Old First Concerts

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Rebecca Liao

As their name would suggest, there is something very old school about the Old First Concerts. Set in the Old First Church in San Francisco, they boast an intimate, august, old-world setting with no bad seats and acoustics fond of hinting at the place’s celestial connections. A favorite venue for classical chamber music and recitals, the church has also hosted jazz, avant-garde, blues, folk, and multicultural performances. The San Francisco Guitar Quartet (David Dueñas, Jon Mendle, Patrick O’ Connell, and Mark Simmons)’s concert on November 20 will feature music that fits squarely within these types, but its musical contribution as a whole cannot be so easily encapsulated.

In the course of discovering how to create different layers of color and timbre, chamber groups comprised of a single class of instruments become a natural vehicle for exploring the timbral qualities of those instruments. The practice is centuries-old, but in the context of a chamber performance given in a post-tonal serialism age, it becomes particularly significant as a case study for how timbre can be isolated as a musical element and assigned functions just like pitch. Though there is likely no deliberate attempt to create a modern sound, one results nevertheless because the instruments produce musical entities that are at the forefront of modern consciousness. But the SFGQ promises to do more than coax new sounds out of conventional instruments. New member Mr. Mendle’s instrument is an 11-string archguitar that is a combination of 19th century guitar, modern guitar, and Renaissance and Baroque lutes. The archguitar was built right here in San Francisco by Alan Perlman.

Certainly Atanas Ourkouzounov, who composed Objets Futiles, one of the pieces on the program, has an affinity for playing with timbre to create more contemporary and abstract music. However, like his fellow Eastern European Béla Bartók, Ourkouzounov infuses his music with folk characteristics, a romance that many of the serialists and Second Viennese School devotees were quick to turn their back upon. Fortunately, it is impossible to compose away the inherent warmth and storytelling ability of the guitar, and even more so to resist the humanity of a culture that gave the world lo real maravilloso. For this, we have two traditional Latin songs to look forward to: La Partida-Vals Venezolano and La Venenosa-Huayno Peruano, both arranged by Mr. Dueñas; and Cuarteto 5/Chorinho by Chilean composer Javier Farías. The quartet will also play At the Sound of Light by John Anthony Lennon, who is particularly noted for his classical guitar compositions and is a Mill Valley native.

Ultimately, attributing contemporary or traditional leanings to a guitar quartet seems artificial because both are often on display simultaneously. The guitar is such a willfully expressive instrument that in defying classification, it becomes precisely its ideal. Perhaps the dichotomy ought to die on a cue from the venue, and accept that some things are simply eternal.

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.


February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Rebecca Liao

Every night when I closed the bar,

I would get in my car,

And I was driving at the time a 1976 off-brown Gremlin.

But I would get in my car every night and put in the music of Bruce Springsteen,

And everything changed.

And I never again felt like a loser.

When you listen to Bruce’s music, you aren’t a loser.

You are a character in an epic poem


About losers.

–Jon Stewart, former bartender

Anselm Kiefer’s Seven Heavenly Palaces gave birth to Ludivico Einaudi’s latest album Nightbook the way that Stewart claims Bob Dylan and James Brown gave birth to his favorite musician. In 2006, Einaudi performed amongst Kiefer’s mythically imposing towers and subsequently wrote music matching the awareness and transcendence that sitting at the comparatively tiny grand piano inspired. The result may be heard upon any visit to the iTunes store or Amazon.com. Neither can compare to the Palace of Fine Arts, where Einaudi will appear on March 15 as part of The Nightbook Tour. An exploration of the transition between light and dark, a solo piano provides the narration while the background combination of strings, percussion, and electronically-generated sound creates a world that gives that narration plausibility and definition.

Boasting a top-10 spot on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart, Nightbook (and the rest of Einaudi’s music, for that matter), has earned the concerned side-long glance from classical music purists—all the more so because the album hit #1 on the iTunes classical chart. The stubborn ability of the music to place one in a calmer mood puts it dangerously close to New Age, but rest assured. This music will not be playing in spas, yoga class, or any other place where it is better to leave your imagination behind.

From the first note, a narrative begins to build in one’s head. Before long, however, one realizes that this story has no plot or movement. It is merely an enterprise in escape, replete with vague but cunningly potent notions of ideal thought and feeling. The mastery of this effect largely explains Einaudi’s success with soundtracks. He understands how to create music ready-made for a story to be superimposed onto it. Among his credits are the soundtrack for Fuori del mondo, an Italian film nominated for an Oscar in 2002, Luce dei miei occhi, for which he won Best Soundtrack at the 2002 Italian music awards, and the British TV series Doctor Zhivago.

Nightbook does not profess to be a soundtrack; it just quietly makes the listener a character in a tone poem about themselves. It is this ability that allows him to draw in those outside of classical music to become one of the most popular contemporary classical music composers. It is also why those who already love classical music may not be open to his sound—it is a lite incarnation that almost insults their imagination. How much fun is it, though, to escape and always meet the same story? (Oh, and yes, that Jon Stewart.)

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

Berkeley Opening

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Rebecca Liao

Have you heard? Barneys is opening up an additional store in the Mission! The new location is part of the company’s long term strategy to attract more buyers who already have avant-garde, cutting-edge taste. Now, before you get excited and call the Barneys store on O’Farrell St. in SF, I’m only kidding. I’m merely referring to the imprint of the LA Philharmonic on the exciting Berkeley Symphony Orchestra concert coming up December 3. The program for the evening is a mini-reproduction of the Philharmonic’s 2007-08 season, unofficially known as the “Season of Steven Stucky,” featuring the composer’s Radical Light and “Elegy” from August 4, 1964, juxtaposed with Sibelius’ Seventh symphony and a Stravinsky piece (a new take on Les Noces two years ago and the Firebird Suite for this concert). Incidentally, Stucky is currently Consulting Composer for New Music in LA and was the matchmaker responsible for pairing Joana Carneiro, Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony, and Gabriela Lena Frank, the new Creative Advisor.

