Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Fred Hersch to Video Stream his Theater Piece

Fred Hersch (photograph by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

Readers may recall that last March I wrote about The Ballad of Fred Hersch, a documentary made by Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano in 2016, which had been released for free video streaming. I appreciated the amount of time the film devoted to My Coma Dreams, which I had regarded as Hersch’s most ambitious effort. The title referred to a medically induced coma that Hersch sustained in 2008 and his retrospective impressions after regaining consciousness.

The work itself could best be called a jazz theater piece. Hersch composed a score that was organized around a script written by Herschel Garfein, who directed what amounted to an amalgam of a monodrama for a narrator embedded in an instrumental ensemble augmenting a jazz combo with a string quartet. Following the premiere performance in New York, Hersch and Garfein took the show on tour; and it was hosted by San Francisco Performances at the end of October of 2011.

A video of the entire production was made; and, as a follow-up to the streaming of The Ballad of Fred Hersch, that video will be made available for free streaming, beginning of Friday, July 17. The URL for this video has not yet been created; but it should be sufficient to search You Tube for “My Coma Dreams” and “Fred Hersch.” As might be anticipated, this video will be best experienced with stereo audio from either headphones or speakers.

Michael Winter will present Garfein’s text, serving as both actor and singer. Hersch will play piano, and the string quartet will consist of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Ron Lawrence, and cellist  Dave Eggar. Hersch’s extended combo will include Ralph Alessi on trumpet and flugelhorn, Mike Christianson on trombone, Steven Lugerner on oboe and clarinet, Adam Kolker on flute, clarinet and tenor saxophone, John Hébert on bass, and John Hollenbeck on percussion.

“Short Stories” Told by the Bartosz Hadala Group

from the Amazon.com Web page of the album being discussed

This past April Canadian keyboardist Bartosz Hadala released his latest album, Three Short Stories. As of this writing, it appears that the album is only available for digital download from either its Amazon.com Web page or from Hadala’s own home page. Hadala is a keyboardist, alternating between an acoustic piano and the electric Rhodes piano. The Bartosz Hadala Group includes two saxophonists (Kelly Jefferson on soprano and Luis Deniz on alto), Eric St-Laurent on guitar, two bass guitarists (Brad Cheeseman and Michael Manring), percussionist Marito Marques, and, in the final (“Epilogue”) track, João Frade on accordion. All twelve tracks are original Hadala compositions.

Hadala seems to have a knack for spinning out eccentric, frequently angular, tunes. Were it not for the bass guitar, which usually carries the weight of defining and maintaining tonal center, those tunes could almost be taken as latter-day reflections on atonal practices during the twentieth century. In other words all of the players of the surface structure have the liberty to head off into terra incognita, but there is always a solid bass line in the background that will allow them to find their way back home.

Nevertheless, in the midst of all of that diversity, there tends to be a sameness of rhetoric in the delivery by all members of the Group. I find that, at the end of a hard day, one of the best ways for me to unwind is to listen attentively to elaborately adventurous jazz solos. However, most of those solos come from recordings that were released prior to the Seventies and can reach back as far as the early brewing of bebop in the wildly inventive solos of the likes of Coleman Hawkins. In that context listening to the Hadala Group tracks felt more like skimming the surface than diving deep and boldly into the previously unknown.

Mind you, these impressions come from listening to this album only twice. This would not be the first occasion in which greater familiarity leads to more adventurous discovery. For now, however, I suspect that I shall retreat back to some of my “old reliable” sources.

The Theresienstadt Children’s Opera

screen shot from the video being discussed

This week (through July 12) Music of Remembrance (MOR) is presenting a streamed video of Hans Krása’s one-act children’s opera “Brundibár.” MOR is an organization with the mission of remembering the Holocaust through music with concert performances, educational programs, recordings, and commissions of new works. Krása originally composed “Brundibár” in 1938; but he took the score with him when he was interned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The opera had been written explicitly to be performed by children, and the authorities allowed Krása to teach the music to the children held at that camp. Through this medium he was able to present an allegorical tale of a town in which the children are bullied by Brundibár, who is the local organ grinder. They succeed with assistance from a dog, a cat, and a bird (all vocal roles). It would have been clear to everyone in the camp that Brundibár was basically a thinly-veiled evocation of Adolf Hitler, who was actively extending the German borders when “Brundibár” was composed.

The opera was performed 55 times at Theresienstadt. The bitter irony behind this number is that the production kept needing recasting. Theresienstadt was a “transit center,” where Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria were held temporarily until they were delivered to the so-called “death camps.” Those assignments involved children, as well as their parents; so, as a result, there was an ongoing need to change the cast, bringing “children coming in” to replace “children going out.”

MOR first performed “Brundibár” in 2006, using an English-language libretto written by Tony Kushner. Kushner had originally provided the text for a children’s picture book based on the opera. The illustrations were provided by Maurice Sendak, and it was recognized by the Book Review section of The New York Times as one of the best illustrated books of 2003. That same year the Chicago Opera Theater performed the opera with Kushner’s libretto and staging and set designs by Sendak.

MOR revived its 2006 performance in 2014 with the Seattle Children’s Theater. That production was captured on the video that is currently being streamed through its own Web page. This occasion was particularly distinguished since, during the final chorus, the cast was joined by Ela Stein Weissberger, who sang the original role of the cat in Theresienstadt, participating in all 55 performances at the age of eleven. (Weissberger died in 2018 at the age of 87.)

This all made for a historically significant occasion, which could not have better served MOR intentions. Sadly, that old saw about good intentions applies to the finished product. By all rights Kushner’s English should have been able to manage more than satisfactorily without the aid of subtitles. However, between diction and vocal quality, many of the more critical lines in the plot development were garbled by either the soloists or the chorus. Similarly, there were too many incidents in the staging that tended to confuse, rather than advance, the overall flow of the narrative.

I suspect that some readers may accuse me of being a sourpuss unwilling to cut the kids some slack. I would direct those readers to my account of the opening of Chris Pratorius’ one-act opera “Xochitl and the Flowers,” which took place in November of 2016. Produced by Opera Parallèle through their Hands on Opera project with third graders in the Alvarado Elementary School Spanish Immersion Program, this was the perfect example of children’s opera as it was meant to be. Between just the right amount of staging by Brendan Hartnett and serious vocal preparation, no one in the audience had any trouble figuring out what was happening and what words were being sung by both the chorus and the soloists.

If MOR is to pursue its “mission of remembering the Holocaust through music,” it owe it to audiences to bring more attentive discipline to the music being performed.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Sviatoslav Richter at 70 on Video

1966 photograph of Sviatoslav Richter (photograph by Yury Sctherbinin, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Given my ongoing interest in the performances of the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that this was the first morning in which I prowled around YouTube in search of video documents of his recitals. What I found turned out to be a fascinating account of an aspect of his repertoire that particularly interested me, the music of Robert Schumann. Those with long memories may recall that I wrote about the Profil anthology Sviatoslav Richter Plays Schumann & Brahms in April of 2018; but, between the ventures into new repertoire beyond the pieces included in that anthology and the ability to watch Richter in action, there was much to draw my attention to this video.

The video itself was recorded on December 13, 1985 at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Richter had turned 70 at the previous March 20. The performance was one of the offerings scheduled for the December Nights festival. Microphone placement appeared to be minimal but was still effective. For one of the selections Richter was joined by Ludmila Valentinovna Berlinskaya, for whom Richter served as “spiritual father.” They played the fourth and fifth movements (in reverse order) from the Opus 66 set of six impromptus for four-hand piano “Bilder aus Osten” (pictures from the East). This was preceded by Richter’s solo performance of the Opus 19 “Blumenstück” (flower piece) in D-flat major and followed by the last three of the Opus 10 set of six concert studies, all based on the caprices from Niccolò Paganini’s Opus 1. The second half was devoted to a composition I have yet to experience through the physical presence of a recital, the Opus 72 collection of four fugues. For his encore selection Richter returned to more familiar ground, the Opus 7 toccata in C major.

