Friday, April 27, 2012

MET HD: Zachary Woolfe

Zachary Woolfe, -a marvelous writer on music-is discussing the Metropolitan opera's HD transmissions in the New York Times. The first installment in today's paper and if I knew how to post a link I would bloody well do it. Go to Part 2 next week. MEANWHILE, a few favorites from past seasons:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Nice Photos: They've Earned Their Rest

Dame Joan Sutherland's grave, in Clarens, Switzerland
HMMM. Here are a few more. The Irish in me: Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) Lilydale, Australia
Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) Baltimore
Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) Reggio Emilia, Italy
Franco Corelli (1921-2003) Cimitero Monumentale, Milan
Ezio Pinza (1892-1957) Greenwich, Connecticut
Beverly Sills (1929-2007) Valhalla, New York
Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976) Central Friedhof, Vienna
Salvatore Licitra (1968-2011) Lombadia, Italy
Anna Moffo (1932-2006) Valhalla, New York

Let's talk about opera

I hope a lot of folks will come here to talk about opwra: News, opinions, gossip, the works. Hearhear was kind enough to make this suggestion. HH also makes several wonderful points about the impact of the Met's HD series on local opera companies. The familiar mantra is , "Yes, but nothing beats a live performance seen in the theater." True. Best seats at he Met average $400.00. I grew up in standing room. $2 in my day. I loved it all. I may be too old to stand now, and I don't have $400. The HDs give me a perspective better than I was used to, but what we see in the cinema is not the same as what is seen (and heard!) in the opera house. What we see is largely up to the cameras and director. Still, I've often been impressed by reading the faces of the singers (especially the chorus) and noting their involvement in the drama. No faking that I could see. Especially in the Macbeth several seasons ago, with Maria Guleghina and Zeljko Lucic. A lot was done with the eyes. Does it hurt local opera?Maybe. It implies a false standard in that no regional company can compete with the Met'sopulene at its best. The public gets spoiled (I am) But if the Met is well experienced in HD, local opera gives a real sense of community that HD doesn't provide. People alive, together in one room, watching often young and spirited artists. The scenery may be sparse and the orchestra may be small, but again, I go to opera for commitment, the synthesis of words and music. Opera as theater. I want to laugh and cry at Marriage of Figaro, and be frightened at Scarpia's entrance. (TheMet's HD Tosca--awful. Scarpia dry humping statues of the Virgin Mary. Nuts) Let's find away to use the Met's HD presentations to stimulate audiences for local opera, rather than accepting to easily that the gawe is up for community-based performances. What do you

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Don't pee on my leg and tell me its raining

Judge Judy has a wonderful saying. "Don't pee on my leg and tell me its raining."

I thought of that while watching the recent Met Traviata in HD.

I liked Natalie Dessay's passion and commitment. I think she is an important, honest artist. I like Matthew Polenzani's singing. Why he had to be made up to look like a woman beats me. Hvorostovsky, my God that's a beautiful voice, magnificent, but a little emotion or connection to the story would have been nice. Hvorstovsky is peerless in Russian art song, and as Onegin and Yeletsky. He'd be a splendid Figaro in Barbiere, Count in Nozze di Figaro-maybe even Golaud. But he lacks the sheer vocal mass to be a Verdi baritone. He is the Met's go-to boychik these days for Verdi-as Marcello Giordani is for the tenors. Nice, ringing, loud enough but coarse and no personality.

Is there anything worse than old farts like me bitching about how everything was better in days gone by? Look, I think opera is healthier now. We are getting a lot of new works and they are being given a chance. Dessay is one of several artists who dig into the music. But only a few revel in singing-in the musical line. Only a few base their performances of the music ON the music. Florez, Lawrence Brownlee (we need more of him) Joyce DiDonato, Gerard Finley, Terfel. And yes there are magnificent voices today: Stephanie Blythe, Bryn Terfel, Rene Pape, Eric Owens, Morris Robinson (more! more!) Diana Damrau.

But the stagings are dull. My God, did the France of Manon have to look so dreary? Piotr Beczala is one of my favorites and he didn't disappoint. Netrebko was sexy and glamorous but if you look into her eyes on the big screen there's not much going on. (Go to youtube and watch Beverly Sills sing 'Adieu, notre petite table) Anna Bolena's Tudor London looked overcast-Anna looked great but did it rain every day in May of 1536? Why not open up the stage like a flower with light!

(Damned if I know why there was a bed in church)

When you stage the Ring with a machine having little to do with the story, and said machine gets all the publicity, well...

I'm basing my remarks on HD presentations. It might be sunshine city in the house. I don't know. But it feels like the HD audience is what the Met is aiming at these days.

Stop putting on these empty staged productions and saying they are 'new modern retelling.' They are done to save drachmas. I don't care if it's Salzburg, New York or Columbus,  Ohio. You can't fool the public. I like pretty people as much as the next guy. A lot of our pretty singers sing very well indeed. But they are not the great voiced monstres sacrees who could burn the stage down with their voices. Thomas Hampson is a great artist but as Macbeth? Iago? Roberto Alagna is wonderful in French opera, but Radames? C'mon. And why did Violeta Urmana squall her way through all those Aidas with Latonia Moore as her cover. It should be the other way around thank you very much. At least the current Aida has a damned sphinx.

