Sunday, 26 February 2017

Weimar Shanghai - who was McGinty ?

Who was McGinty ? A postcard from Shanghai 100 years ago. Shanghai was a boom town, a thriving metropolis rivalling New York, London and Berlin.  Yet only 50 years previously, it had been a fishing village on  a riverbank.  Shanghai came into existence, after the Second Opium War. It was never a colony, though foreign nationals enjoyed extra-territorial rights.  Rumours had it that there were signs in parks that read "No Chinese and no dogs!".  Yet Shanghai was the first "world city" of the 20th century, with booming industries, a gateway between the vast interior of China and the world.  The city thrived from the influx of cheap immigrant labour and local adaptation to modern industrial methods.  Extremes of wealth and of poverty, of sophistication and feudal tradition, albeit for peasants dispossessed and dislocated from traditional social networks.  Weimar Shanghai !

So who was McGinty ?  His name's generic, bestowed with irony by foreigners, and somewhat deprecating, since Irish people weren't given much respect either, in those days.  There he stands in evening dress, with top hat, tails and cigar.  But is he a worldly, privileged man about town ?  Or was he some poor peasant orphan, dressed up to amuse  night club patrons, whose experience of "real" Chinese people was strictly limited.  The McGinty's of this world have ever existed, as dwarves in royal courts, or freaks in circus shows, mocked and patronized, like performing pets. Yet what characters they must have been, to stand up to prejudice and often cruelty, to make some sort of livelihood despite the odds being stacked against them.  So when I found McGinty, I wanted to honour him, whoever he might have been, however he might have ended up.  Not forgotten by me !

Please also see my piece on Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten. Alviano Salvago is a nobleman, rich, talented and intelligent, yet gets screwed by the world around him, because he's different. McGinty would have understood. 

Original Content: Weimar Shanghai - who was McGinty ?

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Song Cycle within Song Symphony : Goerne, Mahler Eisler

A song cycle within a song symphony - Matthias Goerne's intriuging approach to Mahler song, with  Marcus Hinterhäuser, at the Wigmore Hall, London.  Mahler's entire output can be described as one vast symphony, spanning an arc that stretches from his earliest songs to the sketches for what would have been his tenth symphony.  Song was integral to Mahler's compositional process, germinating ideas that could be used even in symphonies which don't employ conventional singing. Goerne's programme was structured like a symphony, through which songs flowed in thoughtful combination,culminating in the Abschied from  Das Lied von der Erde, revealed as a well constructed miniature song cycle in its own right.  Goerne is more than a superb singer. He's a true artist who illiminates the musical logic that underlies Mahler's music.

Song is the voice of the human soul.  With remarkable consistency, from beginning to end, Mahler's music poses questions about the purpose of human existence in the face of suffering and death, Nearly always, transcendance is found through creative renewal.  Thus this programme began with Der Tamboursg'sell (1901), so well now that it symbolizes the whole Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of songs.  The drummer boy is young but he's being marched to the gallows, for reasons unknown. "Gute Nacht, Gute Nacht!"  Goerne's tone rumbled with chilling darkness, as if haunted.  Das irdische Leben (1892-3) followed, paired with Urlicht, in the piano song version, though iut;s better known as part of Mahler's Symphony no 2, sung by an alto. This was a thoughtful pairing. Das irdische Leben isn't just about child neglect, but opens onto wider issues like the nurturing of artists.  In Urlicht, the protagonist refuses to be turned away, determined to reach its destiny. The song occurs at  a critical point in the symphony, where the soul has passed through purgatory and is heading towards resurrection. In Goerne's programme, it is halted, temporarily, though we know there will be resolution. These first three songs thus form a kind of prologue for what is to follow.

