Find God in Music 

Robert R. Reilly
Robert Reilly's Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music has been with me since its publication. It is one of the most heavily bookmarked, annotated books I have, and much cherished. In the interest of full disclosure, I readily admit that I had the immense pleasure of getting to know its author and critiqued this book twice; once preemptively, before its publication, and again in a tome of a letter, unsent, still. This book is not perfect, and it is probably not first-order brilliant either, but it is beautiful! I treasure it as much as I treasure much of the music that I have since enjoyed because of this book.

Surprised by Beauty is highly spiritual. Stephen Hough, the wonderful pianist who records for Hyperion (interviewed in the book), says on the jacket cover:
Robert Reilly has the unusual and delightful ability to infect the reader with insatiable curiosity about the composers he champions. Names that often were unknown, and sometimes unpronounceable, suddenly seem totally fascinating and worthy of discovery at the earliest opportunity. Yet beyond this level of exploration is his personal vision of music as something profoundly spiritual, expressive of what is best and most enriching in human life and having the possibility of leading us to encounter God Himself.
That is a good introduction to Surprised by Beauty. The opening quote of the book is from Max Picard: "[In] sound itself, there is a readiness to be ordered by the spirit, and this is seen at its most sublime in music." The love for music never ceases to impress, and as knowledgeable a man as Mr. Reilly is always a pleasure to have along for instruction. Before I delve at some length into examples I (dis)agree with in this book, let me summarize.

If you want loving introductions to the music of John Adams ("The Search for a Larger Harmony"), George Antheil ("Bad Boy Made Good"), Malcolm Arnold ("English Enigma"), Gerald Finzi ("Imitations of Immortality"), Stephen Gerber ("Keeping America Real"), Morton Gould ("Maestro of Americana"), Roy Harris ("Singing to America"), Vagn Holmboe ("The Music of Metaphysics"), László Lajtha ("Music from a Secret Room"), Gian Francesco Malipiero ("Beyond Italian Opera"), Frank Martin ("Guide to the Liturgical Year"), William Mathias ("Musical Incantations"), Carl Nielsen ("Music is Life"), Einojuhani Rautavaara ("New Northern Light"), Albert Roussel ("The Freedom of Personal Vision"), Edmund Rubbra ("On the Road to Emmaus"), Harald Saeverud ("A Norwegian Original"), Aulis Sallinen ("Scandinavian Consolation"), Peter Schickele ("Schickele Unmixed"), Franz Schmidt ("Setting the Apocalypse"), Alexander Tcherepnin ("From Russia With Love"), Eduard Tubin ("In From the Cold"), Geirr Tveitt ("The Music in the Waterfall"), Mieczyslaw Vainberg ("Light in the Dark"), Peteris Vasks ("Another New Northern Light"), as well as Duruflé, Elgar, Janáček, Martinů, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, and Villa-Lobos—you have picked up the right book.

These are the composers dealt with in little chapters, ordered alphabetically and cobbled together from reviews and pieces written in different magazines. Nonetheless, there is a coherent line through the work, culminating in a few interviews with composers such as Robert Craft, David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochberg, and Carl Rütti.

Just for John Cage, Mr. Reilly has no kind words ("Apostle of Noise"). And the specter haunting some chapters, not to be rescued until Robert Craft takes up his cause, is Arnold Schoenberg. In fact, Schoenberg so rubs Mr. Reilly the wrong way that he elicits the book's strongest (and perhaps most contentious) statement from him: Ugliness is the aesthetic analogue to evil. When he discusses Moses und Aron and comes to the conclusion that Schoenberg couldn't finish that opera because he hadn't discovered Jesus in his life, I almost choked on my single malt. (To be fair, he is making a metaphysical point of negotiable validity here...)

Let me say it right away. As a lover of modern music—with a much higher tolerance for the unnecessarily absurd (Concerto for two cheese-graters, jet engine, electric toothbrush, and chromatic garbage disposal? Bring it on!)—I have grid (grinded?) ground my teeth many a time. A more conservative reader than me would find himself nodding along throughout the book. Either way, it is a veritable treasure trove. After every chapter, there is a little section discussing the merit of important works of that composer in different editions. This is immensely helpful in choosing where to start the musical discovery tour.

