Thursday, January 15, 2015

There are certain musical qualities that the average listener has a better feeling for than the semi-educated classical musician. It didn't always use to be this way and I don't like to make a bourgeoise distinction. But unfortunately, with the deterioration of classical music as the popular form of entertainment and the emergence of new forms of music, the result has been a loss of the physical feeling of music- the groove. Maybe we can call it the over-academisation of music.  Today there is a horrible lack of feeling among some well-trained classical musicians at achieving a basic rhythm that you can bounce your head to. (I have conducted no studies. I just speak from experience.)
Hip-hop musicians get it. Feeling a groove that the listener can sing along to comfortably is of utmost importance right from the start. If it doesn't have bounce, it's not good enough to inspire a rap. But of course classical music doesn't always asks for this kind of constant, stable groove. The rubato Arthur Rubinstein played Chopin Mazurkas with is a kind of flexible sense of rhythm that is on a higher plane than the topic at hand now (though related). I want to talk about a more basic feeling. I'm talking about the kind of steady rhythm in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos that makes you want to tap your foot to. The kind of whimsical rhythm that the best performances of Le Nozze di Figaro's Act II finale make you skip to with glee and forget about whatever superficial high you were contemplating earlier. The kind of rhythm to which Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony makes you want to put on a long skirt and jump joyously around the kitchen. Rhythm is a basic quality that humans have. My point is that its emphasis is severely lacking in classical music education.
As classical musicians, we are all taught to stay on top of the beat. If you don't anticipate, you can get behind or be late. This is for precision and more so for ensemble playing. No one likes a sloppy group. The danger, however, is becoming too mechanical, less natural. When we're playing in a groove, and to really feel that groove, we need to sit back a little. Some conductors hesitate calling it "playing behind the beat", but I really don't think they should. Something needs to be said to make you chill out, or else you'll totally miss the affect behind the music. I doubt Mozart wanted a tight-ass playing Figaro.
I remember playing Son of Chamber Symphony by John Adams at Mannes and the fun we had when we were locked into the rhythm, bouncing along like Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden. It felt so cool and natural. But when the tempo changed abruptly during rehearsals, usually someone pushing foward too much, that groove was lost right away. I just do not believe that enough emphasis, in the university setting, is placed on rhythm. It's hard to teach, I know. Pitch, matching your tone, phrasing, are more tangible to explain. But rhythm, I believe, only gets better from experience. When the feeling is right, an audience knows it. They smile. They feel good. Getting this right is so important, that seriously maybe we should all start listening to more hip-hop. Lean back. Go'on brush your shoulders off.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Clarinetists and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

