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Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Das Rheingold at the Met, You Guys

…The entire proscenium
Is covered with a rippling azure scrim.
The three sopranos dart hither and yon

On invisible strings. Cold lights
Cling to bare arms, fair tresses. Flat
And natural aglitter like paillettes
Upon the great green sonorous depths float

Until with pulsing wealth the house is filled,
No one believing, everybody thrilled.


from "Matinées" by James Merrill

THE RING CYCLE. It is so hard to stage! Can we disentangle the deadly vines of poisonous German nationalism from the ash-tree of Wagner's Nordic iconography, or are they in fact joined at the root (METAPHOR!); can we interpret his narrative coherently (complete with gold-grubbing subhumans and inbred purebred Nordic supermen) without echoing his noxious social values; can we even realize his special effects–heavy stage directions convincingly for an audience to whom 19th-century stage technology—and indeed, to a certain extent, any stage spectacle—is something quaint and alienating?

Let's not forget, people, this is an artist who routinely symbolizes divine power with swans, doves, rainbows and flying horses. So if you think that Wagner MUST be staged "literally," that is if you really think this imagery will resonate with contemporary audiences just as it did with his contemporaries, then congrats on having managed to avoid all contact with the past half-century's most revolting kitsch. I mean,
right?

So what do you do! You can go High-Concept, and try to supplant Wagner's elaborate mythological order with another that challenges the composer's Nordic nostalgia directly, or at least to translate it into a rather less cobwebby set of cultural signifiers (e.g., make Wotan a powerful businessman instead of a king, since nowadays "king" = "tyrant" or "figurehead," never "wise but too-proud leader." And you can try and shed some of the kitschy overtones in favor of something with just a bit of a modern edge to it (e.g., make the rainbow bridge a contraption of neon or lasers or something, instead of a greeting-card rainbow).

The design of Robert LePage's production leans towards the latter of these two approaches. Aside from the much-publicized, high-tech unit set, LePage's designs are largely conservative. He's claimed to have drawn inspiration from Wagner's original costumes, but he's updated them in canny ways—three gods wear muscly breastplates reminiscent of the "dark," "edgy" Hollywood reboot of some superhero franchise ("Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?"), and the special effects are interactive CGI projections.

And LePage's use of the technology is impressive. Loge, god of fire, appears surrounded by flame; when the Rhinemaidens sing, bubbles come out; the gods' movements in Valhalla stir the clouds around them. You've probably heard by now about the glitch that screwed up the rainbow bridge, so that instead of entering Valhalla like they had been spending THE ENTIRE OPERA PLANNING TO DO, AT TERRIBLE COST, AND WITH DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES YET TO COME, they all just kind of peaced out. Anybody who'd seen the pre-production photos of that scene was probably all, "Whoops," and anybody who hadn't was probably a little confused and disappointed. So it was a letdown, and one which slightly overshadowed the amazing coups de theatre the set had made possible earlier—but which, on reflection, were a good deal more interesting than anything that the Met's last production had to offer, visually speaking. Wotan and Loge's descent to Nibelheim dazzled the crowd, and when Donner did his stormclouds-and-lightning thing at the end, it was a fucking thrill. And then the little things: small, brilliant LEDs illuminating the Rhinegold, Loge's fiery fingertips, Alberich's helm, and of course his Ring conveyed Magic Power simply and effectively.

But what he didn't use the technology for was also pretty impressive. Once you've got the stage filled with video screens, you can literally do ANYTHING. "Oh, let's put the Vatican behind them, but it's made out of candy and also there's a mushroom cloud." "I can literally do that!" But if you can do anything, it's worth nothing. We might as well be watching it on TV. Another thing LePage said before this Ring debuted was that he wanted to avoid turning it into Avatar, which I wondered if it might be a subtle dig at the Ring put on by Fura dels baus, an unremitting spectacle of constantly shifting video imagery, stage contraptions and acrobatics: LePage is often content to keep the stage still during the moments when the human drama is supposed to be at the fore; the gods stomp around Valhalla and sing, and the drama is communicated with good old-fashioned blocking—at any given moment in this staging, you can read a character's relationships to everyone else in how and where they're standing—and, yes, singing. (I'll get to the singing in a bit, I promise.)

