Friday, May 25, 2012

Nina Stemme comes out ahead in Carnegie Hall's Salome

I went to Salome at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra and Nina Stemme and Eric Owens and Franz Welser-Möst and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

“When I looked at you, I heard secret music,” says Salome in her monologue to the severed head of John the Baptist. Richard Strauss’s opera trades in the unseeable and the unknowable—from the range of metaphors applied to the moon to the nearly impossible staging of a ten-minute striptease performed by a dramatic soprano—which makes it unusually well suited to concert presentation. Strauss’s high-octane, atmospheric music can seem all the more lurid and mysterious when its subjective visualization is left to the imagination. When the stage seems to agree with Herodias and show that the moon is, in fact, merely the moon, things are rather less interesting than the swirl of images in the orchestra.

In Thursday night’s presentation by the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, these depths were reached only sporadically, and the performance served largely as a showcase for the stunning performance of Nina Stemme in the title role.
You can read the whole thing here. Stemme was magnificent and Welser-Möst disappointing. Do all the conductors now consider swiftness and textual transparency the absolute highest virtue (HIP birds coming home to roost?)? Or have I just overdosed on Fabio Luisi? I'd kind of like to hear someone try something dense and thick for a change. Stemme could certainly handle it. Most of my recent Salomes have been lyrics with ambition and I found a real dramatic voice refreshing, particularly Stemme, who is loud but at the same time still so nuanced. I am greatly looking forward to hearing her sing Brünnhilde this summer.

photo © Roger Mastroianni

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Classical Musical Blogger Survey: The Results

Early bloggers
Who is writing about classical music? In recent years, the coverage of high art in (predominately but not exclusively American) newspapers and other print media has decreased precipitously. Like print media, classical music's death has often been prophesied, or even announced, and its increasing absence from mainstream media is often cited as a sign of its ostensible decline.

But what if the coverage just moved? The internet—a giant and rapidly changing place that means radically different things to different people—is host to an enormous variety of people writing about music. If you look at the classical music blogosphere, you don’t see a dead culture (hell, for habitues of Parterre, Maria Callas isn’t even dead). It’s a weird and wonderful place full of writing similar to newspaper coverage but also very specific subcultures and rants. Some the writing is fantastic and some is awful—just like the rest of the internet, in other words.

A problem remains: with established print media, the institutional credibility of the publication backs up the critic, which if it’s a good paper should serve as some kind of guarantee of quality. On the internet, anyone can write anything according to any standards of ethics, knowledge, etc., and while some are associated with one of those old-fashioned print media most are not. Some people think this is a Very Bad Thing. But I think it's great. Bloggers are judged solely by the quality of their work. Sometimes artists and performing groups have no idea what to do with us. Sometimes, though, they have no idea what to do with print journalists either, as has been abundantly clear in recent days. The amount of independence and objectivity in print is hardly black and white. And bloggers, for all of our variability, aren't going to be shut up like that.

But I was curious: who are these people writing stuff? What have been their (our) experiences? During the first two weeks of May, I conducted a survey of all the classical music bloggers I could convince to complete one. Here are the results.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Peter Gelb's charm offensive strikes again

Then there are the opera companies that sell this shirt in their gift shops.*
Less than 24 hours elapsed between the Times reporting that semi-resident magazine Opera News will no longer be reviewing Met productions per General Director Peter Gelb's request due to recent less than complimentary assessments and the decision to reverse that decision. (Both were reported by Dan Wakin, who has been doing a great job covering the Met and New York classical music in general.) The reversal came in the form of a press release from the Met, offering further assurance that Opera News is an independent organ of faultless journalistic integrity.

I generally agree with Anne Midgette's take on the situation (written before the reversal). But remember, the publication in question has a temperament that earned it the nickname Opera Snooze. If you've managed to do something sufficiently rash that even they are getting mad, you've really got a problem on your hands. And that's the most worrying thing here. Yes, Gelb is acting like a tyrant and disregarding the normal freedoms of a democratic society, and that's pretty awful. But he's not single-handedly turning New York into 1937 Russia. He is, however, showing himself unfit to be the leader of an organization, particularly a creative one: unable to take criticism and, I suspect, unwilling to acknowledge or learn from failures. This attempt to cover up, though, backfired massively.  (Opera News enjoys an awkward relationship with the Met, as explained by Midgette, and despite being equipped with the paraphernalia of editorial independence has revealed itself to possess none. I wouldn't mind the Met having its own PR-stuffed house magazine à la Prolog and basically every other European opera house--if only everyone concerned were honest that that is what Opera News is.)