As a musician being trained in a top American conservatory that preaches the end goal as being an orchestra job, I am often frustrated by what this country has to offer when it comes to orchestral playing. I am a clarinetist, studying with one of the most brilliant musicians in the world, Charlie Neidich, who teaches me how to not only play the instrument, but about the expressive potential of the instrument, and about generations of music. He is a soloist, who by title must sound unique. I do not, however, believe orchestral playing should be approached any differently. When I go hear the New York Philharmonic, the Met Opera Orchestra, or visiting European orchestras, I am usually disappointed by the lack of expressive playing by the clarinets. Clarinetists, especially in this country, I find, are obsessed with achieving the darkest, velvetiest tone. Oh, how beautifully pure his tone was! It's like silk! So round! Comments like that are not only bullshit, but they contribute to the image of classical music as being pretty, perfect, stuffy, and never offensive. Some wind players talk about your sound existing within a box. It can move, but never outside the lines. In my opinion, the obsession with conformity leads to everyone trying to sound like Ricardo Morales (no offense) and forgetting about themselves. People streamline their education so hard that they forget about the music.
Brahms loved Richard Mühlfeld's sound, which included vibrato (gasp!), Copland was inspired by Benny Goodman, who was an energized acrobat on the instrument, and Mozart was friends with Anton Stadler, who was busy constantly reinventing the instrument. If each of these clarinetists had tried to sound mainstream, Brahms's Clarinet Sonatas, his Trio, and Quintet, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, his Quintet, Copland's Clarinet Concerto- pieces that our world today would be worse off without, would never had been written. If these three clarinetists had played conventionally, the composers would never even have taken notice.
I recently heard the amazing Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in two concerts at Carnegie Hall. Their oboist, Stefan Schilli, completely blew me away. His musicality during the Don Juan solo was overwhelming. American oboists would have probably said that he opened up his sound too much, or that he was slightly flat in this one part. But what's more important, playing robotically or yearning with your heart?! It was audibly and visibly evident that this orchestra loves their jobs. They moved like a chamber ensemble in love with their colleagues. Not to mention, their conductor Maris Jansons must be quite the inspiration. They made the music sound fresh and alive.
But back to boring clarinet playing. The question no one has been able to convincingly answer me is, why has orchestral clarinet playing evolved in such a conventional way, void of the expressive potential that is allowed of say the oboe or violin in the orchestra? (I have heard stories about music directors asking their rebellious clarinet players to cut-out the vibrato). It's not just vibrato, either. It's about restricting the overall musicality.
Is the model of streamlining your sound sustainable in an age when orchestras are struggling to maintain relevancy in their growing communities? When they are struggling to stay exciting? Things are already pretty desperate when we need to throw a marijuana evening at the symphony in order to connect with a younger audience, alla Denver Symphony. Maris Jansons, Stefan Schilli and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra made me feel like the music was enough and really really cool.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Met's Superficial Wälkure

