Tuesday, February 26, 2008

La Serenissima

I'm off to Venice this morning where Ignoti Dei is giving a series of concerts this weekend. I will try to write some while I'm there, but there will no doubt be distractions!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Baroque and Authenticity

Often times I mention COT Director Brian Dickie's blog - he has really perfected the art of the blog and of course has much interesting news and thought to offer on it. We are all lucky to have such a chance to look into that world. Recently he has posted some thoughts on the subject of "the baroque" to which I have been meaning to add my own thoughts. This is a huge can of worms and words, and one about which I could write probably a not-so-small book (and might one day). I will try to keep be concise here at the risk of not being quite as coherent.

First, I am not a purist. If anything I feel I'm more in line with the observations put forth by the wise, if reprehensible, Richard Taruskin in the 1980s. For various reason I think "authenticity" is rather like a phantom. It is something that gets a lot of hype and belief, but it doesn't really exist. That isn't just because there is so little historic truth about performance practice we can know for certain (most of what has become accepted as "baroque performance practice" is actually not so clear cut when one looks at the sources). No, authenticity doesn't exist because the whole notion of authenticity, the primacy of the composer and his epoch's "intentions", is completely a modern concern, one that would not have concerned the 17th or 18th century musician. HIP performance attempts to arrive at some sort of ur-text, sweeping away years of pedagogical tradition as someone might sweep the dust off an antique. The "dust" in this case isn't meaningless, it is instead an evolving performance tradition of which the baroque musicians were aware and were apart. The idea of turning away from that comes from the same modernist attitude as the academic composers of the 60s and 70s. Actually, even HIP is part of the tradition, it has to be as much as it might wish it could actually be something completely different.

That paragraph was simply a preface to this: I do believe in the current supremacy of period instrument, and more importantly historically informed, ensembles to realize this music. I also believe in the importance of enlisting singers that are vocally appropriate for this music in a historically informed context. This is personal - I think the music making is better. Beyond that, aside from the few (and they do exist) that would prefer to hear the Leppard bastardization (more on this later) of "Calisto" to Jacobs more stylistic (though only slightly less a bastardization...more on that later too), or prefer to hear the incomparable Jesse Norman turn Purcell's famous lament into a soggy-swamp, the general aesthetic of the age does break towards more historically informed forms of performance. Ultimately I agree with the young enthusiast that started Brian's thinking on this, Chicago as a major city is desperately in need of its top baroque orchestra to be using period instruments and a more informed manner of playing (and more informed players). They can and should be better.

There are certain historic points of which we can be relatively certain, and which I think should effect performance to that end (at least until our collective tastes change). I will bullet some of these that pop to mind:

Gut strings - The use of all steel strings did not happen until this century. The sound of gut is completely different and gives a color not possible on steel strings. Using gut strings is important and there is little reason for not doing it (except fear on the part of modern players that will have to adjust)

Baroque/Classical/et al Bows: The construction of the bow is INCREDIBLY important. The modern bow is different in many ways, perhaps most importantly in weight distribution, than a historic bow. This changes the natural bloom of the note and the way one phrases. The music will sound different with a period bow versus a modern bow.

Instrumental Vibrato - There is little question that vibrato was used with discretion in the baroque. It is true that there remains heavy debate as to how much vibrato was or was not used, still, the modern approach of vibrating on everything is ludicrous and was not part of the baroque aesthetic. Vibrato was not treated as part of a machine that turned on at the playing of each note, it was used with intention. The myth that period orchestras have worse intonation than a modern orchestra comes from the fact that modern players can hide bad intonation with vibrato. They don't play a note, they play around a note. Hearing a modern group adjust to playing with no vibrato...now there is poor intonation.

Vocal Vibrato - Now here is a debate!!! A healthy relaxed voice has a natural symbiosis with breath and its inherently cyclical nature. It can go between vibration and straight singing seamlessly and with comfort (both are healthy) and uses vibrato as an ornament just as we know the treatises indicate (Monteclair is the most explicit on this point). A wide vibrato that cannot be controlled comes from poor breath-support. This sort of vibrato distorts pitch and makes clear coloratura impossible.