The fugues offer a fascinating perspective on the extent to which Schumann appreciated the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Their respective subjects would not have been out of place in either of the two books of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846–893); and, among all of the many Richter recordings now in my collection, his account of those 24 preludes and fugues remains high on my list. Nevertheless, the polyphonic unfolding of those subjects is decidedly more Schumann than Bach. Richter clearly knew how to capture Schumann’s spirit in these pieces. Nevertheless, on a few occasions I was uneasy that his phrasing of the subject tended to obscure where Schumann intended the downbeat to be. From that point of view, Richter seemed more at home with the Paganini source themes for the Opus 10 caprices.

On the more positive side I was particularly drawn to the Opus 19 performances. This is one of the better balances of Eusebius and Florestan, Schumann’s fictionalized characters representing the influences of head and heart, respectively; and Richter clearly knew how to give each of those personality types its due. Most importantly, he gave each thematic element is own due expression, in such a way that the listener can appreciate the overall restlessness of the score, juxtaposing pairs of themes in different combinations. Schumann found just the right way to present a deceptively simple surface structure beneath which churned complex elaborations, and Richter was not shy about diving below that surface.

The encore, on the other hand, was more disappointing. Too many times during the performance there was a sense that the intense energy of Schumann’s score for Opus 7 had devolved into mere hammering. There was an overall impression that Richter really did not want to take this encore. It would be unfair to say that he was trying to scold his audience for pushing him into this corner; but, sadly, the prevailing rhetoric of the encore came across as let’s-get-it-over-with.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Watching Karajan Conduct Richard Strauss

I decided to jump the gun a bit in continuing to address Herbert von Karajan’s career as an opera conductor. With this objective in mind, I was pleased to see that there was a YouTube video of a performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier when it was performed at the 1962 Salzburg Festival with Karajan in the orchestra pit and staging by Rudolf Hartmann. This was a digitization of a film made for television by Paul Czinner, the British film director born in Hungary on May 30, 1890. In the mid-Fifties Czinner began to focus his attention on making film documents of performances of opera and ballet, and his Rosenkavalier film was one of his last efforts.

This film allows one to see the role of the Marschallin sung by soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. There is an interesting “local connection” here, because on September 20, 1955 Schwarzkopf made her United States opera debut, singing this role with the San Francisco Opera. Furthermore, the role of Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau was sung in Salzburg by bass Otto Edelman, who sang the same role during Schwarzkopf’s San Francisco debut. The other major Salzburg roles were taken by mezzo Sena Jurinac as Octavian and Anneliese Rothenberger as Sophie von Faninal.

In spite of these impressive resources, the film leaves much to be desired. Compared to current productions, Hartmann’s staging is frustratingly static, making for more stand-there-and-sing moments than most of today’s audiences would willingly tolerate. Sadly (or consequently), Czinner’s talents as a director leave much to be desired. This may be because Hartmann provided him with inadequate source material, but even the camera angles tend to be awkward more often than not.

Anneliese Rothenberger, Sena Jurinac, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing the trio near the end of Act 3 (screen shot from the video being discussed)

As a result, it is up to Karajan to save the day, for Czinner as well as the viewer. The best viewing is to be found during the orchestral introduction to Act 3. Karajan conducts this at a breakneck pace, which could not be more appropriate for the abundance of low comedy that is about to unfold (at least in the scenario text). What impressed me the most was the way in which he managed turn-on-a-dime shifts in dynamic levels from one extreme to the other. This made for edge-of-your-seat listening of the best kind; and, in this case, Czinner definitely deserves praise for not only the views of Karajan himself but also the ways in which the camera-work accounts for the many different centers of activity in the pit.

For those that have been discouraged by my account of the overall production, the time code for the beginning of the third act is 2:07:48.

Karajan on Decca: 19th-Century Instrumental

Herbert von Karajan (from the booklet accompanying the collection being discussed)

The lion’s share of repertoire in The Complete Decca Recordings, a 33-CD box of recordings by conductor Herbert von Karajan, is focused on the nineteenth century. Indeed, in contrast to the collection of recordings of pianist Peter Serkin, which I have been following in parallel to the Karajan collection, there are so many nineteenth-century CDs that they are best divided into two subcategories. For want of better terminology, I shall these subcategories “Instrumental” and “Opera;” and this article will examine the first of those subcategories.

Readers may recall that, when writing about Karajan’s recordings of First Viennese School composers, I drew the most satisfaction from his interpretation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492, The Marriage of Figaro. In this case it would be fair to say that the instrumental CDs did little more than pique my curiosity about the operatic offerings. For the most part the instrumental selections are “the usual suspects,” not only according to Karajan but also as approached by just about any conductor with a viable recording career.

As expected, there is a CD devoted to two members of the Strauss family, with five selections by Johann Strauss II and one, the Opus 212 “Delirien” (deliriums) waltz, by his brother Josef Strauss. The composer that receives the most attention is Richard Strauss, with the “dance of the seven veils” music from the Opus 54 opera “Salome” providing a “punch line” for four tone poems. This accounts for two CDs, the first devoted entirely to the Opus 30 “Also sprach Zarathustra” (thus spoke Zarathustra), while the second covers its three best-known predecessors, “Don Juan” (Opus 20), “Death and Transfiguration” (Opus 24), and “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” (Opus 28). These are all given perfectly satisfactory accounts, none of which rise significantly above the many other recorded interpretations of these pieces.

There are only three symphonies in this collection. Two are by Johannes Brahms, Opus 68 (first) in C minor and Opus 90 (third) in F major. The other is by Antonín Dvořák, Opus 88 in G major, a perfect complement to the spirit of Brahms; and Brahms himself is also represented by his Opus 81 “Tragic” concert overture.

The only other composer to be represented by multiple compositions is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Three of the four compositions are suites from his best-known ballets: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. The “overture-fantasy” “Romeo and Juliet” is also included. In addition an entire CD is devoted to the French ballet that is the most significant predecessor of the three Russian ballets with Tchaikovsky’s music. That ballet is Giselle, whose music was composed by Adolphe Adam. This is not quite a “complete score” recording (as can be seen from the sequence of Roman numerals in the accompanying booklet); but those that like Adam’s music may well find it the most satisfying of the the offerings in this subcategory. I happen to be one of those that likes the music, but I much prefer listening to it while watching the ballet. (In all fairness, I am inclined to say the same about the Tchaikovsky suites!)

The only other nineteenth-century instrumental composer included is Edvard Grieg, represented only by selections from the incidental music he composed for Peer Gynt. The pieces include all four of the movements in the first suite and two from the second. Curiously, these are presented as an “afterword” to Gustav Holst’s Opus 32 suite The Planets. Holst composed his suite’s seven movements between 1914 and 1916; but, considering what more adventurous composers were doing at that time, it would be fair to say that Holst’s heart was very much in the nineteenth century. As a result, this is probably the most satisfying recording in the category. Those that know the piece know that its dynamic range is extraordinarily wide. Karajan may be at his most admirable when he “pulls out all the stops;” but his command of a hushed rhetoric, particularly in the final movement, is just as impressive.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

A Welcome Return to Carlisle Floyd

Carlisle Floyd is one of the most prolific American opera composers. He has a prodigious catalog of operas written as early as 1949 (Slow Dusk); and his most recent is Prince of Players, which was first performed on March 5, 2016. It is therefore more than a little disappointing that only two of those operas can be found in the Performance Archive of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Furthermore, both of them, Susannah and Of Mice and Men, were first given limited presentations as part of the SPring Opera Theater (SPOT), which presented more limited performances than the primary subscription series and ran from 1961 to 1982. (For the record, Susannah was first performed in Florida in February of 1955.)

