Sunday, October 25, 2009

Romantic Triangles (Wagner, Brahms & Gounod)

In the last week, I have participated--as an assistant conductor, and then as an audience member--in three major performances of seminal 19th century masterworks. Last Saturday evening I was backstage, assisting my friend and colleague, Maestro Steven White on a concert of Wagner excerpts for Opera Roanoke. Thursday night Amy and I attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performance of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, led by Riccardo Muti. Friday afternoon, I attended the Lyric Opera of Chicago's matinee performance of their production of Gounod's Faust. It is only in hindsight I connect these three composers and their representative works.

"Wagner in the Valley" was a gala concert, with the great soprano-turned-Wagnerian-mentor, Evelyn Lear in attendance. Three of her Wagnerian proteges were the soloists for excerpts from Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, and Götterdämmerung. Steven led the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in a performance that outclassed anything I've experienced in my 10+ years of working with a small opera company consistently recognized for the artistic quality of its performances.

Indeed, it is a bittersweet irony in Roanoke that over that same span, the level of artistic excellence has risen to new heights while support has shrunk to where the company cannot afford to mount a single full production this season. I am optimistic the overwhelming success of last Saturday evening will help change that. The full house was treated to exceptional music making from all involved. The program was as bold as the artist who composed it. The tenor Brian Register showed his dramatic and essentially lyric mettle in the "Prize song" from Meistersinger, which followed the magisterial overture. Steven offered verbal commentary between the selections which struck just the right balance of informative annotation & witty, urbane banter. Bernstein would have been proud.

The first half concluded with the "Prelude and Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde. I have never heard the RSO strings in better form than they were for this Wagner concert. Evelyn remarked at the reception following the program she thought she was in at Bayreuth or Munich! One of her colleagues, the Wagnerian tenor-turned-mentor, Claude Heater, flew in from San Francisco and was moved to tears by a performance that took him completely by surprise. While not as famous a Wagnerian name as Windgassen or Vickers, Heater performed Tristan with Birgit Nilsson & Astrid Varnay, under the batons of the likes of Karajan and Maazel. Far from faint praise from two eminent Wagnerians.

The Liebestod is one of the most ecstatic pieces of music ever written. Soprano Othalie Graham was equal to the task and the ravishing performance she, Steven, and the RSO created will linger in my memory. I wrote several essays about Wagner and my experiences at the Bard Music Festival this past August. I do not mean to take anything away from those memorable concerts when I say this concert in Roanoke surpassed them. It was one of those seemingly magical experiences where all of the constituent elements--score, singer, orchestra, conductor AND audience--came together in not just symbolic but substantive harmony.

The second half of the concert showcased two great scenes from the Ring cycle. If one had to narrow a 14 hour epic down to 45 minutes of music, then the final scene of Act I of Walküre and the finale of the entire cycle, the "Immolation" scene from Götterdämmerung, are bankable choices.

Register was joined by soprano Julia Rowling for a dramatically engaging and beautifully sung love scene from the most famous of the Ring's four operas. Walküre has perhaps the last readily apparent examples of Wagner's debt to his 19th century operatic uncles. There are moments of recitative that remind one Wagner learned his craft in Paris, following the examples of the grand opera composers Meyerbeer and Auber. I was conscious of this connection Friday while listening to Faust, and shall return to it shortly. Steven quipped that in the 19th century one had to be decisively pro- or anti- Wagner. "One couldn't love Brahms or Verdi without calling Wagner the devil!" is not as outrageous a claim as it may sound to our post-modern aesthetic which is--for better or worse--inclusive. Schools or styles no longer require the fidelity they did in the Romantic period.

Critics point to the works of Mahler and Strauss--the two greatest Wagnerians that bridged the span from the 19th to the 20th centuries--as representative of the last flowering of Romanticism. One could claim the finale of Götterdämmerung, however, as the first example in this dense body of music written up until the first World War. Wagner anticipates the modernist penchant for pastiche in combining layers of contrasting themes (the leitmotiv). After Brünnhilde has returned the ring to its rightful owners, martyred herself on the pyre that will literally consume the world, the score anticipates the fractured and jarred poly-rhythmic work of 20th century modernists. With sections of the orchestra playing in no fewer than three different meters, the essential motive of the entire cycle--and it's most beautiful--emerges in the violins. "The Redemption of the World through Love" closes this epic tetralogy with music of sublime transcendence. As I have stated elsewhere, Wagner should not be required listening for those utterly disgusted with his person and his beliefs. But for those able to separate the man from the music, the latter is engaging, enthralling, and rewarding in ways that only great art can be.

