Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Classical Legacy of Benny Goodman

The Classical Legacy of Benny Goodman was a program put together by the clarinetist David Shifrin consisting of six pieces that were either dedicate to, written for, or given as a gift to Benny Goodman. Goodman was the first crossover artist from jazz to classical and for that he is embedded in American music history. Not only did he thrive in both genres but he brought the jazz audience to concert halls with him. Tonight there were a total of six clarinetists, all technically proficient, all with at least a Masters in Performance, yet not all were natural performers. Chad Burrow opened up the program with a lively and polished performance of Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. This piece is a repertory staple, showing the range of technique and artistic phrasing possible on the instrument. Morton Gould’s melancholy and for the most part subdued “Benny’s Gig” was played by two clarinetist with at most proficient abilities as musicians. Their performances dragged and were unconnected to the audience. The string bass player even started on the wrong movement.

The Atria ensemble presented a lively and in-sync interpretation of Bela Bartok’s "Contrasts". Each musician was in-tune with each other throughout the piece, reminding me of the joys of successful chamber music. All I remember from Monton Gould’s "Recovery Music" is the clarinetist repeating the names of movements for an elderly audience member before even playing. Alan Schulman’s "Rendezvous" seemed to be a perfect hybrid of jazz and classical, with its playfulness shown through dynamic playing by the Jasper String Quartet. The energetic and sweet toned clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho is someone to keep an eye on.

The most mature and simply beautiful piece was saved for last. David Shifrin performed Aaron Coplan’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra with full instrumentation. Mr. Shifrin is one of those clarinetists who embodies a certain expressiveness and maturity in his playing that cannot be taught. It is no accident that every clarinetist knows his name. His subtle vibrato and his deep level of communication with the orchestra led to a sublime performance that had the audience captivated. Magic was seen at Carnegie Hall tonight. This is the type of performance that musicians dream about and can only resort to melting in your seat when in the audience. Only time will tell if any of the other clarinetists heard tonight will ripen into the true artist that David Shifrin showed us he still is.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Opening Night Gala

On Monday, September 20 emotions flared in the opera world at the Met Opening Night Gala. Cheers and boos (both with much aggression), filled the hall following a brand new production of the repertory staple Tosca, by the Swiss born director Luc Bondy.

It’s rare even for the MET these days to find two lead singers who have so much personality individually yet mesh so well together in tone and stage presence. Thus was the situation with Marcelo Álvarez and Karita Mattila last night. Peter Gleb, the MET Artistic Director, has reportedly raised the stakes for singer’s performances. There is no more ‘parking and belting’ allowed. Singers have to be performers as well, and that involves acting. Sometimes this reduces the vocal capabilities of a singer compared to a polished album recording, but if the performer’s whole heart is involved, and the given message is being conveyed to the audience, I’m willing as an audience member not to hear vocal perfection. Ms. Mattila is a prime example of this. When singing in Act II she fell to her knees during the climax of an aria, which made her tone bump a little. This act fit so well with the drama that it ended up enhancing the mood. Brava to Ms. Mattila for showing her technique throughout. And to those who say she is not a ‘Puccini Soprano’, times are-a-changing, and there is more than one kind of interpretation per composer.

Regarding the production by Mr. Bondy, I agree with the MET for making a radical statement by putting this on at the Gala. The Zeffirelli production had been at the Met for over 20 years, so obviously yearly opera audiences had gotten used to it as a repertoire staple. Its traditional staging and over the top sets were truly a spectacle to be seen. Cool. So what? Opera is not stagnant and should constantly be changing. If traditionally directed productions continue being the norm, Opera as an art form will be dead in 50 years, if not sooner. It is vital to encourage new and daring productions, as long as they are faithful to the plot and foremost the score.

The first act was beautifully staged, especially with the chorus slowly walking downstage in dim lighting during the Te Deum. It seemed as if the audience was being possessed. Act II was the most dramatically startling. What is traditionally done as stated in the libretto, (placing candles and a cross around Scarpia’s body) was replaced by a melodramatic and fake leap from the windowsill as if anticipating the finale of the opera, followed by aimless walking, then reclining on a sofa in exhaustion. The question then is, if replacing the traditional staging with something dramatically different yet just as active would have been more offensive to the opera than minimal and reflective staging as seen here. I believe it would have. This version totally changes the focus. Seeing almost Grecian, pose-like movement from this Diva is radically new and it lets the audience become absorbed more so in the music without and superficialities. After all, Puccini did compose this finale as purely orchestral. Act III is minimally staged with a simple fort overlooking the ocean, and dim lighting throughout. Instead of leaping to her death, the production team uses a freeze frame effect. Right at the end Tosca runs up the tower to end her tragic life, only for a stunt double to take the leap and get caught midair in some sort of wire system. All that happens in a flash, providing a dramatic finish to a dramatically different Tosca. Bravo Luc Bondy for having cohones.

Regardless of your opinion regarding the production, there was certainly no disservice done to the music. It is sometimes seen as a gift when the orchestra is spotlessly led, (not that they ever mess up). James Levine always manages to hold the entire production together as if it were one moving organism. Furthermore, not to imply that the musicians don’t always give their all, but the orchestra produced such a high intensity of sound that most other conductors who grace the pit can only dream of matching. In light of such a daring production of Tosca, Maestro Levine provided the base that would please any traditionalist and progressive alike. Regarding the production, the only direction to move, especially in NYC, is forward.