“Wozzeck” at the Met

Have you seen the current production of Wozzeck at the Met? It’s been generally favorably reviewed, but I was troubled, as was, to some extent, Alex Ross in The New Yorker. The Kentridge production is simply too visually busy. The projections – some animated, some slowly shifting, amidst a cluttered set full of ramps and junk – were a distraction from Berg’s intricately crafted score. Maybe this kind of thing worked for The Nose, the Shostakovich opera presented by the Met in a Kentridge production several years ago; with thinner music, perhaps there was room for such a flood of images. Specific moments troubled me as well. It added nothing to have Wozzeck fussing with a film projector in the opening scene instead of shaving the Captain, apart from the obvious point that the production was packed with projections. I agree with Ross that the projected explosion at the climax of the last interlude was cringe-inducingly obvious. Ross welcomed Kentridge’s choice to start the scene in the tavern after the murder of Marie during the second of the two crescendi on B-natural, but I disagree. Not only did this spoil Berg’s cinematic jump cut to the tavern scene and its out-of-tune upright piano, but it distracted from what would otherwise have been the overwhelming power of the crescendo, which should fill your consciousness at that moment, just as it fills every musical register. Kentridge’s preference for slowly shifting images throughout the evening went against Berg’s choice of an abrupt juxtaposition at that moment. All night there were haunting images, but too many of them. (Was one of the projected images of detached heads in a field supposed to look like Schoenberg? That would be a fine piece of Freudian patricide on Berg’s behalf.) The performance was very fine; do I remember Levine’s performances as more shattering because of their inherent properties, or because I was struggling to attend to the music last night?

Snow Day Miscellany

The white stuff is not coming down that hard in Philadelphia – yet. But my day job has shut down for today, and I have a moment to catch up on a few things in this post.

– I want to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the Met’s Elektra, which I saw on March 9. Christine Goerke (known on Twitter as @heldenmommy), Elza van den Heever, and Michaela Schuster were all fabulous in the principal roles, and the Met Orchestra was comparably superb under Yannick. I don’t know why Elektra never clicked for me until the past few years; I preferred Rosenkavalier. Lately, Ochs is a stumbling block for me in the latter, and the intensities of Elektra hold me. My inner jury is still out on Salome.

– recent listening: Reading a review of Dudamel conducting the Vienna Phil in the Ives 2nd made me pull the Philadelphia Orchestra recording of the piece off the shelf. It had struck me as terribly unlikely that the Vienna would play Ives, but the 2nd is not that forbidding, wide-ranging materials and final splat notwithstanding. The polished sound of the Philadelphia, under Ormandy, certainly makes a good case for the piece simply as an attractive late romantic work. Far more interesting, of course, is the 4th, on the same CD in a performance by the London Philharmonic under José Serebrier. This is truly one of the greatest American symphonies, and listening to it again I found the piece deeply touching, especially in the first and last movements.

The other disc I’ve been listening to lately is a new collection of music by Charles Wuorinen. This Bridge release features brilliant performances of some fiercely challenging music, with two substantial vocal works framing Wuorinen’s most recent piano sonata.  Loadbang performs  Ashbery Alphabetical, a piece that weaves together settings of four John Ashbery poems with instrumental sections into a continuous whole. The piece’s beauties are more austere than those of the album’s other vocal work, It Happens Like This, a big (39-minute) setting of James Tate’s funny and disturbing poetry for four singers and a chamber orchestra of 12 players. Anne-Marie McDermott’s virtuosity and (in Wuorinen’s words) “demonic intensity” serve the Fourth Piano Sonata dazzlingly well.

– I recently finished my contribution to the upcoming Network for New Music tribute concert for retiring artistic director Linda Reichert, scheduled for April 29. It’s an honor to be part of that program, not just for the chance to celebrate Linda, but to be part of a roster of contributing composers that includes Andrea Clearfield, John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon, Bernard Rands, August Read Thomas, Melinda Wagner, Richard Wernick and Maurice Wright. Two Sketches is scored for Pierrot instrumentation; I’ll play the piano part myself at the premiere. Here is my program note:

Two Sketches

  1. Riddle
  2. Circles (Little Variations)

Program Note

Two Sketches was composed on a commission from Network for New Music in honor of its long-time artistic director, Linda Reichert on her retirement. Linda’s extraordinary record of advocacy for a wide range of composers, taking the form of excellent performances, commissions, recordings and more, has made a tremendous contribution to our musical life in Philadelphia and beyond.

For a visual artist, a sketch can be a memorandum, a way of keeping eye and mind and hand limber, a place of experimentation, or simply a work employing a certain modesty of means. All of these attributes were at play for me in writing these musical sketches.

The riddle of the opening movement resides in the mysterious chorale-like passage first sounded by the clarinet and cello, and later repeated in the flute, violin and clarinet. The third repetition explodes. Hypnotic repeated figuration in the piano ponders the question, but offers no answers.

The theme of the second movement’s variations is a pattern known to musicians as the circle of fifths. The moods of the short variations shift quickly, including gently lilting passages and cryptic mutterings. The last variation sounds fragments of the previous sections over widely-spaced, ringing piano writing.


