Category: How Eye Hear It

Composing the Missa Solemnis

Instead of a usual review, TD writes fifteen fragments. These are refractions of TD’s consciousness during listening. Judgments are to be interpreted as culminations of preceding, unwritten descriptions.

1. The Swedish Radio Choir rises and falls as a unit. Natural and pleasant, like a sleeping baby’s belly.

2. After Beethoven finished the Missa Solemnis in 1823, he wrote to Karl XIV, the king of Sweden, to cajole him into purchasing a copy. Beethoven penned two epistles, one in February and one in March. The king did not respond to either. In this performance, these Swedes answer Beethoven’s request.

3. Wow, this Kyrie! Sustained unisons resound with power. Despite movement, they seem static. The divine is immovable and motionless.

4. Beethoven: “For God, Time absolutely does not exist.”

5. Dausgaard conducts with reserved dignity. He expends just enough energy to get his desired result. Nothing is superfluous.

6. I picture how this would sound in a cathedral.

7. Michael Weinius’s movements are unpleasant. He shakes his music with despair, as if in need of literal salvation. Apparently, he enjoys Beethoven.

8. These sopranos sound like dying birds. Their staccatos are clipped and comical. They need depth to match the Credo’s message.

9. Dausgaard automates a magnificent swell in the chorus. He pricks a delicate ribbon and pulls it outward. Solemn, subterranean vibrations to boisterous exultance.

10. Whereas Weinius sounds like an overblown opera star, Malin Christensson, the soprano, transmits the divine. Pristine and peaceful, like immovable lake water in the Canadian Rockies. Repentance soars in beautiful legato.

11. Beethoven: “In the upper registers, the soprano, too, can demonstrate inner calm and joy as the evidence of peace.”

12. The famous Incarnatus. Processional dignity morphs into solemn piety. Alto soloist enters with care. A flute tries to soar over the strings. It ultimately breaks through. Ignaz Seyfried, a Viennese composer and colleague of Beethoven’s, thought that the flute was heaven’s messenger in the Annunciation.
13. Thunderous applause congratulated the mass’s Viennese premiere. Beethoven heard nothing.

14. New Yorkers, who are all critics, tend to support foreign ensembles more than the New York Phil. As evidence, a great celebration greeted the performers. They definitely heard it.

15. Dausgaard gently releases his grip on “Eleison”– and its sound flutters away. I am sad to see it go.

Guests, pre-insanity (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, an opera based on a 1962 film directed by Luis Buñuel, is absurd. Aristocrats return to their mansion after an opera outing. They soon discover that they cannot leave the dining room. Naturally, they become crazy and turn on each other. It is the idle domesticity of Clue mixed with Lord of the Flies savagery.

I was initially concerned that Adès’s music glorified these lifeless subjects. How could he write high-strung heroisms for such ennui? Juxtaposed elements, though, frame the opera’s macabre. Lovers fondle each other naked. Luscious harmonies hug crazed language: “Birds of our coupled mouths, while death enters through our feet.” This is not a prototypical tragedy; we’re not meant to feel for the plutocrats. But the music points toward sympathy. Disparate moods compete in this creation of unreality.

Accompanying exhibition for the production. Human hands, lamb legs, and olive branches for dinner. Bon appétit!

Adès etches continuous, pulsating phrases in the love scene (See “O Albion,” from Arcadiana, for an example of this style). The music pictures a spaceship creeping through a mysterious fog. Cohesive linearity is rare in New Music aesthetics, which often favor disjunction and fragmentation.

The work clearly targets the aristocracy. After the richies go crazy, the mulling mob asks: “Are they all dead?’ Answer: “This is to be hoped.”

Could the affluent figures stand as representations of the one percent in tonight’s seats? Wealth inequality unabashedly lurks in the Met’s walls. Price of my ticket has $115 base rate, plus $7.50 service fee, and then a $2.50 facility fee (thank god for press tickets.). This is a hierarchized concert life. One price does not fit all.