Since the classical music world is so small, these interconnections are nothing out of the ordinary (there’s another word starting with i and ending with t that could be used, but this is a family publication). Given the timing and this particular cast of characters, though? This concert continues the steady chant begun this season, “Classical music is chic again.” It is young and dynamic, drawn forth with passion that is romantic in its strength and edgy in its similarity to ecstasy-induced highs. Carneiro and her SoCal counterpart, Gustavo Dudamel, are both regularly described as charismatic, energizing visionaries— the subject as well as the instigator of conversations at trendy gatherings. You can practically hear Ellen Degeneres singing into her Kanye West Autotune, “Change you ca-an believe in.”

Looking at Stucky’s accounts of his inspiration and intentions for Radical Light and “Elegy,” however, it is hard to understand why classical music has not always had this status in contemporary culture. Indeed, Stucky employs a breadth of modern references that rivals Marc Jacobs in his most successful collections. Let’s go through them: Lao-Tse and the inadequacy of words; poetry and the ability of art to do more than hold up a mirror; and for “Elegy,” the Gulf of Tonkin, murder of three civil rights activists on August 4, 1964, and John Adams’ affinity for Greek chorus and the dramatization of historic figures. In fact, Adams offers lists like this. Come to think of it, so does every contemporary composer. We have been, overall, good postmodernists.

Critically, however, we have not mastered the concept of high-low, throwing in the H&M pants or the Forever 21 dress. In music, the equivalent would be regularly aiming for visceral reaction or basing the success of a piece on pure alchemy. This is why any good performance of Sibelius’ Seventh is still an event, and even Stravinsky, for that matter. We listen wanting the rare feeling of wonder that something so wrong sounds like fresh genius. It does not happen often enough, but do you hear that chanting?

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

Oakland East Bay Symphony

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Rebecca Liao

From a (fake) leaked production memo regarding the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s “Night at the Opera” Opening Concert on November 13:

World Premieres

OEBS Music Director Michael Morgan wanted to emphasize that even though he has been at the helm for twenty years, his desire to bring the uncharted into classical music is as ardent as ever, so he hired a cast of singers who operate along the same wavelength. Brian Leerhuber, baritone, created the role of Breedley in A Wedding at the Chicago Lyric. The felicitous nature of the title was perhaps dampened by the influence of director Robert Altman, whose portrayal of domestic bliss in Gosford Park led to the unfortunate coincidence that Leerhuber will share the stage with Heidi Moss, soprano, who sang at the premiere of The Grand Seducers. The opera’s ultimate downfall, however, comes in the form of Three Mo’ Divas, in which Hope Briggs, soprano, was a featured soloist.

Mr. Leerhuber faces no such frustration as Robert E. Lee in Philip Glass’ Appomatox, but Zachary Gordin, baritone, would point out that Glass has no Pulitzer Prize in composing, unlike Lewis Spratlan, whose opera Earthrise featured Gordin in the lead role of Wilder at its premiere. Kalil Wilson, tenor, lets us know from his website that he will soon premiere a new lead role composed for him. More details will be forthcoming once he decides whether to go with a Pulitzer or non-Pulitzer composer.

Oakland East Bay Symphony

Over the years, Maestro Morgan has gathered a family of singers, for whom the opening concert will be a performance as well as a reunion. Zachary Gordin, AJ Glueckert, tenor, and Lori Willis, mezzo-soprano, have sung Faure’s Requiem, Bernstein’s Mass, and Handel’s Messiah, respectively, with the OEBS. For works of an earthlier nature, Mr. Wilson performed in the symphony’s critically acclaimed and sold-out production of Porgy and Bess in 2007 and Mr. Gordin appeared as Montano in Othello. This is a very serious family, indeed. Then again, it is a night at the opera.

Musical chairs

With OEBS not indicating who exactly will sing what, we are practically invited to arrive at the concert with our predictions in hand. On the program for the evening are selections from Aida, La Forza del Destino, Nabucco, Lucia Di Lammermoor, Cavalleria Rusticana, Hérodiade, The Ring Cycle, and Candide. Ms. Moss’ crystal-clear soprano paired with any of the men, including Adler Fellow Joshua Bloom, bass-baritone, could fulfill all the casting needs for Lucia Di Lammermoor. As for Verdi, Ms. Willis’ mezzo-soprano is apropos, and Ms. Briggs boasts an agile lyric-spinto voice with a formidable stage presence that has carried her in several performances of Aida. The honor of performing the Nabucco piece will probably go to the Oakland Symphony Chorus and Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus. When this work is performed in Italy, it is immediately followed by cries of “Bis, bis,” which never happens in America. But in the hands of these choruses, who knows?

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Rebecca Liao

On most weekdays, you can probably hear a collective groan on Highway 80 from commuters travelling to and from the Sacramento area. Chances are, they just heard KDFC’s Dianne Nicolini announce a perennial listener favorite was coming up, “But first, here’s Haydn (or his brother, son, nephew, second cousin twice-removed)!” October 28, however, braving the commuter soundtrack to drive up (or simply staying put) will be worth it because the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg is presenting a piece that is both by Haydn and a favorite.

The 168-year old orchestra is one of the premier symphony orchestras in Austria. Focusing on music from the Viennese Classical School, it presents the Mozart Matinees at the annual Salzburg Festival. Its musical sensibilities are particularly well-rounded due to the variety of its repertoire: in the pit for musicals and operas for the Salzburg Landestheater, great symphonic works from all eras for the Salzburg Kulturvereinigung in the Large Festival Hall, and a thematic concert series in the concert hall of the Mozarteum. The orchestra has had all glowing adjectives attached to its name at one time or other. In the end, though, it is simply very Austrian—more sensitive and less heavy-handed than the Germans without any sacrifice in musicianship.

