Do Something Like Men! 

(published first at ionarts)

Heat and humidity (as well as an all-20th-century program?) kept the audiences away from the National Gallery’s Sunday concert again. Last week I wrote with giddiness almost about the most challenging and wonderfully exciting concert program (see review on May 12): had I only looked ahead on the schedule, I could have known then that Mme. Schein's riveting recital was going to be followed by a string quartet presentation every bit as modern, exciting, and (even without the economic aspects at the free concerts playing much of a role) daring program. Once again, only one composer on the evening's list was dead, with the dubious honor going to Charles Ives this time. (Aaron Copland had his musical postmortem moment of glory last week.)

Carter's Elegy, a work that had several incarnations for different ensembles (from viola or cello sonata in 1943, to string quartet in '46, to string orchestra in '52, and a general revamp in '61), was first to go. Carter, to whom I had already flippantly attributed "Grand-Daddy" status of living American composers last week showed his stuff again in another accessible work of his.

The very charming and relatively young Colorado String Quartet, all embracing smiles as they entered the stage, started this piece with all the feeling that the title suggests. A sailing, coherent sound with a beautiful tone made the most of this soothing work, which ought to have charmed even the more conservative ears in the audience. More fluid and melodical even than the powerful Piano Sonata by Carter from around the same time (a piece Ann Schein had played), this work, too, is a far cry from his far more thorny (though rewarding) string quartets. The one-movement work was rightly appreciated with warm applause from the thin audience.

Writing that Robert Maggio was next would be doubly true: called forth by the first violin's gesture, the tall, slender 40-year-old composer (looking barely 30) gave a little introduction to the Songbook for Annamaria, his first string quartet from 2001. Quick and very amiable, pointing out the difficult acoustics of the West Garden Court en route (usually a hobby of mine in my reviews), he pointed to the children song relations of the four movements, as the piece was composed in part for the advent of his now three-year-old adopted daughter. The other part of the compositional impetus was a "goodbye" in response to the passing away of his grandmother, the namesake of little Annamaria.

"We’re Bound Away...", with the song "Shenandoah" as its anchor, is about the journey that becoming parents—perhaps particularly those adopting a child—undergo in the process. My unfortunate ignorance of all the related songs made it impossible for me to determine how far they truly underlie the individual movements or whether they were rather the perhaps melodically remote inspiration. "When You Wake...", based on "Little Horses," denotes the difficulties of parents finding sleep with a toddler in the house. The very slow and subtly progressing music then sounded either like the portrait of an unwilling insomniac or as the cure for such a condition. "Jimmy Crack Corn..." ("Bluetail Fly"), depicting 'play', was naturally more animated and a little bit more daring musically, much to its benefit. The very concentrated-looking Colorado String Quartet made this fine music shine brightly.

The music itself is superbly interesting. Not modernist entirely (though at times, that, too)—nor gratuitously difficult (which would make little sense anyway, given the topic)—far from 21st-century archaism á la Pärt or Taverner, tamer than Carter, Hoiby, or the late Michael Tippett, yet never boring, never flat or cliché: it is a very attractive example of tonality reasserting itself in modern music without throwing the 'modern' part overboard or stooping to some backwards-looking rehashing of a bygone musical vernacular. More conservative tastes than mine (I actually like Tippett and Hoiby) might perhaps attribute to Mr. Maggio's music the rekindling of the spiritual element that they often find lacking so direly in much of the modern music of the last 60 years.

"All the Live-Long Day", based on "I've Been Working on the Railroad," was particularly successful. Judging from the applause and the comments overheard, the audience—in good part of a rather mature makeup—felt the same way. Of course, the composer's presence does help (as opposed to distort).

Since the audience had been lamentably small to begin with, it was not really detectable whether it had shrunk much after the intermission—though I doubt it, given that most attendees seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the music presented. This enjoyment of modern music is a wonderful thing, and when I champion the attendance of these exciting concerts, it is not so much because of a hidden, modernist agenda that I carry in my heart, but rather because the neglect of the art produced and created around us that is suffered by classical music especially is a neglect that comes at our own peril. Surely, classical music made it difficult to stay with it and enjoy it (especially at a superficial level) over the last half-century or longer. But not only are many of these all too harsh edges being rounded off now by new composers: among those very edges, too, are hiding true marvels that expand our horizon, musical or otherwise, if only we give them an enthusiastic and determined fair chance.