"All Music is Equal"

In a chapter on Peter Schickele (whose program structured my Saturdays until it was, unfortunately, taken off WETA—as, for lack of funding, no new programs are produced of Schickele Mix) Robert R. Reilly (RRR) notes his objection to Schickele Mix's mantra that "all music is created equal," which he continues to expose as nonsense by asking the highly rhetorical questions: "Is all poetry equal? Is a bottle of Thunderbird equal to a 1987 Caymus Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon? Is 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' on the same plane as a Mozart aria?"

Perhaps there is a kinder way to treat Schickele's statement. The proposition is that music ought to be qualitatively judged not by genre, but by where it stands within its genre. "All music is created equal" is not, to play with analogies, to say "all apples are created equal"—which is indeed nonsense; just look at the innate superiority of the Granny Smith!—but instead "that all FRUIT is created equal." Thus the question of whether strawberries were on the same plane as watermelons seems as silly as it probably deserves to be. One ought not to compare Mozart to Wagner or Wagner to Cage or Cage to Ligeti, and so forth, much less Mozart to Snoop Dogg or Diana Krall or Led Zeppelin. It would be not so much "unfair" (though, perhaps, that too!) but again: silly. The enjoyment gifted to us by—or garnered from—Mozart cannot be the same as that which we derive from Wagner or Ligeti or Duke Ellington. It may be equal for some in intensity, but it is not the same.

"All music is created equal" is not tantamount to saying that all music is the same (or even of equal quality). Hence, the same measure of beauty is grossly inadequate. Perhaps the joy from Cage's music can never be as intense as the joy from Mozart's pieces. This may be true for most listeners—and it is true for many reasons, intent not being the least among them—alas, they have value on their own grounds, if only in my opinion. In part I think that this way of thinking of music might be reflected by the actual quote with which Schickele Mix used to open, namely that it was a show dedicated to the proposition that "all musicS ARE created equal!"

In RRR’s discussion on Nielsen he makes a comment along these lines: "This makes a dramatic, but not musical point." Unfortunately, he continues calling it a "miscalculation." Quite frankly, I do not understand why. Is music not supposed to be about more than merely music? L'Art pour l'art? I find nothing wrong with that; indeed, I may well expect it from art to make a point that is not part of its essence. If that were the case, art would become a warped meta-communication about art; a chain of self-referential statements. If applied to films, this would mean that there would be no good cinema aside from 8 ½ or State and Main. I specifically want art to make statements. Afterwards, I may judge the statement to have been transmitted successfully or not, or perhaps so much at the cost of the art itself, that I do not value it for much besides the statement. Perhaps a piece of music is less a movie under such circumstances, but rather a documentary. But I will listen with great interest to such documentaries, even if they are titled String Quartet for the End of Time.

Robert R. Reilly, Surprised by Beauty
These are just two of some of the qualms and reflections that occurred for me when reading the book. They happen to be qualms rather than delight, but that is, if anything, coincidence. For example, I enjoyed this sentence: "Anyone who enjoys Britten's music of this kind should likewise appreciate Mathias's" (p. 144). Indeed telling of the nonchalance with which he treats the breadth of his appreciation of modern music, while I imagine the greater part of his initial readership to wince even at the very idea of Britten, assuming that they know him or his work. I remember now a gentleman who introduced him and RRR's then-still-absent book mentioning Mahler's songs as though he had bitten into a lemon. "...should likewise appreciate Mathias's..."

His passion for Janáček's string quartets is so palpable that not having a copy at home must seem half a crime. His championing of Saeverrud (my initial reaction, too, was: Who???) is passionate and sophisticated. A book, in short, that will get much and repeated bedside reading and the occasional study: a charming companion through 20th-century classical music with amiably strong, if not always agreeable, opinions.


Nun Spared 

(published first at ionarts)

Thursday evening I was told of a production of Dialogues des Carmélites, Poulenc’s most dramatic and successful of his three operas. While I had the dubious pleasure to watch La Bohème on Friday, instead of enjoying Poulenc, I had another chance on Sunday–which I fortunately took. On such short notice, I didn’t delve into the Opera at home, but merely tickled my Poulenc fancy with some of his concerti, songs and music for solo piano, all of which is fresh and delightful, harmless sometimes, but never banal. The piano, organ or harpsichord concertos in particular are a must have for any music lover.