The evening will begin with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, whose opening theme, incidentally, also opens the musical lock on the door to the edible garden in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (Music Director Ivor Bolton looks better in a tux than Gene Wilder did.) It will close with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, also known as “The Great.”

Now what about that Haydn favorite? The Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major will feature Johannes Moser as both the soloist and the concert’s way of fulfilling the orchestra’s motto, “The cutting edge of classical music.” Moser may be our next Yo-Yo Ma, not because they play with similar styles, but because they are both enthusiastic ambassadors for classical music. Where Ma pairs with pop artists for crossover recordings, Moser promotes the Youtube Symphony Orchestra and participates in outreach activities with children and young adults across US campuses, introducing connoisseurs of synthetic sound to prepared and toy cellos and pianos. Performing contemporary pieces is his signature. Even Pierre Boulez sings his praises, and he is a much tougher customer than Bobby McFerrin.

There is no doubting Moser’s musical heft. His tone is not quite commanding, but his phrasing flows from a seeming sixth sense of the way musical figures relate to each other and of how to convince the listener that he is playing a piece as it was intended to be played. The cello becomes a living being in and of itself; we forget there is a musician behind its sound. Is it something we have never heard before? Not really, but after Chopinzee’s appearance last month (sorry, Lang Lang), shouldn’t we see what youth is really capable of?

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

The Death of Klinghoffer

May 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

The Death of Klinghoffer (Photo: Normsonline)

Like all contemporary classical composers working today, John Adams firmly believes that American opera is innovating away from establishment opera and desires to be an agent for that process. In an interview conducted nine years after the premiere of Nixon in China, Adams’ first opera and arguably his most influential, he predicted his colleagues would not be “drawn to the conventional operatic format, with a symphony orchestra in the pit and unamplified voices onstage; I am sure that music theater is in a somewhat reactionary phase right now.” In particular, future operatic works will experiment, “in terms of mixing media and really extending boundaries […] or something far more influenced by music theater from other cultures.” Not surprisingly, The Death of Klinghoffer makes good on each of Adams’ predictions. In still another interview, Adams cites Syrian music among his models for this opera’s score. His familiar favor for synthesizers displays itself in the orchestral scheme, but he takes it to a different level in the second act when electronic sound nearly replaces the violin section as the opera’s main musical vehicle. For a musical family in which contemporary classical music is still the black sheep, however, such innovation, if done without palpable musical or dramatic achievement, will not change any hard-hearted, classicist opinions. What Adams needs to do is convince us that his contribution to the body of operatic works is not merely “reactionary”—modernism that does not understand how anybody can be opposed to change. To be sure, he has expressed grand intentions that excite the most die-hard traditionalists—expression, freedom from the constraints of both minimalism and goal-oriented melodies that characterized nineteenth century opera, faithfulness to normal speech patterns rather than the foreign poetry that usually comprises libretti, inclusion of non-Western music, a modern link to the roots of opera. The Death of Klinghoffer is at once frustrating, tiring, and heartbreaking in that it clearly shares each of these objectives but is unable to fulfill them. Indeed, its example functions well as a case study for how contemporary classical composers can refine their line of musical development.

The Death of Klinghoffer chronicles the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro by four Palestinian gunmen seeking the release of their compatriots from Israeli prisons. The hijacking lasted from October 7-9, 1985, and claimed the life of wheelchair-bound American Leon Klinghoffer, who was on vacation with his wife Marilyn. While it shares with Nixon in China a plot based on actual historical events, Klinghoffer is as abstract and conceptual as its predecessor was documentary. For fear of redundancy, Director Peter Sellars expressly intended that the opera not rehash the hijacking in a dramatic setting. The original production thus featured an amorphous and versatile set by George Tsypin and unremarkable, almost interchangeable, costumes by Dunya Ramicova. Singers double in different roles and many of the principals had dancer-doubles in a manner reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s Seven Deadly Sins. An interlock of flashbacks and action based in the present time form the linear narrative of what transpired during the days of the hijacking.

By freeing Klinghoffer from the traditional stage trappings, Sellars positioned the production to achieve Adams’ main theatrical objective: to exhibit and explore the minds of his characters. Recitatives are only as long as is necessary to build a narrative bridge between musical numbers, and arias are near-indulgent in the detail of thought and emotion they reveal. In the grand tradition of the Bach Passions and Greek tragedy, and the newer influences of Persian Ta’ziych and Javanese Wayang Wong, all of which Adams cites as models, the opera is subdivided into the chorus’ storytelling and the actual words of the drama’s participants. The chorus is the master of this opera, providing the religious context of the millennia-long struggle between the Jewish and Islamic faiths and the socio-political context of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as both components and instigators of the drama unfolding onstage. Though Adams likes to emphasize the religious nature of his dramatic models, the choruses do much more than establish the religious foundations of this story. Indeed, if a primary artistic motivation can be discerned from Klinghoffer’sstaging, it is that Adams has attempted to do nothing less than write an opera in which the ideas that underlie the action are themselves the main characters. To evoke the emotional heft and psychological nuance of grand conflict as they are, with minimal dramatic conduits—a winning and thoroughly modern platform, but Adams must do more than introduce new theatrical vehicles to succeed. He must also remember that after stripping down and recasting the elements of traditional opera, he still has to contend with music and the words set to it. Which means, there are still rules that can be followed or changed, but not broken.