Bel Canto - Here is something I have wanted to get into for a while, ever since Bill Crutchfield made some rather silly comments on IU's recent production of "Figaro" to the affect that he was teaching the singers the historic way of singing this bel canto music. This is simply not true! Mozart and his contemporaries were absolutely not "bel canto". Not that they didn't have aspects of bel canto, of course they did because their school grew into bel canto. But, we can't apply the style of bel canto in reverse. There are aspects of bel canto that were not part of classical singing, just as there are parts of classical singing that were not part of baroque singing. Some things Crutchfield asserts are true - individual ornamentation for one. But, he also asserts that Mozart should be sung with the perfect legato that one identifies with bel canto. This is just not true. Legato is just a tool in the box of a classical singer, and it was one used even less in the baroque. More grating is insistence on "beautiful sound", that every note must be in the sweet spot. Rubish I say! In Mozart every note is NOT equally beautiful, there is a hierarchy. It is this thinking that causes modern players of play Bach like it is Brahams...SOME NOTES ARE MORE THAN OTHERS!!!! It is that contrast that bring the music to life.

Articulation (coloratura) - The last point touched on many of these things, but it is worth mentioning that I think coloratura is neither always legato (diaphragmatic we say), or articulated (in the throat we say). It is a blend of the two used at the singer's discretion. Bartoli is great at this.

General Style - This is simple. If you are going to perform this music you have to educate yourself, whether on modern instruments or not. Trills are performed differently in the baroque and in the classical, dance forms indicate certain tempi and characters, ornamentation as a whole was used in different ways related to text, and so much more. There is no excuse anymore for performers and conductors not to know these things.

The performance of Monteverdi - This is particular problem for me, and it isn't just Monteverdi, but all early Italian opera of which I'm a bit of a specialist. This notion of completing the score, adding bells and whistles is nonsense. Leppard started it, Harnoncourt went with it, and so does Jacobs. It is terrible for the music, destroying the early Italian notion of the supremacy of text, and that most of these composers saved treble instrument accompaniment for the most special moments in the opera. Jane Glover, whom I have a lot of doubts about in some respects, at least is clear about this point and doesn't do such things, trusting the music. The Venetian orchestra was one to a part strings, bowed 8' bass, harpsichord (maybe two), and theorbo (maybe two). To that there is justification to add cornetti or recorders, dulcian, organ, etc (looking at larger court orchestras of the day). If you wouldn't add an electric guitar to Strauss, you probably should have the same thought on these works and leave the modern trumpets out. I think using the Leppard editions is pretty inexcusable, that is unless you sincerely want to present Leppard's "Calisto" and not Cavalli's, because they bare virtually no similarity to each other.

I could go on, but I really need to be marking my articulations in the string parts for the Charpentier. I have some final thoughts though, and these are random and not in any particular order.

-HIP isn't perfect by any stretch and does a lot of things wrong knowingly. For instance, it is established fact that classical recitative was mostly realized with a cello playing chords. Almost no one does this. There are lots of examples of this. Pitch is another instance. We have decided that baroque pitch was 415, French pitch was 392, classical pitch was 430, and Venetian pitch was 465, largely because of the convenience of transposing a harpsichord.. This is all modern. Les Arts Florissants is closer when they play French repertoire at 400, closer to an actual "French" pitch. And pitch is important, perhaps not with biblical proportion, but it merits thought.

-Singers! I actually think vocal training is better now in this area than it was twenty years ago. I never really liked Emma Kirkby's voice to be honest, at least not for Baroque lead roles that need more character. I think many "modern" singers are doing the best baroque work: Bartoli, von Otter, Genaux, Keenlyside. Still, Peter Gelb's statement in the Sunday Times that he wants to cast Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo in the Gluck makes me balk....come on. Brian Dickie needs particular credit for this - he casts exceptionally gifted and smart young singers for COT baroque operas (like Danielle Denise who doesn't convince me as Cleopatra, but who I think has a lovely command of the style and particularly in French music).

