Monday, October 31, 2011

Does Artistic License End in Artistic Difference?

It was this morning that I opened my complimentary copy of the New York Times to the section of the serial publication that is devoted to the arts, and I found more than enough of a story in the classical music sphere to sate my thirst for a compelling story. As many of my readers may be aware, pianist Hélène Grimaud released a new recording today internationally, and it contains Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K. 459, Ch'io mi scordi di te?, Non temer amato bene, K 505, which are sung by soprano Mojca Erdmann, and his Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488. This recording is being billed as two firsts for Grimaud, which are her first live recording for her label Deutsche Grammophon and her first recording of Mozart concerti. As the New York Times showed us, this was not originally slated to be a live recording. That was almost purely accidental, which is quite surprising.

According to Daniel J. Wakin, who wrote the article for the day of the scheduled international release, Maestro Claudio Abbado was originally scheduled to conduct Grimaud and his Orchestra Mozart in May for the release of these concerti and the two arias. Based upon the scholastic musicality of previous interpreters, one of which was Vladimir Horowitz, Grimaud wanted to employ a cadenza that was composed by Ferruccio Busoni over the original one that Mozart composed for the Concerto in A major.  Mozart's cadenza for the piece is considered inferior to Busoni's by many erudite musicians, but Abbado wanted to include it over the Busoni inclusion. Though Grimaud was reluctant, and she had not looked at Mozart's cadenza, she, nevertheless, included it for the original recording at Abbado's behest after they had recorded Busoni's piece in context of the concerto. Therefore, the option seemed to be left that either one could be chosen for the recording. Hélène was adamant that she would not consider Mozart's ornamentation for the actual recording, but Abbado continued to push for the inclusion of it on the release.

There was then an impasse between them, for Maestro Abbado, who, at 78 years of age, is considered one of the foremost conductors of the world, continued to lobby for the inclusion of the Mozart cadenza to complement the composer's concerto, and he hinted that he would decide that the piece be played with it in their scheduled performances of the work in Lucerne, Switzerland, and elsewhere in Europe. However, Grimaud would have none of it, so, after the initial recording was made, she ordered the production of it to be stalled and withheld from public release. Because of this Claudio Abbado canceled several performances together, and replacements had to be found in both London and Lucerne  for them. According to Michael Haefliger, the Lucerne Festival's Artistic and Executive Director, Ms. Grimaud was paid her fees though her concerts were cancelled with them and substitutes found. It is reported by those who were close to the matter that Abbado, who declined to be interviewed for the feature, has said that he would not continue to make music with someone whom he felt was not being a good partner in reference to Ms. Grimaud.

All of this comes to the ultimate conclusion that there is an album released, but one might ask how this could be if the conductor withdrew his name from the affair and if Grimaud would not release the recording as he desired it. As it turns out, there was a live recording of the concerti from a couple of months earlier with which Grimaud felt deeply satisfied. She conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony from the bench of her instrument, and it is this live performance that finds its way to the actual release of the recording. 

This begs the question of who holds the final authority when deciding the artistic direction of a recording. Is it the conductor, or does a solo artist hold the decision in their hands? In my limited experience with these sort of episodes, it has mostly been the responsibility of the conductor to make the final decision because it is more often than not that they are better informed to make such a choice in the context of a performance or recording. It has only been in recent times that artists would dare openly dissent with a conductor. If these were the days of Herbert von Karajan or Georg Solti, it would be unthinkable to hear of such a thing. Any disagreement with a conductor or the artistic management usually resulted in an artist departing in disgrace or at odds with the remainder of the classical music world. As recent as the fiasco with Kathleen Battle and Joseph Volpe, artists would be grateful if they could find work again. Battle certainly never did to any sort of consequence thereafter, and there are many cases of artists finding a reduced state of popularity after a disagreement with a conductor.

I ask my readers who should hold the final authority?

Thank you all for reading, and I hope that everyone is blessed lately. I hope that you have all found this subject to be interesting!