At the Gallery to help us with that was "Poison Ives" and his 1911–13 second string quartet, which had been moved ahead of the Joan Tower piece because it was deemed better fitting and nicely contrasting with the Maggio work, in that it is based on songs and musical quotations. This is true, though not as obviously and much as its predecessor, the hymn-based String Quartet no. 1 ("From the Salvation Army... Not Quite"), recently served up so adequately by the Leipzig String Quartet at the Library of Congress (see my review on April 18).

The quote on Charles Ives by Arnold Schoenberg, found among the papers in Schoenberg's estate, bears repeating: "A great man lives in this country—a composer. He has solved the problem of how to stay true to oneself and still learn. He reacts to neglect with disdain. He needs neither accept nor snub criticism. His name is Ives."

Being true only to himself and throwing all conventions to the four winds (more easily done, being the millionaire he was), Ives has fun with a piece that originated out of a most noble motivation, namely to cure the Kneisel Quartet from an apparently all too girlish or else pedestrian performance he observed, and instead make "those fiddlers get up and do something like men." A later memorandum—we can gather all that from the as always excellent program notes by Elmer Booze—describes it as depicting "four men who converse, discuss, argue (in re 'politicks'), fight, shake hands, shut up, then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament." Most notable among the musical references in the first movement (Discussions) is a first straight, then painfully twisted "Dixie" quotation. The 'Discussion' runs the whole gamut from heated exchange to more amiable, relaxed conversation, when Arguments turns up the heat with Allegro con spirito with its witty arguments, often brought forcefully by one instrument and then angrily rejected by the rest.

This banter, back and forth, came across wonderfully in the Colorado String Quartet's impeccable playing: spirited and with enough aggression. Further allusions in the music were sprinkled in at will, it seemed—most notably "Freude schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus[...]." The call of the mountains, the Romantic view of enlightened stargazing in the setting of male, gentlemen-like friendship (I imagine a North-Pole-expedition-like comradery, minus the polar bears and frozen toes) is for the better part a rather arduous ascent. Adagio-Andante-Adagio allows for the final contemplation atop the summit, and the rather peaceful solution sent us to Joan Tower's one-movement Quartet no. 2 (In Memory), commissioned by the Tokyo String Quartet and written first in memory of Mme. Tower's friend Margaret Shafer—though after September 11, it continued including the mourning for all those who lost their lives on that fateful day.

Starting with a wailing solo violin voice that descends meanderingly until the second violin (strangely muted throughout most of the evening, to find at least one point of criticism) falls in and the movement of the melody becomes less directed and more frustratingly lamenting. Increasing energy and tension are achieved through increased tempi with perpetual 3-, 4-, and 7-note figures in the lower, then the upper registers. Abrasively struck, repeated notes separate these blocks and lead into gentler, if no less desperate, musical waters. A beautiful cello line gets to lament (Shelomo by Max Bruch came to my mind at that point) before the memories become a group affair again and a back and forth between the violins and the viola with the cello prepare for the end that features a viola pizzicato over a coming and going single note.

The reaction from the crowd was heartwarmingly open-minded and enthusiastic. The Colorado String Quartet deserved it every bit for their outstanding performance in all respects. The ensemble, by the way, is made up of Julie Rosenfeld (violin), Deborah Redding (violin), Marka Gustavsson (viola), and Diane Chaplin (cello). You couldn't have found a better quartet to "get up and do something like men."


The Word is… “Ambitious!” 