The bottom-dwellers – those on the lower levels – finance opera. At intermission they chow down on über-expensive meals on the second tier, gazing out on Lincoln Center’s plaza, served by dressed-up waiters. It’s possible to witness the residual effects of aristocratic ass-kissing. Met employees grunt, curse, hold curt, stony expressions. At the ticket window, my ticket was flung at me with disgust. Misery swirls among workers. Yet, galas “celebrate” the one percent’s contributions. The Met wants to wrestle money from their coffers to supplement their seemingly-perpetually sinking finances.

Adès confronts the art form, crusting with opulence, and the Met, which stages stagnant, thoughtless “tradition” for commercial indulgence – here you will not find feminist productions of troublesome “classics.” Through financial support, donors implicate themselves in the opera’s demands: Adès skewers those who bankroll him. I wonder if ticket refunds will soon be in premium demand.

 

Photo by Timothy Diovanni

Hypercube: Brain on Fire

(le) poisson rouge 10/15/17

 

If you want to learn about philosophy in action, talk to Hypercube, a NYC-based contemporary music ensemble comprised of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and piano:

“A hypercube can be described as an analogous shape, a 3-dimenseional cube, in four or more dimensions. The cube formation is essentially a 3-dimensional equalizer. We like to think that it enters another dimension when the music is added,” Erin Rogers, saxophonist, explained over e-mail.

Does the music transport to another dimension? Or is this just lofty language – is the actual experience more conservative?

To answer these questions, I will describe the musical experience. Mikel Kuehn’s Color Fields (2006/8) sounds like painted landscapes. Barren, desolate tundra morphed into desert glow. In the most colorful moments, it is hard to determine which instrument is playing which line. Disembodied sound eliminates the individual, presenting a blurred image.

These mixing timbres – a fancy term to say how an instrument sounds because of its physicality (i.e. what makes a clarinet sound like a clarinet and not a flute) – are explored in Andriessen’s Hout (1991). I appreciate Rogers’s commentary before the piece; she describes how the instruments interact through a displaced motive. Tree branches shoot out, overlapping, rustling into each other. Rare unisons sound like the manifestation of unshakeable wood.

Behind me, as I listen, ice cubes rumble. Spaghetti and meatballs float in waiters’ hands. This is a new concert experience for me – I am used to the absence of most extraneous sounds – and I am not very happy about it (boohoo for me, I guess).

Rogers leans back with her instrument, like a rocker with their guitar or mic stand. Jay Sorce, spectacled, navigates his instrument’s fingerboard, stoically, with an occasional head wiggle. A grey-haired man in the front row moves his head in time with the music, outwardly satisfied. Unflinching precision masks Chris Graham’s face; he is a Secret Service agent on the marimba. Between pieces, he appears relaxed, friendly, smiley. Pianist Andrea Lodge’s head bounces in a groove. Yellow, blue, pink light shroud the performers, their instruments, sheet music, and iPads. One forlorn disco ball dangles, misplaced, from the ceiling.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni.

Most composers treat Sorce’s guitars – he plays both acoustic and electric – with extra care, making sure to not have them overpower the ensemble. Schuessler’s Liminal Bridges (2016) and Hurel’s Localized Corrosion (2009) stand in contrast: Sorce shreds, riffs, wails, screams eruptions of living sound. Flutter-tonguing in the saxophone complements these outbursts. Who knew these instruments could mix so convincingly?

Considering these sound worlds, does the program achieve its goal of setting the audience’s “Brain on Fire”? This program is as a challenge to concertgoers: the music should, in theory, cause vigilant attention, surprise, visceral responses. Hurrel’s Localized Corrosion best accomplishes this task for me.