My Favorite Productions of the 2011-2012 Metropolitan Opera Season

It has been a couple of weeks since that I was rewarded with receiving the Metropolitan Opera's 2011-2012 Radio Broadcast and Live in HD guide for the upcoming season, and I was elated to find it among the items in my mailbox. Naturally, I immediately began to scan the pages that were contained between the covers, and the front of the brochure was clearly designed and utilized to cater to the widest possible audience, for it featured soprano Anna Netrebko in a production photograph for the season's new production of Jules Massenet's Manon. I could spend some appreciable time on why I think it is an odd move for Netrebko to add the role of Manon to her repertory at this precise moment, but I shall abstain for the nonce.

My favorite production for which I possess the most excitement in the current season has to be Handel's Rodelinda, which stars Renee Fleming and Andreas Scholl, the latter of whom recently gave a critically lauded recital at Carnegie Hall. This was the opera that was my maiden voyage into this beautiful art form, and Renee Fleming had portrayed the heroine in that Metropolitan Opera broadcast responsible for my new passion. This sort of brings my journey in the world of opera to the point of its origin. In that light one could make the case that I am embarking on a new stage of my journey in opera, which is certainly veritable as I begin to make this my career. The production is by director Stephen Wadsworth, and it is a safe, traditional one, which keeps me glad. I cannot wait to at least hear this glorious performance.

My second-- That is to say, my other production for which I am elated is the new baroque pastiche with music from Vivaldi, Handel, and Rameau among others and featuring a new libretto by Jeremy Sams that is entitled The Enchanted Island. The plot of this new work is centered around the characters from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but this episode has them shipwrecked on the island from another of Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest. The cast is exciting, for it includes a star-studded roster of excellent vocalists, some of whom you would expect in baroque repertoire, and there are others whom you would not. The cast comprises the talents of Placido Domingo, whom I should not expect to find singing baroque music, Lisette Oropesa, whom I shall be glad to have the pleasure of hearing again, Joyce DiDonato, who has become the premier mezzo-soprano in the Rossini and baroque repertoire outside of the renowned Cecilia Bartoli, David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni, and Danielle de Niese, who is one of my favorite sopranos to hear.

I am certain that my readers will notice the emphasis I took to say that The Enchanted Island is my other favorite production of the season, and there is due cause for this. Twitter is responsible for this wording, and there is a rather humorous anecdote involved with the fact. When I am not writing blog posts or studying, I can often be found scanning the tweets of my hallowed list of people that I follow on Twitter to obtain more news of the happenings in the operatic and theatrical worlds, and I also am given the liberty of mentioning things that I am anxious to do or see. It is in this part of the story that it would be nice to say that Danielle (yes, this Danielle) and I "go way back" as the expression is, but, unfortunately, we do not. However, we mutually and reciprocally follow each other on Twitter, and she responds to things I post considerably often when one thinks of who she is and what she does. Well, as it happened, I casually mentioned that my favorite production in anticipation of the Met's current season was Rodelinda as I have mentioned here, and, having more than one, I followed that remark with,

My second choice of a production to witness at  would have to be 'The Enchanted Island' with  and .
 Much to my surprise, I received this reply from Ms. de Niese in good humor:

   second? ..... <louder and with longer vowels> SEEECOOOND? :-)

Thus, my later choice of wording for all of eternity became "other" at her direction, for she replied when I said that I could have used a different word,

    yes.... "Other" or...... "first" :-)))))))))

Well, it did not go quite so high as first, though it could well tie for that title, but I have employed greater discretion thereafter using the alternate wording, and divas the world over are the happier for it, I am pleased to announce.

Returning to my other productions for which I am excited, one of them has revealed itself to me on short notice, and it is to be streamed live this Halloween evening. Mozart's Don Giovanni, which is a perennial favorite at the Met as a showcase for both established stars and the new talent that presents itself to the world of opera. I am most anxious to hear soprano Mojca Erdmann , who had a feature in Opera News' October issue, and Mariusz Kwiecien after his surgery on his back. Barbara Fritolli and Ramon Vargas complement these artists in the production, and I am certain that they shall be in excellent vocal form this evening. This may well be my activity for the evening, so it would be nice if some kind patron would leave a container of chocolates upon my doorstep since I shall be unable to go begging for it from other houses in my neighborhood.

