I seem to have made it through more than two decades of professional life without actually having to set down, definitively, what I think defines good criticism, how one practices it and other basic questions about the field. Mike Singer, writing for the AIA’s bulletin, asked me some of the essential questions, and I offered my halting responses in a piece that is now online.
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I was elated when it was announced the Corcoran wouldn’t be leaving its historic home on 17th Street NW. But still, what does it say about the institution that they even considered the idea? With the recent announcement that the Corcoran will seek some kind of partnership or alliance with the University of Maryland, there’s an understandable sense of skepticism about how that will play out. In this Sunday’s The Washington Post, I talk to several people who will be deeply involved in the project. And I come away with a tiny glimmer of hope, so long as the Corcoran opens up the process and allows full transparency as it goes forward.
Dwell magazine has posted a story I wrote about a new house in Seoul, designed by the magnificent architect Steven Holl, who was recently chosen to reconfigure parts of the Kennedy Center campus. Holl was looking through a book called Notations, a compendium of contemporary music edited by the composer John Cage. Struck by the unique graphic design of Istvan Anhalt’s 1967 Symphony of Modules, Holl used Anhalt’s score as inspiration for the new Daeyang House and Gallery. Anhalt’s score, one of those everything-and-kitchen-sink beasts that composers loved to write in the 1960s, has never been performed. But the composer’s widow was pleased to see her husband’s work memorialized in Holl’s design, and sent the architect a note saying so. In my article I look at the unique design, its inspiration, and the complicated question of how, or if, music and architecture are related.
The star of the show is, of course, soprano Patricia Racette, who added the title role to her repertory for the first time last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Racette is a favorite at the Washington National Opera, perhaps as close to a house soprano as we’re likely to get. I loved her in the 2011 Tosca, and the 2009 Peter Grimes, and still remember her searing performance in the premiere of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline in Santa Fe in 1996.
Racette isn’t a naturally gifted singer, but rises to greatness through force of will, commitment, technique and passionate intensity. Is her voice the most sensuously beautiful? No, but she can darken it to chilling effect, and she has wonderful control over its dynamic range. It is at its most lovely when deployed in intimate passages, softly, with a rounder, warmer tone. Pushed to greater volume in the upper range, the voice has a pronounced vibrato, but it’s not a vibrato that interferes with a clear sense of pitch. You wish the slight throbbing sound wasn’t there, but then that feels like quibbling because the vibrato never gets in the way of the singer’s expression and communication.
She is a fine actress, too, and never performs as if the singing is all that’s required. Her acting goes deep. Not content merely with the well-timed gesture, Racette fully embodies her characters, in her posture, movement and silences. Racette is now in her mid-40s, but the Manon who flounced on stage in Act I was very much the girl who Prevost tells us was “even younger” than her 17-year-old lover Des Grieux. Throughout this and the next act–when the plot puts the young lovers on a rapid descent into misery and abjection–Racette’s coquettishness was entirely believable.
It also easy to be enthusiastic about the baritone Giorgio Caoduro, who sang Manon’s brother (and pimp) Lescaut. Caodoru is a dynamic presence on stage, athletic and alert to the drama, and he sings with a pleasing voice and easy facility.
Beyond that, however, the production gets weaker. John Pascoe’s 2007 staging is aggressively ugly at times, especially in the first act, which looks like it fell off the back of a second-rate bus-and-truck company. The central staircase is too large and intrusive, and makes the space feel cluttered, constricting rather than opening up possibilities for stage movement. The flower garlands and other kitschy touches suggest the unapologetic camp of a ballet set. Larger mirrors don’t seem to add much beyond more visual dissonance. A sparer approach to Act II helped and the blasted desert of Act IV was effective. The director might consider refining the stage business in Act III, in which Lescaut and Des Grieux make a failed attempt to rescue Manon from the soldiers who are leading her to exile. There was a lot of shuffling without much purpose or clarity.
As Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev got off to a bumpy start (the first several minutes of Act I need some serious rehearsal on everyone’s part). His voice blooms only when he throws himself into the red-blooded declamation of Puccini at his most lyrically intense. If the music doesn’t call for ardor, Chanev’s production feels scattered and choppy. But the opera builds throughout its four acts, almost as if Puccini, in his first great work, was learning moment by moment how to be Puccini. And as it builds in intensity, the tenor is given more and more of the spotlight. By the end, Chanev was in his comfort zone and his performance made a stronger impression.
One can’t go to the opera these days without being aware of the economy and the challenges faced by all opera companies, which struggle to make the most of limited budgets in lean times. Critics remain on the outside of the hard decisions about how put on a show without hemorrhaging red ink. But I can’t help feel that there was a leaner, meaner, and yet more dramatically powerful way to stage this Manon Lescaut. Yes, the costumes were lovely and sumptuous, but they aren’t really necessary. More could be left to imagination, which always is kinder to the mise en scene than cheap efforts at luxury.
Parting thought: Manon Lescaut calls out for new cinematic treatment. If the dreadful Les Miserables can triumph at the box office, couldn’t Manon (with or without music by Puccini or Massenet) have a decent run? The bones of the story felt as fresh last night as they must have in the 1730s.
I can’t shake a powerful sense of sadness this afternoon. Around noon, the movers came to remove my old piano, a 7-foot Kawai I’ve owned since I was 22 years old, and replace it with a rebuilt Steinway model A, from the 1890s, a considerably smaller but more elegant instrument. I’ve had the Kawai for a quarter century now. It has moved with me from New York to Detroit to St. Louis to Washington, and every apartment or house I’ve ever lived in has been chosen primarily for its capacity to hold a very big, shiny black box.
When I was still in my early twenties, it came along with me on a failed but necessary experiment in romance and cohabitation. The relocation taught me a painful lesson in practical geometry. I reasoned this way: If I am 5’ 10” and my piano is less than that in width, and if I can walk up the stairs without bumping my head, then certainly my piano will make it up to the third floor. Big mistake. One must measure perpendicular to the angle of the stairs.
The piano wouldn’t fit and there it sat, on 14th Street, with crowds and cars rushing by. The movers had no good ideas and I was fairly desperate. I realized there was a pair of large French windows on the back of the new apartment, which looked onto a parking lot. I found a phone book, hired a crane company (minimum three guys, three hours each at union hourly rate), and paid the parking attendant to let me use the space. Then I hired a carpenter to tear out the window–making a space big enough for the piano to pass through–and then replace it when finished. Many thousands of dollars later the piano was in its new home. Only a few months later my experiment in cohabitation was over, and I repeated the whole process in reverse.
I loved that instrument. Saying goodbye to it was remarkably hard. You don’t realize how much an instrument becomes integral to your identity. I chose it when I was playing mostly large 19th-century repertoire, especially Chopin and Liszt. More than any other instrument I tried, the old piano had clarity and ping in the bass. When you wanted to make a lot of noise, the piano came with you without protest.
I’m playing mostly Bach now, which is likely a getting older thing. The new piano is very responsive, and has a deliciously sweet upper range, bell-like and clear. The action is better, and the damper pedal doesn’t have the occasional quirks of the old piano. The bass, well, I suppose I’ll get used to its muddier sound, which is to be expected given the smaller size of the instrument.
Grief comes in all sizes, sometimes attached to lost people, sometimes to places, sometimes to things, and often simply to time itself. The loss of a beloved thing, which was a symbol for youth, that’s the explanation.
A new show, though quite small, is worth a peak into the National Portrait Gallery. The most horrifying image is the one reproduced here, one of the most galvanizing photographs made in the 19th century. When Lincoln spoke of blood “drawn” with the lash, I imagine he meant something like this, a literal writing on the body of the slave. My review.
It’s fraud, pure and simple, and serious musicians shouldn’t do it. Live performance is a contract with the audience, and part of that contract is risk on the performer’s part. The payoff, for the audience and the artist, is something unique, ineffable and transporting, all the more exciting because of the risk involved. Yes, it’s hard to sing outdoors on a cold day in front of millions of people. And sometimes it may simply be impossible to pull off, because of the weather. But don’t get involved in fraud. If you can’t do it, or it is impossible to do it, then say no. That’s part of the basic contract of live performance, too: the chance that it might be cancelled. Better to leave a hole in the program then betray your listeners.