I'm waiting for the Rat pack Rigoletto-60s Vegas is probably cheaper than 15th century Mantua. Photos show the Rigoletto and Ballo costumes are interchangeable. Dry cleaning bills must be less than separate costumes.

And another thing! What's with the short careers? Think-who is still singing well today that you first heard in 1980?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I heard Maria Callas in Boston, February 27, 1974

I was seventeen when I heard Maria Callas in Boston's Symphony Hall, on February 27, 1974. She appeared on the American 'leg' of a world concert tour she undertook with tenor Giuseppe DiStefano and pianist Robert Sutherland.

Callas had not sung in public for eight years when the tour began, in Germany, in the fall of 1973. She remained a potent figure in opera. Her on again off again liaison with Aristotle Onassis, begun in 1959, was fodder to the press before and after that gentleman's marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy.

Early reports of the European concerts weren't promising. Callas and DiStefano had each been in
glorious voice twenty years earlier. They sang and recorded together in Chicago, Milan, Rome, Mexico City and throughout Europe. Di Stefano was a very handsome man with an open, thrilling voice-and no discipline. Callas was highly disciplined with a voice that began to slip away early. Nerves? Weight loss? Burn out? I don't think we'll ever know. By 1965 she was acting up a storm and singing carefully (and rarely), DiStefano continued to appear, but the tone and ring of his voice were gone.

What did people expect in 1973? It must have been daunting, having to compete only with your younger self. By the time the duo came to the States, there had been months of rows, cancellations, aborted performances and cheers, cheers, cheers. The first Carnegie Hall concert was cancelled at the last minute. The crowd had jammed into the Carnegie lobby and spilled out onto 57th St.

Then came Boston.

Tickets went on sale just after Christmas. I cut school that day and took the Mass. Ave bus to Symphony Hall to be there when the box office opened at 9 a.m. I got there around 8.30. There were no mobs of eager ticket buyers. People stood outside for four days to get standing room for Callas' last Tosca at the Met in 1965. Not any more. I was probably tenth in line and I was on my way before 10 a.m. (Did I go back to school? Are you kidding?)

The top ticket price was $25.00. You won't believe it today but in 1974 that was unheard of. The best seats in Lincoln Center were $17.50. NOBODY paid $25.00 for a Boston Symphony concert, great as they were. (If you got $5 for cutting a neighbor's lawn, you were rich.)

The weeks went by with my tickets burring into my bureau. (I got a week's detention for cutting school and spent it reading George Jellinek's biography of Callas. Maria never became my friend but many years later George Jellinek did) The press said DiStefano was screaming or crooning like a pig and that Callas was terrified, unsure and had no voice.

On February 27 I got to Symphony Hall early. I told the lady next to me I had been sick to my stomach from nerves all week. She had too! And people around us were nodding in agreement! Callas was nervous and her audience was petrified in anticipation.

The announcement came that while Callas was in the Hall and would perform, DiStefano was not and would not. No one cared. ("Callas said later, 'he abandoned me in Kennedy country')

A Greek pianist called Vasso Devitzi would play some Chopin and Schumann between Maria's arias. Then the lights went down and she came out.

Okay its not Boston but you get the idea.
She began to speak to the audience, apologizing for being nervous. "I hope everything will go well." She said, 'Can you hear me?'

NO! People yelled back, but applause and shouts of encouragement went out again and again. She had a large, radiant smile that lit up her eyes. "You are a marvelous audience. Thank you."

She began with 'Suicidio' from La Gioconda, the opera of her first break in 1947. After the first four notes there was a buzz in the Hall. All of the color was there. The timbre was there. What had made Callas was still Callas. The aria had been transposed down but in this piece it didn't matter. She growled, she cried, she sang and the excitement was incredible.

She gave us 'Vissi d'arte'. Not so good. 'Voi lo sapete". Better. It became apparent that Callas had retained low notes and even some above the staff. But from I'd day the G above middle C to the D above-the fifth-there as no voice at all. The voice had separated and the middle was gone. Exactly where most of the repertoire lies.

She sang 'Tu che le vanita' from Don Carlo. She held the words on note cards. The print was so large you could read it from the cheap seats.

The final encore was O mio babbino caro

(Okay, that wasn't Boston either)

The applause longer than the concert. One man stood on his seat and yelled 'Noi t'amo!'
(We love you). She thought he had said 'Puritani' and she said, "Not this year. Next year."

I was seventeen. I didn't know you shouldn't bother the artists. I was with some friends from NEC, and we went to the stage door. It was mobbed. Cops were pushing people away. We went for pizza on Huntington Avenue, reasoning that eventually the crowds would leave and then Callas would come out.