We also have exciting new heirs to the La Fille du Regiment star vehicle this year in tenor Lawrence Brownlee and Nino Machaidze. Kiri Te Kanawa returns as the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Having witnessed Brownlee perform in person, his ability is solid, but his acting leaves a void with the audience. He is more of the "stand in one place and sing" type of singer presently, but I expect that will change with time. Of course, with his voice, who would complain about that fact?

Another Donizetti opera receives a stellar cast pairing this season, and it is quite unexpected for me. Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez are the two lovers in L'Elisir d'Amore, and they join forces with Kwiecien and Alessandro Corbelli. This promises to be a memorable run of performances, and, from the standpoint of the singers alone, it may well raise the performance standard for this opera to an exponential degree. I am excited for this!

A new thing that I want to hear is Leos Janacek's The Makropulos Case starring skilled Janacek interpreter Karita Mattila. Janacek's music has intrigued me ever since I heard Renee Fleming's recording of selections from Jenufa, and I was impressed by the melodies in From the House of the Dead when it made its premiere at the Met a few years since. Janacek is composer that I would feel ready to hear in a new, untried context, so I look forward to this outing to have the chance.

Natalie Dessay brings the Met her interpretation of Verdi's doomed heroine in  La Traviata after her touring  of the role in Europe over the summer festival season. The best story of one of these runs came from the Aix en Provence festival with Dessay in the role of Violetta under the baton of Louis Langree with the assistance of the London Symphony Orchestra. Maxine Kwok-Adams, who is one of the principle violinists with that revered ensemble, and who is another person I follow on Twitter, tweeted that she screamed in the orchestra pit as a fox ran amongst the musicians during a performance! The festival is an outdoor one, so I suppose occurrences such as that one will happen occasionally. Nevertheless, the New York Times did not give it a very nice review, and they did mention that Langree could not seem to keep absolute hold of the orchestra. One now wonders why... As for her Alfredo, I am most dissatisfied, for they have chosen Matthew Polenzani. His Alfredo from 2007 opposite Renee Fleming was a weak one in my opinion, but I shall listen again to see if he has improved since then.

Patricia Racette returns to us in Puccini's Tosca, and Roberto Alagna and Aleksandrs Antonenko share the role of Cavaradossi while James Morris and George Gagnidze alternate as Scarpia this season.

Of course, there are also the two new installments of Wagner's Ring cycle for us to herald with Deborah Voigt and Bryn Terfel. James Hunter Morris debuted as Seigfried recently replacing the indisposed tenor who preceded him, and he was phenomenal by all accounts. I cannot wait to hear him continue in the role.

That list completes my greatest anxieties for expectation for the Metropolitan Opera's 2011-2012 season, and it promises to be an exquisite one. The broadcast season will soon be upon us, and my Saturdays shall be claimed by being employed in the practice of listening to the world's best opera house delivering us the grandest performances in the present world.

I pray that my readers are all exceptionally blessed in their lives currently, and I intimate my utmost ingratiation to all of you for allowing me this pleasure of including myself in your lives. I pray that God continues to bless all of you immensely!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Result of My Contribution to Literature on the Arts

   For any of you who were interested, I was given my grade for my profile of conductor James Levine this morning, and I am pleased to report that I received a 92% A- for The Wave of the Wand. For the most part I was pleased with my marks, but I did exert a good deal of effort, and I think that my original draft, had I completed it as I intended to do, should have received a better overall grade. After I claimed my essay, I was given my English Composition midterm examination, and I was completely unprepared for what I saw. Our professor had told all of us students that there would be ten or twelve multiple choice questions combined with an essay question on the test, and we discovered that we should translate this in the future to mean that there shall be eighteen questions requiring a definition with the multiple choices residing in one's brain for extraction and utilization in the specific answer.

   As for the essay portion of the exam, I felt that it was a reasonable thing to find, but I have never known an excellent essay to be born of an author's abilities in half an hour or less. It is, therefore, needless to say that my essay was not my best. Indeed, it was unfinished when our allotted time was expended. I can only hope that I make a C on this midterm exam. I think my essays will give me a low A or a high B for the course itself if I continue to receive A's for my required essays in the class.

