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Archive for the ‘Sam’s Music and Opera’ Category

Nixon
John Adams’s ‘Nixon in China’ at Metropolitan Opera

by Sam Juliano

      Together with Phillip Glass, John Adams is a leading composer in what is referred to simply as minimalist opera, a style that developed from the modernism of the early twentieth century, where atonality found it’s way into the musical construction.

Historical and political figures that have fired up opera composers’ imaginations dates all the way back to Handel with Giulio Cesare, and included the likes of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Verdi’s Don Carlo, the latter in which King Phillip II of Spain is transformed a character of Shakespearean dimension.  Yet, an influential precedent was established when Nixon in China premiered at Houston’s Grand Opera almost a quarter-century ago when the opera did much more than just focus on an almost larger than life figure, but basically to present the history of our time as it was being self-consciously made.  In the beginning many were either befuddled or even outraged at the “preposterous” notion of creating an opera about Nixon’s historic China trip, especially after the notorious events that brought sudden closure to Nixon’s term in office, and of the general idea of politics providing the subject matter of an art form that by it’s very nature seemed to preclude such corrupting inclusion.  Yet, this pioneering work in retrospect, provided a remarkable aggregate of material and rich characters, and the very nature of the form, with its blend of artistic disciplines, proved uniquely well-suited to the structure underlying Nixon in China, as it modulates back and forth between grandly thrilling spectacle and introspective doubt.  Hence, it is easy enough to conclude that Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman helped usher in a rebirth of American opera over the past decades by suuccessfully balancing a contemporary sensibility with the musical and dramatic traditions of the genre. (more…)

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Stage capture from Metropolitan Opera’s production of Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquale’

by Sam Juliano

     This is the fifth season of HD broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera house in Manhattan aired to destinations worldwide.  For disciples of the form who reside in the shadows of this famed institution, a quandary remains as whether an appearance at the Met is still preferable to a visit to a local movie house to take in the well-embellished movie screen presentation.  While for opera purists with deep pockets the choice remains a no-brainer, there are some compelling issues in the mix here that are making a decision of preference progressively difficult.  With eleven Saturday afternoon broadcasts on the schedule for 2010-11, (with Wednesday evening encores in place for each opera) the present season offers more titles than any to date, leaving only a smattering of ‘must-see’  operas that aren’t on the HD schedule.  Obviously, for those who can afford it, the ideal compromise would be to attend the eleven broadcasta, and purchase some tickets at the Met for several operas not being offered on HD.  Bt for those who don’t have that luxury, the matter of opera purity is quickly becoming a non-concern.  The astonishing popularity of the broadcasts -many theatres have reported sellouts months in advance- has inspired executive at the Metropolitan Opera to give the viewers many “extras” unavailable to those attending the events in person.  These include interviews with the stars and behind-the-scenes craftsmen bewteen acts, capsule summaries of the opera from a regular host, and the backstage maneuverings of carpenters and set designers.  In addition -and most critically- the company’s cameramen are able to capture vital close-ups, while maintaining a mid-range stage picture, that is preferable to nearly every in house vantage point, save for those blessed with orchestra seats near the stage. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

    Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny developed both the subject matter and the musical style of the opera comique in the middle years of the eighteenth century.  The composer is known to have been greatly influenced by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, an ‘opera seria’ that exerted enormous influence on the direction of music during this period of rapid expansion, in which the genre was transformed from a marked reliance on popular melodies to a time of exceeding musical creativity.  The Italians introduced the French to the idea that libretti be designed to serve and enhance the music, reforming the role of the composer, who had a subservient role in the earlier comedie en vaudevilles.  Monsigny’s earlier works, composed circa 1759 to 1761, were basically comic intrigues revolving around disguises, deceptions, misunderstandings and reconciliations.

