Girl at the Opera

Houston Symphony: More of the New, Please
Monday September 22nd 2014, 7:28 am
Filed under: Houston Symphony

World Premiere Karnavalingo by Gabriela Lena Frank up against Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben in Houston Symphony’s Classical Season Opener. Read my review at Bachtrack.



Form and Story: Laurie Anderson at UH
Thursday September 11th 2014, 12:55 pm
Filed under: Intermission,New York

Laurie Anderson resists categorization. The Mitchell Artist Lecture is an annual event that aims to bring “icons of the avant garde” to the University of Houston. And you can read the long list of reasons why Anderson fits this bill on Wikipedia, but on Wednesday night at the Moores Opera House she embodied a more complicated set of questions the twentieth century has asked about music and art on the whole. She opened her lecture by stating “I’m going to talk about a few of those things I supposedly do, but really…I’m a storyteller…I’m going to talk about some ways I try to jam those things into different forms.”

Why do we need categories? Anderson spoke about the “Art Police” commanding “Get back into your category!” She was reminiscing about the 1970s, when “Nobody really knew what they were doing…We just tried everything.” The borders between what they—Gordon Matta-Clark and Philip Glass, to name a few—were doing, though, remained flexible. “Nobody ever asked me what I wanted be as a kid,” Anderson joked, “So I never decided.” Here Anderson presses against an on-going struggle, particularly in the critical sphere, to define something by placing it in a box with a specific heading: opera, musical, symphony; sculptor, writer, composer. Her interdisciplinary body of work (and that is an understatement) forces us to deal with a more repressed question: what is at stake without the box?

Why does form matter? Once performing on the street in Italy,  Anderson stood in ice skates that were frozen into a block of melting ice, and she played the violin until the ice melted, leaving the duration of her performance up to the elements. The revolutionary aspect of compositions in the twentieth century begins with tension between content and form of a work. The inventions of the twelve-tone scale, tone rows, and matrices in the early half of the century are philosophical experiments in how content is generated, and we can look to Arnold Schoenberg, a pioneer of atonal music, as a yet unwavering exceptionalist figure of the Composer. In the latter half the century, though, chance-generated work radically removed a composer from her work. Indeed, John Cage, a student of Schoenberg, sought to free the content of his music from individual (or the “Composer’s”) likes and dislikes. But it’s not a free-for-all. In chance-generated work the content is unrestricted, but the form is often inflexible. The developing relationship between form and content in Anderson’s work shows an inkling of the future: will form still matter?

How does storytelling relate to form and content? Throughout the evening, Anderson read several stories and told several others off the cuff—some of which she finished and some she left dangling without conclusion. It made her lecture seem disorganized, but the form her lecture took represents an important concept of telling stories. Think of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, for example. Ashley’s investment in American storytelling instigated a move to television—a trailblazing move for opera especially. But someone watching Perfect Lives for the first time will likely have trouble grasping its plot. Instead, we recognize the characters, and this familiarity ties it all together into a story. For Anderson, a story is a set of links: “String something together and call it a story…often I’m very suspicious of those kinds of things, but we all have our stories about our lives,” she said. As such, it’s fascinating to think about what it means for storytelling—an ever-expanding category in itself—to be the inflexible form of Anderson’s work.

A wise person chose David Eagleman, a neuroscientist interested in time perception, to introduce Anderson. Anderson’s stories ranged from ducks in ponds to watching friends die and Vipassana meditation retreats in the mountains—all deeply reminiscent. Many of the films Anderson showed ran in reverse, emphasizing varied states of passing time. At one point she stated, “Every time you tell [a story], you forget it more,” implying, too, that as memories fade they grow into stories with a life of their own. Perhaps time, memory, life, and death raise the largest set of questions, too many and too varied, that stretch throughout civilization far beyond the twentieth century—questions that have yet to be answered in any discipline.

A New Make
Sunday July 20th 2014, 12:20 am
Filed under: Intermission,New York


Alex Waterman, director of Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas, introduced tonight’s performance by remembering what Ashley said to him about re-making his television opera Perfect Lives: “Don’t sell them a used car–make them a new one.” The performance tonight in Marfa, TX, of the Spanish-language version was classically Ashley while inhabiting a vital new magic.

Whether you know Ashley’s operas or not, keeping old opera new is a popular topic right now.  The Economist‘s opera blog posted a piece just last week about Sir Mark Elder’s vision of a La Traviata at this year’s Glyndebourne festival that, he promises, will be new, fresh, and full of exciting discoveries. A tough promise for such an old work. And as the comments show, opera lovers fall passionately on either end of the spectrum about new and old works (and how those distinctions are defined) and staying true to the composer’s intention (whatever that might mean).

