Mozart Is Not Postmodern

February 26, 2010 - Leave a Response

The Dallas Opera
Friday, February 12, 2010
7:30 p.m.

Graeme Jenkins, conductor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Così Fan Tutte

Too much time has passed for me to make accurate comments about the performance on opening night of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, the Dallas Opera’s second production of its inaugural year in the new Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. Some general comments:

Compared to the drab, industrial, mono-tone grey set for Verdi’s Otello, the first production, the set for Così Fan Tutte was not only more appealing aesthetically, it was thematically clever. The curtain rose to reveal a casino scene, gamblers gathered around the roulette wheel, with none other than Don Alfonso sitting at the head–a fitting symbol of his role as the puppet master who schemes situations to prove all women’s infidelity. He strengthens two young men’s loves for their respective fiancées by demonstrating the value of suspicion.

Nuccia Focile was the best all around singer and gave the most entertaining performance as a playful and whimsical Despina. During intermission, patrons enjoyed a rare downtown Dallas snow scene through the Winspear’s monumental glass walls.

Graeme Jenkins continues to impress us with solid conducting. Not only did he lead the orchestra, but he played the harpsichord continuo for the recitatives–a skilled performance with fluid transitions between the roles.

What was not impressive was the blurb advertising Così Fan Tutte on the Dallas Opera website. The description reads:

This poignant romantic comedy explores the mysteries of the heart with the aid of four attractive young lovers, a crafty maidservant and a jaded man of the world. Filled with timeless lessons about life, love and temptation; in many ways, this is Mozart at his most touching and his most postmodern.

Postmodern? What moron wrote this? The term is anachronistically applied to a composer whose music is the pinnacle of the Classical period. While a critic can take a postmodern approach to works of art before 1960, the work itself can be postmodern only if it falls within the historical bounds of the so-called “postmodern era.”

What is worse, the description of the opera as postmodern is a mangling of the essence of Così Fan Tutte. Mozart’s opera is a love story that coheres to the conventions of its time regarding class and gender, with a moralizing ending: women ought to remain faithful to their husbands. And blurb writers should remain faithful to their objects of description.

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A Banjo Pioneer Jams with African Musicians

February 18, 2010 - Leave a Response

Béla Fleck and The Africa Project
The Granada, Dallas
Wednesday, February 10
8:00 p.m.

The crowd was respectfully excited when Béla Fleck appeared on stage alone. He smiled and waved shyly and picked up his banjo, perching himself on the stool stage center. He began playing without a word of introduction. Mr. Fleck turned the Granada Theatre into his bedroom as he improvised for about ten minutes in one key.

The impromptu was a window into the mind of a musician with a seemingly bottomless reserve of imaginative melodies. There were some hesitancies but these minor stumbles are almost desirable as they add to the listener’s sensation that Mr. Fleck is saying something unique, something that will be heard only tonight, something that could be said only at that time.

Mr. Fleck handed over the stage to two Tanzanian musicians, the blind ilimba player, Anania Ngoliga, and the guitar-playing President of the Tanzanian Musicians’ Network, John Kitime. Their sound was pure sunshine, and it brought an immediate smile to my face. The ilimba is a Wagogo thumb-piano, a member of the little-known lamellophone family. Mr. Ngoliga’s technique is a tour de force of prestidigitation. Using only his thumbs, he plays thirty-second note runs up and down the pentatonic scale of the instrument.

Returning to the stage, Mr. Fleck joined his guests, playing a song by Mr. Ngoliga about two women, one who sounds like a chicken, the other a radio. Mr. Ngoliga sang, having fun shaping his voice, both in range and in tone, singing extremely high and low…and like a chicken. Mr. Kitime also sang harmonies; their singing was impressive considering the polyrhythmic accompaniment that they themselves provided.

Mr. Fleck then introduced a group from Mali named N’goni Ba, fronted by Bassekou Kouate. The annoying and embarrassing silences in Mr. Kouate’s solo opening were due to a damaged cable. The other three n’goni players of N’goni Ba showed on stage wearing wireless mic packs, which revealed The Granada’s staff’s mistake as a matter of ill-planning and carelessness. After suffering through the pops and skips, the group entered in full force, the depth of their layered sound coming from four n’goni (the “African banjo,” as Mr. Fleck cheerfully calls it) players, two percussionists, and the lead singer, Ami Sacko, who happens to be Mr. Kouate’s wife.

Mr. Kouate played as if he were the long lost cousin of Jimi Hendrix, at one point using a kind of wah-wah pedal. N’goni Ba wore elaborate orange and gold robes; the other n’goni players provided the bass and some harmonies as they danced; the percussionists kept impeccable time with pristine articulation; and Mrs. Sacko’s full-bodied voice swept over the whole group.