When I arrived at the Lisner Auditorium with minutes to spare, a bit of a Ticket-managing disaster awaited me. Faced with many latecomers who couldn’t find their tickets at will-call, the charming and helpful staff ran about like chickens with their head cut off. (Premonitions of what was to come?) I stood, half forgotten, half lost next to the commotion until Opera International’s Producer-Director Muriel Hom literally and kindly took me by my hand and guided me past the imposing doorman to a seat of my liking.

Hardly seated, the short prelude to The Dialogues began, and I no chance to worry too much about the operas presentation in English, rather than its original French. Setting the tone for Poulenc’s sweet, melodic, but undeniably modern, sometimes neo-classicistic music, Edward Roberts conducted his 37-piece band with immediately audible aplomb towards the charm and wit that can be expected from Poulenc’s work. The sound of the orchestra that spilled out of the small pit–harp, timpani, percussion and a few brass-elements stuck out or sat outside of it–was pleasant and if not terribly refined, it adequate in the best sense.

The revealed set (from the Calgary Opera Association) is sparse and old fashioned-traditional, the costumes “realistic”, say: even more old-fashioned and rather quaint. The character of the drama of The Dialogues, based on a real story and re-told by Poulenc based on the German novella Die letzte am Schaffott (The Last One on the Scaffold) by Gertrud von le Fort and a film script by George Bernanos, is self-contained and can handle this sort of stage direction like a good play can.

The singing, so much could be said from scene I alone, was fairly impressive. Erich Parce’s baritone was strong and supple but never forced. The costume he donned as Marquis de la Force befit his archaic air perfectly and his acting made it work. While good things can be said about Jingma Fan’s singing (he was the Marquis’ son, Blanches brother), his acting was not of the same natural and self-assured, mature quality. His movements and postures seemed more contrived and he did not manage to turn his costume into a natural, rather than a silly, part of his character. Yi-Cherng Lin’s short appearance in the role of the lackey Thierry, however, made clear just how much worse acting could be, still. Age seems to have most to do with this all-too-rare ability among opera singers; which leads me to believe that acting is not nearly emphasized enough (or well enough) in the training of the new generation of opera singers. Jessica Swink as Blanche, looking good despite her costume (which was just a little too much with pink hat and ribbons) featured a clear and amiably fragile tone that became powerful in higher notes, perhaps amidst some unnecessary vibrato.

The prelude to scene II meanwhile shows Poulenc’s play with brass and woodwinds in give and take, while puckishly plucked strings and harp play with each other in the background. Then a more somber, back and forth waving tone enters as we see the convent with the Prioress, Madame de Croissy (superbly sung by Kyle Engler). The minimal set–chair, a wooden panel of separation (confession booth-like), the two characters of the Prioress and Blanche well lit started to shed its old fashioned skin a bit for minimal realism. The costume for Blanche was sill old fashioned but less silly, while a nun’s costume has of course a timelessly sleek appeal. Gently ends this scene – over the flutes last tone as the characters move off stage.

The interlude between scene II and III is another charming work with subtle brass over string, only that this time the responsible section of the orchestra, seemingly assembled for the purpose of this performance, had some audible difficulties with the execution.

That the performance was in English was far less of an obstacle for me than I had thought it might be. One of the reasons is probably my relative ignorance of French in which I would not have understood much. Instead, the language was an integral part in keeping the audience firmly within the dramatic element of the opera. It also gave the opera an amusing Britten-ish flavor with its now less mellifluous, more stilted quality. The choice of language was in the end a valuable trade off between the skills of the participants (for many of whom French would have been more of a challenge), the involvement of the audience and the slight loss of melodic quality that the original language imbues Poulenc’s music with. Seeing Mozart’s Trollflöjten courtesy Ingmar Bergman is at any rate a more disconcerting experience.

