MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

People Who Need People

Carthage in Berlioz's Les Troyens: ROH production by David McVicar (photo: Cooper)

Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens: ROH production by David McVicar (photo: Cooper)

The science journalist Ed Yong sums up two recent studies showing the significance of social interconnection:

Now, two teams of scientists have independently shown that the strength of this cumulative culture depends on the size and interconnectedness of social groups. Through laboratory experiments, they showed that complex cultural traditions — from making fishing nets to tying knots — last longer and improve faster at the hands of larger, more sociable groups.

Psychologist Joe Henrich, lead author of one of the studies, brings up the implications of these findings for the Internet era:

“Innovations like literacy, writing and mail allowed us to access the thoughts of people in distant places and times,” says Henrich. “Extend that to the Internet, and things should only speed along even more.”

Jong points out an additional issue suggested by the two studies: “a large population size may be necessary for the evolution of cumulatively complex cultures, of the sort that distinguishes modern humans from other primates.”

For example, Henrich notes that many anthropologists assumed that Neanderthals were less intelligent than humans even though their brains were the same size, because they built less complex tools. “Another possibility is that they lived in scattered groups without much interconnectedness,” he says. They lacked the large groups that ratchet culture to new heights.

But [primatologist Lewis] Dean notes that human culture is more sophisticated than these experiments allow. We help one another with complex tasks, teach each other and provide feedback. “I think the experiments risk underestimating what all groups, including small ones, can achieve,” he says.

Is it too far-fetched to try to extrapolate from this a model for the evolution of musical thought vis–à–vis sophisticated ensembles such as the string quartet or modern orchestra?

Filed under: science, sociology

William Kentridge and The Refusal of Time

William Kentridge: >i>The Refusal of Time: Dickensian "Elephant"

William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time: Dickensian “Elephant”

After the Met’s recent revival of The Nose, I was eager to see The Refusal of Time, a 30-minute-long video installation by Kentridge currently being exhibited at the other Met. It was first unveiled at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany (2012). Rumor has it that The Refusal of Time may feature in SFMOMA’s grand reopening in 2016.

The installation includes the “surround-video” effect of five films moving across the space of three screens, all enhanced by Philip Miller’s score of menacing tuba drones, breathing sounds, ululation, and what resembles an army of madly hammering Nibelungs. The soundtrack is projected through looming old-fashioned movie-set megaphones. The films involve images of relativistic metronomes, Kentridge’s characteristic animations and charcoal figures, and an eccentrically parade-dance of vaudevillean silhouettes.

The center of the space itself is dominated by a wooden contraption, a “breathing” machine-sculpture – part Victorian-industrial fantasy, part There Will Be Blood oil drill – that Kentridge explains was inspired by a description in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times of a factory machine “[moving] monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”

The installation’s title – it reminds me of a moralizing Baroque drama – meanwhile draws together reflections on the collision between “progress” and colonialism, automation, and the physics of time in the early 20th century. From the accompanying text:

Kentridge’s recent interest in the nature of time was given focus through the work of Peter Galison, a Harvard-based historian of science. Galison studied a 1905 paper on relativity in which Albert Einstein hypothesized that, due to the delay in signals relayed via telegraph wire, peripheral railway stations synchronized on a centralized clock were forever fated to operate seconds behind schedule.

Einstein’s nascent theories about the relativity of time converged with French mathematician Henri Poincaré’s development, as president of the Bureau des Longitudes, of global time zone maps at the dawn of the twentieth century. Both scientists faced the radical idea, in a newly industrialized and interconnected world, that time is not absolute but relative and resistant to control.


On the occasion of the opening in Kassel, Margaret K. Koerner published an interview with William Kentridge and Peter Galison. Kentridge explains how the work is linked to his recent Norton Lectures at Harvard:

The sixth Norton lecture took the process of making “The Refusal of Time” as an example of what the lectures had been talking about: of thinking through material, of allowing the impulses of an image or a piece of work to hold sway and see where they led. Live music was allowed to come into the lecture form at the end of the sixth lecture. The lectures, which started with Plato, end with a black hole. Even though we weren’t starting with Plato in “The Refusal of Time,” the shadow procession came back as well, and it also ends with a black hole…. The image you see at the end, those white holes going down and down, that’s the roll from a player piano. It is both music and information….

[“The Refusal of Time”] starts with: Is a black hole the end of time? As Peter [Galison] was saying, that is one of the questions that physicists consider. But as soon as you say, right, let’s start having things disappear into a black hole, it is an immediate jump to that being, as it were, a metaphorical description of death. Is any trace left when you are gone? Is there any information, attributes of you that still float around the edge? So it is both from the psychological, or the lived sense of, what is the balance between the finality of death and the continuation of attributes of people afterward?

Filed under: art exhibition, film, social criticism, video art, visual art

Reflections on Shadow

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress, Torsten Kerl as the Emperor, and Scott Weber as the Falcon; photo by Ken Howard

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress, Torsten Kerl as the Emperor, and Scott Weber as the Falcon; photo by Ken Howard

I’m still ruminating on the recent peak experience I had at the Metropolitan Opera: this season’s revival of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, directed by the late Herbert Wernicke (which I had missed when it was unveiled in 2001).

The world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal has long felt very familiar to me, but there’s no question that Frau emits a strangeness that veer perilously toward the overly precious or the downright obscure if all its elements aren’t carefully balanced.

But when they are – as they were for this overall superb production – the rewards defy comparison with just about any other opera experience I can summon. Frau doesn’t merely reaffirm the excellence of opera as an art form: it suggests an entirely new dimension of operatic possibility rarely hinted at even by many acknowledged masterpieces.