     In 1762, Monsigny departed significantly from this overtly comedic style to a one that incorporated elements of humanism and moral enlightenment.  Indeed, the virtues of the common folk, and more importantly personal freedom and equality were themes then embraced by the philosophers of this period.  The musical content of Monsigny’s works – unsurprisingly – became more complex as a result, and a number of vocal ensembles were added.  It can’t be denied that the composer’s style is repetitive, but his skills as a melodist, the comic spirit evident in his earlier work and the immediacy of dramatic expression his his later works made his a formidable figure in French opera from any period. (more…)

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Louis Langree and Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall

by Sam Juliano

     The dynamic Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and the vibrant veteran French conductor Louis Langree performed an all-Mozart venue on the evening of Saturday, August 14 to a wildly enthusiastic sold-out crowd at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.  Langree and Finnish pianist Antti Siirala performed three of the composer’s most beloved works with Symphony No. 25 in G minor, Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466, and Symphony No. 40 in G minor K.550 to a crowd largely composed of summer tourists and festival faithful at the renowned concert hall standing across the courtyard from the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York State Theatre.

     Siirala received four curtain calls for his spirited reading of the piano concerto, one of the greatest of all classical compositions.  In 1784, at the peak of his fame in Vienna as composer and pianist, Mozart composed no fewer than six immortal piano concertos for his insatiable public, one of the most “spoiled” audiences in history, at least rivaling  J.S. Bach’s Sunday morning congregations at St. Thomas’ Church.  Mozart, buoyed by the success of his piano work, decided to embark on a new concerto, more personal in expression than any of its predecessors.  The first Mozart concerto written in a minor key is assessed by musicologist C. M. Girdlestone in his classic study of the concertos as a work to stir the soul, specifically the emotions: “the story here becomes more stirring and more full of color, and there enters into it a sense of adventure and heroism, hitherto unexperienced.”  The work includes a mysterious, sycopated throb of violin opening, and segues into the timbre of menacing bass, eventually giving way to the piano as a lonely protagonist with a plantive new theme.  Throughout this musically dazzling opening movement Mozart preserves a sense of antagonism between piano and orchestra, avoiding blended ensemble writing for them.  The cadenza that concludes this movement was not written by Mozart (who never wrote one) but by Beethoven, who added it years after Mozart’s death. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano
    
     Philip Glass is widely regarded as the most influential composer of the late part of the 20th century, yet his reputation was anything but secure during his maiden period, where many continued to liken his style to overt minimalism.  Glass himself has since distanced himself from such a constrictive, even unflattering appraisal, choosing instead to define many of his main lines as following patterns of ‘repetitive structure.’  While some listeners have tuned out to the composers pulsating redundancy, others have found the music oddly infectious, building in Ravelian intensity, to soul-stirring climaxes.  Rock bands, film composers and his stylistist compatriot John Adams have all testified to Glass’ considerable influence on their own work. 
     
     Glass has written for a wide variety of forms, including instrumental and opera, and has penned some celebrated film scores, three of which received academy award nominations.  But it was his modernist operas that have, perhaps, left their most lasting mark on the musical landscape.     With Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten, Glass completed in the early 80’s what he described as his “portrait” operas, which are works that portray men whose personal vision transformed the thinking of their times through the power of ideas rather than by “military force.”  The music in these opera blends mathematical clarity with a kind of mysterious beauty, that some have seen as mystical.  The music showcases a circular process that evolves into a repeating cycle that continuously delays resolution.  The process employs both additive and subtractive formulas.  The result, like most of Glass’ music before and since is slow to engage, but it builds to almost spiritual intensity. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     Composed during the peak period of Mozart’s career, in the last months of his life, the four horn concertos remain today as a major section of the horn player’s repetoire.  Written for the composer’s friend, Joseph Leutgeb, the compositions have always been though as particularly difficult to perform, even on the period instruments of the day.  It is a testament to Leutgeb’s considerable skills, that they were successfully negotiated.  Comparatively speaking, the ‘French horn’ was a newer instrument for Mozart to write for, as it generally began appearing in the early 1700’s with chromatic enhancement in baroque orchestras, after it made its debut as a hunting device in France.