-America really has to fix this union thing! Modern orchestras, with that good leadership of an Haim or Christie or Bickett, can fake the baroque sound. I have quite smart friends that saw the opening performance of "Cesare" at the Lyric and thought the orchestra sounded tepid and not at all together. I also have friends that saw a later performance and thought they sounded quite convincing. This gradual improvement probably would not have been necessary had Haim been allowed to bring her own players, regardless it would have still sounded better with period bows and gut strings that give a silvery quality that isn't possible on the modern violin with the modern bow. The unions don't allow bringing in a non-house orchestra and it keeps American houses behind. I remember living in Venice and hearing a performance of "Rodelinda" on the radio and thinking that it was an amateur Italian period orchestra. It was the MET performance! No, we now have orchestras in American that can play this rep better and the houses should figure out a way to make that work. COT is a fantastic company, probably one of the best in the country for this stuff, and I really feel they should be using period instruments, because they are one of the few places that can and be a true trend-setter in the States. With the state of the union in “baroque-land” right now, however shameful, I know that using a period orchestra (Ignoti Dei for instance!) would be cheaper, even if they are from out of town, than using local modern players. And I don't know...Leppard? Ah well...

-Finally, for me the baroque is about expression through dramatic contrast (just think of the architecture!!!). This is why vibrato is simply a tool. Ornaments are tools. Articulation is a tool. Not all notes are beautiful, but the phrase is made more beautiful through the contrast of important and unimportant notes. Vibrato all the time is a waste - when used with discretion it makes a note into an emotional dagger. The same goes for straight-singing. I am personally much more post-modern. I don't believe in right-wrong, black-white, on-off. This is an incredibly rich and powerful repertoire if performed as such. I don't think modern players have any less claim to it, but all that perform it need to be aware of its inherent differences, and the distinct approach one must have to bring it to life.

And then there is how to stage it...

Friday, February 15, 2008


I realize that I should probably add that none of those things are going to enter into an AOT production anytime soon...just didn't want you to think I was gathering ideas!

What the F$%&?

Wednesday evening was very interesting. I went to Calixto Bieito's newest production at the historic Teatro Romea that he runs here in Barcelona. For those of you who don't know of Bieito he is an EXTREMELY controversial theater director doing opera in ways that offend a lot of people. He did the "Abduction" in Berlin last year with real prostitutes that started that neo-con crtique of state-sponsored arts and director led productions. He also did a very famous "Ballo in Maschera" set in a series of bathrooms and a "Wozzec" set in an industrial space, feet of mud, and almost completely nude (some men in an aroused state even). Now, I don't really have an opinion on him. The fact that he is controversial doesn't make me feel one way or the other - it does seem like a lot of it is for shock value, but I have also been controverisal so I will wait to form an opinion. I have never seen his operas so I can't comment. Joan Matabosch who runs Liceu has told me great things about his work and I respect Joan a great deal. On the other hand a good friend that plays in the Liceu orchestra says terrible things about him.

This production was a theater piece (though billed as an opera it had limited music) based on the ancient Catalan piece of literature "Tirant lo Blanco". This is a very famous text referred to by Cervantes. This take on it was essentially abstract with a blind women playing the organ off to the side and basically imagining the story in her mind. I didn't catch the whole thing becuause I was late to it and had to leave early to make it to Liceu. What I did see though included a half-naked youth bound-up and walked around on a dog collar, another almost naked man spray the audience with water, a women breast feed said naked man on stage, rabbits cooked onstage and feed to the audience, and an invalidic man fed his own urine. NOW, I absolutely cannot say whether I liked it or whether it made sense, and I urge all of you not to make any judgements based on what I just wrote about it. I do not know the original text, and this was all in Catalan so I couldn't understand any of it. It could have made perfect sense. Who knows, plus I missed most of it. That said, this was a dress rehearsal and I was there with my friend who studies with one of the actors. The theater (a very compelling transformed historic space) was packed with highschool students, a class trip a think! I couldn't believe this, and like the work or not, it is clearly this early experience with truly challenging theater that makes European society understand SO much better the importance of theater and all the arts in society (I should also say this lack of a fear of showing young people the naked human body and sexual references probably also leads to better mental health in Europe when it comes to issues of sexuality that are completely taboo in the US).

