Academic Flashback

June 13, 2012

When I hear adults exulting that they are “going back to school” to get another degree, I try to rejoice with them but am secretly trembling. I was a full-time university student for twelve straight years and the idea of examinations still lays me low. The other day I picked up a book and this fell out:

I’m lucky enough never to have fought in the wars that have characterized much of my lifetime. But I understand traumatic flashbacks.

Deer and antelope really can play together.

Even occasional readers of these virtual pages are aware that conventional reviews are not their métier. While we are not exactly living in a golden age of the reviewer’s art, I do not consider that the greatest lack that we labor under, nor do I feel it my vocation to fill that breach. What I reckon there is a market for is something for which I’m much better suited: that of the enthusiast — a relatively informed enthusiast, it is to be hoped, but a nonetheless energetic pointer-outer of good stuff.

In that vein, I want to point to two events last week that gave me various kinds of hope. First was a night at Zankel Hall in celebration of the 4Oth anniversary of the invaluable Oral History of American Music project at Yale. That phenomenon has been singled out here before, but now we had a deftly-concocted concert that combined the virtues of the recorded, spoken medium with the live means of a concert. When you have more-than-life-sized images of Leonard Bernstein being, yes, an enthusiast for Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations on a sofa beside their beaming composer, then immediately lights go up on a piano and pianist who deliver a vivid performance of the work … well, this is very valuable indeed. Most of the evening went that way, and there were many highlights. Those highlights are detailed in the review already given in the New York Times.

The Yale University School of Music, which is home to the OHAM and some of whose students, faculty, and alumni gave the concert, is the only conservatory in the Ivy League. Founded in 1894, it first provided one-year professional finishing for the men who had already concentrated on music in Yale College, and it certainly turned out a good many remarkable musicians who were oriented to both the liberal arts and to the creation or execution of music. The first name to come to mind in that connection was also the first subject of the OHAM, Charles Ives. But, as time went on and as even women were accepted into its courts, the school became a small and select conservatory and is now the only American one besides the Curtis Institute that doesn’t charge fees for instruction. Bard College, which has its own claims to distinction, has decided to make the idea of a liberal-arts grounding paired with musical professionalism its own. It is a courageous thing to found such a program in these times. Oberlin College and its Conservatory have cultivated that ground (as well as having pioneered coeducation) for more than a century and a half, their Conservatory being the oldest continuing one in the country. So starting something new along these lines is a brave thing.

The aims and the likelihood that the new Bard College Conservatory of Music will achieve them were, if we’re all lucky, exemplified by the performance of George Perle’s magnificent Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra by Melvin Chen. Dr. Chen, who also is Associate Director of the Conservatory, is a Ph.D. in chemistry (Harvard), holds two master’s degrees from Juilliard (in piano and in violin), having earlier received a Yale College degree in chemistry and physics. The work, from 1990, was conducted in a remarkably wide-awake fashion by the well-known President of Bard, whose own diversity of gifts and practice need no praise from me. But, lest other virtues of the concert by this already-remarkable orchestra be insufficiently emphasized, I point to another Times review.

In that same paper today, there is a feature article on a seemingly unrelated topic that nevertheless comes to mind here. It details the exploits of a journalist who disobeys prime statutes of the field, since he participates in and promotes, rather than objectively “covering,” the social life that surrounds the international world of fashion. Like this blog, he doesn’t claim any responsibility to expose all aspects of what he sees and hears: “I don’t lie,” he says. “I just try to find what was positive and only speak about that.” I know just what he means.

Flourishing Art

March 31, 2010

Les Arts Florissants in Concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus

The French troupe Les Arts Florissants have just left us. By us, I mean Brooklyn and anybody who could get there to hear and see their wonders. Why can’t they forsake Paris and just stay around here? What does Paris have that …? Never mind.

I’m one of those who have followed them for years. And to follow is to admire. I saw the now-historic production of Lully’s Atys that made them international stars, and if it didn’t change my whole life it certainly changed that not inconsiderable part of it that deals with the French Baroque and its tributaries. Lully, I had learned somewhere in an expensive education, was pretty thin stuff. Not as they delivered it, even as seen in this ancient sound-challenged video:

When I was in music school, a rumor went round that a guy from a few years before had run off to Paris and was intending to tell the French how to perform and appreciate music that they had themselves long neglected. There was lots of chuckling that Bill Christie was heading for a tumble. I, being too ignorant even to have an opinion, just heard all this and stored it away. I had heard a very fine harpsichord recital by him when he came back to collect a doctorate, but a recital does not a whole new operatic culture make.

But his Atys years later was revelatory, as have been many of the things I’ve seen and heard from his gang since. They did at least the second Dido and Aeneas that they’ve done in New York on this last visit, and this clip from the most famous bit should remove any doubt that modern production values and Baroque musical drama can coexist fruitfully:

We see Dido die and feel as centuries have felt at her fate, while hearing some of the most sublime music ever devised.

