Daniel Goode

Composer & Performer

Tag: Orchestra

“L’Amour de Loin” opera by Kaija Saariaho in HD screening

Gorgeous, beautiful, moving! Just to start with: the set by Robert LePage represents the sea with wall-to-wall horizontal strings of LED lights flecked with sprays of lighting changes. Glittering minimalism at its best. The characters play in between the rows of lights. The story makes the sea a central character. It separates and then unites the lovers.

I’m going to be able to cut corners on facts because of Alex Ross’s excellent review(s) in the New Yorker. I’m sure the NYTimes has good stuff to google also.

So Saariaho. She’s Finnish and 64. She’s so good it’s almost scary!  Most contemporary opera never gets to this level. And she’s the first woman opera composer at the Met since Dame Ethyl Smythe in 1903. I just learned that Smythe’s  opera was on a double-bill. But this is opera about a troubadour where the love story is actually moving, the physical encounter at the end though limited, is passionate and sexy. The death of the hero—this time, unlike so many opera deaths—from illness at sea is reasonable in Medieval times. She’s a “countess” (Susanna Phillips) and a fabulous, passionate creature who comes alive both to the fantasy of the hero from across the Mediterranean, and the real one in the flesh, The troubadour is a powerful baritone with a tenor upper range (Eric Owens). The Pilgrim is the only other character, genderless, but beautifully sung by Tamara Mumford. She’s the go-between for the lovers.

Yes, Wagner’s Tristan…, Yes, also Debussy’s Palleas…”  and also the neoclassical revivals of “antiquity” by Lully and Gluck and others. The chant-like chorus emerges importantly as a part of the feel of antiquity. But Saariaho is her own person. The libretto in French is syllabic (one note per syllable). That makes it declamatory. It’s delivered almost entirely in a double-gapped scale (larger than one step between consecutive scale notes, like the “harmonic minor” but with a second gap earlier in the scale).

I found this an over-used device that made the singing feel contricted by the scale, though the singers worked against it. And the wonderful mid-views and close-ups possible in the movie theater created so much drama, character and emotion that it hardly mattered in the end. The camera was active without being intrusive. The sound was excellent at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. This is an amazing medium for opera. What will it do to the Met live performances? Well, that’s their problem. They must reduce Met ticket prices at least.

I’m still bothered and always will be by the opera singer’s vibrato, especially in this case by the baritone. In the close-ups of the Pilgrim, you could see her lower jaw vibrating to create the vibrato. Less so with the lead soprano. Whenever a “straight” tone emerged, I was enlivened. A mixture is what one hopes for.

More has to be said of the cluster-y, drone-using orchestral harmony. Vocal pitches are almost always embedded someplace in the orchestra texture. Sometimes, as in the ending, a very persuasive bass tone underlies a tonal center. At other times the texture with filigrees of solo instruments takes over, and a kind of pan-everything pleasurable sound suffuses us.

Thumbnail Review No. 50

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Blago bung, anlogo bung, Esa-Pekka done agung!

Esa-Pekka Salone turned the Hugo Ball poem, KARAWANA, into a huge, sumptuous, post-modern orchestra piece so very much like the huge, sumptuous MODERNist orchestra piece he just conducted by Messiaen, his Turangalila Symphony. At the Philharmonic this week and last. I went to open rehearsals both times. Wonderful experiences. But:

Somehow I’m dying from too much chocolate. And yet—the symphony is so sexy; it hardly matters whether it’s sumptuous or not. It glows in the light or the dark.

So, what’s to complain about? Really not much, just that the great Dada master, Hugo Ball’s wonderful nonsense poem with allusions on almost every made-up word, like bung (which occurs three times in the short poem), is not really audible, intelligible in the orchestra piece, or worse, not funny in the declamatory way it is funny if you recite it yourself. Try it in the attachment I’m including.

There’s nothing funny in the Messiaen piece. It’s too beautiful to be funny. So, two non-funny, almost too beautiful orchestra pieces. Then there’s the deflationary Hugo Ball telling you it’s all bung. And he’s telling you in a beautifully collaged sound-text graphic which he designed. Now we’ve got three beauties, and very little satire left.