A lovely dialogue between the novices in the convent, Sister Blanche and Sister Constance, dominates scene III, dominated by a large bench and table and all the ingredients for a Dutch still life on it. And, of course those every tastefully clad nuns. The attractive soprano Jane-Anne Tucker (Constance) does not have the strongest, but an appropriate and wonderfully agile voice, just about not too shrill and aptly fidgety. She sings impressively all night, more so even considering that she is an amateur singer (in the best sense), busy with two young children.

Scene IV could have done without the gothic gate that stood rather unmotivated in the back. The bed, spartan nightstand and two chairs seemed enough. What followed was Sister Superior (Madame de Crossy) dying stylishly over the course of the next 15 minutes, with the highest artistic merit. To see the audience prematurely robbed of the strong performance of Kyle Engler (an equally fine singer and actress) was a shame. Mother Marie of the Incarnation was more than capable support with her plain face suiting the role visibly very well. Her singing, on the lighter side, was backed up with such fine acting that her performance, too, was pure enjoyment. The cell phone ringing during the conversation between Mother superior (still alive then) and Blanche was an unfortunately distraction.

The story sags a bit during the later parts of Act I with Mother Superior’s vision of a ravaged, abandoned convent being a dramatic interruption. The scene in which she, dead now, is carried off–interrupted by the rings of the unmercifully regular bell from the orchestra pit (and an quickly quenched cell phone) was theatrical and moving; all done behind the semi-transparent curtain that opened again for scene V. The arch remained in the chapel scene and made more sense behind the semi-circle of large candles placed around the Mother Superior’s body. Scene VI in front of the curtain was moving and witty at once with its contemplations of death by Sister Constance.

Jane-Anne Tucker and Jessica Swink
In Scene VII the new mother Superior, Hai-bo Bai, shows that her predecessor had by far and away the superior diction. Swallowed syllables and odd intonations made her English near incomprehensible Sutherland-style, without the trills, though. Her voice certainly was piercing and clean enough to fill her role in most other aspects, though piano parts sometimes slipped into the inaudible under the orchestral accompaniment... to no discernable fault on conductor Robert’s part, however. The church-window projections on the back curtain and the larger than life faux-naïve Jesus on the cross were again perfectly adequate stage sets.

After the introduction before the curtain, scene I is the same as scene II of Act I was. The Chevalier de la Force, Jingma Fan, now seemed a little restricted and nasal in higher vocal altitudes. The continuing interludes kept reminding me of the sea interludes in Peter Grimes (though far shorter and slighter) or even the knee plays from Einstein on the Beach. The Chaplain of the Convent, Patrick Toomey, was fine but on the wobbly side, the new Mother Superior, Madame Lidoine, remained incomprehensible while Jessica Swink’s Sister Blanche got better and better. Paul McIlvaine, 1st Commissioner, was convincing in manner and, despite his role, sympathetic. Mother Marie’s voice was still small but strong and if she lacked bombast she more than made up for it with her ability to portray fragile, stoic strength. The short second act ends with the vow of martyrdom, setting the stage for one of the most hair raising operatic finales.

Act III opens as the nuns are forced to leave the convent in plain cloths (looking cluttered and so much less appealing than in a Carmelite’s uniform). Scene II, same as scene I, Act I, takes place at the library of Marquis de la Force, alas it is torn up and savaged. Blanche who had–unbeknownst to me but according to the synopsis–run away after the taking of the vow is asked by Mother Marie to join the convent again. Blanche, experiencing the upheavals of the French revolution all too vividly (her Father had met the device prescribed by Dr. Guillotin in 1789 as the most humane form of capital punishment; she also got slapped by her former servants!), declines.

Scene III has the nuns in prison after a lovely, waling oboe melody in the interlude. Blanche is still AWOL while the order is condemned to death for unlawful assemblage. Mother Superior mumbled; Mother Marie–absent–wished to join her sisters in their hour of agony and death. Scene V finally is the famous, chilling and so very effective scene in which, one by one, singing their Salve Regina, the nuns, dressed in white (which is historically correct) are led to the scaffold off stage–the grading swooosh-clunk of the falling blade decimating the choir one by one. The guillotine rhythmically and greedily claims one singing nun after another, accompanied by the chilling sound effect that had some audience members gasp silently. Sister Constance is the last left, hesitates, sees Blanche, and meets, singing still, her fate. After Constance’s song is cut short, Blanche continues up the plank to meet the same fate in unquestioning devotion to her vow of martyrdom.