Brahms was Wagner's polar opposite both aesthetically and politically. A philo-semite, Brahms avoided explicitly Christian references when compiling the "libretto" of his choral & orchestral masterpiece, the German Requiem. In what many regard as THE great choral masterwork, Brahms carefully selected texts from the Old and New Testaments that speak of comfort and consolation. The "fire & brimstone" of the "day of wrath" are replaced by the anxiety of transience and the unknowable beyond. Though Bach's B Minor Mass and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis are equals to the great masterwork title, Brahms' Requiem would be my desert island choice.

The noble performance Muti led Thursday night in Chicago only deepened that conviction. The sound of the CSO chorus has changed considerably from its heyday under Margaret Hillis when the CSO was led by the dynamo Georg Solti. The visceral sound has been tempered under Duaine Wolf. I have never heard this chorus sound better than it did under Riccardo Muti. While the sound was transparent & clean, it had depth and a range of color rarely heard in a 150-voice chorus. Muti shaped the entire performance beautifully. With impeccable control and exquisite proportion, the score was played & sung with a keen sense of its structure, its form, its architecture. Muti has the technical facility of Maazel without the idiosyncratic imprimaturs that sometimes mar the latter's interpretations. If Muti's reading lacked the urgent drive of a Masur or Rattle, the poise & breadth were welcome. This pillar of 19th century German music, a work of deeply felt humanism, is yet another example of art's ability to transcend its origins. Brahms wanted to write a more universal work of remembrance than the Catholic Mass for the dead. That his Requiem speaks to audiences all over the world 150 years later (and counting) is evidence enough. If music is not the universal language the cliché would have us believe, it is the closest one we have, as such enduring monuments attest.

Another monument of German romanticism is Goethe's magnum opus, Faust. Of the pantheon of musical adaptations--Berlioz, Schumann, Mahler, Boito, among others--none is more central than the operatic adaption by Charles Gounod. One of the ultimate tales of redemption, Gounod's Faust is considered the grand opera of 19th century Paris. The trio of world-renowned singers essaying the ill-fated triangle at the heart of the story were outstanding in Chicago Friday. The Polish tenor sensation, Piotr Beczala, is the real deal. May his vocal health continue, and his career flourish. If you have the chance to hear him live, do so. I found his lyric voice to be the most beautiful and compelling to my ears since Nicolai Gedda. Faust is easily upstaged by his colleagues, Mephistopheles & Marguerite, but Beczala more than held his own, and his singing was the musical highlight of the afternoon. His Marguerite, Ana Maria Martinez, matched her exquisite singing with an interpretation that showed remarkable range & courage. This was no cut-out damsel-in-distress-heroine. From the giddy freedom of adolescent love to the heart-rending tragedy of abandonment, punishment, & delusion, this Marguerite was a real person. The opening of the final prison scene was almost too difficult to watch. The devil was the suave and cavalier Rene Pape. The great German bass sounded magnificent--it is amazing how resonant and free that chain-smoking throat sounds! He appeared to be going through the motions for the first couple acts, but from Act III on his charisma was present and dominant.

I have mixed feelings about Gounod's Faust--I sometimes agree with Wagner about the apparent frivolity of much Parisian opera. Meaningless choruses, empty display, and purposeless parades are all a liability where requisite spectacle is concerned. But in those operas where the constituent elements blend to where no one ingredient is out of balance--as in a gourmet sauce--the cumulative effect can be astounding. I experienced just that astonishment earlier this summer with Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (and wrote about it in August).

