The very short apotheosis at the end of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at Hubbard Hall made me think of confluences — the building, the performers, the audience. All of these were here in a gentle and honest synch. It was the most evenly cast opera I have heard in this venue. The staging was honest. The two singers in the title roles were convincing in the simplest way. They looked right, and they sounded right. In the dream sequence, which no staging can match, director Dianna Heldman brought to me a naturalness which was moving in its humility and acceptance of the place in which it was performed. The old hall itself seemed an ideal house for this reality. Nothing which Alexina Jones and Kara Cornell did as Gretel and Hansel was prolix. There was no fake childishness. Humperdinck could be said to have produced an adult’s version of what childhood is- simple tunes, good things to eat, etc. I suppose when compared to “The Magic Flute”, an opera which really is childlike, this is true. But this dead-honest production and its raptly attentive audience in the golden light of the hall made it seem a miracle. There were no weak links on stage, and there were no false steps in the staging. It was great.
Mélisse is now celebrating its tenth anniversary. At its location only a few hundred yards from the Santa Monica Pier, it has the feeling of a neighborhood institution, but not the honky-tonk neighborhood of Ye Olde King’s Head and similar establishments along Santa Monica Boulevard and the beach — rather Brentwood and Beverly Hills, to which it is directly linked on its corner of Wilshire Boulevard. Since its beginnings, its founder, Chef Josiah Citrin and his staff have earned it two Michelin stars. The dining rooms have also been renovated into their present elegant and extremely soothing state only a few years ago.
The greatest surprise in the Kronos Quartet’s concert at Usher Hall was that this was their very first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. I’d have thought that they’d be regulars going back many years, given their well-known mixture of daring repertory and popular appeal. For almost forty years now, they have achieved almost cult status by playing a certain kind of contemporary music: challenging works which demand concentration but which are sufficiently colorful and aggressive that they commandeer the audience’s attention from start to finish.
Whether you first became aware of the composer Leoš Janáček while seeing or hearing one of his unusual operas, operas with animal characters, moon people, or 400-year-old women, or, like me, you encountered his well-known Sinfonietta in a traditional orchestra concert, you probably instantly realized that this is a composer with his own distinctive sound and musical sensibility, neither Germanic, like Richard Strauss, Finnish, like Sibelius, or Russian, like Scriabin, to compare him with three of his immediate contemporaries. Though there are occasional echoes of Smetana and Dvořák, the nineteenth century’s two great Czech nationalists, Janáček’s music most often sounds sharply different from theirs nor does he remotely resemble his contemporaries in nearby lands. This relatively short book — about 136 page of easily readable prose — is an exploration of that sound.
The buddy system. Last night’s Prom was as close to an all-smiles evening as one could hope for with rain pouring down all day. David Robertson, although known as a champion of contemporary music, programmed two easy pieces, the Barber Violin Concerto, which is about as challenging as a box of caramels (very delicious caramels) and the Sibelius Second Symphony, a sure-fire hit in Nordic-friendly Britain. There are so many stories of promising American conductors who falter in middle age (Robertson turned 52 last month) that I was eager to hear him a second time. The first was with the Boston Symphony some years ago. Before I register my impressions, however, there’s a spic-and-span back story to his career — apparently this man has left behind him a trail of good will wherever he goes. He looks fit and friendly, with flat gray hair and the long face of a Yankee banker sitting for a Copley portrait. Born and raised in Malibu — not an arduous beginning, one assumes — Robertson was educated at the Royal Academy of Music. This tie to London glided into becoming the chief guest conductor of the BBC Symphony, which he presided over last night with happy faces all around. Robertson even entered the thorny patch that is the Ensemble Intercomtemporain in Paris and was cheered on despite having no ties to its founder, the formidable Pierre Boulez. Robertson preferred to conduct John Adams instead, and he got away with it.
Certainly one of the happiest events in the expansion of the classical repertoire in the later twentieth century has been the discovery of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece, Idomeneo, rè di Creta. Often I think it may be my favorite…until I really start thinking seriously about Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, but I can say that I feel a special passion for Idomeneo. When one reads about the conductors who have brought it into its still admittedly somewhat intermittent place in the repertory of major opera houses — first among whom is Sir Colin Davis, their passion for the work is always in the foreground. The opera itself is passionate. Mozart clearly responded strongly to the libretto, and this passion is infectious.
Three weeks after deposing Kevin Rudd, as though ticking off another item on her to-do list, Julia Gillard called a federal election (one of only three winter federal elections in Australian history). I can’t summon the heart to give much of an account of the five week campaign which followed, especially since the twist in the story only came once the votes began to be counted. You really had to be here. The campaign was truly godawful, a complete extinguishing of the hope which had seen Kevin07 elected three years before. Both major parties pandered to the same focus groups in the same few marginal electorates. They peddled small bore middle class welfare and indulged trumped-up fear; they blandly appealed to the most disgracefully narrow-minded tendencies in the darkest marginal corners of the Australian electorate, the people who fear their leaf blowers will not be powerful enough to defend their McMansions against Taliban invasion. It was easy to to believe that the entire country had become, as one correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, a Boganocracy.
Tonight’s much-anticipated and touted performance of little-known Austrian composer Franz Schmidt’s magnum opus, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals), was nothing short of startling, and more than a bit revelatory. Being fashioned as a dramatic oratorio, the mystifying and unsettling text of The Revelations of St. John the Divine becomes, in Schmidt’s hands, a terrifying and sensational virtuosic musical juggernaut. It was clear from Leon Botstein’s program notes that this evocatively dramatic work is one his favorites; in his program notes, he wastes no time in dubbing it one of the twentieth-century’s greatest choral works.