Mysteries of the Macabre

In 1978 at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, György Ligeti premiered his opera Le Grand Macabre. It’s sort of the opera that has everything, running the gamut from tragedy to comedy. Wild, dramatic, absurd, but still philosophical, the opera offers two perspectives that feel incredibly relevant to our present times: to live in fear of tyrants and monsters, always anticipating the worst, or to embrace what joys are within immediate reach.

I’ve long admired it, but never had the pleasure of seeing it in person. Instead, I’ve scoured many recordings and youtube videos. Recently, a friend shared a video that is unlike anything I’ve seen: Barbara Hannigan sings an arrangement of three arias for soprano, “Mysteries of the Macabre,” with conductor Sir Simon Rattle (recorded in January, 2015). I don’t want to give anything away, but—wow. Incredible stuff.

But wait! There’s more: Your conception of what opera is can be radically redefined too. Watch it here.

Loop38 in Groundbreaking Houston Debut

The word “try” implies a lot of different ideas from earnest ventures and brave experiments to risky attempts. It means taking a stab at something when you don’t know how it will turn out. In its debut concert last night at Midtown and Arts Theatre Center Houston, Loop38 humbly emphasized the idea of trying, but there’s no ambiguity about where it will land. With the creation of Loop38, something electrifying has arrived in Houston.

Loop38 is a 17-person collective of musicians co-founded by pianist Yvonne Chen and conductor Jerry Hou. It focuses on performing “new music,” stuff that’s being composed right now and in the near past, which means the collective will constantly be taking risks, shifting the foundations of what we know and challenging us to consider new musical realities.

The five works on the program, all written in the last 24 years, showed five facets of what these new realities could be. With Andrew Norman’s 2011 work “Try,” a sensational amount of different musical ideas intersected, from dynamics fading radically in and out to sliding tones and groaning foundations above which a frenzy of notes flew around. The eight minutes comprising Christopher Cerrone’s “Recovering” were sacred moments of evolving breath (musicians stood spaced out around the room breathing into their instruments) with percussionist Craig Hauschildt unassumingly in the fore striking serene resonances.

With a paradox for a title, Mizzy Mazzoli’s 2008 “The Sound of Light” toyed with open fifths, quick scales, and duple and triple meter. Christina Hughes, pristinely performing on the flute, aptly held one heel of her leopard print pumps suspended in the air for most of the piece. Likewise, in Hans Abrahamsen’s moving quintet “Herbstlied,” Katie Hart took the English horn into uncharted pastoral territory. The English horn denotes mellow peacefulness naturally in its timbre, but this was something beyond.

The concert culminated with “Living Toys,” a 1993 composition by Thomas Adès. Of all the composers on the program, Adès was the only one I felt skeptical about. His empty and vain 2003 opera The Tempest perpetuates the stereotype that new work is difficult to listen to. And so I was surprised to feel pulled into the work, following the coordinated uncoordination of so many sounds, lines, and melodies.

Jerry Hou, who conducted with understated finesse, joked beforehand about how hard “Living Toys” was to perform. And this is the other thing that makes Loop38 such a success as a group—no one there made it look difficult. The fervor and skill each one of these performers has is not something you’re going to see in Houston very often.

With Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s disaster world premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera this weekend lodged in my recent memory, I can tell you first-hand that new music doesn’t automatically translate as something worth trying, and I can tell you why so many organizations veer toward work that is already known and beloved. But this is also why we should all be clamoring for tickets to Loop38’s next concert. It’s cliché, but I’m going to say it anyway: this concert was a breath of fresh air. More than that, Loop38 is breaking unorthodox ground with intentional pluck in an era when we need that more than ever.

Another Dimension…

…At Houston Symphony last night with Daniil Trifonov playing Schumann’s piano concerto. You can read my review at Bachtrack. What you won’t read in my review is a moment during the cadenza in the first movement, when the gentleman in front of me pulled his program out, holding it in mid air, and began lazily reading through it. I was beyond baffled why someone would decide to read the list of guarantors while an artist like Trifonov has his hands melting at the piano. Why even go to the symphony at all?

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.