Thursday, June 26, 2008

Smithsonian Folklife festival features live folk music from Bhutan

The Smithsonian Folklife festival on the Washington Mall features a couple of curious musical performances. One of these comes from Bhutan, with performers, in a monastic enclosure with artwork, playing a loud passage on a long horn (a dhung), in a melody consisting of held repeated notes with an occasional drop of a perfect fourth. There was a line that moved quickly to see the musicians and the exhibit. There was also a folk dance performance in a nearby tent. The Smithsonian writeup is here.

I have short five second videos (mpeg) of these at this link (folkm1 through folkm5).

There was also a performance of country and western from the “Texas Opry” (file follm4).

Even on a weekday (today), crowds were heavy, visiting free performances available from the Metro without the need to drive in these days of high fuel prices.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Burma Benefit Concert in Washington DC

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC offered a free Burma Benefit Concert today at 4 PM EDT. Donations were collected for the victims of the Myanmar May 2 cyclone. Burmese Baptist Church Rev. Ler Htoo spoke about government outrages.

The performers were Deborah Miller, soprano; Jennefer Matthews, mezzo-soprano; Issachah Savage, tenor; Aurelio Dominguez, tenor; Gregory Lowery, bass; Kevin Thompson, bass; Matthew T. Bachman, piano, and Lawrence P. Schreiber, piano. The concert featured the Steinway piano which the church acquired in December 2007. Despite the concert’s vocal content, the piano was left open toward the audience for the high overtones to ring out.

The concert comprised eighteen items.

(1) Gioacchino Rossinin, “Domine Dues” from “Petite Messe” sung by Savage, whose voice is very powerful.
(2) Wendell Whalum, “God is a God” sung by Thompson. It referred to Nicodemus, and then to the story of Samson (the subject of opera by Saint-Seans -- I've always thought this particular Old Testament story has a hidden meaning, related to that of Jacob and Esau).
(3) Richard Strauss, “Allerseelen” Op. 10, #8, composed at age 21, sung by Mathews.
(4) Wolfgang A. Mozart, “O Isis und Osiris” from “The Magic Flute” (“Die Zauberflote”), K620, sung by Lowery
(5) Gaetano Donizetti, “A Mes Amis” from “La Fille du Regiment” sung by Dominguez
(6) A Spiritual adapted by Hall Johnson, “Witness” sung by Savage
(7) Gioacchino Rossini, “La Calumnia” from “The Barber of Seville” sung by Thompson
(8) Gian Carlo Menotti, “To This We’ve Come” from “The Consul” sung by Miller. The opera, dated to 1950, deals with a dictatorship (comparable to Myanmar) and the seeking of political asylum or relief from the United States by family members. Here is a typical explanatory link.
There was an intermission in which Rev. Htoo spoke.
(9) Leo Delibes, “Dome Espais" from "Lakme", sung by Miller and Mathews as a famous duet, harmonized in thirds.
(10) Folk song adapted by John Jacob Niles, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, sung by Lowery
(11) Andre Previn, “I’m not a Boy” from “A Streetcar Named Desire” sung by Savage
(12) George Gershwin, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” sung by Mathews
(13) Pablo Sorozabal Mariezcurrena, “La Tabernera Del Puerto” The composer is Basque and Spanish.
(14) James Kern, “Ol’ Man River” from "Showboat", sung by Thompson
(15) Spiritual adapted by Lawrence Schreiber, “Deep River” sung by Mathews
(16) Richard Rogers, “You’ve Never Walk Alone”, the climactic closing song of "Carousel", sung by Lowery. On the piano, the “accompaniment” sounds strangely dissonant; with a symphony orchestra as in the 1955 movie, it works, as does the brilliant waltz that opens the musical. I remember the song “My Boy Bill,” very much about “family values.”
(17) Giacomo Puccini, “Bimba Dagli Pieni di Malia” from “Madame Butterfly", sung by Miller and Dominguez as a duet.
(18) Spirtual, adapted by Margaret Bonds, “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” sung by the entire ensemble.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Mahler's Fourth, along with Puccini and Gerber, performed in Alexandria

Yesterday, Sunday June 8, some neighbors a few houses down held a volleyball and pool party with an odd sight: a violist performing underneath a veranda. He said he did not know the solo part of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, or Bartok’s famous viola concerto. But it was a fitting sight on the way to a concert.