I had a similar experience Friday with Faust. The soldiers chorus in Act IV, a crowd-pleaser, arguably a dispensable set piece, was actually moving in one of the better bits of staging in the show. While the outstanding men of the chorus (prepared by another great friend and colleague, Donald Nally) sing their rousing song, Valentin presents memorial flags to the anxious women who have just learned they have been newly widowed. The tension between the music and the drama was a poignant example of opera's unique ability to create such moments. And as I listened to the ravishing score--Gounod inherited & earned the Parisian grand operatic mantle from Meyerbeer--I was struck by how blurred the boundaries are in 19th century opera. Some of the sensual lyricism of the melodic writing and the rich palette of colors in the winds, for example, are not far removed from Wagner. We tend to compartmentalize 19th century opera by country or composer--Italy/Verdi, France/Gounod, and Germany/Wagner. There are works at every corner of that triangle where those boundaries dissolve.

I would not have anticipated such a connecting thread between Wagner, Brahms & Gounod. But music's ability to forge connections, to speak across time and space--to literally sing meaning into being--cannot be overstated. Music, the universal medium, may be the best catalyst for redeeming the world through love, as long as it inspires the beings who hear it to follow its example.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

All the trees of the fields shall clap their hands...

This is not an essay about the talking trees from the Lord of the Rings, the Ents, nor any other phantasmagoria.

Rather, I hope to borrow the quote from the prophet Isaiah (actually, 2nd Isaiah) and use it to connect the seemingly disparate threads of Old Testament theology, the survival of non-profit-arts-organizations, and Randall Thompson's cantata, The Peaceable Kingdom.

Earlier this year I wrote about a couple of prophetic poets ("Singing in Strange Lands") and the writings of the eminent Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann. I have been in the thrall of Professor Brueggemann since reading his seminal work on the major exilic prophets, The Prophetic Imagination. It is one of those books that literally changed my life. I am currently enthralled with/by An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Brueggemann is attuned to the sensitivities of Jewish-Christian tensions where Biblical hermeneutics are concerned. In book after book, he goes at length to get at the core of Israel's relationship to God (YHWH, in his recent volumes), and one of his theses is the cycle that is enacted and reenacted in both the Old Testament and throughout Israel's history. This is a cycle of exile and deliverance, of abandonment and reconciliation, of utter loss and inexplicable restoration.

Using familiar poetic texts from the Psalms and prophets, Brueggemann charts a cycle that begins with the consequence of Israel's infidelity--exile as punishment. The heart of Israel--for the community and the individual--is a particular dialogic (and dialectic) relationship. That relationship, on the human side, is defined by a distinct personality that is at once uncomfortably honest & direct, and defiant in the resilience of its hopefulness.

"In that situation of nullity, Israel is compelled to new ways in its practice and life of faith." He goes on to briefly map out five areas of newness: 1. "Practice of Faith in Exile;" 2. "Repentance;" 3. "The Practice of Grief;" 4. "Presence in Absence;" and 5. "Resilient Hope for Regathering."

There is a Jewish real-ness, a gritty quality often unsettling to the polite Christian, that Brueggemann distinguishes. I find it refreshing to be reminded of such honesty, to "refuse denial, and resist pretense." This is at the core of Israel's persistence & perseverance in the "practice of faith in exile." The second step, though obvious enough, is one to not gloss over in a modern world plagued by a lack of accountability, truth-telling, and genuine reconciliation. The author has written extensively on Israel's "practice of grief" and I have previously alluded to his insightful exegesis of the Psalms. He charts a psychologically sound progression of "lament and complaint"--what we'd call "venting"--as a prerequisite to healing. "The practice of grief is an exercise in truth-telling." Every mourner, every victim, every suffering individual (regardless of faith or culture) who has fully grieved a loss can attest to the truth of that statement. AND can recognize the dangerous pitfall of its opposite--the disingenuousness of NOT fully grieving, of not getting literally to the bottom of the truth.

"It is a mark of the inventiveness and courage of Israel in exile that it refused to settle for flat, angry, one-dimensional absence." These back-bone defining character traits lead naturally and organically into the final phase of the cycle, the inspiring "resilient hope" of Israel and the Jews throughout history. Brueggemann makes the provocatively bold assertion here (and has elsewhere) that the nation of Israel and its leaders from Abraham and Moses to the prophets convinced YHWH to change YHWH's mind.