Available from Amazon:
Francis PoulencDialogues des Carmélites, Pierre Dervaux, Denise Duval, Régine Crespin...
In his review in the Washington Post, Tim Page was right to claim that this naïve portrayal of religious fanaticism, no matter how nobly inspired, and the religious pervasiveness over the republican and enlightenment ideas that had been a kernel of the revolution can be difficult to take at the same value than, say, before September 11th, 2001. That I did not think of this connection while following the Opera probably speaks to the performances’ success in grabbing my attention. I was, especially after the Puccini horror at the Wolf Trap, just delighted by this production, one of the most charming opera performances that I have seen in Washington – and that with a shoestring budget and a troupe that seemed rather randomly thrown together. The applause, partisan perhaps, spotty, generous but short, was more than deserved. This 10-year-old foundation “Opera International” with their now 10th production in Washington pulled a feat off that I would not have believed possible. If they continue in this fashion, especially if they delve into a bit more out of the way repertoire rather than doing the hackneyed ‘classics’ like they did in the past, they will be an attraction to opera-neophytes and veterans alike, a distinction very few companies have.


Dip Your Ears... ( 8 ) 

Bela Bartók, The Six String Quartets Takács Quartet
The most important musical statements in chamber music after Haydn are Beethoven’s 16 masterpieces and – in the 20th century – the six works of Bela Bartók and the 15 utterly private and haunting works of Shostakovich. Bartok’s sometimes thorny, spiky, often folk-influenced quartets (listen to #4!) all have their place in this pantheon of the genre. To capture the joy of that music you really ought to hear them live. In absence of that opportunity, try these interpretations by the formidable Takács Quartet from Bartok’s native Hungary. We have splendid accounts from the Emerson (DG) and the Chilingirian Quartets (Chandos), but the Takács, combining the best of 30 years experience with the fresh blood of new members, give these works the vivacious, joyful and exuberant music making they need and deserve. The fun of delving into those pulsing rhythms is palpable, the musicianship impeccable. Do yourself a favor and listen to it on headphones; be ready to be bowled over.


"Mi Chiamo 'Mimi'" 

(published first at ionarts)

One Virginia evening (July 30), muggy as they come this time of the year, Wolf Trap threw a little concert performance of Puccini's evergreen (the word "classic" just won't pass my prejudiced pen) La Bohème. Because two tickets had fallen into my lap I went, and with me my almost opera-neophyte friend. A little disclaimer on my possible bias is perhaps in order, to alert the reader to my preconceived notions about tacky operas in tacky little provincial performances intended for a mob of summer bums who couldn't tell the difference between Monteverdi and Mantovani if their life depended on it.

But it seemed like a good way to hear something about which I already had such strong opinions without every having seen or even heard it! (La Bohème remains one of the half-dozen glaring holes in my otherwise scrutiny-withstanding collection of about 100 operas, and whereas I don't own a Fidelio or, until today, a Carmen, either, I have at least seen them live a few times.) Why have I never heard La Bohème? Presumably snobbery. It's popular: that's a non-starter for the secretly elitist opera cognoscente; it's gone through a Broadway phase (eeeeks), thanks to Baz Luhrmann, which can't please someone looking for a Gesamtkunstwerk; and, what is worst for me, it features a children's chorus, the likely death-spell for any classical work. A few children self-importantly jaunting about on stage and opening their mouths to "Noël, Noël" nearly kills Werther (Massenet) for me, so why not La Bohème? Children—and I say this having been an enthusiastic member of the Regensburger Domspatzen (one of Germany's best boy choirs) and loving a good a capella Mass for SATB with boys doing the croaking—should be allowed only in Mahler's 8th.

But enough asides, it was time to have these stereotypes and negative preconceptions reaffirmed or shattered. No overture to the piece, in and of itself not a bad sign; after all, Otello and Elektra, just to mention two works of pure genius don't afford us one, either. I am still thinking that it could be half as good as Madama Butterfly (about which I had had similar feelings, minus the children) and be a near-masterpiece, still! Alas...