No new production at the Met this season has enjoyed as much hype as Robert Lepage's new Der Ring des Nibelungen. A daunting task for any opera company to undertake, (and one guaranteed to garner respect for smaller companies), this new production is to be premiered over two seasons, and is the most expensive ever developed, for any opera, by the Met. Some can say it is part of the Met general manager, Peter Gelb's new vision of appealing to a broader and younger audience. This is a logical aspiration if our culture is to seriously consider the survival of opera as an art form, beyond the gray heads currently pervading the audience. But that was a worry in the 1950s as well, and somehow opera found a home among the baby-boomers. Now it is our turn, and it just warms my heart to see so many educated homosexuals at the Met. So appealing to a broader audience is a nice if not urgent idea, just so long as it doesn't cheapen the art form.
Problems with going too contemporary too fast tend to arise when a new director is more focused on showing off his/her concept than he/she is on the former enhancing the aged musical drama we all love. When done properly and with care, we are reminded that these beautiful old works of art can still come alive on stage, today. A new production must serve an opera the way costumes serve a movie. For maximum effect, they do not detract attention, but instead augment the drama. A good costume designer knows not to flaunt his work above the plot. The music is the most important aspect of opera, and if the visual does not augment the aural, going to opera live would be a very stilted experience. After seeing Das Rheingold and Die Wälkure, it is clear that Mr. Lepage does not understand this hierarchy.
For his new production of Wälkure, he was much more focused on showing off his new 45-ton, rotating, creaky, expensive set, then having it augment the most beautiful moments handed to him by the music. The first act started on the right note when the planks of his "machine" (as the set is called by the cast and crew) slowly rotated into a forest formation, each representing a tree - the woods through which Siegmund is fleeing his attackers. This gradual formation, accompanied by the fleeting music was actually quite beautiful. But then the "machine" continued rotating upwards, forming the roof of Hunding's house. In doing this, it exposed the black rehearsal floor below. If I were sitting in the orchestra, it wouldn't have been so obvious, but from the balcony it was just blatantly ugly, and baffling considering how expensive this production is. Couldn't they blow some fog over it, or something? For the majority of act 1, most of the action took place upstage, hidden underneath this roof contraption. The result was a muffled sound from the singers, which made this emotionally charged music sound distanced and anything but intimate. Why didn't Mr. Lepage choose to use the exposed downstage part of the "machine" until the third scene? When Sieglinde and Siegmund finally moved onto it and out from the mess upstage, I was reminded that they in fact have great voices after all. Jonas Kaufmann sounded like a brave hero as Siegmund, if he at times pushed his voice; while Eva-Maria Westboek rightly existed in emotional turmoil as Sieglinde, even though her voice was often times covered by the enormous orchestra. In regards to blocking, it seemed like during the most of this act, directions were either non-existent or corny and superficial. There was hardly any acting creativity in relation with the music, and when there was, it just looked like a soap opera. I should have just closed my eyes and enjoyed the music.
The second act was redeemed, primarily because of Stephanie Blythe's ravishingly huge and expressive voice. Playing Wotan's wife, Frika is wheeled onstage atop her throne, over a wave-like, earth-shattering set formation. But more earth-shattering, like 9 magnitude level earth-shattering, was her voice, which was suitable for her godess character. Every phrase Ms. Blythe sang seemed to tell a story of anguish, and she was the only singer of the evening who really pulled the audience closer in. I'm sure I wasn't the only person out there tempted to break into applause when she finished singing about the importance of commitment and age-old values. But no, this ridiculous thing we call convention somehow makes is okay to shout continuous strands of "Bravo!" after an Italian aria, while during a five hour Wagner opera it is sacrilegious. I know that fits with the total emersion expected from audiences during Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk (total art form), but we should really be allowed some leeway when not at Bayreuth.
The second scene from act II can be seen as a musical conversation between orchestra, Wotan, and Brünnhilde. The music is incredibly poignant in its intimacy, contrary to many's perception of Wagner being this overbearing and daunting composer. Wotan is talking about the time of the gods coming to an end, a time of which he was the leader. After recounting his past honors, he agonises that it is time for a new era. "Let all I raised now fall in ruins! My work I abandon; one thing alone do I want: the end - the end!" Everything Bryn Terfel (Wotan) uttered this evening fit perfectly with a soul-bearing God. Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), on the other hand, seemed to be struggling to match him in vocal intensity. But once warmed up, she too was living in the anguish. (Never mind that her cheesy costume made her look like a Power Ranger). After the presentation of Frika, Mr. Lepage chose to make no major set changes or blocking decisions until the scene when Siegmund is killed. Just to back up a second, Mr. Lepage convinced the Met to fund this record-breaking "machine" set that seems to have so many uses of potentially beautiful designs. So why doesn't he change it up a little more frequently? When Wotan is recounting the history of the world, Mr. Lepage introduced the most ridiculous orb (or eye?), upon which projections appeared that had more in common with the Lord of the Rings than with Wagner's intimacy. Again, I should have just closed my eyes.
The start of the third act was a clever, if slightly goofy use of the "machine". For the introduction of the Valkures, all eight warrior sisters ride in on their horses. Except each horse here was a separate plank from the "machine". While it got applause from the audience, it seemed to be inhibiting the singers, who were more worried about holding on than projecting their voices. On opening night, one of them actually fell off.
The music towards the end of the third act has a much more forward propelling motion. Wotan is after all about to banish his favorite daughter. The way the music seems to flow in huge waves here makes it very easy for tears to pour down your face. Mr. Levine did a gorgeous job in projecting this beauty. The static manner in which he directed the first act was very different from the way I am used to hearing it - with more momentum like the Solti recording. None the less, it was captivating.
For the finale, Wotan encircles Brünnhilde with a ring of fire that only the bravest of heros should pass through. Mr. Lepage here hung a stunt-double of Brünnhilde from a cross-formation. It was a beautiful moment, if a bit too religious for me and probably Wagner as well, and it would have been nicer to see Ms. Voigt onstage instead, at the end of this beautiful conversation between father and daughter.
In case Mr. Lepage hasn't realized, opera is a little "deeper" than Broadway, or the circus. If my comments seem harsh, it's because after all, this is Der Ring des Nibelungen. The music is just too beautiful to tollerate injustice. If he keeps relying on these superficial special effects next season for Siegfried and Götterdämerung, the new emerging Met audience of educated homosexuals might just have to bitch-slap him. Welcome to the major leagues, Mr. Lepage.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

