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Volume 11 Issue 5 - February 2006

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DIS~D~'J , ~ BooK Shelf

DIS~D~'J , ~ BooK Shelf by Pamela Margles Books about music inevitably gain resonance when you can hear what the music under consideration sounds like. So here are some listening suggestions to complement this month's three books: In Reflections on Liszt, Alan Walker writes that 'Liszt put the best ofhimselfinto his songs' The songs certainly bring out the best in Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who produced a luminous set for DG. Authoritative recordings of Liszt are, of course, not difficult to find, especially with undertakings like the 94-CD set of the complete piano music beautifully recorded on Hyperion by Leslie Howard. Alec Wilder's Letters I Never Mailed contains a lengthy and comprehensive Selected Discography, which nevertheless overlooks his song Blackberry Winter. You can find it sung exquisitely on countertenor David Daniels' disc, A Quiet Thing (Virgin Classics). Valerie Errante offers a lovely collection of the songs with Robert Wason (Albany Records). The delightful Neurotic Goldfish (Kleos) contains Wilder's whimsical chamber orchestra vignettes, with the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra under Richard Auldon Clark. Joseph Horowitz's Classical Music in America discusses many pieces which are hard to come by (which is precisely Horowitz's point). Naxos offers a selection of these and all are worth a listen at index.asp Reflections on Liszt by Alan Walker Cornell University Press 297 pages .00 Liszt's life was colourful, complicated, and thoroughly fascinating, as Alan Walker has shown authoritatively in his three-volume biography, and numerous related works. Here he ties up loose ends in a collection of essays on various topics, working on the premise that ' Liszt's life was always reflected in his work'. Liszt composed over 1400 works, writes Walker, ' more than the outputs of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms combined' . A wildly adulated piano virtuoso, who retired early from performing, he remains the most influential and innovative teacher ever - pianists today still proudly trace their pedagogical ancestry back to him. Yet somehow interpretation of his music 'took a wrong turn' and became 'a vehicle of blatant physical display'. Walker draws us in with his passion for Liszt's undeservedly neglected compositions like the piano arrangements and lieder, or Liszt's voluminous writings, from which Walker culls eighteen precious pages of ' observations' . He re-examines some of the arcane lore that has sprung up around Liszt, like the famous kiss of consecration that Beethoven is reputed to have given Liszt as a young prodigy. As an epilogue, he addresses a heartfelt ' open letter' directly to Liszt, who ' always seemed to be defending something ... you were ever ready to put yourself in harm's way.' This is scholarship put to its best possible use. Letters I Never Mailed: Clues to a Life by Alec Wilder University of Rochester Press 334 pages .95 Composer Alec Wilder wrote this collection of letters to various people who touched his life. Not only did he never mail then, but he never intended to. Some of those addressed he didn't even know, like the stranger he sat beside on an airplane, to whom he wrote, ' All I do is write music, read books, travel, watch my bobble birds, listen to the sound of fountains, laugh at the absurdity of humanity, and weep over its confusion'. Some, like his mother, were long dead. Some, like Frank Sinatra, who conducted (!) a recording of his music, were admirers, and many, like actress Judy Holiday, photographer Louis Ouzer and jazz pianist Marian McPartland, were dear friends. He even wrote some to himself, addressed ' Dear Jackass' and 'Dear Almost Poet'. This memoir is as odd, curmudgeonly, imaginative, funny and charming as its author, who was one of the glorious eccentrics of American music. First published in 1975, five years before Wilder's death, it has now been annotated by David Demsey, who has managed to identify almost everyone addressed by Wilder. Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall By Joseph Horowitz W.W. Norton 635 pages .00 Joseph Horowitz has an urgent mission -to save American classical music. His point is an important one, that 'America's musical high nJt.: J!J_:, 0.1 1...r,, ' culture has at all times (alas) been less about music composed by Americans than about American concerts of music composed by Europeans. ' This 'culture of perfonnance' has now run its course - hence the 'fall ' . Horowitz offers more than polemics. His book amounts to a history of music in America- welldocumented, delightfully well-written, and for the most part, free of fear-mongering.Not surprisingly, Horowitz's heroes are conductors who promote contemporary indigenous music, often