The first rule from which Klinghoffer meets resistance is not so much a rule as it is a fact—if music desires to communicate something, it must create a sound for it. For his score, Adams draws from an effective, if not all too familiar, catalogue of modern sounds. Tranquility has been assigned the string section sustaining a single note or alternating slowly between two notes for an entire musical number. To create tension, these strings tremble between two chords of a dissonant interval. High anxiety is this same sound at forte. And relentless turmoil is the same sound still, but fortissimo. Of course, this being an Adams composition, the strings are not the only, and often not even the main, source of music. Lone flutes, bassoons, and oboes not only function as the opera’s main obbligati, they also illustrate a technical proficiency at counterpoint that happily connects Klinghoffer and Bach beyond the narrative structure. That Klinghoffer’s use of the synthesizer upholds the weight of the accompaniment on its own and overall seems to be entirely fitting instrumentatation is already a noteworthy innovation in operatic music. Unfortunately, the achievement is somewhat dampened by the fact that we are not entirely sure why the synthesizer plays such a prominent role—while its freshness is undeniable, its interpretive significance is not quite as clear. With regard to the vocal parts, their musical construction could not be simpler—high notes corresponding to high emotion, and notes in the middle range for nearly all other action.

This distillation of Klinghoffer’s music seems overly simple and crude, yet little more can be added to complete it. For the score works in chunks: one sound sustained for several moments, replaced by another sound for the next section of bars, and so forth until the last note is sung. Klinghoffer has not concealed the limited toolbox from which it was composed; though always appropriate, it is never pitch perfect. Klinghoffer’s narrative structure was chosen specifically to make this opera a searching exploration of individual minds and lofty ideas. As any good modernist would, Adams understands the complexity of both, but the music’s lack of variation suggests otherwise as it constrains and obfuscates much more than it expresses or reveals. Alternating modern string sounds, woodwind counterpoint, synthesizer beats—all saved from the status of stock music only through Adams’ now instinctive rejection of minimalism in the orchestrations—are not enough to capture all the shades and subtleties of the human mind. Klinghoffer simply needs a broader catalogue of musical sounds to work with, and an understanding of how those sounds can be manipulated to seem as though they are a natural fit for the idea they express.

The temptation at this point is to blame the stunted development of contemporary classical music, both its stubborn unwillingness to borrow music from its predecessors and its inability to invent the same range of sound on its own. To do so, however, is to ignore the sheer rawness of sound that has come to be contemporary classical opera’s distinct advantage over establishment opera. Though the musical range is limited, the sounds that modern music is capable of consistently evoke a visceral, almost primal response; before we heard them, we had never been provoked to leave opera’s traditional escapist and controlled environment. In another era, Adams’ opera of ideas would have been an intellectual laughingstock and musically impossible. To a dissatisfying extent, we still do not fully understand how to best execute it, but we have at least accepted it as an admirable objective.

Fortunately, since Klinghoffer is an opera, there is no need for the score to work alone. Sadly, its libretto, written by poet Alice Goodman, is pulled along to the same fate—very clearly an opera of ideas without actually understanding how opera can be such a thing. Even more so than a unique symphonic sound, the faithfulness to normal speech patterns, replete with correct stressing, syllabic division, and cadence has become the trademark of Adams’ choral and operatic works. Given the stringent minimalist repetition of the melodic line, this is not achieved without some skill. The effect is a cross between singing and speaking that makes all the more believable a core premise of opera—that a character could be so moved that he would burst into song, only instead of the traditional soaring melodies, we have the more realistic speech sung in a legato line, with the melody only a series of tones matching the pitch of the syllable assigned to the note. But this is not music. It is aimless speaking on pitch. At times, the auditory and emotional forcefulness of all other components of Adams’ score renders the singing almost superfluous. Frequently, it is just a matter of the accompaniment being too loud for the singing; whether this is due to lack of projection on the part of the singer or mismatch in dynamics by Adams is ambiguous, but it is safe to assume that no singer could have been expected to sing over a section of strings and woodwinds at fortissimo. Not only is this overshadow distracting, it ultimately makes the singing sound impotent, as if woefully inadequate at expressing all the emotion it desired on its own and needed the help of the accompaniment to do so. When the libretto is most adherent to speech and least musical, Klinghoffer resembles a movie with a soundtrack, which creates the odd impression that either the music is what makes this opera or that it actually is not needed at all. At best, we witness a competition between two elements of an opera that are supposed to be mutually supportive and at most, the orchestra is just as dramatically effective without the libretto at all.

What ultimately prevents Klinghoffer from soaring is that the limited range of the orchestral music is nevertheless much more capable of expressive power than minimalist repetition of a tonic melody, upon which all sung lines are based. Adams has forged a musical identity from adding layers of orchestration and instrumentation to basic minimalist patterns with the hope that they become less scientific and more expressive, less constraining and more potent. Despite his efforts, the tempo, accent, and series of tones remain palpably repetitive, as much an anchor to the music as an awkward weight. Add to this constraint the fact that speech must be mimicked closely and the general sound of words preserved, and the result is two alternating situations: the speech is ridiculously over-dramatized and would have worked better as a recitative; or, the line is hopelessly repressed as we hear the words and understand form the swell of instruments the significance of the moment, but the score’s adherence to the same melodic line leaves us bereft. Minimalism’s heel is felt throughout the opera as a whole, but nowhere is it more harmful than in the second act as Leon Klinghoffer and Rambo, the most gratuitously violent highjacker, confront one another just before the former is killed. Everything is in place to establish this scene as the opera’s climax—passionate performances by the singers, the words of condemnation and hate, the turbulent accompaniment, and the knowledge that the murder will happen imminently. But the melodic pattern, the infuriating cycle of notes, forcibly restrains the potentially explosive emotion of these successive arias. If the minimalist scheme had been disobeyed here, there (maybe everywhere), the magnificent power that is opera’s trademark could have been released. At the close of the number, we feel sheer frustration.