In some ways, this was the Rheingold of my dreams. In a word, the opera is "elemental": it takes place in the heavens, underwater, and underground; it's about fire and gold and rainbows, pure and intense colors of light. LePage's set emphasizes the vertical strata on which the drama unfolds—divine, human, and subhuman planes of existence—and the "sky" behind it is colored by a single horizontal band of light, glowing behind a scrim, so that (for instance) in the first scene, when the Rhinemaidens sing about their gold's awakening in the morning sun, the blue above them transforms to a golden glow.

One advantage of working from Wagner's costume designs and all of these vertical levels is that the giants didn't end up looking completely retarded, as they do in just about every other production of the Ring ever. Somebody ends up putting Fafner and Fasolt on platform boots with giant latex hands and coneheads and TA DAH, you're looking at John Travolta and Forest Whitaker in Battlefield Earth.
(THEY ALWAYS LOOK LIKE THIS. WHY DO THEY ALWAYS LOOK LIKE THIS.) Instead, LePage gave us giants in slightly chunky costumes standing above and behind the rest of the cast at every appearance, so that a sort of false perspective made them seem Huge and Looming.

I am a total snob, of giants, and this production passed the test. I was a little dismayed when the death of Fasolt earned an unintentional laugh from the crowd; this is one of the trickiest bits of business in the opera. It's so oddly timed—the brothers get the Ring, Fafner kills Fasolt for it, Wotan says "oh snap," and then life goes on. Considering that this Cain & Abel moment (or should I say Sméagol & Déagol moment?) is the greatest act of violence in the entire opera, it's strangely underplayed. It was satisfyingly brutal here: when Fafner hit him with his spear, I thought, "That wasn't hard enough to kill him! That's lousy fight choreography"; then Fasolt moved a little and I was like "Oh whoops he's not dead," and then Fafner beat him some more and finally impaled him, and it was horrifying. Great! Then, as if to reflect the way Wagner and his characters shrug off the murder, the giant robo-set moved in such a way as to unceremoniously dump the body offstage, and he slid down kind of like this. Hmm. Well, It was an ingenious gesture, and I'm sorry it didn't come off as dramatically as it should've.

There were also laughs during Alberich's transformation into a dragon, which I was a little uncomfortable with at first, even though this actually is supposed to be a funny scene. Again, the laughs come from Wagner's own timing, and I probably shouldn't have worried about it—it's not a bad dragon. (The toad is even more low-tech—it's not even a puppet; it just "hops" onstage and is captured.)

I guess part of the reason I was uncomfortable is that Alberich, in this production, is not the stupid little clown we're used to seeing; in fact, he's fucking terrifying. I didn't want to read any reviews of this performance before writing this, but I couldn't help running across this one:
and, yup. You'll recall that I last saw Eric Owens threatening to destroy the world in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the New York Phil; he was pretty scary then, and he was even scarier this time. He was funny when he had to be—scrambling up the pebbly CGI shoal to chase the Rhinemaidens—but his humiliation was also painful to watch, and when he promised to take his revenge upon the Earth, it was all too believable. (It helped that the boiling intensity of James Levine's brass section seethed up out of the pit straight up to the back row of the Family Circle and SCALDED MY FACE OFF at this point.) He is my new favorite Alberich, I think. He and LePage created a really terrific villain.

All of the singers were champs, really. Bryn Terfel, sharping and hollering a little in the lower register, is maybe not a born Wotan, but as my friend Maury pointed out afterwards, who is nowadays (COME BACK JAMES MORRIS), and whatever the condition of the low notes, all of the high notes were magnificent blasts from the Terfel Trombone. The Croft brothers, Sid and Marty Dwayne and Richard, were superb as Donner and Loge respectively—especially Richard Croft, whose voice has a far sweeter sound than the role requires. Freia's distress, as sung by Wendy Bryn Harmer, was affecting, and the star of the evening (for me) (and, from the sound of the applause, for a lot of people) was Stephanie Blythe as Fricka—her huge, well-controlled sound was all one could ask for.

What else. Anything else? I mentioned James Levine was fantastic. But he seemed so frail, going up to get his applause! I still can't think too hard about what will happen to the Met when he's gone. Somebody get him some more golden apples, STAT. We need him back in godlike health. Receiving applause mixed with a boo or two, or a few, Robert LePage—that's the way it goes, I guess, when you chuck the most beautiful set at the Metropolitan Opera and replace it with a malfunctioning wall. Well, whatever, HATERS.