   If I may depart from the subject of academia, I should like to focus on the operatic world at present. The Metropolitan Opera's season recently began with Anna Bolena. I have yet to hear the work and how the performers interpreted it, but there have been critical reviews of the production's opening by several arts journalists. However, though I take ample license in saying so without having experienced the quality of it prior to perusing her article, Anne Midgette's telling of events seems rather harsh. To begin the article, she compares Anna Netrebko, who plays our heroine in the production, to Maria Callas. She notes,

"This year, the star soprano Anna Netrebko has taken on the role herself, first in Vienna in April and now at the Metropolitan Opera, where she opened the season in the company’s first-ever production of the work on Monday night. Yet Netrebko’s “Anna Bolena” showed little of the care that made Callas’s so memorable. Monday’s performance was littered with missed intonations, smeared runs and a good deal of running about the stage with clasped hands, which evidently qualifies as operatic acting."
    Of course, I am quite prepared to concede that the acting may have been less than desirable from Netrebko, but Callas's acting was rarely something of praise, especially as her vocal talent began to decline. Later, Midgette mentions that Netrebko breaks character to acknowledge the adoration of an audience, but it is also necessary to intimate that Callas was known to do the exact same thing, and this is evidenced by a recent Opera News feature by Eric Myers.

"Ira Siff, stage director, Met broadcast commentator and creator of drag diva Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh, singles out a moment in Act III of that performance that was formative for him. It was the high-lying phrase "Io quella lama" that ends Tosca's narrative of how she killed Scarpia. "By 1965, Callas's high C was not a thing of beauty," he says, "and when she lunged at it in that phrase, the sound elicited a loud gasp from the audience. Callas, entirely in character and a brilliant Tosca all evening, broke it for a split second to glare in the direction of the public, those huge eyes darting toward us for just one terrifying moment. After that, we behaved.'"

  It also bears to be mentioned that Midgette seems to have become rather hostile towards performances lately, especially the high profile ones. My specific reference is to an episode that occurred recently in which she accused Placido Domingo of "sabotage" during a performance of Tosca that he conducted at Washington National Opera. She claimed that the performance was so ill at times that Domingo must have been the culprit, and then she used the word sabotage to describe his action. Now, it begs to be said that Domingo is a world renowned musician of appreciable ability in conducting, and there are times in which he is not his best, which usually come when he has had little time to rehearse, but for Midgette to employ such a remark in all of its scathing connotation is rather much for my taste.

  In the light of all of this, I begin to wonder what credibility arts journalists possess. If they are so expertly knowledgeable about music and how it should be performed, why are they not performing it? Are they more erudite than those on whose livelihood this is based? The question of whether the critic uses their publication as a means to print exaggerated reviews against someone or a production for their gain of notoriety yet remains, and I am curious to know what others think on the subject. As for myself, I try not to judge a performance or a piece until I have heard it. I can honestly admit that I can only think of one piece of music for which I could write a review of its reprehensible vices, and that would be Saariajo's L'amour de Loin. Even though Dawn Upshaw, who is one of my favorite sopranos, is the star of the production, I do not appreciate the monotonous music to any degree. I may elucidate further on this in the future, but I shall leave it at that.

  Finally, thank you for your kind perusal of my post, and I pray that God continues to bless your existence. -Tyler.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Essay on the Magic of Conducting an Orchestra Revisited

   When I submitted my rough draft of my previously mentioned essay, I was confident in its merits as an astute contribution to the world of literature. Moreover, I was certain that it would be well received by my professor, but, when I received it with his critique of my profile of the subject, it carried the simple, but potent instruction of 'Simplify' emblazoned across the top of my title page.

   Reading this piece of advice from my professor, I decided it would be prudent to inquire of him what course of action I might pursue to better my essay in his opinion, and he promptly rewarded my curiosity with the following statement. I paraphrase, of course, but the expressed sentiments are the same.