It is a shame that this is the case, for the libretto is quite a solid and excellent work of modern poetry in its own right. Recitatives are straightforward accounts of events that serve primarily to move the opera forward, but they are by no means dull or uninspired. Indeed, Goodman has a keen ability to weave together narration and metaphor coherently and seamlessly, as if their presence in the same train of thought were expected and natural. The Captain sets the tone of Klinghoffer with: “It was just after one-fifteen / I was awake / but lying down / as I had spent a sleepless night / before we docked / that morning. Thought / the sailor’s consolation is surely the night’s analysis of the impression of the day.” The Swiss Grandmother sings, “To see one’s fellow men / become like beasts / diminished by each scream / that, for me, is what / shocks. How thin the coat is: / unlined velveteen, and underneath / the monkey’s back.” The opera is a series of such internal monologues, plainly presented or disguised as dialogue between characters, each with the right balance of mundane observation and eloquent abstraction, and yet the narrative moves forward in a linear manner. This is not Goodman’s only feat of illusion, as she fully utilizes the gravity of the opera’s events to ensure that the reflection of the characters does not appear out of place. Her libretto would have made an excellent play, just as Adams score has all the characteristics of a prodigious soundtrack; unfortunately, the two fused together do not magically become an opera.

It is beginning to seem as though Adams’ vision for Klinghoffer and contemporary opera is impossible; it forces together operatic elements desirable on their own but incompatible with one another. What ultimately redeems this opera’s artistic worth is that its formula does at times achieve its intended purpose given a few negligible compromises and the right context. Adams has suggested that of all his characters, Mamoud was the most interesting to write because, of all the highjackers, he is the most immune to oversimplification. He is not instinctively violent, nor as single-mindedly devoted to their mission as their leader Molqi, and he does not crave martyrdom as Omar does though he is perfectly willing to die for his cause. While guarding the Captain, he shares his love of Lebanese pop music, particularly the melancholy love ballads, the story of his brother’s gruesome death, and an adamant unwillingness to open a dialogue with the Israelis. The Captain, touched by what he hears, tells Mamoud that if his people could only speak as he had just spoken, then peace would be possible. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, if every character had been written and scored as Mamoud was, Klinghoffer would have become what Adams imagined he was creating. His melodic lines are still minimalist, but they have been slightly liberalized such that they use rather than enslave themselves to normal speech patterns—words are still recognizable and the pitches of the syllables in relation to one another are preserved, but cadence is almost altogether ignored. In keeping with the lyrical nature of Mamoud’s arias, the tempo of the melodic line is slowed such that each note has the time it needs to luxuriate in its emotion. The result is a synergy between music and verse that at once elevates the speech into operatic poetry without shattering the illusion that Mamoud must rely on both song and spoken word because the latter alone is inadequate. The accompaniment supports the singing perfectly as it stays at piano on one note, neither distracting in its presence nor irrelevant.

It is the choruses, however, that will become the chestnuts from this opera. The layering of the voices to create texture, the expertly assembled harmonies, the unparalleled poetry of the verse, and the stubborn refusal to be overwhelmed by the orchestra indicate that Adams does have a deep understanding of how to unleash power on an operatic scale through meticulous coordination of musical elements. As a testament to their quality, the choruses will certainly be studied and appreciated as a significant achievement of contemporary classical music, but their dramatic inventiveness will be even more influential. Adams does not make the mistake of imitating the Bach Passions and Greek tragedy without also ensuring that some of the magic it was able to create in those works did not also appear in Klinghoffer. Though not a participant in the opera’s events, the chorus is more important than any individual character, and arguably the entire cast as a whole, in its role as a commentator. It announces itself in the prologue as the Exiled Palestinians, forced to evacuate to make way for the new Israeli state and all but swearing revenge. The Exiled Jews immediately respond with a love song to their ever-distant promised land. During the first night of the highjacking, the Night Chorus takes on the guise of a predator, hunting and drawing forth desperate screams of, “Elijah will return, the Jews believe.” The Chorus of Hagar and the Angel tells the story of Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian slave who bore him a child Ishmael, but was banished when Abraham’s wife Sarah gave birth to Isaac. As Hagar and Ishmael wandered the desert without water, an angel miraculously reveals to them a well. It is the rivalry between Ishmael, whom the Muslims venerate as an ancestor of Mohammed, and Isaac that begins the religious conflict between the Jews and Muslims, and by extension, the Israelis and Palestinians. Even more so than the internal monologue of the characters, the choruses establish that this opera is not a documentary retelling of the Achille Lauro highjacking. It is a drama of religious and socio-political conflict that manifests itself in episodes such as the one we see played out before us, but whose existence is much more expansive and uncontainable precisely because it is a war of ideas that have only managed to take firmer hold over multiple millennia. One gets the foreboding sense that the next episode will also be commentated by this chorus, and their song will be unchanged.

It is impossible to discuss Klinghoffer without mentioning that theopera will probably never again be performed in the United States. When it premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 1992, it was picketed by the Jewish Information League, who perceived it as anti-Semitic. Its sternest criticism came a few months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when prominent musicologist Richard Taruskin urged, “If terrorism is to be defeated, world public opinion has to be turned decisively against it […] no longer romanticizing terrorists as Robin Hoods and no longer idealizing their deeds as rough poetic justice.” Though Taruskin’s statement is justified, there is no evidence that Adams would disagree with any part of it. The opera depicts both Leon Klinghoffer being shot at point-blank and the glee of the terrorists at the fear of the hostages. At worst, Klinghoffer refuses to categorically demonize the highjackers, giving their rationale for violence not insignificant airtime. It is a pity that its controversial subject has drowned out discussion of its importance as a contemporary opera. Adams may not have actually achieved all that he wanted to artistically, but we should not forget through the haze of criticism, whatever its subject, that we want him to succeed. Klinghoffer, like its fellow Adams compositions, has given the traditionalists a reason to believe in modern music by assuring them that what they want to see in music has not been lost in the tide of reactionary works. Given a stage, Klinghoffer can even perhaps aid contemporary opera in its as yet incomplete quest to define and realize its place in the operatic world.