James Levine and Diana Damrau

Over the past two weeks, two artists, in their respective engagements at the Met, have stood out for their brilliance. Ms. Damrau stared as the Countess in Rossini's Le Comte Ory, opposite Juan Diego Flórez and Joyce Di Donato. Mr. Levine ran Wozzeck, like nothing less than a king, in the pit.
To have a Rossini cast with these three singers is an impressive feat by itself. Mr. Flórez is as best as Rossini tenors come. His high notes are packed with precise energy that resonates unhinged throughout the house. Ms. Donato is a power-house bel-canto mezzo, whos tone is really close to shinny gold. Ms. Damrau, on the other hand, has all these vocal highlights required of a star (for years, her calling card was the Queen of the Night, okay?), but she also combines them with a nuanced and outrageous stage performance. It is almost as if she takes the stage directions only as a starting point, and then just luxuriates them to the point of ridiculous entertainment. In a comic opera like Le Comte Ory, she consistently reminds us why the opera buffa tradition had the same purpose as contemporary Broadway musicals do- it is approachable by just about anyone and it is hilarious when done right. Last season I saw her in La Fille du Régiment, and have never laughed harder at an opera. She consistently shines, bounces around, resonates, and is never ever stagnant.
Maestro Levine, despite his recent ailments and cut-back schedule, still brings enough punch to the orchestra and the singers to shut up the critics who say he's old. In everything I've ever seen him conduct, his fresh energy and tender humanity would make anyone listening to the recording think he was 25. There is a reason he attracts to much respect in the opera world- the affect just doesn't get better than when he is in the pit. A while ago I wrote that the deep level of connection he makes with his musicians must be something magical. With Wozzeck, this shit just became divine.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wozzeck- less than 24 hours

"Wozzeck is an authentic renewal of the German tradition of symphonic drama. The five scenes in each act play continuously, linked by interludes, and organized by leitmotifs and recurrent harmonies. And while Berg perfected the hypermodern idea of symbolic characterization ('Captain', 'Doctor', 'Drum-Major', etc.), his musical portraiture is as fine and precise as anything in German opera since Mozart. The humanizing of the potentially subhuman Wozzeck and Marie through the music they sing is one of the great miracles of 20th-century theatre."
-New Penguin Opera Guide

Oh my freekin' GOD. I can't wait for tomorrow's performance...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Awesome Sound of Dorothea Röschmann

This past Sunday I bought a last minute ticket to see the soprano, Dorothea Röschmann in concert with the countertenor, David Daniels. The program was all Handel, and they sang it beautifully, touching the audience with outpours of emotion and clarity. Their level of musicianship seemed to take the audience by surprise - the level of applause and cheers steadily roze with each aria or duet, and no one wanted to let them leave after the third encore. I have been in love with Ms. Röschmann's voice for a while now, as I practically made a pilgrimage to Salzburg this summer to see her in Don Giovanni. She has the emotional fragility of Maria Callas, as she fully embodies her characters. This is somebody who touches that place deep down inside you, (sorry, Ms. Fleming). On Sunday I seemed to be pulled out of consciousness every time she sang, not simply marveling at her astonishing technique and full voice, but believing for a second that she was the goddess she looked like.
Ms. Röschmann has had an entirely Mozart run thus far at the Met, starting in 2003 with the Countess in Figaro, the following year as Pamina in Julie Taymour's new Magic Flute of 2004, Ilia from Idomeneo in 2006, and as a last minute step-in as Donna Elvira in Gon Giovanni in 2008. I hope somebody from the Met was at the concert this past Sunday. She reminded New Yorkers that Mozart is not her only calling card, and that her career shows no signs of waning. Anyone who can mesmerize an audience like she did deserves to have the opera world at her feet.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Renée Fleming and Capriccio

