Saturday, January 24, 2009

George Perle, 93, was an exponent of 12-tone "tonality" in music composition

The New York Times today reported the passing of composer George Perle (1915-2009) at the age of 93. There is a detailed obituary on p A17 of the Saturday, Jan 24, 2009 Times by Allan Kozinn, here.

According to the article, Perle was an exponent of a system called “12 tone tonality” which was a middle ground between atonality and traditional tonality. On its surface, the term suggests extreme chromaticism, already developed by Liszt and Wagner. Liszt, in fact, wrote a piece called “Bagatelle without Tonality” which gains its effect with lots of diminished seventh chords as I remember (somewhere on an old Vox or Turnabout recording from the early 1960s).

Perle had also written extensively about music theory (just check Amazon; many of the books are quite expensive, still) and had performed a lot of research on Viennese exponent of atonality, Alban Berg, particularly the opera Lulu (with work on the supposedly unfinished third Act), and the Lyric Suite.

Berg, in fact, to many people sounds almost like a logical extension of postromanticism; a lot of Lulu (especially the excerpted “Symphony”) sounds lush and romantic – the atonality is carried out as ultimate chromaticism, beyond Wagner. Schoenberg seems less so, perhaps (after Gurre-Lieder, that is, which is one of the most extravagant postromantic symphonic-cantatas ever, even trying to outdo Mahler). Compare Berg, for example, to Pierre Boulez, who sounds ascetic in comparison.

I found a website, "Allmusic", where one could sample some of Perle’s music, here; I had trouble making the site work (both Mozilla and IE), but I did hear samples of some of it. It did not sound “lush” to me like a lot of Berg. So I did the “good citizenship” thing (at least for copyright law and for the economy) and ordered a CD of his orchestral music from Amazon, an Albany CD with the Seattle Symphony; I should have received it next week.

Remember the inauguration? I suppose everyone heard the 4 minute chamber piece (“Air and Simple Gifts”) by John Williams (a British composer who is known most of all for film music, with his Richard Strauss-like style, but he also has atonal or hypermodern concert compositions like a well known Violin Concerto). The piece was a bit pensive and modern, somewhat recalling the mood of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Barack Obama was sworn in right after the piece concluded. The Chief Justice was distracted enough by the emotion of the moment that he flubbed a word. . Here’s an AP Review of the piece by Mark Steinberg.

The illustration above is a photo of two handwritten pages from my own “Third Sonata”, from the first movement, near the start of the “development section.” Note the annotation “without tonality.” I composed this around February 1962, after a traumatic period of my life (documented elsewhere on these blogs). I recorded the entire piece on a piano at the First Baptist Church in Washington DC in February 1991 on a DAT tape. In my next life phase, whenever, I’d like to get set up and get all of this entered into a computer so it is performable. I think the 50-minute piece actually works. But the “senza tonalite” is supposed to be an experiment in reflecting “emotion” without the gravity of a specific tonal center

Update: Feb 1

The Albany CD Troy 292 has four works by Perle, the first three with the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz, the last, the Royal Philharmonic conducted by David Epstein. The works are: The Sinofinetta #2 (1990), in which the outer movements are scherzos, the Piano Concerto #1 (1990), with Michael Boriskin at the piano, the Adagio (1992), and Three Movements (1960). The works sounded a bit manipulative and conjured up less emotion than I'm used to with, say, Alban Berg.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Spanish production of Berlioz opera in 1999 seems like a UFO tale

In the dramatic TV series “Everwood” the teenage piano prodigy Ephram, for all his talent, resents his father’s insistence on “being right” rather than living a life. So it is with Goethe’s character Faust, who desired ultimate wisdom, the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the ability to do without emotions not within his choosing, and without Faith. He would see Heaven and Hell for himself.

So thought French composer Hector Berlioz, who fashioned his own libretto for “La Damnation de Faust” from a translation by Gerard de Nerval, with some material by Almire Gandonnierre. Berlioz, we think, was a bit crazy, maybe a substance abuser, and went on his own trips.

The 1999 performance, on DVD from Constantin, by the Orfeon Donostiarra de San Sebastian, conducted by Tolzer Knabenchor, looks like it could play on the Sci-Fi channel. Much of the action takes place in a storied glass cylinder, that essentially becomes a UFO (like in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”). There is the love story plot with Marguerite, but love here hardly has anything to do with submitting one’s soul to the larger purposes of the future of civilization. Instead, these are the end times; there is eroticism, and then judgment, and eventual salvation indeed. This opera performance depicts Hell with bodies floating around in the cylinder, and in a dorm-like structure that recalls “Doctor Atomic” (and maybe recalls the concentration camps, too). But then, at the end, Heaven becomes like the inside of the same cylindrical UFO, in four levels, light and airy, with choirboys instead of “Grays”, the same chorus that opened the opera when Faust was carrying lawn pesticide equipment. (There’s other stuff, like ladder climbing; the cast cannot suffer from acrophobia.) Some of the dorm design (and the “interior décor” of the UFO) do recall Spanish art and architecture. Perhaps the UFO takes us through a time-space worm hole to another Universe to some kind of finality, where we are entitled to knowing good and evil once and for all.