It was that boldness and resilience, the "audacity to hope" (sorry, couldn't resist!) that caused me to think about the struggle non-profit arts organizations in general (and mine, in particular) face today, and how they/we respond. Many of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of a cycle from loss to restoration, from abandonment to fulfillment, from exile to homecoming. How many stories have we read of arts organizations mis-managing personnel/transitions/fund-raising/etc, finding themselves "in the hole" and confronting what to do with their displacement or predicament--their metaphoric exile?

I believe many of us get stuck somewhere in the middle--the repentance/grief/presence-in-absence core of the experience--and therefore miss the "energizing and amazement" that comes with (because of!) resilient hope. The truth-telling/stock-taking steps get short-changed and too often internal division, imminent fears of extinction, and a total loss of vision prevent those necessary intermediary steps from happening.

The "presence-in-absence" phase is central. Just when many organizations want to reign in their programming, clip the artistic wings, and make every cut-back possible to "save" the organization is when vision and action are required. I wrote earlier about Michael Kaiser's essential book for such organizations, The Art of the Turnaround. One of his ten principal rules is: "you cannot save your way to health." And while he's not advocating increasing operating budgets in the middle of recessions, he does make the valid point that groups must be bold in programming and not trim those artistic wings, nor the engines that run and promote them. The connection between this stubborn persistence and the subsequent hope is palpable. Such hope sustains not only figuratively but--as in the case of Israel--literally guarantees its survival. Why shouldn't arts organizations employ such progressively focused zeal?

I am also struck by the fact that Jewish artists--composers, painters, playwrights, directors--played a significant, indeed central role in the 20th century. The epoch that wrought the most devastation on Jews witnessed countless examples of their inexplicable resilience. From every genre of European music and art, from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, from Hollywood to stages around the world, the work of Jewish men and women shaped the richest & most varied period in our cultural history. Jewish entrepreneurs, executives, and patrons have been just as vital in insuring both the creation and the sustenance of this body of work--and the arts themselves.

I have been in a particularly philo-semitic phase of my consciousness since reading The Prophetic Imagination. Revisiting the dazzling poetry of Jeremiah and Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos, to name but a few, has opened up an imaginative world. The title above is from one of the passages of "resilience" Brueggemann cites. There are many such pages of wonderment--mountains bursting into songs--in these poems. And considering Biblical passages as poems--spending time with their aesthetic qualities--is engaging and rewarding regardless of one's religious orientation.

"For ye shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace" is the verse that precedes the hand-clapping arboreta and is the inspiration for the penultimate section of Randall Thompson's The Peaceable Kingdom. This marvelous, too-seldom-heard (at least in its entirety) a capella cantata happens to enact the same cycle Brueggemann describes. Following an affirming & noble invocation ("Say ye to the righteous") Thompson evokes the harshness of prophetic judgement ("Howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand"). The cantata rests on a plaintive exilic poem ("The paper reeds by the brooks"), and then gradually moves towards presence-in-absence, resilience-in-hope, and ends with an inexorably crescendoing double chorus ("Ye shall have a song").

I will post my program notes for the Chorale's Holiday program in a couple of weeks. In them, I talk about some of the challenges of programming. I also try to make the connection between the Jewish holiday traditions, Advent & Christmas, the Jewish-Lutheran convert, Felix Mendelssohn, Thompson's cantata, and Britten's Christ's Nativity. My original worries about coherence and connection have been supplanted by unabashed enthusiasm and optimism for another eclectic & engaging program. Plan now on hearing the Chorale Dec 4 & 5. There is an amazing energy present when individuals and communities emerge from difficulty into new possibility.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"Not even the expression of feeling; it's the feeling itself." (Debussy on music)

In preparation for the Chorale's opening concert featuring Debussy's Trois Chansons as its centerpiece, I have been reading and musing over his fantastic collection of letters. The quotations are from the English edition translated and edited by Francois Lesure and Roger Nichols (Harvard). I have also found Leon Botstein's central essay in the Bard Music Festival companion book, Debussy and His World (Princeton) particularly illuminating where Debussy and impressionism intersect. Below are some musings on the subject interspersed with Debussy in his own words.