After a brief intermission, the crowd, having imbibed more, became a little too raucous for Mr. Fleck’s second improvisational demonstration. He played some mellow ideas on the cello banjo, ending in some soft-spoken remarks thanking the audience for listening to him, as if apologizing for interrupting their drinking conversation. Mr. Fleck improvised one more song alone, on the standard banjo, using only the tuners to change the pitch. The piece was beautiful in the realm of skill and sound.

The show ended with several songs involving all of the musicians, including the fiddler Casey Driessen. They played a mixture of Tanzanian and Malian traditional music and bluegrass. The special treat of the evening were the grooves of complicated, intricate, and fascinating polyrhythms, patterns built on various claves.

The encore was a song that had recently won, Mr. Fleck humbly told the audience, a Grammy for best pop instrumental. He quickly added that they had not discovered what that meant. The confusion is well-deserved because the song is neither “popular” music nor is it strictly instrumental, yet somehow the Grammy committee recognized the meritable musicianship of all members of Mr. Fleck’s African Project.

Set and Costumes Louder than Music in SMU’s Spring Semester Opera

February 9, 2010 - Leave a Response

SMU’s Meadows Opera Theatre
Saturday, February 6
8:00 p.m.

Mozart – Il Re Pastore

Hank Hammett, director
Paul Phillips, conductor

At Southern Methodist University, the Meadows Opera Theatre production of Il Re Pastore, or The Shepherd King, was something of a cerberus. The three heads of the set, the costumes, and the blocking were all vying for the audience’s attention. One would expect “music” to be in the running since it is ostensibly the most important part of an opera. The set and costumes, however, were so loud, I had a hard time hearing the music at times.

The set was intentionally laughable. A big-faced sun with his sixty-plus foot sun beams and his cloud-smiling friends dominated the stage. The style was a humorous yet disturbing mixture of anime and Don Hertzfeldt cartoons. The bushes created silhouettes similar to the pointy, fiery hair of the characters from Aaron McGruder’s comic strip / animated-cartoon The Boondocks. The sheep props were cute and earned a well-deserved laugh, especially when they returned at the end wearing crowns like their former shepherd now king.

Aminta, the shepherd king, was dressed like Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood wearing a neon orange construction-site hazard vest. Alessandro wore a similarly unlikely fire truck red, double-breasted suit with red shoes. While Agenore wore a tamer grey suit, it was highlighted by Malvolio socks and matching yellow bow tie. Elisa’s costume, however, took first place in silliness: tights and two thin layered tops in blue, green, and purple pastels. The costumes would have successfully matched the surreal set, but Tamiri dressed in period throwing the bizarre atmosphere into contradiction with itself.

Ever Mr. Hammet’s favorite, Ms. Donasco took the lead role as Aminta (originally cast for castrato, for those confused about the gender). She was relatively staid compared to the over-acting we’ve seen from her in the past. She left the stage antics to Ms. Galka (Elisa) and Mr. De León (Alessandro). The former flitted about confusing Elisa’s love for Aminta with seductive flirting; the latter reduced Alexander the Great to a self-absorbed metro-sexual buffoon.

…and there was music, too. Mr. Phillips was, as always, solid and sensitive, despite the dull dry acoustics of Bob Hope Theatre. Ms. Donasco’s “Aer tranquillo” was excellent, and her duet with Ms. Galka to end Act I was another treat. Mr. De León sometimes lacked the rhythmic fortitude to push through Mozart’s devilish sixteenth-note runs and turns, but his addition of a pause in one or two key moments showed an otherwise respectable musicality.

For the production, the voice of note was Ms. Galka’s, whose clarity made her arias ring, particularly the opening to Act II, “Barbaro! oh Dio mi vedi divisa dal mio ben.” As one of only two undergraduate students and the youngest singer to land a role, let’s watch for her in the future.

Tone Poetry: A Category Mistake?

February 5, 2010 - Leave a Response
Last week, when Pinchas Steinberg summarized the story that Smetana’s Vlast narrates through music, he implied several times that the listener does not need to know the story but can understand it through the music. The following post is my trying to work through the idea that music can tell a story.

Symphonic poems and the pastoral: the association seems inescapable. Coming out of German Romanticism, tone poems focus on harmony, voicing, and texture to paint a musical image of mountains, trees, rivers, lakes, clouds, pastures, etc. I have three major problems with the concept of symphonic poems.

First, the phrase smells funny: a symphonic poem is neither a symphony nor a poem. A poem can–and usually does–have musical qualities, but to say that a poem can exist in music is to cheapen poetry. Poetry is made out of words, and while the sounds of those words certainly contribute to the poetic effect, they do not count as a poem themselves.

Second, the phrase reduces music to mere signifier; the pastoral images become the referent, the desideratum of significance. A symphony can conjure poetic images, but describing a bucolic scene in music relegates music to the purely representational. If that doesn’t sound like a problem, see my friend Dan Clemens’s recent blog post for a short plea for alternatives to representational theories of art.

