Santa Monica Pilgrimage

Messiaen, Dutilleux and Gubaidulina – all on the same program! Hard to pass up. So I pointed the old white Mazda up the 5, the 73, the 405 and the 10 to Santa Monica Saturday night for my first experience with the wonderful Jacaranda concert series at the First Presbyterian Church.

The first half was comprised of three Messiaen organ works – the second and fifth movements of Meditations sur le mystere du Sainte Trinite and the concluding “Dieu parmi nous” from La Nativete du Seigneur. I’ve been listening to Messiaen for 35 years or so, my knowledge of his organ output confined to recordings of La Nativete, L’Ascension and Livre du Saint Sacrement. Though I’ve always had mixed feelings about him as a composer, I looked forward to an overdue first live helping of the organ music – one of the most striking slices of his oeuvre.

The soloist, Jacaranda co-founder Mark Alan Hilt, did not disappoint. He played brilliantly, displaying a fine feel for Messiaen’s singular sonic universe and infusing as much dynamics as the music allows. The organ pipes at First Pres are spread across an unusually wide physical space, an ideal setup for exploring the possibilities of stereo spatiality in the music. Hilt had clearly spent much time on the registrations and it paid off for the audience, providing a maximum palette for Messiaen’s color-inspired effusions and his obsessional expropriation of birdsong. A stunning performance.

Yet, for all the rapturous descriptions written over the years of this composer’s “multi-hued sound world,” “innovative rhythmic structures,” devotional characteristics placing his organ works “halfway between heaven and earth,” and the like, I was left somewhat cold. Messiaen is incontestably one of the most original figures of modern music. In both his organ and orchestral music, however, the same devices are heard over and over – the extraterrestrial-but-faintly-saccharine-sounding harmonies, the all-the-subtlety-of-a-sledgehammer “elbow” chords, the delightful birdsong (whose relevance to the compositional whole I sometimes wonder about), the computer-like dynamics and – most annoyingly for me, his predilection for resolving highly complex harmonic movement into bone-simple triads. Messiaen gave the world something unique, without question. But I feel that his style of writing is so hyper-organized and, at times, grandiose, that it often precludes any sense of spontaneity and ambiguity, qualities that count for a lot with me in musical expression.

A stark comparison was afforded by Hilt’s magical second-half performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s only solo organ work, Light and Darkness, a 1976 piece of about eight minutes. I’m still gathering my impressions of the 80-year-old composer from the Tatar Republic, but Light and Darkness struck me as clearly outdistancing the Messiaen works in terms of expression – in a fraction of the duration. Recordings have shown Gubaidulina’s virtuosity in ensemble writing to be on a lofty level; this gift was transferred here to a single instrument in such a way as to convincingly suggest more than one player without needing to lean unduly on the organ’s considerable multitimbral capacity. I would have to hear Light and Darkness again to give a detailed description of the music. It was mysterious, spare, devoid of rhetoric – and utterly spellbinding. Above all, the piece left the impression of a consummate artist working by intuition, both refined and raw, wherever it may lead — rather than a system.

Equally breathtaking was Henri Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, a solo cello piece masterfully played by Timothy Loo. Dutilleux, now 96, remains little known to the American public, but I consider him in the very top rank of living composers. An unmatched craftsman of both sound and architecture, his relatively modest output includes two superb symphonies, several concertos, a number of standalone orchestral works, a solo piano catalogue and a string quartet. Trois Strophes is of the same high quality, managing to be both deeply thoughtful and a display piece in the best possible way. Dutilleux deploys all the standard articulations – from arco to pizzicato, harmonics, tremolo sul ponticello, strumming and plucking open strings while playing a figure on others – so seamlessly and in such an organic-sounding fashion that the listener can almost accept the notion of this four-stringed instrument as an orchestra unto itself. Yet the poetic element is never absent; Dutilleux has always had a lot of technique in his quiver but it is invariably placed in the service of the music. I can only surmise that the fabulously talented Loo had a ball learning and playing this piece. It’s a cellist’s dream.