That the wonderful Nurit Bar-Josef, the first violinist of the NSO who impressed me so during Mahler's 2nd under Gilbert Kaplan, seemed missing (did she know better than to participate in this? Or can she completely decurl her hair even in such humidity, thus hiding from me in plain sight?) was taken as an ominous sign on my part.

The miked voices over the loudspeakers and the semistaged performance of running about and looking to the monitors that showed Stephen Lord, conducting behind them on the back of the stage made sure that there was zero spatial definition to the whole affair. Everything came out flat from the set of speakers nearest me... which had an effect akin to seeing a movie with the soundtrack just off, disconnecting singers (actors) from the sounds they omit. If my negative notions were going to be proven wrong, this production was not going to do it; so much was clear after just half an hour or less.

To single out Rodolfo or Mimi for bad acting would be unfair, because even though they got to do more of it, the entire cast excelled at what still passes in opera as "acting"—a painful collection of purposeless limb extensions, senseless grand gestures, over-dramatizing, exaggerated movements, etc. (That it needn't be so is shown to us by singers all over the world, notably Bryn Terfel, Ann Murray, Kurt Moll, Felicity Lott, Bernd Weikl, Waltraut Meier, etc., who are all passable to excellent actors.)

James Valenti, 2004
James Valenti, Rudolfo
Kristin Reierson, 2004
Kristin Reierson, Musetta
Brian Mulligan, 2004
Brian Mulligan, Marcello

"...And in your features I see a dream I never want to end..." Yikes—who should be shot here? The supertitle translator or the librettists' offspring? That's even worse than Wagner's odd prose on one of his bad days.

After bombastic and very important gestures by Stephen Lord (sporting a slinky white jacket) aimed more at the audience than the choir and the 1st violins, respectively, the onslaught of the children's choir came. Their adorable little acting attempts (you can always spot the annoying stage-hawks) and forced, sung laughter (add that to my list of opera no-no's) seemed to delight every audience member but me. My blood curdled.

But it's a tacky piece and maybe tacky is what it needs. How the composer can be the same as that of the delightful Butterfly eludes me, though. It seemed, at this point, midway through the second scene of the first act, unnecessary to write more about this performance, lest something extraordinary happen. Kristin Reiersen's Musetta, at least, made her appearance and was obnoxious, which, of course, she's supposed to be in her first scene. Her character made acting easier perhaps, but the acting she did was done comparatively excellently and she garnered much good will on my disgruntled part. From what was audible over the amplified mess of a sound, her voice was reasonably pleasing, something that could not be said about James Valenti's truly dreadfully played Rodolfo, thin and trying voice-wise, with some extra vibrato thrown in to make up for it. Jason Hardy, Benoît, the landlord, had no voice worth speaking of. Brian Mulligan's ample baritone for Marcello offered the most satisfying singing of the evening, not counting the crickets that offered their endearing accompaniment to the concert.

It's easier to feel sympathy for Siegfried (the boorish, ignorant, and fearless hero in Wagner's Ring) than the immature, whiny, self-pitying characters in La Bohème, who make scene 1 of Act 2 absolutely unbearable. One wants to yell at Mimi (Melissa Shippen) and Rodolfo to shut up and either split already or perhaps die, rather than continue their insincere mush masquerading as emotions. It's like watching a teenage romance gone sour, or worse: reliving one's own such embarrassments. The music meanwhile is just cute and unable to express these non-emotions, which might just be better that way, anyway. My friend, with unerring instinct, called the thing "trite" when I was trying to decide between "turgid," "campy," or "schmaltzy." At any rate, this performance was the unholy concoction of every bad cliché about opera (save the fat lady with horns, which of course belongs to Wagner's realm).

Morris Robinson was Colline, and Markus Beam was Schaunard. The 3,748 audience members (the Filene Center fits those plus two, plus another potential 3,100 on the lawn from which one can follow the performance) applauded and "bravo"-ed like I have never heard an audience, at least in Washington, cheer before. They were, no doubt delighted and bowled over, showing me, unisono, that I was the wrong person to be writing a review about it.

Still, I will need at least one Tristan and two Elektra's to get the bad opera out of my system.

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