Late yesterday The Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra held its last concert of the season, with a most interesting selection. Soprano Tia Wortham was featured, with Ulysses S. James conducting. The concert took place at the Bishop Ireton High School (Catholic) in Alexandria VA, near Duke Street approaching downtown.

The concert opened with Ms. Wortham singing Donetta’s Aria “Chi il bel sogno” (“Donetta’s lovely dream”) from Giacomo Puccini’s La Rondine. The opera, completed during World War I, was Puccini’s next to last. The aria is sparing but exhibits some of the harmonic opulence of Puccini’s Turandot (which I saw performed in Dallas in 1980) that would follow.

The next piece was Steven R. Geber’s Symphony #2. His First Symphony had been performed by the same group earlier this season. The Second runs about twenty minutes and bears the subtitle “Elegies and Fanfares.” The outer two movements sound to me like a mixture of Copland and William Schuman. The last movement uses a theme from the composer’s Fanfare for the Voice of America, written after 9/11 for a memorial concert. Curiously, the symphony ends quietly and inconclusively, where I was expecting a peroration like the close of Copland’s massive Third Symphony (the finale of which incorporates Copland’s own Fanfare for the Common Man). The Intermezzo is not a slow movement, but more like an Allegretto (in the spirit of Beethoven’s Seventh, perhaps, as so featured in the recent hit film “The Fall”), with scale-like woodwind figures that stop and start, rather giving the effect of a featherweight scherzo.

The featured work for the concert was Mahler’s Symphony #4 in G Major. This work is the last of the Wunderhorn symphonies and seems like the lightest. The first movement is said to evocate the memories of Haydn, but its 18 minutes show considerable complexity. The music opens with the humorous B minor sleighbells before settling into the winter sunshine of G Major. The exposition is full and partially repeated, before a complex development with lots of wind snippets and counterpoint ensues. The climaxes, though frequent, seem jolly. The Coda is long and, in the manner of Beethoven, almost like a second development. The movement seems like a commentary on the way Beethoven developed his compositional style more from Haydn than Mozart, and the music recapitulates all of the traditions of that period, concluding on two loud G Major chords as periods.

The scherzo is well known for the use of the solo violin tuned a step high for scordatura. The first violinist actually picked up a different violin (reminding me of the garden party that I had witnessed). The music is in C Major, but the theme is cleverly constructed to sound polytonal and take advantage of the out-of-tune sound of the violin. This sort of effect would be used later by Alban Berg in his operas. Formally, the music is a Landler, a kind of Viennese waltz. Listeners who know Mahler now notice the brief quotes from future works (the fifth and ninth symphonies). The last two notes of the movement are fortissimo in the woodwinds, a conclusion that caused squawk on the inner groves of the first stereo record I ever owned (Mahler’s Fourth as performed by Klemperer, which I got, along with Beethoven’s Ninth, on Christmas Day in 1962 – hence I associate the Fourth with winter – and that, as readers of my blogs know, was not a good time in my life.)

By the way, the "polytonal" scherzo theme resembles the opening of the tune "A Place and Time to Call our Own" from the CBS/Paramount sci-fi series "The 4400." But Mahler's handling of the melodic concept is much more interesting.

The slow movement, Poco Adagio, is expansive and seems to be written in the variation form of late Beethoven. This performance took it a bit too fast. Toward the end, the music builds to a massive “sunrise” climax in the distant key of E Major, before migrating back to end quietly on the dominant D and lead to the finale, which is simply a song “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn”, sung with orchestra by Ms. Wortham. The music is playful and childlike, recalling the sleighbells, but for the last stanza, curiously descends a “chromatic third” to E Major, in which the symphony ends.

Mahler originally considered adding this song as a seventh movement to the Third Symphony (which I heard the Minnesota Orchestra perform in 2002), which would have been a mistake. The Third Movement ends powerfully with its majestic D Major slow movement. (Curiously, the famous first movement migrates from D Minor to F Major, so it’s fitting to end in D). I spoke to Ms. Wortham during the reception, and she said that the descent of the “chromatic third” is supposed to ensure a sense of calm. I always felt that it still leaves a question mark, at the end of the Wunderhorn period. Mahler’s next symphony would be written in a totally new style for him.

I also met Mr. Gerber during the intermission.