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife; photo by Ken Howard

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife; photo by Ken Howard

Not everything is perfect in the Met’s production, not all the questions this phantasmagoria of Hofmannsthal and Strauss leaves you wrestling with get answered, or even clarified as questions (are they even meant to?). Some of these are mundane, some of key relevance to the opera’s meaning: Why do we occasionally see the Empress’s shadow (or were those reflections?)? Why are Barak and Keikobad the only characters with names? Why does Keikobad relent in a Sarastro-like reversal of the way he’s been introduced to us? What really drives the Nurse? And on and on….

Here’s a little collage from some of the more interesting reviews of the recent revival:

John Yohalem:

Herbert Wernicke’s 2001 production, now revived and revised, is a fine, gaudy bit of stagework. The walls of mirror for the magical realm, enhanced by projections, doubles, torches and the Met’s underappreciated stage elevator (absolutely silent as the four- or five-story set slithers back and forth, in and out, up and down!) make a dandy backdrop for multidimensional show, and the mirrors conceal inopportune shadows until the story is ready to receive them. The seamless flow of stage-high trickery in Act III should tickle any theatrical fancy.

Ildikó Komlósi as the Nurse; photo by Marty Sohl

Ildikó Komlósi as the Nurse; photo by Marty Sohl

Micaela Baranello

Wernicke’s Met production is a great success, and actually lives up to the music’s energy and atmosphere…The design—all by Wernicke—is the primary attraction. The world of the Empress, Emperor, and Nurse is a mirrored box, whose transformations are seen in various dramatic flickering lighting effects. In contrast to this glamour, the Dyer’s house is in a gritty sewer or subway, located below the box and connected by a fire escape staircase…The upper level is timeless and mythic, the lower contemporary and realistic…

The upper level is timeless and mythic, the lower contemporary and realistic (Act 1 ends with the dyer Barak poignantly staring into an open refrigerator). The implication is vaguely Marxist: the Empress (surrounded by narcissistic mirrors) is exploiting the literal underclass, for whom she gradually learns compassion. The finale is Brechtian–or lieto fine-ian—with the lighting scaffold descending to reveal the stage mechanism and the singers addressing the audience directly. Since the music does not follow suit in any way, I found this gesture a little ineffective, but overall this is a very strong and convincing production.

James Jorden:

[Frau] represents the Met at its peak: Every element melds into an overwhelming artistic experience. It’s how you dream opera ought to be. The Woman without a Shadow even feels like a dream or rather a nightmare one might have dozing off while cramming for a final exam on Advanced Jungian Analysis….

In an interview published at the time of the production’s premiere, [Wernicke] declared, “The shiny, mysterious realm of spirits and the poor, low-class world of the Dyer, Barak—that’s just like New York’s lofty Central Park West apartments, in their harsh contrast to the underworld of poor people and outcasts and the subways, where the homeless fight over leftovers with the rats.”

 Christine Goerke as the Dyer's wife) and Johan Reuter as Barak; photo by Ken Howard

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s wife) and Johan Reuter as Barak; photo by Ken Howard

Eric Simpson:

In Wernicke’s concept, the Emperor and Empress rule over an ethereal plane represented on the stage by a mirrored tunnel. It is remarkable how much is accomplished here using only scrims and lighting (it’s hard to remember a time when computer projections weren’t the industry standard). In the mirror-world, the various characters have strongly evocative auras that light up the set. The stunning pink-and-blue diffusion that accompanied the Empress’s first entrance gave the audience a sense of what life might be like on the inside of a jellyfish.

When the time comes to journey into the mortal realm, the entire set rises up to reveal a dreary warehouse that serves as the dyer Barak’s home and workplace. The contrast between the two settings is striking—where the upper plane is blindingly radiant but physically spare, the dyer’s workshop is fully and realistically furnished but lit only by overhead factory lights.

Martin Bernheimer:

It began – and ended – in 2001. Herbert Wernicke startled the basically conservative Met with an astonishingly progressive production of Richard Strauss’s magnificently bloated Die Frau ohne Schatten. He actually made theatrical sense of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s high-minded, hopelessly convoluted libretto.

Serving as his own designer and lighting magician, Wernicke played the spiritual scenes in a surreal hall of mirrors. For the mundane episodes, he created a contemporary milieu resembling an industrial warehouse. For the ultimate resolution, he introduced neo-Brechtian imagery. He dealt in revelations at all levels.

I tracked down a full program (in German only) from Robert Carsen’s production for the Wiener Staatsoper, which is brimming with information and fascinating essays.

Meanwhile, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Frau for Bayerische Staatsoper will be streamed live this coming Sunday (December 1), starting at 6 pm CET. Be careful: this is heavily addictive stuff.

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, opera, Strauss

New Uses for the Old Story: NBA Poetry Winner Mary Szybist


Congratulations to Mary Szybist, who was chosen last week as winner of the National Book Award for Poetry for Incarnadine, her second book of poetry, cited by the NBA jury as a collection that “probes the nuances of love, loss, and the struggle for religious faith in a world that seems to argue against it” and “a religious book for nonbelievers, or a book of necessary doubts for the faithful.”