The evening ended with something of a head scratcher: Gubaidulina’s intermittently raucous Risonanza, scored for these curious forces – organ, three trumpets, four trombones and six strings. The piece begins with an ear-piercing shriek from a piccolo trumpet and proceeds on a journey dominated by the brass, with the organ often providing a suffusing sonic underpinning. Risonanza has a consciously avant-garde flavor to it, though Gubaidulina provides plenty of substance along the way. On first listening, I had trouble discerning the arc of the piece. The thought “What was the point of that?” took hold after the concert, but I would certainly give Risonanza another listen. It is clearly a piece of virtuosic writing making virtuosic demands on the brass players, who acquitted themselves marvelously.

I left kicking myself for not having learned about the Jacaranda series earlier. The stellar musicianship and interesting, penetrating repertoire are to be treasured. I’ll be back.

— April 23, 2012



“The Dream Gallery” Soloists: An Appreciation

Fans of my CD “The Dream Gallery” invariably comment on the high quality of the work’s seven soloists, and the disarming and persuasive manner in which they took on the musical identities of their characters. In a recent interview, I described these singers as “an impressive bunch who sing the hell out of these pieces.” I think I’ll stick with that. But I’d like to add a few words about each one of them individually.

Soprano Mary Jaeb is a wonderfully expressive singer well suited to the wide emotional terrain “Helen” encompasses. Her ability to delve into layers of meaning in a lyric through a palette of highly musical vocal techniques makes her a superb interpreter of art songs. Mary is one of the most thoughtful singers I’ve ever encountered, and she can be counted upon in recording situations to offer a wide variety of creative interpretations from which to choose. This is not often the case, I and many other composers can attest.

Baritone David Marshman gives a powerful and nuanced performance of “Todd” that matches the piece’s stark subject matter — the bleak oil lands surrounding the small city of Taft. The vocal part calls for the expression of stoicism, anger and, at times, disgust. But a wistful tenderness is also part of the mix, as David shows in the suspended, floating section beginning with “Shadows of late afternoon … .” And he does not fail to convey that Taft, despite a long run of ill luck, will always be close to his character’s heart.

Mezzo soprano Janelle DeStefano is blessed with a voice of great depth and richness, which has made her a sought-after soloist in the Southern California concert world. Oddly enough, the “formalist” qualities of the sound she produces are ideal for the satirical depiction of “Naomi,” who views herself as being on a higher, more perfect rung of the evolutionary ladder. Janelle was asked to sound supremely confident and on the cool side, clearly removed from the nasty realities of “the flatlands” lying below the Berkeley hills. She did just that!

Young mezzo Delaney Gibson has spent much of her career in the pop/rock arena, which calls for its own distinct brand of extroversion. I wanted to tap that energy to bring to life the loathsome “Carol,” who would never for a minute tolerate classical music. Delaney instinctively understood this and turned in an utterly convincing performance that fully captures the character’s swagger and arrogance. She possesses fine technique and is a marvel of efficiency in the recording realm. “Carol” is not an easy piece, but it posed no problems for her.

Bass Carver Cossey’s heartfelt rendition of “Lonnie” reaches deeply into the complexities of personality and social milieu, spanning emotions that range from despair and world-weariness to warmth and the inextinguishability of hope. Carver has sung just about every type of music – with great feeling and finesse. While opportunities for extended solos with orchestra are all too rare, he embraced the dramatic arc and historical underpinnings of “Lonnie” and infused the character with all the humanity I could have asked for.

Alto Martha Jane Weaver has amassed years of experience and acclaim singing solo symphonic, choral repertoire, opera, gospel – even Gilbert and Sullivan. Her mission in “Luz” was somewhat off the beaten track, singing in a manner that sometimes borders on “rough,” in keeping with her character’s peasant roots. Martha Jane not only succeeded but contributed majestic moments that trace the long road traveled and endured. I had never written for an alto before, but will happily do so again after working with her.

