Monday, September 25, 2006

Worth a thought

A.C. Douglas reposts "Elegy," his take on the triumph of Regietheater at the Bayreuther Festspiele. Frankly, after Dorst's colossal error in dramatic judgment, I am altogether inclined to turn the Bayreuth clock back to the last Festspiele that Wagner personally oversaw. Update it so it's safe and technically modern, and stop there. Try that for two Ring cycles (what is that, eight years? Or something like that) and see how that works. Then get back to me.

Here's a fun snippet.

First came the disastrous and idiot Marxist Tannhäuser of East German avant-gardist Götz Friedrich in 1972 that so distorted Wagner's original that were it not being presented at the Festspielehaus with Wagner's music, and with copious program notes in the house's program book, the opera would have been impossible to comprehend, not to speak of impossible to recognize as Wagner's creation. But the real watershed moment in the Festspiele's permanent descent into the malodorous mire of Regietheater came with Wolfgang's engagement of the Wagner-ignorant, avant-garde Frenchman, Patrice Chéreau, whose visually arresting, Shavian-socialist Konzept of the Ring set the work in late-19th-, early-20th-century industrial England and America, with Wotan and the gods as exploitative capitalist captains of industry, Alberich and the Nibelungs as a put-upon and exploited proletariat, and the Rheintöchter as beguiling street tarts. That imbecile production opened the floodgates to all manner of postmodern idiocies in the realization of Wagner's stageworks, and since then the productions of the Bayreuther Festspiele have been among the most grotesque — often the most grotesque — of the manifold Konzept productions of Wagner's great stageworks worldwide.

Now, then. That's not to say that I wouldn't go to Bayreuth for a Regietheater production, provided the conductor were competent, but I'd enjoy it more if it were kept in line with Richard's notions of it all.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Paying the piper...or not.

Alex Ross explores the weird world of conductor salaries in this brief article.

Do I care that James Levine and Lorin Maazel make that much money? Not really. I've never had much use for Mr. Maazel, except for a splendid Bruckner 8th done in Berlin, so I am not altogether positive about his salary. However, James Levine could make a creditable case for being the greatest American conductor since Leonard Bernstein. No one, hindsight being what it is, would gripe about Lenny's salary.

I'm not yet some fanatic stylite, sitting on a pillar, waiting for the snap of the seventh seal, so I am somewhat familiar with the world around me. That is to say that I know what various people make, roughly, in various professions. For all the work, travel, research, and general crap that conductors do, they're not overpaid.

James Levine makes, what?, three and some change a year. How does that much money in a city like New York or Boston relate to a salary in a city like Bloomington, IN? Cost of living, especially in major metropolitan areas, needs to be considered. The Peyton Manning thing is apropos here. I know how much it costs to live in Indianapolis, IN. Even in the affluent north and northwest suburbs, where many Colts players live, the cost of living doesn't require two or three million a year.

More like five or six hundred thousand. Big cities need big paychecks. And big results.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Come now.

Francesca Zambello famously stated that operas should be cut to last an hour. Schlingenseif, if given the chance, would probably do the same (considering his "dramatic vision", he might as well). There is a reason why the composer sends a finished manuscript to the printers, namely, because the manuscript is finished. While the composer himself can go back and tinker with it if he wants (Wagner and Bruckner both did), the idea of having someone not connected with the composer "finish" or "add" something to the work is nonsense. There are notable examples of this (Mozart's Requiem, Mahler's 10th, and now Holst), that succeed (or fail) to varying degrees. But can't we agree that the composer is king as far as his own work goes? Anything else is a farce, or worse, a debasement.

Terry, of the Contrapuntal, thunders forth this pronouncement. For the record, Frau Mahler approved of Deryck Cooke's performing version, though he never called it a completion, only an orchestration of Mahler's finished four-stave sketch. Frau Mozart asked our buddy Franz to finish K.V. 626. There is a history of completions or performing versions, otherwise approved by those who knew the composer best. Or at least went to bed with him.

Also, Herr Schlingensief would never cut an opera to an hour. To do so would deprive the audience of his "brilliance." If anything, he'd strap the audience in the stalls and run through the performance again, shouting after every dramatic turn, as a perverse apres coup: "Did you get it? Huh? Huh? Did'ya?"

Woods responds

Kenneth Woods responded to my "pseudo-rebuttal." Read it here if you want the whole thing.

The quote below really does sum up my issue, if it is that much of an issue, with Mr. Woods' argument:

Certainly studying scpres is what makes conductors better at what we do, but studying the scores of one of the great conductors is doubly illuminating. Established conductors will often loan their own copy of a given work to a younger colleague-studying another conductor’s analysis and markings is very helpful. Studying Mahler’s music not only can make a conductor a better musician, it makes you a better conductor, because you’re not just learning the symphony by Mahler the composer, you’re looking at the performing notes of Mahler the conductor. I’m not assigning papal infalibility to Mahler or Ravel, there’s always a harmonic or a bowing in any score that doesn’t work as notated. It’s not that they knew everything that could be known about the orchestra, just that they knew more than anyone else.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't see Mahler's scores as general advice. His symphonies are far too unique and too idiosyncratic to yield many helpful hints across the spectrum. Mahler was assuredly a great conductor, perhaps the greatest of his generation, but knowing what I do about Mahler, I doubt he'd conduct Wagner or Beethoven the same way he'd conduct his own 6th or 8th.

