understanding the work.

Which in this case, is fascinating. The two composers who have suffered most from Wagner's forcefully argued and revolting essay "Judaism in Music" are Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn. It would seem Wagner, intent on creating his image as revolutionary savior to true German art, the "missing link" after Beethoven, was determined to efface any trace of the Jewish composers' influence on his style. According to Wagner, Jewish composers were not progressive or revolutionary enough, nor "pure" enough to write "noble" music that captured the "essence" of the "German soul."

How ironic then, that throughout Paulus one hears traces of Wagner's early operas. Before "Judaism in Music" Wagner wrote glowingly of Paulus. It "showed us in all perfection a work that is a witness to the highest bloom of art." And it is a brilliantly crafted work. Modeled on Handel oratorio and Bach Passion, it is a dramatically compelling large-scale work by one of the greatest musical prodigies in history.

Indeed, I am not alone in claiming Mendelssohn as THE great prodigy. If one compares the number of masterworks written by composers before they turned, say, 20, Mendelssohn wins. Mozart may have been more prolific, but none of his early works match Mendelssohn's Octet or the String Symphonies he wrote as a teen. This is to take nothing away from Mozart, the bulk of whose masterworks were written in astonishing succession the last 10 years of his life. It is to give credit to another prodigy and genius whose life and work have sat too long in the shadows.

Mendelssohn is as well known to us for the "Bach revival" he initiated via a centennial performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829 (he was 20). One of the first great conductors, he was famous for leading the venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra in (Bach's home) Leipzig.

The indebtness of Paulus to Bach is obvious. The overture opens with the famous Lutheran chorale, "Wachet auf" (Sleepers Awake). Mendelssohn uses chorale tunes in similar ways to Bach throughout the oratorio, as meditative commentary punctuating the action. (Another parallel with Meyerbeer is found here, as "Ein feste Burg" (A Mighty Fortress) punctuates Les Huguenots).

Mendelssohn synthesizes not only Bach, but Handel, and the Viennese classical style of Mozart and Haydn. Wagner was surely impressed by the dramatic force of the work, which shows Mendelssohn absorbing and assimilating Beethoven and early 19th century romanticism, with Janus-faced vision.

Mendelssohn's handling of the large forces is masterful. Our performance yesterday sought to replicate Mendelssohn's own arrangement. The orchestra was in a cone shape, with the violins framing the cellos and violas, the winds behind the strings, the brass on risers in the back, framing the double-basses. The chorus was divided and framed the orchestra at the front of the stage: sopranos and tenors on stage right, with the soprano and mezzo soloists, and altos and basses on stage left with the male soloists. This formation instantly solved issues of choral and orchestral balance, otherwise a persistent thorn in the side of the conductor leading these large scale oratorios.

The work is in two parts, and the libretto is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. A variety of styles are used to give the work dramatic pace, interest, and color. The soprano and tenor soloists share the role of the narrator (like the Evangelist in a Bach Passion). The bass soloist is the voice of Saul/Paul, and a prototype for Mendelssohn's more famed oratorio, Elijah. The chorus has several notable fugues, the aforementioned chorales, and functions as the crowd in "turba" fashion (again similar to Bach). Two of the choruses, "Siehe, wir preisen selig" (aka: "Happy and Blest") and "Wie lieblich sind die Boten" (aka: "How lovely are the messengers") are often excerpted and have a life of their own as church anthems. They are also notable for their obvious influence on Brahms.

The dramatic centerpiece of the first part (if not the entire work) is Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus. Mendelssohn originally planned to represent the voice of Jesus with another bass solo but opted instead for a four-part chorus. Worried this would result in critical opprobrium from the pietists, he allegedly said "Yes, and the worthy theologians would cut me up nicely for wishing to deny and supplant Him arose from the dead."

