20 Apr 2010
Aaron Copland's score for The City
This disc neatly captures a central dichotomy of the career of composer Aaron Copland.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
This disc neatly captures a central dichotomy of the career of composer Aaron Copland.
Raised in New York City, Copland gained his greatest successes with scores that extol a rural, bucolic vision of American life. Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid — compositions that present an idealized, perhaps even sentimentalized portrayal of a boisterous, green America, while containing enough musical sophistication and imagination to remain perpetually fresh. One of the composer’s early forays into film composition came when he was asked to score a 45 minute documentary called The City, which is in effect an advertisement for Lewis Mumford’s planned community, Greenbelt. Before the filmmakers (Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke) turn their film over to a rapturous hymn to Greenbelt, they set the stage by contrasting the virtues of country living with the veritable hell of city life, circa 1939 — the very city life that produced Aaron Copland.
The booklet essay by Joseph Horowitz calls this disc a sequel to the Naxos DVD containing The River and The Plow that Broke the Plains, two short documentaries for which Virgil Thomson composed the scores. As that disc did, this one contains a fresh, high-quality audio performance of the score by Angel Gil-Ordóñez conducting the Post-Classical Ensemble, along with the original performance (in clear but flat mono) by a studio orchestra. Copland composed episodes, not just the typical brief cues of most film soundtracks, with the film’s portentous narrative interspersed. It’s high-quality film music — entertaining and yet not overwhelming the film’s objective. A sequence of 1939 traffic jams gets a strangely jaunty theme, as if city boy Copland found something fun in the sight of these city dwellers desperate to escape on a weekend to some beach or picnic refuge. In fact, the most interesting music underlies all the city sequences, which the filmmakers work anxiously to make as repulsive as possible. The soft core religiosity of the Greenbelt section may make some listeners sleepy.
Inevitably The City brings to mind the film Koyaaniqatsi, only with better music (sorry, Philip Glass fans). The City also claims that modern city life dehumanizes us, while the “old ways,” recreated in Greenbelt, will restore human life to a paradise lost. The narration ranges from the didactic to preachy, with dips into the bizarre: “A little gossip or a friendly hand is good for the complexion.” A bonus feature has interviews with adults who grew up in Greenbelt as children, and they speak honestly about both the beauty of the experience and the reasons why Greenbelt never became more than an experiment. A sleepy but insightful interview, the other bonus feature, also offers pointed commentary on Greenbelt’s ultimate failure to truly be a workable alternative to the urban/suburban sprawl just getting underway in 1939.
A fascinating disc, and highly recommended.