The music, despite the choruses (and a great fugue) sounds airy and lightweight to me compared to a lot of other Berlioz, with the ending quiet and in high registers only. (It does not impress the way the conclusions of Boito’s and Gounod’s operas on this material does.)

I visited San Sebastian-Donesta, Spain in April 2001, having taken a bus from Bilbao, and I recall the stunning circle beach, as well as the canal lined with impressive homes. In Basque country, this is a fascinating corner of the world, a place you might hole up to write your movie script if you have the money.

Most of us get introduced to Hector Berlioz with the 5-movement Symphonie Fantastique. I recall a 1963 Grand Award recording (the Paris Opera conducted by Vandernoot) with the snarling bass in the March to the Scaffold (a challenge to cartridges and tone arms of the time), when “35 MM film” (also used then by Everest records) was considered a recording innovation.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

"Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci": how opera has already covered "novel" legal problems now on the Internet

Deutsch Grammophon (with Netflix) offers a DVD of the 1982 film versions, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, of the “Cav and Pag” short operas, often put on together. Both operas, in verismo style, despite their presumed ageless popularity, have been associated with legal controversies that are relevant today as novel problems surface with the Internet. Both films are produced by an Italian company named Unitel.

The first opera is Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (“Rustic Calvalry”). The libretto is by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, adapted from a play by Giovanni Verga based on his own short story. Mascagni composed the opera for a “Project Greenlight” style competition for new composers. The cast uses opera singers Plácido Domingo as Turiddu, Yelena Obraztsova as Santuzza, Renato Bruson as Alfio and Fedora Barbieri as Lucia. .The conductor is Georges Pretre with the La Scala orchestra and chorus. It premiered in 1890. Musically, it sounds a bit the lusher of the two, with its famous chromatic intermezzo (used in “Raging Bull” and “Godfather III”) with typical Italian stepwise modulations. Most of the film (70 minutes) occurs outdoors in lush green countryside (I had thought that Sicily was dry), and there is a compelling Catholic pageant scene with stirring chorus.

I recall, on Wednesday afternoon “class” in the home basement of my piano teacher in the early and mid 1950s, that the Intermezzo was one of the pieces she would play (on an old 78 shellac recording) in teaching repertoire. As kids, we barely understood the point of tragedy, and of the numerous jealousies and infidelities in the plots of operas like this. The story, somewhat like a modern soap opera, starts as Turiddu returns from military service (relevant to complicated 19th Century Italian history) and becomes involved in a rather bizarre love triangle (some of it of his making) based on jealousy because his fiancée had married in his absence. That’s compelling enough today – men go to war, and lose everything at home, and make it worse when they come back. The ending is violent and tragic enough, suitable for loud minor chords.

The legal controversy comes from the fact that composer Domenico Monleone wrote another opera by the same name in 1907, based on the same material, for another competition. The second opera would have a successful European tour but be banned from Italy after legal action, probably out of turf protection. In the United States, there could not have been an infringement claim based on the first opera, although copyright law with derivative works can get tricky.

The second opera, not quite as appealing to me musically, is the more interesting conceptually. That’s "Pagliacci" (or “performers” or “clowns”; you don't need the article "I"), by Ruggero Leoncavallo. The cast in this performance includes Plácido Domingo, Teresa Stratas, and
Juan Pons, Leoncavallo was apparently inspired by the idea that a short opera can be successful from Mascagni’s success.

The film treatment has to mix "fiction" (the comedy club troupe) with "reality" and generally looks leaner than the other film. There is a bit of squalor in the outdoor scenes. There is one curious nude shot of a minor.

The concept of the story probably centers on the famous aria “Vesti la Giubba”, or “Put on the Costume” (because “the show must go on”). Piano students all learn the transcription of the e-minor aria as a way of getting used to bass melodies and the effectiveness of minor keys with adventurous modulations. (Elsewhere the music has a tendency to a lot of repeated figures, as in the clown scenes.) But the moral question of the story is, if you act out a part, will people believe you are the character, if you really are somebody else? Is that the “actor’s dilemma?” Not today, because it is part of actor professionalism. I remember in seventh grade feeling sensitive about putting makeup on my body to be in the innocent musical (Morgan-Johnson’s) “The Sunbonnet Girl”. But these kinds of questions has come up before, such as with the film “The Kite Runner,” of which Paramount delayed the release because of fears of how the film would be taken given the culture in Afghanistan. In the opera, the “clown” (Canio) is perceived as a tolerant and lax (perhaps foolish) husband, whereas in his personal life he is very jealous. This leads to the tragic and violent “minor key” conclusion of the opera, where the stage play and real life mix. (You know that this will be the theme of the opera when it opens with the clownish stage act. The use of clowns and other art as moral symbols seems to have become important in Italy, prior to the rise of fascism.)