Goerne has been singing Mahler for decades, though hasn't recorded much, which is a loss to,posterity as his Mahler is deeply thought through and perceptive.  He's been singing Hanns Eisler even longer, since he grew up a child star in the DDR where Eisler's childrens' songs were well known   He recorded Eisler's German Symphony op 50 (1957) with Lothar Zagrosek in 1995.  Eisler's German Symphony is a song symphony, an "Anti-Fascist Cantata" setting poems by Brecht and Ignazio Silone. Goerne's recording of Eisler's Hollywood Songbook in 1998 is a masterpiece, easily eclipsing all others.and still,remainsthe classic.  At the Wigmore Hall, Goerne combined two specilaities into a well integrated whole, the Eialer songs functioning as middle movements expanding the themes in the Mahler songs.

Eisler wrote Hollywood Liederbuch while in exile in Hollywood, pondering on the nature of German culture and identity during the cataclysm that was the Third Reich.  Although Eisler is often colonized by pop singers, these songs are serious art songs and include settings of Hölderlin and Heine and really need to be heard with singers like Goerne who can handle the tricky phrasing and vocal range with the understated finesse they need.  These are songs of existential anguish, expressed obliquely because the pain they deal with is almost too hard to articulate.  For this recital, Goerne chose songs set to some of Brecht's finest poetry, like Hotelzimmer 1942 where Brecht describes neatly arranged objects. But from a radio blare out "Die Seigesmeldungen meiner Feinde". Goerne flowed straight into An den kleinen Radioapparat, reinforcing the connection between the two songs so they flowed together as one larger piece.  The piano parts are written with delicacy, suggesting the fragility of radio waves and the vulnerability of life itself.

Brecht, like Eisler, was a refugee, fleeing from persecution.  After this first group of Eisler songs, Goerne placed Über den Selbstmord.  The contrast was shocking. The mood changed from suppressed  anxiety to outright horror.  Goerne brought out the surreal malevolence, his voice rasping with menace. "Das ist gefährlich". The song is a deliberate reversal of Romantic imagery - bridges, moonlight, rivers - and sudden, unplanned suicide. Goerne sang the last phrase, letting his words hang, suspended  "das uberträgliche Leben"....coming to a violent sudden end on the word "fort".

A brief respite when Goerne recited lines from Blaise Pascal, which Eisler set with minimal coloration to the Brecht Fünf Elegien refined miniatures about daily life in Los Angeles, where everything sees normal.  Three more songs of poisoned "normacly"- Ostersonntag, Automne californien and In die Fr
ühe before a return to the grim reality of  Der Sohn I and Die Heimkehr.  Then again Brecht and Eisler overturn Romantic nostalgia. "Vor mir kommen die Bomber, Tödlicher Schwärme" an a horrific parody of a Homecoming hero.  The songs in the Hollywood Liederbuch can be presented in any order, but Goerne arranged them here in a pattern which suggests deceptively light andantes cut short by brutal scherzi.

Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde progresses from frenzied denial to transfigured acceptance, expressed through a series of very distinctive songs.  In this performance, context came from the songs that had come before, widening the panorama.  Bethge's texts evoke China a thousand years past. Once again, many face what Brecht and Eisler went through. Hearing the Abschied in this context is uncomfortable, yet also uplifting, for it reminds us that the grass will grow again. Hearing the Abschied for piano also makes us focus on the structure of the song, and the way it, too, develops in a series of distinct stages, like a miniature song cycle, like Das Lied von der Erde itself,  "wunderlich im Spiegelbilde".

The orchestral Das Lied von der Erde predicates on the tension between tenor and alto/mezzo, a typical Mahler contrast between unhappy man and redeeming female deity, but as a stand alone, the Abschied lends itself perfectly well to other voice types. Goerne thus resurrects the Abschied for baritones, connecting the songs of passage, whether they be passages through death or domicile.  The message remains the same. The darker hues in Goerne's voice suggest strength and solidity,  values which emphasize the earthiness of the imagery in the text.  He sings gravitas yet the high notes are reached with grace and ease. At the moment he's singing particularly well, better even than when he recorded Eisler's Ernste Gesänge in 2013, also with songs from the Hollywood Songbook.  Marcus Hinterhäuser's playing was exquisite, so elegant that he made the piano sound like pipa or erhu, revealing the refined, chamber music intimacy in the song that the orchestral versions don't often access.  Although the piano/voice recording with Brigtte Fassbaender, Thomas Moser and Cyprien Katsaris has been around for years, there's no comparison whatsoever.  At times I thought Hinterhäuser might be playing a new, cleaner edition of the score, since his playing was infinitely  more beautiful and expressive. I suspect he's just a much better pianist, and he and Goerne have worked together a lot in recent years. As Hinterhäuser played the long non-vocal interludes, Goerne was following the score, listening avidly, visibly following the score. That's how good Lieder partnerships are made.  As Goerne sang the last "Ewig....ewig...."  I couldn't bear for the music to end.

