Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Moby-Dick", opera by Jake Heggie of Melville's novel, is impressive visually, less so musically (to me, at least)

The new opera “Moby-Dick”, based on Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, plays a little more gently than expected, at least as I experienced it at the Kennedy Center last night.
Compose Jake Heggie, 52 (both a composer and pianist) provides a straightforward musical narration, with a chamber orchestra style that varies from French-style romanticism and mild impressionism to some of the more inventive palette we usually associate with Benjamin Britten.  Indeed, the storm sequence in this opera resembles musically a similar scene from Peter Grimes (one of the Sea Interludes), but the Britten opera that invites obvious comparison is Billy Budd (which I saw at the Kennedy Center in the1990s).  The latter opera still seems much more powerful, and is practically a metaphor for the debate over “unit cohesion” that followed the “gays in the military” issue, for which Britten was prescient.
The opera does have several orchestral interludes, including an opening prelude (to call it an overture would be a stretch) with an adjacent-notes melody which reminds me of my own teen impromptu in what sounded like the same key, A Minor.  The tempo is often moderately slow, like Andante. The opera (after two acts each with two main scenes) has an Epilogue, and given the tragedy of the whale hunt and the catastrophe that results (despite coming through a storm), the quiet ending, dying away, is appropriate to honor the one survivor. The running time, exclusive of intermission, seems to be about 140 minutes.    
Instead, here, it’s hard these days to build up a lot of steam over the issues in the story. Whales are cetacean, and their biological relatives (dophins and especially orcas) may be the most intelligent animals on the planet after man, proving the idea of convergent evolution and supporting the idea that intelligent life arises when there is enough time on any favorable planet. 

But in the 19th century, whale oil was big business, and it remained so until electricity was in common use (see the History Channel’s “The Men Who Built America, TV Blog, Nov. 11, 2012). 
The stagecraft was interesting, except that amplified itself by providing what amounts to Imax film in some scenes, such as with the openings star map, upon which the masts of the ship are superimposed. Later other effects include showing life boars mounted vertically into CGI effects on the screen.  The novel has been filmed a few times by Hollywood, and if you’ve substitute=taught high school English very much, you’ve become familiar with this novel. 
The libretto is by Gene Scheer, and the program notes talk about the difficulty in writing it. 
This (Washington National Opera) performance is an East Coast premier (it had started in Dallas and also been performed in San Francisco)   The conductor is a youthful Evan Rogister. 
The University of California at San Diego offers a video interviewing the composer here.
The Kennedy Center’s website for the opera is here.
The performance last night offered a QA, which I had to skip because an early Wed. engagement that I had to get up at 5:30 AM today for.  
In Dallas, there used to be a gay bar on Maple Ave. called Moby-Dick.  

Picture:  The Goodspeed, in Alexandria, VA, 2007.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Havergal Brian, Symphony #3, an oft-quoted but obscure post-Mahler masterpiece

British composers know how to compose loud music.  We know that from the Royal Wedding in 2011.  And since both Prince William and his father reportedly follow classical music, I suspect that they both know the work I’m reviewing today.
I’ve had the 1989 Hyperion recording of the Symphony #3 in C# Minor by Havergal Brian (1931) for a number of years.  Somehow it did not show up after my relocation some years ago.  So I ordered a replacement from a reseller from Amazon, cheaply, on a new budget label called Helios.  The performance is from the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lionel Friend, with dual pianists (2 pianos) Andrew Ball and Julian Jacobson.

I had played the conclusion a few times on a YouTube video, apparently illegal.  When I commented on the work, it wound up in Google+ (just look up my thread there under my name in Blogger).  But then the video got taken down at the request of Hyperion, although Google+ keeps the comment (Dec. 13. 2013).  So I replaced the CD with an inexpensive but legal copy from an Amazon reseller in the UK.

Brian is indeed often called the English Mahler.  If Mahler had not died at 51 in 1911, what would he have composed?  Some works, like the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, the Prokofiev Sixth, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and his Cello Symphony, and some of the earlier large works of Havergal Brian give us an idea.

The Third, in C# Minor, seems influenced by the Beethoven 5th, the Mahler 5th (the opening C# Minor theme in that work with four notes, three of them repeated, based on the Beethoven),  and particularly in the last two movements achieves the linear contrapuntal palette that closely resembles middle and sometimes late Mahler.  The first movement, in which the pianos are more prominent (but as orchestra instruments, not soloists) reminds one of Shostakovich, with the march rhythms, and the second movement has a touch of Vaughn Williams and Bax.  This is a curious combination of styles, but it works.