Tonight was the final performance of a four-night tour through west Texas, and the finality added an energy akin to a last hour spent with a loved one.  The fearless and talented Ned Sublette, Elio Villafranca, Elisa Santiago, and Raul De Nieves performed the last three out of seven episodes: El Parque (The Park), El Bar (The Bar), and El Patio De Atras (The Backyard). El Parque opened quietly. A strong groove had the floorboards shaking with unconsciously tapping toes by El Bar. But El Patio De Atras was truly spell-binding. Behind a row of old Panasonic televisions, the stage was framed by powerfully colored hanging banners–orange, purple, turquoise, red–that met at the back in two blocks of green. In the last act, these two green blocks opened slowly to the outside where Santiago was standing in a spotlight dressed in a floating gown alone. It was beautiful.

Ashley died this March, but if this production says anything it is that he is very much still alive. Near the end of his introduction, Waterman dedicated the performance to Mimi Johnson and Ashley, saying “They were supposed to be here tonight, but they couldn’t make it”–as though something had just come up in Ashley’s schedule. It was a fitting statement given how strongly Ashley’s influence comes through in this production. It may be a new car, but it still has the peaceful ingenuity I love in Perfect Lives. How much is Ashley and how much is Waterman–that’s harder to say. Who knows what some time will do to this work. What will Perfect Lives look like in 2050? I’m not sure, but I can’t wait to find out.


Summer Intermission: Some Notes
Wednesday July 09th 2014, 4:12 pm
Filed under: Houston Grand Opera,Intermission,New York

As the summer opera-hiatus drags on—alas, will October never arrive?—a few notes:

Opera is not far away! Alex Waterman directs the late Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas over two weekends in west Texas. Vidas Perfectas is a Spanish iteration of Ashley’s seven-episode television opera Perfect Lives that premiered in the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York this spring. It is perhaps his best-known work—a composition that pushes feverishly against traditional and stuffy attitudes about opera to focus on the American vernacular and, most of all, American storytelling. Catch the first four episodes in El Paso on July 12 and the final three in Ciudad Juárez on July 13. The tour moves to Marfa for another two performances on July 18 and 19 (for more info, check out Ballroom Marfa). I’m catching the last night—look out for a review—and you can also watch video recordings of all the episodes (previously filmed in February) here.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones writes a noteworthy spotlight piece on Brian Eno—a composer who continues to thrill and bewilder my notions of musical content. And, surprisingly, Alex Ross takes a more generous approach than some Houston critics (myself included) to Weinberg’s The Passenger, which came through Houston in January and now sees its way through New York.

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Symphonic Spectacular!
Monday May 26th 2014, 1:43 pm
Filed under: Houston Symphony

Houston Symphony Pops’ closing concert of its centennial season veers from Rocky to a “Conductor Think Cap”–read my review at Houstonia Mag.

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Houston Symphony plays Mahler’s 8th
Saturday May 10th 2014, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Houston Symphony

A transcendental performance: read my review at Houstonia here.

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Casual Friday
Friday May 02nd 2014, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Intermission

Morgan Sorne at G Gallery


On Wednesday at the luminous G Gallery in the heights, four celebrated poets read from their work—Ange Mlinko, Paul Otremba, Joseph Campana, and Nick Flynn. And then, standing in a meager circle of electronic equipment and percussion instruments, musician and performance artist Morgan Sorne set one poem from each poet to music. The four resulting pieces, built looping and layering vocal samples, were unlike anything I have heard in Houston. What Sorne does is something new—and I mean that in its fullest sense. There’s word he’s going to give a concert here in October, and you won’t want to miss it.

So you missed Sorne on Wednesday, but do you have plans tonight? Catch the International Contemporary Ensemble tonight at the Wortham playing John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony, Louis Andriessen’s Life, and Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite as part of Da Camera’s 2013-2014 season. The renowned ensemble alone promises to be sensational; the program of these twenty-first-century greats makes this concert another must-see.

And if it’s just been a long week and you’d rather kick back at home, this video of “mad scientist of music” Mark Applebaum tests the idea of what music is altogether, opening with a pretty smart concept of boredom. His Concerto for Florist and Orchestra will complete your Friday night and round out your week by putting any absurdities you might have experienced into perspective (catch the performance in its entirety here).

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HGO’s Carmen at Houstonia Magazine
Monday April 28th 2014, 10:57 am
Filed under: Houston Grand Opera

It might be that Das Rheingold is just a hard act to follow. Or maybe not–read my review of HGO’s season-closer Carmen at Houstonia Magazine.