   "You are at least two years ahead of this class," he assured me, "But, you need to bring your ability down to the level of the rest of the class so that we do not get ahead, or I will have to adjust your grade."
  I translated that to mean that I would have to rewrite my essay in sixth-grade language, or my alternative was that my grade on the piece would suffer. When I completed it, I did not feel that it was quite as eloquent or insightful as my previous telling of the events and facts, but we shall have to see what my actual grade shall depict. Nevertheless, for the consideration of my readers, I present my revised essay, and all of you are at liberty to submit your opinions on which you enjoy better and which is better suited to the subject I have elected to illustrate.

The Wave of the Wand
As you sit confined to your seat, your gaze is transfixed upon the woman before you. She is an object of captivating beauty, and she is clothed in a red gown of costly fabric and elegant design. If the scene before you were not so tense, you could notice all of these things, but the only visible thing to your mind is the dagger that this woman holds. Her weapon is a delicate one. It has a slender blade of steel coupled with a hilt of gold, which is crowned with small rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. She carries it with an exact intent. There can be no denying her motive as she stares unflinchingly at the large man who is merely a yard away from her. As she lunges for him, any defense that this muscular man may make in the face of this attack is powerless. Our heroine buries the double-edged blade into the villain’s throat, and blood oozes from the wound. He sinks to his knees as the life escapes his veins, and the woman slowly withdraws the weapon from his neck. A moment of silence ensues, and, for a brief space of time, one is left to ponder the grotesque image.
The woman glares at the man even still, and we begin to glimpse a transformation of her character. She is no longer desperately hopeful for another end to this episode; indeed, her demeanor has been replaced with a commanding persona that people often assume when they
gain mastery of a situation. The silence lingers just long enough for the spectator to ponder all of these things, and then it is suddenly broken by a collection of instruments, an orchestra. Ordering this interruption to our contemplation of the affair, there is a man dressed in formal attire standing in a dimly lit space that is just below our vision. In reality there is a massive, capacious stage before an audience, and the scene that I have described is from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca. With a deliberate motion, this imposing figure compels the members of the orchestra to play the music that underscores the mood, and we are reminded that we are watching a performance. This man’s name is James Levine, and he is the conductor for the evening, the one responsible for controlling the sounds of the orchestra. Under his precise direction of them, the orchestra players must combine to form a cohesive unit, and every tone must be synchronized. He adeptly ensures that such is the case.
Levine holds a baton in his hand. Based upon the movement of this small, carved piece of wood, he can create luscious melodies to inspire any sort of emotion known to human beings. In a sense, then, it is almost believable that he possesses a magic wand. If he wills it, music is created, and he can mute any sound with the slightest gesture of the wispy rod. I ask the reader: is this not a power that is most surreal? I would adore such ability!
James Levine is the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera House of New York. According to Martin Mayer, author of The Met: One Hundred Years of Grand Opera, Levine was engaged as principal conductor for the 1972-1973 season in 1971 by the General Manager elect of the Metropolitan Opera for the 1972 season, Gorean Gentele, after a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller. He had been a mere spectator at Lincoln Center that Saturday afternoon, and he was amazed at the brilliance of the young conductor in the orchestra pit, for
Levine was a mere twenty-eight at the time. Gentele thought it would be a sound move to hire an American as the principal conductor for America’s leading opera company (Mayer). As we learn from Paul Jackson, PhD., in his volume Start-Up at the New Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts 1966-1976, Levine’s substitution for the deceased Fausto Cleva was nothing short of superb.
“Levine’s shepherding of the early Verdi work is both masterly and masterful,” Jackson praises in regards to the performance given on October 15, 1971 (Jackson).
To illustrate the magic that he possesses, Jackson continues, “And what an invigorating ride it is. The first measures of the overture put us on alert. The reading is notable both for its structural coherence and pointing of detail. Verdi’s little chords, nestled under the opening theme, are rhythmically alive and propel the thematic line onward; integration between melody and accompaniment is complete. When the clarinet takes over the theme, Levine allows it to sing – the change is slight, but the intent is clear.” (Jackson)
