Archive for October, 2012
Alixina and Jason have done it again.
The Hubbard Hall Opera Theater Resident Artists La Bohème played to a sizeable crowd in the Dorset Playhouse last night, and the audience departed well-pleased. Each opera that I have seen Jason Dolmetsch stage has had the benefit of his excellent ear. Just one example: in Act 3 of La Bohème, where Mimi usually listens off, or nearly off, to the dire pronouncements, Vedrana Kalas walked haltingly across the space way upstage, a few steps at a time, as if what she was overhearing made it difficult for her to continue. Her progress touched the heart. In this abbreviated production (75 minutes with no intermission), Act 3 was given most fully. This is important.
Herr Stadler’s One and Only Basset Clarinet Resurrected: Craig Hill Plays Mozart’s Concerto, also Mozart’s Violin Concerto with Madeleine Easton and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides on Period Instruments of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
It wouldn’t necessarily be very difficult for historic performance practice to degenerate into the “flavor of the month” endlessly seeking novelty, ironically enough, in newest old bizarre instrument never before heard by modern ears, or into a cliquey “earlier than thou” competition. Perhaps we are just beyond this stage, or perhaps the 20 years since Pamela Poulin’s exciting discovery of the appearance of Anton Stadler’s basset clarinet — we haven’t found a surviving original specimen of the ephemeral instrument — has given time for experimentation and to rediscover the technique and the soul of the instrument and the “novelty” part has worn off a bit. The beauty of the basset clarinet’s voice, not so much unfamiliar or even unique, as even more clarinetish than a usual clarinet, is exactly fitting to Mozart’s music, giving a fascinating insight into the idea that a period’s instrumentarium exactly befits the period’s music, and the question whether the instruments evolve to fit the new music or the music evolves to take advantage of the new instruments, or both at once. The clarinet generally speaking having such a “normal” tone between the extremes of the more penetrating and sharp older cousin oboe and small-bird-like ancient cousin flute, fills in an aching space in the orchestra and makes it hard to believe (in retrospect) that it became a regular in european orchestras as late as it did. Indeed Mozart’s life coincided with this change. His letters home from Mannheim, where he first encountered clarinets in orchestral music, read like a revelation he was so enthusiastic about them, and he immediately took to composing in the new woodwind texture. Anton Stadler (his son Johann played the other clarinet in some of Mozart’s symphonies, as in Mozart’s last public concert in early 1791) as a friend and “early adopter,” or perhaps only adopter, of the basset clarinet, such a perfect solo instrument, too perfect, at least for its virtuosic possibilities but more importantly for its expressive voice, no doubt created inspiration and opportunity to write a concerto for it. It is also thought that Mozart and Stadler intended a basset clarinet for the clarinet quintet of two years before (K. 581). Perhaps a shade of that original inspiration sparks performers today. Mozart hadn’t written a concerto for three years (the last piano concerto K. 595 was probably begun in 1788 and finished in late 1790[1. see H. C. Robbins Landon’s 1791: Mozart’s Last Year]), having practically “perfected” the piano concerto (but no doubt he could have had more ideas, judging from the depth of those he wrote), the following concerto turned out to be for clarinet. If the violin concerto would take the 19th century to “perfect” — according to conventional wisdom anyhow — Madeleine Easton’s performance of Mozart’s third violin concerto brought that notion into question (see below). And between the very human piano and violin, it is not common to hear concertos for the stringless family, so it is surprising and amazing to hear such a satisfying concerto for clarinet, as satisfying as any for piano or violin, or at the least it distracts a listener from making the comparison. This is in a large way due to the presence of the resurrected basset clarinet in such a deeply satisfying performance with such a close, understanding rapport between the less familiar clarinet and the more familiar orchestral members.
A few years ago I went to a lecture of which the most compelling theme was the link between 20th century architectural practice and toy design. I can’t remember the specific architects who were mentioned back then, but I can think of two practitioners from the Northeast who, I believe, at least partially fit into that thesis—Ann McCallum and Andrus Burr of Burr & McCallum in Williamstown, Massachusetts:
The toy is sometimes the object and the by-product of obsession, invention, tinkering, and learning. In the right person’s hands, the toy can express elevated aesthetic thought and highly selective insight, instances where rigorous work and play are so closely linked that they can become indistinguishable from each other. Another way to say it is that
Virtuosos make what they do look easy.
Santa Barbara, California is not the sleepy town that many outsiders assume. On the contrary, it offers a more diversified and sophisticated array of cultural events than most communities of its size. Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures, the University of California’s outstanding presenting organization, both the scholarly and residential population benefit greatly each year from a broad spectrum of hot-topic academic lectures as well as dance, music, and theatre performances, ranging from innovative, cutting-edge companies and ensembles to high-profile, beloved traditional institutions.
Completeness is its own kind of extravagance. It enables risk. The completeness I speak of is given to us when an artist finds a union between imagination and voice which is set as a seal, neither one or the other in combat for supremacy. A word, a note becomes as much a physical fact as an imagined one. The muscle leads the mind and surprises it with a knowledge of deep things. To achieve this requires much work. To become a babe again, to let out a cry of pure delight is the task of a lifetime. Being finished vocally is one thing (conservatories often stop here), achieving a unity of mind and muscle quite another.
With summer fading into the past, one compensation for earlier nightfalls and chillier water temperatures that limit swims to only intensely sunny midday outings is the pumped-up output happily spilling out of the vegetable garden. The squash vines have wound out into improbable places, and, if one pokes around under those umbrella-like leaves, there are plenty of butternut and spaghetti squashes playing hide and seek. Every day tomatoes are dropping off their stems. And suddenly there are lots of reasons for searching out some ripe, dense, maybe even rustic red wines to accompany all there is to eat.
Dvořák and Shostakovich with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony, Jian Wang, Cello, Plus Some Extra Cellomania
Is Dvořak, to paraphrase Dr. Leonard McCoy, really that beautiful? Really so much more beautiful than other music you’ve heard? Or is it just that it acts beautiful? If it comes down to the performance to go more than skin deep, the musicians must play very convincingly indeed. Beauty in music has proven to be diverse. For a sound to be music rather than mere sounds, however pleasing, the it needs the broadest possible aesthetic idea of beauty. An ugly sound, it has been pointed out, can be “beautiful” if used so fittingly by a composer that nothing but that sound could be desired at that point in the music. For human beings, this has included the rasping shawms and the regals, and the augmented fourth of the middle ages and renaissance, the harsh use of the usual orchestral brass by Mahler, and all the freely used ugly sounds and outbursts in 20th century music and its terrible dissonances. I would draw the line at physically painful sounds, either through loudness or shrillness or both, as ugly in a destructive way, and so incapable of beauty, even betraying the faith of the listener who trustingly opens their ears to the music, though some do seem to find pleasure in the ginormous 19th century organs played at full volume with all the stops out. Free expression in a musician or a composer can be beautiful in itself, of course, though when that expression becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent, or sentimental (which can betray a certain narrow emotional rigidity) or arbitrary (which can betray a self-imposed or self-persuaded intellectual rigidity) it can become ugly. Music in a straight jacket can be ugly too. A masterful fugue in transcending any thought of a dichotomy between these two extremes can be most beautiful of all.