Tenor Tom Zohar is a singer of great energy and high aspirations, making him a fine match for the propulsive role of “Adam.” The piece has numerous (and sometimes abrupt) shifts in focus that depict moments of rebellion, resolve, indecision, regret and elation. Tom managed to convey all of these while keeping a long-unfolding narrative on track. “Adam” also poses some stiff technical challenges that Tom proved himself equal to; a very impressive first recorded performance.

My Favorite Opera DVDs: “Salome”

Götz Friedrich’s monumental television production of Richard Strauss’ greatest opera is now 38 years old. In recent years, some may have passed on it because it is not a live performance (as we are now thoroughly accustomed to) but rather a lip-sync job. But, in my opinion, Friedrich’s Salome is still at the top of the video heap for its extraordinary depth of expression, both musically and visually.

The cast is as good as it gets: a top-of-her-game Teresa Stratas in the title role, Bernd Weikl as Jokanaan, Hans Beirer as Herod, Astrid Varnay as Herodias, and two singers who later rose to greater prominence – Wieslaw Ochman as Narraboth and Hanna Schwarz as his page. The music is handled magnificently by Karl Böhm, one of the greatest of Strauss conductors, and the redoubtable Vienna Philharmonic.

Friedrich decided to record the orchestra and soloists first, then film the singer/actors afterward miming their parts because of the degree of visual control it afforded and the need for a musical performance recorded with as much sonic clarity as could be mustered in 1974. Strauss’ score is a towering landmark not only for its power, beauty, harmonic innovation and ability to disturb, but its wealth of inner detail, which often cannot be heard adequately in the opera house.

The lip-sync procedure is less than perfect (Weikl in particular struggles with it) and there are a handful of clunky visual decisions made by Friedrich in the course of the piece. But he makes so many good ones – with the singers giving their absolute all as actors – that the shortcomings are of no consequence.

There are two primary reasons why Salome ranks among the most important operas ever written. The music is simply stunning in its creativity – and not only in the context of 1905; it packs a tremendous wallop in 2012. Into this piece and the Elektra that followed, Strauss poured everything he had learned and synthesized, then upped the ante, pushing himself far beyond the outer limits of the “progressivism” he was known for at the time into polytonality and right to the doorstep of atonality. We chuckle today at how “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Don Quixote” and “Ein Heldenleben” were regarded as progressive, when they can now be seen largely as excesses of post-romanticism. But Salome is something quite different and truly radical. With this work, and the daring decisions he made while writing it, Strauss yanked opera decisively into the 20th century and laid crucial groundwork for Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu, Alexander Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy, several of Franz Schreker’s operas and Shostakovich’s much-later Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Apart from Salome’s harmonic and melodic pushing of the envelope, we experience one of the greatest masters of orchestral writing brilliantly applying the resources of a very large ensemble to a spectrum of emotions that range from idealized love through obsessive lust and all the way to the darkest depravities.

Most operagoers’ takeaway from Salome over the years has tended to focus less on Strauss’ music than the primal shock of Oscar Wilde’s overripe adaptation of the biblical story. But the opera is a truth teller about human nature. And, yes, it IS shocking – even when viewed through the lens of our modern culture, through which the creatures escaped from Pandora’s box fly thickly, wing over wing. Friedrich’s video excels in this regard, without resorting to such titillating literalism as presenting a nude Salome at the conclusion of the Dance of the Seven Veils. He sheds unprecedented dramatic light on the score wherever possible. For me, the most striking example is the four-minute orchestral interlude after Jokanaan is returned to the cistern following his rejection of Salome’s advances. His cameras follow Teresa Stratas in a series of close-ups in which she silently and supinely moves through a series of motions and expressions that convey her black despair at the rejection, uncertainty about what to do next, the dawning realization that she has the power to take the prophet’s life (chillingly suggested by contrabassoon and sul ponticello strings) and, finally, her confusion after the spell of her musings is broken by the approach of Herod and his courtiers. There’s a whole raft of gripping images in this sequence — most strikingly, Friedrich’s brief focus on Stratas’ mirrored headdress, which suggests a strange insect (a praying mantis, perhaps) slowly moving toward its prey.