I literally ran from that performance around the corner to catch a production of "Elektra" at Liceu. This was a good performance...the orchestra sounded fantastic, the singers did an okay job (acting not great), and the production was interesting and worked in concept (the details didn't always work...again bad acting) until the end where Elektra survives and does NOT dance herself to an ecstatic death...I missed that and kind of think it the point of the whole opera. It was a very modern production, not Bieito, but still director led. The Liceu however, was PACKED to capacity. This wasn't an opening night, no huge names in the cast, and "Elektra" is not a particularly popular work. Even more, I would say the average age was under 40.

I realize that I am going out on a limb here, but there seems to me an obvious connection between a class trip to see some of the most controversial and challenging theater being presented in Europe today (good or band), and an opera house practically sold out with average aged people to a modern production of a not terribly accessible opera. Hmm.... NOW TAKE THAT those that have suggested regieteatre is killing opera in Europe - sold out for no other reason than people enjoy going to the opera, and several ovations for a production well liked.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

After "The Rest is Noise"

I have finished Alex Ross' monumental book and can't recommend it enough. Now, not everything I'm going to say is glowing, but I still think everyone should read this both scholarly and enjoyable books. The opening 75% is a perfect balance between incredibly well researcehd and all-encompassing perspectives. It is really wonderful with just the right amount of antecdotes, flowery descriptions, and unbiased facts. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with the close. I feel like the energy that Ross had twitters out near the end, he becomes much less observant of detail. What I'm talking about is the section when he comes to post-serialist America. He follows the thread of one reaction to the overwhelming influence of pop-culture in society very well. The is from Terry Riley to Reich to Glass and finally to Adams. That is all well and good, but he seems to almost completely disregard another reaction to the same phenomenon, a reaction that responded not so much to the accessibility and populist nature of pop-music, but rather to the multicolored angularity of it. I'm speaking about composers like Christopher Rouse, and most importantly John Corigliano. These composers get, I think, only one sentence while Ross ends his book basically with "Nixon in China". Yes, "Nixon" is an important work, but it certainly isn't the last word which is more on the post-modern (a term he tries to deny, but I don't think does so convincingly) swing of things for the moment. For instance scores such as the Corigliano first symphony or "The Ghost of Versailles". I think one is not being fair to relegate a composer like Corigliano to a status not quite as prominent as Adams, it really isn't an acurate picture. Also, I was disappointed that there wasn't more mention of George Crumb. Now, on this account I am unsure whether it is a fault of Ross', or my bias. I think Crumb is one of the most important American composers in the second half of the twentieth-century. I was sad to see him get only one mention. His music is unlike any other in the way it responded to modernist culture and bridge the university world and the populist world. It is also very influencial. EVERYONE SHOULD FIND A RECORDING OF CRUMB (ANCIENT VOICES FOR CHILDREN, APPARITION, LITTLE SUITE FOR CHRISTMAS AD 1979, OR IF YOU ARE REALLY ADVENTUROUS BLACK ANGELS) AND LISTEN UNTIL YOU GET IT. IT IS SOME OF THE MOST SPIRTUAL AND DEEPLY MOVING MUSIC WRITTEN IN OUR TIME. My favorite is "Echoes of Time and the River" for which he won a Pulitzer. This used to be hard to find, but now I think it is released on CD. Honestly, with no exaggeration, it is a piece that changed my life. Also I'm from West Virginia too...

All that said...a FANTASTIC read, a real accomplishment. You should all get a copy today.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Where is the path?

Two things for Thursday. The first is that I am almost through Alex Ross' "The Rest is Noise". I will give a full report when finished, but for now I will share that I think it is a breathtaking accomplishment, incredibly well researched and written. The second is an article forwarded to me by a wonder music lover in Baltimore. It comes from the Urbanite magazine and speaks to the situation in American orchestras, particularly large-sized orchestras in mid-sized cities. Here the writer uses the Baltimore Symphony as the example, but as much could be said for Cleveland, San Francisco, and any number of American cities. What makes Baltimore unique, and perhaps the perfect example to use, is the appointment of Marin Alsop and its consequences, in a number of both good, bad, and unknown ways. That said, I post it here because I find it a powerful message for the state of arts in general in the United States, and most particularly opera (ie. putting an opera on a movie screen doesn't make it sustainably interesting if the opera on the movie screen is the same old retrospective production or a new production that only succeeds at cheapening the work). I reprint the whole thing here because I think it is very worth reading:

Can the BSO sell classical music without selling it short?

