Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Runnicles in the Park

One thing that I unfortunately didn't have room to include in today's exit interview with Donald Runnicles was his stated fondness for the company's Opera in the Park concert. For those not familiar with this institution, it's a free annual event that takes place outdoors in Golden Gate Park, on the Sunday afternoon following the opera or operas of the opening weekend. Basically, whichever singers are in town for the first two or three productions of the season offer a mixed lineup of arias, duets and ensembles, massively amplified, while people picnic on the grass and the sun beats down and the breezes threaten to blow the music off of the players' stands.

I probably shouldn't say this, since my employer is the event's main sponsor, but Opera in the Park has never done much for me. I appreciate it in theory — sunshine, fresh air, picnic baskets, music — but for anyone with a strong connection to the art form, it's so completely not the way you want to hear opera. And I would have bet any amount of money that the artists, more than anyone, would regard this as just one of those onerous obligations that come with the job.

So imagine my surprise when Runnicles said this:

A highlight for me, year in and year out, was the park concert. In the first years, I took so much trouble with the lineup, planning what to put in and how. And then over the years — I won't say we winged it but it took less and less work. I loved that concert. What a unique event! If there are 50 people hearing their first Winterstürme or Turandot, you may have sown a seed.

I don't know when I've felt so small or cynical.

Dresdenszenen II: One of These Things...

On the facade of the Kunstakademie, the Germans make a game stab at establishing their national bona fides in the field of the visual arts. Can you guess which of these is not like the others?

(Sorry that I couldn't quite squeeze the whole thing into the frame without falling into the Elbe or reading the manual of my digital camera. Still, you can probably figure out the truncated name on the right. Click to enlarge.)

Notes from Abroad (2)

One of the things the cellist Jan Vogler is trying to do as the new head of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele is to expand the range of performers who show up on the schedule. So on Tuesday night in the Frauenkirche — the large and beautiful church in the city center, destroyed by bombs in 1945 and painstakingly rebuilt in the subsequent decades — Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic performed music of Sibelius and Shostakovich. The VPO tours far and wide, but this was the orchestra's first appearance in Dresden in 12 years and the locals were in a state of high anticipation.

My God, it was magnificent. There's no way to listen to the VPO without feeling some tinge of moral unease at that unbroken sea of white male faces (some of my fellow critics amused themselves during the applause by scanning for the two or three women that are now scattered among the orchestra's ranks). But it's just as hard to resist the magical sound of this orchestra — the warm, fluid string textures, or the glowing, utterly distinctive brass.

And Gergiev was in top form (not always a sure bet with this notoriously uneven artist). The Sibelius First was full of dark splendor, its rhetoric forceful but unconstrained. After intermission came "The Firebird," in a rendition that mixed dramatic urgency (the opening low string passages pushed forward like some kind of techno rhythm track) with vivid pictorialism. Even the weather was in on the game — the whole performance was punctuated by lightning bolts flashing through the upper windows of the church. Sounds corny, but when the last one came exactly in time with the downbeat for a big orchestral chord, it sure seemed like something unusual was going on.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dresdenszenen I: Time's Wingless Chariot

Most of us occasionally find it hard to keep from looking at our watches as a less than scintillating performance drags its way through its prescribed course. What does one do on an off night at the Semperoper, where the slow progress of the evening is tauntingly marked right there above the stage, five cruel minutes at a time?

Notes from Abroad (1)

I had to come to Dresden to get a line on the much-ballyhooed young British conductor Daniel Harding. Well, somewhat ballyhooed — the torrents of extravagant praise that have been heaped on him (mostly among his fellow countrymen) have been followed more recently by the revisionism and bewilderment that so often come in the wake of such an introduction. There seem to be only two categories among people who've heard him conduct — those who think he's the Second Coming and those who can't imagine what the fuss is about.

Based on Harding's mediocre performance Sunday night with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus, I'm going to claim membership, at least tentatively, in the latter camp. In Brahms' "Haydn" Variations, Harding managed to be fussy and sloppy all at once — conducting the life out of every note and phrase without bringing any kind of discipline or direction to the music. (The red-faced gentleman seated in front of me in the Kreuzkirche turned to his neighbor when it was over and proclaimed in a stage whisper, with the kind of outrage that only cultured Germans can truly muster in these situations, "That was a joke!") The rest of the program, including Schumann's Nachtlied and Schubert's Mass No. 6 — which Michael Tilson Thomas, coincidentally, will conduct June 10-13 in Davies Symphony Hall — skated by on the strength of the chorus, a truly first-rate ensemble. Aside from a couple of deft touches scattered throughout the Schubert, Harding's role was largely to get in the way.

I'm not in Dresden, of course, to scout conductors (for that matter, Harding was actually a last-minute substitute for Nikolaus Harnoncourt). The city's tourism office brought a passel of music critics over to take in a bit of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, the intensive 2½-week festival that fills the various churches and concert halls of this neo-Baroque/Cold War/21st century city. This is the festival's first season under the artistic leadership of Jan Vogler, the genial and energetic young cellist who's busy planning seasons ahead that build on the festival's traditions while taking it in new directions.

This year's title and theme is "The New World," and the schedule is replete with nods toward the Americas among the expected Teutonic faves. Saturday night, before I got here, Gustavo Dudamel led the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Semperoper in a program that included Carlos Chávez's Symphony No. 2, the "Symphony India"; on Monday, the New York organist Gail Archer provided the unusual chance to hear the music of Barber and Persichetti played on Gottfried Silbermann's majestic 1755 organ (his last) in the Hofkirche. Also, and unrelatedly, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking is on at the Semperoper tonight; also, and totally unrelatedly, the city is semi-agog over next week's visit by Barack Obama.