Patricia Racette at the beginning of Susannah (photography by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

It took until the opening weekend of the 2014–2015 season for Susannah to enter full subscription series status. Produced by SFO, the opera was given five performances between September 6 and September 21. Having seen several other performance of the opera by that time, I could not have been more delighted to see the treatment it received on this occasion. The title role was sung by soprano Patricia Racette; and the two principal male roles were sung by bass Raymond Aceto (Reverend Olin Blitch) and tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Sam Polk, Susannah’s brother). The production was staged by Michael Cavanagh, and Karen Kamensek made her debut as conductor.

Those who missed those five performances should take advantage of the fact that Frank Zamacona prepared another first-rate video document of this SFO production. This is the video that will be available for streaming through the Opera is ON service for the remainder of this weekend. As was the case with Zamacona’s approach to Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” this is a video account that allows the viewer to appreciate many subtleties unlikely to be seen from even the best seat in the War Memorial Opera House.

The reason that this is the case is that this is a production in which details matter. The basic scenario involves whether or not the title character, an attractive young women living in the remote hills of New Hope Valley in Tennessee, has committed sins of the flesh. Her potential for guilt is amplified by the fact that her brother is a known drunk, although, in the scenes in which we encounter him, he comes across as relatively affable and a good brother that cares for his sister. Nevertheless, the four elders of New Hope Valley and their respective wives are convinced that Susannah is a sinner; and they seek the assistance of the itinerant Blitch when he comes to town.

Cavanagh’s pays particular attention to endowing each of those elders and wives with unique character traits; and this is where that phrase “details matter” comes into play. Among the performers of those eight roles, the one with the most impressive acting chops is mezzo Catherine Cook. While she is more frequently associated with some of the most impressive interpretations of comic roles in SFO season offerings, in Susannah she embodies righteousness at its most wrathful. Her every gesture is a sinister warning to fear the release of that wrath. Without ever overplaying her part, Cook plays a key role in capturing the full force of the danger that Susannah encounters when under the suspicions of the God-fearing citizens of New Hope Valley.

I suppose a passing reference to “the devil is in the details” would apply here. Nevertheless, when confronted with a narrative about a remote small town, it is through those details that the acute observer comes to appreciate not only what is going on but also why things proceed the way they do. While the “surface structure” of this opera has a decidedly folksy feel to both the music and the dispositions of the characters, Zamacona’s eye for detail will allow the viewer of this video to appreciate just how many undercurrents there are and how deep they run.

To be fair, there is something prototypical about woman-as-outcast narratives. One of the more interesting elements of Cavanagh’s staging is that we first see a much older Susannah sitting in front of her house with a rifle in her lap. The opera then begins; and, when we come to the end, there she is in her chair with the rifle. Those that particularly appreciate American opera composers probably know that The Ballad of Baby Doe, composed by Douglas Moore in 1956, is another woman-as-outcast narrative; and it ends exactly the same way. This is basically an Ur-motif of the genre, and I appreciated how Cavanagh chose to give it proper attention.

Thoughts About a Rothko-Feldman Connection

This morning I decided to watch the recording I had made of John Logan’s play Red, which seems to have been conceived as a dramatized study of the painter Mark Rothko and the (perhaps hypothesized) ideas behind the creation of at least some of his paintings. The play was first performed at the Donmar Warehouse in London, opening on December 8, 2009. The role of Rothko was taken by Alfred Molina, and the director was Michael Grandage.

Rothko (Alfred Molina) and his assistant (Alfred Enoch) preparing a canvas (screen shot from the preview video on the Great Performances Web page for Red)

On March 11, 2010, that production was given a limited run on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre. That run lasted for a little more than three months, but it was enough to earn that year’s Tony Award for Best Play. In 2018 the play was revived in London on the West End, again with Grandage directing Molina, joined by Alfred Enoch in the role of Rothko’s assistant. A video recording of that production was first aired in the United States on November 15, 2019 as part of the PBS Great Performances series. This morning I viewed a rebroadcast of that program.

My awareness of Rothko owes much to the influence of the composer Morton Feldman, initially through a recording of “Rothko Chapel” released by New Albion Records. That influence was reinforced in April of last year, when the “ONLINE series” of programming by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presented a performance of Feldman’s “For Samuel Beckett.” The video recording of that performance was introduced by local composer Amadeus Regucera, who chose to dwell on the “Rothko connection.” He observed that Rothko created vast canvases; but, when one stood close to one of these paintings, one no longer saw large masses of color but could, instead, attend to the intricacies of texture emerging from evidence of the brushstrokes.

Regucera’s perspective never arises in Logan’s play. Indeed, the Rothko character seems only interested in having his vast spaces viewed from a distance. However, he is also interested in talking at great length to his assistant about what he does, why he does it, and what he thinks about the artists that preceded and followed him. In the former category his primary focus is on Jackson Pollock, while there is an extended salvo at the prevailing Pop Art movement in the latter category. (For the record, Feldman does not appear ever to have met Rothko; but he did come to know Pollock during his time working with John Cage.)

The Rothko conceived by Logan and Grandage and realized by Molina has his own connection to music. A record player is a significant element of the set design; and, when he is not talking at length, much of Rothko’s activity takes place with accompaniment from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (primarily symphonic but with one operatic extract). This is complemented by the tastes of his assistant, who is preparing a frame while listening to his own recording of Chet Baker. Rothko is not shy in venting his displeasure.

Perhaps I am just being contentious, but I tend not to enjoy plays that consist almost entirely of stentorian lectures. If Rothko was really the sort of person to fire off one of those lectures at the drop of a hat, then I have to credit Molina for nailing that personality trait. Nevertheless, I am not quite sure about all the verbiage aimed at either the act of looking at a Rothko canvas or the philosophical perspectives on the canvas itself. As a result of listening to Feldman, I find that, when I encounter a Rothko on exhibit, my own impressions begin simply with an awareness of being in its presence, almost as if the painting is a portal to some other-worldly space that I shall never be able to experience directly.

To be fair, that frame of mind would probably not sell very many tickets in either London or on Broadway. However, by that same count, Feldman recordings are still not “best sellers.” As far as I can tell, the closest he has ever gotten to a GRAMMY award would have been by way of a performer or ensemble that received the award, not necessarily for the actual recording of his music. That said, I still would prefer listening to 90 minutes of music that reflects on reactions to looking at paintings to 90 minutes of lecturing by the artist that created one of those paintings!

Friday, July 3, 2020

When Galina Ulanova Danced for Elizabeth II

One of the most significant films of a full-length ballet was made in 1956. It documented a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet during a tour that took them to the stage of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The ballet was Giselle in Yuri Grigorovich’s adaptation of the original choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. The performance itself was significant because Queen Elizabeth II was in the audience.

Clearly, this was a performance at which diplomacy mattered as much as artistic excellence, if not more so. The subtext of the occasion was that shared artistic values might lead to a reconciliation of ideological values. In that context the very selection of Giselle was significant, since its origins were French, rather than Russian. Indeed, first performed in 1841, it is probably the second-oldest ballet currently in repertoire (the oldest being La fille mal gardée, also French, which was first performed in 1789). On the Russian side, however, was the performance by Galina Ulanova in the title role. Her career began at the Mariinsky Theatre, where she became so famous that Joseph Stalin had her transferred to the Bolshoi in 1944! Indeed, in 2000 her face found its way to a Russian postage stamp:

from Wikimedia Commons, not an object of copyright

(Ulanova had died in 1998.)

Like many balletomanes I have lost count of the number of Giselle performances I have experienced. However, the filmed account of that 1956 performance at the Royal Opera House was definitely the first of them. Indeed, by the time the film had been released and was screened in the Philadelphia area, I was probably in high school and barely had any idea of what I was experiencing. All I really knew was the music by Adolphe Adam, which I had on an Angel Records album of two LPs. Ironically, that album was was recorded by EMI during that same Bolshoi tour, with conductor Yuri Fayer leading the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, the same ensemble heard on the film’s soundtrack.

