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Brian Hinrichs
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This is how I want to feel about Achim Freyer's Die Walkure, which I attended as part of the Opera America National Conference last Thursday. And I agree with Ms. Midgette completely that the first act flew by. In fact, visually, I loved almost every moment of the production (the major exceptions being the costuming of Siegmunde and Sieglinde, which felt too alien, too much like the gods, and the inexplicably cluttered stage in the second half of act three). Plus there was more than one coup de theatre (if that's not redundant): the magical primary color lighting wash at the start of the Wintersturme; the ride of the Valkyries, flying through the clouds on mechanical, bicycle-like horses; and the flames consuming Brunnhilde, at once fantastically realistic and self-consciously low-tech. But while I was consistently wowed, I was never emotionally convinced of the characters' actions.
After the performance, one of my colleagues asked a trick question: "How many times did Wotan touch Brunnhilde?" The answer is never, or perhaps once. To me, the portrayal of the characters as pawns of the universe had the effect of devaluing the emotional impact of the music. More over, part of the beauty of the Ring is the connections one establishes with the characters, even if they are gods, or committing incest. But Freyer has done away with the humanity of Wagner's creation. As Midgette points out, no one can say this is a slip-shod interpretive affair. Still, I just can't wrap my head around the intentional submersion of sensuality and feeling for the sake of illuminating archetypes. Valuable food for thought, perhaps, but it frankly left me chilly, despite the formidable aesthetic and musical accomplishments of the production.
8 years ago |
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I'm about to fly back from the Opera America National Conference in LA. In between an inspiring social media seminar (seriously) and Achim Freyer's Die Walkure, there was a session titled "Critics, Bloggers, and the Changing Media Landscape." The panel was moderated by Sherry Stern, editor of the LA Times Culture Monster blog, with guest speakers Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, Mark Swed of the LA Times, Tim Mangan of the OC Register, and Brian Holt of Out West Arts. Needless to say, Anne, Mark, and Tim all have my deepest fanboy admiration and collectively, their writing has played a serious role in my musical education. Education might sound strong, but if a writer fosters your discovery of new music and challenges how you listen, I don't know what else to call it.

So what happens when three of the top classical music writers in the country, plus one self made blogger, come together to talk about the beast that is "the changing media landscape"? Apparently nothing deeply revealing, but there was the occasional gem, so here's a little recap:

Brian Holt was underused on the panel, and he seemed slightly reverential to the other writers, rejecting Anne Midgette's insistence that he too is a capital J Journalist. Yet in response to the question of why he started blogging, he accidentally let loose a zinger: "I started blogging because there wasn't anything being written that I wanted to read."

Mark Swed played the role of the scholarly curmudgeon. As a self proclaimed anarchist one might think he would have a natural fondness for blogging and its implications, but he prefers his news slow to fast and feels freer with an editor. He compared himself to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, artists who managed to be revolutionary from within the confines of the establishment. Mark believes "we need a filtering system" and he has resisted social media, saying he isn't a self-promoter. But he did start a Twitter account, only to discover that "Haiku is difficult." He has since forgotten his password.

Tim Mangan, like Mark, has resisted social media (he doesn't have Twitter or Facebook accounts), but he is of course a prolific blogger. In many ways his enthusiasm for blogging felt very 2005, which was refreshing. Blogging has allowed him to write for an international audience, break important news, and create in-depth series for a niche audience beyond the general public his print reviews are geared toward. He also was not afraid to say that "we count every hit." One gem from Tim, which he attributed to a friend, regards Andrea Boccelli: "The blind singer for deaf people." When it comes to crossover acts, he takes a more "anthropological approach."

Anne Midgette, though slow to hop on the blogging train, is the most obviously adapted to the "changing media landscape." She Tweets and is on Facebook, and seemed passionate about elevating the status of bloggers: "We all lose if you start shutting out bloggers." She said her blog "is like a notebook," and that those who feel blogging represents some sort of anarchy are misguided. The analogy she used is that of the 1950s small-town critic, who presumably could write whatever he wanted and it would get printed (lesson being that the uninformed have been writing forever.)

Which brings me to some of the common themes here. All agreed that the web is neutral. It is a new technology but the hierarchy and realities of information dissemination are the same (IMHO, this is wishful thinking). Anne feels that certain arts organization mistakenly view the web as either savior or satan: it's neither, so stop thinking each Tweet is the golden ticket to young audiences (agreed).

