DOASKDOTELL Music Performance ad hoc notes

Mar. 2006.  A New York University graduating senior plays (in Arlington, VA) Beethoven's Bagatelles, Op. 126, Scriabin's Fourth Sonata, which is more like a Chopin Ballade, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  Many of the actual pictures are of rather mundane and humorous things, despite the glory of the final "Great Gate of Kiev" which sounds like an epiphany when played on a piano. The independent 2002 film "Russian Ark" amount the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia comes to mind.

Mar. 2006   The Vogler Quartet from Berlin, Germany plays (at the Dumbarton Methodist Church in Washington DC) the String Quartet in C, Op. 59 #3, one of the Razumovsky quartets, with its scintillating fugal finale (and a slow movement that is not slow), along with the B-flat quartet Op. 130 and Grosse Fugue Op. 133. Op. 132 opens with a curious first movement that stops and starts and converses with the listener as much as sings to him/her. They skipped the ossia finale of 132 and played the fuge as the finale, and it is more effective this way. The fugue has plenty of passages of delicious dissonance and tension. It reminds one of the finale of the Hammerklavier Sonata, and of the finale of Bruckner's Symphony #5, both of those works also in B-flat. 

A number of operas are relevant to the social issues on these pages.

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd is discussed under this link (the French film "Beau Travail"). There is also a DVD from Image of a 1988 performance with the English National Opera, dir. Barrie Gavin, libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, novella by Herman Melville. The story is about a stuttering merchant sailor who is impressed into the British Navy in 1797 and is framed for mutiny and murder, and it may be interpreted in several controversial ways. Blogger discussion.

Peter Grimes (1951):  I saw this opera in Dallas in the mid 1980s. A famous orchestral suite from the opera music is often played and it illustrates Britten's delicious harmonic ideas. The opera concerns a fisherman (originally played by Peter Pears) Peter Grimes, who is suspected of causing the death of his apprentice when the boy falls on this ship, but actually this event was precipitated by the mob approaching Peter's but; the mob is suspicious of possible "inappropriate" interest in the young boy, although the subject matter is handled with great taste in the libretto (by Montagu Slater, from the poem by George Crabbe). The most sensitive matters with sexual innuendo were taken up by opera starting late in the nineteenth century. The details are on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Grimes

The Turn of the Screw (1954), based on the novel by Henry James (libretto Myfanway Piper), is a chamber opera in sixteen scenes, about a governess haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor. But there are lots of subtexts and plots about the two children Miles and Flora. There is a suggestion that Miles wants to return to school to be around his "own hind," and various commentators have read in homosexuality and even pedophilia into the subtext, although it is always handled with great taste. There is a good reference at http://www.jiskha.com/english/books_novels_and_plays/turn_of_the_screw.html The story has been made into TV movies many times, usually with other music. But the best version based on Britten's own music is probably the 1982 version, with Colin Davis as conductor, directed by Petr Weigl.

Death and Venice (1973), based on Thomas Mann's novel, recreates the atmosphere of a homosexual artist chasing a beautiful man as everyone around dies in an epidemic. Perhaps Britten knew that  he was prophetic by about ten years. I saw this at the Met in 1974, and Tadzio was presented impressively, sometimes hanging from the ceiling above the protagonist. The music is rather post-Mahler, and the orchestral suite rather resembles the first movement of the Mahler Ninth. Movie links are "Death in Venice" and "Time to Leave".