Third, the phrase reinforces the historically dependent association between tone poems and the pastoral. A poem can also do much more than recount emotion recollected in tranquility. Not all poems are about communing with Nature. Could there be industrial tone poems? mechanical, fierce, humorous, sarcastic, spooky, silly, spritely tone poems?

The source of the problem is not the need to name the form of a musical work, but rather has to do with the conceptual limits of symphonic poems. They are like reverse ekphrasis. Instead of being about another work of art, tone poems attempt to do what another art form already does. They have another mode of art thrust upon them.

And they can’t handle it. The listener can follow an already known story as the music provides a soundtrack, but music cannot narrate a story. This conclusion (which will remain tentative) is not a complaint about music’s shortcomings, but an affirmation of music’s non-linguistic powers.

The Dallas Debut of a Deaf Composer’s Symphonic Poem Cycle

February 1, 2010 - Leave a Response

Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, January 30, 2010
8:00 p.m.

Pinchas Steinberg, conductor

Smetana – Má Vlast (My Fatherland)

Bedřich Smetana’s cycle of six tone poems, Má Vlast, takes place in the rolling meadowlands of current day Czechoslovakia and tells the story of the mythic early days of the Czech people and their land, Bohemia. Most of the movements describe the landscape or take the listener on a journey through the countryside, but the third and fifth give the work its drama. The third tone poem, Šárka, is based on a Czech folktale in which a young maiden, betrayed by her lover, exacts her revenge by slaughtering him and his army with the help of a group of warrior women. The fifth movement, Tábor, depicts the fifteenth-century Hussites battling against the Germans for their freedom.

Smetana offers us a beautiful symphonic work that is both traditional and forward-looking for its time, traditional in its nationalism but forward-looking in its diversity. As he aims to incite national pride, Smetana is usually able to stir the emotions without pulling cheap musical tricks. He reveals the diversity of emotion, action, and scenery of the Czech people and their land through swelling melodies, careful melodies, delicate textures, fugal counterpoint, and of course, polkas. Although it skimped on the horns, Má Vlast uses the entire orchestral palette, and its dynamic character is operatic rather than limply pastoral.

Steinberg took the stage and then the microphone before the baton. His long introduction gave a more intimate account of Smetana’s life and the story he tells in Má Vlast. Although Steinberg is a good story-teller, he talked too long. Since Má Vlast was the only work on the program for the evening, there was no short piece at the beginning to buy a moment to seat the latecomers.

Five minutes into the first tone poem, I realized the Steinberg had no music stand in front of him. He conducted the whole work from memory. He used no score. That is when it became clear that Steinberg’s opening monologue was not just a proxy for the “seating music,” but he told the audience what he believed. He is passionate about the piece, and his conducting showed that he feels deeply connected to it.

Steinberg demanded a lot of sound from the DSO, sometimes more than the strings were willing (or able) to give him. He also demanded the other extreme of volume as he hushed certain sections often to allow a surprising counter-melody from across the orchestra to rise up and add another dimension to the music. The polka in Vltava (The Moldau) was delightful thanks to Steinburg’s cheery upbeats and buoyant bass lines. Later in the same movement, the first violins had an intonation problem with the exposed octave jumps. The reeds had similar problems in the chorale section in Šárka.

After the intermission, the fourth movement opened up a window into Smetana’s psyche. Smetana went deaf over night and suffered from a high-pitched tone constantly ringing in his mind. Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Forests and Meadows) is an experiment in counterpoint. Writing multiple overlapping melodies without being able to hear the result is a feat of musical genius. Steinberg did not give the counterpoint of the fourth tone poem a baroque clarity. Instead, it was as if the audience listened through the fog of Smetana’s deafness and experienced the music only as clearly as he ever imagined it.

Tábor, is the best of the six tone poems, the most musically engaging, and the most dramatic without falling into trite patriotism. Blaník, however, is an unfortunate ending to the cycle because the patriotic fervor does not translate well across time and geography.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, the first time that Má Vlast has ever been performed in its entirety in Dallas.

A Young Conductor and a Mature Violinist

January 24, 2010 - Leave a Response

Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Friday, January 22, 2010
8:00 p.m.

James Gaffigan, conductor
Emanuel Borok, violin

Musorgsky – Prelude to Khovanshtchina
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10
Beethoven – Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61 Read the rest of this entry »

Welcome to Music in Other Words

January 24, 2010 - Leave a Response

How do we talk and write about music? How do we express a musical experience in words? What is good about good music?

Recently I have been thinking about how the aural phenomenon of music translates into the visual medium of text.  But perhaps “translation” is not the right word; it is appropriate only if music is a proper language itself. Or it might be necessary first to distinguish music from other sounds. Before I get smothered in thought experiments and semantic qualms, I’d like to get my hands dirty and attempt a little bit of the controversial and sometimes hated practice of the music critic.  You will find reviews of live performances both high and low, reviews of recorded music, and maybe some philosophical exploration about the relationship between music and words. I hope you enjoy music in other words.