Shara Lessley interviewed Szybist for the National Book Foundation, asking her about her imaginative reconsideration of the Annunciation motif and her ability “to locate the Virgin Mother in so many unlikely places.” Szybist responded:

The poem that most haunted me while writing the book is W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” By emphasizing the terror of the event, the brutal indifference and power of the god, he suggested something about the character of the era that unfolded from it. It is with a nod to Yeats’s strange vision of history and his idea that every two thousand years the world’s temperament changes as the result of an encounter between human and divine that I am reflecting on the kinds of encounters happening around us. What counts as the sacred now? What kinds of encounters are we witnessing? And what are those encounters engendering? By offering a multitude of Annunciation possibilities, I wish to unsettle and, to some extent, take leave of the old story, even as I try to find new uses for it.

In an essay on Incarnadine and the work of the poet Charles Wright, Lisa Russ Spaar writes:

Smart, unflinching, beautiful, the poems in Incarnadine embrace the paradoxes of love: love of being beheld, of being beholden, of being “done unto,” and of what it means to care for what we make of what we are given, or not given, of what it means to “see annunciations everywhere,” in disasters, tragedies, moments of grace and miracle….

In “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” Szybist writes, “It’s not enough to say the heart wants what it wants.” Maybe not. But readers can be grateful to Wright and Szybist (two “solitaries…calling”) for believing that the world, with its hard news, its complicated incarnations, is nonetheless “made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals.” Among that “more” is the work of these two important and soul-nourishing poets.

You can find a recent podcast about Szybist’s “On Wanting to Tell [] about a Girl Eating Fish Eyes” here.

Filed under: American literature, poetry

The Two Cultures and the Idea of Beauty

Large Hadron Collider at CERN being constructed

Large Hadron Collider at CERN being constructed

The Science Museum in London currently has an exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider on view. In connection with the exhibition, The Guardian invited theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed and novelist Ian McEwan to engage in a conversation about the rapport between science and the arts.

The chemist and novelist C.P. Snow coined the phrase “the Two Cultures” in his Rede Lecture in 1959 to characterize the seemingly unbridgeable divide between the sciences and the humanities that had come to replace the omnivorous appetite for knowledge of the Renaissance. Arkani-Hamed observes:

It’s an asymmetry that doesn’t really need to exist. Certainly many scientists are very appreciative of the arts. The essential gulf is one of language and especially in theoretical physics, the basic difficulty is that most people don’t understand our language of mathematics which we use to describe everything we know about the universe. And so while I’m capable of listening to and intensely enjoying a Beethoven sonata or an Ian McEwan novel it can be more difficult for people in the arts to have some appreciation for what we do. But at a deeper level there’s a commonality between certain parts of the arts and certain parts of the sciences.

He also observes that the idea of “beauty” is at its core something shared by science and the arts, explaining that “what we mean by beauty is really a shorthand for something else. The laws that we find describe nature somehow have a sense of inevitability about them.”

Beethoven's working MS for the opening measures of his Fifth Symphony

Beethoven’s working MS for the opening measures of his Fifth Symphony

A year ago I ran into this great lecture on YouTube by Leonard Bernstein about the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. And Bernstein used precisely this language – not approximately this language – exactly this language of inevitability, perfect accordance to its internal logical structure and how difficult and tortuous it was for Beethoven to figure out. He used precisely the same language we use in mathematics and theoretical physics to describe our sense of aesthetics and beauty.

Filed under: aesthetics, science

A Ceremony of Britten

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Benjamin Britten (r) and Peter Pears (l)

And so we arrive at the last of the big three composer anniversaries this year – the anniversaries that not so long ago seemed to loom on the other side of the apocalypse said to be awaiting us in 2012. November 22 – Saint Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music, as it has become obligatory to point out – marks the official centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.

I wish I could come up with something a fraction as eloquent as my colleagues to pay tribute to the creative genius of this endlessly fascinating figure, but my recent essay on the War Requiem will have to do the honors:

Ruin and Renewal: Britten’s War Requiem

“I was completely absorbed in this piece, as really never before, but with considerable agony in finding the adequate notes for such a subject (and such words!), and dread discovering that I’ve not succeeded.” So Benjamin Britten confided to a friend not long before the War Requiem‘s premiere in May 1962.

Britten’s agony produced not only one of the landmark compositions of his career but a testimony to the power of art to confront humanity’s failings and at the same time to offer hope. As for the dread of not succeeding, the War Requiem stands out as a rare instance in 20th-century music of a new work that was greeted with overwhelming approval by critics and audiences alike.

“The composer’s duty, as a member of society,” declared Britten in his famous speech accepting the Aspen Award in 1964, “[is] to speak to or for his fellow human beings.” From first note to last, the War Requiem holds true to this conviction of the role of music in society. The ethical perspective of the lifelong pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War converges with the remarkable gifts that made Britten one of the supreme musical dramatists of the past century and a master of large-form architecture.

At the same time, the imperative to communicate by no means requires adhering to safe, comfortable formulas. In taking up one of the most tradition-laden texts of Western music, the Latin Mass for the Dead, Britten challenges and reinvigorates the very meaning of this ritual.

After the Second World War, the composer had actually considered Requiem-like works to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombings of Japan and, later, the assassination of Gandhi, but these plans never crystallized. Earlier, in 1940, he had written a purely instrumental Sinfonia da Requiem, but that work exists in a category all its own. The commission to supply a new score as part of the upcoming consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral provided Britten with the stimulus he needed at last to embark on a large-scale choral-symphonic composition.

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral in ruins after the bombing of 14/15 November 1940

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral in ruins after the bombing of 14/15 November 1940

Carpenter suggests that the composer’s sadness over the recent suicide of a former friend who had survived the war but struggled with depression may have also occasioned the need to compose the War Requiem as a more private response to tragedy. This may explain Britten’s puzzling statement: “That’s what the War Requiem is about; it is reparation.” In his recently published Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, the biographer and journalist Neil Powell notes that “a work which had originated as a very public commission was increasingly concerned with a very private subtext.”