This review also appears in Opera Today

Original Content: Song Cycle within Song Symphony : Goerne, Mahler Eisler

Friday, 24 February 2017

The stories we weave are incomplete…

It's Black History Month again, and though I haven't blogged about it, it's been on my mind.

I've thought of it when I've gone to the Kennedy Center, and seen that their most visible gift shop this month features Chinese New Year.

Which does come in February, and nothing against it. But featuring Chinese New Year over Black History Month in a black-majority city? In a time of Black Lives Matter? In a season when the biggest cultural even in DC was the opening of the Museum of African-American History and Culture?


Last year…

for Black History Month I did three posts. About three ways to mark Black History Month in the classical music world.

First by remembering the tenor Roland Hayes, an African-American concert artist who in the 1920s (!) was said to be the world's highest-paid recitalist.

Second, by remembering — and performing — William Grant Still's oratorio on lynching, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered by them in 1940 (with many dignitaries in the audience), and now forgotten.

And third, by noting Elaine Mack's oral history of classical music in Philadelphia's black communities, a book that's an eye-opener for people (most of us, I think) who don't know how much love of classical music, and how much classical music-making, went on in black communities in past generations.

The book isn't currently available, but should be back in print in a few months. I'll post here when that happens.

So this year…

For a start, you might read Aaron Dworkin's essay on diversity, "Collaborating Across Diverse Communities," currently featured on the DePauw School of Music's 21CM website. Dworkin was the founder of The Sphinx Organization, which promotes diversity by helping and featuring minority musicians. Now — a really stunning choice for this job — he's dean of the University of Michigan School of Music.

He has a lot to say on 21CM about his biracial background, about being the only black kid in his town, about doing things (like playing the violin) that marked him — for people who believe in stereotypes — as not black.

But what will echo in my heart for quite a while are the thoughts at the end of his essay. No choice but to quote them:

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, "The danger of a single story is not that it is untrue but that it is incomplete." The stories we weave in the performing arts today are incomplete, and I believe it is your responsibility (if you choose to be an artist-citizen of excellence) to deliver more complete stories about the lives we live. And it is my obligation as an educator to prepare students to be relevant to our full society while empowering the disciplines we teach to be relevant to our communities.

What we do know from the lessons of history is that a segmented society, where differences are not celebrated but rather mocked, attacked, dismissed or not tolerated, is not sustainable for a thriving civil democratic environment. As an artist-leader, you are the bridge that crosses these more shallow man-made barriers. You have the opportunity, influence and, ultimately, the power to bring human beings together across racial, religious, gender, socioeconomic and other boundaries. But you must not be passive. You must act.

Still echoing.

In my next post, another thought on what we can do for Black History Month

Original Content: The stories we weave are incomplete…

Thursday, 23 February 2017

More than a sum of parts : Jurowski, Berg, Denisov, Shostakovich

Vladimir Jurowski, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, London Philharmonic Orchestra,  photo : Sven Lorenz, Essen

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Patricia Kopatchinskaja presented Alban Berg's Violin Concerto.  Kopatchinskaja, Jurowski and the LPO recorded Stravinsky's Violin Concerto and Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no 2 nearly four years ago, and the disc is a best seller, for good reason. Sine Berg's Violin Concerto is perhaps even more popular, the prospect of  hearing it with Kopatchinskaya, Jurowski and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall was hard to resist. Hopefully, it will be released at some stage. In the meantime, listen to the repeat broadcast on BBC Radio 3