Of course, the opera deals with the question of resembling a character that one acts. There can also occur the problem of a character in a work of fiction resembling a real character, perhaps oneself, and the work’s being taken by others as an indication of what the author has the propensity to actually do at some unspecified time in the future. That has happened to me before (it forms a lot of the substance of the “don’t ask don’t tell” problem, including gays in the military).

Of course, Shakespeare had tried the concept of mixing fiction with reality with the "play within a play" concept in the early part of "Hamlet."

Brett Neveu has a play "Harmless" about a modern setting of this issue (see my main blog Jan. 6 2009). I may try to see it and review here later.

Leoncavallo was actually accused of “copyright infringement” for “plagiarizing” play of Catulle Mendès , "La Femme de Tabarin", which Leoncavallo probably say in Paris in 1887. But Leoncavallo insists that he actually witnessed an incident like this in real life in Italy, when a servant took him to a comedy performance like this.

We think all of our labyrinthine political and legal controversies today (as with the Internet) are new, but sometimes opera shows us that they are rehearings of old problems.

Netflix says that the DVD takes 60 minutes. Actually, it takes 142 minutes: the two films run 70 and 72 minutes, respectively.

Picture: “The Golden Calf”. I have Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aaron” on order for review later.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Maazel conducts last New Years concert with New York Philharmonic

On New Year’s Eve 2008, Lorin Maazel (his blog is here) conducted his last New Year’s Eve concert with the New York Philharmonic (Deutche Welle interview), and the concert was broadcast on PBS. Another recent interview with Maazel appears on Classical Source, here. George Mason University in Fairfax VA has an interview with Maazel on Toscanini here(remember, how the Italian conductor took everything so fast – I remember the contrast between Toscanini and Klemperer back in the early 60s).

The concert consisted of a number of overtures and short concert pieces and vocal arias or solos sung by Susan Graham. At the end of the concert, Graham sang Auld Lang Sein. Renee Flemming hosted the concert and interviewed by Graham and Maazel.

Maazel mentioned the history of the orchestra, back to the days of Gustav Mahler, and then Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein. He said that an opera overture is a promise of the best of what is to come – but many more modern operas do not have overtures. He said that only a few operas do well as concert pieces without stage work, but these include Elektra. Falstaff and La Traviata. Opera is essentially a stage, dramatic and visual art form as well as a musical one, and he suggests that it fits well into film.

As for the program, Verdi’s “La forza del destino” overture always struck me as a determined battle between A minor and E major. The Seguidilla and Habanera from Carmen are well known to piano students, who nearly always learn a piano transcriptions during about the third year of piano studies (particularly the Habanera). The Falla “Ritual Fire Dance” has always struck me as repetitive (like Ravel’s Bolero), and the ending, with the repeated dominant chords before the final A minor octave is a bit much. I remember “Malaguena” from the Andalucian Suite by Ernesto Lecouna as a similar piece, given to bombast in its popular piano transcription.

I worked for a while, in 2003, selling subscriptions by phone to the National Symphony Orchestra (through a Canadian company called Arts Marketing), and I recall that Renee Fleming was a big draw when she performed.

I went to the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center a few times when I lived in New York City 1974-1978. When I think of the place, I recall the scene in TheWB's "Everwood" where the piano prodigy Ephram Brown (Gregory Smith) plays a Chopin Etude on an outdoor electric piano, in an episode before his audition with Julliard busts because of his relationship with his father -- one of the saddest sequences ever in dramatic television (aired in 2004).

The New Years Eve program consisted of these items:

Overture to La forza del destino

Overture to La gazza ladra

"Deh per questo istante solo" from La clemenza di Tito K. 621, with Susan Graham

"Vilja's song" from The Merry Widow, with Susan Graham (the audience was invited to sing along at a couple of points)

Danse Macabre

Hungarian Dance No. 5

Can-Can from Orpheus in the Underworld (I heard a middle school orchestra perform the overture when I was substitute teaching)

Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman

Prelude to Act III of Carmen

"L'Amour est un oiseau rebelle", from Carmen (Habañera), with Susan Graham

"Près des ramparts de Séville" from Carmen (Seguidilla), with Susan Graham (let me add here, my favorite Bizet piece is the triumphant "Patrie Overture" -- that would have made a great selection for this concert)

"Ritual Fire Dance" from El Amor Brujo

I'll make another suggestion: I wish Maazel had performed Sir Arthur Sullivan's majestic tribute to his father, "In Memoriam", a curiously moving and majestic pieces, some of it in 5/4 time.