Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dudley, More!

Last month, when Dudley Moore's brilliant Britten/Pears parody from Beyond the Fringe was all the rage, I spent some happy hours revisiting the classic Dud 'n' Pete routines, but there seemed to be no more musical riches available. That's changed, thanks again to poster giebergoldfarb. Here's Moore doing Weill and Beethoven. Priceless!

Update: Alas, as Richard Friedman notes in comments, the party's over. The offending videos have been safely removed from the public arena. Oh, but didn't we have fun while it lasted?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

No, Not Exactly

Alex Ross takes heart, or something, from the fact that tenor Lawrence Brownlee got the idea of being an opera singer from the Three Tenors. I think he's missing the point. It's not that I object to drawing conclusions, even fuzzy ones, from a single data point; lacking sophisticated polling mechanisms, the most anecdotal evidence will do just fine for us thumb-suckers. It's that he's mixed up supply and demand.

No one has ever made any claims about the influence of the Three Tenors on the development of opera singers (indeed, I don't think anyone but Tony Tommasini is particularly concerned about that aspect of the operatic economy). The question is how to develop the audiences for opera, and whether Plácido and the boys have helped that process in any way. I don't see any reason to think they have, although we could always argue it over a few more times. But either way, Lawrence Brownlee's story doesn't add anything to that debate.

Another Memorable First

A few months after moving to California, I looked out my window one sunny morning to find a hummingbird hovering magically in midair, its bill thrust deep into a flower. At that moment I learned something I hadn't known, which is that I had never in my life seen a hummingbird before. I knew perfectly well what they were, so it had never occurred to me to wonder whether I'd ever actually encountered one in the flesh; but as soon as I did I knew I could never have forgotten the experience. The same thing happened a few years later when I first read Oedipus Rex — not feeling sure whether I had ever done so before, then quickly learning that I hadn't.

Now it's happened again, with a twist. Before Friday's performance of Jake Heggie's new chamber opera To Hell and Back, I could not have told you with any certainty whether I'd ever heard Patti LuPone perform. I don't pay much attention to the whole Broadway scene — not even the "no-man-trust-me-it's-actually-an-opera" arena inhabited by Sweeney Todd and its ilk — so the odds were against it. Still, LuPone comes around here pretty regularly, and it wasn't out of the question that I could have encountered her in something or other that had then slipped my mind.

Not a chance. LuPone's performance on Friday was such a ghastly, slovenly, unspeakable mess that any prior acquaintance would have been branded into my consciousness forever. Once bitten, twice running very very fast in the opposite direction.

Because here's what they don't tell you about Patti LuPone: She can't sing. I don't mean she can't sing well, or attractively, or with nuance or interpretive alertness. I mean she can no more reproduce a given musical pitch than she can leap to the roof of the War Memorial Opera House, or pass a foot-long hot dog in one ear and out the other.

Heggie, God bless him, gave her a couple of tinny little Broadway numbers to tackle solo, and she delivered them credibly, if tunelessly, through her cranked-up microphone. But much of the rest of the piece involved her singing in tandem with an actual opera singer, the magnificent Isabel Bayrakdarian, and the results were unspeakable. You haven't winced until you've heard two vocalists — one who knows how to sing and one who doesn't — try to sing straightforward tonal harmonies together. Simple probability suggests that a handful of LuPone's notes must have been more or less in tune, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you which.

Sometimes a singer with less than impeccable technique will probe around a little before finding a note, but LuPone has a method that I've never heard before. She begins her search for a particular pitch in the right general vicinity; then she roams around aimlessly for a while, hoping to get closer; and finally, after a few unsuccessful stabs, she throws up her hands and settles on a wrong pitch — generally flat — and says, aah, the hell with it. And even then the horror isn't over, because if there's any time left on that note, she can't hold it — many a flat note got even flatter as LuPone lost interest in it.

Is this really the state of the art on the Great White Way? Can't be. The mind reels.

Friday, November 03, 2006

This Magic Moment (one in a series)

Mahler, Symphony No. 4, first movement, mm. 340-341

There's a wonderful jest here that I'd never thought too much about until last night, when Michael Tilson Thomas played it up with a vaudevillean's mastery of timing. This juncture comes less than a dozen measures before the end of the movement, and there's no question in the mind of even a first-time listener that the movement has completely run its course. So what's with the slow lead-in, yet again, to the main theme? Are we really going to go through the whole thing one more time?

The false reprise is an old joke — a little like some time-honored vaudeville routine, in fact — that was a particular favorite of Beethoven, based on various ideas of Haydn. You feign a return to a theme that you should be through with, then suddenly yell "Gotcha!" and bring the music to a sudden halt; the classic cases include the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony and the finale of the Violin Concerto. It only works if you can assume listeners have some familiarity with the formal conventions and can spot when you're doing something odd, like bringing back a theme one too many times.

Mahler doesn't quite have that assurance at his disposal — his formal practice is too idiosyncratic — but he has something amost as good. He has audiences who know their Beethoven. And the slooooow rise from D to E to F-sharp with a fermata, all of it Sehr zurückhaltend, is there to give us time to remember the old joke we've known from our cradle. It's an exquisitely knowing tease — will he? won't he? — and with hindsight the main theme suddenly seems to have been reverse-engineered for just this moment.

But Mahler also relocates the punch line in a clever, and oddly sweet-tempered, way. When Beethoven pulls this joke, he'll start a theme verbatim, then stop abruptly; and although it's funny, there's an implied reproach to the listener for being so easily taken in. Mahler gives the listener credit for not being so gullible. He knows that the three rising notes in m. 340 are his only chance to play with our expectations; when the C-major harmony hits at the beginning of m. 341 the game is up, and there's a lovely, warm moment of complicity.