Bombing raids by the Luftwaffe during the blitzkrieg in 1940 had nearly destroyed the industrial city of Coventry in the West Midlands, including the Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael dating from the 14th century. The Scottish architect Basil Spence designed a new modernist structure, but not merely as replacement: he decided to retain the roofless, ruined shell of the earlier church, whose spire had been left standing, and link it to the new building.

The consecration ceremony thus offered an occasion to reflect on the destruction wrought by the war – at the height, it will be recalled, of the Cold War that was threatening outright annihilation of humanity. Just a few months after the War Requiem‘s premiere, the Cuban Missile crisis would bring the West to the brink of apocalypse.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Britten wasn’t interested in a reassuring but simplistic idealism about the sacrifices of war that whitewashed or forgave war’s inherent atrocity. The War Requiem – the title itself suggests an uneasy juxtaposition – thus combines the traditional Latin texts (with one telling change, in the Agnus Dei) with the mordantly ironic antiwar poetry of Wilfred Owen, a victim of the First World War. (His brother Harold sent Britten a letter praising the War Requiem and expressing joy “that Wilfred’s poetry will forever be a part of this great work.”)

The implicit homoeroticism of Owen’s poetry also resonated with Britten, who had already set his words to music alongside several other poets in the song cycle Nocturne (1958); its sound world in fact foreshadows parts of the War Requiem. As an epigraph to the latter, Britten quoted a passage by Owen that mirrors his own vision here as a composer: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is to warn.”

To anchor his antiwar message, Britten taps into a tradition of sacred music which carries a plea for peace amid contemporary turmoil. Well-known examples from the sacred music canon are Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. Britten’s mixture of Latin liturgical texts with secular poetry is likewise not without precedent. Yet he juxtaposes the poems of Owen so that they become a provocative commentary on the familiar Requiem. The result is a complex yet ingeniously lucid six-movement structure in which is embedded an ongoing song cycle for tenor and baritone.

In a sense, this fusion of the ancient and the modern to underscore both the “pity” and the poet’s warning – the secondary level that comments on the primary, ritual, archaic level – might be interpreted as the composer’s musical and textual counterpart to Spence’s bold architectural design.

In his Aspen speech, Britten refers to the importance of suiting the music to the setting: “The best music to listen to in a great Gothic cathedral is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem. I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

But it’s more specifically Spence’s conflation of ruin and renewal that is replicated in Britten’s unique structure, which at several points subverts the expected biblical truths. This happens to especially devastating effect, for example, in Owen’s dark retelling of the sacrifice of Isaac, which intervenes in the Offertorium and inverts its message with terrible irony.

Immediately following this is the shockingly triumphant Sanctus, with its echoes of both ceremonial gamelan music and Monteverdi; this in turn is countered by Owen’s poetic denial of the afterlife’s consolation in the baritone’s solo. The apocalyptic and the personal, the archetypal pattern and the concretely, painfully historical moment – these are the different planes which intersect in fascinating ways throughout the War Requiem.

Britten’s vast array of performing forces further points to the architectural and spatial aspects of his conception. The scoring is divided into three groupings that are perceived to emanate from three distinct spheres. There is the conventional sound world of the full orchestra (including enlarged brass and percussion sections) and mixed chorus, which sings only the Latin texts, and the soprano solos.

If these performers are the world of humanity in general, facing our mortal condition, the boys’ choir, accompanied throughout by organ or harmonium, exists suspended beyond it as the voice of eternal, angelic innocence. (Britten specifies that their sound is to be “distant.”) The third level, with its reduced satellite orchestra and two male soloists, is closer to the world of art song and chamber opera. This is the real world of violence and meaningless death, not ideals – the plane on which innocence is corrupted.

Spire of Coventry Cathedral

Spire of Coventry Cathedral

Mediating among all these spheres is the core harmonic idea of the War Requiem: the interval of the tritone (heard at the outset as C pitted against F-sharp), whose instability highlights the pervasive feeling of ambivalence. “There are very few easy resolutions in Britten’s later work,” writes Powell, “and ease, when it is attempted, is always troubled by ambiguity.”

This is how Powell reads the composer’s statement near the end of his life about the effect on him of witnessing Belsen and other former concentration camps during a tour he and Yehudi Menuhin undertook shortly after the Second World War. Britten said “that the experience had colored everything he had written subsequently,” as his partner Peter Pears disclosed.

In his unforgettable setting of the final Owen poem, Britten dissolves the scene of immense pathos of the former enemy soldiers meeting after death. As they choose eternal peace and oblivion, Britten leads us into the final Latin prayer In Paradisum, where, for the first time, he joins all the performing forces together. The chorus repeats the harmonic sequence that had concluded the first movement, but the composer forces us to wonder: is this merely the reboot of humanity’s eternally recurring pattern?

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Britten, choral music, requiem

Da Vinci’s Viola Organista

Sketch from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus

Sketches from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus

Just ran across This Is Colossal‘s report on the Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki’s realization of one of tne wildly imaginative hybrids Leonardo da Vinci dreamed up in his notebooks. Sketches for this “viola organista” – a mating of the principles of stringed and keyboard instruments – are found in da Vinci’s massive collection of sketches known as the Codex Atlanticus.