This morning I revisited my “first contact” experience through the YouTube Web page for the film. There are any number of disappointing features in this film. First of all, while Fayer recorded the complete score by Adam for EMI, there were extensive cuts in the filmed version. This may have been the result of creating an offering that could be presented on a one-hour television broadcast. Thus, those fond of the “Peasant Pas de Deux” will probably be disappointed by its absence. Those more attentive to the narrative will similarly miss the scene in which Giselle rises from the grave to join the Wilis. Thus, where Giselle itself is concerned, this is far from an “authoritative document.”

On the other hand Giselle herself gets the lion’s share of the choreography. The real virtue of this film is the opportunity to see just how skilled Ulanova was. There is a consistent other-worldly lightness to every step she executes, almost as if she had made some Faustian compact to disregard the laws of gravity. Furthermore, her chemistry with Fayer could not have been better. There are no end of episodes in which the music is shaped around Ulanova’s interpretative techniques, while the EMI recording gives a more consistent account of steady rhythms. (Gadfly Norman Lebrecht seemed feel that Fayer deserved his own circle in the Inferno, possibly because he thought that Fayer should be leading Ulanova, rather than following her.)

As a result, for all of its shortcomings, this is very much a “must see” YouTube offering. Too many audiences prefer to focus on the present, disregarding any value that the past might offer. Those aware of the many times in which I have invoked John Clifford’s uploads of New York City Ballet performances to YouTube should know by now that I often find the past preferable to the present. Ulanova’s talents may have since been equaled or even surpassed, but I still believe that anyone that takes watching a ballet seriously deserves to see her approach to bringing the character of Giselle to life.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Handel with Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol

Joyce DiDonato in the title role of Handel’s Agrippina (from the Live in HD Web page for this opera performance)

This past Sunday the recording facility on my xfinity cable box allowed me to save a copy of the latest Great Performances at the Met broadcast. The opera was George Frideric Handel’s HWV 6 Agrippina; and the recording was taken from the Live in HD offering that was presented at the end of this past February (making it, inadvertently, the last Live in HD program of the season). This was a new production of the Metropolitan Opera, staged by David McVicar. The conductor was Harry Bicket, a champion of the baroque repertoire, who played harpsichord for the recitativo passages.

I once attended a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, taught, I am pretty sure, by soprano Carolyn Sampson. Most memorable was her coaching of a soprano and an alto singing the duet “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” (I gaze at you, I posses you) that concludes Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L'incoronazione di Poppea (the coronation of Poppea). Sampson’s first remark after the performance was, “These are not nice people!” Well, if Nero and Poppea were “not nice” in Monteverdi’s setting, they are downright nasty in Agrippina, matched only by Nero’s parents, Claudius and the title character herself, Agrippina. Indeed, there are only nine characters; and eight of them are equally offensive. The only other character is the goddess Juno, who is supposed to bless everyone else; and her part was cut from the Met performance!

To be fair, she would have been out of place, since McVicar chose to set the opera in a contemporary metropolitan setting, which could easily have been New York. According to its Performance Archive, the San Francisco Opera has presented six McVicar productions, the earliest in 2006 and the most recent in June of 2019. That most recent offering was Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 114 opera Rusalka, and I was so positively impressed that I selected it as the June entry for my month-by-month list of the most memorable performances of that year. The other five were spaced out along an interval from non-particularly-interesting to downright infuriating. (The best example of the latter was the use of a chorus-line-kick in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which had nothing to do with anything other than self-indulgence!)

The bottom line is that just about everything that happens on stage amounts to a product of McVicar’s capacity for self-indulgence. The frequency of sexual encounters goes beyond anything one might find in Henry Miller and will be sure to “frighten the horses” (as Katherine Hepburn liked to put it). As to the other indulgences, one viable subtitle for the production might be “Little Nero has a Drug Problem.” In one scene he covers a tabletop with cocaine, shaking it out like a can of talcum powder. After his first snort or two, he starts rubbing the stuff all over his face. My guess is that such behavior would have scared the bejesus out of all the the Roman rulers documented by Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars. (At the beginning and end of the production, one of the lesser characters in the cast is off to the side reading that book.) Finally, an entire scene is set in a cocktail lounge, which makes for great visuals (including a second harpsichordist playing the role of lounge-lizard pianist) but manages to muddle most of the key leading characters.

The good news is that, with the benefit of Bicket’s interpretations of the score, all eight of the vocalists more than did justice to all of the heavenly music that Handel wrote. This was my first encounter with mezzo Joyce DiDonato going over to the dark side for the title role. Bass Matthew Rose perfectly complemented her in his performance of Claudius; and, when it came to sins of the flesh, the shape of his beard faintly recalled another powerful figure with a weakness for sexual abuse. The role of Nero was originally sung by a soprano castrato; and the part was taken by mezzo Kate Lindsey, who was never shy about depicting all of the acts of self-indulgence that McVicar had conceived. Poppea was sung by soprano Brenda Rae, who was particularly effective in the cocktail lounge scene. The man that is eventually paired with Poppea at the end of the opera is Otho, originally sung by a contralto but given an outstanding countertenor account by Iestyn Davies. Finally, Agrippina has two “fixers” with elevated positions, Pallas from the military (bass Duncan Rock) and Narcissus from the Senate (originally alto castrato, sung by countertenor Nicholas Tamagna).

This is a performance that will make for highly satisfying listening, particularly if one chooses to ignore the video signal.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Harding Leads French Orchestra without Audience

Last month the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, the resident orchestra affiliated with Radio France, decided to break its silence with a broadcast of a performance played in the Radio France Auditorium without an audience physically present. More specifically, the program was presented by a reduced string section conducted by Daniel Harding, whose two selections were separated by a solo clarinet performance by Jérôme Voisin. The concert took place this past June 18 and was captured on video on a Web page created by the ARTE television channel in France.

The string players were deployed across the generous space that the stage afforded. Nevertheless, there were still pairs of musicians sharing a single stand. Presumably, the performance was preceded by some level of testing. Voisin was the most “socially distanced” performer, playing his solo up in the audience terrace section above and behind the stage.

The two string selections were both composed in the same decade but could not have been more distinctively different. The program began with the music that Igor Stravinsky composed for the ballet “Apollo.” As was discussed on this site this past May, George Balanchine created the ballet “Apollo” for the Ballets Russes, which first performed it in Paris in 1928. Stravinsky had begun work on the score in 1927. The concluding offering was Alban Berg’s arrangement of the second, third, and fourth movements from his Lyric Suite, which he composed for string quartet between 1925 and 1926. The string ensemble version was composed in 1928.

Given my “deep dive” into Balanchine’s choreography in May, it was not difficult for me to see at least a rough approximation of the ballet “in the mind’s eye.” Harding’s conducting left me with the impression that he, too, had seen the ballet performed and assigned tempos to each of the sections that would have been appropriate for dancing. Nevertheless, the camera work for this concert was particularly informative in calling out the many different solo passages in the score. (Most ballet lovers are probably only aware of the extended violin solo that depicts Apollo’s first experience in making music at the beginning of the ballet’s second tableau.) Indeed, thanks to the well-conceived approach to video capture, the attentive listener could appreciate just how the interleaving of the instrumental parts complemented Balanchine’s choreography, particularly where it involves Apollo’s interactions with the three muses.

While the performance of Stravinsky’s score can provide a new perspective of how he first worked with Balanchine, I do not find the string orchestra arrangement of the Lyric Suite movements equally informative. Most importantly, the quartet version has an overall architecture that was clearly well considered. Here are the tempo markings for the original six movements:
  1. Allegretto gioviale
  2. Andante amoroso
  3. Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico
  4. Adagio appassionato
  5. Presto delirando – Tenebroso
  6. Largo desolato
What should be immediately apparent is the strict alternation between fast and slow movements. However, when one unpacks the qualifiers, one discovers that the fast movements keep getting not just faster but more frenetic (from jovial to delirious), while the slow movements keep getting slower and more despondent (from amorous to desolate).