Another commonality on the panel was the feeling that blogging at newspapers has put arts writing in sharper relief to pop writing. Editors and publishers are counting every hit, and Britney Spears brings in a heck of a lot more traffic than Olga Kern. That readership now has a hard number attached to it has everyone a little scared, and editors are getting pushier about content on syndicated classical blogs. Still, Culture Monster has been a huge success story for the LA Times, and Mangan's blog has long been a staple at the OC Register. Many attendees I spoke with feel that Ms. Midgette is rightly becoming the national voice of classical criticism, and many more were not yet aware of her blog, so Classical Beat readership surely still has room to grow. None of this applies to Brian Holt, the only unpaid blogger in the session, who like most of us gets a kick out of good numbers but doesn't give a crap about bad numbers.

There was more to the session (comments sections, is "free" a problem?), but none of it was really anything new. However in this cultural moment of 50 pixel profile pics and 140 character DMs, the real thrill was to meet and hear my nerdy idols in real life, to try and align the personalities with the voice in print. It was also important to have it reiterated that we all need to keep clicking and linking to classical articles and blog posts like mad: it counts, like a mini-petition to keep classical coverage alive.
8 years ago |
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I'm looking forward presenting at the first annual Tommy Awards in Madison this weekend, having been a reviewer (albeit not the most prolific one) for the initiative this past year. I'm also excited to be off to LA next week for the Opera America National Conference. Expect more on that shortly, including reaction to the Achim Freyer designed Die Walküre at LA Opera, with Placido Domingo as Siegmund. Funny, my first Walküre was at the Met 5 years ago, also with Domingo. Some thought that was his last, but he's still kicking (and singing). Here's a preview of the production:

...a little wacky, but I'm liking it. We'll see how it holds up live.
8 years ago |
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Summer festival season is almost here. As I've been scanning the schedules for APT, BDDS, and the like online, I came across the yet-to-be-updated website for the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. An e-mail to the festival for a 2010 schedule yielded the following information:

August 28 - September 5

Program I
Robert Levin, piano

Saturday, August 28th at 8pm
Sunday, August 29th at 4pm

Beethoven’s own arrangement for string quintet of his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, the “Cockcrow” sonata, Op. 96, and other works.

Program II
VARIATIONS: A Lecture-Recital

Tues Aug 31 at 8pm

John Harbison, commentator
Judith Gordon & Ryan McCullough, piano
Works of Sessions, Harbison, and Schubert

Program III
JAZZ: Anniversary Celebrations
Thurs Sept 2 at 8pm & Fri Sept 3 at 5:00p & 8:30p

Celebrating the centennial anniversaries of Mary Lou Williams and Johnny Mercer.
The Token Creek house band with Tom Artin, trombone, and guest vocalist soon to be announced.

Program IV
Sat Sept 4 at 8pm & Sun Sept 5 at 4pm

Musicians from Emmanuel Music, Boston in a program of Bach cantatas, chorale preludes, and the Concerto for Oboe, Violin and Strings.

For those unfamiliar with Token Creek, the festival's tagline is "A wooded glade, a quiet barn...exquisite music, glorious performances." The programming above, plus everything I've read and heard, supports this. Oh, and it's hosted by John and Rose Mary Harbison, which doesn't hurt. Having missed the festival last year during my first and all too busy summer in Madison, I can't wait to make my way to the barn this year.
8 years ago |
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On Saturday, I went to see the Metropolitan Opera's production of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, presented Live in HD at Marcus Eastgate Cinemas in Madison. Eastgate is now Madison's second location for the Met broadcasts because the first, Point Cinemas, keeps selling out. This was my first experience with the wildly successful Live in HD series. I left with mixed feelings.

The performance itself was great. Simon Keenlyside is remarkable as the young Hamlet. I can't imagine any other singer maintaining the fine balance of subtle musicality and intense acting that Keenlyside does in this demanding role. It felt like a history making performance. Jennifer Larmore is thrilling as Gertrude, with James Morris serviceable as Claudius. Marlis Petersen as Ophelie was captivating in certain ways, but her voice had a softness that I found frustrating. Even in madness, it felt like she was never truly unhinged because her voice would not go to that visceral place.