But this concert was also memorable because it connected Berg's Violin Concerto with Edison Denisov's Symphony no 2 and Shostakovich's Symphony no 15. Jurowski has a genius for devising programmes that are greater even than the sum of their parts.  Anyone can put a programme together; very few can do so on this level.  Please read my review of  Jurowski's Kancheli, Martinů and Ralph Vaughan Williams concert.  This evening's inspired combination drew out the  more esoteric levels from all three pieces, absolutely justifying  the theme "Belief and Beyond Belief". Although so much about South Bank marketing is gimmick, Jurowski's "Belief and Beyond"  is genuinely well thought through, and adds considerable depth to this year's series of LPO concerts.  By no means is the term Belief limited to conventional, organized religion.  The concept of Belief  informs the whole way we respond to the human condition, even when we don't believe in fixed concepts.  Jurowski's programmes relate to much wider ideas of spiritual and intellectual questioning.  Comic book rigidities go against the grain of creative expression.

Edison Denisov's Symphony no 2 (1996) is typical Jurowski territory: stretching boundaries. Although Denisov lived under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, he didn't conform. His perspectives were modern and international. He learned from Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen and eventually was able to move to Paris, where his music was supported by IRCAM.  Denisov's Symphony, written after he'd moved to Paris, inhabits a world of shimmering almost micro tonality,  sounds blending yet separate, like fluids of different densities flowing together. The voice of a violin emerges from the complex confluences, then  a group of low winds, then a murmur of bassoons and a rumble of percussion.  Swirling figures, very high tessitura, creating forward thrust, broken by staccato cross-currents. Harps and gunfire, I thought.  Savagely angular discords, and the music stops dead. Perhaps literally. Denisov was seriously ill  and passed away six months later.  On the broadcast, Jurowski says there's a quotation from a bassoon solo in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique,  transposed for double bass.

In programmes as esoteric as Jurowski's, it's wise to beware of clichés. Following the obvious idea that Berg's Violin Concerto represents Manon Gropius who died aged 16, South Bank marketing plays up the "Memory of an Angel" aspects of the piece. But Berg, being Berg, is cryptic, hiding behind surface appearances. Kopatchinskaja reminds us of Albina, Berg's secret love child, whom he never really knew. Listen to Kopatchinskaja sing the Carpathian (not Austrian) folk song Berg quotes in the piece! Her singing voice is sweet and bird like, which enhances what the piece represents.  When she plays, she defines the part with strong, affirmative poise. The melody is bittersweet, yet undaunted, even when the orchestra storms around her.  Disquieting shapes in the violin part and crashing chords in the orchestra: this isn't  dewy-eyed sentimentality but something far more profound.  Tonality hovers on the point of breaking and then dissolves, when no more can be said.  The quote "Es ist genug", is a reference to Bach. Jurowski understands that Berg, even at his most passionate, uses structure with the clarity of a mathematical mind. Puzzles and patterns are integral.  Hence the innate  power of this piece, and this very strong performance.

Shostakovich's Symphony no 15 starts with exuberance, rushing forward into quirky march with references to Rossini's William Tell.  Is Shostakovich thinking of military oppression or slyly satirizing music for the movies? Perhaps both, for this symphony is in many ways Shostakovich's memoir.  Was he a puppet in an insane toy shop, or was he pulling  strings?  The poignant Adagio might be a reflection, but, like Berg, Shostakovich can be enigma.  The single chord progressions suggests isolation, yet the violin takes up the pattern, leading the orchestra in a dance that is deflated by  typical Shostakovich raspberries.  Though the protagonist may be alone, he's surrounded by other voices.  The orchestration lets many individual instruments have their moment.  This symphony might be an ironic parody of film, unfolding in different scenes, with quotations from Shostakovich's own work and others.  Thus the dramatic chorale of percussion, complete with crashing gongs.  Yet the underlying melody flows, its way lit by unearthly celesta and xylophone.  A thoughtful performance,  highlighting the many individual sections in this excellent orchestra. Definitely a concert that was more than the sum of its parts.