The following article did not find its way unto ionarts, because Mme. Berger, the artistic and musical director, founder etc. of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company deemed it inappropriate (from what I was told, her objections were not regarding my description of the performances but rather that of the people) and convinced Charles T. Downey that he might not want to publish it. This isn’t terribly surprising, given what I had heard about Mme. Berger and her ways. The most disturbing aspect of the company and presumably Mme. Berger is the strong sense of paranoia that is emitted from the whole affair. Dark forces must be out there, hell-bent on crushing the good work of this company. Their dark throne apparently rests within the Washington D.C. Wagner Society. But then, Wagnerians
do have a tendency to dramatize. At any rate, belatedly, here is my review of a concert from some months ago:

Last Saturday I went to St. George’s Church in Arlington, Virginia, to finally see and hear what the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, of which I had read in the German press and on Ionarts, is all about. The Millennium Wagner Opera Company (MillWOC) bills itself as an “American, professional opera company with a contemporary European perspective […] complemented by a historic/traditional European singing style and color.” For a more exhaustive and rather interesting self-characterization see Charles’s interview with founder, musical, and artistic director, Carol Berger, or their Web site at www.milleniumwagneropera.org.

To understand my review of any concert, it is perhaps necessary to know that I don’t have varying standards by which to judge performers and performances. Whether the local high school’s choral competition winner or René Pape; all get judged by the ideal best performance. Technical perfection is the necessary but hardly sufficient condition. Emotional expression is measured against the best in the field and my personal perception.

This “one-standard-fits-all” approach may be both unfit and unfair, alas not the least for consistency and personal preference, I stick to it. I will leave it up to the reviewer to adjust his judgment according to the person or organization reviewed and the expectation they have of themselves. However, this approach actually fits quite well in this case, because – according to Carol Berger – the only difference between the Millenium Wagner Opera Company and, say, Bayreuth or the Munich Staatsoper is: The Money!

First Impressions

To further Wagner and his operas is a worthy undertaking. As such, the MillWOC should be lauded in their efforts to get an organization started devoted to just this. Given the difficulties involved in such a project it is quite astonishing to see that they have come as far as they presumably have. That they are clearly at an early stage in their project does not mean that further development is not likely or not forthcoming.

Asked about where exactly MillWOC sees itself (perhaps on a scale from one to ten, one being the humble beginnings, ten being the ideal to which MillWOC aspires), Carol Berger found herself unable to answer. “We are at such an incredibly high standard of performance” that a rating on a scale from one to ten is impossible. The singing, apparently, can’t be bettered – only the circumstances are lacking. Surely, she is right in regard to the venues and lack of an orchestra being huge obstacles and limitation and primarily a matter of money – of which MillWOC has little. That she looks at the singers’ achievements more kindly than I do is also understandable. But even given the unfortunate circumstances under which I heard MillWOC perform, the idea that it is Staatsoper, or MET, or Bayreuth-level singing is absurd. Singing at Bayreuth, as did for example MillWOC cast-member Brenda Roberts (the youngest-ever Brünnhilde on the green hill), is a different affair, altogether.

Speaking of Carol Berger (whom I had never met prior to the concert), as I sat in my bench, listening to the concert, I was trying to make out who and where she might be. From across the room it was very clear that the artistic director must be the person next to the pianist. Very red hair, a very important look on her face, very red lipstick – and her artistic vision channeled through very black, horn-rimmed glasses convince me. Imagine my surprise when that very lady introduced me to… Carol Berger.

Very embarrassing, indeed. Carol Berger makes a quite different impression. Cute, in an alert, somewhat mouse-like way, she is a woman of some sparkle and energy. She comes across as kind and unpretentious – but then, we had not yet talked about Wagner. She kindly invited me to do so, after the show and over a few glasses of wine.

But to the concert itself. The concert was in most parts, including cast and program, identical to the one that Charles saw and heard (see his review). I will gladly focus on the one big difference, as that happened to be the single most outstanding element of the night. Young pianist Chung-Wei Kang from Manhattan played Franz Liszt’s transcription of Der Liebestod. Ms. Chung-Wei performed admirably! Liszt and this teenager made Isolde sing more heartbreakingly than anyone else present did or could have done. Astounding playing for such a young artist, indeed – but then, astounding quite regardless of age, too. It was deserving of a better venue, a better piano and, let’s be honest, a better audience than this unfortunately sparse group of dedicated music lovers as well. A shame that not more people were able to enjoy this rarely heard transcription that works surprisingly well on the piano.