Brian’s works are always tonally centered, and tend to jump from one tonality platform to another through sequences of dissonance.  He often uses repetition of notes and sometimes loud declamatory chords in doing so (like in the Fourth Symphony (Jan. 25).  Other young composers and even “popular” song writers use these techniques and may be carrying around vestigial memories of this particular symphony, which Hollywood composers seem to know pretty well,  to imprint them into the public mind. (We’ll come to that.)  Timo Andres’s uses repeated notes and this sort of harmonic treatment in a few of the pieces of his two-piano “Shy and Mighty”, especially the opening (“Antennae”).  Reid Ewing’s teen-popular song “In the Moonlight (Do Me)” (for “Modern Family”) might have been inspired by Beethoven’s piano sonata of that name (and one of the themes), but there is the same use of repeated notes moving the music around different levels that is very effective in an “art song” sense.   All new music involves some copying.  Oh, remember that Franz Schubert used repeated notes so effectively in the Great C Major.

The opening movement (Andante moderator e marcato, but it is more like Allegro moderato as played) seems also to have inspired a similarly conceived movement to open Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony (#2) with piano obligato.   That movement is built in groups of variations, but that sounds to be the case in the Brian work.  Yet, the program notes for the CD describe it as an expanded Sonata Allegro, with the themes themselves broken into variation-like blocks, moving among different tonal planes.  The second theme group, in B Minor (an odd choice), roughly sketches the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee”.  The twenty-minute movement works up to an explosive climax toward the end, with drum effects that seem to quote Mahler (the third movement of the Seventh Symphony, and the third movement of the “complete” Tenth). 

The slow movement, Lento, does take us to the English countryside, maybe the world of Thomas Hardy (didn’t we all read “Return of the Native” in high school English literature?), and has that overlay of the pastoralists, but with a more linear treatment (than with Delius, Vaughn Williams, etc).

The scherzo, Allegro Vivace, in A, will sound familiar.  I know it’s in the movies, but I can’t remember which film. It really could have been composed by Mahler, unaltered.  It’s alla breve so it isn’t a Landler, but it is 100% Viennese.  The brass take up a martial theme, with the repeated notes again, jumping around in crude, deliberately perfunctory modulations to sound popular.  The trio, more leisurely, again seems to belong in the world of the Mahler Seventh. 

The Finale, opening Lento solenne in a somber introduction, increases into a hesitating allegro, a kind of pulsar with a somewhat telescoped sonata form.  The three note theme comes back, and then the hymn tune from the first movement.  The music settles into skilled contrapuntal, perhaps fugal, development of the hymn – put this on the organ and you have something like a Liszt “ad nos”.  The resulting harmonies are strange, and among some of Brian’s most original music.  We are no longer in the world of Mahler or even Britten; we’re in a utterly strange, almost alien zone that is Brian’s own.  The music sets us up to face the idea of brutality again, as if Brian knew that war was coming.  The pianos and now organ join in. There is a pause, like a cardiac arrest.  Then suddenly, the repeated-note theme smashes down on us, in the Picardy D-flat Major, with one jump to the median F, and one final chord, “FFF”.  We have submitted.

Brian might have been inspired by the way Sir Arnold Bax ends his Fifth Symphony, in the same key, with a similar emotional effect, constantly compressing another hymn tune out of existence before crashing down.

I mentioned on Aug. 25 the possible use of this finale material at the close of the 1944 film “A Canterbury Tale”, with “Onward Christian Soldiers” thrown in.  The music is not exactly the same, but the Brian repeated note theme comes back, at the very end, even for the closing credits with boys, soon to be off to war, innocently playing soccer, with the soccer ball approaching, with crushing effect. 
I do have the Marco Polo CD set of the "Gothic" symphony, and some day soon I'll play it again and review it. 
But, really, a work like the Third (or the Gothic) needs to be listened to at a real performance.  That probably means getting my passport in order.  I haven't been to the UK since 2001 (before 9/11).  

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Local Arlington pastor gives dramatic talk on plight on Pine Ridge Reservation

I float among several area churches many Sunday mornings, and even without reading much from the churches’ websites (I do peek), I seem to walk in on services where something very important is presented. 
Today, I re-visited the Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, VA (smaller than Trinity), and found the Director of Christian Formation, Susan Q. Graceson, presenting a 25-minute “reflection” that amounted to a one-person play, the script for a probable short film.
The presentation was titled “Reservations”.  Rev. Graceson, as part of her qualification for her degree or appointment, had to complete an immersion trip. 