Why can’t more opera companies be so innovative — while also being not so much preservative as revivifying? I went to a rehearsal of their Fairy Queen last Friday. Mind you, this rehearsal was four days after the first performance of the run. Can you imagine the Met doing such a thing? Well, they simply opened the doors, charged people $20 to watch a 45-minute spot-check (i.e., the conductor giving “notes”) of how the production was going, with some commentary addressed to the audience. I, for one, did not feel in the least cheated by the brevity or the opportunism of the affair (photo below of the orchestra during the event). It was really quite wonderful, and one felt connected with an important enterprise. This is what I call intelligent marketing. Besides, at the “Baroque Cabaret” that they gave the weekend before, a BAM official had said that “When we do an opera series, we lose more money by intermission than we do in our whole theater season.” Glad to help, ma’am.

The Envelope. Please.

October 5, 2009

What did we ever do without low-res iPhone snaps?

What did we ever do without low-res iPhone snaps?

Those of us who got to see Waylon Flowers and his ineffable puppet Madame will always recall one of their greatest lines: ” Sylvia Miles would attend the opening of an envelope.” In a Manhattan autumn, the opening of many envelopes with nice, stiff invitations or tickets in them, is followed by many an opening gala.

My first opening of the new season was at the Dicapo Opera, in its surprisingly elegant church basement. No peeling concrete floors or piano-destroying dampness here. This is, after all, an upper-East Side church basement. It was the premiere of a new chamber version of Tobias Picker’s opera Emmeline . After a reputedly grand production at Santa Fe (which I did not see), it was good to have a chance to absorb it in intimate circumstances in a very creditable performance.

Next, on the way to the Metropolitan Opera opening night, there was a Steinway Hall event for Sony Masterworks to launch a remarkable project in which very, very advanced physics are called into play to recreate piano performances by Rachmaninoff — on a piano he may have played in his day. The climax of an already pretty exciting hour came when Joshua Bell showed up to play a duet from his own new release — with “Rachmaninoff” at the piano. The keys moved; the sound was glorious; but we saw only the violinist, since the pianist breathed his last in Beverly Hills in 1943. It was a little spooky and plenty thrilling.

Then, a half-hour later, came the Met opening, which has been sufficiently discussed in the world media, goodness knows. My own experience was to enjoy the performance at the time, allowing myself to wait until later for most of the inevitable critical reflections. That way, the negative perceptions didn’t spoil a brilliant evening. I’ve been able to read all the pros and cons (and to enter into many discussions of the production) without the bitterness that many seem to feel on both sides of the argument. After all, you don’t go to an opening night at the Met to be unhappy.

Though I wasn’t at opening night of the New York Philharmonic, I did hear the dress rehearsal that morning. Having known quite of a lot the work of Magnus Lindberg in the past, I was nevertheless astonished at his ability to capture just what was needed for the festive opening of a new season — and of the new régime of Alan Gilbert — in his premiere that opened the program. I have since heard it again in a subscription concert, and my admiration only increases, as does my conviction that the Philharmonic has made a very good choice in committing so much important work to Lindberg for this crucial season. In another piece of outside-the-box programming, we heard the oft-heard Renée Fleming as I’ve never heard her before in Messiaen’s luminous Poèms pour Mi, and subsequent performances this past week of Charles Ives masterpieces continue to encourage one about the Philharmonic’s immediate future.

Because of another obligation, I had to miss the first night of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, but I did get to the gala — and very lively it was — that opened the New York Film Festival in the same hall a few nights later. As always, it was a thrill to be seeing a new film, with its director and stars present. Really good food, too, which seems to be a dependable feature of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s shindigs (he said, feigning habituation after only two experiences of their galas).

The next night brought the opening of the recommended series Yale in New York, when the School of Music, under the shepherding of David Shifrin gave a stupendous concert at Zankel Hall in honor of Benny Goodman’s centenary. It was made up of classical works with which The King of Swing was closely associated (and which were mostly commissioned by him). While it was all eminently worth hearing, the pièce de résistance, inevitably, was the Copland Clarinet Concerto, played without a conductor by an orchestra from the Music School, with Shifrin himself as the soloist. Sheer beauty.

Then last night, at the other extreme of scale from the large concert halls, there was the opening concert of the Helicon Foundation‘s new season. Since the closing of Albert Fuller’s magnificent salon upon his death, these remarkable sessions have been moved to an ample drawing-room just off Fifth Avenue. My grateful recollection of a delicious Vienna-saturated evening moves me to recommend this membership-based organization for those who like intimate music-making at the highest level.

So many openings; so many pleasures to anticipate. It’ll be nice not to have to dress up quite that much all the time, though — and it’s off to my first fall visit to Le Poisson Rouge tonight.

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