Monthly Archives: December 2008

You say you want a resolution

Instead of cobbling together one of those end-of-year highlights lists–I’ve never been big on them anyway, and besides, even if I was I’m too lazy right now to think about compiling such a beast–I thought I’d jot down for perpetuity (or until I click the “edit” link for the nth time) a few of my music-related goals and aspirations for ’09.

  1. Write more. Postings, reviews, whatever. Do. It.
  2. Catalog my CDs. I know this sounds like a pretty geeky project. It’s an issue, though, when I have to pull out huge tottering stacks of discs to find that one 1910 recording of so-and-so doing “Una voce poco fa.”
  3. Come to terms with Gluck. I’ve been fighting this for too long. What am I missing? He’s a huge figure in the history of opera–HUGE–so surely there’s got to be something more to his stage works than a string of accompanied recitatives.
  4. Promote my blog. I’m going to be kind of shameless about this, so if you’ve got a music or opera blog of your own, watch out.
  5. Catch an opera in a foreign country. Italy. France. England. Canada. Doesn’t really matter.
  6. Start practicing again. I can’t believe how out of shape my voice is. I could barely get through the second verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” at Christmas without experiencing extreme vocal fatigue. It’s not like I’m going to be auditioning for anything in the near future, but it seems a shame to let all of that training go to waste in the shower.
  7. Reread Opera as Drama. Joseph Kerman’s opinionated little manifesto infuriates the hell out of me, but for some strange reason I keep coming back to it.
  8. Teach a survey of opera course. I put one together a few years back but nothing ever came of it. Interested? Drop me a line.
  9. Avoid Zauberflöte. I’ve come to realize that I really don’t care much for this work. Whatever charms it once held have long since disappeared.
  10. Advocate like crazy for the arts. I’m worried about the sorry state of the arts in this country. In my role as a music educator, I need to take a more active role in playing up the value of an arts education, and I need to make sure that the people who are in a position of political or financial power realize that the arts are a necessary and fundamental component of any thinking, feeling society.


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Bailing out the arts

In an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Washington Post, Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, called for “an emergency grant for arts organizations in America, and…legislation that allows unusual access to endowments.” “The arts,” he wrote, “have historically received short shrift from our political leaders, who all too often seem happy to offer bland endorsements of our work without backing those words with financial appropriations. But the arts in the United States provide 5.7 million jobs and account for $166 billion in economic activity annually. This sector is at serious risk. Because the arts are so fragmented, no single organization’s demise threatens the greater economy and claims headlines. But thousands of organizations, and the state of America’s arts ecology, are in danger.”

Kaiser is definitely on to something here, but let’s face it: George W. Bush has never shown one scintilla of interest in the arts during the entire time he’s been in office, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe that this is going to change in the next three weeks. Will things be any different after January 20th? Hard to say. President Obama–can we please just start calling him that NOW?–has laid out a series of arts-related policies such as reinvesting in arts education, expanding public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations, and increasing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Any one of these would be good first steps toward rectifying the current dire situation. I’m cautiously optimistic that he’ll be able to follow through on at least some of his proposals, but he’s going to have to put forth a compelling argument for them, especially since a large segment of the American public has bought into the notion that the arts are costly and irrelevant.

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James on my mind

Portland Opera is presenting Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw in February, and so in preparation for my pre-performance talks, I’ll be refamiliarizing myself with a work I haven’t heard in a very long time and posting some of my observations on it over the next couple of weeks.

I’m also (re)reading the Henry James novella that served as the basis for the opera’s tightly constructed libretto. I intentionally put parentheses around that prefix because although I was assigned “The Turn of the Screw” for my freshman American Lit class, I never got past the prologue. Nothing made the slightest bit of sense to me. Sure, I recognized each of the individual words on the page, but when they were all strung together into what should have been something meaningful, I kept tripping over verbal speedbumps like this:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.”

Excuse me?  And that’s just the first sentence!

I’m not sure why, but things are going much more smoothly for me this time around, and I seem to have settled into some kind of Jamesian flow. (I don’t know what that is, exactly, but I’m not going to fight it.) In order to get a better sense of the author’s style, I’ve even started in on “The Ambassadors,” a dense, sprawling, and puzzling novel that may take me several months–or at the rate I’m going, years–to finish.