With the venue, I come to probably the single worst aspect of the concert. The church had such a miserably resonant acoustic (apparently the exact opposite of what Charles was lucky enough to experience) that no matter how good the singing may have been, it was bound to be garbled and to bounce about incomprehensibly. Carol Berger herself did not hesitate to call the church an “appalling” venue from an acoustical standpoint. Judging the worthy efforts of the soloists under such circumstances is certainly difficult, possibly impossible, and likely unfair. Of course, that does not keep me from doing so.

Stereotypes, Anyone?

What must be striking upon seeing the cast, this night made up of Anne Wright Coffman (soprano), Joci Patrice Houston (mezzo), and Hans Aschenbach (tenor – what a perfect name for a Wagnerian!), is their picture-book-perfect, typecast fit for Wagner singers. Mme. Houston was floating about and delighting the audience with up-close “acting” and radiant singing – if persistently an 8th or quarter step below what she may have aimed for. All three were overly dramatic even in small gestures and seemed affected and overly self-important. The humility that surely must be present in all of them was not communicated at all. What a pity. I hope that this is not what “a historic/traditional European singing style and color” means.

Carol Berger gave a memorable line justifying the lack of headquarters (i.e. the ‘global nature’) for MillWOC: “We do not have a domicile, because having a domicile would be un-Wagnerian!” I must clearly go back to my Wagner letters and reread all the sections about him pining and whining for a home, a point of focus and domestic bliss, or, for that matter, Bayreuth. Wagner’s unsettledness had probably more to do with circumstance than choice – much like the lack of a domicile for MillWOC might have to do more with saving on overhead than ideological authenticity of spirit. In fact, it strikes me a bit as if the head of the Primo Levi society were to say: “We are not happy, because being happy would be un-Levi-like.” It misses the point spectacularly – perhaps it was a jest.

But then, such things matter little for a company that has as its overarching philosophy the idea that “Body, Spirit, and the Mental are combined into one”; that being the “essence of Wagner.” Everything that is not, is consequently not Wagnerian. It sounds awfully campy, even if there is something to be said about the unity of the art as Wagner saw it, a unity that is of course difficult to preserve when you do Wagner without the staging and without the orchestra. The Gesamtkunstwerk is slightly incomplete. Well… baby-steps. Some Wagner is already present in MillWOC, perhaps the “Opera” part will, too, be forthcoming one day.

If this is going to be the case, it may well happen without (two-thirds of) the singers present that night. All three were admirable in effort – but less so in result. The figures fit, the voices did not. Booming as it was, Joci Patrice Houston’s voice was less lacking power perhaps than accuracy. Diction was reasonably good. Two out of three ain’t bad – but it isn’t enough for a company as ambitious as MillWOC. (Of course, it is fiendishly difficult to musically articulate the chromatically dense melodies of the Wesendonck Lieder so that they come out right – especially when the acoustics are bad. Wagner nibbles in these songs – as he does later in Tristan und Isolde – at tonality and minute changes in intonation make or break the flow of harmonies.)

Aschenbach as Tristan also had a powerful voice. But his voice originates from far, far back in his throat, giving a bit of the quality of a frog, yet not entirely unsatisfactory. A talented frog. His only opera-recording to date (Kienzl, “Don Quixote” on CPO), where he performes as “Vocalist/Tenor” is a failure not due to the singing (which Gramophone Magazine calls “professional”) but the piece itself. A Lohengrin (title role) in Weimar was well received in the loud parts (a bit shaky) and criticized for the softer parts (lacking tension). He is clearly a professional singer, and that belies any notion of MillWOC being a rag-tag group of amateurs. He probably doesn’t deserve to be called “a talented frog,” either... but I could not resist. He is, at any rate, good – but again, not enough, for my taste. In “Isolde kommt,” Aschenbach’s singing gave reason to suspect that Isolde might more likely have turned on her heel upon hearing so much. The self-adoring, slow-motion glances with which the singers doted on each other, too, were unnecessarily distracting.

There was some Brahms ruined – sung as though it were Wagner and with a pronunciation that Germans would consider “unter aller Sau” – despite all the living and singing in Germany that these singers have done and do. The relation between Wagner and Brahms, of course, is that they had none. Tenuous. Richard Strauss’s four last songs, two of which were presented, too, sounded more Wagnerian than they actually are. The third of these songs, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed, was belched out without mercy or consideration of the fact that there was no orchestra to overpower. Mme. Coffman’s interpretation was lacking in tension and delicacy. The acoustics made sure that the sound had but a faintly discernable resemblance to the actual song. My principle of charity worked overtime.