Whether or not that architecture was intended to reflect the different facets of the illicit relationship Berg supposedly had while writing the suite, the “landscape of mood shifts” is distinctively lost when the second, third, and fourth movements are “Untimely ripp’d” from the “dispositional architecture” of the original score. Nevertheless, Harding and his ensemble had to play with the cards that had been dealt. For the most part, they gave a clear and expressive account of those three movements. Here, again, the attentive listener could appreciate that there were as many subtle variations in texture as those encountered in the “Apollo” score (making this one of those rare occasions in which Stravinsky and Berg can share a single sentence with a positive connotation).

Clarinetist Jérôme Voisin playing the Messiaen selection (screen shot from the video being discussed)

The “intermezzo” that Voisin performed between these two selections was “Abîme des oiseaux” (abyss of birds), from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time). As many readers probably already know, Messiaen wrote this composition while a prisoner of war at Stalag VIII-A in Nazi-held Görlitz during World War II. The quartet players were clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire, cellist Étienne Pasquier, and Messiaen himself at the piano. Messiaen began by working on “Abîme des oiseaux,” the third movement of an eight-movement score, consulting closely with Akoka to learn more about his clarinet technique.

One might argue that “Abîme des oiseaux” is as much out of content as the three Lyric Suite movements that Berg arranged for string ensemble. However, to the extent that it was the seed from which the entire quartet grew, the context is decidedly different from that of the Berg selection. Indeed, the clarinet solo is practically long enough to serve as a composition unto itself. The music itself presents Messiaen at his most expressive, while also informing the listener about how the composer was influenced by the sounds of birds and other natural settings. In addition, there was a poignancy in Voisin’s solitude up there in the terrace that seemed an appropriate context for Messiaen’s own description of this movement in terms of sadness and loneliness.

The Web page created for this concert is supposed to remain in place through June 17, 2022. This performance is a journey well worth taking. However, given the context in which it took place, it may well deserve viewing sooner, rather than later.

SFO Announces New Video Streams for July

Yesterday San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced the two operas that will be released this month through the Opera is ON streaming process. As with the previous offerings, each will become available on Saturday at 10 a.m.; and free access will expire and the end of the following day. Each video will then be added to the archive available to subscribers and those that have donated $75 or more. Specifics for the two new offerings are as follows:

July 18: The first offering will revisit the production of Gioachino Rossini’s imaginative retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale, La Cenerentola. The video was captured during the Fall 2014 season. This was very much an “all hands” occasion, beginning with the attention that Jesús López-Cobos brought to the orchestra pit, not only with his chemistry for both pit and stage but also through a variety of innovative techniques for deploying the instruments themselves. His command of the ensemble was further complemented by Chorus Director Ian Robertson’s preparation of the all-male chorus. Staging was by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, directed by Gregory Fortner. All participating vocalists gave sparkling accounts of their respective parts: mezzo Karine Deshayes in the title role, tenor René Barbera as Prince Ramiro, baritone Efraín Solís as the Prince’s valet Dandini, bass-baritone Carlos Chausson as the heroine’s stepfather Don Magnifico, soprano Maria Valdes and mezzo Zanda Švēde as his daughters Clorinda and Tisbe, respectively, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the Prince’s tutor Alidoro.

July 25: The second presentation will be a 2010 performance of Leoš Janáček’s engagingly bizarre opera Věc Makropulos, usually translated into English as The Makropulos Affair. The staging was created by Oliver Tambosi for a co-production with the Finnish National Opera. SFO had presented the American premiere of this opera (first performed in Brno on December 18, 1926) in 1966. That performance was sung in English, but Tambosi’s was sung in the original Czech. The conductor was Jiří Bělohlávek, and the leading role of Emilia Marty was sung by Karita Mattila. The other key roles were taken by tenor Miro Dvorsky as Albert Gregor, bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski as Baron Jaroslav Prus, and bass-baritone Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenatý.

Access to free streaming is enabled through the SFO home page. For those interested in viewing any of the Opera is ON productions after free access has been terminated, there is a log-in Web page for donors and subscribers. There is also a Web page for those interested in becoming donors in order to benefit from full access to all available videos.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

George Balanchine’s “Serenade” on YouTube

This morning I realized that so many of the articles I have been writing since the launch of the “Digital Spring Season” of the New York City Ballet have made reference to George Balanchine’s “Serenade” that I really owe readers a pointer to a video document of this ballet. It would not surprise me to learn that more has been written about “Serenade” than about any other ballet in the Balanchine canon. From my own point of view, it was among the first (if not the first) of the Balanchine ballets that I saw in performance, dating all the way back to my undergraduate days, when I saw it performed by the Boston Ballet.

One likely reason for the sheer volume of writings about “Serenade” is that it was the very first ballet that Balanchine created in the United States. More importantly, as all those previous references to “Serenade” indicate, it served as a foundation upon which Balanchine would create subsequent “abstract” ballets. That modifier “abstract” refers heavily to the extent to which Balanchine would begin to create a new ballet by thoroughly studying the score of the music he planned to use and then creating a piano reduction of that score. Some might think that “abstract” also entailed a lack of narrative. While it is probably true that most of Balanchine’s musical selections were not based on narrative (like tone poems), elements of narrative emerge in the final movement of “Serenade,” even if the overall scheme is an abstract one.

The music behind “Serenade” is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 in C major, which he called “Serenade for Strings.” The composition is in four movements, opening with a conventional sonata-form structure. The next two movements are titled “Valse” and “Élégie;” and the final movement is an orchestral account of a Russian theme.

The dancer that arrives late at the conclusion of the first movement of “Serenade” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

There is a sense that Balanchine will willing to “let things happen” while working with Tchaikovsky’s score. Thus, when he was rehearsing the first movement, one of the dancers was late and basically walked in and joined the corps while they were executing Balanchine’s steps. Balanchine liked the effect and decided to keep it.

Similarly, during a rehearsal of the “Russian theme” movement, one of the dancers collapsed from exhaustion. Balanchine left her there, while all the other dancers departed. He then decided that the “Élégie” would switch places with the “Russian theme,” dealing with “what happened next” after the girl collapsed. “What happened next” turned out to provide the most narrative of the ballet’s four movements, dealing with the complexity of one male and three females. In the video that John Clifford uploaded, probably a digitization of a television program entitled Balanchine in America, the three females (Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, and Maria Calegari) are barely distinguishable. There may not be an explicit story behind the relationships among the four characters depicted by the choreography; but it is clear that narration is taking place, even if it is in an unfamiliar language.

Indeed, over the entire scope of the three preceding movements, there is virtually no sense of narration, probably because the individuals tend to be subordinated to the corps dancers. Furthermore, the “action” taking place in the corps emerges as an ongoing interplay between homophony and polyphony. It should surprise no one that such an interplay emerges in the music that Tchaikovsky wrote for the string ensemble. However, Balanchine seldom (if ever) mimics Tchaikovsky’s approaches to such interplay. Rather, he invents his own in ways that are consistently compatible with the flow of the music from the beginning to the conclusion of each of the four movements.

The resulting inventions are so prolific and so diverse that “Serenade” is one of those ballets in which the attentive viewer is likely to discover new caches of detail each time (s)he sees this ballet performed. Indeed, the ballet recently passed the 85th anniversary of its creation; and “old-timers” (myself included) are as likely to keep encountering fresh impressions as young dance students learning the choreography for the first time. Hopefully, that freshness will still be with audiences when the ballet approaches its centennial year.

Karajan on Decca: First Viennese School

from the Amazon.com Web page for the collection being discussed

Last Friday I filed my first account of the 35-CD Sony Classical release of recordings of pianist Peter Serkin entitled The Complete RCA Album Collection. That happened to be the day on which the latest anthology of recordings by conductor Herbert von Karajan on 33 CDs entitled The Complete Decca Recordings was released by Universal Music Group. As in the past I plan to take a piecemeal approach to both of these collections, writing separate articles guided primarily by eras of music history. (I also have a shorter anthology, which I shall probably add to this interleaving process; but that account will probably consist of only a single article.)