composers or performers themselves, like Wilhelm Gericke, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein and John Adams. He does get swept into making some outrageous suggestions, such as that current musical difficulties serve as a metaphor for the 'geopolitical disarray' of the world. His 'America' includes no Canadian composers except Colin McPhee, although he does laud Canadian performers like Vickers, Stratas and Gould. And his coverage of the current composition scene excludes swaths of musical activity, especially outside the orchestras and opera houses he focuses on. But Horowitz presents a convincing case for reexamining the role of music in society. And he tells us where to look for renewal - it can rise again only ' when buttressed by important living composers' . OPERA AT HOME, RINGS FOR OUR TIMES CONTINUED orchestra are excellent, but not up to the level on the DVD box sets of the Met cycle under James Levine's baton, or Pierre Bou Jez and Patrice Chereau's pioneering modernism at the Bayreuth centennial. The same is true for the VHS set of Daniel Barenboim 's 1992/93 cycle, also modernistic and also at Bayreuth. Warner Classics has just reissued Barenboim 's Die Walkiire as a DVD, with the other three volumes to follow. If you' re buying a first DVD set of all 15 hours of the Ring Cycle, and I do believe that no operatic household should be without one, the 1989 Metropolitan Opera performance on Deutsche Grammophon is the logical choice. By 1989, Levine was along the way of transforming the Met's orchestra from a competent operatic ensemble to the house orchestra for Carnegie Hall. The Met directed its very considerable resources towards engaging a who's who roster of Wagnerian performers on the international circuit. A partial list includes Hildegard Behrens, Siegfried Jerusalem, Christa Ludwig, James Morris, Jessye Norman, and Dawn Upshaw. While the stage producer, Otto Schenk, aimed at a performance consistent with Wagner's nineteenth century romantic naturalism, this is not a museum piece, nor could it be. The Met's 3500 seat hall and huge, hi-tech stage are way beyond the means that Wagner had at hand. However, we can imagine, given who Wagner was, that he' d be tickled pink with the outsized scale of the Met's financial, human, and physical resources. The effect of 90 years of naturalism in film acting permeates the stage manners of the singers. And that acting can be as impressive as the singing. The Met engaged Brian Large, one of the masters of opera filming, as video director. His cameras are up close to subtle facial gestures by the Met singers that communicate worlds of meaning. This is opera acting at its very best. 58 WWW. TH EWHOLENOTE,COM FEBR UA RY 1 - M ARC H 7 2006

ecently in town l1lfl~e«1 Po~t:e~ in conversation with Pamela Marg/es CONTINUED FROM PAGE 16 'It's very seldom that I say " Don't miss this," except by writing in such an enthusiastic way that someone would say, "That is something I must go to," or"That is something I would hate, even though this chap liked it." 'If something is a huge success for the public, that fact should be mentioned, even if I've absolutely hated it. Yet I'm bothered sometimes when I go to Covent Garden, where the ticket prices are so high that audiences have to believe that what they have seen is worth it. You can get huge applause that doesn't seem to be discriminate.' ' We had a Butterfly in London last month directed by film director Anthony Minghella. It was a huge hit. I thought it was a travesty of Puccini's opera, and it dido 't move me at all. It was just a grand show. The baby was a little puppet moved by two puppeteers. It just seemed to destroy the pathos. I think my review was fair. It said it was a smashing show, but dido 't get to grips with the spirit of the opera. ' PORTER HAS BEEN a notably strong advocate for contemporary music. 'The really important composers I've grown up with are Elliott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle ... Roger Sessions was a voyage of discovery for me when I first came to America.' Thefestschrift published two years ago, Words on Music: Essays in Honour of Andrew Porter on the Occasion of his 75th Birthday, features contributions by prominent scholars, composers and critics. But he is proudest of the tribute from Carter, a four-bar composition, For Andrew. 'I think Carter is the greatest living composer. He writes such emotional music - his Piano Concerto is wonderful drama, filled with passion. ' ' I remember the premiere of Carter's third String Quartet. It was a terrible night in New York, yet Tully Hall was absolutely thronged with people. Carter had the New York Times against him for a long time. The Times said, " It has to be admitted in the end that Carter remains a cipher." That was for the very performance that packed Tully Hall!' ' Yet you could say that same thing against me when I write about, shall I say, moments when John Adams seems to be just too soggy. Younger people love it. I admire the operas rather a lot. But my ears are not young enough or fresh enough to understand this new thing he's bringing. It doesn' t seem to be new - it just seems old.' PORTER HAS ALWAYS BEEN a passionate advocate of period instruments. 