The Terzette from Act 1 of “Die Fledermaus” was a much welcome surprise and change for the audience, who indulged the performers in as much applause as they could possibly have mustered. While I was quibbling with Johann Strauss coming courtesy of Lohengrin, Brünnhilde, and Kundry, the other listeners present appreciated this light-hearted moment.

What’s to Hope for?

At that part of the program, the wonderful Liebstod came to the rescue. And perhaps it is that piece that, ironically, should shed light on the entire evening. Aspiration is admirable, ambition is important, and an unwavering sense of determination is necessary if the Millennium Wagner Opera Company’s idea and plan are ever to take off. If so far most of its offerings have failed to convince me that the almost natural stage of initial mediocrity has been overcome, there was light in the playing of Mme. Chung-Wei that makes it easier to hope for better and bigger things to come. Until then, however, the whole affair reminded me of a quote I’ve once read in response to a Health-Spa’s dinner-offering of “essence of estragon over spinach extracts with celery-steamed tofu.” It said: “You have to be pretty sick to eat that – and pretty healthy to survive it!”

While I was not given access to CVs of the performers who are contractually bound to MillWOC (and all performers who sing for them are), I browsed around for a few. Probably the most notable, pointed out to my by Mme. Berger, is Brenda Roberts. The youngest Brünnhilde in Bayreuth, ever, she must clearly be a wonderful singer. In her only opera recording to date, the dreadful “Sternengebot” by Wagner fils, Siegfried, she did not convince the Gramophone reviewer who mentioned that “[t]he female contingent fare[d] less well, with a good deal of shrill and unstable tone from both the principal sopranos.” This notwithstanding, there is, with such singers on board, clearly a bright silver lining on the horizon.

What certainly does not help is the lack of attention for detail. Better no reception at all, than the kind of reception available after this concert. In what could not have been a less conducive atmosphere, there was a selection of crackers and cheesepuffs entered straight from bags into little plastic baskets. Bottles of wine and plastic cups, too, were discernable. That and the unprofessional, badly designed, and free (www.vistaprint.com) business cards place it in good company with the Beethoven Society. I expect more from both as much as I hope for their success.♫

For more on Carol Berger and the Millennium Wagner Opera Company read the interview (in six parts) that CDT of ionarts had with Mme. Berger!


A( )live Music 

(published first at ionarts)

Ann Schein, a 20-year veteran faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, has had an outstanding career that is perhaps less recognized than it should be. From her Carnegie Hall debut to working with the Who's Who of great conductors (George Szell, Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, David Zinman, Stanislaw Skrowacewski, Sir Colin Davis—to name just a few) to playing the complete major Chopin repertoire at Lincoln Center in 1980 (a feat also accomplished by one of her teachers, Arthur Rubinstein), Ann Schein has always shone brightly.

Schumann, Davidsbündlertänze, Arabeske, Humoreske, with Ann Schein
Alban Berg, Altenberglieder, Ann Schein with Jessye Norman
She did again, on a hot, gorgeous Sunday, in the half-empty, half-full West Garden Court in the National Gallery of Art. The ominous audience absence was understandable due to the weather, but a true shame—all the more so because the program on offering was the most exciting I have seen and heard in Washington since the Zehetmair Quartet presented Schumann, Bartók, and Cage in January 2003, also at the National Gallery of Art. Nay—make that the most exciting program ever! An all-20th-century composer program featuring Aaron Copland (1900–1990), Elliot Carter (b. 1908), Sydney Hodkinson (b. 1934) and Richard Danielpour (b. 1956)! (Truth be told, it was perhaps in part the program and not just the weather that kept people away, though I would loath to admit that.)