Zubrzycki demonstrated his new version of this invention at the recent International Royal Cracow Piano Festival. The Colossal‘s story links to this more-detailed account at The History Blog of the background of the viola organista and attempts to realize it, including this early one:

Almost a hundred years [after the da Vinci sketches] in 1575, church organist Hans Hyden of Nuremberg created the first functional bowed keyboard instrument operated by a foot-treadle. He used gut strings (later switched to metal when the gut strings failed to say in tune) and five or six parchment-wrapped wheels which, when turned by the treadle and a hand-crank at the far end operated by a helper, would be drawn against individual strings determined by which keys were played. Hyden claimed his instrument could produce crescendos, diminuendos, vibrato and sustain notes indefinitely solely through finger pressure on the keys. He even said it could duplicate the voice of a drunk man.

He called it a Geigenwerk (meaning “fiddle organ”) which is the German translation of da Vinci’s name for it, but although some sources imply or claim he based his design on da Vinci’s, I have serious doubts about that. Leonardo was hugely famous in his lifetime and after, but it was for his art, not his notebooks. Bequeathed to his friend and apprentice Francesco Melzi, the notebooks were sold off piecemeal by the Melzi family after Francesco’s death in 1579. Pages were scattered to courts and collectors all over Europe. Some of Leonardo’s notes on painting were published in 1651, but the bulk of the notebooks only made it into print in the 19th century. I don’t see how Hyden could have had had access to them.

None of Hyden’s Geigenwerks — he’s reputed to have built as many as 32 of them although only two are thoroughly documented — have survived. The details of its operation and the sole surviving illustration of the instrument have come down to us from German composer and music theorist Michael Praetorius who included one of Hyden’s original pamphlets describing the machine and a woodcut of it in the appendix to the second volume of his Syntagma Musicum, published as the Theatrum Instrumentorum seu Sciagraphia in 1620.

Hat tip: Benjamin Lukoff (Twitter @lukobe)

Filed under: da Vinci, instruments, music news

Lawrence Brownlee, Tenor of Grace

Lawrence Brownlee as Almaviva in Barber, one of his signature roles; photo by Ken Howard

Lawrence Brownlee as Almaviva in Barber, one of his signature roles; photo by Ken Howard

The marvelously gifted tenor Lawrence Brownlee makes his Los Angeles Opera debut as Tamino this coming weekend in the Barrie Kosky production of The Magic Flute. Here’s a profile I recently wrote about Larry for Seattle Opera, where he appeared last month as Tonio in The Daughter of the Regiment:

Nowadays no American tenor is more in demand than Lawrence Brownlee when it comes to the bel canto repertoire. And it’s easy to imagine the impression Brownlee’s voice—with its signature combination of sweetness, warmth, and flexibility—would have made on Gaetano Donizetti, or any of the bel canto composers. With their elegant melodies and deeply felt emotions, they were writing, it seems, specifically to Brownlee’s strengths, and he has proved that he has the versatility to excel in the distinctive styles developed by each member of bel canto’s famous triumvirate: Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini.

“People always tell me I sound like an old-school singer,” Brownlee remarks, “but that’s not something I consciously try to do. That’s just the way my voice is made and constructed, so it naturally fits this repertoire…. I think of myself simply as a bel canto tenor.”

Larry offstage; photo by  Derek Blanks

Larry offstage; photo by Derek Blanks

The star tenor is speaking by phone from a hotel room in Berlin during a rare day off in late summer, before heading to Palermo to sing Rossini. His next stop: Seattle, to sing Tonio in The Daughter of the Regiment. Anyone who meets Larry Brownlee in person can attest to the down-to-earth, uncontrived modesty that likewise comes naturally to this son of the rustbelt city of Youngstown, Ohio.

While Brownlee’s international reputation is particularly associated with his interpretations of Rossini, Seattle audiences have had the opportunity to hear and see him put his stamp on major roles by Bellini and Donizetti as well.

Brownlee made his mainstage debut at Seattle Opera in 2002 in the opera buffa Don Pasquale as Ernesto, singing another of Donizetti’s lovestruck comic heroes. And his uncompromising rendition of the high-wire vocal line assigned to the male protagonist Arturo in Bellini’s I puritani in 2007—including a full-on F above high C, not falsetto—now belongs to company legend. This coming spring Brownlee will sing the role at the Met for the first time.

“You can’t even find that on records!” says General Director Speight Jenkins, whose capacious memory-archive of a lifetime of performances can rekindle the live excitement of those Bellini nights apparently at will.

Yet what’s really impressive here—as in Brownlee’s taking on the notorious “Everest” of nine high C’s his character Tonio must sing early on in The Daughter of the Regiment—isn’t just the technical ability to produce these notes with such reliable accuracy. That’s simply the starting point. The accuracy is one thing, Jenkins points out, “but rarely do you hear the beauty of those upper tones.”

“To be able to sing Tonio’s nine high C’s always amazes people, but that’s what the voice Donizetti was writing for is supposed to do,” explains the tenor, director, and teacher Peter Kazaras, who shares the stage with Brownlee in Daughter playing the haughty Duchess of Krackenthorp in drag in Seattle Opera’s production. “The reason people were so awed when Pavarotti did it [in his career-defining performance at the Met in 1972] is that he was a lyric tenor, not the light, leggiero tenor these roles were conceived for. There are a few people who can sing this kind of repertoire, but what sets Larry apart is that he sings it and the voice is actually beautiful.”

Brownlee as Tonio in the Met's Daughter of the Regiment; photo by Ken Howard

Brownlee as Tonio in the Met’s Daughter of the Regiment; photo by Ken Howard

Jenkins, renowned for his ability to recognize the potential in young singers with startling accuracy, remembers the thrilling experience of hearing Brownlee in a rehearsal room back in his days in the company’s Young Artists Program, which he joined in 2000. It became immediately clear to Jenkins that the tenor (at the time only in his late 20s) could have a major international career.