    Leutgeb was a noted virtuoso, who was known to serve as the principal horn in Salzburg during Mozart’s earlier years.  By 1770 he was largely involved in solo work, and was having a successful run in Paris, where the Mercure de France praised his ability “to sing an adaggio as perfectly as the most mellow, interesting, and accurate voice.”  He is reported in February 1773 to have joined Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart on part of their Italian tour, and in 1777 he moved to Vienna, where he kept his musical activities on track, while simultaneously managing a cheese store.  Mozart’s manuscripts reveal both a mischievious humor and deep respect for his childhood companion, whom he described as ‘unswervingly loyal.” (more…)

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Ildar Abdrazakov playing lead in Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Attila’

 by Sam Juliano

     Verdi’s Attila was written in 1846, but this ninth opera from one of opera’s greatest geniuses has, until this year escaped the attention of planning executives at the Metropolitan Opera, who have shunned the work, largely due to uneasiness with the demand on the singers.  But as part of the company’s commitment to bold resurrections of harmonic works with strong prospective appeal to the core traditionalists, Attila received some impassioned contributions from the director, set designer, singers, and especially veteran conductor extraordinaire Ricardo Muti, who proved to the world that this opera is a rhythmically charged work, with an abandance of solos, and rich musical lines.  With full choruses at the disposal of a polished orchestra who faithfully transcribed Verdi’s lyricism in supple chords and rifts, Muti demonstrated that as a stand alone, Atilla’s music is far from the lowest bracket of the composer’s work.  And when the singing is considered, it’s nearly a towering achievement.  I’d go as far as to contend that it belongs in a short group after La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Aida and Otello, with the likes of Nabucco, La Frorza Del Destino, Un Ballo in Maschera, Simon Bocanegra, and Falstaff.  On the best of days it may possibly lead that group, and such was certainly the case on the Monday night I was in attendance.  This was a visionary performance in stark, imaginary staging, forceful singing and rich orchestration, which compellingly blends the youthful, patriotic vigor of its then young composer with the nuance and human insight that would become the hallmark of his long  career that included 28 operas.  (more…)

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                             Musical Genius Richard Wagner

The Act 1 Overture to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, the definitive Easter Sunday opera.  (conducted by Daniel Barenboim)

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by Sam Juliano

     He’s often been referred to as the “energizer bunny” of early music and the sunniest of conductors.  The London Independent refers to him as “one of the finest Baroque conductors of his generation” while The New Yorker considers him “an expert in 18th century style.”  He is known throughout the world for performances that weds authority with passion, erudition with effervescence and curatorial dependability with evangelical exuberance.  Yet, Nicholas McGegan’s most accessible attribute with contemporary audiences is his realization that the music of “yesteryear” shouldn’t be presented in dogmatic terms, but rather in a style that won’t alienate music lovers.  To accomplish that, McGegan has invariably favored more conventional symphonic forces than than the ones committed to a more restricted employment of period instruments, while still managing to retain the more austere and spiritual aspects of the music written during that time. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     For the second time in the 2009-2010 opera season the Metropolitan Opera has struck artistic pay dirt with a brilliantly staged new production, that sets the bar for creative license and proves that some of the more obscure properties in the repetory can reaches exhalted levels with the right chemistry.  Dimitri Shostakovich’s atonal and avante garde The Nose, written when the celebrated Russian composer was only 22, joins the early season staging of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead as prime examples of how the most unlikely material could be transformed into something really special when the orchestra, conductor and set designers are at the top of their game.

     Shostakovich wrote his first opera at the pinnacle of the ‘anything-goes’ period of early Soviet art in the late 20’s in that window after the revolution when artistic experiment fermented until more oppressive laws discouraged freedom of expression.  In music, the influence of the Western avant-gardists such as Schoenberg, Hindemith and Stravinsky was considerable, and in fact Berg’s Wozzack was staged in Leningrad at precisely the time Shostakovich was penning The Nose.  That opera’s chamber trappings influenced Shostakovich’s work, as did his his fellow countryman Prokofiev’s sometimes chromatic and rhythmatically unstable The Love for Three Oranges.  Although The Nose enjoyed some success in Leningrad, it was not taken up again in that country until the 1970’s, as the piece is forbiddingly hard to stage, with its spiky and difficult orchestral writing and its cast of over 70 characters.  Of course the story of a man who loses his nose, showcases the kind of individuality that was scorned by the authorites, a matter which unquestionably helped shelve the work indefinitely. (more…)

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