Intense, overwhelming sound catapults the piece. Thunderclaps in the bass drum, a growling saxophone, trembling guitar. Quick switch in texture. Sad vibrations stream from the solo guitar. Ensemble jumps at him, vigorous, interruptive. Disconsolate saxophone sighs: hell-plunging, uneasy piano pulsations: metallic acceleration on a small gong: vigorous, bold guitar. A bass drum orgasm terminates in profound stillness. Tense energy radiates from the stage. 10, 15, 20 seconds. Nothing. The performers hold their positions. Lodge rustles; her head moves slightly downward. Then, they release their stance, breaking the spell.

Because of its multifarious, competing textures, Hurel’s work causes continual engagement.  This is not mind-numbingly music: it cannot be turned into Muzak, lightly pacified in shopping malls and convention centers. It demands the precision and daring of this ensemble to strike the deep chasms between passages, to become alive. Provocative music ignites an experiential fire.

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 

Monday was opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The evening was a chance to be seen, to be heard, to be loud. Half-drunk, piss-colored prosecco glasses hovered through the Met lobby. Red-headed twins in matching green dresses pranced down the stairs. Muted elegance hid in an alcove, a sentry with a light-blue, fluffy overthrow. Folks met colleagues with half-hearted smiles, and lovers embraced joyously. Noise echoed throughout the space, filled with exclamations of “You…look superb”, clacks of skyscraper heels, Italian murmurs, Russian rumors, small talk on the summer weather. Press congregated in an impenetrable, baseball-diamond formation. A gaggle of photographers snapped ferociously.

Eventually, an unseen magnet dragged us from the velvety mulling spaces into the theater. The performance began promptly 20 minutes late with a rendition of the National Anthem. Maestro James Levine conducted. The audience largely did not sing along.

Of course, there was an opera to be had tonight: Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831). For those who don’t know Norma, here is a quick summary:

Norma is a priestess in Gaul (think France) during Roman occupation. She had two kids with a Roman governor, Pollione, but now he’s seeing Adalgisa, another priestess. Adalgisa tells Norma about Pollione, which makes her (understandably) furious. Act 1 ends in a heave.

Norma considers killing her children—Hello Medea!—but draws her dagger away at the last moment. Adalgisa enters and Norma is apparently A-Okay with her and Pollione: she even suggests that they run off to Rome together. Adalgisa is aghast. She hopes to reconnect Norma and Pollione.

Segue to a rather boring male chorus. The Druids want to revolt. But it’s not time yet, says Norma’s dad Oroveso. Snooze.

Final scene. Norma learns that Pollione will stay with Adalgisa. She strikes the war gong three times, the Druids fire up a frenzy (torches!). The drama blusters to a close: Norma tries to get back with Pollione, he refuses, she decides to kill herself, Pollione joins her and they walk into the pyre together (How sweet!).

For this vocal masterclass disguised as an opera, a producer could simply put a white backdrop on the Met’s stage without too much injustice. That said, I thought the staging admirably captured Bellini’s late romantic aesthetic. Dark, disorientating pines and scattered, encroaching moonshine complemented the characters’ interactions.

Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

As an audience member proclaimed at intermission, though, “people care mostly about the voices in this work.” Tenor Joseph Calleja (Pollione) was casual, reserved, despite the heady topic (love). He infused more devotion as his character was whirlpooled into the tragedy. Soprano Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had a silvery tone when she sang high. Her acting felt spontaneous and intense. Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) embodied tender, moving Romanticism in her famous aria, Casta Diva. Throughout the marathon, Radvanovsky executed rocket-powered scales, winding phrases, and dancing grace notes—markers of the bel canto style–with ease.

Although I haven’t seen it posited elsewhere, the bel canto singing style extends to instrumentalists at well. In Casta Diva I was impressed by the flutist’s phrasing and tone, which built a solid foundation for Radvanovsky. In an exposed clarinet and flute duet in the first act, the intonation was sparkling clean. Their effort created an appropriate holiness. Overall, the orchestra’s fortes just felt way too safe. More sound! (Please.)

