Wagner Festival in Bayreuth

I’ve just left Bayreuth, Germany, where the famed annual Wagner Festival began on Monday with Parsifal. Anticipation was high, the city on alert, as the Wagner-obsessed descended. After a few walks through town and visit to the newly-renovated Richard Wagner Museum and Wannfried House, the concept of Wagner seems to be punctiliously marketed (no doubt because the Wagner family estate still maintains powerful influence there). The Richard Wagner Museum’s audio tour carefully notes, for example, that despite Wagner’s blatant anti-semitism, “he had many Jewish friends.”A Bayreuth local mentioned to me in a whisper that some say Wagner’s music had an influence on Hitler–a understatement that surprised me given the widely-acknowledged association elsewhere. A favorite of mine, Stephen Fry’s notable 2015 documentary Wagner and Me is rooted in the reconciliation of the value of Wagner’s music (it’s magnificent, no denying it as far as I’m concerned) and Wagner’s problematic philosophy at large.

A plaque in the park below the Festspielhaus suggests that unrest nevertheless persists in Bayreuth.

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Houston World Premieres of Note

…at Lone Star Lyric Festival, which runs through June 25. Classical music is funny about supporting new work and living composers, as the sage Alex Ross wrote about this very week regarding the Metropolitan Opera’s new appointment of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the NY Philharmonic’s Jaap van Zweden. Looking around at companies not only in Houston, but in America, LSL looks very forward-looking to me. Read my review at Houstonia Magazine.

Brave New World: The Opera

A letter from Aldous Huxley housed in the Woodson Research Center here at Rice University made me wonder what could have been (Bernstein’s response is not supplied):

April 4, 1957. Letter to Leonard Bernstein.

As a very busy man with a large correspondence, I can well understand your annoyance at receiving yet another letter from a perfect stranger. But, at the risk of being a bore, I am writing to ask if you would be at all interested in reading a dramatic verskion [sic] of my novel ‘Brave New World’, which I have recently made, with a view to a musical setting. (I envisage the piece as a play with music and dancing, rather than as a conventional ‘musical’.) The story calls for a very resourceful composer, who can run the gamut from the primitive dances of the Indian Reservation to the music of the hypothetical future. So I naturally thought of you and am hopefully writing this on the off chance that you may have the time and the inclination to consider such a project.

What Trios They Were

In the Ensemble Theatre this morning at the world premiere of What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, I began to think about the advantages of a three-person opera.

A historical recount of a civil case Emeline, a “free woman of color,” brought against Jesse P. Bolls in 1848 Houston, Houston Grand Opera’s (HGOco) What Wings They Were is a moving story told by soprano Gwendolyn Alfred, bass-baritone Christopher Besch, and tenor Brian Yeakley.

Composer John L. Cornelius II creates a wonderful score for the piano, performed with purpose and feeling by music director Bethany Self, but the vocal parts seemed separated from their accompaniment and even from one another. Any opera buff will admit to a love of ensemble numbers, traditionally the satisfying climax of an act (my favorite is the sextet “Chi Mi Frena in al Momento” from Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor), but with newer operas these ensemble numbers have fallen out of the repertoire somehow. Give me some cohesive harmony, some sense of melodic arc—good ensemble can still feel original, no one has condemned it with the old-fashioned stamp.

Three singers translate into opportunity for some rousing ensemble numbers. Bastien and Bastienne, a comedy Mozart wrote when he was only 12 in 1768, for example, has some beautiful duets and ends with a triumphant trio. In the same vein, Donizetti’s Rita, a comedy written in 1860, is ripe with jaunty duets. On the other hand, consider Stewart Wallace’s three-cast Hopper’s Wife, which makes its east coast premiere at the New York City Opera this weekend. The opera assigns a different singing genre to each character (and one character spends a good part holding her own in the nude). Mark Swed of the LA Times calls it “brave” in the realm of American opera for realist historical drama, though he stresses it’s also “not a particularly likable opera and certainly not nice.”

What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline tells an awe-inspiring true story of a woman who sued for her freedom, and for the freedom of her two children, and won. Doesn’t such an incredible story deserve an equally galvanizing trio to ignite its victorious finish? Must new opera sound so isolated?

No Spring like a Beethoven Spring

Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti and pianist Klára Würtz, performing Beethoven’s sonatas over two evenings, created a distinct familiarity with the music, the audience, and the art as the conclusion to Da Camera of Houston’s Menil Collection season. Following a night of Sonata No. 8, No. 2, and No. 9, the duo concluded with a concert of Sonata no. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 12, the famed “Spring” sonata in F Major, Op. 24, and finally the Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96.

I’ll never forget the first time I performed the Spring Sonata with Chad Spears, pianist extraordinaire, who taught me the importance of chamber phrasing. Read my review at Bachtrack.

Da Camera’s Colorado is no clever rattlesnake

Friedrich Nietzsche once called Richard Wagner a clever rattlesnake for his ability to manipulate feeling through sound. It wasn’t a compliment. Since Pythagoras, we’ve known that music has the ability to affect us in unpredictable and untraceable ways, for better and for worse. (Nietzsche would probably add “in sickness and in health.”)

Last night at the world premiere of The Colorado, presented by Da Camera of Houston in conjunction with Fotofest, I was reminded of music’s ability to complement, to enhance and raise the stakes of other artistic media.

The Colorado is a film that chronicles the history of the Colorado River with live and recorded music performed by percussionist and composer Glenn Kotche, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, and the enigmatic vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. New music by composers Paola Prestini, Shara Worden, William Brittelle, John Luther Adams, as well as Kotche and Zeigler, graced the film with intent.

The film, directed by Murat Eyuboglu, begins with serene images of the Colorado River—beautiful, striking images that pull an audience in, that make an audience invested in its power and wonderment. It’s a smart narrative arc, really. It gives background, shows maps, makes us understand our role (humanity at large) in relationship to our environment before revealing that we are the ultimate villain. What seems wild and untamed, a strand the film slowly unfurls, can easily be domesticated. We know the tragic turn ahead.

Watching this multi-media event means choosing, at least in part, between narratives: The performers below the screen and the film. Zeigler, fingers sliding down the neck of his cello, and Kotche, dancing from instrument to instrument, are exciting to watch—brilliant performers with chemistry. But the film has its own draw, too, in this age of global warming, where  despair and regret increasingly replace wonderment in regard to the natural world.

But there are times when the film and the music reach a harmonic zen together, where everything swirls in a new breed of Wagner’s total work of art. When the film introduces the Hoover Dam, ominous drumming starts quietly in the background. The rhythm picks up, scraping raw in new timbres and instruments: Zeigler, head down; Kotche, arms tensed. A chronological list appears on the screen of dams that followed the Hoover. Scrolling, scrolling, we know it means the beginning of the end, an act that painfully reveals humanity’s near-sightedness, a childish predilection for immediate fulfillment and a disregard for future consequences.

It’s this kind of feeling that makes The Colorado singular. Few classical performances have  a subject matter that so easily falls into a didactic train of politics. It would have taken only a slight turn to become a sermonizing parable. But there’s something to be noted in music’s capacity to leave an impression and to leave what that impression is up to us. When the stakes are high, as they are in this performance, it’s a remarkable experience.

The film ends on a hopeful note, both literally and figuratively. The pulsing beat is still there, a remnant of the Hoover Dam scene, but it is joined by voices rising in a major key, higher and almost joyful. The optimism was a surprise, but it speaks to the capacity of music to usher a story into reality.