“So many things happened for me as a result of going to Seattle early on,” Brownlee says. “I do consider Seattle my home away from home. Speight opened up a lot of doors for me and really invested in my career. Seattle Opera has given me a chance to do such a range of roles, from traditional productions to modern things like [Daniel Catán’s] Florencia en el Amazonas.”

Brownlee with Renée Fleming in Rossini's Armida at the Met; photo by Ken Howard

Brownlee with Renée Fleming in Rossini’s Armida at the Met; photo by Ken Howard

To this day, Brownlee—himself a very young-looking 40—thinks of Seattle Opera as a place that attracts a vibrant young audience. When he was here, he became especially attuned to the presence of a young audience the company fosters through its BRAVO! Club and innovative social media networks. “I’ve gotten a chance to interact with them quite a bit, and many of those people I still keep in touch with via Facebook. They knew me before I started to do other high-profile things like singing opposite Renée Fleming [in Rossini’s Armida at the Met] and they really care about me.”

The Seattle production of Daughter presents the opportunity for a family reunion of sorts. Peter Kazaras had directed Brownlee in the 2011 The Barber of Seville, and Sarah Coburn, as Marie in Daughter, once again plays the object of Brownlee’s determined love. The two also appeared together in the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program’s La Cenerentola in 2002 and in the 2011 Barber, with Brownlee singing his signature role as Rossini’s Count Almaviva.

“I feel honored and blessed each time I have the opportunity to sing with Larry,” says Coburn. “I have also come to consider him a good friend and mentor. He has given me fantastic advice many times and has the added perspective of work-family balance. He understands the challenges of family life, especially in light of constant travel.”

Brownless and Coburn as Tonio and Marie in Daughter at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketun

Brownless and Coburn as Tonio and Marie in Daughter at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketun

As a husband and father of two small children (Zoe and Caleb), Brownlee says family life “keeps me grounded. I love my job and am grateful to have the chance to perform, but my family makes me realize that it’s not all about that—everything else is relative.”

“This isn’t an easy business—I don’t know how people did it before Skype. My wife, Kendra, and I spend hours together with our Skype turned on, just to be able to share in the unsaid things of daily life.” Brownlee registers his excitement about being able to have the whole family in Seattle for Daughter, along with an extended circle of relatives.

Brownlee, who grew up with six siblings in a tight-knit working-class family, doesn’t hesitate to single out the central role they play in his life. He loves to quote pieces of homespun wisdom from his father, a retired GM auto factory worker and army veteran: “Like him, I’m a ‘glass half-full’ guy, and I’ve learned from him to worry about the things you can control: things like my weight, or how musical and expressive I can be as a performer.”

Brownlee in Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri at the Opéra de Paris

Brownlee in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri at the Opéra de Paris

Brownlee’s positive attitude helped him bypass what he was told by some would pose serious stumbling blocks. Though no longer so blatantly tainted by racism as it once was, the mostly-white opera world can still throw up less explicit barriers to African-American performers. Brownlee, who appears incapable of harboring grudges, refuses to dwell on the fact that he was told by some that his ethnicity would keep him from being cast in leading roles. Concerns were similarly expressed that the tenor’s stature—at 5 feet six inches—would inevitably hamper his career, no matter how extraordinary were the gifts he had to offer as a performer.

Thankfully, Brownlee refused to listen to any nay-saying. Seattle provided his first platform, and it was from this region that he was selected one of the winners—along with Sarah Coburn—of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Only a year later, when he made his professional stage debut, he was invited to perform at La Scala, and his career kept accelerating, with major European bookings filling out more and more of his calendar.

Brownlee prefers to focus on his gratitude to all those who have inspired him on his path: from courageous pioneers like the tenor George Shirley, who paved the way for Brownlee’s generation —and whom Brownlee reveres as one of his mentors—to the colleagues he regularly refers to as if they’re all part of an extended family.

Here in Seattle, Maestro Yves Abel is also pleased about this chance to reunite with Brownlee, whom he has conducted in Europe and at the Met’s well-known current production of Daughter (relocated to World War One). “Larry is a superlative artist, extremely musical and sensitive, with an innate and varied sense of style, excellent language skills, and a doll to get along with.”

Certainly Brownlee left indelible memories of his last venture in Seattle. Along with the ravishing vocalism of that Barber production, it amply demonstrated the tenor’s considerable comic talents—his turn as Rosina’s music teacher incognito ranks as the most hilarious I’ve yet seen—and his capacity to bring out a character’s essence.

“When I was directing him as Almaviva,” says Kazaras, “I was developing a carefully choreographed language all the way through the piece for each character, and I knew I could get Larry to use his talent as an accomplished salsa dancer.” Playing on one of the Italian phrases for his type of voice (tenore di grazie), Kazaras continues, “With Larry, the watch word is graceful. He is graceful in his singing, in his stage presence, and in his life.”

But Tonio in Daughter—a role Brownlee has performed at the Met, and in Cincinnati and Hamburg—is a different kind of person from Count Almaviva. How does Brownlee strive to make such a simple comic character come to life onstage? “The most important thing is to make him come across as sincere and heartfelt. Of course, everyone thinks of the high C’s in ‘Ah, mes amis!’ when he’s on top of the world. But you have to be able to show his real pain and disappointment as well.”

