Benjamin Bagby has been performing Beowulf now for twenty years, usually to sold-out houses, especially in New York City. (I’ve tried and failed to get tickets more than once.) Audiences and critics rave about Bagby’s ability to create a spellbinding effect in his recitation/singing over the hour and forty minutes of its duration — all in what is practically a foreign language, even if most people call it Old English. With brilliant success, Bagby has transformed what was once the bane of American English majors — all too long ago: that last of those required to address the older stages of our language are hoary of head and halting in gait — into a thrilling entertainment full of color and expression. It is as if the early music movement had finally spawned their Stokowski. The effect is so essentially baroque. What Lear or Hamlet has speech, declamation, and singing in his dramatic quiver? In this way Bagby has bridged the language gap and made it possible for modern audiences to share something like the enjoyment a medieval scop’s audience would have experienced in a bardic performance. Of course today we sit decorously in Seiji Ozawa Hall or some place like it, and there is no mead or beer at hand. On the rare occasion that a line comes out as comprehensible modern English, we laugh. Our eyes flit back and forth to and from the supertitles…
Wake in Fright is not a film about the 2010 Australian federal election (that one might be called Lie Awake in Despair), but it is a film which says uncomfortable things about Australia, and therefore is not entirely unrelated to this winter of political discontent. It lays waste to the cherished Australian ideal of mateship and beyond that specific cultural provocation, it can be seen as a film about friendliness in general. Many places are described as friendly, without the further interrogation which might reveal the differences between, say, the way people are friendly in northeast Ohio, and they way they are friendly in Istanbul. The study of friendliness is rich territory for art and the fact that nearly everyone in Wake in Fright could be described as friendly is disturbing indeed.
It is the long-standing custom of the Bard SummerScape Festival to present an important neglected opera, closely related to the composer around whom the Festival is built, but not by the composer himself. In my recollection, Schumann’s Genoveva, Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg, Szymanowski’s King Roger, as well as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots were all important, of very high quality, and significantly related to Liszt, Elgar, Prokofiev, and Wagner. This year’s opera, Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, is no exception, in fact, as a neglected opera, it is especially important, because in its time it was one of the most often staged contemporary operas in Germany.
Punchy, zingy, raspy, and rushed. By far the most erratic concert of the summer season was delivered at last night’s Prom where Paavo Jarvi brought his small band of Bremen town musicians (that is, the well-regarded Deutsche Kammer-Philharmonie Bremen). When Haydn made his second celebrated visit to London in 1794, he employed an orchestra of up to eighty musicians playing before crowds of perhaps a thousand. So it’s pure affectation to ask forty musicians to play two of Beethoven’s most powerful works, the Violin Concerto and Symphony no. 5, in the yawning spaces of Albert Hall, which seats over six thousand. In the name of period style we were treated last night to three double basses, all but unheard beyond the first few rows. They might as well have sawed the air.
I was of divided mind. Cellist, Pieter Wispelwey From the familiar opening measures of Bach’s great set of cello suites, any resemblance to performances I had previously heard (or could imagine from the score), any accordance with Baroque performance practice I had studied, and any sense of veneration to “The Bach Suite As Such” had been thoroughly dashed. I listened with jaw-dropping surprise at Wispelwey’s granular, hyper-rhetorical phrasing – now playful, now expressionistic, now rapturous, now diffident, always light-on-the-bow – and felt completely alienated by a radical departure from a performance tradition I had loved. Where were Janos Starker’s muscles? Where was the grunting and spiritually ennobling midwifery of Pablo Casals whose hulking, devotional approach attested to the phenomenon, as G. M. Hopkins said, “sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine”?
Summer concerts in the city are frequently revealing in their own several ways. A quick look around Davies Hall last Friday would have reminded locals that there is no need to escape San Francisco in July. Many of the regular faces were present, and so, too, were throngs of young couples in from the suburbs. In the shirt-sleevy dusk, Van Ness Avenue and its many venues seemed the focal point of date night. The line for will-call tickets snaked around the block.
Everywhere around me leaving two great concerts at Tanglewood this week, the talk was of those phenoms of memory, Benjamin Bagby and Pieter Wispelwey. Mr. Bagby spoke, sang, and roared Beowulf, and Mr. Wispelwey played all six of Bach’s Cello suites. What is it about memory that engages people? Do they think they can’t do it themselves? They’re probably wrong about that. We are told that toddlers have a nearly photographic memory. The skill can be greatly enhanced with steady practice. Just ask a soap opera actor. Do we have so many machines that memory is becoming a slow information feed for us? Musicians and actors know in their minds and their bodies how second nature memory becomes when a great work is concentrated on. There is something else to it. I remember a great teacher saying when asked what artists do replying, “Artists remember in public.” The whole act of performing is one of memory or if I may make a word work for me, rememory. Rememory is not the same as memorization. The latter is a technique; the former a state of mind. Easy memorization skills can be limiting. Nothing about a performer’s work should be facile. Rememory is a state that leads the great work out of the performer’s imagination with some kind of a dependable flow which can be trusted.
Bloody philosophes. The French Revolution was not the most monstrous of its kind. In World War II Hitler beheaded more people with portable guillotines in Vienna than the tumbrels delivered in Paris. But it survives as a lasting emblem of the fall of reason. That the society of Voltaire and Diderot could descend into the mindless savagery of the Reign of Terror prefigured Freud’s gloomy conclusion that civilization is a thin veneer painted over atavistic brutality. In the shattering drama, Danton’s Death, the point is made more trenchantly when the hero declares that sanity itself is a fragile construction, a bubble that bursts when the true nightmare of life reveals itself. This was essentially the world view of Georg Büchner — we see it reinforced in his better-known Woyzeck (largely thanks to Alban Berg’s operatic adaptation as Wozzeck), in which the schizophrenia of a common soldier is played upon by the equally mad but socially acceptable devices of his superiors.