I saw all your favorite movie stars in the lobby: Patrick Stewart, Anjelica Huston. That's all of your favorite celebrities, right? I think that's all you need. Just two. And of course your favorite critics—James Jorden, Alex Ross, Seth Colter Walls, Zachary Woolfe. Oh and poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy was there, with his partner, superstar book designer Chip Kidd! McClatchy's translations of Mozart libretti are actually coming out in a single volume shortly, and I sent away for a review copy, so with any luck I'll be reviewin' it for you very soon, and I promise to be BRUTAL, because that's the highest compliment, right? (The second highest compliment is that I didn't quote any more of the above Merrill poem, since I think McClatchy is Merrill's literary executor and so if I quoted the whole thing without permission he could come to the record shop where I work and slap the discs out of my mouth.)

AND FINALLY, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn that I have finally acquiesced to the urgings of my friends and added a NEW T-SHIRT DESIGN, designed to piss off (a) the people who tell you you're not allowed to enjoy Wagner's music because he hated Jews and (b) the old worm-eaten bigot himself, whatever afterlife he's gazing up at us from:

That's funny, right?  I'm not in trouble, right?  Anyway it's also the perfect shirt to wear next time you tell this guy to KNOCK IT OFF.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Who Wants to Listen to New Music and GET BAKED (Goods)?

YOU DO, that's who, and tomorrow night you will get your chance, with performances from a crazy all-star lineup including Newspeak (new-music band), Todd Reynolds (violin), Kathleen Supové (piano), and Matthew Welch (bagpipes), except that those words in parentheses are kind of like if I said "Abraham Lincoln (politician)" and oh but P.S. there's a TON of other excellent performers, there's going to be a raffle AND an auction in addition to the sweets and other merch that are going to be on sale, AND you two free drinks, AHEM, in addition to the concert, for only a $15 ticket. The doors open at 4:30, which is less than 24 hours from now, so start laying out your clothes this instant, and the show runs from 5 until 11:30 p.m.

WHAT??

Yes. You're even allowed to take a break and come back later, if you start to get new-music'd out over the course of seven hours, as the ticket price includes reëntry, but why would you leave? There's food and drink and probably clothing for sale right there, so conceivably this concert could be seven MONTHS long before you even started suffering from any health side effects. It's at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn, which is a place in New York. I don't think I mentioned that people have been talking on Twitter about some of the items being auctioned and that they sound pretty incredible? So go to this thing! Go go!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More Tales from the Tank

I love Mark Swed. (So do you!) When I lived out West I used to feel like he was my critic, in a way that I have never quite felt about our East Coast critics.

Also, I hate to look like I'm leaping to the defense of Nico Muhly, a composer who really couldn't need my support any less. He's got his own damn blog, for one thing, and for another, hasn't he already gotten a metric ton of love from the classical press? Also, I can't even pretend to be objective about (#1) a friend who has (#2) paid me American dollars to write about his music in the past. Still, I couldn't help but laugh, "fa fa fa," at the way Swed's review of Nico's latest CDs is basically begging to be deconstructed on Nico's own aforementioned blog. Swed uses all these Code Words! Here, let me show you what I mean.

First, read the review in full. Isn't it well written? But very negative!

OR IS IT. Let us examine, shall we, its Nico-related passages:

Here the chorus is being used to persuade a wider public than New Yorkers about Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of that town.

Muhly, who turned 29 last month, has already received two of New York's top accolades — a New Yorker profile and a Metropolitan Opera commission. Although less known elsewhere, he has L.A. champions in Gershon and also the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Jeffrey Kahane. Plus, Muhly has also composed appropriately treacly soundtracks to "Joshua" and "The Reader."

Muhly can be a precious and facile composer, a showoff.

But Muhly also has a delicate touch, and when the sweet sounds of ethereal early music singing meets post-Minimalist rhythmic rapture, the music floats in its own special space.