Unassuming, perhaps like a young, still noble grandmother (of the charming type), Ann Schein came on stage. She rang the first Copland notes out like an assertion of self. So much gusto went into the first chord that a hairclip of hers was flung to the ground. Mechanically, steadily, and yet with a continuous line, she started to assemble the Piano Variations (1930) like an ever-growing Fisher-Price construction kit. As she added notes to this musical building, the structure, the building became more and more visible to the ears, while only the individual building blocks were actually audible at any given time. Fine pianissimos were executed clearly and so delicately that the scratching of my soft pencil seemed obstrusive. Spirited flocks of notes shot all over the piano, like hundreds of ascending flamingos running across the New York Steinway & Sons of the National Gallery.

When someone like Mme. Schein champions a piece like the seldom-heard Piano Variations by Copland (not generally a composer suffering from neglect in this country), it puts the work almost beyond reproach. In this very concentrated, determined performance, still with communicated joy, it would be impossible to dismiss the beautiful (medium-thorny) piece as a flashy intellectual exercise by some modernist composer or deliberately difficult hotshot performer. The only composer no longer alive on the night's program was well served.

Well served, too, were the audience members with Richard Danielpour's The Enchanted Garden from his Preludes, Book 1. These five pieces, 12 years old, are most delightful American impressionist vignettes, and while it may be unsophisticated or at least "too easy" to speak of an "American latter-day Debussy," the association comes necessarily, and not just because of the titles of the work.

Promenade is very much cast in this musical light, if perhaps without the delicate inward structure and tone colors of Debussy. Mardi Gras is more distinctly Danielpour, and the jostling, jazzy rhythms and brassy sections are always present, underlying the music—a visceral audio postcard from New Orleans that should have had everyone's rear moving in their seats. (Admittedly, save mine, I saw no evidence of this.)

Childhood Memory is a more laid-back "dreamery," a sound-weaving of lazy, hot reminiscences, of a different substance than Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 but a similar taste. From the Underground has a comparatively unsettling murmur to it, though I thought that the individual notes took over from the painted mood after a while. Despite the brisker tempo, it is wholly within the vernacular of the other pieces, as is Night, a Whistler-like nocturne: small, nebulous, hard to define, but with distinct moods and calling cards of chords that suggested comfort to my ears. The more vivacious lead-up to the once again soft ending wrapped it up nicely: a most worthy musical discovery for me, indeed.

After the intermission, the few Washingtonians who had not been kept away by the sun were scared away after Copland and Danielpour were finished with them. Only a hard core of a few dozen listeners (a fairly even mix of old and young) stuck around to hear the Sydney Hodkinson 1981 Minor Incidents: Four Character Pieces for Solo Piano, which started out in a somewhat typical modernist way—Lee Hoiby without the bounce—but recovered quickly. Con energia e audace sounded more promising from the title than it was; enjoyable though, still. Con leggierezza, muted and in darker hues, was a fair note-assembly but not one that I could relate to at once or detect structure within, though I would more likely blame myself for this shortcoming than the piece or the composer. The piece, as did the following movement, Con duolo, still had enough to offer on their sonic terms alone that made them more than just bearable: enjoyable (if only just). Con violenza becomes true to its name only at the very end, but has by then fully justified itself.

Elliot Carter, the grand-daddy of American 20th-century composers and his raucous Piano Sonata (1945–46) came next. It often rubs traditionalists the wrong way that the modernist, experimental composer Carter is the predominant living composer in the U.S., at the expense of many very fine, more traditional composers such as David Diamond, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Stephen Gerber, or Paul Moravec. But while all the latter certainly deserve more attention—Terry Teachout, for example, has always championed Moravec and rightly so, support crowned by Moravec being awarded the Pulitzer Prize last April for his Tempest Fantasy—pieces like the Piano Sonata show why Elliot Carter has the standing that he enjoys. Far more accessible (though no less wild) than his time-experiments (a.k.a. string quartets), this is great music of its time and for all times. The Piano Sonata, as will his Piano Concertos, I am convinced, shall have a place in the repertoire of future generations as firm (if less often performed) as any Beethoven piece of that sort. (All that said without making a direct qualitative comparison of the two, which could only get me into trouble.)

The Carter, it will not surprise, was marvelously played—with all the necessary flexibility and power, at times raw, at times held back. The usual bad acoustics of the West Garden Court that so particularly mar piano recitals seemed to matter little or not at all the entire evening. While the cynic may suggest that these pieces could not be harmed by bad acoustics as one would not be able to tell the difference, and while I may grant him the chuckle, admitting that they may well be more robust than say the Waldstein or Appassionata sonatas by the aforementioned Beethoven, there was also some simply awfully good playing involved. That, and more importantly, intelligent, appropriate playing.