“A lot of people may not realize the more difficult aria is actually the second one—‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’—where Tonio tells the Marquise what Marie means to him. You really have to think about musicality and phrasing here and make sure not to blow it all on the first aria. I hope it will be so beautiful that people will almost forget ‘Ah, mes amis!’—but I don’t want them quite to forget it completely!”

Brownlee and  Joyce Castle (Marquise) in Daughter at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketu

Brownlee and Joyce Castle (Marquise) in Daughter at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketu

Inevitably, Brownlee’s approach to these roles is compared to that of his almost-exact contemporary, the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. (On YouTube you can easily find a video juxtaposing clips of Brownlee, Flórez, Pavarotti, and Alfredo Kraus singing Tonio, while heated discussions over their relative merits transpire on numerous blogs and listservs.) But when he mentions Flórez, it’s impossible to imagine one of the old-fashioned singer rivalries playing out. “Juan Diego is a friend. I also think he’s a great artist, and we have mutual respect for what each other does.”

Later this season Brownlee will be back in Europe to sing Donizetti at the Vienna Staatsoper (Nemorino in L’elisir) and Rossini in Munich (for Il turco and Cenerentola). His newest recording, Spiritual Sketches, meanwhile represents an entirely different direction that he hopes to pursue further. A set of ten arrangements of traditional spirituals for voice and piano by one of Brownlee’s friends, this latest release reveals what will sound like a whole new dimension to the tenor’s art to those who know him as a bel canto expert. Yet here Brownlee looks back affectionately to his musical beginnings, recalling his boyhood singing in the church gospel choir with his family.

On the heels of his Seattle engagement, Brownlee will be making both his role and company debuts as Prince Tamino at Los Angeles Opera in the Suzanne Andrade-Barrie Kosky production of The Magic Flute, described by The Guardian as “a perfect mixture of … silent films, the cabaret of the Weimar Republic, David Lynch, and the brothers Grimm.”

“It’s my first professional role in German,” says Brownlee, “and I also hope I have some more Mozart in my future. It’s nice to do that in addition to the Italian bel canto. The goal is to continue to grow as an artist. Hopefully I’m still at the beginning of my journey and will try to keep getting better and enjoy the ride.”

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: artist profile, bel canto, opera, Seattle Opera

Melville Rejected

MS submission cover letter by Herman Melville: 9 May 1854

Cover letter for a short story submission by Herman Melville (dated 9 May 1854)

Herman Melville was 34, with Moby-Dick several years behind him, when he submitted the manuscript for his short story “The Two Temples” along with the cover letter pictured above to the publisher G.P. Putnam. His first novel, Typee, became a best-seller when it appeared in 1846, but the increasing ambition and complexity of Melville’s subsequent writings resulted in a decrescendo in sales and public interest – particularly starting with his third novel, the richly symbolic fantasy Mardi (1849).

Harper & Brothers, Melville’s publisher, rejected his (subsequently lost/destroyed) novel Isle of the Cross in the wake of Moby-Dick and the truly far-out Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which had bombed commercially and critically.

That’s the context around his submission of “The Two Temples” to the monthly periodical Putnam’s, which began publication in January 1853. In fact founder George Palmer Putnam circulated a letter to prominent American authors, including Melville, announcing his plans to create a platform for American writers and pundits. So in May 1854, Melville submitted his manuscript for “The Two Temples.” Structured as a diptych, this story recounts the narrator’s cold rejection by a “beadle-faced man” when he attempts to enter a church; contrasting with this “excommunication” in his homeland, he takes comfort in the temple of the theater when he later finds himself a stranger in London.

Melville’s cover letter for the submission is currently being offered for $35,000. It reads:

Pittsfield May 9th [1854]

Dear Sir –

Herewith you have a M.S.

As it is short, and in time for your June number, therefore – in case it suits you to publish – you may as well send me your check for it at once, at the rate of $5 per printed page.

– If it don’t suit, I must beg you to trouble yourself so far, as to dispatch it back to me, thro my brother, Allan Melville, No. 14 Wall Street.


H. Melville

G.P. Putnam, Esq.

Booktryst contributor Stephen J. Gertz explains that Melville’s protagonist “reaches the conclusion that this theater is a true church, the other not at all.” He quotes the letter Putnam editor Charles F. Briggs sent to Melville to clarify why the magazine decided to reject this submission by such a recognized writer:

“I am very loth [sic] to reject the “Two Temples” as the article contains some exquisitely fine description, and some pungent satire, but my editorial experience compels me to be very cautious in offending the religious sensibilities of the public, and the moral of the “Two Temples” would array against us the whole power of the pulpit, to say nothing of Brown, and the congregation of Grace Church.”

Gertz believes that this very personal rejection letter was intended to minimize fallout, since Putnam’s “wanted to retain [Melville] as a contributor. Briggs is suggesting that to assuage Melville’s feelings they should buy another, more appropriate, piece from him.” As it happened, “The Two Temples” ended up with the writer’s private papers and was never published in his lifetime. Gertz further describes why this letter was important:

“Two Temples” represented the metaphysical path that Melville had begun to travel with Moby-Dick and had further bestrode, deepening his spirituality. His earlier works had been popular; $5 a page was top wage for a short story; he was still in demand. (And Melville desperately needed the money.) Beginning, however, with Moby-Dick, religious themes began to rapidly creep into his work. His readership began to slowly creep out, and from then on publishers became increasingly wary to publish Melville. “Two Temples,” so overtly theological and spiritually rebellious, was, if not the beginning of the end, a definite so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen to [the popular style of writing represented by the early] Omoo, amen.