Yuletide Miscellany

– I very much enjoyed last night’s performance of Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Met. Stellar performances from Eric Owens, Tamara Mumford, Susanna Phillips, the Met orchestra and chorus, and conductor Susanna Mälkki were framed by the best of the Robert Lepage productions I have seen – simpler than his Ring, or the Adès Tempest (though certainly not simpler technically), and the more effective for it. The music is gorgeous and moving but sometimes distractingly static. It seemed odd for something so finely made and fluid in small details (though with a good bit of repetition) to be less varied on a larger level. I kept waiting for the bass to move during the storm scene at the beginning of Act IV – and it never did. I suppose one could respond that the sea – where most of the piece takes place – never changes on the larger level either. Here’s a trailer:

and here is Susanna Phillips rehearsing (it’s not right that the pianist is not identified!)

– coming up on January 13, 2017, the Daedalus Quartet will be presenting George Crumb’s Black Angels along with works by Joshua Hey and Scott Ordway at the Chinese Rotunda of the Penn Museum. (Friday the 13th, perfect for this piece!) Young composers who think extended performance techniques are something novel need to check out this piece and see how such devices can be used for maximum expressive impact. Here’s a preview:

– lastly, here’s my annual reminder to keep up your musicianship skills during Christmastime.


Recent Reading and Viewing

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos. Voigt, Dessay, Mentzer. Margion, Gunn; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Levine. Virgin Classics DVD.
Amazing performances throughout, but I find it difficult to connect emotionally with the piece, despite the score’s great beauties. The peculiar juxtapositions of romance, myth, and comedy keep the listener at a distance, wondering how seriously to be taking all of this; I suppose seriously and not seriously, all at once. Yet there are touching moments: the passion of the young Composer as portrayed by Susanne Mentzer was especially striking. A small detail: I had never noticed before how when the Composer speaks of revealing the mysteries of life, the orchestra seems to be playing Erda’s leitmotif from The Ring. I imagine the score has other in-jokes that I have yet to pick up.

Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century. Arnold Whittall. Oxford University Press.
As Eurocentric as one might expect from a British book (there is room for Robert Simpson and Vagn Holmboe but not for Crumb, Rochberg, Ashley, Shapey, etc.) and written in a style lacking the poetry and elegant concision of another historical survey I wrote about here. Yet, it was good to get some additional perspective on composers like Donatoni, Henze, and Nono whose work I’d like to know better. Some of the most interesting writing in the book is when Whittall is expressing skepticism about the work of composers like Copland, Schnittke, and Maxwell Davies.

Thomas Adès Missing

It’s happened again. In the magazine section of the New York Times for September 30th, there are two pages devoted to the costumes for Thomas Adès’s opera The Tempest, to be staged by the Met this season – but no mention of the composer. The Met’s trailer for the production here, and a bit from the Royal Opera house production here. Another missing composer here.

Queen of Spades at the Met

I was at the Met for The Queen of Spades on Monday night, and enjoyed the evening greatly. I had not heard Karita Mattila live – as Lisa her voice was very beautiful, sweet and true, but a little wan in the upper register. Vladimir Galouzine as Hermann was the opposite of wan, powerful throughout as the obsessed gambler to the point of being overbearing at times. There was handsome singing from Alexey Markov and Peter Mattei, but to me the real find was Tamara Mumford as Pauline. She is a lovely young woman, and her voice matched Mattila’s for beauty of timbre in their duet, and with an exceptionally rich lower register. I am sorry I missed her in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s production of Rape of Lucretia not long ago. Much-touted conductor Andris Nelsons did not strike me as anything special. He was able to bring some shaky ensemble moments under control in the early part of the piece, but I did not get much sense of a point of view about the piece. Perhaps I need to know the work better to appreciate what he did.

It is an odd piece. Hermann’s darkly obsessive character contrasts greatly with the various genre pieces, which, though enjoyable, felt like filler. I agreed with the character of the Countess, portrayed by Dolora Zajick, who seemed to think that the Pastorale in the second act went on too long. What is the relevance of the entry of Catherine the Great at the end of that scene? Galouzine’s Hermann was such a madman that I was reminded of another opera about a tormented soldier – Berg’s Wozzeck, which will be at the Met later this season.

(picture: the Countess comes back to haunt Hermann. No, she is not trying to tell her colleague to sing more quietly.)

40 years of Levine

I recently picked up the James Levine 40th Anniversary collections of CDs and DVDs. What is appealing about them is the repertoire, with its emphasis on 20th century items – Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy, Weill, Harbison, Corigliano – along with earlier masters. The Elektra, with Hildegard Behrens, Deborah Voigt, Brigette Fassbaender, James King and Donald McIntyre, features razor-sharp orchestral playing and simply incredible performances from all three women. I’ve experienced the charisma of  Behrens as Brynnhilde in person, and that gift is apparent in her sustained demonic intensity as Elektra. It’s a jaw-dropping performance.