A little after 8 p.m. one night last November in Meyerhoff Hall, just when a conductor usually gives the downbeat that tells an orchestra to begin, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop signaled instead for composer Aaron Jay Kernis to walk out on stage. Two Kernis pieces, “Lament and Prayer” and “Newly Drawn Sky,” filled the first half of a program that concluded with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, and Alsop, now in the first season of her BSO tenure, engaged Kernis in a chat before the performance. The nostalgic rapture of “Newly Drawn Sky,” the audience learned, was inspired by memories of the changing colors at dusk on a summer day Kernis and his wife spent at the beach with their newly born twins.

When the orchestra finished, Kernis was summoned to the stage by the kind of standing ovation that Beethoven might have received after a performance of the “Pastoral.” But Kernis’ reception was also a tribute to Alsop—and for more than her passionate and exciting take on the two pieces. Her conversation with Kernis had made it possible for 21st century listeners to respond enthusiastically to demanding and unfamiliar contemporary works—the sort of music today’s audiences are not supposed to like. And she had enabled a living composer to achieve what Beethoven himself, in his inscription to his Missa Solemnis, called the primary purpose of music: “To speak from the heart to the heart.”

If the concert was a powerful demonstration of how conductor and orchestra can create a shared experience, it also raised questions and caveats about Alsop and the BSO’s future together. Was the ovation a response to Kernis’ music, or to Alsop’s deft salesmanship? After all, when Beethoven wrote his words about the power of music to communicate from the heart to the heart, he was not thinking about the power of a charismatic intermediary to insert herself between the composer and his listener.

Then there was Alsop’s performance of the Beethoven, which suffered from a rigidity of rhythm. Alsop often seems uncomfortable about employing rubato—the elasticity and flexibility of tempo that come from slight speeding-ups and slowing-downs, which can add interest and tension to a melodic line without distorting it. It’s often what we’re hearing when we describe a performance as “flowing,” and it’s essential to performing music from the 18th to the early 20th century. It’s also something that Alsop—not only in Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” but also in her performances of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Strauss—does not seem to understand.

What worried me more than the performance was that nearly all of the two thousand people in the audience didn’t seem to hear any such deficiencies in the “Pastoral” and responded with yet another ovation.

The ability of an audience to detect the difference between an inspired performance and one that is merely professional often depends upon having sufficiently savvy listeners. Those, however, are not the listeners about whom the BSO seems concerned; its current initiatives appear to be motivated by the belief that there simply aren’t enough of them to matter.

The BSO appointed Alsop to succeed Yuri Temirkanov as music director in 2005. She’s the first woman ever to occupy so prestigious a position at an American orchestra, a milestone that has seemed to generate more publicity for the BSO in the last few months than in all of its previous ninety-one years. But the attention isn’t all because of her: There’s enormous curiosity about the BSO’s effort to reinvent the American orchestra, an institution that has suffered from budget and leadership issues in many cities across the country. Only a handful of orchestras are rich enough to fend off the increasing deficits and apparently decreasing audiences that have threatened the BSO.

When the first American orchestras were founded in the 19th century, audiences were by no means comprised chiefly of a wealthy social elite. The New York Philharmonic’s first concert, on December 7, 1842, was before a crowd of recent German immigrants (more than 40 percent of the players were German). It was an elite audience only in the sense that they took music seriously: They knew it and appreciated it.

That model was dealt several successive blows throughout the 20th century—by recorded music, by radio, by movies, by television. At about the time the Vietnam War came to an end, precipitous declines in public school arts education helped reduce symphonic music (as well as many other live performing arts) to something like irrelevance.

This led, eventually, to a huge excess capacity in classical music- making. The thinking at the cultural front of the Cold War in the 1950s and ’60s was that American orchestras weren’t musically or institutionally stable enough to compete with the Soviet Union’s state-funded arts institutions. The result was a drive to build year-round, high-level professional orchestras. In 1966, for example, the Ford Foundation gave almost $81 million in grants—with the condition that orchestras, in turn, had to raise twice that amount in matching funds.

