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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

C'est Thais! Really?

As I continue my rush into decrepitude, I enjoy looking back and using opera recordings to cite benchmarks in my life.

I can find no such benchmark for the RCA Red Seal production of  Massenet's Thais, recorded in London in 1973 and published as a three LP set a year later.

What I do remember is the exhaustive PR campaign surrounding this release and the incredulity once the recording was released.

Thais has a luscious high calorie score by French composer, bon vivant and amour des femmes  Jules Massenet (1842-1912). It's based on a novel by the same title Anatole
France, published in 1890.

Thais is lovely Catholic porn, yummy to the abbes and their friends running around between holy orders in the Parisian Cafes. Even Notre Dame closed at night.  Le coupole never did.

A grande horizontale, a courtesan in first century C.E. Alexandria is rescued from her life of debauchery and spirited away to a convent in the desert by a crazed holy man called Athanel. There she dies peacefully, with vision of the deity and his/her angels while Athanel orgiastic ally confesses his own lust for her. Curtain.

What's not to love? We have Massenet with his velvet jackets, sophisticated tunes and atelier complete with sopranos Sybil Sanderson (from Sacramento, California) and Mary Garden (Aberdeen out of Chicopee, Massachusetts). Sybil became a celebrated Manon and created Massenet's Esclarmonde.
Sybil Sanderson as Thais
complete with divas

Thais was also a vehicle for La Sanderson, known for her dazzling upper range. F above high C was her party note. She was a beauty, and Thais fit with her reputation for gambling, booze and morphine. Sybil succumbed to all of these at the age of 38. Mary Garden, who thought Massenet made love like a slob, lived into her 90s.

Mary Garden as Thais

Today, Thais is best known for its lovely Meditation for violin and orchestra, played to the curtain between scenes 1 and 2 of the second act. The rest of the opera is every bit as beautiful. This ain't exactly Cosi fan Tutte or Carmen, but Thais has a rich orchestration, some colorful choral orgies (literally) and a superb final duet for soprano and baritone. In every way, Thais is stage worthy.

In my youth this was an onstage vehicle for Beverly Sills in late career.  It was a mistake.  The lady retained her stunning coloratura but by the late 1970s the long, elegant lines Massenet required were a memory.

Beverly got there second. Thais had lived on the edge of the repertoire and no closer for a generation leading up to the 1970s. It was then that RCA decided Anatole France's whore-nun was the perfect vehicle for American soprano Anna Moffo.

To be fair, Anna Moffo (1932-2006) had been a star for RCA Red Seal since the late 1950s. Check out her recordings of Rigoletto, La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Luisa Miller and La rondine and you'll hear lots to enjoy. She was a gorgeous woman. That's not much help on records, but Moffo recorded sexy. Her physical charms and dramatic gifts made her an audience favorite. Anna Moffo was the real deal.

In the late 1960s there was a high profile divorce and a very high profile courtship and marriage to Robert Sarnoff of the RCA family. Wags suggested that this marriage was responsible for the spate of Moffo recordings dating from this period, as her voice rapidly eroded.

(The Sarnoffs were happily married for 25 years until his death in 1996)

RCAs production of Thais meant to be a spectacular come back for a much loved diva in distress. How could this lose? If the lady needed careful editing, she'd get it. The rest of the cast was magnificent. The French baritone Gabriel Bacquier lent authenticity and a fine voice. Jose Carreras had a supporting role in this, this first major recording. The golden honey of that voice was a joy. Justino Diaz, still quite young but no slouch himself was cast along with an authoritative conductor,  Julius Rudel. The maestro;s production of Massenet's Manon with Beverly Sills remained a top tourist attraction in New York into the 1970s.

What happened? Magazines, newspapers and billboards everywhere carried a full length portrait of Anna Moffo in harem pants and Cleopatra wig hailing l'essence de Thais! RCA had her on the Merv Griffin-Mike Douglas talk show circuit. She flashed her engagement ring with its Volkswagen sized diamond. She was still lovely and everyone still loved her. There was little talk about Thais, or Massenet, or music, or opera (that's a shame, Anna Moffo was a Curtis trained musician) There were plenty of cheesecake photos, with a somewhat jowl-y lady. It wasn't even camp. It was tragic. And it was everywhere.

After the exhaustive and ridiculous PR campaign, RCA's recording of Thais, starring Anna Moffo, Gabriel Bacquier, Jose Carreras and Justino Diaz, conducted by Julius Rudel, was published with lurid cover art intact (To be fair the back of the  LP box had Miss Moffo costumed as a nun).

Eventually you had to listen to the records. The press was unmerciful. The PR assaults couldn't save a recording with a heroine whose performance was pieced together in bits of tape and over dubs. She crooned, she sighed and she shrieked. She rarely sang. The men were wonderful. But Thais with no soprano was like kissing your sister. This recording was not going to get you laid. Callas could get you laid. Tebaldi and Corelli could get you laid.  RCA's tug rag art stimulated no one.. 