There's no mistaking the fact that Dresden is a city in transition, still recovering day by day from the twin calamities of the 1945 firebombing and the ensuing decades of Communist rule. The old center of town is split about equally between painstakingly reconstructed historic facades and massive construction sites; this view of the Frauenkirche from just off the Neumarkt is pretty representative.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Remembrance of Things Pastreich

Lisa Hirsch is on something of a tear today about the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's decision to hire former San Francisco Symphony executive director Peter Pastreich as its new manager. She seems to feel that it's a pretty ominous development, which of course is her prerogative — though I might have wished for her to bolster her argument with something other than a tendentious and weirdly selective quote from an old article of mine. 

She also feels that my announcer in this morning's paper glosses over the unhappiest episode of Pastreich's SFS tenure — the bitter nine-week strike that disrupted the orchestra's 1996-97 season — and she may well be right. If something that big happens on your watch, maybe it deserves to get mentioned every time you do something new that puts your face back in the paper. I dunno.

But I have to take issue pretty strenuously with the notion that I'm "ducking" the points raised in the 1997 thumb-sucker, mainly because — well, because Lisa doesn't seem to have quite understood what those points were. That post-mortem pinned the blame for the strike on both parties with almost namby-pamby even-handedness, laying out exactly the ways in which I thought each side was at fault. You have to read the article from way over to one side for the takeaway to be that Pastreich is bad news.

For the benefit of out-of-towners and those coming in late, here's the Cliffs Notes version. Pastreich is a brilliant, far-sighted and deeply experienced orchestra manager, whose leadership was one of the key elements of the Symphony's rise to its current stature and prominence. He's also a hard-driving sumbitch, and no one who's worked for him has ever looked back on the experience and said, "Well, that was fun." There were currents of bad blood between him and some members of the orchestra, and those got worse with time, until the animus exploded in a puerile and wildly unfocused strike, which Pastreich made worse by mishandling it.

I guess you could take the moral of that story to be "Never hire Pastreich again," but that kind of leaves a lot out of the equation, doesn't it? If I'm running an orchestra board, I'm going to see whether I can't get the benefits of his wisdom and leadership while dodging the negatives (either because the situation is different or because Pastreich himself has changed, or both). The Philharmonia board thinks they can do that, and more power to them; personally, I'm going to assume they're right until proven otherwise.

Of course, not every organization has what it takes, as Lisa inadvertently reminds us by pointing us toward this little item (third one down). I'm not sure how much mileage we can get out of an item that consists exclusively of unsourced gossip ("That's no rumor — some guy on the internet said it was true!"). But just for fun, let's stipulate that every word in there is gospel, and review the bidding. 

The Honolulu Symphony — which according to our gospel writer has been "crisis-torn," "rudderless" and "without effective administrative or musical leadership" — brings Pastreich in for a consult. He looks the situation over and tells them they're in deep trouble. He's willing to hang around on an interim basis and help them get their shit together. They say, "No thanks, please go away," and he goes. And he's the jackass in this little yarn? No, I don't think so.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Poignancy of Belatedness

Shortly before his death, Wagner dreams of Schopenhauer, and Cosima records it in her diary:
R. drew Sch.'s attention to a flock of nightingales, but Sch. had already noticed them.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The End of History

A week or two ago, responding to the wonderful NYTBR essay by the great Jim Holt (yeah, I'm a fan) about memorizing poetry, letter-writer Gene H. Bell-Villada remarked that most composers "can cite at length from the entire classical repertoire, from Bach and Handel to Bartók and Stravinsky." Then today, in a reprise interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Booker T. Jones of MG's fame reminisced about his days in the music library of Indiana University "listening to the old masters — everything from Bach to Stravinsky."

I'm struck by this idea that Stravinsky represents the endpoint of the mainstream classical tradition. I have no objection to it whatever — it's probably the name I would come up with myself in a comparable situation (Booker T. left a long, drawling pause after mentioning Bach, long enough for me to lean into the car radio in anticipation and make a little bet with myself that Stravinsky was coming next). And it certainly tallies with the unavoidable sense that Schoenberg and the tradition he represents haven't made it into the consciousness of the general public as a landmark (not that there's anything wrong with that, aside from the whole "supremacy of German music for the next hundred years" metric).

Still, it does raise some intriguing questions. As for example:

• Where exactly, in Stravinsky's long and varied career, do you suppose the line should be drawn? Surely we can stipulate that everything up through Le sacre is counted among the "entire classical repertoire," while, say, Threni and the Requiem Canticles probably aren't. But what about in between? Does the tradition come to an end before or after Oedipus Rex? How about the Symphony in C? Or The Rake's Progress?

• Who was Stravinsky's predecessor as the terminus ante quem of classical music, and when did he move into that spot? This is actually a factual question, which I bet some canny historian of musical sociology knows the answer to. My money's on Debussy, but that's only a guess.

• Finally, who's going to succeed Stravinsky, and when? Not Carter, obviously. To me, the likeliest candidates would seem to be Reich or Adams, but it's still awfully early for them to take on the old-master mantle to this degree. Is the "Bach-to-Stravinsky" paradigm really going to be with us for decades to come?