Speaking of James, Laura Grimes had a terrific piece in this past Sunday’s Oregonian entitled “My adventures with Hank,” in which she recounted her well-meaning (but  ill-fated) attempts at slogging through “The Ambassadors.” (Her description of trying to read it on the bus is priceless.) I got such a kick out of what she wrote that I emailed her about Turn of the Screw and my own ongoing encounters with the author. I hope Laura’s able to catch one of the performances at the Keller.


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Rank amateurs

For the past week and a half or so, many in the online classical music community have been writing about New York Philharmonic trombonist David Finlayson’s blistering critique of Gilbert Kaplan, the wealthy businessman and Mahler aficianado who has made a two-decade long career out of conducting the composer’s massive Second Symphony, and who earlier this month led the Philharmonic in a performance of the work.  In his no-holds-barred blog posting, Finlayson calls Kaplan an arrogant and self-deluded “impostor,” a “very poor beater of time” with an “Everest-sized ego” who “far too often is unable to keep the ensemble together and allows most tempo transitions to fall where they may.” “His direction,” Finlayson continues, “lacks few indications of dynamic control or balance and there is absolutely no attempt to give phrases any requisite shape. In rehearsal he admitted to our orchestra that he is not capable of keeping a steady tempo and that he would have to depend on us for stability in that department.” Kaplan’s lack of adequate stick technique resulted in plenty of missed opportunities, particularly in the fifth movement, where coordinating the off-stage brass and percussion caused him “much tribulation.”

Finlayson believes that Kaplan “has succeeded in drawing an audience because of the wide popularity of Mahler’s great symphony and our culture’s intrinsic want to see someone break down barriers that have remained seemingly impenetrable.” He cites actors-turned-California governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan, golfer Bobby Jones, the 1980 American Olympic hockey team, even John McCain and Sarah Palin as examples of “underdogs or amateurs who have ‘beat the odds’.” (I’m not sure why Finlayson failed to include himself and his fellow bloggers on this list. It wasn’t all that long ago when someone without the proper journalistic credentials–say, a trombone player in an American symphony orchestra–would have been denied access to a forum through which opinions like his could be voiced and widely disseminated.) But Kaplan’s isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the- mill Cinderella story. As far as Finlayson is concerned, “careful marketing, money, and influence” have enabled this “no-talent, self-proclaimed Mahler expert [to make] his way to the front of many of the world’s leading orchestras [,] relying on their collective talents and experience to pad his conducting résumé.” (The last time I checked, Kaplan wasn’t angling for a permanent position, so it’s not clear to me what résumé he might be trying to pad.)

Although it may not have been his original intention, Finlayson raised some very intriguing issues about what passes as the dividing line between “professional” and “amateur” and about the role background and training play in determining an individual’s qualifications to perform certain highly specialized tasks, and I’m glad that so many in the classical music blogosphere have been addressing his points from several different angles. Personally, I’d like to see someone give this topic the kind of historical perspective it deserves, if for no other reason than as a reminder of just how recent our conception of “professionalism” really is.

From time to time, the world of opera has been home to those who seemingly challenge conventional notions of talent, ability, and, yes, even good taste. There are probably lots of reasons for this, but I suspect a not insignificant reason is that opera thrives on artifice, exaggeration, and excess. One only has to think of such colorful (or delusional) characters as Florence Foster Jenkins, the so-called “diva of din,” who used the money she inherited upon her father’s death in 1909 to subsidize her unsuccessful singing career and who, in 1944, at the age of 76 rented Carnegie Hall for a one-night-only recital that sold out weeks in advance to an audience that howled with laughter throughout the entire event; Olive Middleton, the diminutive English soprano who sang Musetta, Marguerite, and Pamina at Covent Garden during the 1920s and whose past their prime performances of Aida, Norma, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Sieglinde at New York’s La Puma Opera Workshop in the 1960s and 1970s attracted crowds of screaming and cheering fans; or Vassilka Petrova, who flourished–if that’s the right word for it–in the early years of the LP and who paid to have her various recordings produced, including a 1951 effort that has been called–not without justification–the “Tosca from Hell.” (Donald Collup has compiled an amazing audio archive of Jenkins, Middleton, Petrova, and others, and CDs are available for sale on his website at a very reasonable price.)