When Renée Fleming had her tour de force Met opening night gala of 2008, there could no longer be a doubt as to her standing as our great American opera diva. She is the first woman and only the second singer in Met history to headline an opening night. For the unprecedented evening she sang selections from La Traviata, Manon, and the final scene from Capriccio. Critics seemed to think that the later was her best, and everybody hoped for more to come. Last night our dream came true when Ms. Fleming sang in the full length opera. From start to finish, she seemed to feel right at home in this luxuriously decadent, serene, and musically sensitive work. It is obvious that she loves singing Strauss; not only does her voice so effortlessly melt into the orchestral texture, but she rolls around in it, blooming every chance she gets. One would be hard pressed to find a better match for the fabulous Countess than this diva.
The kind of respect and excitement Ms. Fleming generates with whatever project she takes on demands sincere admiration and respect. She is as mainstream a star as opera singers can become, for which the closeted opera world should be eternally grateful. Naturally, I get excited when she comes to the Met. Unfortunately, she has yet to rock my socks off. Last month, she employed the same vocal style she does in Strauss to Armida, which ended up making Rossini sound a little bit too luscious with not enough bite. For such a technically precise, direct, and light style as bel-canto, her velvety and buttery voice just sounded awkward.
Some people complain that Ms. Fleming's voice often remains at a distanced, static emotion; that it lacks a certain intensity of direction on a literal communication level. Take as a contrast Maria Callas, whos emotional sharpness still seems to rip at ones heart today, even through a pair of headphones. Most of the times I've seen Ms. Fleming, I end up pulling at strings, trying to fall in love. But obviously, falling in love cannot be forced. Capriccio and late Strauss in general are such a beautiful fit for her because directional clarity is not as urgent. There is a lot more bathing in ones own sound, which she does oh so well. For me, the sustained pleasure she produces is rather like taking a slow bite from a chocolate moose cake. You don't necessarily feel rejuvenated afterwards, but the instant gratification makes the experience worth it...maybe. My date for the evening seemed completely uninspired. There was a certain drama missing from his usual night at the opera.
Capriccio was Strauss's last opera. It premiered in Munich in 1942, at the height of World War II. The plot centers around the age-old debate about which is more important- words or music, (Prima la musica, Poi le Parole). This idea for an opera had originated between Strauss and his librettist at the time, Stefan Zweig. After the death of Strauss's longtime collaborator, Hugo con Hofmannsthal, in 1929, Strauss managed to find an equally vibrant partnership with Zweig. Their original plan was to present Capriccio first, posing the eternal question, and then to follow it with their "answer"- the mythological subject of Daphne. Because Zweig was Jewish, their close association was eventually forced to take on an intermediary, the aryan theatre historian Joseph Gregor. Where Zweig was a creative artist, Gregor was an academic, and Strauss became consistently frustrated with his new partner. Fortunately, Strauss had already been discussing the opera with a friend, the conductor Clemens Krauss. Krauss took over the half completed project, but evidently a fair share of the final libretto is by Strauss himself.
The original idea of pairing Capriccio with Daphne was now thought to comprise too long of an evening, so Strauss came up with a better idea. Halfway through Capriccio the audience learns that what they have been listening to all along is in fact the "answer" to this eternal debate between words and music: Capriccio itself, is the balanced work of the composer, Flamand, and the poet, Olivier. Strauss then uses these two paradoxical characters as the main love bait for the Countess. In the final eloquent scene, these are the two sides that she is debating, portrayed literally as which person she should fall in love with, and figuratively with obviously much broader implications. It is a conundrum that Strauss so beautifully presents as his final oeuvre.

(The picture above is from the 2008 Capriccio. I like the dress better than her new one.)