A concert among the very finest for the very few. A refreshing treat of music that screams of being alive, not part of the classical-music-museum-cult that would have classical music end with late Beethoven or, more radically, Ravel. As I overheard a lady say on her way out: "I don't understand the music, but it's excellent." Right on, madam! Excellent indeed. Fabulous. F-ing Fabulous, to be precise.♫


Peaches & Cream 


Klinghoffer is Dead 

(published first at ionarts)

Death of Klinghoffer (DVD)

Death of Klinghoffer (CD)
As part of Film Fest DC in Washington, I got to see Penny Woolcock's The Death of Klinghoffer, her film version of John Adams's 1991 opera of the same name about the 1984 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. On the Film Festival's Web site, Eddie Crockrell is quoted as saying that director "Penny Woolcock's decision to film the opera in the style of a political thriller on authentic Middle Eastern locations renders this one-of-a-kind film a remarkable and daring synthesis of heart-pounding docudrama filmmaking and risk-taking contemporary opera." The film was first shown in 2002 on Britain's Channel 4 but did not come to the U.S. until now.

This version, as good an adaptation of an opera for film as I have ever seen one, will not contribute much to either making The Death of Klinghoffer more popular or less controversial. In its combination of film, opera, its musical atmosphere, and its genre-bending character, the film is hugely interesting. No single element, however, seems to contain enough merit on its own to truly make this venture succeed.

In October 1984, four heavily armed Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, which was carrying more than 400 passengers and crew, off the coast of Egypt. The hijackers demanded that Israel free 50 fellow Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) members imprisoned in Israel. The terrorists killed a disabled American tourist, 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, and threw his body overboard with his wheelchair. After a two-day drama, the hijackers surrendered in exchange for a pledge of safe passage. But when an Egyptian jet tried to fly the hijackers to freedom, U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercepted it and forced it to land in Sicily. The terrorists were then taken into custody by Italian authorities.

The opera does not delve into much of the before and after, whereas the film around it spans a narrative including flashbacks to the concentration camps in Germany and the founding of Israel. Attempts at being balanced seem a little heavy-handed in the earlier half of the film, where a pro-Palestinian attitude was evident. Some of the stories, depicted during the Greek chorus's work and solely in pictures, are made up, but they add depth to the characters and interest to the film. Reality is cast aside a little towards the end, especially with shots to 2002 that shows the whereabouts of three of the four terrorists.

Tom Randle as Molqui and Sanford Sylvan as Klinghoffer
The terrorists were, in real life, Majed Youssef al Molqi (24 years old at the time), Ahmad Marrouf al Assadi (23), Bassam al-Asker, and Ibrahim Abdetalif (21). The alleged mastermind was Abu Abbas (a.k.a. Muhammad Zaidan or Muhammad Abbas, then 37), founder of the PLF. "Molqi" (played and sung very well by tenor Tom Randle) was sentenced to 30 years, left the Rebibbia prison in Rome on February 16, 1996, on a twelve-day furlough, and fled to Spain, where he was recaptured and extradited back to Italy. Ahmad Marrouf al-Assadi—perhaps "Rambo" in the film and opera—disappeared in 1991 while on parole, serving a seven-year sentence. "Omar" (played by Emil Marwa, sung by mezzo soprano Susan Bickley) could be Ahmed Marrouf al Assadi, who renounced terrorism and turned state's evidence, or Bassam al-Asker, who disappeared after having been granted conditional parole in 1991. Whatever happened to—or whoever was—Ibrahim Abdetalif, I am not sure. The other film/opera terrorist is "Mamoud," played and sung by Kamel Boutros (image at left). Real-life Mahmud Issa Abbas (Abu Abbas's cousin), convicted for smuggling weapons to the ship, and Youssuf Saad, convicted for importing money to finance the hijacking, were convicted to six years prison each, but were released early "for Christmas." Unfortunately, it seems almost impossible to gather—except "Molqi," whose identity and story are easy to track—who the particular personae in the film/opera resemble in real life, because few sources actually agree on the names of three, much less all four hijackers involved.