Original Content: More than a sum of parts : Jurowski, Berg, Denisov, Shostakovich

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

True just for you

This week I learned something from a paper one of my students wrote. About how to present a case for classical music. Two words in that paper showed me something i hadn't so strongly realized.

What we were working on

This was a paper about why classical music is valuable, what it can do that no other kind of music can. I ask my students to think very carefully about this, because it's crucial for classical music's future. We need new listeners. So how do we find them? What can we say to make them think classical music can do something for them?

As we work on this, I caution my students not to say that– as if it were demonstrable fact — that  classical music is better than other music. Especially pop. That it goes deeper emotionally, expresses more.

Often this is what some of the students want to say, and of course they're not alone. Many people in our field say this.

But there are two problems with it.

First, it isn't verifiable. How can you prove that classical music goes deeper, expresses more?

Really, you can't. You can set up a straw man, say that pop music is created only to make money, that it doesn't have classical music's complexity, that it's empty and shallow.

But then you run into people like me who'll say those things aren't true. Or you can read rock critics who say profound things about pop music (in its many forms). And who have as fine an intellectual pedigree as anyone who writes about classical music. (Greil Marcus is the obvious example, but there are many more.)

That's the first problem. No one really can prove that classical music is superior. Suppose you say classical music has more complex harmony and form. But examine your assumption. Why should complexity give music its value? And what's going on in pop music? What are its internal processes? Maybe they're different from what we find in classical music, but just as complex.

And, finally — do the people who make these comparisons really know much about pop?)

And now the second problem

Let's say you preach to people, tell them that classical music is better than the music they listen to. How do you do that without patronizing them? Without implying that they themselves are inferior? Or at least uncultured, uneducated, deprived of musical opportunity.

And what do you do if they disagree? If they resent you saying that your music is better than theirs, if they discover that you don't know their music, and so have no grounds for making comparison?

If these things happen, you've shot yourself. And shot classical music down, too. Because you've turned people off, instead of getting them to give classical music a chance.

Two magic words

 "For me." Those were the words that opened new doors for me. Fir me, my student wrote (and now I'm paraphrasing), classical music expresses deep things that no other music can bring us. Though others, he said, may find that other music expresses these deep things for them.

And with this honest and courteous way of stating his case, he taught me something:

If you say — claiming it's factually true — that classical music is better, you're giving a lecture. Starting a fight.

But if you just say that for you this is true, then you're telling a story. Not arguing with anyone, not telling anyone what they should think. You're telling a story about yourself. About your life, your experience.

Which can get people interested. Why, they can ask, with genuine interest, does classical music have so much power for you? What about it gives it that strength? Which pieces — which moments in pieces — show its great force?

Now you're having a conversation. You've got someone listening to you. Someone you haven't asked to devalue any music that's dear to her. Someone who can say to herself, "Wow, if classical music has so much power for him, maybe I'll find it powerful, too."

And that's a win.

Original Content: True just for you

Monday, 20 February 2017

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is back !

Welcome return of Shostakovich Lady Macbeth oif Mtsensk with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris,  conducted by Mariss Jansons, available for a ,limited time on Opera Platform. All good stagings connect to the music and ideas in an opera but in this famous classic, from 2006,   Janson's conducting is so powerful that the physical settings seem to dissolve. In the abstraction so the music dominates. This production (Martin Kušej, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam)  won't please those think opera "must" be decorative, but it's an excellent example of how abstract musical ideas can find visual expression.  The violent staccato and dissonaces in Shostakovich's score come alive, bristling with tension and violence. In orchestral passages, the stage disappears in a thunderstorm of flashing bright lights against darkness, replicating the angularity in the score. You wouldn't want to be prone to seizures.