Now in 2017, eleven years after her death, Anna Moffo's recording of Thais has been digitized for the first time and is back in circulation. The RCA catalog has reverted to SONY. I suspect no one at SONY has any idea of the history, controversy and sorrow of this recording. I'm sure its been digitally remastered and sounds better than ever. We can only hope the labored, desperate singing does not sound better than ever. Amazon calls this Moffo's "controversial" recording and adds, "Perhaps its time for a reassessment?"

I'm going to buy this. Even after all "that". I began to understand show business and fun house mirrors when this LP was new. The men sound great. Rudel was a wonderful conductor. I like Thais.
I've always loved Anna Moffo, a crush of my callow young manhood. Mowing lawn money bought me her recording of Madama Butterfly. She's in heaven now, hopefully forgiving us all for listening to Thais, and for even enjoying it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Columbus Symphony Klezmer Showcase Jan. 13-14

The Columbus Symphony presents A Klezmer Showcase, with David Krakauer, clarinet and conductor Rossen Milanov, Friday and Saturday, January 13 and 14 at 8 PM in the Southern Theater. 

Csardas from Ritter Pasman by Johann Strauss is on the program, along with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody 2. David Krakauer plays selections from Golijov's Dreams and Prayers of Issac the Blind, his own music and arrangements, and the Klezmer Concerto written for Krakauer by Wlad Marhulets.

Pre-concert interview with David Krakauer one hour before each concert.

Klezmer music, as understood by this elderly Irish boy from Boston, is the music if dance and the music of joy. It is the music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. There's an influence form the Romany people of Romania. It's music for weddings, for celebration and bolts of light in what ca be a nomadic existence in a loveless world.

I was thinking of this music when recently watching Sidney Lumet's 1960 TV production of The Dybbuk. I don't think there's much in the way of klezmer music to be heard, but the village celebrations, even as done in a cramped NYC TV studio over fifty years ago, shouted for joy. I wonder if there are parallels with the African-American spiritual. Joy coming out of sorrow. There's happiness and laughter in the klezmer music I've heard, but tears are never far away.

"Joy" seems to be the operative word. The term klezmer means 'instruments of music' ;kli means tool or utensil and zemer, making music, or the tools for making music.

Klezmer music came to this country via the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe . Its improvisation style made a connection American jazz inevitable. I often wonder just how much jazz, or klezmer music is truly improvised, of if part of the special talent to make this music involves making it sound completely spontaneous.

I'm saying "I wonder" a lot, because I don't know. I'm not doing a lot of reading up before these concerts. Instead, I'm listening to a lot of music I have not encountered before now.

David Krakauer will be joining the Columbus symphony this weekend. He's a clarinetist of such phenomenal technique that he can play anything. He's also a composer, and his on Synagogue Wail for Clarinet Solo is on the program

The clarinet was not an feature of the earliest klezmer music. Jews at the time were forbidden to play loud instruments. The violin was the dominant instrument, with added strings, a cymbalom, maybe a xylophone. By the 1850s the prohibition against loud instruments had been lifted-or people stopped caring-and the clarinet took its place as the voice of klezmer music. An instrument fully capable of tears and laughter.

We'll be meeting to composers at these concerts. Saad Haddad was born in Georgia in 1992 and raised in California. Manarah had its first performance on April 1, 2016, with the American Composer's Orchestra at Carnegie Hall conducted by George Manahan. The work is scored for two digitally processed antiphonal trumpets and orchestra.  I've heard it elsewhere. Manarah, indeed, makes a joyful noise.

We'll also hear a Klezmer Concerto by Wlad Marhulets. 
"Klezmer music came into my life when, as a sixteen year old living in Gdansk, Poland, my brother Damian brought home a CD by a band called Klezmer Madness, featuring the clarinetist David Krakauer. This was music that was so boldly Jewish,. so full of wild energy that a kind of madness enveloped my senses as I listened to it. And even though at the time I had high hopes of becoming a successful visual artist, I decided to become a musician on the spot."

Marhulets wrote his Klezmer Concerto for David Krakauer, who gave the premiere with the Detroit Symphony conducted by Andrew Litton on December 1, 2009.

The composer writes, "Numerous musicians combined klezmer with free jazz, hip-hop, drum and bass, concert and folk music. Hence, klezmer is not a distinct musical style but rather a mixture of multiple influences, It constantly evolves and reinvents itself."

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Columbus Symphony Russian Festival January 6 and 7 2017

The Columbus Symphony performs a suite from Prokofiev's Romero and Juliet, the 1947 edition of Stravinsky's Petrushka, and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D on Friday and Saturday January 6 and 7 in the Ohio Theater at 8 Pm.

Rossen Milanov conducts, with Elena Urioste, violin.

Pre concert talks one hour before each performance.

Most people enjoy their honeymoon. Tchaikovsky fled his. The composer married Antonia Miliukova on July 18, 1877. He described her as "a woman with whom I am not the least in love." Clearly, Tchaikovsky's was succumbing pressure to marry, and considered Miliukova little better than a stalker. Reminds me of my cousin Kathleen, who married her boyfriend of 20 years just to get rid of him. But that's another story.