I would agree that Mahler's scores and revisions are tools for understanding Mahler, but so is any contemporary account (e.g., "Remembering Mahler"). My point is that one should exercise extreme caution before taking too much general knowledge away from Mahler's work. There is far too much Mahler in Mahler to find him a co-equal partner or benevolent teacher. If you've done that, and reckoned with Mahler, then go for it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Another take on Heppner

ClassicsToday weighs in on the recent Ben Heppner Wagner recital disc.

They're wrong. I think I covered this disc, saying that Heppner was underpowered and Schneider was reined in. Apparently, everything I didn't like about this disc was enough for my colleagues (I suppose) over at CT.

I know Ben Heppner is the Anointed One of Wagnerian tenors, but Domingo's Parsifal (recorded live, no - as best as I can tell - studio trickery here) tells me that he might have to wait. I broke out my Melchior discs, which - for the most part - cover the same stuff. The difference was night and day. Let me explain, by way of an analogy that is long-winded and overly complicated. Everything great about TPW.

There is a Mexican restaurant that I like here where I go to school. I go, mostly, to load up on tortilla chips and cheese dip, but I get the steak as an entree. It's OK. A bit light and usually a bit over-done for my tastes. Then, on occasion, I'll go to either the Beef House in Covington or St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis. Those steaks are filling, perfect, and weighty. Heppner is the Mexican steak: OK, but I listen to fill up on sweet tone. Melchior is St. Elmo: perfect, filling, and the sort of Heldentenor that makes me profoundly happy. I'd also count James King in the same category (have you heard his "Nur eine Waffe taugt"?)

The dark, baritonal quality of Melchior (and King) makes him a Heldentenor. Anyone else is just a lyric on 'roids. Wagner, likely, and some say he wanted a bel canto tenor, would agree. There is something about his music - i.e., everything - that calls for a real man to sing in a real voice. Otherwise, you might as well have Andreas Scholl sing Siegfried.

That was a joke.

Friday, September 08, 2006

"It's our tradition to control"

Kenneth Woods writes,

Read by a sympathetic conductor, however, Mahler’s myriad instructions cease to be seen as marching orders, and instead, come across as the most lovingly thought out conducting lesson imaginable. In fact, in spite of his complexity and scope, I find his scores the easiest to study. It is as if he’s given you his score to look at, full of little notes- “please Ken, could you be sure not to drag here,” “be careful with the balance- though the violins are forte, the cellos and basses should only be piano so we can here the solo bassoon entrance,” “let this chord die away in the brass,” or “this is the climax, Ken. That is why I’ve brought 8 extra brass players on stage.”

I don't know if I take such a collegial view of Gustav Mahler, devoted to him though I am. His ego is legendary; while his "my time will come" nonsense isn't as prophetic as many would like it to be, he certainly made many more, equally egocentric, pronouncements. He was also a bit of a dictator on the podium, so one senses that he both wanted to correct for possible errors, but also to ensure that he was in control. At all times.

I suppose that this is where my Mahler-view comes into focus. I don't see him as an extension of Goethe's Werther, well, as an extension of the popular conception of the youngin', not Goethe's original cautionary tale. I see him as a thoroughly modern, thoroughly controlling genius. His symphonies are, if you accept his often-withdrawn programs, monomaniacal in their pursuit of his Konzept - none more so than the 3rd. Let's not hasten to make Mahler nice all of a sudden. He knew how smart he was, and he wasn't shy about it. Mahler's scores, even more than Wagner's, are triumphs of his ego and his genius. He wasn't being nice, he was being Mahler.

Mahler might have written conducting masterclasses into his scores, but don't confuse general conducting advice for "here's how to conduct my works so they sound like I wanted."

Double bonus points if you can identify, as precisely as possible, the source for the title.

Long time no see

As some, though likely not all, of you might know, I am a student. Classes resumed with all of Wotan's fury over his favorite daughter's indiscretion, so I have been very busy. However, I have not been ignoring that which is the reason for the, the blog.

More to the point, I have been learning to appreciate Wagner's most troublesome music-drama: Siegfried. Wiser minds than my own have dealt with the dramatic flaw in Der Ring des Nibelungen, and - to my mind - that flaw becomes obvious with Siegfried. After creating a tragic hero who can (and, more to the point, should) stand with the great creations of the Greek dramatists in Wotan, Wagner introduces the somewhat more-archetypal hero, Siegfried. That's fine, I suppose, but Siegfried comes off like an idiot compared to Wotan. The composer's refusal to fix the problem puts the rest of the Tetralogy in jeopardy, but Wagner manages to save it - to a greater or lesser degree.

That's not to say that Siegfried isn't great. Of the four music-dramas, that one has the most convincing blend of drama and music. The orchestration for Siegfried, to my mind, is topped only by Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde. That's open to debate, of course, but Wagner's genius was rarely more obvious than throughout Siegfried. The sound-world he creates is unremittingly dark and gritty, and then it resolves into one of the most ecstatic moments he ever wrote. The drama also works somewhat better than the conclusion to the cycle. There will always be some cognitive dissonance, but less so than elsewhere.

My recordings of choice are Keilberth's revelatory 1955 set from Bayreuth and Barenboim's 1992 record from the same venue. Keilberth, in particular, being such a no-frills echt-Wagnerian, has really opened up the score for me. That, if you cared, is what I've been worrying myself over - so to speak.