Thoughts on Natalia Osipova in Giselle: Act II Grand Pas de Deux

February 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Natalia Osipova (Photo: Dancelines)

If Balanchine had been asked to re-choreograph Giselle, Natalia Osipova’s interpretation of the title role would not be very far from the outcome. Osipova’s Giselle, particularly in the Act II Grand Pas de Deux, is so devoid of classical purity that one wonders if she has already dedicated herself to contemporary ballet, dancing one of the most fundamentally lyrical roles with fervent expression and considerably relaxed attention to form. While striving to hyperextend her legs in the arabesque penchees, the foot supporting the body betrayed a highly noticeable wobble. Given how difficult the position is, less than perfect balance is forgivable. However, when the wavering occurs several times, each owing to the hyperextension, it is clear that sound technique is being sacrificed for drama. The positioning of her head had the same motivation—never in keeping with the line of her body, but lifted high in mournful agony or dipped low in resigned sadness. It was her arms, though, that provided the most glaring break with Giselle’s lyricism. Not once during the pas de deux did her arms form the bras en couronne that the original Petipa choreography calls for. Indeed, her arms never seemed to be in any particular position—they hung limply in the air with the elbows bent, wrists broken, and hands above the head, or at her side with her hunched back emphasizing her melancholy. All the usual praises heaped on Giselles (ethereal, breathtakingly beautiful, divine) cannot be applied to Osipova’s performance. It was, however, credible—and this may be what she ultimately intended. This Giselle expressed her unconditional love and grief in a way that would not be out of place in any other art form, or even real life. As a testament to Osipova’s artistry, her breaks with classicism come across as deliberate, as opposed to sincere and emotive but lacking artistic coherence.

It is worth noting that Osipova came dangerously close on a few occasions to rendering her Giselle a daring and admirable but ultimately unskilled performance. Natalia Osipova’s bravura technique is unparalleled. After her debut in Giselle was announced, everyone wondered whether such a technical wunderkind could be right for the role. Their doubts were very nearly justified in the pas de deux as Osipova interspersed the legato movement with chaines tournes executed at lightning speed and jumps that propelled as much as they elevated her body. The effect of the Myrthe-like steps is jarring and leaves one wondering whether she is truly artistically innovative or merely has the intention to be so but lacks the virtuosity to achieve it.

When I first saw Osipova’s Grand Pas de Deux, I thought to myself, “Everyone thinks gymnastic extensions are controversial? Wait till they see this.” Giselle is a classical role, emphasizing expression through form. Osipova’s neoclassical approach does not make her a bad Giselle, for she brings such raw emotion that it might be ultimately superfluous to find a form to capture its expression. Someone once said that Osipova could not be Giselle—she did not have the soul for it. Who would have thought that it is in fact the technique that she lacks?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

December 1, 2007 § Leave a comment

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Photo: http://www.thedivingbellandthebutterfly-themovie.com/)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly belongs in the rare category of art that genuinely requires a trip down memory lane to visit the predecessors before we discuss the work itself. At the height of existentialism, writer Andre Gide elevated his fascination with mise en abyme to the status of philosophical puzzle. A thing within a thing, a conical construction funneling into an abyss. That is the most obvious mise en abyme, but it was wholly uninteresting, and more importantly, did nothing to advance the possibilities of art. So what if instead of a visual mise en abyme, we pondered a conceptual one—a thing within a thing, but which is which, and once we determine that, are the things’ statuses stable, or can they easily flip? Simply by reframing, if you will, the mise en abyme, we can use it to discuss problems of perception, perspective, even reality.

Director Julian Schnabel is a brilliant painter, so it is no surprise he understands that the canvas (or broken porcelain plates when his mortgage is past due) is limited. Whereas visual art can only dream of creating a conceptual mise en abyme, movies have a much easier time. Or so this film would have us believe. For as Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) moves seamlessly between reality and his own imagination, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly moves seamlessly with him: reality as the audience sees it and Bauby’s perspective are inseparable. A man’s telling of his story within his story and both within the film. Yes, the abyss is much less painful, but by the time Schnabel is done, it is impossible to not see that he has created a work of art, and we are privileged to have witnessed it.

The film is based on Bauby’s memoir of the same name. While living the fuck-you life as Elle’s Editor in Chief, Bauby suffered a massive stroke, resulting in a rare affliction known as locked-in syndrome. Completely functional mentally but paralyzed except for his left eye and eyelid, he finds escape in his imagination and memory. To allow him to communicate, a speech therapist recites an alphabet where the letters are arranged by frequency of usage and Bauby need only blink his left eye when the desired letter comes up. Eventually, Bauby forms words, sentences, and with the help of Claude (Anne Consigny) taking down his dictation, a memoir.