This flood of money dramatically increased the number of concerts. Throughout the 1950s, the standard concert season was thirty weeks. In 1964, the New York Philharmonic signed a fifty-two-week contract and other orchestras followed suit: In 1970, there were six with fifty-two-week seasons; currently, there are eighteen—the BSO among them. But by the 1980s, orchestra expenses began to outstrip revenues. The number of concerts grew not to meet audience demand but to accommodate the financial needs of the players, now almost entirely dependent on their orchestras for income.

Meanwhile, audiences aged, tickets prices escalated, and the time-bomb of reduced arts education finally exploded. There is now too much classical-music “product” for the market to consume. The BSO, for example, gives three to four performances of a program per week (except in the summer months). The greatest orchestras in Europe—in much larger cities like Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London—rarely give more than two.

Beethoven’s hope to address his audience “from the heart to the heart” came from his belief in symphonic music as a force that could reconcile us to each other and to the world in which we live. By the end of the 20th century, the remorseless onslaught of popular culture had made the possibility of such a vision seem impossibly remote. It is thus not only understandable but also commendable that orchestras are trying to reach out to a generation of Americans who know little or nothing about classical music—and that Alsop and her staff are arguing for a different definition of the American orchestra than the one created in the middle of the 19th century. It’s a definition with a more populist, perhaps less elitist, bias.

In such a cultural climate, the ability to make music may not be the most important attribute of a music director. As New York Times music critic Bernard Holland wrote more than a dozen years ago, “American music directors are administrators, hirers, firers, planners, glad- handers, money-raisers, politicians and donor-strokers … [it’s] the conductor as C.E.O., professor, psychiatrist, public relations officer and [on the podium] a ballet dancer.”

Alsop moves more like a boxer than a ballerina, but that’s otherwise an accurate accounting of her bona fides. She’s a skillful media player and is good at attending to the details of artistic administration. The dissension among BSO players created when Alsop was appointed seems to have dissipated, and the praise she has received for promoting the music of Kernis and of several other important American composers is richly deserved. And, like Leonard Bernstein, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic whom she describes as a mentor, she has an uncanny ability to package her ideas intriguingly. For example, her invitation to several composers—America’s John Adams, Scotland’s James MacMillan, England’s Thomas Adès, and Austria’s H.K. Gruber, all of whom she calls “modern Beethovens"—to participate as conductors in the BSO’s first Beethoven symphony cycle since the early years of David Zinman’s music directorship has caused a buzz on both sides of the Atlantic.

The approach seems to be paying off at the gate: In contrast with Temirkanov’s last few seasons, most of Alsop’s concerts have been well-attended—frequently filling most of 2,443-seat Meyerhoff Hall and nearly all of the orchestra’s second home in Bethesda, the 1,976-seat Music Center at Strathmore. Some of that could be attributed to the BSO’s decision to lower ticket prices. Subscription packages this season make every seat available for $25—thanks to a $1 million grant from PNC Bank. The orchestra reports a 14 percent increase in the number of subscriptions purchased compared to last season, with three times the number of first-time subscribers.

But how good is the product that is being heard in those $25 seats compared to that heard in the recent past?

Comparison of the current season’s roster of guest soloists and conductors to that of any in the tenure of Zinman or Temirkanov provides a depressing answer. If engaging guest artists can be compared to shopping, in past years the orchestra’s guest roster looked as if it had been purchased in Bergdorf’s and Saks, while this season’s roster looks like it comes from Wal-Mart—proof that you often get what you pay for. A few of the soloists, while well-known, no longer play as well they did when they became celebrated; the names of some of the others are unfamiliar even to aficionados. And what will happen next season when, without underwriting for $25 seats, ticket prices return to their accustomed level?

And while many BSO innovations sound intriguing, some have proved tedious (or worse) in practice. The notion of Beethoven symphonies conducted by “modern Beethovens” is great in theory, but having to sit through a Beethoven Fourth or Seventh led with marginal competence by someone who, while perhaps a good composer, is a poor conductor is quite another thing. And letting audiences believe that such a performance can be called “a modernist perspective” on Beethoven is nothing less than a classical-music con: It’s taking advantage of people’s ignorance.