 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is not a decorative opera. It's a savage cry of protest, against the oppression of women, against closed minded communities, against repression of all types.   Staccato passages scream and low brasses and winds moan with baleful malevolence. Even while Katerina lives in comfort, chill winds from Siberia blow invisibly around her.  The Ismailov business is built on tight control. When then workers are left to their own devices, they break into mob violence.  The rape scene comes almost right at the beginning - violence against women symbolizes weakness, not strength. Real men don't need to beat up on others to get ahead. Shostakovich's testosterone thrusts are indictment, not glorification. These men are scum because they can't be en in any healthy way. In the libretto, it's clear that Sergei fancies Katerina because she stands up to bullying.  Trolls  aren't constructive : they need to destroy because they can't create.  Zinovy Borisovichs is impotent but he's a good man. He doesn't play games.  Hence  the bittersweet anti-romance in the cocky flute melodies round Sergey and the distorted bombast in  Boris Timofeyevich music.  Thus, too, the maddening, circular rhythms when the mob intrude, thrusting in every direction.  The solo violin, in contrast, suggests demented resolve.  And so  Boris dies in slow diminuendo.  The crowd scenes are meticulously choreographed, suggesting a kind of orchestrated turmoil. 

Nothing much seems to happen in the long orchestral passage in the second act, but the music functions as an invisible backdrop. As we watch Jansons conduct, we can "hear" the events which are unfolding after Boris's death.   Katerina's still in a box, trapped in a frame without walls, yet there's strange beauty in the orchestration, suggesting wide open spaces, small, twinkling figures shining like starlight.  The staccato now trudges grimly forward.  The scene where Boris's ghost curses is shrouded in darkness, so we pay attention to the elusive violin melody. Although Westbroek and Ventris spend time groping each other in their undies, there's more desolation here than lust.  Zinovy lies dead, out of sight. Shostakovich's music for the police officers is brilliantly malevolent, underlining the anti-authoritarian message implicit in the opera.  When the police invade the wedding, Jansons conducts the multiple cross currents with clear definition. No partying for Sergey and Katerina.  We're off to Siberia. Now the whole cast are stripped to their undies. Everyone's exposed. If the chant of the chorus sounds vaguely like religious chant, there may well be a reason for that.

Jansons's conducting was matched by the high standards of singing. Westbroek "owns" parts like this. When the Royal Opera House did Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 2004, Katarina Dalayman sang the part very well, but on balance I think Westbroek's hapless earthiness extends characterization.
In London, Ventris exuded sexual magnetism, effectively stealing the show. Unfortunately in this Amsterdam production, filmed two years later, he's not called on to do much.  It's a wasted opportunity since he can do the role extremely well when called on.  Anatoli Kotsjerga sings Boris. Kušej's production isn't nearly as visual as Richard Jones's production for London.  Without Jansons, Westbroek and Ventris, I wonder how effective it would be  ? Yet it's been revived several times since 2006.  So it's nice to hear the original again. (It;s been on DVD for ages)


Original Content: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is back !

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Prostitutes, chamber music and recording

Traditional Chinese singing girls, who used to make music in teahouses, brothels, etc. But look ! A gramophone player ! This would date the photo to the first decade of the 20th century, when  such things were still such a novelty that people would pay to listen to sound coming from a machine.  So these enterprising girls found a way to draw the punters while giving themselves a break from singing and playing.  Recording technology came early to China. There are quite a few cylinders of Beijing opera stars singing popular arias.  From the style of their clothing, (unusually high collars) these girls come from North China. Their feet are tiny - possibly the result of footbinding that fell out of favour after the 1911 revolution.  Generally footbinding was a middle class thing,  which suggests that these girls were "bought" as infants in order to be trained as prostitutes. (though "prostitution" in that context was a mix of different services, like geishas don't just do sex)

The recording below is a Gaisberg cylinder from 1902, in Cantonese dialect, but there exist Beijing-made recordings from 1905-1908 made for the Chinese market

Original Content: Prostitutes, chamber music and recording