Those that have followed me for some time know that my enthusiasm for Karajan rarely rises above lukewarm. Nevertheless, his impact on the recording industry (not to mention how many performances he conducted before an audience) is too great to pretend that it does not exist. Indeed, I can even confess that there are performances that impress me more on follow-up listenings than they do with their first impressions. So, what I mean by “lukewarm” is that there are a relatively small number of Karajan recordings in my collection that I am likely to avoid for some time to come.

Still, the question remains of whether this new release has anything to offer other than “more of the same” encountered in previous anthologies. The answer is significantly affirmative, since the Decca release provide me with my first efforts to survey Karajan’s approaches to recording full-length opera performances in a repertoire that consists of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at one end and Giacomo Puccini at the other. In this context I shall begin with an account of the First Viennese School composers, including Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven along with Mozart.

The instrumental selections in this category are, to say the least, modest. Beethoven is represented only by his Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major, while both Mozart and Haydn are allotted two symphonies, both from their respective “late periods.” The Mozart symphonies are K. 550 in G minor and K. 551 (“Jupiter”) in C major; and those of Haydn are Hoboken I/103 (“Drumroll”) in E-flat major and Hoboken I/104 (“London”) in D major. The only opera in this category is Mozart’s K. 492, The Marriage of Figaro (and I have to say, as an aside, that I miss the opportunity to listen to Beethoven’s Opus 72 Fidelio in this collection, having heard Karajan’s impressive approach to this opera’s overture).

The recording sessions for K. 492 took place in April and May of 1978. This predates by a few years my own efforts to pay more attention to opera performances. My first subscription to the Metropolitan Opera began in the fall of 1981, and I greatly appreciated the following years during which I cultivated a broad knowledge based on staged performances of the opera repertoire. Nevertheless, by 1978 I had seen at least one video Figaro on PBS, and the impressions made by Hermann Prey’s account of the title role are about all I can remember form that experience.

Karajan’s Figaro on this recording is José van Dam, complemented by Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna. Their pairing is, in turn, complemented by Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the Countess Rosina Almaviva and Tom Krause as her philandering husband. The other particularly welcome name in the cast is Frederica von Stade in the role of Cherubino. (She now lives on the other side of the Bay in Alameda.)

Mozart’s score is given a complete account. (The arias for Marcellina and Basilio in the fourth act are frequently cut in performances.) Curiously, “Dove sono” precedes the sextet in which the details of Figaro’s parents are disclosed. If this was Karajan’s decision, then I applaud it, since it makes for a better flow of the overall narrative in the opera’s third act. What I miss, however, is what I often miss in opera recordings, vocal deliveries that disclose character traits underlying both the music and the words. This is particularly critical with all of the disguises behind the narrative of the fourth act. On the other hand, the respective arias for Figaro and Count Almaviva are delivered under Karajan’s direction in a context of underlying traits of the respective characters.

I also have a minor quibble with recording levels. The amplitude of all of the recitative sections is decidedly lower than the rest of the sections of the score. This may have something to do with not trying to amplify the harpsichord continuo performance by Konrad Leitner too much. It may also have to do with the fact that most listeners are not interested in the recitative sections and just want to get on with the “real music.” Given how much of the narrative is disclosed in recitative form, I feel that the decision to drop the volume for them tends to undermine the narrative itself.

Whatever its shortcomings, K. 492 is the most satisfying of the First Viennese School offerings in this collection. The symphonies of both Mozart and Haydn are given “business as usual” treatment; and the Beethoven account is not much more compelling. The orchestra for all of these selections (including the opera) is the Vienna Philharmonic, which is certainly a well-disciplined ensemble. However, in terms of available recordings, there is a lot of competition for all five of the symphonies that Karajan conducts; and my personal tastes tend to go for one of the competitors for each of these pieces.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Ballet at its Most Structurally Sophisticated

Ever since my disappointment that the “Digital Spring Season” of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) accounted for George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” by performing only the “Phlegmatic” movement, I have been craving to account for this ballet in its entirety. A month and a half later I have finally found the opportunity to do so. Now my problem is one of offering a viable report without devolving into excessive enthusiasm. Thus, I would like to begin by setting context with an old joke I picked up in my student days:

An elementary school teacher decided that it was time for her pupils to try writing book reports. Each pupil was given different book. The assignment was to read the book and then write a paper that summarized the pupil’s thoughts about the book. One pupil handed in a sheet of paper on which only a single sentence was written:
This book told me more about penguins than I would ever want to know.
The joke actually has a parallel in higher mathematics. During my studies as a mathematics major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it seems as if every bookshelf I encountered had a copy of the Princeton University Press monograph Symmetry by Hermann Weyl. I thought it might be a fun read, particularly since it had a gallery of photographs illustrating different types of symmetry. Instead, it was a deep dive into Weyl’s specialty, abstract group theory; and it turned out to be one of the most challenging volumes I ever encountered. It did not take me long to avoid feeling that Weyl was telling me more about symmetry than I would ever want to know!

My guess is that Balanchine never heard of either Weyl or group theory as a branch of mathematics. Since “The Four Temperaments” was created in 1946, he certainly did not know about Weyl’s book, which was not published until 1952. Nevertheless, one might say that, in creating “The Four Temperaments,” Balanchine took his own deep dive into the many varieties of symmetry. Furthermore, the music he commissioned from Paul Hindemith, consisting of a theme and four variations for piano and string orchestra, served up its own elaborately interwoven structures and reflections.

Indeed, the structures in Balanchine’s choreography are best appreciated by first recognizing the musical structures that Hindemith provided him. To call this simply a “Theme and Four Variations” (which appears on the title page of the score) is to ignore how much more there is to the music’s structure. The theme itself is in three sections, each with its own distinctive melodic content. The first section is played by the strings, the second taken as a piano solo, and the third bringing together the full ensemble. That tripartite structure is then reflected in each of the “temperaments” variations: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric.

This symmetry of structure within structure is then reflected in the resources Balanchine assigns to the individual elements. Each of the three sections of the theme features duo work by a female and a male dancer. The second of the temperaments (sanguine) features a similar coupling. The other three involve solos, male for melancholic and phlegmatic and female for choleric. These solo and duo performances are then embedded into a wide variety of different approaches to establishing context with different combinations of corps dancers.

Readers may now see why I chose to begin with that penguin anecdote. I suspect that, by this time, many readers may feel that, in “The Four Temperaments,” Balanchine served up more thoughts about choreography and structure than one might ever want to know. Nevertheless, I encourage all those that have read this far to check out John Clifford’s YouTube upload of a 1964 Canadian film of NYCB performing “The Four Temperaments.” If there is any shortcoming in this film, it is the absence of cues that let the reader know which temperament the viewer is seeing at what time.

The only text Clifford provides accounts for the solo dancers for each of the three sections of the theme and each of the temperaments themselves. It would have been helpful if he had put in the time-stamp for each of those seven divisions. (If he ever reads this, perhaps he will take the trouble to update his site.) However, the contrasts that separate both the theme sections and those temperaments have been very well defined in Balanchine’s choreography. The only thing missing in Clifford’s summary is citation of the coda for the entire ballet, in which pretty much all of the choreographic motifs are brought together on the stage at the same time, providing a visual impression not unlike a view of the interconnections of the gears and springs in a pocket watch.