Arrigo Boito, Mefistofele (1868), was performed at the Kennedy Center in early 1996, with Samuel Ramey. Of course this is a well known setting on the Faust legend. The angelic chorus occurs early and it will as the climax, with triumphant effect, against Satan's whistles. (“The Lord of Heaven triumphs while Satan whistles.”) Back in the mid 1990s, I had my interpretation of all this, the percepetion of homosexuality (particularly for men) as a kind of Faustian fascination with self-perception through vicarious association, and an unwillingness to give up something of oneself in order to progress into higher “union” and procreation. The best of homosexual men - likable, athletic, gifted, and articulate, like so many in the military - are seen as clones of Mephistopheles, defying the commitments required to true “Christians,” like the character in Boito’s opera as he angrily whistles while Faust is taken from him up to heaven. (Indeed, the congenial Satan is covets personal control over “good and evil,” so that the “Witches’ Sabbath” is the opera’s best scene; indeed, Boito knew why today we would have “witch-hunts.”)  The Mephistopheles and Faust story would occur in another famous opera by Charles Gounod, as well as choral symphonies by Franz Liszt ("A Faust Symphony" which ends in C Major with its stirring male chorus) and Gustav Mahler's Symphong #8 in E-flat, the "Symphony of a Thousand," in which the closing stanzas rise to "the eternal feminine." I heard that at the Minnesota Orchestra in early 2003.

Alban Berg, Wozzeck (1914). Music, it is said, provides the ultimate outlet for (sexual) sublimation of what cannot be experienced in real life or directly described. Perhaps that idea undergirds expressionism, and after Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg became a leading exponent of the dodecaphonic (twelve tone row) technique of atonal composition. This opera does not follow that technique very strictly, and sometimes sounds like good old romantic German opera.  Wozzeck, the protagonist, is a soldier who must face the temptations of life and, as in many other operas such as Britten's, the risk of wrongdoing or of wrongful accusation. In the opening scene he is shaving The Captain, who will be his moral tormentor. The opera has a hint of Sweeney Todd here, perhaps. The soldier's beloved Marie will meet a tragic end, which may be the result of his own wrongdoing. At the end, the children play in a scene of utter desolation. The three acts of the opera are set up to explore various abstract musical forms. The Sonata-Allegro, for example, occurs in the first scene of Act II. There is a tremendous climax at the end on the note B. There is one scene with an out-of-tune piano and jazz, which sort of anticipates the musical juxtapositions of Everwood on TheWB. For details, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wozzeck  I saw this opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1974.

Alban Berg, Lulu (1935) (based on "Pandora's Box") presents the sordid life of Lulu, the neglected wife of a doctor, who will move into prostitution, lesbianism (with a Countess), and various misadventures to lead to her tragic end (at the hand of Jack the Ripper). The opera follows twelve-tone technique more strictly, yet has a way of sounding lush and romantic, and super-chromatic. The form is symmetric, and in the middle there is a silent film "Interlude" that shows Lulu's arrest, trial and prison time. I do not see this film on imdb.com, but the whole opera, including the intended film, would make a terrific idea for an independent film project today. Is any producer game?  I saw this on a live PBS Broadcast (I believe from the Met) in 1980. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lulu_%28opera%29

Giacomo Puccini, Turandot (1926) (based on libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni) was presented in Dallas right after Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, and it seemed like a diversion at the time. The music was completed by Franco Alfano, and tends to have a Mahlerian sound to it, compared to the operas that Puccini complete itself, especially in the thrilling final chorus. The story is a parable: in ancient Mandarin China, to wed Turandot a man must solve three riddles. It is indeed an allegory on the obstacles men must pass to "pay their dues" on their way to proving that they deserve adult lives with honor, in patriarchal and authoritarian cultures which, after all, pretend that they can take care of everybody. Ferruccio Busoni wrote an opera by the same name.

Richard Strauss: Salome (1905) is an early and hyperromantic opera based on Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of the play by Oscar Wilde, which ventures into sexual fantasies and metaphors with the Biblical allegories. I saw it in Dallas in the early 1980s. Salome does her strip poker dance, and then demands the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and the decapitated head is shown, as in a horror film. The Herod has the guards kill Salome, as the opera ends abruptly on loud minor chords. Of course, underlying all of this is the idea that the Gospels did not really try to challenge the oppressive political system of the Romans.

Elektra (1909) is based on the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, which had become an "adaptation" drama in German by Hugo vom Hafmansthal. A friend of mine in college that first lost semester at William and Mary loved to talk about how Electra (Elektra) was banned. Clytemnestra has murdered her husband and fears getting caught by her children, including Elektra. Indeed Elektra plots revenge but falls dead herself at the end in a dance of death. The opera ends with abrupt and sarcastically triumphant C major chords, to make light of the tragedy. I saw this at the Met in the mid 1970s. The opera makes many explorations into dissonance, anticipating Berg, perhaps, while remaining richly romantic.

