Is there a more passionate art form than opera? In what other mode is the uninhibited expression of feeling—tragic or comic—so central? More central than reason. Given the emotional liberation of great music, what can in a mere plot description appear to be absurd (a woman tossing the wrong baby into a fire; a “fallen woman” sacrificing her entire future and the happiness of her lover for the sake of her lover’s respectable sister; a man killing his best friend in a duel because he has flirted with his girlfriend; a nobleman secretly meeting his own wife in disguise—madness, murder, and deception) can become through music profound and moving, Revelation and Catharsis.
This was a great recital—almost. Richard Goode played the last three Beethoven piano Sonatas and a set of late Bagatelles, and was quite convincing, even revelatory, with all the material except the final Sonata, the forbidding Opus 111. This last came off well, it felt meant—and all those difficult notes were well articulated—but the full emotional daring of the piece was not quite there.
Reluctant to miss an opportunity to hear the great clarinettist Eric Hoeprich, especially after his sensitively nuanced performance of Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio for the Boston Early Music Festival, I found it necessary, unfortunately, to miss an important BEMF evening in order to make the trek out to Brandeis. Daniel Stepner in fact apologized for the conflict, promising to avoid them in the future. Indeed, it would be to the advantage of Boston audiences if the two festivals could pool their resources to make it possible for BEMF audiences to hear the Aston Magna musicians, especially this one, devoted to a rarely heard, obsolete elder sibling of the clarinet, the chalumeau.
The challenge, the risk of counter-tenor singing, still fairly young as a revived technique, seems to appeal to modern audiences; it is a peculiar type of virtuosity just by virtue of the technique. It is only natural that the the counter-tenor revival took off in the 1950’s and developed in parallel with the historical performance practice movement. That was Alfred Deller who helped it take off, who started as a boy in a choir in the 1920’s and as an adult helped the Purcell revival in singing alto, and gave recitals of Italian madrigals and Elizabethan songs, but also singing contemporary opera, creating the role of Oberon for Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.[1. See J. B. Steane writing for Grove Music Online.] Philippe Jaroussky cites Deller’s very distinctive voice, and also James Bowman, who too inspired Britten, creating the role of Apollo for Death in Venice, as voices he listened to in forming his own, and forming as an artist, Bowman especially. Bowman gave his farewell concert in Paris only last November, and many good recordings exist of Deller. Now with some hundreds of professional counter-tenors in the world and they inching up into the soprano range, the hole in the Baroque and classical “instrumentarium” left by the extremely distinctive and castrato voice which tickled so much enthusiasm in audiences — and composers — in the 17th and 18th century is filling, or at least better circumscribed, without needing to resort to a false general preference or dichotomy determined by fashions between counter-tenors and sopranos en travestie, in recital or in opera, or between counter-tenors and contraltos.
One of the joys with a visiting orchestra is to experience new sonorities—to be swept richly downward, perhaps, to unanticipated string depths—to hear brass playing grainier or more golden than you thought possible in the hall—or wind passages lighter and more personal than you might have dreamed. More importantly, you come to sense the ensemble’s psychology, as individual in its way as the conductor’s. Listen to an orchestra like the Mariinsky, and you experience shivers of delight. How Russian it seems!
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up and running and sounding very good after its holiday time off. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert opened the winter season with a concert series beginning January 10th. Best of all was the opening work, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles of 1965, a piece in five movements played without pause for large orchestra, with much brass and percussion, harp and celesta. The piece is listenable and attractive, rich and serious, and full of musical wit. It asks and rewards an audience’s focus and concentration, which came about well on this occasion. The presentation made a case for what has often occurred to me, that challenging or relatively new work often goes over best when placed first on a program — people tend to be fresh and attentive and open. Métaboles proceeds by constant change and transformation of basic material, and one finds oneself every few minutes, taken unawares, as it were, in quite new territory — a new realm of orchestral color, of breadth of phrase, of rhythm — all of which has grown seamlessly out of what proceeded. The music sounds at moments like Messiaen or Stravinsky, but moves with the mercurial quality of Elliott Carter, or Mozart. Gilbert and the orchestra put the work across with freshness and commitment.
Here we are, a hundred years later, and so much of Claude Debussy’s music still beguiles with its freshness! As Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through an accomplished performance of Jeux last Sunday, I was reminded how much the daily bread of sound in our own lives comes from Debussy’s late style.
The stuff of music is not stuff. Music’s physical presence, like dance’s too, is gone forever almost as soon as it is played. As Christmas and the planet Earth become more and more burdened with stuff, permanent stuff at that — at least permanently in the landfill — and people seemingly more and more frantic that they’re not spending enough money, you can feel more and more by contrast how music had to have such an enormous part of the festival. To fill an honest need of another person you love is another thing, but even if there is a physical thing involved, it is not the thing itself but the love to which the thing is a mere shadow and the mutually filled need itself. Carpeting one’s wants and feelings of insufficiency with stuff will always miss.