The entire production is a feast of such episodes, too numerous to recount here but calibrated by a master to deliver the full punch of this amazing one-act opera, whose intensity rises in a steady arc to its shattering climax. The final scene of Salome — which (unlike in concert hall performances) really begins at the point where Herodias pries off Herod’s ring, sealing Jokanaan’s doom – has never been matched in musical terms for its melding of tension, horror and pathos. Friedrich meets this challenge through Stratas’ hysteria-laden wait for the prophet’s severed head to appear, her unhinged monologue to the mute object of her vengeful affections, and the spine-tingling climax, which through use of shadows depicts Salome as the monster she is and ends with the camera slowly panning up her rising body, rising unknowingly to meet her impending death singing “Ich habe deinen mund geküsst, Jochanaan” as Strauss’s vast orchestra swells to near the bursting point. Has there ever been such a powerful ending to an opera? Not to my knowledge.

The singing, the acting and the playing in this production are all on a very high level. I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning Weikl’s powerful portrayal of the noble but self-possessed Jokanaan, the priceless characterizations of the blood-drenched royal couple by Beirer and Varnay, or the idiosyncratic but very effective mixing of the orchestral track – which, like director Friedrich, is intent on revealing details often missed. Salome is a seminal work of art, and it repays repeated listening and watching many times over; it has a great deal to offer, and this video is a great place to start.

Finally, regarding the emotional impact it makes: Can you imagine being in the audience at the premiere in Dresden in 1905? A “shocker” it was then, and a shocker it remains today. But it’s much more than that. It’s one of the greatest operas ever written.

Richard Strauss: “Salome” — with Teresa Stratas, Bernd Weikl, Astrid Varnay, Hans Beirer; Karl Bohm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. 1974. 101 minutes. Deutsche Grammophon DVD 00440 073 4339

My Favorite Opera DVDs: “Kat’a Kabanova”

Leos Janacek’s stature as one of the last century’s most significant composers finally seems secure and unshakable. Even the severe Pierre Boulez has come around in recent years, marshaling his resources to produce an admirable DVD of Janacek’s last work, the bleak 1928 masterpiece From the House of the Dead. The man from Brno, Moravia — derided as a “scrap-by-scrap composer” by the powerful English critic Ernest Newman back in 1951 — is recognized today as one of the most original figures of his time, having devised a new language that melds elements as disparate as folksong, late Romanticism and early 20th century modernism, is in some ways a precursor of minimalism, and incorporates in musical terms the composer’s lifelong fascination with “natural” speech rhythms.

Despite the acceptance, our knowledge of Janacek still tends to rest on little more than a dozen works – the five of his operas that are established in the international repertoire, the two string quartets, the Glagolitic Mass, the symphonic poem Taras Bulba, the Sinfonietta, and the powerful piano essays In the Mists and the Sonata 1.X.1905 “From the Street.” Janacek produced many more pieces that are rarely heard, if at all, and our judgment on what he had to offer remains incomplete until that music is better known.

For me, his most affecting works are the operas Kat’a Kabanova and Jenufa, and the last-mentioned piano sonata – all marked by tragedy, the remorseless march of fate and (the bittersweet ending of Jenufa notwithstanding) an elemental despair that the poetry and pathos of the music underscores in often breathtaking fashion.

Since this brief series concerns itself with my “favorite” opera DVDs (and not any technical benchmarks), I highly recommend the 1988 Glyndebourne Festival television production of Kat’a Kabanova conducted by Andrew Davis – even though the location recording of the London Philharmonic is thin and lacks resonance. One’s ears adjust fairly quickly to the sound; the singing is superb, the music beautiful, the story gripping, the spare, expressionist-tinged set design unique and effective.