I can’t say I’m proud of every word in this review, product of the first big foreign trip I took as classical music critic for The Washington Post. But it’s what I honestly thought at the time, and I don’t regret my enthusiasm for Carter, or the opera (“What Next,” the composer’s first) I saw that night in Berlin. Carter was gracious, and the opera made an impression.
Something came to life at the end of tonight. Perhaps it was just a chapter in the long and productive life of the American composer Elliott Carter, whose opera “What Next?” was premiered at Berlin’s Staatsoper this evening. Or maybe it was a larger chapter in the history of American music.
Just shy of 91 years, Carter has written what he calls his first opera, a one-act musical evocation of an auto accident, its aftermath, and the smug satisfaction that the walking wounded–a k a mankind–take in selfishness and inner preoccupation. It is music without traditional harmony or melody, without the traditional sense of rhythm or pulse, and with a coy and literate libretto (by Paul Griffiths) that lives in the absurdist and directionless world of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jacques Tati. Almost a century after modernist composers like Arnold Schoenberg began refashioning late romantic music into something that was, paradoxically, both more orderly and more chaotic, Carter has produced the quintessence of everything they hoped to accomplish. The German audience, ranging from old men in tuxedos and monocles to young couples in jeans and bright spandex, gave it a standing ovation, with the traditional European foot-stamping on the historic floorboards.
That wouldn’t happen in America. Carter is easily this country’s most decorated composer, yet one of its least popular among audiences. He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, received honorary degrees from the world’s most prestigious universities and was the first composer to win the National Medal of the Arts. In Europe, and in Germany in particular, he is both respected and appreciated. The prophet at home, however, has an unbroken track record of alienation in the concert hall despite a long stringof critical successes.
Throughout his decades, Carter has been undaunted, willing to be the happy loner. Other composers and programmers have turned increasingly to the comfortable musical world that Schoenberg shattered with his mathematical order, or to infantilized minimalism and folk or pop-derived idioms. Not Carter.
“I still write the music I want to write,” Carter said in an interview at intermission. “America has always been a hard nut to crack.”
A stylistic descendant of Schoenberg and Charles Ives, Carter looks at music as a series of problems and solutions. Schoenberg “liberated” music from traditional tonality and melody. Carter “liberated” music even further, creating difficult but prismatic rhythmic effects and freeing it from a regular, unchanging sense of pulse. He learned to make rhythm modulate like harmony. Each of his major works–and he’s the sort of composer who composes only major works–has taken the complex ordering of disparate materials to dizzying levels. Carter has more than once sent one of his beloved compositions–”orphans,” he sometimes calls them–into the world unsure if it would be playable.
“What Next?” is no exception. It is ferociously difficult, with an orchestral texture based, in long passages, on a constant, rapid series of seemingly unrelated notes, an effect that is both unnerving and strangely hypnotic, like listening to a TV channel filled with static. There are only six vocal parts (and no chorus), but each singer lives in a rhythmically unique world. The principal lyric soprano, Rose (Simone Nold), has the most consistently melodic lines, flitting off into soaring vocal linesand birdsong. Baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann, who sang the part “Harry or Larry,” has music to match his personality: an oily stud in sharkskin, swaying constantly to some inner lounge singer. There is a contralto (Hilary Summers), whose music is earthy and robust, a boy alto (Ian Antal), who penetrates the texture with cutting questions, and tenor William Joyner babbles pseudo-Zen nonsense. And there is a dramatic soprano role, Mama (Lynne Dawson), who uses her hefty musical lines in a vain struggle tobring some discipline to this obnoxious brood. These unlikely elements are woven into uncompromisingly complex patterns, with beats subdivided into units of three or five. A singer’s line may begin with a single note in the middle of a triplet, or a group of five. The effect, while musically daunting, works theatrically, allowing individual lines to penetrate the clangorous orchestra.