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Need a Spring pick-me-up? See Houston Symphony: Bronfman plays Beethoven’s 4
Friday April 18th 2014, 10:15 am
Filed under: Houston Symphony

I grew up listening to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, otherwise known as the Emperor Concerto, every Saturday afternoon. With its lyrical opening line, fast turns, and harmonic vivacity, the last movement of his Piano Concerto No. 4 has always struck me as a prelude to the majestic following concerto—beautiful, but not up to the heavenly standards Beethoven reached with Concerto No. 5. But Yefim Bronfman, the great Soviet-born Israeli-American pianist, shows why Concerto No. 4 holds its own against the mighty Emperor.

This Easter weekend, Houston Symphony presents a three-concert series with Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major, Opus 88 alongside Bronfman at the piano for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (and, if you’re lucky as I was on Thursday, Bronfman will grace the audience with a stunning encore). It is also Music Director Designate Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s final appearance with Houston Symphony until next season’s opening weekend.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts with energy, and he’s not afraid to move as though the music were actually dancing through his lithe fingers and across his body. Any concert of Smetana, Beethoven, and Dvořák reliably makes for a pleasant night of quality classical music. Under Orozco-Estrada’s baton, this trio is delightful and surprisingly invigorating.


Bronfman plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 tonight, April 18, and tomorrow, April 19. Visit Houston Symphony’s website for tickets and more info.

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Das Rheingold at HGO Redefines Wagner’s Total Work of Art
Saturday April 12th 2014, 12:57 pm
Filed under: Houston Grand Opera


Photo by Lynn Lane. Iain Paterson as Wotan, Meredith Arwady as Erda, Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, Stefan Margita as Loge, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt

What is a total work of art? Those familiar with Richard Wagner will jump in first to correct the English with the German “Gesamtkunstwerk” and describe, starry-eyed, Wagner’s vision of a totalizing performance space in which all the arts—architecture, music, poetry—are perfectly fused. But Houston Grand Opera’s Das Rheingold, a co-production with Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, and Maggio Musicale, Florence, makes me wonder if we ever really understood a total work of art until now. Extraordinary doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

Das Rheingold is the first in Wagner’s epic tetralogy, the Ring Cycle. This opera lays the narrative foundation. As its title suggests, Das Rheingold establishes where the magical gold originates, how it gets forged into a powerful ring, and how it portends the inevitable demise of the gods and Valhalla.

What you might not expect, though, is that this production also establishes that the two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, are supported by 800-pound cranes that come from the same metal shop as Sigourney Weaver’s fighting machine in Alien, and that Loge, the god of fire, is a devil with a Segway. Don’t be surprised to find yourself pondering factory farming as golden forms, hung by their heels, are rolled across the background in an assembly line or reminiscing about the Matrix as golden embryos are packed and sealed against a complex set of data and industrial piping. And I haven’t even gotten to the acrobatics, fire breather, and flying fish tanks yet.

Individually, these elements would be strange (although Loge on a Segway is a stroke of genius no matter what). What set designer Roland Olbeter, costume designer Chu Uroz, lighting designers Peter van Praet and Gianni Paolo Mirenda and video designer Franc Aleu have made together is no less than a visual artistic masterpiece. Architecture: check.

The vocal cast is a power house. The three Rhinemaidens, Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum, open the opera with a trio de force while still managing to seductively splash around in square, suspended tanks. Baritone Christopher Purves, in the role of the unsightly Alberich, dances around below them while exemplifying vocal agility. As Fricka, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton tears it up with a voice full of passionate steel. Iain Paterson reigns as Wotan with a mighty bass-baritone—forceful and commanding.

Most memorable of all, tenor Stefan Margita offers an invigorated interpretation of Loge, and it’s not just because he’s floats around the stage on mechanized wheels. Costumed in a shiny white cape lit up with red LED bulbs, Margita leaves an impression. Das Rheingold is the only opera of the Ring Cycle in which Loge plays a major role (later you’ll briefly see him set a ring of fire around Brünnhilde and, later still, light up Valhalla), and it’s a shame. Margita sings purposefully without it feeling purposeful. He is such a good performer it is easy to forget he’s acting. The tenor timbre that so rarely even borders on the fullness that baritones achieve, is, for Margita, a given of breadth and sophistication. I’m tempted to say he is a total work of art himself.

And the orchestra, conducted by the indefatigable Patrick Summers, captures Wagner’s ideal: although there were a few horn blunders, I hardly cared because the score was practically unnoticeable as a separate entity. Music: check.

But the most pressing reason this production redefines Gesamtkunstwerk is that there is poetry in the experience I can’t put into words. It envelopes you and transports you to another land in another time as only a true total work of art can.

Das Rheingold runs April 11- April 26, and many shows are already sold out, so book it now and don’t miss this singular production.