I believe with all my heart that music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have...It would be enough if music could make people listen…

Debussy's first orchestral masterpiece, the "Prelude to the afternoon of a faun" certainly made people listen. And started a literal sea-change in music by presaging its composers journey towards defining not only a style (impressionism) or a school (Debussyism) but creating a wave whose force--if imperceptible from outside--continues to affect and influence composers. His keen attentiveness to painting and poetry played no small part in this process.

He described music "as a dream from which the veils have been lifted." He alluded to this quality, and tellingly, the means he would employ from the "Prelude" forward to get to the essence of his expressive music--by creating impressions. it perhaps the dream left over at the bottom of the faun’s flute?
To be more precise, it is the general impression of the poem

The birth of "musical impressionism" would not have been possible had its progenitor, Debussy, not had something against which to react. That something was the behemoth of Wagnerian music drama. I mused on Wagner in August while in residence at the Bard Music Festival. Critics of Wagner (and Debussy was certainly one, AFTER he exorcised the huge sway Wagner held over him early in his career) dismiss his hyper-emotional music as representational, merely descriptive and emotionally manipulative. While this is a gross oversimplification, the thread from Wagnerian leitmotif to B+ Hollywood film music is a clearer one than Wagnerians might like to admit.

And though Wagner often set mythical &/or supernatural subjects in his operas, he sought to write music that expressed real emotion. Such representational art has an agenda via the manipulativeness of a prescribed result or affect—via realistic description the listener/viewer is meant to feel a specific emotion the artist has sought to express. (The prelude to Tristan und Isolde is meant to express the unquenchable desire of the protagonists, simply put. Wagner’s “unending melody” is employed to achieve that specific, affective—and manipulative— end).

The painters associated with impressionism--and others on the outside of the movement, Turner & Whistler chief among them--attempted to get at the essence of an image or even more fundamentally, to get at the essence of color and light by capturing impressions of their subjects and attempting to depict a moment in time.

Debussy described music as “rhythmicized time” and one could say impressionist art is time represented (on canvas): the viscous flow of blurred images is analogous to time’s perpetual motion.

In these paintings the blurred textures give the canvases a fluid sense of motion—even the still lifes are not still! And if not in motion, they appear to have a presence (their essence?) that is multi-dimensional.

Of the essences of color and light, Debussy connected his impressionist Nocturnes to Whistler's studies of the same name:

It’s an experiment in finding the different combinations possible inside a single color, as a painter might make a study in grey, for example...

To me, this is the essential--in every sense--difference between Wagnerian realism and Debussy's impressionism.

By experimenting with those combinations that turned "rhythmicized time" into "impressions" of a poem or a color or a landscape, Debussy wrote music that was

not even the expression of feeling; it’s the feeling itself.

For Debussy the essence of such art was not easily achieved. His advice to budding artists is valuable regardless of what style or school one follows.

Time spent carefully creating the atmosphere in which a work of art must move is never wasted…one must never be in a hurry to write things down. One must allow the complex play of ideas free rein.

Elsewhere, with typical ironic detachment, he hits on another essential difference that gets at the distance between the objective realism of impressionism versus the subjective emotionalism of much realistic art.

…memory is a superior faculty, because you can pick from it the emotions you need.

Still more good advice for the young composer/painter/poet (and it is no coincidence that Debussy's advice is applicable to each genre--I have found the more I appreciate the paintings and the poetry from Debussy's circles, the more I appreciate the music. I believe the same could be said from any angle of this artistic triangle.)

…find the perfect expression for an idea and add only as much decoration as is absolutely necessary…

Though artists from Turner to Cezanne to Monet (and beyond) do not “look” realistic, they are arguably truer to life for the fluid, “impressionist” means used to evoke and embody their subjects. Turner’s Burning of the House of Parliament is far more effective an apocalyptic canvas for being blurred—the colors literally bleeding from one part of the canvas to the next—than a “realist” portrait of the destructive flames over the Thames. By embodying—enacting, performing, being—the affect, the overall effect is more immediate and more authentic than were said affect merely expressed via “natural” or “realistic” depiction.

Paradoxically, impressionism is therefore more realistic than realism.