Abu Abbas, of course, the hijacking's mastermind, was finally captured in Baghdad in 2003 and died there, in U.S. custody, on March 26, 2004. His story, as well as the entire affair's aftermath, is really a lot more interesting than the story of the hijacking itself. After U.S. outrage over the shooting of Leon Klinghoffer, President Reagan got involved. At first, ignoring U.S. protests, the Egyptian government rushed Abul Abbas and the Achille Lauro hijackers into an EgyptAir 737 charter plane bound for Tunis. Aboard Air Force One, Reagan authorized the carrier USS Saratoga, patrolling the Adriatic Sea, to put seven F-14 Tomcats into the air with orders to divert the Egyptian aircraft to a NATO base at Sigonella, Sicily. The appearance of the Tomcats unnerved the EgyptAir pilot, who compliantly altered course for Sicily.

Initially, the Italians were rather unwilling to cooperate and scrambled their warplanes to prevent a landing at Sigonella. Only after Reagan called then Prime Minister Craxi, did the government allow the plane to land. On the ground, Italian Carabinieri surrounded the plane, only to find themselves surrounded by U.S. soldiers who had orders to arrest the hijackers and Abu Abbas. The U.S. soldiers in turn found themselves surrounded by Italian soldiers. Arafat had threatened "uncontrollable" actions if the Italians were to turn over Abbas, and another call of Reagan’s did not yield further results. Early in the morning, when the Italians called in armored vehicles to support them against the Americans, the American commander withdrew his men. In the aftermath, the 737 pilot got decorated by Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, who also demanded an apology from Reagan, who in turn vowed never to give one. There were demonstrations in Cairo, Craxi's coalition government fell apart over the affair, and the U.N. General Assembly shelved a proposal to invite Yasser Arafat to speak at an event celebrating the UN's fortieth anniversary.

This has admittedly little to do with the film or the music... where best to start then? The libretto is often awkward and stilted, usually in the chorus parts. The action proceeds slowly but is much helped by Mme. Woodcock's flashbacks and picturesque storytelling. The singers, recorded live during the filming, are splendid, and their acting is superb, especially given the extreme demands. The captain, played and sung by Christopher Maltman, particularly impresses. Yvonne Howard's Marilyn Klinghoffer (a more mature woman than the 36-year-old "original" may have been in real life?), wife of the 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, played and sung by Sanford Sylvan (image at left), a pleasant mezzo, emerged as the hero of the opera. Her moral stature, dignity, and strength give the film its high points and lasting flavor.

But, as Arved Ashby from Gramophone Magazine asks, "[s]uch questions aside, is the opera any good?" He answers almost as I would: "The [film] does nothing to assure me of its musical worth. Even after repeated hearings, no one bar sticks in the memory. The harmonic vocabulary is the most pedestrian of just about any new music heard in the past 20 years." My words of choice would have been "turgid" and "wholly unsatisfying." There are, of course, critics who think of Klinghoffer as one of the best and/or most important operas of the 20th century. For this assessment, however, I cannot find a justification given the shortcomings of Klinghoffer and the multitude of wonderful 20th-century operas. Nixon in China, for that matter, Adams's opera before Klinghoffer is quite a bit better. Adams's oratorio/opera El Niño is most outstanding. And then there is always Richard Strauss, Leoš Janáček, Giacomo Puccini, Benjamin Britten, Philip Glass, et al.

Some of the dramatic scenes work well, thanks to the singers/actors. They are moving and involving, but they are lumped together with forgettable or flat passages, and the occasional minimalist offerings disturb more with their self-conscious appearance than they create a mindset like they do in Glass's work. Arved Ashby's closing paragraph sums it up nicely: "The prosaic extinguishing of Klinghoffer" was how critic Kyle Gann retitled the opera. Woolcock has turned it into a fairly gripping visual drama, and in a sense her success shows up the musical deficiencies: encountered as an opera rather than a film, Klinghoffer's interest goes no further than its topicality.

A treat only for the really interested, while general lovers of opera could probably better invest their time somewhere else.►►

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