Beginning of the coda of “The Four Temperaments” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Nevertheless, I should conclude by making it clear that this is no mere “choreographic machine.” All the soloists that have been named by Clifford bring a compellingly rich sense of humanity to Balanchine’s choreography. There is as much sense of a “human drama” unfolding in “The Four Temperaments” as there is in the poignancy of “Serenade.” Indeed, any viewer interested enough to revisit this video from time to time may well discover that, with each viewing, (s)he is more inclined to feel both wonderment and a lump in the throat during the ballet’s extraordinary coda.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Disappointing “All Balanchine” Video

This past Monday Lincoln Center At Home released its latest YouTube video, entitled All Balanchine. Readers may have observed that there was much to keep me busy this past week, so this morning provided my first opportunity to check out this offering. The YouTube site will be active until July 14, so there is still plenty of time for readers to decide whether or not they agree with my opinions!

Unless I am mistaken all of the All Balanchine content comes from PBS programs of performances by the New York City Ballet (NYCB). The video begins with three highlights from the Balanchine 100 Centennial Celebration program, which was broadcast in 2004. These are followed by the third (and final) act of the full-length ballet Coppélia in the version that Balanchine created in partnership with his former (the second) wife Alexandra Danilova, which was broadcast on PBS in 1978.

Because watching All Balanchine turned out to be far more disappointing than I had anticipated, I feel obliged to follow the lead-with-what-you-liked rule. Since that experience came near the end of the entire program, readers may appreciate how much impact it had in reviving my interest! The performance in question was the pas de deux for the leading characters of the Coppélia scenario, Swanhilda and Franz, who are married by the village mayor at the very beginning of the act. The dancers were Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson, for whom the roles were originally created; and, to set the record straight, the entire third act of this production was choreographed by Balanchine himself.

When I examine his repertoire, I find it relatively easy to come away with the impression that Balanchine never particularly liked full-evening narrative ballets. (The closest he ever got to Swan Lake was his own take on the second act, which is frequently performed on its own.) Thus, it may well be that the Coppélia grand pas de deux provided the best opportunity for a virtuoso display of elegant abstractions that rises above all the trappings of narrative that surround it. McBride and Tomasson had no trouble dispensing with any of the personality traits of their respective roles. Instead, they let Balanchine be Balanchine; and the result was an oasis in a parched desert of banalities.

To be fair, however, the overall context for that pas de deux was disconcertingly sold short by the video production team. I had the good fortune to see this Coppélia in the New York State Theater in 1974, during the first season in which it was performed. Whatever the shortcomings may have been, the production, taken in its entirety, was a visual feast; and the third act amounted to a rich dessert course beyond my wildest dreams. The act itself is often known as the “Festival of the Bells;” and a rich array of bells hung over the entire stage. These proved to be a source of wit, since each bell had its own inscription, inviting the viewer to decode each of the strings of initial letters. As might be guessed, the camera work never captured this level of detail, probably because the video team decided that they were not even going to try to do justice to this humorous gesture.

This is where I lead the reader into the slough of dissatisfaction, since poor decisions behind the video capture tended to undermine whatever virtues the rest of the program had to offer. The most egregious error was in the Centennial Celebration part of the program. It involved the appearance of Wynton Marsalis as guest artist during the performance of “The Man I Love” from Balanchine’s “Gershwin ballet” “Who Cares?,” which was seen in its entirety at the beginning of this month in another Lincoln Center at Home offering. There were too many occasions when the camera preferred to dwell of Marsalis, rather than the pas de deux being danced by Alexandra Ansanelli and Nilas Martins. Mind you, this was a matter of adding insult to injury, since Marsalis took such extensive liberties with the rhythms of this particular Gershwin song that it was a wonder that these two dancers could do justice to Balanchine’s choreography as well as they did.

The most satisfying Centennial offering was the second movement of “Concerto Barocco,” a ballet that interested me so much that, on June 17, I wrote a piece about a film of this ballet that John Clifford had uploaded to YouTube. The entire ballet was set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1043 concerto for two violins in D minor, whose second movement has a Largo ma non tanto tempo. Balanchine conceived this as a pas de deux “embedded” in ensemble dancing, associating each of the two dancers with one of the violins. The duo work was elegantly executed by Maria Kowroski and James Fayette. However, it is worth observing that the elegance of their execution may well have been motivated by the equally elegant violin performances of the two Juilliard students recruited for this occasion, Gil Shaham and his wife Adele Anthony.

The remaining offering was another work that I had previously seen at the New York State Theater, “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.” The title refers to the orchestration that Arnold Schoenberg composed for Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor. Balanchine was clearly fascinated with Schoenberg over the course of his career; and the original plan for Jewels apparently included a “Sapphire” movement, which would have been based on Schoenberg’s music. Where Brahms is concerned, Balanchine had created “Liebeslieder Walzer,” setting music from the composer’s Opus 52 and Opus 65 and having the dancers share the stage with the vocal quartet and two pianists. That ballet was first performed in 1960, and “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was first performed in 1966.

I have to confess that my first encounter with this ballet left me more than a little perplexed. I knew about Schoenberg’s orchestration, but I had never heard it performed. For that matter, I was entirely unfamiliar with the Brahms source, as was the case where most of his chamber music involved during the Sixties. The only movement that registered with me in the choreography was the concluding “Rondo alla zingarese” (gypsy rondo). This involved a corps of sixteen gypsies (eight women and eight men), led by soloists, Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise in the debut performance.

Wendy Whelan and Damian Woetzel in “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Fortunately, I was able to watch the Centennial video with much richer background of both Brahms and Schoenberg. Only that final movement was performed on the video, and I came away with the impression that there was too much sameness in Balanchine’s lexicon for this particular piece. The leading parts were taken by Wendy Whelan and Damian Woetzel. They tended to bring more energy to their parts than the ensemble ever mustered. However, Farrell and d’Amboise (particularly the latter) were not shy in suggesting that Schoenberg was having more than a little fun in his innovative approach to arranging Brahms, while the Centennial video seemed to come across with more of a sense of business-as-usual.

One of the impressions that has emerged since I started writing at length about Balanchine at the beginning of the NYCB “Digital Spring Season” is that, in the “post-Balanchine” world, there is considerable variation in the interpretation of his work, even under NYCB auspices. All Balanchine emerges as a profile of just how wide that variation is. Sadly, it feels as if the liabilities are overtaking the assets, if they have not already done so.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Video Cannot Capture Boussard’s Grandeur

A week ago I wrote about my first experience with Opera is ON, the streaming video service of the San Francisco Opera that presents a video of a past production over the course of the weekend. The opera on that occasion was Richard Strauss’ “Salome;" and the video direction by Frank Zamacona made it clear that skilled camera-work could capture details that might be missed from even the best seat in the War Memorial Opera House. Sadly, this weekend’s offering was more disappointing.

Michael Fabiano as the Chevalier des Grieux and Ellie Dehn as Manon Lescaut (courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

The opera was Jules Massenet’s Manon, which was performed in November of 2017. The staging by Vincent Boussard presented abstraction, rather than realism; and it was probably more memorable than Massenet’s score, even when both vocal and instrumental performers were clearly up to snuff. However, where the video work, again by Zamacona, was concerned, Boussard’s staging tended to make use of the entire space, not only as a visual setting but also as a locus for multiple levels of activities by the characters of the narrative.

Zamacona was thus faced with the problem of having to show either too much or too little, and neither alternative made for particularly satisfying video viewing. Add to that a strong preference for low lighting in many of the scenes; and it was clear that this was a production for sitting in the Opera House, rather than sitting in front of a small screen. One could, of course, fall back on closing one’s eyes and simply enjoying the music; and the conducting by Patrick Fournillier could certainly hold up to such listening. Nevertheless, while Massenet could be a master of orchestral sonorities, he was not always up to the same standard when it came to vocal demands, whether the issue was thematic material or appropriately expressive delivery.

Sometimes, it really is the case that “you had to be there!”

O1C Concludes Month with Cornelius Boots Solos

Cornelius Boots with one of the many shakuhachis made for him (from the O1C Web page for last night’s concert)

Last night Old First Concerts (O1C) wrapped up its live-streamed series of solo recitals for the month of June. The recitalist was shakuhachi master Cornelius Boots. Readers may recall that I singled him out as one of the leading performers at SF Music Day 2019 last October. On that occasion he led his Heavy Roots Shakuhachi Ensemble, whose repertoire extends far beyond the traditional Japanese music usually associated with the instrument. Boots himself specializes in the taimu (bass) shakuhachi; but, for last night’s recital, he played several different instruments in a variety of sizes.