I would agree with the general critical consensus that Thomas's opera is well worth dusting off. Despite the notorious mad scene and the violent emotions of the plot, the music mostly broods and wanders. Sometimes the wandering feels aimless and I wished for more flash and fury in the orchestra. Added to that, no melodies really stick, and at times it just sounded like a bundle of mid-nineteenth century operatic conventions. Still, the music does manage to heighten the drama, which, however removed from the original, is powerfully adapted. As the conductor Louis Langree said during intermission, it is a very French opera in that the words--the poetry of the French--almost play a more significant role than the music.

Regarding the production, the rugged, regal costumes, mostly in red wine hues, were excellent (even if predictably trench-coat heavy), but the sets seemed to me almost absurdly minimal, though I guess one could argue they added to the eerie emptiness of the piece's landscape. Either way, with the tightly framed cinematography of the Live in HD series, the sets don't matter all that much.

Which brings me to the Live in HD experience as a whole: it is not opera. It is a movie. This may seem obvious, and I know it has been said before, but I fear the distinction is slowly being forgotten. The live in HD opera experience does not in any way resemble the live in theater opera experience. First and foremost, the voices are filtered through recording devices: there is nothing that can recreate the experience of the unamplified voice. Second, the movie audience is practically never given the view that the audience in the theater has, which is to say a view of the whole stage, that beautiful framed box where acting singers create magic.

The way the operas are filmed more closely resembles TV soap operas, with predictable slow zoom-ins and lingering close-ups on facial reactions. More than once I was left hoping for Mr. Keenlyside to find a tissue offstage, so much time with his nostrils had I spent thanks to the Met film crew. Because the sets for Hamlet were intentionally sparse and the action character driven, this was tolerable. But the next Met broadcast of interest to me is the Robert Lepage Das Rheingold, where much of the impact of the production will surely depend on absorbing the full stage image. I can't imagine it will translate well, or accurately, to the movie screen.

One larger concern I left with was the long term effect of the close-up aesthetic of the series (a concern I've been told that set designer John Conklin has recently taken up). While the Met broadcasts are mostly attended by an audience even older than the live opera audience, there are the few young ones who will fall in love with the Met at the movies before they fall in love with real live opera, and they will be deeply frustrated in the auditorium when they cannot see every facial expression or hear every pianissimo. I've already heard it from the high school apprentices at Madison Opera, they just love the close-ups. This is fine if one can appreciate the two very different experiences, but there will eventually and may already be those who prefer their operas in the movie theater.

Which leads to the million dollar question: are the broadcasts taking away audiences from regional opera companies? From what I can discern, this is not the case. The Live in HD Series seems to appeal mostly to experienced opera goers looking to supplement their regular dose of the real deal, those who read about opera stars and Met productions in the New York Times and would like to be in the know. Plus in Madison at least, one can still get a ticket to an opera performance for as low as $16, compared to $24 at the movies. So it seems that right now the attendance situation is healthy, with 3D and HD happily coexisting, both fueling the other as far as awareness and enthusiasm is concerned.

But I would be more curious to learn if HD attendees are now donating to the Met, and if that means they are also cutting back on donations to their regional opera company. Again, nothing has led me to believe the latter is the case, but Renee Fleming was extremely convincing with her plea on Saturday. Caught up in the backstage excitement of it all, even I had a hard time resisting (the Met does a brilliant job of very prettily showing the nuts and bolts of their operation).

It sounds like I am complaining, and I probably shouldn't be. People are having a good time, the art form is gaining new recognition, and on a gut level, I enjoyed the broadcast because I got a taste of a rarely performed opera done very, very well. Would I change certain elements of the experience? Certainly. Do I think the broadcasts are harming local opera companies? No. But having now seen what all the hype is about, I can't help but feel some traces of concern.

As with all posts on CLASSICALIVE, any opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not represent those of my employer.
8 years ago |
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Norah Jones was in Madison last night for a show at the Overture Center for the Arts. A funny mix of people made up the sold-out audience in the big hall: the 65+ set with fond memories of the hushed, pop-jazz tunes on "Come Away With Me", Jones's breakout album; baby boomers with their teenage children, happily approving of a musician the whole family can agree on; Gen Xers enjoying date night; and a hearty college population, presumably the ones whooping from the upper balcony.