Pro music critics far and wide condemned Gelb's decision, as well as plenty of other people with internet soapboxes (Lisa has a good roundup, sorry, I wasn't fast enough to comment sooner than this, lots of work to do today). And the decision was reversed quickly, albeit in a doublethink-full statement that chalked up the decision to the passionate outcry of opera fans who want to hear about their precious Met. Gelb is a little more forthright in the Times piece, admitting it just might have been a mistake.

Some of the reaction was hysterical, none more than this rather embarrassing anonymous Parterre screed. We all want art to feel like a matter of life and death but seriously, folks. Gelb isn't the state, and he isn't killing anyone. (And why aren't we remembering the silent compliance of the Opera News editors? They're almost worse than Gelb's trigger finger.) To indulge in such large-scale, apocalyptic comparison of our little problems to those of people whose lives and livelihood are being threatened and have even been murdered shows an astonishing lack of proportion and empathy. I don't care about the little disclaimer at the end. That the author was able to publish this piece (the anonymity is to protect their professional reputation, they are not going to be disappeared--the pseudonym, by the way, is from Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, which made me think it might be satire but I fear that it is not), as well as the rest of today's hullabaloo and the eventual reversal should be a clue that we're not headed to the gulag yet.

Back to the opera, folks. See y'all at Salome on Thursday. I promise survey results really soon, but making pretty charts is hard.

*Not kidding. "Ein Buh für Sie!" means "A boo for you!"

Monday, May 14, 2012

Telemann's Orpheus at the City Opera


I went to see Orpheus (not that one... or that one... or that one) at the City Opera and wrote about it for Bachtrack.
The New York City Opera has spent the season reinventing itself from a large company with a large theater to a peripatetic one presenting small works. Perhaps it was apt that they closed their season with Telemann’s Orpheus. Not only was it one of the first stagings of any Telemann opera in the United States: it also presents a radically reworking of a familiar story that seems unwilling to confine itself to one geographic location.
Click here to read the whole thing. It's an intriguing work but not ultimately a spectacularly rewarding one, at least in this production (though Jennifer Rowley is really great in the central role!). It was also an extraordinarily odd choice to produce. (I heard that it resulted from George Steel meeting someone who has worked on it extensively. Not from research in "baroque operas we should put on.") I'm all in favor of choosing weird and random repertory, so on the one hand I'm proud of them for doing it. But on the other, are we running before we are walking here? I mean, when it comes to recently discovered operas, New York (unless you count New Haven) hasn't gotten a staging of La finta pazza yet, which is a much more important work. When you have such a tiny season each choice has to be good, and this one while it was promising didn't quite pay off.

Also be aware that while the running time is listed on the website as two and a half hours, it was just shy of three on Saturday. El Museo del Barrio's theater is functional enough; I was sitting too close to the front to judge the acoustic properly.

photo © Carol Rosegg

Sunday, May 06, 2012

A classical music blogger survey

Pictured: Opera Obsession and I talking about Robert Lepage
Do you, like I, regularly commit the sin of blogging about classical music? Bloggers have a reputation as people who say much while knowing little. I have met many conscientious and knowledgeable bloggers and believe this to be a false charge. (I recommend reading Lisa at Iron Tongue of Midnight's recent entries on the classical blogosphere for more thoughts on its place in the musical ecosystem. Part one and part two.)

But in the interests of exploring who is doing all that writing out there, I'm conducting a survey. If you have a classical music blog, you should fill it out! It has some general questions about your musical background, a section on what you blog about and your interactions with the Classical Establishment, and a bit about demographics. You can fill it out here. The survey is in English but is open to blogs written in all languages and locations. I'd like to wrap it up around May 14 and will publish a report on the results soon after that. Thanks!

Friday, May 04, 2012

Götterdämmerung: Zu End' ewiges Wissen, and other endings

Why do we still want to see and hear the Ring? It’s not because of the dwarfs, the spells, the sword, or the gold. The Ring includes an unfair quantity of the greatest music ever written, and it’s expressing something a lot more profound and ambiguous than the novelty of seeing a dude in a bear suit. We want the Ring because in it we can hear love and rage and hope and evil amplified into the most glorious, mysterious sound. This is something Robert Lepage never seems to have grasped in his Met Ring Cycle.

To quote the First Norn, “ein wüstes Gesicht wirrt mir wüthend den Sinn.” Götterdämmerung is the weakest link of Lepage’s cycle. If there was redemption in this final performance of the Met’s Cycle 2, it was through the talent and hard work of the performers.