Many of his selections were either his own compositions or arrangements that he had prepared. Most of those arrangements, in turn, were imaginative reflections on some of the more adventurous post-bop jazz composers; and one was inspired by Jimi Hendrix. The Hendrix selection closed out the program of ten selections. This was his own unique interpretation of “Hey Joe,” whose authorship has been contested but which was copyrighted by Billy Roberts. There was little sense of acid rock in Boots’ delivery, but the sense of soulful rhetoric was unmistakable.

The jazz selections were taken from the “dynamic duo” that flourished in the Sixties, saxophonists Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, both of whom died in that decade. Dolphy had a particularly wide command of the wind family, adding flute and both B-flat and bass clarinets to his alto saxophone work. Coltrane, in turn, extended his mastery of the tenor saxophone to include also the soprano saxophone. The Coltrane selection was “Wise One,” while Dolphy was represented with “Serene.” That piece was followed by Boots’ own “Mandrake Walks,” which he dedicated in memory of Dolphy.

There was much to be gained in listening to the diversity of sonorities and styles that Boots could elicit from his collection of instruments. Unfortunately, too much of his time was occupied with spoken explanations. He clearly had much to offer by way of useful background; but, just as clearly, he was not particularly comfortable with speaking to an audience that was not physically present. At SF Music Day the music spoke for itself, requiring little by way of introduction; and I, for one, would have appreciated more time being allotted to the music itself.

The performance took place in Boots’ own studio, which he calls “The Barn.” Sadly, the technology left much to be desired. Most critically, there was a wide gap of failed synchronization between the audio signal and the video images. For the most part, the best way to appreciate Boots’ performance was to avoid looking at the screen, which provided unnecessary distraction. O1C still has a way to go in establishing a solid command of live-streaming technology; but, in times like these, they still deserve credit for trying.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Sony Classical Releases Peter Serkin Collection

Between writing about recorded music and video documents of both ballet and modern dance, I have not had trouble keeping myself busy in the absence of opportunities to attend performances due to “Shelter in Place” conditions that have now been around for more than three months. Where recordings are concerned, I maintain a queue that is ordered roughly on a first-in-first-out basis. Ironically, I found myself reflecting at the beginning of this week that the queue seemed to be getting slimmer than usual, followed by the arrival of two significant anthology releases two days ago. One of these is a 35-CD Sony Classical release of recordings of pianist Peter Serkin entitled The Complete RCA Album Collection. The second is the latest anthology of recordings by conductor Herbert von Karajan on 33 CDs entitled The Complete Decca Recordings.

As usual, I do not intended to provide a “whole-cloth” encounter of either of these collections. Instead, regardless of how the CDs are ordered in their respective boxes, I set about to divide each release into what, in my previously life in the world of information technology, we tended to call “mind-sized chunks.” As in the past I was guided by the ways in which music history tends to get divided into periods, but the categories themselves differ for the two collections. Thus, while the nineteenth century accounted for a single, relatively small collection in the Serkin anthology, it had to be further divided into instrumental music and opera for Karajan (which should not surprise anyone).

from the Amazon.com Web page for the collection begin discussed

With that as my methodological background, I shall devote this article to the Serkin recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in The Complete RCA Album Collection. In the interest of “truth in advertising,” however, I should begin by observing that the last two of these CDs were released by Columbia, rather than RCA, giving them the same sort of “bonus” status that I attributed to the album of pianist Leon Fleisher included at the end of the Sony Classical box set of recordings released under support by the Fromm Foundation. Those Columbia recordings have enough historical significance that one really cannot quibble with their being included in this Serkin anthology.

The Bach recordings, in turn, can be divided into solo keyboard music and ensemble compositions. Across the entire collection one encounters Serkin playing both piano and harpsichord, but his harpsichord work is limited to playing continuo for four of the ensemble compositions. In other words all of the solo recordings were made with a piano.

While I suspect that advocates for historically-informed practices are already raising their collective eyebrows, I think it is worth examining which of the solo keyboard music compositions Serkin selected. Almost all of them were published in the last three of the four volumes that Bach entitled Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercise). In other words this was music written for pedagogical purposes, and the pedagogical intentions behind the study of piano technique today do not differ that significantly from Bach’s approaches to pedagogy in the early eighteenth century.

In order of publication, Serkin’s selections are the following:
  • The “Italian Concerto” (BWV 971 in F major) from the second volume
  • The “four duets” (BWV 802–805) from the third volume, the only one of the volumes intended for organ study
  • The BWV 988 “Goldberg Variations” from the fourth volume
The only other selection was also written for pedagogical purpose, the BWV 772–801 short pieces generally called the Inventions and Sinfonias. In other words Serkin chose to focus primarily on compositions that serve to document Bach’s approach to teaching his students (some of whom were his sons), which, as been often noted previously on this site, involve both technical proficiency and expressive interpretation.

Indeed, the extent to which Serkin was honoring Bach’s intentions can be found in the fact that he made two different recordings of BWV 988, the first in 1965, the year of his graduation from the Curtis Institute of Music (where his father Rudolf taught), and the second in 1994. My guess is that many readers will leap to recalling that Glenn Gould did the same thing, making his first recording in 1955 and the second in 1981. At the risk of ruffling too many feathers, all I can say is that I have never listened to a Gould recording that was not all about Gould, while both of Serkin’s approaches to BWV 988 show more respect for Bach-the-pedagogue. The fact is that all of these solo piano recordings have much to offer anyone interested in approaching the music of Bach on a modern keyboard instrument.

All of the ensemble recordings, on the other hand, involve the participation of both Serkins in the Marlboro Music School and Festival. The music school was launched in Marlboro, Vermont in July of 1950 by Rudolf and his father-in-law Adolf Busch. The following year both of them turned down an invitation to the Edinburgh International Festival in favor of launching their own festival, which is still going strong and will hopefully continue to do so in spite of current medical conditions.

Marlboro has become significant enough to enjoy the participation of major musicians on a global scale. Thus, on the third CD in the collection, Peter shares the spotlight with both his father and Mieczysław Horszowski (one of Peter’s teachers at Curtis) in a performance of Bach’s BWV 1064 concerto in C major, originally scored for three harpsichords, string ensemble, and continuo. All three soloists played pianos, and the conductor was Alexander Schneider.

This performance took place in July of 1964. Regular readers probably know by now that I like to speculate that this music figured in the weekly Collegium Musicum performances that took place at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig. Basically, these amounted to an eighteenth-century approach to jamming among musicians familiar enough with each other to “play with the music,” rather than just “play the music.” Sadly, there is little sense of such jamming on this RCA recording, leading me to wonder how much, if any, of that spirit came across to those in the Marlboro audience when this performance was recorded.

The other Marlboro recordings were also made in July of 1964, but these were the the Columbia releases included at the end of the collection. They account for all six of the “Brandenburg” concertos (BWV 1046–1051). The concerts themselves were probably a “major draw,” since the conductor was Pablo Casals. Peter provided harpsichord continuo for four of the concertos. He played piano for the last two movements of BWV 1049 in G major, having just flown in from the Ravinia Festival, arriving too late for the first movement, which was covered by his father Rudolf, who was also the pianist for BWV 1050 in D major.

Casals is clearly the “draw” for these recordings. However, here, again, there is little sense of “jamming among friends.” To be fair, this is often the case when a performance is more about the performers than about the music; and, for what it is worth, Casals is still at the top of my list of preferences for recordings of the solo cello suites (BWV 1007–1012). Nevertheless, I would say that there is too much in any of the Brandenburg recordings that I would call “squirm-inducing;” and my attention will probably continue to home in on Peter’s solo recordings.