The resulting texture of wind accompaniment and 4-part treble voices is an ethereal, other-worldly sound that is dramatically and musically convincing. The scene is followed by one of the rousing choruses that integrates Handelian pomp with Beethovenian drive. "Mache dich auch, werde licht" ("Rise and shine") is followed by a master-stroke chorale setting of "Wachet auf." Inbetween the calm homophonic phrases of the chorus (doubled by the strings and winds) are brilliant fanfares for the brass. Fanfares that would find their way into Tannhauser and Lohengrin, thank you very much.

My favorite moment, and one of the work's highlights, is the Cavatina for tenor and solo cello, "Sei getreu bis in den Tod" (Be thou faithful unto death"). Coming near the work's end, it is a perfectly balanced duet and another example of Mendelssohn absorbing Bach's influence without a trace of parody or slavish imitation.

That indebtedness to Bach may be something that has not worked in Mendelssohn's favor. Wagner's anti-semitic track portrayed Mendelssohn as being out of touch with the times, and used his penchant for assimilation against him. Wagner's argument leads us to another avenue of consideration where Mendelssohn and St Paul are concerned, namely accusations that Mendelssohn himself was anti-semitic.

Mendelssohn's grandfather Moses was one of the great philosophers of the 18th century, and the founder of modern reformed Judaism. The Mendelssohn family were believers in the enlightenment and thus Abraham Mendelssohn (Felix's father) viewed Protestantism as the next step in this progressive process. Leon Botstein has pointed out that Mendelssohn's own conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism was not the result of "cynicism, careerism, or shame." He goes on to say,

"Protestantism was the religion of modernity, progress, and reason, a historical and logical advance over both ancient Judaism and Catholicism. Mendelssohn shared his father's view of Protestantism. His personal adherence...was not considered a betrayal of his Jewish heritage but rather as the inevitable evolutionary consequence of the reformist efforts of his grandfather."

This is an important point, as some post-modern scholars have inserted anti-semitic readings into not only Bach's Passions but into St Paul as well because of the perceived unflattering portraits of the Jews. Mendelssohn believed in a universalist religion that found Protestantism not as a supersessionist supplanting of Judaism but a logical synthesis. So Saul's conversion to Paul is not "an effort on the part of Mendelssohn to display his authentic Christian credentials at the expense of the Jews."

Les Huguenots offers our post-modern world an enthralling experience of music theatre AND an opportunity to reflect on issues of difference and the consequences of hate. Paulus is an engaging, affirming work embracing reason and enlightenment with faith in the collective potential of humanity's progress. We are better for having both.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Meyerbeer and Mary Stuart

As Elizabeth I in Peter Oswald's brilliant adaption of Schiller's Mary Stuart, Harriet Walter flatly states "the world thinks through its eyes."

Complex identity is frequently reduced to superficial appearance. And friction between different identities fequently escalates into hostility and violence when appearances must be "kept up" or imposed, and differences judged rather than mediated. This is and has been true in matters of race & ethnicity, sexuality & gender, culture & religion.

I saw Mary Stuart at the Broadhurst theatre in NYC this week inbetween rehearsals for Mendelssohn's Paulus (St Paul) with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein. That concert today is a quasi bridge between a too-short run of Meyerbeer's grand opera, Les Huguenots (I saw the last of 4 performances Friday), and the Bard Music Festival 2009: "Wagner and His World," which opens next weekend. I will write about Mendelssohn once Paulus is behind me. Meyerbeer and Mary Stuart are more than enough for this modest review.

For starters, I had not planned on seeing two gargantuan theatre pieces within 72 hours of one another, nor had I any idea how gripping and powerful Mary Stuart and Les Huguenots both would be. Both are epic in scope and based on historical events, the two-act play nearly three hours of intense personal and political drama, and the five-act, 4 1/2 hr opera THE paradigm for 19th century grand opera.

Besides the expense of mounting such a grand opera and then casting a show that includes one of the most demanding lyric tenor roles ever written--in the flawed hero, Raoul--the opera has two show-stopping lyric coloratura sopranos. Marguerite de Valois (Queen Margot in Dumas' novel and the Patrice Chereau film) requires Queen of the Night range and fireworks, and Valentine is a Lucia who is killed before she goes mad (and a prototype for some of Verdi's great heroines--I heard not only hints of Violetta but Elisabetta, and the influence & parallels between the Meyerbeer and Don Carlos & Aida are striking).