Cadenzas—extended, solo passages usually for one or two musicians—allow singers to showcase their vocal prowess. Duet vocal cadenzas are especially difficult to execute because both singers must be perfectly synchronized in their tempo alterations and dynamic choices. Radvanovsky and DiDonato had to perform several of these duets. In the first act, their intonation suffered in their upper register. However, they solved the problem in the second act, summoning the pristine beauty of the bel canto style.

Although I have several reservations about the plot, one scene stands out for its drama. When the Druids find Pollione in their temple, they bring him to Norma to kill him. Instead, Norma tries to convince Pollione to return to her. He refuses; Norma indicates that she will kill Pollione’s lover. She recalls the Druids and announces that a guilty priestess shall burn on the pyre. They implore, “Who is she?” Norma hesitates. The Druids ask again, “Who is she?” Norma, “It is I.” The singers captured the tragedy of the moment with intense, palpable stillness. When the orchestra reentered on their soft sostenuto, the mood was solemn, desolate. Radvanovsky pleads and prays, her accepted devastation processes to its infernal . Here, I believe the production succeeded: the prolonged silence followed by the tragic orchestra created a poignant ping that made me empathize with Norma’s fate. Such pathos proves that a moving Norma is not just about the singers, rather how different operatic elements–orchestra, staging, choreography, ensemble–interact with each other. The experience can only be endured through a live performance.

 

Norma runs through December 16, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live October 7, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

For anyone in MusicHum, this opera presents the perfect opportunity to see an archetype of bel canto. Tickets in the boonies aren’t as cheap as they once were: the best you can do is a $25 rush ticket the day of the performance on the Met’s website (rush tickets are cheaper than student tickets.). Information and ticket listings on metopera.org.

 

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Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

“So beautiful,” whispered a captivated concertgoer behind me. Normally, any talking—or sound for that matter—is hurriedly and aggressively shushed by a “serious” audience member at the Met. Renée Fleming, however, seemed to provoke an admissible exception.

Fleming’s whirlwind return to the Met Opera’s season premiere of Der Rosenkavalier (music by Richard Strauss, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal) electrified the opera community. Last week, Fleming scared many by announcing that she would soon be leaving the opera stage. Fleming has since nixed the retirement idea, but the effect of the buzz was obvious: fans came in large numbers just in case this would be the last time that they could do so. In attendance as well were some of Fleming’s collaborators, who have sung with her over the years–coming to support her previously-presumed last run at the Met.

Fleming, for her part, plays the Marschallin: a middle-aged member of the Viennese aristocracy who sighs in anguish over the cruelness of aging. Fleming knows—and loves—the role. In her first solo at the end of Act 1, Fleming smartly addressed the silver rose—a symbol of youth and forthcoming happiness—with an imploring, wistful tone quality. Shortly after, her sweet, yet innerly despairing voice seized the audience’s empathy.

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Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

However, notwithstanding the positive aspects of Fleming’s work tonight, I do prefer her 2010 performance of the same role (Columbia faculty and students can find it through CLIO under the keyword “Met Opera on Demand”). In that performance, she lived the Marschallin: solemn tears slowly streamed down her face at the end of the “Mein schöner Schatz” duet in Act 1. Her phrasing and sepulchral tone made for an unforgettable moment.

Tonight’s conductor, Sebastian Weigle, again chose problematic tempos. The prelude, for example, was much too fast. Here, the music is declarative, demonstrative—overly confident and grandiose. Yet, Weigle seemed incredibly anxious, gesturing with extremely quick circular motions (so fast that his arms were just a blur to my eyes). By taking a quicker tempo, the music sounded too hectic and lost its appropriate gusto.

Weigle made a similarly poor decision in the last minutes of Act 3. Here, silvery chords in the high strings, winds, and percussion flutter downward. The descent should be reflective—it is the end of the opera!—and ethereal. However, it felt tossed-off, illy cared for–herky-jerky and uneven. I recognize that I was critical of Weigle’s lethargic tempo decisions for Fidelio, yet here he seems to have gone in the opposite direction. I do admit however, that future runs of the production might produce better results.