I certainly appreciate the basis for David Finlayson’s concerns, but as someone who has been around opera for as long as I have, I just can’t get as worked up as he is about someone like Gilbert Kaplan. I’m not convinced that the situation he described is really all that much different than listening to an over the hill Aida or a “Tosca from Hell.”

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Puccini’s 150th

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in the Tuscan town of Lucca 150 years ago today, and opera was forever changed as a result. (Some would say for the worse, but that’s a debate for another time.)

I discovered Tosca a little over 30 years ago, and although I was too young to appreciate much of what I heard, I responded to the score in ways that I don’t think I ever could have imagined. Scarpia completely captivated me–I had also just seen Star Wars, so the idea of pure evil was no doubt still fresh in my mind–and when I had finally saved up enough of my allowance to buy a copy of the Schirmer piano/vocal score, I went through and memorized the entire role, hoping one day to sing it on stage. (I never did.) In the afternoons, I would escape to my bedroom, cue the LP to the Te Deum, and strut around menacingly while Leonard Warren did all of the really heavy lifting for me.

Years later, as I prepared to give my first series of pre-performance lectures on Tosca, I pulled out my CD transfer of that old recording, and as I listened once again to the end of Act One, I was immediately transported back to the summer of 1977, to a time when the composer’s music was still fresh and new and opera had yet to seep into my viscera.

These days, when I need a Puccini fix, I’ll often turn to Fanciulla del West, with its dense modern harmonies and rich orchestral palette, or to the dark, brooding and tightly coiled Il Tabarro, to my mind the best of the three operas that make up Il Trittico. But I still come back to Tosca, the “shabby little shocker” (props to Joseph Kerman) that rocked my world at the age of 15 and continues to do so to this very day.

And so, by way of a small birthday tribute, I’d like to offer up the following. Grazie mille, maestro!

Tosca – Te Deum (rec.1955)


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In honor of Arctic Blast 2008 in the Pacific Northwest, I’m highlighting the great Russian tenor Sergei Lemeshev (1902-1977), here singing the Tsar’s Cavatina from Act Two of Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. There’s no date attached to this excerpt, but I believe that it was taken from a 1946 Bolshoi recording of the opera conducted by Kiril Kondrashin.

Snegurochka – Tsar’s Cavatina

Lemeshev first appeared at the Bolshoi in 1931, and he sang there on a regular basis until 1965. He was, along with Ivan Koslovksy, one of the premiere Russian tenors of the pre- and post-war era.

This aria is a study in breath control and legato, and Lemeshev is more than up to these challenges. Listen to the way he approaches the high A in the following phrase, and then notice how he pulls back ever so slightly on the final three note cadential figure without losing focus (about 1:30 into the recording):

Update: Thanks to reader Natalie for providing the correct date for that recording. It was 1948, not 1946 as I had originally speculated.


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A non-operatic opera?

Greg Sandow always raises some very intriguing questions about the future of classical music. In his most recent blog post, he wonders whether the 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days might make an “almost mesmerizing” opera. (For those unfamiliar with the movie, it tells the incredibly powerful story of a young woman who helps a friend obtain an illegal abortion in Ceauşescu’s Romania.) “There wouldn’t be a single operatic moment in this opera, ” he writes. “Nothing bigger than life, no occasion for melodies, high notes, or arias. (In any style.)” And since ” the movie is unflinchingly realistic…the opera would have to be, too. This would be an opera for a small theater, using a small instrumental ensemble (I think), and unusually subtle singers. They’d have to act just as well as stage actors do.”

I have a few minor reservations about the suitability of this particular film for traditional operatic treatment–it strikes me that there’s almost no room in the story for music of any kind, especially given the emphasis on subtle verbal interchange between the characters–but it would be interesting see if Greg’s conception could be realized. And I think he’s right when he says that “if opera is going to succeed in our era, it should tackle any subject found in other media, and in every style and mood used elsewhere.”

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