Banquetto Musicale

March 30, 2008

b6b6c0a3eb07e755982b089e06f2360d.jpg You may have noticed that we live in a time of publicity. But many worthwhile events succeed while remaining independent of the massive media-saturation.
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Television Too

March 24, 2008

svideo-to-rca1.jpg And it’s not just digital music downloads. The current Atlantic has a stimulating article on how the experience of the music industry may inform the coming revolution in the television/online axis. Given the enormous boost that the online rush has given to niche markets, its coming hybridization with TV presents major opportunities for classical music.

Who will be ready to take advantage of this? Whatever happens to the global economy, providers of compelling media content will continue to prosper, for the highly legitimate reason that even hard times — especially hard times — require it. (See the Hollywood film industry during the Great Depression for an extreme precedent.)

So it’s possible to be worried and optimistic at the same time.

Price-Point Counterpoint

March 22, 2008

21yus6jx8xl_sl160_aa115_.jpg Most of the talk about the enormous impact of digital downloads of music is understandably about the kinds of music that have the gargantuan, immediate, short-term impact — that is, that elite, tiny percentage of mega-selling popular musics that dominate the airwaves and the iPods of the known world.

There is much to be said about the special requirements of and opportunities for the usually longer 99-cent “songs,” as they are called in the iTunes world, that consist of a movement of a Bruckner symphony or hunk of a Glass opera. But I’m struck by the new power demonstrated by a paragraph in today’s New York Times — a kind of power I haven’t seen much discussion of. A review of a piano recital tells us that

Improbably, on the day of its release, March 11, his “Art of Fugue” recording went to the top of the classical music charts of both Billboard and iTunes. It was featured on the iTunes home page, along with Snoop Dogg and U2. What better proof that the availability of classical music on the Internet is attracting curious new listeners?

What is said of “curious new listeners” is undoubtedly true. But I’m a listener who already owns several recordings of Die Kunst der Fuge, and I’m fascinated by the effect that those several sentences, as I was reading them online before it was daylight outside, had on me. The effect has implications for my musical life, for the music industry (if the accurate but to-some-off-putting word may be pardoned here), and for a truly global economy.
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Facial Profiling

March 19, 2008

wmozart114.jpg The other day we heard of a new experiment in recreating Bach’s face. Now comes something possibly even more exciting: a newly rediscovered portrait of Mozart, which seems to have been painted from life when he was twenty-seven.

It’s About Time

March 18, 2008

180px-clock_tower_-_palace_of_westminster_london_-_september_2006.jpg Once I was part of a small theater party that included one of the world’s most famous singers. The play was Romeo and Juliet in a remarkable production. It struck me forcibly that the director’s creativity revealed itself most vividly in manipulation of small-scale time. Everything — every word, every action — happened at the most telling moment, and not always the most obvious one.

At intermission I mentioned this to my companions, making the commonplace observation that these devices couldn’t be employed in opera, since the exact plotting of when things happen is the most basic given of the composer’s contribution to opera. It is imperious, non-negotiable.

The eminent singer recounted a particularly clear illustration of this. She was starring in a German production of an opera based on an important play. For a substantial period, the director rehearsed the singers as though they were non-singing actors. No music. Just word and action. It was, the diva told me, a memorably thrilling experience, and they all felt that this would result in the dramatic coup of their careers.

Then they added the music. “It all went right down the drain. All that work had produced results that we couldn’t use.” The reason, of course, was the temporal element. A gesture that had been searingly telling in passing could not be sustained over the long seconds, or even minutes, that the music accompanying/amplifying it would take. And there was nothing that could be done about the time the music required. Everything else had to accommodate it.

I’ve never seen a production of Victor Hugo’s Hernani, but last night at the Met I saw Verdi’s opera based on it. It was a thrilling evening that had nothing at all in common with realistic drama. In all the exciting efforts to bring the insights of legitimate theater to the operatic stage that occupy us these days, I hope we don’t forget the limits of what that can accomplish. We could ruin what is best about the special dramatic world that the opera Ernani inhabits by importing from another medium devices that are foreign to the uncompromising temporal character of early Verdi, in which a single emotion can occupy a good chunk of time, and will do so rewardingly only if we give in to the unrealism of it.

But I’m not really worried. Opera, like any other performing art is success-driven, not to say success-dependent. If something doesn’t work, we’ll be forced back to what does. Opera has its own version of the “free market,” and it won’t brook contradiction or defiance for long. So bring on the experiments, I say! Opera is clearly around for the long haul, and time is on our side.

Dieu parmi nous

March 16, 2008

We continue our Messiaen centenary series with a performance in an unconventional medium:

What could be more gratifying than finding superb musicianship in unexpected places?

home-barrett-blier.jpg The New York Festival of Song has made a triumphal procession around the bounds, dredged the rivers, and scaled the promontories of song for twenty treasurable years. In observance of their significant anniversary, they have — true to the gaily transgressive spirit of many of their programs — effected two important commissions, not of song but of opera. For one week only, they become the New York Festival of Opera.

The chosen composers are so well-chosen as to seem almost inevitable. William Bolcom, the world’s most youthful grand old man of his craft, turns seventy this year. John Musto, who shares a distinct musical affinity with him, is a generation younger. They both are musicians of astounding natural gifts, are brilliant pianists, speak a wide variety of musical languages with fluency, and are married to extraordinary singers.

The two operas by these two masters of orchestration in fact employ two pianos in place of an orchestra, piano being the normal accompaniment at NYFOS concerts. The pianos were manned by two other formidable musicians, the founders of the NYFOS, Michael Barrett and Steven Blier.

Each opera is of one act, and together they make a full, satisfying entertainment. The word entertainment is used with deliberation here, since both these composers rejoice in and cultivate that rare ability: to be consistently diverting while doing so via only the most cultivated means. This also is appropriate to the NYFOS affect, which has strong roots in the artistic ethic of another artist whose birth anniversary we celebrate this year, Leonard Bernstein. 
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A Night at the Oratorio

March 5, 2008

5.jpg One of the glories of our age is the new viability of Handel’s operas as mass entertainment. After many years of accepting the judgment of the audiences of his own time that his invention, the English oratorio, was where his main greatness lay, we have come to see what Winton Dean long since recognized as the musical and dramatic genius of Handel’s operas. A prime innovation of his oratorios was the role of the chorus, which became an actor in the drama rather than a mere commentator. Benjamin Britten, when he created his great opera Peter Grimes, took that aspect of his English heritage and inserted it back into opera.

In the current new production of that work at the Metropolitan Opera, we have rounded off the circle in one sense: though performed with costumes and a stark, semi-representational set, Peter Grimes seems to reveal itself as an oratorio rather than an opera.

To observe this is to slam neither the Met nor Britten. Concert performances of some operas are even more successful than staged versions. I leave it to others to decide whether Peter Grimes is one of those operas.