Saturday, February 8, 2014

A modernist look for Peter Grimes

Operas are servants of two masters: the plot and the music. That is, the plot often belongs to one period and the music comes from another. Where the two can cross purposes is in the visual design: if the plot is Renaissance, say (think Gianni Schicchi, Don Carlo, or Rigoletto) but the music is opera-house Italian, someone has to make a choice about what kind of costumes or set we are going to see -- doublets or frock-coats? or maybe T-shirts?

Renaissance costume: Don Carlo, Met 2010
19th-century costumes: Glyndebourne, 2004

T-shirts, etc: Bavarian State Opera, 2012
It gets particularly problematic when an opera depends on an essentially realistic source story. So with Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, based on a gritty, naturalist story (albeit written by a poet, George Crabbe, in the Romantic period, whom Byron called "nature's sternest painter"): a gloomy man eking out a subsistence living as a fisherman on the Suffolk coast, whose depression lashes out in violence on his apprentice boys, abusing and eventually killing them in fits of anger. He's driven to these fits in part by his own depressive personality, and in part by the prying, gossiping, judgmental provincial town he lives in (Britten and Crabbe's home town of Aldeburgh).

San Franciso Opera 1976
This is material that in many ways depends on its location in time and place. The obvious choice, then, is to set the opera in early 19th-century coastal England.
But there's Britten's amazingly modernist music to take into account. It's edgy, abrupt, bitterly ironic. Having Britten in the pit seems to demand something other than realism: not Zola but Auden (or even Ted Hughes?) would be the literary equivalent. 

The current Grimes at the English National Opera takes Britten's modernism as the cue for an amazing set, as angular and occasionally nasty as the score. Walls that tilt sharply; tables that are thrust up at horrible angles, on which the singers have to balance; sharp, eerie shadows cast by characters, as if their souls were lurking on the back wall of the set; a bilious and claustrophic lighting, out of Hopper's Night Cafe.



The only video I can find of the production is the ENO trailer, clearly a promotional collage. But its snippets capture some of the asymmetrical, jagged energy of this remarkable modernist production:



The great success of this tragic opera is that it takes this nasty tale about a terrible man and makes it beautiful; even Peter Grimes himself, like Macbeth, shows a soul of beauty. Here, to end with, is Stuart Skelton, who sings Grimes at the ENO (though he was sick the night I heard it, and his understudy did a great job), singing the amazing first-act aria, "The Great Bear."

The text:
Now the great Bear and Pleiades
where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds
of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher
In storm or starlight
The written character
of a friendly fate –
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope's
bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil
of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again? 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Canterbury sounds

Canterbury Cathedral is not only dazzling complex and beautiful to the eye -- the long reach of the nave, the high Gothic arches with their leaping secondary columns, the light pouring in the nave in the intervals of low winter sunshine -- but also to the ear.

The impact of sound, music really, in this cathedral makes me realize that those builders had it in their minds to create acoustic spaces that would thrill and exalt.

In the picture, you can see a big group of people -- well, colorful dots in the picture -- at the end of the nave. They are just in front of the point where the level of the floor abruptly rises some 16 or 20 feet to the level of the quire. (Further to the east, to add to the topographical complexity, the floor rises again to the high altar, and then again to the shrine of St. Thomas -- Becket, that is).

We heard the dress rehearsal of Messiah with the Canterbury Chorus (a town group, quite good) and the London Handel orchestra, on period instruments. It isn't music designed for this space, and so at times the fugues got muddy, swirling around at random in the vast and intricately reflective spaces.

But parts of it were stunning: particularly the countertenor, Robin Blaze -- who found perfectly the resonance of the space. Here's his performance of "But who may abide" with Tafelmusik...


We did not come back for the concert that evening, beautiful as this rehearsal was. We did, though, stay for evensong, and that was startlingly different. To begin with, the group was much smaller -- a choir of 16 -- and sang, not in the nave, but in the "quire" -- a much narrower, more intimate space, the wooden seats where the monks used to chant eight times a day.

By Vespers, the sun had set, and the nave was in darkness. And then, it was different, too, in that the skies had not only gone dark, but a storm had blown in with thunder, lightning, and hail beating on the roof and the vast, dark windows.

And then, different in that this was liturgical music, service music, sung as part of a meditative event, what we would call worship if we were "churched."

Messiah is Christian in origin and ideology, and sacred in intent, but is not worshipful: educational, theatrical, virtuosic, it is Enlightenment concert-music. The service music of the evensong Vespers is, by contrast, deliberately worshipful, contemplative of what it might mean to be in the presence of God: the Magnificat (Mary amazed by what has happened to her in becoming pregnant with God); and the song (Nunc dimittis) of Simeon, the old priest who sees the child Jesus in the temple and can finally let go his own hold on this life. Even the anthem was contemplative, Vaughan Williams' beautiful and simple setting of George Herbert's poem "Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life."


And again, a difference: while for some 1500 years, all the liturgical music in Canterbury Cathedral has been sung by men (yes, all-- at least as far as I can tell), this Vespers was sung by 16 girls. The cathedral staff seemed delighted that this was happening, finally. I gather the church has to be careful not to offend more conservative parts of the Anglican communion, but this church itself had initiated this change, trained the girls, and welcomed them warmly.