But Ball will win it back from beauty once we recite his poem in our own voice. And also…let’s get off it about beauty being bad for art. Not true. Even in the most mundane, unbeautiful Fluxus event, presentation can be beautiful: the toy paper boats being blown about in a tub of water. Whose beautiful piece was that, I don’t remember. It might be George Brecht. Bob Watts’s F/R Trace has the performer walk on stage with a French Horn, bell up. He (there was only one female Fluxus artist, Alison Knowles, with Yoko Ono a runner-up), thus he, would face the audience, bow, and out would come from the bell of the horn a myriad bunch of ping-pong balls. They would bounce and bung all over the stage, even into the audience; the sound and the sight was awesome. A one-liner. How beautiful!

So that’s what was missing. We don’t get it all from one artist, and that’s a little complicated to take in. We assemble it from parts made by several people, including from a gigantic, gorgeous orchestra that, nevertheless…leaves something out.

Thumbnail Review No. 47

Gustav Mahler: After Nine

Two young composers influenced by Mahler’s 9th Symphony were performed:  by the Argento Chamber Ensemble, playing Matthew Ricketts’s After Nine: Fantasia on Mahler; and by the JACK Quartet, playing Taylor Brook’s Arrithmia——as a prelude to the Argento’s September 15th performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 9 (see my Thumb Nail Review #39.)

The latter of the two scarcely seemed serious. The composer wrote: “What does Mahler have to do with a string quartet written in 2012? It may be the result of an ‘anything goes’ attitude on my part.” Yes, anything goes; and anything went…He claims the “melodic quotations promote a clear connection to Mahler’s symphony…” I couldn’t hear them, though maybe the recurring mi-re-do stood in for that (if you remember that the first movement is mostly mi-re, and very little do till the the last note). In any case the JACK Quartet hacked through the piece with great vigor, though it seemed to very little artistic effect from the composer.

The Ricketts piece was a sensitive timbral study that moved from pitch level to pitch level, staying, expanding, then moving on. I’m thinking that there is newish style of creating tonal puddles based on this format. Each puddle gives way to the next. Then the piece ends. In Mr. Ricketts’s case, the penultimate moment was a passionate, but quickly disappearing climactic moment, re-orchestrated, from the Mahler first movement. It couldn’t stay long, or it would have been Mahler. Just a swipe at it.

I’m ambivalent about putting these two young composers with short pieces before the gigantic Mahler symphony. A little unfair. At the end of the evening my head was filled to overflowing with “ear worms” from its four movements. Usually it’s days, if not weeks for these ear worms to subside. Not much room for anything else. These things rise up from the unconscious, or someplace in there, just to the level of singability, but of course can’t be sung, because the underlying pulsing harmony can only be thought. I’m not sure I like this ear worm thing, but I know I can’t control it. It has to die down at its own rate, and something else must replace it.

Now a little poem on varied repetition: Iterative, re-iterative, iteravia, via, vi…. Another meaning to repetition in music is this continuous varied-repetition of long, well-formed melodic sentences. (One of my mentors in composition idly mentioned, the great length of a musical sentence in Mahler, which surprised me coming from a indomitable modernist.) Well-formed, by the way, includes ellipses, contractions, interruptions as part of a whole sentence, not some abstract symmetrical balancing.

Did Mahler have (“suffer” from) ear worms? How would we know?The simplicity of the melodic phrases—the parts of his long melodies— seems to force him into a paroxysm of increasing intensities of varied repetitions in the melodies and their orchestral counterpoints. Because of the simplicity of the original, and the obsessional nature of the composer? Were his putative ear worms vernacular borrowings or originals that sound inspired by vernacularities? Whatever you think about this, you have to create a special category of the archetype Repetition to account for Mahler’s underlying insistence on a musical gesture—call them themes, melodies, motives, or sentences. It’s not like Bruckner’s or Wagner’s iterative-ness. Nor Terry Riley’s nor Steve Reich’s, nor my own. Something special! It digs into you. It’s another kind of trance. I can imagine hating it because you believe that restraint is an essential part of art. But the only restraint necessary is that required by the instruments playing, and, historically, this has changed, partly because of Mahler’s composing. And every new generation of composers.

(Just to correct: the Argento string section: was 4,4,3,2,1)

Thumbnail Review #40