A young composer begging attention couldn't ask for anything more.
This reminds me SO MUCH of this passage from Philip Brett's essay on Britten (which I already quoted, appropriately enough, in my liner notes for Nico's first album):
To appreciate the fact that there was considerable tension surrounding not only Britten's homosexuality, but also the success that he enjoyed despite it, one has to dig a little deeper beneath such blatant attacks as that against "bachelor composers" in the Craft/Stravinsky conversation books. What is revealed is a curious set of opposite and equally loaded critical terms. On the one hand Britten's music was characterized as "mere cleverness," "devilish smart." On the other it was accused of sentimentality. Behind both attitudes, of course, lay the unspoken fascination with Britten's homosexuality, both labels being the reverse sides of the oppositions claft/cleverness, sincerity/sentimentality, which belong among a whole plethora of binarisms that Sedgwick has claimed as "epistemologically charged pairings, condensed in the figures of 'the closet' and 'coming out.'"
Tell me I'm wrong! In fact, I was actually delighted to discover that we could easily go through this review and switch out these loaded words of faint praise for nearly exact synonyms, and by merely substituting tonally different (often, less "gay"-coded) adjectives, totally invert the apparent meaning of the review. Watch:
Here the chorus is being used to persuade a wider public than New Yorkers about Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of that town.
Sounds like a con job! How about:
Here the chorus champions Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of New York.
Same meaning, totally different connotations. But let's get to the gay-bashing:
Plus, Muhly has also composed appropriately treacly soundtracks to "Joshua" and "The Reader."
"Appropriately treacly" soundtracks to a creepy kid movie and a Holocaust picture? What could be appropriate about treacle? Well okay, I'm not arguing with his actual opinions here, it's fine, I'll let it go. But:
Muhly can be a precious and facile composer, a showoff.
Aren't "precious" and "facile" TRANSPARENTLY ways of complimenting an artist in a mean way? You could just as easily say:
Muhly is a meticulous but prolific composer, a virtuoso.
Except when you say it that way, it doesn't sound faggy enough.

Anyhow, you get the picture. How could such a positive review be so mean! Well, I sort of understand where Swed's coming from. There's this weird provincialism in New York that assumes that it's the classical music center of America, if not the Universe, and when you're working in a market that is constantly getting dismissed, you gotta represent. And there's nothing to sour one on an artist like the stink of Media Hype.

But the problem is that neither of these things is Nico's fault ("begging attention"? he doesn't even have a publicist!), and even if they were, they wouldn't be audible on the CDs under review. Please, music critics, review things that are audible!

Of course, I'm prejudiced totally oppositewise, so you're probably taking all of these opinions with a grain of salt as well. (If you ain't, you oughta be.) Thanks to Proper Discord for bringing this one to my attention—there is not enough Swed in my life. But, maybe somebody should say something to him.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Composerly Memes

laskdjfals;fjals;dfjsalfkj I have been SO LAZY lately, I scarcely blogged a blog all summer. My big excuse is that I finally wrote my first article for a glossy magazine and I've been stressing over that but really it's a short article and a pretty puny excuse. Also I helped my brother move to Texas! Scroll down the right-hand column to see the bitchin' lamp we got for his new office. But that is also a puny excuse since the whole time I was in the car I was revising that article.

By the way all of my interviewees for that piece were SO GREAT, I can't believe how much amazing material they gave me. It was pretty painful to distill pages of brilliant comments from James "La Cieca" Jorden and Zachary "Z-Wolf" Woolfe into the itty bitty handful of quotes I could actually shoehorn into the article. Which brings me the other thing I've written lately, this pair of reviews for La Cieca, of discs from the James Levine 40th Met anniversary boxsets: Berg's Lulu, Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles. You'll want to click through; some great comments await. A sample:

So provocative! Clicky clicky.

Cieca's comments also got me to thinking again about the ways in which composers are and aren't oppressed by mainstream classical institutions. Apparently Caleb Burhans' string quartet for JACK was actually Boo'd, at Darmstadt? Which is on the one hand distressing (were they booing it on the grounds of style alone? or was the piece actually bad?? neither of those is a very happy possibility!) and on the other hand, forget it, JACK, it's Darmstadt-town. Somebody told me that the Kronos Quartet was boo'd there before they even sat down; after the performance, they shook the dirt off their tevas and never looked back. If that story's true, MORE POWER TO KRONOS. Y'all don't need those bitches. (I mean, can you IMAGINE booing someone BEFORE THEY PLAYED?)

In some respects, what seems like systematic institutional discrimination is really just built in to the institutions—the perennial complaint, for instance, that only "academic" composers are recognized by academia; well, duh!—and there's no way around that tautology except to wait for that battleship, whether it's The University or The Symphony or The Festival Scene, to slowly turn your way. (Okay actually there is one way, and fortunately a lot of people are doing it nowadays, which is to get your friends together and pilot your own sleek little dinghy into those uncharted waters you've got your eye on.) And sometimes you will actually, personally be kept down by composers who find your music ideologically unacceptable, such as in (PDF) this article John Halle wrote about what a jerk Mario Davidovsky was to him. He makes a pretty convincing case!  Mario Davidovsky:  jerk.