'There's something about the sound of original instruments that is very communicative. I love Furtwangler's performances, although no-one would think they Victor Micallef as Tamino, Virginia Hatfield as Pamina and Alain Coulombe as Sarastro in Porters COC Flute. were in authentic, historical style. They were just great interpretations. And of course I want to hear Alfred Brendel play Beethoven on a modern piano. But I also love the sound of the instrument Beethoven wrote for. I'm not only for one or the other. I' m not an either/or person in that way - I hope - because each has different merits. ' 'Period instruments have now influenced the way that modern orchestras play, so that you get conductors like Charles Mackerras taking certain kinds of timbre, phrasing and lightness learned from using early instruments, and applying them in the correct works. We don't get a Furtwangler or Karajan kind of performance any more. I remember a sublime performance of Bruckner's Eighth in Carnegie Hall with Karajan. It's one of the big performances of one's life. I heard a wonderful Flute in Salzburg conducted by Furtwangler. It was the longest - but it didn 't seem a minute too long. ' Porter is also a famously keen advocate of performing opera in English for English-speaking audiences. His own thirty-five translations are widely performed - Opera Atelier uses his Flute translation. ' In every production you look at your cast, your audience, the number of performances, the hall, then decide specifically in each case which language to use. The quality of the translation available is another factor. For my translation of the Flute I worked all the time to get as close to the sounds of the original as you can get. It's gains and losses. You get the merits of communication in the one, and the sounds of the original language in the oth- ~ er. It's perfectly right for the COC to do the 8 Ring here with an international cast in Ger­ ~ man, and for the English National Opera to ' o do the Ring with a British cast in English. ' · i ' But would you have had this Magic § Flute in German? There's not a great comr c. poser who hasn' t wanted his works to be done in translation. Verdi, Wagner - they wanted the audience to understand what was being said because the music makes sense when you know what it's expressing. It's a word perfectly sung that gives you a sudden pang. Singers nearly all say that the most important thing is to express the words. There was a little moment last night where Miriam Khalil sang the word "joy" in such a way that it produced joy in one's heart. If the word had been in German, it wouldn't have made that kind of particularly thrilling moment. ' 'A director like Peter Hall works so much to get the singers to express the words to the audience. I admire his work all the time, including his Flute. Jonathan Miller produced an Otello in my English translation that was moving. A lot of Verdi 's beautiful sounds were changed, of course, because that always happens in translation, but the directness of what they were saying was superb. People respond to the drama. ' For the future, he says, 'The opera I long to direct is Fidelio. Flute and Fidelio are the two operas closest to me. lfwe had the cast and a theatre small enough that you could hear the spoken dialogue, I' d love to do Fidelio - in English, of course. I'd have to translate it first. ' PUBLICATIONS Words on Music: Essays in Honour of Andrew Porter on the Occasion of his 75th Birthday, edited by David Rosen and Claire Brook; Pendragon Press 2003 Verdi s Macbeth: A Source book, edited by David Rosen and Andrew Porter; Norton 1984 Many of Porter's reviews from his twenty-year stint at The New Yorker were published in five volumes: A Musical Season: A Critic from Abroad in America; Viking Music of Three Seasons 1974-1977; Farrar, Straus, Giroux Music of Three More Seasons 1977-1980; Knopf Musical Events: A Chronicle 1980-1983; Summit Books Musical Events: A Chronicle 1983-1986; Summit Books A number of his thirty-five opera libretto translations are readily available. Hushion House publishes many of them in their series of English National Opera Guides, including Otello, Tristan & Isolde, The Force of Destiny, and Don Carlos. Pendragon Press has published Turk in Italy. Porter's translation ofThe Ring of the Nibelung is published by Norton. Porter has written opera librettos for The Song of Majnun by Bright Sheng (recorded on Delos with Ward Holmquest, conductor) and The Tempest by John Eaton FEBR UA RY 1 - M ARCH 7 2006 WWW.THEWHOLENOTE.COM 59

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