It has been noted by many over the years that Janacek, like Modest Mussorgsky, sought truth over beauty – never more so than in the searing Kat’a, completed in 1921. Though rarely described this way, it is a story about danger – specifically, the danger in which one can be placed when the desperate need to be loved intensely trumps all other considerations. Secondly, the opera examines the transitory nature of love, how its flames can burn brightly then leave hopes smoldering in the ashes. Along its 100-minute course, Kat’a (based on The Thunderstorm, by the mid-19th century Russian playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky) also offers eloquent commentary on the emptiness of bourgeois life in an isolated village, weakness of character, the impetuousity and naivete of youth, and the psychological domination of others through anger, bluster and sexuality.

This particular production is elevated above the merely respectable by the extraordinary performance of Nancy Gustafson in the title role. In her early 30s at the time, Gustafson’s Midwest farm girl-like good looks are perfect from a visual standpoint. Her character’s basic bubbly innocence is soon to be undone by a breakdown triggered by her loneliness and the impossibility of escape, compounded by wrenching humiliation when her extramarital affair with the hapless Boris (sung by the late Barry McCauley) comes to light. We are already clear that Kat’a is headed for trouble by the time her husband leaves for the city on business, a theme also taken up by Dmitri Shostakovich a dozen or so years later in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. But while Shostakovich’s Katerina is driven by boredom and lust, Kat’a yearns to experience a full love for what turns out to be the only time in her brief life.

The Glyndebourne staging has a raft of haunting and often wordless moments masterfully devised by director Nikolaus Lehnhoff and focusing mainly on Gustafson’s face. One of the most unforgettable is her second-act hesitation by the door Kat’a has stepped through to meet Boris face to face for the first time. As Janacek’s uneasy music hovers above, her conflicted expression says it all. It’s a perilous move she is making, risking everything for the dubious attentions of a man she knows next to nothing about. But her married life is so suffocating that she succumbs quickly enough — “Your will has conquered my will” — to Boris’ passionate declarations of love. The die is cast.

The final minutes of Act 2 contain some of Janacek’s most beautiful music, as the lovers disappear for the banks of the Volga, their ecstatic voices heard offstage soaring against the nighttime stars and sky. The scene winds down near dawn with the unfailingly moving duet by Vanya (John Graham-Hall) and Varvara (Louise Winter), gentle enablers of the infidelity: “It is night and far from home; maidens should no longer roam. … I am young and I shall stay out until the break of day.”

The brief idyll collapses in Act 3 – not only with the catastrophic revelation of the affair but Boris’ uncomplaining acceptance of a familial exile in Siberia (“Well, I am a free agent. For me there is no problem.”) He shuffles off and leaves Kat’a to face the contempt and ostracism alone. Gustafson’s disheveled appearance in the final scene leaves no doubt that Kat’a has lost the will to live. After a contented couple stroll by oblivious to her agony, she muses, “Once, women like me would be put to death. … And yet death will not come.” The departure of Boris brings no relief, only further heartache. Her final monologue, accompanied by hushed, trilling major/minor figures in the orchestra, seals the decision that suicide is the only option for a woman unable to find a fulfilling role in a straightjacketed society only belatedly emerging from the structures of feudalism.

Gustafson’s singing throughout Kat’a is marvelous in its delicacy and range of emotions. She was a brilliant choice for this production, as was the singer awarded the only other powerful role – the great Felicity Palmer as the sadistic mother-in-law Kabanicha. The men are fine as well, but Kat’a – like Jenufa – is an opera about women. One’s perception cannot help but be colored by what we now know about the composer’s late-in-life and long-lived infatuation with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman nearly 40 years his junior. As this situation was as hopeless and impossible as that of Kat’a, Janacek used the music to convey his deepest feelings in the only manner Stosslova could find acceptable.

Leos Janacek: “Kat’a Kabanova” — with Nancy Gustafson, Felicity Palmer, Ryland Davies, Barry McCauley, John Graham-Hall, Louise Winter; Andrew Davis conducting the London Philharmonic. 1988. 100 minutes. Kultur  D0036