A combination of the above factors has produced a surprising number of bitter, bitter boomers and post-boomers. What's great though is that those people's students, having been told that there are no stylistic Wrong Answers, are increasingly setting out in fleets of those metaphorical dinghies. Look at Corey Dargel! I know I keep harping on him, but that's just because he's one of my super duper favoritest composers in the world right now. Or in other words, if he would like a pull-quote for his press materials: Each new song from Corey Dargel only reinforces my sense that he is one of the most compelling and important composers emerging from the New York scene. I'm still kicking myself for having missed the reading from his new opera (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), The Three Christs, this past Monday, and someone should probably kick ME for having totally failed to review his new record yet despite its having come out like last year or something. (I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL REVIEW IT, I'VE JUST BEEN… BUSY.)

But one interesting thing about his success is how few of the conventional trappings have surrounded it. Yes, he has written for starry new-music institutions like the American Composers Orchestra and the newer but no less starry International ICE Ensemble, but mostly he's been putting on concerts in nightclubs, by himself or with a handful of friends, and putting out largely D.I.Y. records on independent labels. He basically embodies the notion that you young composers don't need to chase the DMA, the prizes, and the professorship in order to be able to make the music they want to make.

(Lest we romanticize the situation over here, let us also note that for many composers, while "making the music they want to make" might be very important, things like "comprehensive dental insurance" might also be very important, and it's pretty nasty to have to trade that stability for the opportunity to make meaningful art.)

And so while I am totally OVER hearing established, middle-aged composers with tenure or glamorous commissions or whatever complain about what victims they are because they got one bad review someplace (I'm not even going to name names here; you can fill in the blank), I do have to cringe whenever I hear America's most Dargelicious composer picking up their old refrain, with tweets like this about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's open commissioning thingie, Project 440:
Because FIRST of all, isn't that kind of a mean thing to say about the composers who made the finals? Actually, now that I look at it, the rhetoric he's using borrows a lot from the old modernist bullies—the finalists are "mundane," not "innovative" enough.

On the face of it, this would seem to be the "tautological" complaint. Why isn't Orpheus (most famous for recording, like, Handel's Water Music and the Mozart wind concerti) commissioning more out-there music? Well, they're not a new-music ensemble; they really don't hang out on the cutting edge. But have they really chosen such boring composers? If I could pick four winners out of the final 12, here's who I'd probably go with. This decision is totally subjective and shockingly non-binding:

1. Timothy Andres, composer/pianist, bright young star on Nonesuch Records.
Facile comparison: John Adams.
I'll admit I've never been shocked by Andres's music, but it seems like a good fit for Orpheus, and frankly, it's incredibly well put-together. Listen to this stuff, both of these pieces are really kinda moving:

2. Tyondai Braxton,
rock star, plays with BATTLES on Warp Records.
Facile comparison: Frank Zappa.
I was never a huge fan of the BATTLES LP, but I have to admit Braxton's style meshes incredibly well with the sound of a chamber orchestra in these clips. Exuberant to the brink of kitsch; maybe even (dare I say!) subversive?

3. Alexandre Lunsqui, Brazilian awesome person.
Facile comparison: Dude, I don't know. Somebody from Europe?
Okay now HERE are some unfamiliar orchestral effects. This is crazy! What's even going on here! This is very exciting! Alexandre Lunsqui should be famous!

4. Andrew Norman, Modestonian pianist/composer.
Facile comparison: STOP IT, LEAVE ME ALONE, I DON'T KNOW
I am IN THE TANK for Norman, having admired his music immensely since I was a young 'un (btw I'm sorry this list is All Male and includes not one but Two pianists from Yale), and he's such an intensely self-critical and publicity-shy composer that it causes me a spasm of physical pain to hear someone gripe that he isn't enough of an "innovator" to deserve his little bit of success, but all the same, I hope you'll agree that it's not just me, that his music is quite well-wrought, lively, and satisfying to the ear:


I mean, right?? These are all good composers! Everyone one the list whom I DIDN'T name is a really good composer! They would all write something awesome for Orpheus! Let's just relax, everybody. Young composers, I want to see a little bit less of this
and a whole lot more of this:
Right?

Discuss.