So this January she visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (“Wazi Aharharj Oyanjke”) of the Oglala Lakota nation, in southwestern South Dakota. 
She stayed in a “retreat”  (cosponsored by Presbyterian and Lutheran groups) housing six people in a small room.  She was introduced to the extreme poverty of the reservation, including the lowest per capita income for any county in the US, lifespans of 48 and 52 years for men and women, extreme incidence of adult onset diabetes (due to sudden use of western processed foods after centuries of living off the land – wild animals would develop diabetes if suddenly fed by people out of generosity), and the presence of gangs, and the lack of sanitation and normal retail stores and supplies.  This sounds surprising when one considers that many reservations make large incomes from casinos (such as Mystic Lake near Minneapolis, one state away).  Nevertheless, the entire presentation drew a parallel between American conquest of native lands in the through the 19th Century, compared to European style colonialism leading to horrible poverty, religious and sexual violence, and civil war in much of sub-Saharan Africa today (as well as apartheid, and even the extreme inequality in its aftermath, leading to violence, as in the film “Tell Me and I Will Forget”, reviewed on the Movies blog Feb. 4).  Her delivery was vivid and would make good material for a short POV PBS-style film.
The music include pastor David Ensign’s guitar. The hymnal doesn’t name the composers, but I think one of the hymns was by Ralph Vaughn Williams. 
I have visited the Black Hills (including Mt. Rushmore) and Badlands twice, in April 1974 and May 1998. (Both of these occurred in particularly interesting professional and then personal circumstances;  I went out to SD on vacation from a work benchmark in Minnesota after working on a particularly novel technical problem for the time).  In March 2001 I visited other reservation areas between Watertown and Siselton, with 30 inches of wet snow on the ground everywhere, and apparently again in the summer of 2002. The Badlands-Rapid City area was a favorite of my late father, who had a home movie of a freak June snowstorm above (6000 ft+) Rapid City in 1941, which I have not been able to locate in the estate (I have made DVD's of most of the family's 8mm home movies from the 40s and 50s). 

Wikipedia attribution link for Badlands picture (at top). 
One other question to ponder:  Is the debate over the Washington Redskins professional football team name relevant here?  Did the controversy last season affect the team's poor performance?  I think it did. 


Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Schubert's completed symphonies, made to sound like Bruckner

I am a fan of completing romantic symphonies, and today I pulled out a 1983 CD on Philips of Sir Nevil Marriner’s performance of the “complete” Unfinished Symphony #8 in B Minor, D. 759.
The third movement is a setting of a B minor scherzo (orchestrated and perhaps touched up by Brian Newnbould) and trio that had been sketched on the piano and used before on an Odyssey (Columbia) recording.  For the Finale, Marriner uses the Entr’acte in B Minor from Rosamunde, and it really does work.  It is in deliberate but lively tempo, has some daring harmonies, and goes into the Picardy B Major at the end.  Marriner lets the final chord die away (and this sometimes done by some conductors with other Schubert orchestral works, even the Great).  That may be appropriate in a ballet setting, but if the movement is used to close the symphony, I think the full fortissimo should be sustained.
It’s of course worth noting that the first two movements, as familiar as they are, do look forward to Bruckner.  The first movement, almost an animated slow movement in triple time, has a relatively simple architecture, and puts its lovely second theme firs in G Major and then the relative D Major, before returning to B minor (and ending with a diminishing B Minor chord, an effect I don’t get.  Dvorak ended his New World Symphony with a similar idea.)  The famous Andante con moto in E Major sounds faster than the opening Allegro moderato here.  It’s interesting that Bruckner’s own “unfinished” 9th ends with an E Major slow movement, but then that work got finished, too (March 8, 2011).
The CD has a setting of fragments from the proposed Symphony #10 in D, as orchestrated by Brian Newbould. These fragments are rather insignificant and featherweight as presented.  In fact, the Finale fragment dies away suddenly in F# Major.
I do have the Ricacare CD of the “completion” of the D. 936A work as completed by Belgian conductor Pierre Bartholomee.  Running about 40 minutes,  the work seems almost complete and is quite moving.  The first movement, Allegro Maestoso, in D, really does anticipate Bruckner even more.  The development section seems abbreviated, but Newbould said that what sounds like a Recapitulation is really further development.  The recording presents a long, expansive coda, ending in brazen triumph, that really does sound “Brucknerized” (recalling the way Bruckner ends the first movement of the Fourth). The second movement, in the relative B minor, is a slow waltz in 3/8, Andante.  If played slowly (as Bartholomee does), it sounds like it comes right out of the world of the Mahler Wunderhorn symphonies.   Newbould’s sketches on the Philips hardly convey this impression of either movement.   The third movement is really a completed scherzo in D (D 708A), and fits pretty well.  But it has some unusual counterpoint for a scherzo and is formally really a Rondo.  The Finale, as Bartholomee presents it, is a closing Rondo, again lively, which accepts the fact that the work has already risen to its greatest heights.  A comparison could be made with the finale of Beethoven’s Second. 

The Seventh, in E Major, by the way, is an orchestration of a 2-piano work. Is that why Bruckner chose E Major for his own Seventh?
The other big “unfinished” complete work is the Mahler Symphony #10 in F#, of which the best recording is Ormandy’s on Sony-Columbia in the 1960s.  Don’t forget Puccini’s “Turandot” either (which I saw in Dallas in 1980, the night of Reagan’s victory).