The four operas of Wagner's Ring were performed on PBS in 1992 by James Levine, with Gotterdamerung ending at 2 AM with the explosive and receding chords accompanying a sunrise on a new world. Does this cycle inspire Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings?

Jason & De Marco make multiple performances of Christian music to GLBT audiences, such as at Fredericksburg, VA Pride on Aug. 27 2006. For example, see Josh Trager's commentary at this link.

Peter I. Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin (1877), at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 2/24/2007, blogspot entry here. Based on a novel by Alexander Pushkin, libretto by Tchaikovsky and K. S. Shilovsky. The conductor was Valery Gergiev; stage director is Peter McClintock. Tatiana was Renee Flemming, Onegin was Dmitri Hrovotovsky, Lenski was Ramon Vargas, and Gremin was Sergei Alaksashkin.

Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado (performed 1987 by the English Opera), blogspot entry here, for A&E video of performance, directed by John Michael Phillips.

Young composer (Maryland) Tudor Dominik Maican is discussed (along with at least three of his works) on blogger at this link.

An account of Joshua Bell 's impromptu Washington DC Metro Concert in January 2007 is on blogger, at this link.  

Vincenzo Bellini, I puritani ("The Puritans"), rebroadcast of Metropolitan Opera performance, blogger at this link. This opera refers to the English Civil War, which bears a tangential historical relationship to the Puritan colonists in Massachusetts. Given the richness of the history and the subtle religious meaning, the opera comes across as fluffy but glitzy entertainment -- a concept that works when something really is "that's entertainment" and the subject matter is less world-turning,

Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme ("The Bohemiam") an opera in an urban apartment where a seamstress living with other artists slowly succumbs to tuberculosis, causing all the characters to balance art or work and interpersonal life and love, blogger review here.

Engelbert Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel (1891) based on the children's fairy tale who go on a road trip and turn the tables on a wicked witch about to eat them, leading to a cannibalistic celebration after the over explodes. This is great social satire now, about the haves and have-nots (especially with respect to necessities) and about appearances (the witch tries to make Hansel "fat" and actually tries to force-feed him).  The 2008 Met performance makes it seem like Jonathan Swift. Blogger review.

Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth (1847) is a spirited and highly politicized (relative to 19th century Italy and Giuseppe Girabaldi) adaptaion of Shakespeare's tragedy, a mainstay of high school senior English (all those thanes.)  It takes heterosexual marriage Maggie Gallagher style and turns it into a tool for unlimited ambition like Stefano's in "Days of our Lives."  Blogger discussion.

La Traviata (1853) is tragic story about a courtesan who gives up everything for love, and loses it because the groom's father's concern for family honor, based on the son Alexander Dumas's novel "La Dame aux Camelias". Blogger.

Pietro Mascagni Cavalleria Rusticana ("Rustic Calvalry") (1890); Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci ("Clowns") (1892) Link.

John Adams (no relation to the second president): Doctor Atomic (2005, libretto by Peter Sellars) is a sizzling modern opera about the first atomic bomb test. Blogger.

La Damnation de Faust, Hector Berlioz, 1845, here.

From the House of the Dead, ("Z Mrtvého Domu", novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky “Memoirs from the House of the Dead ) Leos Janacek, 1930, here. It takes place in a czarist prison in the 1860s but reminds one of Stalin's camps.

Don Giovanni, W. A. Mozart, here.

Samson and Delilah (1877) Camille Saint-Saens, here.

The Song of Ruth (1996), John J. Horman and the script is by Mary Nelson Keithahn, Blogger.

L'amour de loin ("Love from Afar"; 2000/2004), composed by Kaija Saariaho, libretto by Amin Maalouf, Finnish national opera conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Blogger.

Capriccio: A Conversation Piece for Music , by Richard Strauss and Clemens Krauss (1942). Blogger.                   

Jeff Wayne: War of the Worlds Live (1978, 2009).  Blogger.