Of course, superb soloists and conductors do not guarantee filled houses—something the last years of both Zinman and Temirkanov demonstrated. It can be argued that Baltimore does not need, does not want, and cannot afford an elite orchestra with international standing like the one created in the last twenty years. And perhaps there’s no way that such an institution could survive in the present climate without cutting corners and creating strategies to broaden its appeal.

The era is long past when music directors like Chicago’s Fritz Reiner or Cleveland’s George Szell could create orchestras so good that attending their concerts became a matter of civic pride. Someone like Temirkanov—a great conductor who does not ingratiate himself with the audience or cozy up to a city’s corporate boards and richest citizens—is not likely to come our way again soon. But conductors with both enormous musical talent and popular charisma have been appealing to the public for more than a century. (Bernstein had both—and so did Zinman.) It’s possible that Alsop will grow into a better conductor and that her proselytizing efforts will result in both a broader and a more discerning audience. It’s also possible that a concept of public education that includes the arts—an idea that prevailed in this country until the 1960s—will return.

A new vision of the civic orchestra could be created. Orchestras may need more flexible goals—reducing the number of symphonic concerts, for example, and using the musicians to give more and smaller outreach concerts. Maybe Alsop will mature enough to help accomplish this transformation; maybe the task will fall to her successor.

That’s what one hopes for in the long term. In the short term, the BSO needs to engage better (if not necessarily more expensive) soloists. And it may need to extend the engagement of such great conductors as Günther Herbig, Libor Pešek, and Yan Pascal Tortelier, who can lead the orchestra in the core repertory with experience, skill, and insight that Alsop does not yet possess. Should the BSO receive another $1 million grant, it would be wise to spend it for such purposes.

One thing seems certain: However successfully the BSO packages its product this season and in seasons to come, unless that package also contains some great musical performances, the orchestra as an institution may be neither worth reinventing, nor worth listening to.

—Steve Wigler spent twenty years as the music critic of several newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun. He now writes about music from his home in Baltimore.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Always on a Sunday

Finally getting a bit of time to committ to Alex Ross' "The Rest is Noise" has brought back to my mind a number of scores that I haven't listened to in years. Being so focused in early music is easy because there is SO much of it that has been little explored (and it is so great). That said, there is wealth of other rep that I love, but haven't thought about for quite some time. So imagine this...right now I am listening to "Elektra" with scores and recordings of "Saint Francois d'Assise", "Tannhauser", "Salome", "Ariadne", "Threepenny Opera", and "The Rakes Progress" in front of me. Perhaps this is appropriate listening for a day that is dedicated to tax season.

Teatro Romea is presenting Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" here, and today is the last chance to see it. This is a tremendously important play by the author of "Angels in America". His writing is poetic, biting, and builds great structures of metaphors and critical thought all at once. It is unclear whether the production will be in English or Catalan and that will certainly effect my decision to go or not. I really have a strong dislike, or lack of appreciation for, things in translation. I rarely read books or poetry in anything except the original language (unless it is a language I'm likely to never learn). I hate over-dubbed movies. And opera in translation I am extremely disapproving of...I don't think it helps make the work accessible and it denies the inherent connection between a composer and the words he sets. Of course in different periods text has been less intricately connected to the music, but by and large I don't think it serves any purpose except to weaken the work.

The score for "David et Jonathas" is finally completely marked and I can start marking the parts to send to our concertmistress, the renowned Dana Maiben, to bow. This will be a big job as well. And somewhere in there I will start practicing the score and recreate my staging. This is an exciting prospect because it is a chance to see how my understanding of this great work is changed by the experience and personal growth of the last several years.

That will be Sunday in Barcelona I suppose. I wish I had more to write about, but there isn't much fodder out there just now. It is an off week at Liceu until "Elektra" next week, the Times has been particularly weak on stories lately, the work of the company is in the not-quite-so-interesting phase (though we did get two new board members), and my own computer has died temporarily so I don't have access to DVD's or extended use of the internet.

I will say this, Clayton Koonce has posted a "Fantasy Opera Season" which I think is a great idea and something I am going to have to work on. It will take a lot to widdle it down, but my first thoughts are "Platee", "Tristan", "Pellias", "Capriccio", and then it becomes less clear.