Glenn Branca’s “The Light (for David)”

In the program notes for Glenn Branca’s concert last night at Roulette, Branca  talks about Bowie’s death: “I don’t know what else to say. It hurts.” It sets up emotions as a crucial component–capturing and working through a feeling.

Branca has a long and controversial history in his area of music (think John Cage, for example, who was not a fan to put it mildly), but the concert last night, performed by the Glenn Branca Ensemble, felt tame and controlled.

Branca’s Ensemble carries four guitar players, one bass player and drums, with Branca himself at the front conducting in a style that directly mirrors this music, bracing and raising each new wave of sound with his whole body.

It was a program with two works: The Third Ascension (six movements and two tuning changes) and the world premiere of “The Light (for David).” I can’t say exactly what set individual works apart. Branca is more of a total-performance deal than a piece-by-piece experience. He seemed to recognize this himself, muttering that “We were only getting started” and “This one’s a bitch,” connecting the works together in a developing sequence.

But a sequence of what? Given the type of big dissonant sound (all audience members were given a set of free ear plugs), the environment was controlled by structure from the half circle of music stands on stage to the resolution that greeted us at each end. It made for an odd combination of chaos and restraint, with emphasis on the latter.

My brother (who had covered my program with the words “HELTER SKELTER” as question about the point of the experience) caught Branca in between pieces and asked him, “What’s more important, structure or emotion?” And Branca answered, “I don’t know, emotion?”

For a world premiere like this, emotion makes sense, but you have to wonder about the potential left behind in the realm that this music comes out of.

Neither at BAM

If you know Samuel Beckett’s work, you know he will make you feel anxious–about time, about dying, about biscuits–without any calming balm. His short piece Neither (it runs about sixteen lines of text) is stunning on the page, but alive–so alive–on the stage.

Neither, is an opera with libretto by Beckett and music by Morton Feldman that first premiered in 1977; it newly premiered on Wednesday as an original representation with eleven dancers by choreographer Shen Wei at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s a triple threat of artistic genius, really.

When Feldman first met Beckett in 1976, they agreed that music and words were better left apart, and indeed, this is the only opera Feldman composed and the only organized musical literary setting that Beckett approved during his life. They call it an anti-opera. I call it a masterpiece of sensations through imagery.

A Nostalgic Creation… Houston Symphony this weekend. Read my review at Bachtrack.

And last night, the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra delivered an astounding concert. It’s getting more and more rare that I’ll hear a piece of music and fall in love with it, but their performance of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra was out. of. this. world.


Cosi at the Salzburger Festspiele


In a time when opera is trying to reinvent itself and competing with all number of entertainment that has to do much less work to seem relevant, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at this year’s Salzburger Festspiele is a remarkably original balance of the old looking forward to the new.

This balance begins with supernumeraries who are already on stage as audience members find their seats. Enlightenment-era scientists, wearing long white masks and velvet robes, mull over two sketches of human anatomy—one female, one male. Pulling on long beards, frowning at the ovaries, these perplexed philosophers show that the scenes to come are already but a mise-en-abyme. Their antiquated science is quickly framed and replaced by our own rationalization of the romantic comedy before us. After all, who can make sense of love?

Conductor Ottavio Dantone makes his Salzburg Fest debut with this opera and controls the work with precise tempos both fast and slow. As he began the overture, a curious Dorabella and Fiordiligi scurry to stage left where the scientists have retired at individual laboratory tables, laughing and pointing at the diagrams. But the scientists follow the unsuspecting women back to center stage, seize them, and cover their mouths with a handkerchief of chloroform. The men position the unconscious women on a settee, who later awake as if in a dream, and Mozart’s comedy becomes a scientific experiment of Enlightenment proportions.

The program notes that director Sven-Eric Bechtolf wanted to capture this opera in the year 1790, when it originally debuted, as a moment of (violent) transition from scientific logic to the romantic chaos that the French Revolution engendered. What he’s done here with the stagecraft—from blocking to set to costumes—is a clever symmetry throughout. The two pairs-—Fernando and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Fiordiligi dressed in period costumes—organize so neatly across the stage, crossing paths and then re-organizing, that the identity confusion inherent to the plot is heightened to a satiric degree. Even while the plot tests the essence of opposite genders, it also makes this stark difference paradoxically homogenous.

The talent across the board makes it possible to raise this special peculiarity of time and space where historic attention meets innovation. German soprano Julia Kleiter, as Fiordiligi, floats and soars with transporting grace (she was undoubtedly the audience favorite at the curtain call). As Dorabella, Angela Brower fulfills the more changeable sister’s character with a sweet and accurate clarity while still performing as an amusing flirt. Alessio Arduini (Guglielmo), the experienced Martina Jankova (Despina), and the puppet master Michael Volle (Don Alfonso) all perform with the ease of true professionals. The standout is Mauro Peter in the role of Ferrando, who delivered a quintessential “Un ‘aura amorosa” with a thrillingly round timbre for a tenor. It’s singers like these that make you forget you are watching an opera and allow you to be simply consumed by it.

Naturally, the setting of the Festspielhaus in Salzburg, half cliff-half theatre, reminds one of the ancient, not to the mention the fact that Mozart’s birth house is a street away. How difficult it must be, then, to maintain ties to the opera’s roots while delivering something that feels as new and exciting as Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versaille.

The trick is in the details. When the opera proper begins, for example, the scientists unroll and set up idyllic watercolor backdrops around the six characters and then appear a level or two up between the cloisters built into the cliff. As they look down on the singers playing out their gendered experiment, emotion takes the lead. When Ferrando realizes he is betrayed, he stabs a watermelon brought out for refreshment and breaks into it with his hands, pulling finger-fulls up into the air and squeezing juice onto the rug below. Next he moves over to a pillow, which he also stabs and hurls the stuffing across stage left. The metaphor is not subtle, and while it is at one moment making light of the changeability of women, the next it borders on a darker aggression that many iterations of Cosi don’t even come close to.

If you paid your 10 Euros for the program, you’ll also get a list of the Cosi’s the festival has performed. Since 1922, the festival has produced the opera 44 times. The statistics makes this production even more impressive, if that were possible. This is Mozart opera at its absolute best, delightful and timelessly provoking, because it finds us racing to logic even as it presses on those human conundrums that find no refuge in rationality.

July is Renovation Season…


…for Germany’s opera houses. It’s a cruel trick to imagine what I’ll be missing when the fall season opens across the country (in Berlin, the Staatsoper under den linden; in Bayreuth, the Margravial Opera House). I’m just hoping the Wortham will catch onto the summer trend?IMG_0488IMG_0523



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.


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.