And what a memoir it is. The actual book is rather slim, owing to the slow and arduous process of letter-by-letter dictation. Come to life in Schnabel’s hands, however, one would never have suspected it, for the film unapologetically insists on the fullness of Bauby’s life and capacity to live, both pre and post-illness. His obsession with women invites a puritanically-tinted hindsight, but he regards each with such attention to detail and admiration for her unique beauty that while playboy may be a fitting label, sensualist is more appropriate. Josephine is bathed in sepia as Bauby remembers their time in the French countryside. His memory of Ines’ face is obscured, but he is mesmerized by her unaffected movement as she crosses a room to hang a picture in the apartment they share. If women were his only preoccupation, sensualist would be a misnomer. Worry not; they are combined with food. Bauby’s oyster-filled kisses with Claude offer a uniquely French artistic moment: the little death of animalistic primitivism driving the superhuman ingenuity of a kiss with a kaleidoscope of mouths. Breaking with the habit of most severely ill patients, Bauby scorns religion. Bauby’s life is very much the territory of the world, and he shows no contrition for having made it so.

Oddly, however much Bauby is of the world, he never seems to be truly in it. Naturally, this is bound to happen as he transitions into experiencing life mainly through reimaginings of what has already happened. Indeed, the decision to reenter life through writing his memoir triggers a deep withdrawal into his own mind, becoming steadily deeper as the work nears completion. He pictures himself as a Spanish bullfighter, straight from the always-on sports channel in his hospital room, a butterfly escaping a cocoon, an extreme snowboarder, Ozymandias, Marlon Brando. He recalls his face as it was before the stroke, lingers on it, lovingly and longingly regarding what he looked like when healthy. This is not mere indulgence in fantasies; it is palpable separation. As frequently as he imagines the butterfly, he sees himself on a pier surrounded by water on all sides. And as much as he loves his children and enjoys their company, their visit on Father’s Day is met with a droll, “We never fitted this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar.” Reflecting on his memoir as a whole, Bauby flags, without irony, all its elements—the plot, the characters, the internal monologue—retelling the contents as if he were the narrator. As we recognize each item he recites, we realize this is a story within a story—Bauby lives a life within a life.

At this point, Schnabel’s insistence on shooting only from Bauby’s visual perspective could have proven fatal. Butterflies and bullfighters are child’s play compared to more expansive renderings of Bauby’s landscapes. So how to create the illusion of a life within a life without the contamination of a third party? A mise en abyme. It is here that Schnabel ingeniously fulfills the dream of the existentialists. So effortless and natural is the shift from Bauby’s internal perception to a more comprehensive perspective that, at times, we do not see the shift when it happens, and by the end of the film, we wonder if the shift ever happened. When Bauby’s reflection on his memoir is followed by a dream of jumping up from his wheelchair is followed by Claude taking down his dictation for another word of that memoir, it seems just as logical to attribute everything to the same storyteller as it is to be aware that each scene represents different perspectives and therefore different storytellers. If the camera is not chained to Bauby’s eye, capturing his perception down to the pattern of blinks and the odd film of colors the eye sees when it first opens, then it moves around an image as if unable to see all of it. There is rarely a scene in which the cinematography is comfortable, familiar, untrue. With daunting craftsmanship, Schnabel’s mise en abyme realistically captures Bauby’s perspective without constraining the film to it. Any hint of rigging and the illusion would have been shattered, but perfection belongs to the rare artist who is both meticulous and stubbornly impractical. Even if the movie as a whole turns out to be fallible, each shot and the succession of shots are not.

Sadly, the film is indeed imperfect. It forgets in its pursuit of realism and accuracy that art is still fundamentally a contrivance. Its keystone, three-time Cesar Award (the French Oscar) winner Mathieu Amalric, admirably delivers his lines in the voice of a dying man—weak, metallic, emphatic only when provoked. In a visit to Bauby himself, this is what one would encounter. On film, it comes across as tired and indeliberate. One moment Bauby can barely muster energy to think and the next he tosses out a brilliant zinger. His voice is loudest when a nurse turns off the TV right in the middle of a soccer match, softer when the doctor sews up his right eye to prevent it from getting infected. A dying man is spared judgment on the coherence of his expression. Not so easy for one playing a dying man. Illogical, but art has its own sensibility.

Aside for Amalric, the movie was an acting tour de force. Emmanuelle Seigner as Celine, the jilted mother of Bauby’s children, is the perfect embodiment of controlled heartbreak. Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father wrestles Shakespearean tragedy into the realism of this film. Speech therapist Henriette Durand (brilliant and understated Marie Josèe Croze) comforts not only Bauby, but also the audience with her patience and spot-on empathy. Because these actors were shot as if Bauby were looking at them, the camera could only focus on their faces. One misplaced twitch was enough to ruin a scene, and as said before, all scenes are picture-perfect.

If it is of any comfort, at the same time the film suffers from too much realism, it also suffers from too much devotion to art. Not all art is warm to the touch, but Schnabel cannot claim this excuse after a proven track record with powerful emotion. It is therefore all the more surprising that this movie would come across as so cold. There is no lingering feeling when the screen blacks and the credits role, only admiration for having seen such an intelligent film. I suppose we have gotten used to seeing films about severely ill patients inspiring us, saddening us, haunting us. From this film, nothing. And while the mise en abyme is masterfully executed, we still can identify the illusion, even if we believe it. Indeed, if The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has any faults, it is that it reeks of high art. Its passionate nature inspires mimicry more than germination.


The Road

April 14, 2007 § 1 Comment

The Road (Photo: Quarterly Conversation)

The power of a myth is measured by the progeny it inspires, and that of Sisyphus is no different. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the latest work to pay homage to the Greek hero’s plight, namely by setting out to do the seemingly impossible—write a postmodern fable about apocalypse. Unfortunately for McCarthy, not only are the characters in The Road destined to Sisyphus’ fate, but so is the book itself.