The music world has been saying post-mortems for this kind of music for at least 20 years. The notion of music as a series of difficult problems with difficult solutions seems quaint today. In American opera houses, composers are now turning to classic American literature for inspiration. (Major operas based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” will be premiered this season.) And composers rely on musical styles that use tonality and engaging rhythmic patterns like a reward for good audience behavior. A composer like Carter can easily be made to look like, say, an architect who builds a house out of garden rakes and garbage bags. Perhaps it’s possible, but will anyone buy it?
Carter‘s greatest legacy may well be that, ultimately, he doesn’t care. The composer came reluctantly, at first, to his new opus. At 90, he takes on new projects cautiously. It took conductor Daniel Barenboim, who led the astonishingly accomplished performance, to coax Carter into approaching the form. And it also took on a promise of a performance at the Staatsoper to convince Carter.
For that, Barenboim deserves special praise. The results of Carter‘s first foray into the form are overwhelming. In Griffith’s dense libretto, Carter has found text ideally suited to his musical style. The story, purposely vague, advances by misunderstandings and mistaken homonyms, yet ultimately coalesces into a sad but often humorous morality tale. As with much of his recent music, a clarity and tenderness lie underneath all the apparent cacophony. An orchestral intermezzo, placed midway in the opera, may be some of the most heartfelt and expressive music Carter has ever written.
But more important, Carter has woven together a mind-boggling number of 20th-century preoccupations: the prison house of language, anxiety and alienation; the futility of all our sexual pawing and grasping; the limits of expression, musical and otherwise. His opera asks, again and again, “What next?” Not just for the dazed and distraught characters onstage, but for music and mankind. Like the burst of stage thunder and banging of trash can lids that opens the work, and like each of his greatest works,it makes the question “What next?” a bit terrifying. If every work is a revolution, where does it all end?
Carter‘s new opera was paired with Schoenberg’s one-act “Von Heute auf Morgen” (“From Today Till Tomorrow”), perhaps its ideal partner. Schoenberg’s work is also a domestic opera, about a small family cataclysm and its aftermath. It, too, is a touching morality tale clothed in spiky music. Composed 70 years earlier, when modernism was all about masks and identity, it is still of a piece with Carter‘s opera–except for the creeping sense that there is nothing underneath the masks. Hearing the two workstogether, it’s clear that modernism was pushed from the stage far too early, before it had exhausted its central themes. Carter has pursued those themes consistently, finding new opportunities for expression along the way.
Thousands of miles from his own country, America’s greatest modernist has produced a work that, like the best of Bach, is a summation of a tradition fading into unjustified obscurity.
My five nights at the opera in Santa Fe last week were some of the most engaging I’ve spent listening to music drama in a long time. I tried to analyze what the season means in the context of today’s larger opera terrain in a piece published last week, and I took a closer look at one of my favorite composers, Karol Szymanowski, in an extended review of his “King Roger” in the Sunday paper. “King Roger” is one of those perpetually more-obscure-than-it-should-be pieces, and I really don’t understand why. It is the work of a Polish composer and written in Polish, which partially marginalized it in a cultural climate focused on the German, French and Italian classics. And its eroticism is a bit a sticky point for some listeners, perhaps. The harmonic language is highly individual, a muscular impressionism that verges on expressionistic outbursts, and that may make it too volatile and unstable for some listeners. And then there is its rather quaint and dense symbolist atmosphere, ladden with anxiety and stark, almost manichean divisions of the world and the soul. But what gorgeous music, and with Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role, what an amazing vehicle for singing. I hope Santa Fe’s success with it, and recent productions at Bard and in Paris, give it a new lease.
Photo Credit: Ken Howard (Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera)
Join me at the mother ship, The Washington Post, as I live blog the Olympic broadcast tonight. Yes, yes, I know. I’m completely unqualified to say a thing about the Olympics. But I do occasionally pass judgment on spectacle, and what is the Olympics if not pure spectacle. I’ve asked composer Peter Breiner, who orchestrated all the national anthems for the 2004 Athens Olympics to join me, for musical perspective, and other insights. Beginning 7 ish EST.