The casting challenges continue. There are three well-drawn roles for lower male voices: 2 bass baritones and a lyric baritone, along with a challenging trouser role for a facile lyric mezzo. There are a half-dozen male supporting roles, and another dozen or so "step-out" roles from the huge chorus required to carry this moving drama.

Les Huguenots (The Huguenots were, simply put, French Calvinists) is based on the 1572 St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which saw fanatic Catholics slaughter thousands of French Protestants. The ostensible impetus was the wedding of the Catholic Queen, Marquerite, to the Protestant King, Henry de Navarre. Intended to stave off civil war and promote unity, the marriage was used as a screen to carry out a purge that would spread from Paris throughout France. In total, nearly 30,000 protestants were killed.

Meyerbeer's opera balances the political and religious tensions with a fictional love story between the protestant leader, Raoul, and the catholic Valentine. The score is a rich tapestry of nearly every available form--arias and cabalettas, small ensembles and large choral scenes, "gypsy" music & ballet, military brass, and an array of solo instrumental colors. A beautiful, baroque influenced viola da gamba solo accompanies the tenor in his first act aria. A recurring cello motto recalls the prelude of a Bach suite and recurs when Raoul's servant, the earnest and sympathetic bass, Marcel, sings. Valentine opens Act IV with a beautiful aria that is actually a trio with solo horn and bassoon. A quasi-klezmer tinged clarinet solo joins the doomed lovers duet at the end of that act. And a solo bass clarinet haunts the final scenes of the opera, in what may be the first such use of that colorful instrument.

These intimate and touching moments are balanced by the arc of the conflict between the clashing sects, represented by the double chorus. Indeed, Les Hugeunots is a tour-de-force of choral writing, and I was both thrilled and proud to hear my colleagues in such fine form at the sold out final performance Friday night.

The work has a cumulative effect, owing to its well-crafted architecture. A sustained and inexorable crescendo of intense stimuli and emotions results in a powerful, moving, engaging, and deeply affecting work of musical theatre. This is especially true of the last two acts, where the love story between Raoul and Valentine and the imminent clash between the religious groups both come to a head. Act IV contains some of the most sensual and beautiful music in all of 19th century opera, and in the lovers' extended scene one hears the French Romantic tradition from Berlioz through Massenet, and the indebtness of both Wagner and Verdi to Meyerbeer. Act V moves swiftly through three scenes to bring the conflict to its peak with devastating force. Valentine converts in order to remain with Rauol, and ends up shot by her own Father and his henchman. And while we feel revulsion at the brutality of the Catholic slaughter, Meyerbeer has drawn a balanced portrait of religious hypocrisy in various guises. In another example of the work's greatness, the ballet music in Act III, instead of being an entertaining diversion, depicts the Protestants' inhuman treatment of a band of gypsies.

In his characteristically insightful and provocative program note, Leon Botstein writes of Meyerbeer's current relevance vis-a-vis the effect of the creative distance this spectacular, non-realistic historical opera creates:

"As we witness a theatrical reenactment of how two religious groups, both of which claimed authority from the same divine source and accepted the divinity of Christ, are overcome with hatred, suspicion, and mutual enmity, do we emerge from the theater thinking that we are better and have progressed from the 16th century?"

In assessing how such a work can impact an audience, then and now, Botstein ultimately asks sobering questions any fundamentalist would do well to consider:

"Do we now tolerate differences in religion and ethnicity? Has our aesthetic refinement run parallel with an ethical advance so that we are no longer capable of the sort of slaughter in the name of religious truth that frames the plot of this grand theatrical experience?"

The same questions could be applied to experiencing Schiller's Mary Stuart. In fact, the New York Times review was quoted on the billboard, echoing the political relevance of the adaption: "(Note to Michelle and Barack Obama: See this immediately)."