The Road includes all the ingredients for a memorable fable—an economy of characters, each serving a unique and indivisible role in the story, a sad set of circumstances, and a strong sense that there is a moral to be uncovered. A father and son journey in search of warmer climates in a post-apocalyptic America. Virtually the entire landscape has been reduced to ash and overrun by lawless bandits who secure their own survival by robbing and cannibalizing others. The only reprieve this world offers is the occasional undiscovered stash of canned goods and blankets and the love between father and son that encourages both to persevere. McCarthy even adds direct references to Greek myth to cement the fable overtone. Sisyphus’ rock makes a frequent appearance as the heavy cart filled with food and supplies that father and son must push throughout the bulk of the journey; and the book even wraps up hastily with a deus ex machina. Where The Road stumbles is in its dissatisfaction with the fable as a form of storytelling—it wants to retain its substance, but place it in epic form. There is a reason, however, why the fable is meant to be short. To make it longer is to drown out the potency of the fable’s morals in unnecessary, self-indulgent prose for prose’s sake. Indeed, it is the constant wishing to be something that it is not that causes the book to ultimately tumble down the hill, and one gets the sense that McCarthy probably would not know where he went wrong.

The darling of American letters, McCarthy justifiably feels no need to rid his prose of obscure metaphors and the signature long sentence welded together with only a multitude of conjunctions. When done well, the latter can be rather poetic in a down-to-earth way—how simpler to achieve rhythm and poetry than to join a lot of clauses together with the word “and”? In all seriousness, this writing style can give the text sonority, which is very apt for a fable of apocalypse, when done judiciously. For example, there was this gem: “They pulled the cart from the brush with which they’d covered it and he raised it up and piled the blankets in and the coats and they pushed on out to the road and stood looking where the last of that ragged horde seemed to hang like an afterimage in the disturbed air.” There is no wordiness or dullness in this sentence, only the grave march of a story too unhappy to have a less plodding rhythm. Contrast that to this: “He pulled the wick out of the bottle and poured the bottle about half full, old straight weight oil thick and gelid with the cold and a long time pouring.” There is no need to repeat the word bottle twice, and “a long time pouring” is awkward and jarring amidst the relative straightforwardness of the rest of the sentence. Also, to describe such a simple task as pouring oil out of a bottle, McCarthy’s signature sentence structure is actually a hindrance. Rather than add anything, it makes the prose sag under the weight of a droning rhythm.

Then there is the unfortunate metaphor: “sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat;” “any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.” These are both so original that they are immediately thought provoking, but after attempting to make sense of them, one wonders why they are there to begin with. How does a sacred idiom draw down to preserve heat? And isn’t something shorn of its reality by definition not preserving anything? The second metaphor obviously refers to the universe outside Earth, but since the rest of the book focuses on the Earth itself and more abstract notions of reality and existence, why are we talking about outer space all of a sudden? For a writer of McCarthy’s caliber, these lapses should not be happening but are forgivable if sparse enough. But they happen so frequently—indeed, the inappropriately plodding sentence is the primary way in which the story is told—that the spell McCarthy’s poetry could have maintained for the entire book is only cast and then recast in fits and spurts. Impeded by useless words, the book keeps rolling down the hill.

It’s not entirely the prose’s fault. Though facing death naturally leads to a good deal of philosophizing, the book goes about it in a largely awkward way. The profundity runs the gamut from the random: “Damn, he whispered. He looked down at the old man. Perhaps he’d turn into a god and they to trees.” To the nonsensical: “She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” To the trite: “Who will find the little boy? Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.” And from the postmodernly obscure metaphors in the rest of the novel, one would have expected the recurrent reference to fire to be equally original. Sadly, the father only had this to offer: “You have to carry the fire. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”

Stylistic failings aside, uncertainty about The Road’s merit as a whole comes mostly from its straddling of the thin line between innovation and utter mishandling of a genre. The story’s many associations with the fable strongly suggest that it would eventually reveal a central wisdom. But when the last page is turned, we feel confusion from having been sure we would find something and then coming up empty. In this regard, The Road teases us with the father and son relationship, their insistence that they are the good guys in this world, a pregnant woman, the symbol of humanity and history beginning, and the notoriously abrupt and artificial deus ex machina. Indeed, in case these elements seemed overshadowed by inevitable doom, McCarthy graciously provides us with the character of the son, who is so immune to corruption by suffering, so steadfast in helping others despite barely being able to survive himself, that he seems inhuman. After refusing to rescue another stranger, the father tells his sobbing son, “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” to which the son replies, “Yes I am. I am the one.” It is odd to see such a moral certainty and purity in a book that denies either exists, but then again there is nothing wrong with a stylized character in a fable. Although it would be far fetched to think the ashen world could repopulate and rebuild itself, there appears to be hope that humanity will defiantly continue to exist.

Alas, lies, all lies. The Road closes with a eulogy of the world, and a world still in existence, even one as desolate as this, would render a mark of its passing premature. Is this what we are supposed to learn then—that every hope in a postapocalyptic world is a lie? Even the darkest fables and myths have a more actionable takeaway. It becomes almost amusingly clear, then, that despite borrowing some of its trademark techniques, McCarthy never intended to be more faithful to the fable than was necessary to introduce his new interpretation of it. The fable was set up to undermine itself. Fitting, considering there is no objective more quintessentially postmodern. Indeed, this is perhaps the most modern fable of all, a text too big to contain itself and a story that reveals its own lie.

For all of The Road’s technical imperfections, we do eventually come to care about the boy and his father. We want to finish the journey with them. McCarthy has created a coherent, self-contained world, and despite the ripples that prevent us from being truly drawn into it, we are eager to keep reading. Ironically, this may be the genius of the novel. Our reading experience mimics that of the father and son’s journey. But is it really genius? For the pleasure is not in the writing itself but in the analysis of the writing. The intellectual intervention required to enjoy the story means that we focus not so much on the work itself, but its explanation, so can we call it artistic success? How appropriate that like for Sisyphus, the ultimate justification for The Road comes from the journey it takes, not from having reached its destination.