And the acoustic space of Canterbury's quire accepted the sound, as well: the psalms and the other service music resonated quite as richly as the boys' sound would have.


As we walked around the cathedral earlier that day, we heard the church's sound in yet another way: the bells. It was a peal of 8 bells, first at a slowish tempo, and then in what seemed to us a fiercely demanding allegro. Imagine pulling those ropes at just the right time to get your bell in rhythm with seven others!

I made a recording of about two minutes of this exhilarating peal, the sounds pouring out of the cathedral tower into the open air and across the old town.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

London as fabric

Walking around the streets of London is a time "warp" in more than the Star Trek meaning (is that the source?): it is as if the streets are warp and weft of a colorful fabric, maybe a batik, that wonderful Indonesian cloth where the threads are laid down, painted or dyed, and then rewoven (I think).

Townhouses (early 19th century?) on Harley Street
What I mean about the fabric is that just as the streets weave in and out of each other, blending, mysteriously changing name and direction, so does the history that each one indicates. Here where we live, north of Oxford Street, it's the late nineteenth-century, the time of the radical writers Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes, and of University College London with its non-denominational, radically practical and empirical education.

But go a bit south (we just walked this, home from dinner), and we're in the eighteenth-century: Leicester Square and Covent Garden, the operas, the late night stage parties, toffs in sedan-chairs and actresses in ... well...

Go east to the city, and the world of Christopher Wren and the seventeenth-century is what you find: St. Paul's, and all the other churches with their intricate spires.

Go west to Westminster, and you're in the middle ages: an abbey, after all! and that wonderful pseudo-medieval Parliament building with its impossibly cranky offices, a place you can hardly imagine any work getting done.

But back to the weaving: although these sound like separate sections as I describe them, but in all of them, a bit of each of them can be found. It's in the texture: an ancient watering fountain by a Georgian house; the home of a radical philosopher by a church with an Anglo-Saxon foundation.

The London eye, the Houses of Parliament, and a northern sunset.

And of course, all around are the often desperately grandiose buildings of the late twentieth-century, sometimes like blots of ketchup on this delicately patterned batik! At least the London Eye is graceful!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Brahms and the still, small voice

Last week I heard the Cleveland Orchestra perform an all-Brahms evening -- the Academic Festival Overture (some thought it was jovial; I found its cheeriness pretty forced); the great 4th symphony (formally structured, massive, earnest, and astonishing); and the violin concerto, with German violinist Julia Fischer.






I think I first heard the concerto (at least, I first really listened to it) when I was home from college and heard the Cleveland Philharmonic, a semi-professional orchestra in which my uncle Frank Griesinger played clarinet, with a distinguished Cleveland surgeon, Dr. Jerome Gross, playing the solo.

Gross was a great amateur, an amateur who could really play. He owned a Stradivarius (which he kindly let me play once), and played chamber music with George Szell. As I remember it, it was a pretty good rendition, probably as good as in Brahms's time, though we've raised the bar since then.



Then, and now, the part that got me was right after the cadenza in the first movement. A cadenza in the late Romantic, of course, has to be agitated, virtuosic, dazzling. And it is in Brahms, whichever version of the cadenza anyone plays (there are many versions). Certainly it was, when Julia Fischer played it. Fast notes in triple and duple and quadruple and sextuples; the whole range of the fiddle; double stops and even little fugues; all from one little instrument. How could it all come from those four strings, I think? Amazing: playing on the edge of technique the whole way through.

And then the orchestra comes back in, and Brahms does the most amazing thing. Bravado yields to utter calm. The orchestra, barely a presence, supports the violinist as she plays the most sublime, high, quiet passage. It's just the very simple theme that starts the movement, as simple as a melody can get, just notes from the D major triad. D, then up to the F sharp, back to the D, past a little off-note, the B, down the triad to A and F sharp, exactly what you'd write if you didn't really feel confident modulating out of the home key.
What you see in this excerpt from the string parts in the score is the solo violin on the top line, and the other strings below it. (I've left out the winds). The second measure is the cadenza -- totally empty, an emptiness that the soloist needs to fill up with all her tricks.  All Brahms writes in is that little trill that ends the cadenza.

Then come those very high, simple, D major triad notes of the theme in the solo violin. No tricks at all. The orchestra (the string parts are below the solo violin in this example) are to play pianissimo, super-quiet. Yes, they do some interesting things (those sharps indicate that they're not really sticking to the D major triad), but mostly we listen to the soloist's simplicity.

Quiet, nothing new, nothing flashy (though, come to think of it, way up there on the fingerboard and not so easy to keep in tune -- and woe betide you if you let it get out of tune, for everyone would notice!).

Here's Julia Fischer playing the cadenza and the magical part that follows it (on YouTube, with Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting the NDR Symphony Orchestra). The transition from the cadenza to the passage I'm talking about occurs at about 4:35 in this excerpt -- but listen to the whole thing if you have time.

As T. S. Eliot writes in a mystical vein, it might be the axis of eternity, "the still point of the turning world." Or as Wordsworth writes, also feeling the mystery of quietude, it's a point at which "we see into the life of things." A moment of great change, but change without the fanfare that sometimes we insist upon.