Peter Oswald has written an adaptation that maintains historical distance with language of poetic beauty while packing enough wit and verve to give the play a contemporary lift which makes its impact immediate.

That impact is all the more of a whollop thanks to Janet McTeer's Mary. Her Queen of Scots is a force of nature. Were she an opera singer she would be a dramatic soprano with a voice of paint-pealing power. Harriet Walter is a perfectly balanced foil as Elizabeth, measured but barely contained, the strength & energy of her person crackling beneath the elaborate gowns and get-up. Keeping up appearances indeed.

The parallels between these two works are striking. Set just over a decade apart (1572 & 1587), with religious tensions at the center of the plots, both works are also character studies driven by personal narrative. Both epic works are compelling in and of themselves, but with the performances so commanding, the hours seemed to collaps under the force of the action.

And as in the Meyerbeer, Mary Stuart juxtaposes the intertwining arcs of personal and political, resulting in another provocative & cumulatively powerful experience. One is left horrified by the ultimately avoidable execution of Mary, disturbed by the duplicitousness of the players on both sides, and while (in the play) one is tempted to foist blame on Elizabeth, one is left feeling empathy with this solitary ruler. At the play's end, alone with the burden of her decision's consequence, calling out for her absent advisors & intimates, Elisabeth is answered only by the hollow silence.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

In Memoriam: LCW (6/1/01-8/3/09)

My feline baby girl died yesterday. Suddenly. While I was en route to the airport. She had been sick the night before, with what appeared to be a stomach bug, and as such, not a cause for alarm. When we called the Vet's office yesterday morning, they were likewise not alarmed, and told us to bring her in Tuesday morning, if she was not feeling better. Nothing could have prepared us for the outcome of her simply passing away a few hours later. The Vet indicated the cause was most likely a rapidly moving infection of the kidneys or liver, or an undetectable heart disease.

Lucina was named after a cat of Wystan Hugh Auden's and Chester Kallmann's, memorialized in a pithy elegy modeled on an ancient Icelandic form, according to the poet. I learned the poem as one of three Auden songs set by Hans Werner Henze. They were written for Britten's and Pears' Aldeburgh Festival, and as part of Britten's "sphere of influence" were integrated into my dissertation.

In Memoriam, L.K.A; 1950-1952

At peace under this mandarin, sleep, Lucina
Blue-eyed queen of white cats
For you the Ischian wave
Shall weep
When we who now miss you
Are American dust
And steep Epomeo in peace and war
Augustly a grave-watch keep.

(W.H. Auden)

I wrote a series of travel essays the other month chronicling our Mediterranean Opera cruise. One of the most beautiful legs of the cruise was the trip from Naples up to Elba. Along the way we passed the Island of Ischia, a refuge for artists in the middle of the 20th century, where in addition to Auden and Kallmann, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann and the composer William Walton lived. I wasn't sure which peak was Epomeo, nor could I have imagined I'd be revisiting this favorite poem as an elegy for my Luci just a couple of months later.

My first attempt at honoring her memory uses Auden's elegy as a model, while referencing the Christopher Smart poem mentioned below:

Sleep, heather-brown tabby queen,

We will keep watch with our
Servant of the living God,
And writhe our bodies Seven
Times round in your memory.

The Bay-side Sun shall not set
Without such elegant & eccentric ceremony,
Sweet Lucina.

(NYC, 8/3/09)

Luci's older brother, Jeoffrey, is named after the poet Christopher Smart's cat, featured in an oft-excerpted section of his visionary and epic poem, Jubilate Agno. Smart is a "mad-poet" cousin of his fellow romantics John Clare (see "Crazy, crack'd brain fellow" from earlier this year, below) and Friedrich Holderlin. In another connective thread, Britten's most famous choral work, Rejoice in the Lamb, is a setting of excerpts from Smart's poem, and includes a delightful soprano solo about Jeoffry. The following must surely rank as one of the most extravagant (and lengthy) "list" poems while also being one of the most original works written in honor of an animal.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

from Jubilate Agno
Christopher Smart (1722-1771)