It was an awkward group that made for a fairly traditional concert experience: sitting down, gently bopping, clapping politely. I had told my wife to wear comfortable shoes...for some reason I envisioned we would be standing the whole time, but it never got so rowdy as that (I've mostly been listening to Jones's most recent album, "The Fall," with heavier guitars and faster beats, which could have influenced my expectations) . This was also my first non-classical concert in Overture Hall (big thumbs up to the souvenir beer cups!), so I didn't know the protocol .

But while the diversity (age..don't get me wrong, everyone I saw was white) of the audience may have stifled the atmosphere a bit, it also highlighted the fact that not many artists today resonate for such a wide swath of the population as Norah Jones. And judging by the reaction she received when she switched to the piano from the electric guitar, it's her older stuff that still resonates most: "Come Away with Me", "Don't Know Why", "Sunrise," etc. These songs have entered the popular canon and all sounded great, plus Jones brought much more depth and color to the live renditions than her recordings show.

But I hope that those who've put her in the 2002 box were won over by the first half of her show. Shifting between electric guitar and keyboard, with a strong band she's totally melded with, Jones showed a more aggressive energy in the songs she opened with from "The Fall," released this past November. Some of her earlier stuff is too whispery for me, I like this new direction and hope her fans remain open to it in the future.

All in all a great night, probably a concert I'll be happy I said I went to in twenty years. As a casual Jones listener, I was impressed. And as someone who works for a resident organization of the beleaguered Overture Center, it was fun to see and hear so many new people excited by the facility. Willie Nelson is playing the hall as I type--more converts, hopefully.
8 years ago |
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People often ask whether classical music has become too serious. I sometimes wonder whether it is serious enough. Certainly, it has acquired a veneer of solemnity, but too often that veneer is a cover for business as usual. I dream of the concert hall becoming a more vital, unpredictable environment, in thrall to the wildly diverse personalities of composers and performers alike. The great paradox of modern musical life, whether in the classical or pop arena, is that we both worship our idols and, in a way, straitjacket them. We consign them to cruelly specific roles: a certain rock band is expected to loosen us up, a certain composer is expected to ennoble us. Ah, Mozart; yeah, rock and roll. But what if a rock band wants to make us think and a composer wants to make us dance? Music should be a place where our expectations are shattered.

-Alex Ross, The Guardian, 3/8/10

The above quote is by music writer Alex Ross, in London last week to give a lecture at the Royal Philharmonic Society. It is one I plan on saving and revisiting often. Ross published a version of his lecture in The Guardian, in which he traces the development of the "no applause rule," that odd, unspoken dictum requiring audiences to hold their applause until the final movement of a work at classical concerts. It can be painfully counter-intuitive: just two weeks ago, Stephen Hough gave a breathtaking performance of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Madison Symphony. It took everything I had to hold back my applause, and I know I was not alone.

Ross is dead-on in his analysis, and not surprisingly brings the conversation around to the broader problems facing classical music. I do wish, though, that he pointed to opera as one example of a classical music experience that does not stifle the audience's impulses: applause, shouts of "bravo" and an array of reactions are still expected throughout an opera performance.

On Twitter, reactions to Ross's actual lecture seemed mix. As Tom Service's blog hints at, there was a feeling that most of Ross's ideas for altering the concert format have already been done: "better, more focused lighting (not more, but less! – making the hall darker to concentrate better on what's happening on stage), talks before and after concerts, gigs taking place in intimate club or salon-style surroundings, invitations from the podium for people to applaud whenever they want." Service is right that these suggestions are not groundbreaking (myself and plenty of others are spouting similar ideas), but they are certainly not yet widely practiced . It's good that Ross rehashed them, especially in such a venue as the Royal Philharmonic Society.

There's been plenty of buzz about Ross's article and lecture all week. Hopefully the right people are paying attention.
8 years ago |
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Yesterday I wrote about the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble concert I attended last week in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus: interesting repertoire, a gratifying world premiere by a leading contemporary composer, and solid performances by young musicians. The musical component of the night, despite some programming quirks, was great. But were I to rate the overall experience (was I comfortable? did I have fun? did I connect with the performers?) I'd have to give the concert significantly lower marks.

To be fair, this was a student ensemble and a university sponsored concert. The audience is usually not the priority in this situation; it's an educational experience for the students to produce music they may not otherwise encounter. It was also free, and Mills Hall, however musty it may be, is the designated music department performance space. There were no financial stakes, and marketing was likely just a few posters and e-mails.