From this vivid description of Levine’s marshaling of his orchestral forces, we can see that his ability to work magic from the pages of orchestral scores is a trait that he has never lacked from his beginning as a conductor. Because he worked as an assistant to maestro George Szell, he learned his trade well, and his attention to detail is evident. Jackson writes of this, as well.
“The Met had long lacked a conductor of the Italian repertory who combined an impeccable ear for detail with the ability to shape formal structures, small and large, for maximum musical and dramaturgical effect. Mr. [Rudolph] Bing had found one in Levine,” Jackson assures us. (Jackson)
What ensued after Gentele’s appointment of Levine was a thirty-nine year career as the ultimate musical figure at the Metropolitan Opera. He began as the principal conductor. Previously, it was the custom of general managers to hire conductors who had worked with them before since they knew that those conductors would deliver excellent results. Giulio Gatti-Casazza, another general manager of the Metropolitan Opera during the 1930’s, is a prime example of this when he imported the famous Arturo Toscanini to New York as he was scheduled to take over the company. Throughout his ongoing career, Levine has seen the succession of five General Managers, and his contract is set to last through the 2011-2012 season. Over the years he has risen in the ranks of the company. While he certainly began with a prestigious position, be became the de facto Music director of the Met in 1974 after the unexpected departure of Rafael Kubelik early in the year, but he gained that title officially in 1976. Ten years later, in 1986, he became the Artistic Director of the organization, which was a title he was the first to acquire in the company’s history. (Mayer)
In the spring of 2004, his health became a concern for the management of the house because of tremors in his left arm that sometimes impaired his abilities on the podium; nevertheless, the Met extended his contract, but these past few years have been marked with uncertainty for the future of the Met’s Music Director.
Recently, in a story for The New York Times, Daniel J. Wakin reported, “Mr. Levine, who has suffered a series of physical ailments, needed emergency surgery after falling while on vacation in Vermont and will be out until at least January, the Met said.” (Wakin) This posed a question in my mind.
“What happens when a conductor finds it necessary to take an absence? Does a performance get cancelled, or do they find a replacement for him,” I wondered.
In Mr. Levine’s case a replacement has been found, and this new conductor is Fabio Luisi, who had already been the principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera this season. However, there have also been several cancellations that Luisi has had to make in the light of this promotion. Several performances in Europe have either been cancelled, or they have found alternative conductors to fulfill the maestro’s former engagements. Many of these were scheduled with his orchestra, the Vienna Symphony, where he holds the title of chief conductor. Luisi’s absence strikes a chord of dissonance between him, the Met, and Mr. Thomas Angyan. Angyan is the artistic and executive director of the Musikverein, which is often the orchestra’s home for performances. Regarding Luisi’s appointment at the Met, Angyan says that the cancellation was not done quite professionally. He maintains that Luisi did not even contact him about his required cancellations directly. (Wakin)
“I’m astonished that he forgot my e-mail address or telephone number,” Mr. Angyan said. Though he asserts that he has immense respect for Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s current General Manager, he was rather displeased at Gelb’s alleged treatment of him during a telephone conversation with him discussing the situation.
“Saying ‘I have to have your approval in ten seconds’ is not the nicest way,” he said. I would agree with Mr. Angyan, but the magic that a specific conductor’s wand can weave is priceless, and I can hardly blame one of the world’s foremost opera companies for wanting it. I believe that it should be an exquisite season for the Metropolitan Opera House of New York this year, and I am excited to hear how Fabio Luisi compares to James Levine while Luisi
substitutes for him. Let us hope that we may describe his ability in such superlative terms as we depict Levine’s.
Works Cited:
Jackson, Paul. "Start-Up at the New Met: The Metropoilitan Opera Broadcasts, 1966-1976." Newark: Amadeus Press, 2006. 262.
Mayer, Martin. "The Met: One Hundred Years of Grand Opera." New York: Simon and Schuster; The Metropolitan Opera Guild, 1983. 324.
Wakin, Daniel J. "Maestro's Injury Ignites Game of Musical Chairs." The New York Times 22 September 2011: 1;5.

   I am most ingratiated to all of my readers, and I hope that God continues to bless you in your lives. As a reminder to anyone who is interested, the commencement of the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD season comes this Saturday, October 15, 2011, with Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena, and it stars Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Stephen Costello, Tamara Mumford, and Ildar Abdrazakov. I may attend my local cinema's showing of it, but I am not yet sure. Thank you for perusing my humble musings.