Hat tip: Ted Goia (Twitter: @tedgoia)

Filed under: American literature, book news, literature, Melville, publishers

Stairway to Heaven: A Major Seattle Symphony Premiere

Pascal Dusapin; photo by Bénédicte Tondeur

Pascal Dusapin; photo by Bénédicte Tondeur

It says a lot for Maestro Ludovic Morlot’s growing clout in the international music world that he secured the U.S. premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s violin concerto for the Seattle Symphony. That event took place on last night’s concert. Quick tip: the program will be give two more times – today, Friday, at noon and Saturday at 8 pm – and it showcases some of the finest, most stimulating, and downright beautiful music-making Morlot and the orchestra have accomplished together. You’ll kick yourself if you miss it.

So what’s the big deal about Pascal Dusapin and his violin concerto? He’s arguably the most significant French composer of the first post-war, post-Boulez generation, and his omnivorous curiosity has encouraged a refreshingly unpredictable and fascinating range of projects – and a free-spirited avant-gardism (which was emphasized, to ironic effect, in a recent, oh-so-French contretemps involving aesthetics).

Reputations are one thing, too easily hyped, but Dusapin’s music is genuinely riveting, original without straining to be so, challenging in a way that rewards close listening. And his new violin concerto strikes me as a major work and new addition to the repertoire – and possibly a milestone in Dusapin’s career. Titled Aufgang (German for “ascent” as well as the more concrete “staircase”), it had its world premiere earlier this year by the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. This is the composer’s first concerto for the instrument and was written for Renaud Capuçon, though reviving sketches for a violin concerto Dusapin had previously begun but set aside.

Renaud Capuçon; photo by Darmigny

Renaud Capuçon; photo by Darmigny

Capuçon proved himself a passionately committed advocate for the work, which starts off red-hot with outrageously difficult demands – and soon reveals such virtuosity not as grandstanding but an integral component of Dusapin’s almost expressionistic intensity. Aufgang is built around a metaphor of the soloist as a visionary, a seeker who attempts to guide the (very large) orchestra toward enlightenment. Against a dramatically changing scenario of resistance, in which the violin becomes “trapped” and experiences a kind of panic, it eventually steers the others “to the heavens and the light” (Dusapin).

Conjuring luxuriant sounds from his Guarneri del Gesù from 1737 – which in a sense makes a “homecoming,” having been acquired from local collector David Fulton’s prize array of strings – Capuçon understands the powerful vocal impulse of Dusapin’s writing. He persuasively inhabits the role assigned to him, with its strategic exaggerations of register at both ends.

There’s plenty of drama, with a first movement that outlines the attempted ascent. The orchestra stirs to action, like water coming to a boil. The middle movement features an arresting passage for solo flute – beautifully played by Melanie Lançon – that hints at shakuhachi improvisation, while Dusapin’s interest in jazz emerges in the finale. A signature technical challenge of the piece has the violinist strain into the instrument’s absolute stratospheric upper limit: Capuçon made it suggest an otherworldy yearning.

There’s also much to attract the ear (and eye) in Dusapin’s clustering of colors and sonic illusionism. He occasionally plays a decoy game whereby the violin seems to be emitting pitches actually produced elsewhere, as by bowed crotales. Morlot’s thorough rehearsal paid off by balancing such countless expressive details against a bird’s-eye view of the whole concerto.

Aufgang is a dense score that invites multiple hearings to unpack its richness, but that doesn’t prevent it from engaging a listener encountering it for the first time – especially in a performance this compelling. It also makes me all the more eager to hear Morlot’s engagement at his other big gig – the opera company La Monnaie in Brussels – to premiere Dusapin’s new opera on Kleist’s Penthesilea, to be unveiled in 2015.

High school students attending SSO rehearsal for this week's program

High school students attending SSO rehearsal for this week’s program

Morlot opened the program with the SSO’s first-ever (how can that be?!) rendition of Tapiola, that enigmatic capstone to Sibelius’s career. He brings a very personalized touch to his Sibelius, by way of Debussy: accents and splashes of harmonic layering that somehow recall the seascapes of Debussy within Sibelius’s icy, elemental immensities.

The concert’s second half was given over to the Sixth Symphony of Beethoven – and this account by itself should command attention from anyone interested in where Morlot’s collaboration with the SSO is heading. I’ve had mixed reactions to their Beethoven together to date – an incisive, fresh Eroica back in the first season, and a disappointingly featureless Ninth last year – but felt completely rejuvenated after this marvelous take on the Pastoral.

Morlot and the players discovered a new specific gravity for this score, treating it essentially as chamber music, but without the sometimes-fussy attitude of the authentic performance movement. Instead, the entire symphony flowed onward as unselfconsciously as the brook Beethoven evokes in the second movement (which, come to think of it, resembled Morlot’s approach to the sublime Adagio of the Ninth last year, also in the same key of B-flat).

Tastes that prefer old-fashioned Beethoven playing may disagree, and purists will complain of some of the liberties taken, but Morlot’s emphasis on the Edenic rapture of the entire Pastoral – not just the brook scene – kept the audience spellbound, as did the deliciously characterful contributions by all of the woodwinds in particular. I’ve seldom heard the SSO strings as whole blend so transparently and effortlessly. The storm of the fourth movement for once seemed about more than “effects,” with fierce, electrifying tremolos.

In pointed contrast to the momentum governing the performance overall, Morlot decelerated the finale’s last minutes, as if to underline a reluctance to take leave of Beethoven’s blissful landscape, leaving it etched in memory.

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Beethoven, composers, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

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