Saturday, April 01, 2006

Bill's Drama Reviews; Vogler Concert; Britten's Billy Budd

This site will contain reviews of a few live concerts, musicals and especially drama about important issues.

Mar. 2006 The Vogler Quartet from Berlin, Germany plays (at the Dumbarton Methodist Church in Washington DC) the String Quartet in C, Op. 59 #3, one of the Razumovsky quartets, with its scintillating fugal finale (and a slow movement that is not slow), along with the B-flat quartet Op. 130 and Grosse Fugue Op. 133. Op. 132 opens with a curious first movement that stops and starts and converses with the listener as much as sings to him/her. They skipped the ossia finale of 132 and played the fuge as the finale, and it is more effective this way. The fugue has plenty of passages of delicious dissonance and tension. It reminds one of the finale of the Hammerklavier Sonata, and of the finale of Bruckner's Symphony #5, both of those works also in B-flat.

In his time, Beethoven conducted an intellectual revolution: that music could communicate genuine emotion by being "perfect" to the point of strangeness, and by "putting everything down" -- often in sonata fashion.

In September 2004 I saw the Britten opera Billy Budd at The Washington Opera, with Dwayne Croft as Billy Budd, Robin Leggate as Captain Vere, and Samuel Ramey as John Claggart. The libretto is by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. That gives you a pretty good prediction of the layered meanings of the story, from concerns about mutiny (and the practice of impressments, which would lead to the War of 1812. (In one sense, the opera is a kind of compressed “Master and Commander”.) The second layer is almost like Paul Rosenfels, where Vere describes his domain in the Prologue:

“I have been a man of action…”

“Much good has been shown to me and much evil, and the good has never been perfect. There is always some flaw in it, some defect, some imperfection in the divine image, some fault in the angelic song, some stammer in the divine speech. So that the Devil has something to do with every human consignment to this planet earth.”

That of course, leads to the “obvious.” Yes, the plot hinges on Billy Budd’s “fatal flaw” – not something generic like Everwood’s Ephram (my inability to change), but simply his stammer will be his undoing. But of course the powers that be on the ship conspire against him, partly out of his threat to their power, his supposed threat to “unit cohesion” (sound familiar?) and perhaps good old jealousy in what is essentially homosexual soap opera. Billy Budd is the Joseph Steffan or Keith Meinhold of his day, the Rosa Parks who refuses to go to the back of the bus, who stands in the limelight. And he will be resented, he will be brought low. That is the tragedy.

Britten, who wrote this opera in 1951 (first in four acts) was a half-decade of his time in what would become the social issues of succeeding generations. This atmosphere of the stagecraft experience is awesome (the Washington Opera used a hinged stage), as we see an all male environment, without a hint of women (just one mention of wife and kids at home), men lying in their hammocks, but as often as not against each other in forced intimacy. He found a way to say “it” in a way that could be taught in, say, 9th Grade Honors English in public schools. He looked back to Mahler in his music. Mahler, it is said, wanted to write a requiem mass, and the War Requiem of Britten is a close guess of what Mahler might have composed. The ending of Billy Budd, with the harrowing “Down All Hands” male chorus, retreats into the linear world of the Mahler 9th, or even Das Lied von der Erde, and even the Shostakovich 4th Symphony. The audience at the opera sat stunned as the final C-major chord drum-rolled to a wispy close with Vere closing up shop.

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