The Met orchestra impressed me —as it routinely does—with its stamina. In the middle of the third act, I heard a clarinetist–presumably either Inn-Hyuck Cho or Anton Rist–flawlessly execute a rapid lick that flickered between the clarion and altissimo registers. The passage was followed by a sustained, pianissimo high note. Both of these sections are incredibly difficult to play when with fresh energy. They’re almost a miracle after two and a half hours of continuous music.

Robert Carsen, the producer of the Met’s new take on Der Rosenkavalier, replaces the dusty, Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque setting with a bawdy production set when the opera was written (1911). Topless prostitutes pursue and are pursued by lustful Viennese men; Octavian, the Marschallin’s young lover, grabs his partner’s behind (what a great way to say, “Welcome back, Renée!”); and Sophie, Octavian’s new love, carelessly dances across one of her father’s howitzer (oddly placed in the living room of their modern palace).

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The playfulness of Octavian–performed by Elīna Garanča–and the Marschallin–sung by Renée Fleming–on display in Act 1. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Admittedly, I was skeptical when I learned about Carsen’s decision to set the third act in a brothel. Typically, it is staged in an inn, a “house of ill repute.” However, the text—the same one used for the inn setting—actually translates well in the new environs: it is believable that Sophie’s dad Faninal calls Octavian, who is disguised as Mariandel, a slut and it makes sense that Octavian assumes a baser dialect as a working-class Viennese woman (some funny lines include “Whad’ya mean?” and “I ain’t gonna drink no wine.”)

The one aspect of the brothel that felt most uncomfortable, however, was the onstage jazz quartet. Prostitutes pantomimed and synchronized fake playing on the clarinet, saxophone, double bass, and accordion. Not only was their supposed music not like the orchestra’s actual performance, but also the quartet implied 1920s Europe more than the 1910s. The production had a 1920s feel to it elsewhere as well, Octavian’s flapper-like costume in Act 1 being another example.  

I found Carsen’s incorporation of the Zeitgeist—especially Freudian ideas—rather compelling. When Sophie sings about her upcoming marriage, dreamlike clones of Sophie and her groom-to-be waltz behind her. Sophie is bathed in a yellow spotlight—the light of the real world—while the dancers behind her are enveloped in purple—a hue of the inner, thought world. Carsen’s decision illustrates how an individual’s inner thoughts and desires are experienced as real, even while awake.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier swear their love for each other in front of an imposing howitzer. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier swear their love for each other in front of an imposing howitzer. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Although this was seemingly The Renée Fleming Show, there are, of course, more singers in Der Rosenkavalier. Elīna Garanča as Octavian embodied the wide range of conflicting emotions of her character. At the end of the last act, Octavian is caught between the Marschallin and Sophie, unsure of who he should turn to. Here, Garanča’s expressions and voice illustrated Octavian’s distress well.

Erin Morley as Sophie sounded quite warm in the upper register, especially when she built up toward it. Unfortunately, she was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra, especially during a fast, staccato passage in Act 2. Overall, I found that her diction was unintelligible at times, but balance could be to blame.

Günther Groissböck–a holdover from Fidelio–swaggered with pride, aggression, and self-absorption as the predatorial Baron Ochs. In Act 2, he engaged with Sophie in a vocal battle of sorts, his crescendoing vocal presence overpowering his soon-to-be wife (who he caustically likened to an “unbroken foal”). The Ochs is easily one of the easiest-to-hate characters in opera.

But the night was Fleming’s. At curtain call, the audience enthusiastically expressed joy for her return and relief for her operatic stay. It was her voice—combined with the prowess of the Met orchestra—that led my fellow concertgoer to exclaim, “So beautiful.” It is for these cherished musical moments that we go to the opera and for which you should let yourself come too.

Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier runs through May 13, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live May 13, at 12:30 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org.