Tchaikovsky fled Russia within weeks of this marriage. He never lived with his wife and seldom saw Kotek. The two enjoyed making music, and the latest hit from Paris, Lalo's Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra as a great favorite as the two passed the time playing music with Tchaikovsky working to recover his spirits.

her again. He went to Switzerland, where he was soon joined by his pupil, the young violinist Josef Kotek.

Dabbling with the Lalo work made Tchaikovsky admire his French colleague all the more, and led to a revealing comment: "It has a lot of freshness, lightness of piquant rhythms, of beautifully harmonized melodies. He, in the same way as as Leo Delibes and Bizet, does not strive after profundity, but he carefully avoids routine, seeks out many new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established tradition as do the Germans.

(That was me adding the bold type.)

This may be another way of saying that Schumann, Brahms and certainly Wagner were always in their music striving for more. Listeners were meant to be moved, charged and overwhelmed, to take the listening experience with them. There were expectations of the audience.  Tchaikovsky, like Verdi and Bizet was writing to music to uplift, yes, but also to entertain. They wanted to tell stories.

Josef Kotek (l) with Tchaikovsky
Sight reading Lalo;'s music with Kotek led to some discussion and finally a planned concerto for violin and orchestra, Tchaikovsky's first (and last). There was a first draft that became his popular Souvenir d'un lieu cher the title perhaps a reference to the comfort having young Kotek nearby.

The Violin Concerto in D was completed in 1880 and dedicated not to Kotek but to Leopold Auer. It was not a successful dedication. "I don't know whether Auer was flattered by my dedication, or that despite his sincere friendship for me, he never wanted to master the difficulties of this concerto, deemed it too difficult to play..."

(A dedication to the young Kotek, gifted he may have been , would not have guaranteed performances)

Auer thought the piece was poorly written. He disliked what he considered the slashing and banging required of the solo instrument against a rumbling and fiery orchestra. The premiere went to Adolf Brodsky, in 1881 in Vienna. The audience cheered and the critics raged. Eduard Hanslick,  then the most influential music journalist since Berlioz, nailed the coffin shut: " The violin was not played but beaten black and blue."

This concerto to me is a celebration, a joyous one, between the violin and orchestra. I hear little of matching tones, of playing musical catch. I do hear drama, and virtuosity and pure entertainment. This concerto dazzles and rages along, with a second movement that sings, leading straight into the finale.

The two ballet scores on this program, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Stravinsky's Petrushka give us music not to be heard but to be watched.

Romeo got Prokofiev into hot water with the soviet authorities and the literary world in general. He insisted the story should have a happy ending. Juliet would revive before Romeo takes poison, and rather than die graciously in each other's arms, they would dance off into the night. The composer was convinced that a tragic ending "could not be danced." " Live people can dance, but the dying can hardly be expected to dance in bed. " (Somewhere there is an opera where that happens, trust me)
The composer lost, at least with the ending. The young couple dies, graciously, but there;'s plenty of dancing throughout the two act spectacle.

As with Tchaikovsky's violin concerto being deem unplayable, so Prokofiev's music was decreed bloody well undanceable. The ballet's premiere was not in the Soviet Union, but in Czechoslovakia. Prokofiev had already fashioned three orchestral suites from the complete, two hour score. Still, it didn't do much for the Sophie author ties to have such a high profile premiere given outside of the Soviet Union. Romeo and Juliet  was introduced to Prokofiev's homeland at the Kirov Theater on January 10, 1940. The leads were f danced by Konstantin Sergeyev and Galina Ulanova

Petrushka brings us into Diaghilev territory. Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) was the consummate showman, impresario, spendthrift, charlatan and genius. He knew what the public wanted and he gave it to them. Sometimes he gave the public performances and music they didn't know they wanted, but by and large the public was convinced. His choreographers were Nijinsky, Fokine, and Massine. His designers were Picasso, Benois and Bakst. His composers were Satie, Myaskovksy, Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky. He was either rich or flat broke and never let a creditor get in his way. Diaghilev's Ballet Russes owned the world until his death, just after the market crash in 1929 (just in time?)

Petrushka is a Punch and Judy show complete with puppets, put on at a Shrovetide Fair. The puppets are the ballerina, the Moor and Petrushka himself. Petrushka loves the ballerina who loves the Moor, who opens a coconut and, convinced this is a God begins to worship...the coconut.

This doesn't keep the Moor from flirting with the ballerina.

Petrushka was first danced in the Theatre Chatelet in Paris on June 13, 1911. Diaghilev produced the premiere with the Ballet Russes, Nijinsky danced Petrushka, Michel Fokine was the choreographer and Alexandre Benois did the designs. Nijinsky was the star. Stravinsky, with his humorous blend of rhythm and color-he gives the ballerina a cornet!-made the first real sensation of what became a long career, and an influence in music and art equal to Mozart and Wagner.

By the way, the film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is on youtube, and is well worth a look, especially as it recreates the scandalous opening of The Rite of Spring