Update: June 11

Maryland PBS today aired a performance by the Cleveland Orchestra in Florian Abbey in Linz, Austria, conducted by the youthful Franz Wesler-Most, of Anton Bruckner's Symphony #5 in B-flat. And that's both major and minor, as the main motive has the D flattened most of the time. The work oscillates between religiosity and driving energy. The first movement crashes to a close with an outburst that almost seems to conjure off images of Smallville's Clark "speeding" off to Metropolis. The finale is a massive fugue that combines all the motives of the previous movements, and ends with a majestic brass chorale. The mood of the work fits an abbey, but the conductor's tempos were a little fast, particularly in the Adagio.

Would Oprah approve of the WMPO's shopping bag?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

"America the Fabulous": Washington DC Gay Men's Chorus Pride Concert at GWU

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC presented a pageant revue and concert called “America the Fabulous” at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC on June 6 and 7.

The program consisted of about fifteen items, many of them with the fill chorus, in various combinations with the five “semi-finalists” for “Miss Fabulous” (or “Fab-u-leux”) from around the country: Amarillo (Matt Komonik), Minneapolis-St. Paul (Craig Cippolini and Sharie Reppert), Manhattan (Nick Pietras), Nashville (Robert T. Boaz), and Malibu (Matt Gillette). At the end, the two MC’s (who would spin “Saturday Night Live” type jokes while the sets were changed behind the scenes for the chorus) asked for random questions from the audience, in a mock of the final rounds of the old Miss America pageants (that used to be hosted by Bert Parks). Miss Malibu, who presented himself as a surfer and swimmer as if he had appeared in the WB show “Summerland,” was voted the winner by voice volume.

The musical style was “pop” with a little country and western. ‘Act I’ included a little bit of tame disco-type teasing by Miss Nashville. Before the intermission the Chorus sang a “Tribute to America,” including the “Star Spangled Banner” and most of the audience gradually stood. For a moment, the concert resembled an SLDN (ServiceMembers Legal Defense Network) event.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Alban Berg's Lulu and Wozzeck

Lulu (1935), the second of the two operas by Viennese composer Alban Berg, is available on DVD with a 1997 performance by the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, conducted by Andrew Davis. The libretto was adapted from two plays by Frank Wedekind: “Erdgeist” (“Earth Spirit”) and “Die Buchse der Pandore” (“Pandora’s Box”). Christine Schafer sings the part of Lulu; Kathryn Harries is the countess Geschwitz .

The opera (in three Acts, running about three hours) was intended to be written in three symmetrical acts, with the third complete only in short score and complete by Friedrich Cerha. The story is well known, as it follows the disintegration of the life of Lulu, through several affairs and marriages (including a brief episode with a lesbian countess), to her shooting of one of her spouses Dr. Schon, her arrest and imprisonment and treatment for cholera, her “recovery” to activity in a casino, to her life of homelessness in the streets, finally to her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. The opera is a major example of expressionism, and to some the subject matter seems nihilistic.

In the middle of Act II there occurs an orchestral intermezzo, written as a palindrome, accompanied by a black-and-white silent film showing Lulu’s arrest and prison after the shooting.

The music is fascinating. It is most composed according to the twelve-tone system of atonality developed by Arnold Schoenberg. In a number of passages (such as the beginning of Act I, Scene III), though, the music is surprisingly postromantic and lush, sometimes recalling the palette of Wagner in Tristan and Isolde, or perhaps the Mahler of the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies. The music has been termed “good old-fashioned romantic opera” however morbid the story. Act II ends with a shattering orchestral climax, perhaps echoing the mood of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Curiously, Mahler works some jazz into his ambient Viennese Post Romanticism.

The stage in this performance is stark and filled with circles and ellipses and late 30s geometric forms, with brick walls and segmented wooden floors that move in various patterns. Some of the activity is moderately explicit.

The opera was broadcast from the Met on PBS in early 1981.

I saw Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck (1914-1922), at the Met myself in the fall of 1974, shortly after I had moved into New York City. The opera starts out with the shavings scene and ends with the drowning and deserted children in utter desolation. The form is interesting. Act I is a suite, Act II is a “symphony”, and Act III is a set of “inventions” on different objects, with the famous fortissimo note B before the drowning, and even the use of an out-of-tune piano. The music is hyperchromatic and nearly atonal, but does not use the formal twelve tone rows. Despite the sparing, intimate and open orchestration, there is a kind of opulence to the work.