At the same time, I'm not quite ready to let them off the hook. The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble is the only classical group in Madison committed exclusively to 20th and 21st century repertoire. Reaching as wide an audience as possible should be central to their mission, and ensemble members--mostly graduate students on the brink of professional careers--would do well to have a role in the marketing, they should feel something is at stake (UW already offers a course called "Art As Business As Art", here's an opportunity to put that into practice). Further more, might not a more intimate, laid-back venue have better suited the program? And couldn't Mr. Currier, or some of the musicians, have said a few words to the audience?

Again, these hopes and concerns might not be fair for to place on a university ensemble, but I would love to see the CCE bring their work off-campus at some point in the future, 0r perhaps think more creatively about where on campus they could perform. It's an impressive group, there should be more people (I counted just 65 last Tuesday) and excitement at their concerts.
8 years ago |
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Last Tuesday I attended a performance by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. It was my first encounter with the group, which is headed by the composer Laura Schwendinger. All of the works on the program highlighted the voice: Dark Upon the Harp (1962) by Jacob Druckman; "Melos" ophiae (2009) by Filippo Santoro; Cryin' Time (1994) by Bob Becker; Miranda's Lament (1999) by Kaija Saariaho; Chansons Madecasses (1926) by Ravel; and Looking Out (1999) by Nathan Currier [left].

Everything here was new to me, which was exciting. The Becker piece, Cryin' Time, stood out. His sound world was all engulfing, a fluid fusion of North Indian classical music and a Reich inspired minimalist aesthetic. Above this base formed by the marimba, vibraphone and piano rose the soprano of Jennifer Lien, singing the tragic verse of a young mother who drops (or fears she will drop) her baby into a deep river canyon. Becker says he detected a country/western feel in the "matter of fact" lines of the original Sandra Meigs poem, which he emphasized in edits to the text. It was an accessible, moving work, especially in comparison to some of the other fare. The Druckman in particular felt like a caricature of what mid-twentieth century classical music was supposed to sound like. There were some affecting moments, mostly the ones that hearkened to the scores of Herrmann , but overall not much stuck. It felt cold, dry, even though it was beautifully executed (props to the brass quintet especially).

The highlight of the evening was the Nathan Currier premiere. He composed Looking Out to a libretto by Laura-Gray Street in 1999 for the New York Festival of Song, but it was not to be: the piece didn't quite fit the "rags to riches" theme of the Festival that year, and there were "problems of tessitura in the part for the mezzo, who was to have been the now prominent Stephanie Blythe," according to the composer. Ten years later, the premiere took place on a Tuesday night in Madison, Wisconsin. Which is a shame only in that the work is very good, and the audience was very small.

Written in three sections [i. Population Explosion, ii. Diorama, iii. Endosymbiosis] for soprano, tenor, clarinet, horn, cello, and piano, Currier says "the work is about the urgent need for a greater understanding of the real meaning of the word 'symbiosis.'" He cites the work of the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in his program notes and says that Looking Out grapples with the realization that Darwin wasn't all right, that we are in fact equally evolved from bacterial processes as we are from natural selection. There's also something about a metaphor for social organization and the fallacy of capitalism. Really, I wish I never read the notes: the piece speaks for itself, especially with Street's vivid poetry ("A wind with caffeine jitters is picking streetwise through litter" is just one memorable line).

Part Broadway, part Britten, with playful, spiraling piano lines and onomatopoeic accompaniment, the piece captures the simultaneous frenzied and glazed feeling that seems to define modern life. The second movement is something of a mock recitative, quietly depicting a half-hearted lovers' quarrel. The last movement ends with celestial arpeggios, fitting for the existential science of the narrators.

Writing about a world premiere, I feel inclined to attach meaning to the sounds, but it's probably better I just say that in the moment, listening to Looking Out, I was simply at ease with the odd and charming score and hyperactive poetry, not wanting it to end.
8 years ago |
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When I think of Chopin's music, its mournful, melancholic quality tends to come to mind first. I also think of the extraordinary universality of this quality. At King Chulalongkorn’s funeral in Bangkok on March 16, 1911 (above), a ceremony that intentionally departed from the king's penchant for Western pomp by highlighting the vernacular traditions of Brahmanic ritual, Chopin’s Funeral March somehow still made it onto the program.

I also think of the utter beauty and lyricism of his Cello Sonata in G minor. The great Piatigorsky:

8 years ago |
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