Classical Music, Opera, Theatre, Photography, Art, Books, Travel, Food & Drink – the View from Western New England

Archive for September, 2009

A Singer's Notes, 1: Two Young Singers – Kara Cornell and Devon Guthrie

Two marvelous young singers are appearing in our area. If you want to see what singing acting really is, go see Kara Cornell in Peter Brook’s “The Tragedy of Carmen”, at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York. Voice, face, and body are all one thing. She makes opera a completely believably speech.

In James Levine’s Don Giovanni a couple of weeks ago with the Tanglewood Fellows, I first heard Devon Guthrie (Donna Elvira). She is appearing in our area again in the Bard Music Festival’s 5:30 pm concert on August 23rd at Bard College, singing Eva in excerpts from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. This is a vivid and highly intelligent young artist. I can’t wait to hear her again.

A Singer's Notes, 3: The Slavic Center – of Norman Treigle and The Philadelphia Orchestra

Here I am riding home on a dark, late summer night. The windows are down, crickets are singing. Making this trip is my Russian connection. Rachmaninoff and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Where I just was was where I stood and sang a few feet away from the death throes of Norman Treigle’s Boris. Nobody knows about him now, but he was a singing actor with the singularity of a Chaliapin or a Callas. Or maybe Callas and Chaliapin had the singularity of a Norman Treigle. I cannot be in Saratoga without his memory prompting me. Rachmaninoff once said that early in his career that he composed for the sound of Chaliapin’s voice, and later in his career for the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Each year when I get to SPAC the orchestra seems younger. This was my chance to hear the Symphonic Dances he wrote for them, played by another great collective, three or four generations away now. I have long admired the intention, the glue that makes this darkest of American orchestras show us a macro kind of phrasing, how weight makes a line as effectively as detail. if the weight leans forward beautifully enough. Would they still have the sound, would they even know the sound? Would it matter if they had the sound? Sure would to me. Their sound through the decades has formed my idea of the Slavic center. A dark space, a hut, a cathedral with a sharp edge of flame. Is it a hearth fire or the apocalypse?

A Singer's Notes 2: Meistersinger Redux

All my performing life Die Meistersinger has been more a polemic than a performance. It goes around the music world as a political document like the John Passion. Performances are sold on the basis of political incorrectness. I have been hearing Meistersinger all the time this summer. I have found myself more moved than ever before by the sad humanity of the work. Maybe it’s being a little older.

Prom 52: Gergiev and the London Symphony play Schnittke’s Nagasaki and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8

Russian sorrows. Valery Gergiev took a risk programming two works about grief in one concert. He was counting on the cumulative effect of a large choral piece, Schnittke’s Nagasaki, and a massive symphony, the Shostakovich Eighth. Or perhaps the unquenchable Russian penchant for melancholy was at work. The Proms audience expected to take their medicine from Schnittke, whose mature style is often assaultive, while glorying in the London Symphony’s virtuosic display in the Shostakovich. As it happened, Gergiev’s risk paid off with a complete triumph.

Prom 38: Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Orchestra play Unsuk Chin and Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps

Misfire. The Proms have honorably programmed many Stravinsky works this summer that aren’t exactly crowd-pleasers, and at times they’ve paid the price of low attendance. Not with Le Sacre du Printemps, a sure-fire hit that drew everyone in London who was in the mood for a barbaric blast. The problem is, that’s all they got. Ilan Volkov, the young, heavily bearded, and bespectacled conductor of the BBC’s Scottish Orchestra, must have had ideas about the score, but he drew a noisy, shapeless reading that eradicated hope early on. Volkov was born in Israel in 1976 but did most of his later training in London at the Royal College of Music. Leaving aside a short stint as Seiji Ozawa’s assistant in Boston (where I heard him and was impressed), Volkov’s career has been British-based, and he won his appointment in Edinburgh in 2003, In other words, he’s had plenty of time to earn his musicians’ confidence and has no excuse if he cannot communicate what he wants.

Prom 46: Bychkov and Matsuev with the BBC Symphony in Glanert, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich

Half a loaf. In my hobby as a conductor maven I’ve long been interested in Semyon Bychkov since he popped to international notice when the ageing von Karajan mentioned the then thirty-something as his successor in Berlin. Semyon who? Considering that Bychkov’s principal jobs through the Eighties had been in Grand Rapids, Michigan. and Buffalo, New York, he was definitely a rabbit being pulled from the hat. Berlin didn’t award him the magic phone call, but the Leningrad-born conductor, who fled the Soviet Union for political reasons and became an American citizen, was rising quickly. He spent the Nineties as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris and made some high-profile recordings for Philips with no less than the Berlin Philharmonic. They weren’t ready to hire him, but they knew a star in the making.

Proms 51: Vänskä and the BBC Symphony in Haydn, Szymanowski, and Brahms (with Joshua Bell)

Unmixed blessings. If I’ve given the pinched impression this summer that the Proms don’t deliver completely satisfying concerts, last night’s was the exception that proves the rule. I had wondered about the raves that Osmo Vänskä receives with his remote-north Minneapolis Symphony, a location as chilly as his native Finland. On records you can’t always judge the mettle of a conductor, and I discovered how far short my estimate of Vänskä was. Let’s bring him south more often. He’s a pleasure to watch, always alert, dropping his baton when he wants to mold the air expressively with both hands, and gifted with the kind of beat that draws real performances from hard-working musicians (a refreshing change from Daniel Barenboim’s show-offy impersonation two nights ago of a great maestro hypnotizing the masses). No musicians are harder working than the BBC Symphony, and as a result they can seem faceless, capable of proficiency but not inspiration. Or so they’ve sounded for most of the summer.

The Seattle Ring 2009

I am extremely reluctant to take a position as a Wagnerian traditionalist. Life is hard enough as it is without entering a futile battle against the now generation-old invasion of directorial Goths, who consider all the specifics of Wagner’s poems and especially the stage directions in them to be automatically transferrable to some other set of references entirely different from Wagner’s own mythological cosmos. I’ve also had the luxury of having Otto Schenk’s fine Metropolitan Opera production as my “home” Ring. I’ve also done my best to keep an open mind for the good qualities of more manipulated efforts like the Warner-Lazarides production at the Royal Opera House, which I mostly liked, because it was intelligently conceived and maintained a trackable relation to Wagner’s original…although in retrospect I think I spent an undue amount of time meditating on the meaning of the crashed aeroplane in the first act of Siegfried—which was in itself just as cool as it gets. I’ve referred to the final performances of the Ring as a last call for traditional Rings at major opera houses, but I was wrong. The Seattle Opera, which is most definitely a major opera house, has just presented the third of four iterations of a production, which is recognizable as a traditional production, even more than Schenk’s, although its organizers deny that it is intended as a “traditional” Ring.