The pizza was good. And we were right. Post-pizza, Gainsborough St. was quiet but the stage door was still open. We went up the stairs and there in front of us was Maria Callas. Thee were maids, poodles, agents and Vasso Devitizi. but there was Callas, reaching for her coat. We were kids and pushed our way in. "Hello!" she said. "Hello-we loved your concert and yadda yadda yadda". Up close she looked drained and pale, but we got a tired smile, autographs and 'God bless you.' What would you say to Maria callas? All of us were trying not to wet our pants.

And then we left and she left and went on to tour the States and Japan. DiStefano was here today not here tomorrow.

The last concert was in Sapporo in late 1974.

Then Onassis died. Callas withdrew.

Richard Dyer put it best in his respectful and honest review of the Boston concert. "She asked us for something she had never needed before. Our love."

She got it.

Maria Callas died in Paris in September 16, 1977.
I thought with gratitude of the great night she gave three years earlier.
I still think of it, gratefully and sadly, nearly forty years later.

PS. In fairness, here is Maria Callas in her prime:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Columbus Symphony: Satirists,Philosophers: Donald Harris, R. Strauss...and Mozart

The Columbus Symphony presents 'The Satirist and the Philosopher', music by Mozart, Donald Harris and Richard Strauss, this weekend, 8 pm in the Ohio Theater. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts.

I think we are generally wired to tonality, to musical consonance. Listen to the German romantics, Schumann and Brahms-go back to Mozart (live with Mozart.) The journey is sublime. The destination is almost predictable for those steeped in this music.

Donald Harris's music is different. The process-playing the notes-is the journey. Not only because his music-alas-is not better known and many of us are hearing it for the first time. Donald used the 12 tone method early in his career. Music depending on patterns and repetition, as does all Western music, becomes more challenging through dissonances and especially since we have no way to predict where this music is going.

NEWS FLASH: I just heard this symphony in rehearsal. It is a knockout and a wow.

Wagner got there first with Tristan und Isolde. (Gesualdo and Monteverdi were writing unpredictable music four hundred years earlier.) Wagner set the sex act to music in Tristan, (yes he did) and only at the end of a four hour opera is there a tragic and magnificent....arrival. Relief.

This weekend the Columbus Symphony presents the world premiere of Donald Harris' Second Symphony. Thus I haven't heard it and neither have you. He tells me the work can be astringent, but as a composer, Harris values creativity, and a 'spark' above all else. This is a composer who "caressed every note, and he felt liberated to compose freely in a style of his own choosing after an unremarkable start with Nadia Boulanger."

Donald Harris' Second Symphony has its world premiere this weekend. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts the Columbus Symphony in the Ohio Theater.

The concert on Saturday April 14 is broadcast live on Classical 101 FM or 8 PM. Dr. Harris will be on hand for pre-concert talks and for intermission commentary.

Meanwhile, here's the intro to a wonderful film about Donald Harris' many journeys as a composer. The centerpiece is an early work of his, the Piano Sonata 2, as performed by David Belivasky

Donald Harris is Emeritus Professor of Music at The Ohio State University. He lived in Paris form 1954 to 1968. On return to the States he taught and and served as an administrator at the New England Conservatory and the Hartt College of Music. He remains a vigorous composer, and a beloved teacher, mentor and friend.

The Harris symphony is part of a program called 'The Satirist and the Philosopher.

Take your pick:

Mozart Overture to The Magic Flute
Harris Symphony 2 (world premiere)

R. Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra

Here's conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The Strauss is best known today for its first ninety seconds, as used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: Space Odyssey. Many of us of a certain age 'zoned out' to this opening fanfare back in the day. Did you? Do they still?

Also sprach Zarathustra was first performed on November 27,1896 in Frankfurt. Strauss conducted.

Richard Strauss was an early devotee of Wagner, to his father's chagrin. Papa Strauss was a horn player in the Munich court orchestra. He would make it a point to turn his chair around and present his back to the audience whenever Wagner was invited to conduct.

The younger Strauss was wise in his rebellion. He continued Wagner's adventuresome tonality and epic use of the orchestra in his tone poems. These are one movement orchestral works with a program. Wagner inspired the young Strauss to absorb Nietzche-the ideal of the Uebermensch and man's dependence on nothing but himself. Of his novel Thus Spake Zarathustra (Sarastro in Mozart's Magic Flute) Nietzche tells us

"Zarathustra was the first to consider the fight of god and evil as the very wheel in the machinery of things: the transposition of morality into the metaphysical realm, as a force, cause and end it itself, is his work. ..Zarathustra created this most calamitous error, morality; consequently he must also be the first to recognize it. His doctrine...posits truth as the highest virtue: this means the opposite of the idealist who flees from realty....The self-overcoming of morality, out of truth; the self-overcoming of the moralist, into his opposite--into me--that is what the name of Zarathustra means in my mouth."


I always thought of Strauss as a rather placid man, writing his music and counting his money. Even Strauss admitted the impossibility of expressing philosophy in music, but he did provide us with a mighty tone poem, filled with drama and variety. It has its bombastic moments, but never at the expense of the invitation to savor and exult, if not exactly ponder.

P.S., As to who is the satirist and who the philosopher....guess. Or not.