Atlantic Theater Company’s double bill of two Mamet shorts, School and Keep Your Pantheon, is overkill in the extreme. They are so insubstantial and unnecessary that I assumed they were old projects excavated to give fans a taste of the writer’s juvenilia, slight but hinting at the promise to come. But both plays are new, and the endeavor smacks of lazy writing and producing.
Ms Chinn made each song something to behold. Her colorations, from the dark-hued and husky to the flutelike, conveyed the ever-changing capriciousness and coy equivocation of this work. Her striking stage presence, her breathtaking mastery of the frequently caustic vocalizations, and her interpretive insight into vivid Symbolist prosody placed her visionary reading at the top of a half-century of performances.
Now in its eighteenth season, New York’s Metropolitan Playhouse continues its mission to reexamine America’s theatrical heritage. Past productions have ranged from key nineteenth-century works such as John Augustus Stone’s 1829 “Indian” drama Metamora, Anna Cora Mowatt’s 1845 comedy Fashion, and Dion Boucicault’s depiction of slavery in The Octoroon (1859), to seldom seen twentieth-century plays including Langdon Mitchell’s dissection of modern marriage in The New York Idea (1906), Susan Glaspell’s free-speech drama Inheritors (1922), and Arthur Arent’s “Living Newspaper” Power (1937). Now, in their most recent production, the Metropolitan goes back to the beginning, staging Royall Tyler’s comedy The Contrast, the first play by an American to receive a professional production in the United States.
Among the many things I admire about Opera Boston is the consistency of their priorities. A great deal of care and expense goes into casting vocally and dramatically excellent singers appropriate for their roles. Music Director Gil Rose maintains a strong orchestra, and he is an impressive musician and conductor in his own right. Budgetary restrictions are more apparent in sets and costumes—this in turn touches the stage direction as a whole. In last year’s season, for example, the first act of Der Freischütz was perfectly viable, while the Wolf’s Glen scene was pretty much a shambles, a seemingly a desperate attempt to make the most of inadequate resources with precious gimmicks. Opera Boston’s production last spring of Shostakovich’s The Nose was more successful: brilliant stage and costume design and brilliant direction were noticeably, but acceptably compromised by budget limitations. As impressive as the intelligent programming and musical results are, a hint of well-intentioned “making do” remains in the physical production, and that was painfully apparent in Opera Boston’s recent production of Rossini’s youthful opera seria, Tancredi.
What is sadly no longer James Levine’s traversal of Beethoven’s symphonies began with nothing but joy for the Symphony Hall audience, at least in my impression. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos has been manfully representing the Beethoven symphonies at Tanglewood and at Symphony Hall since 2000, while Ozawa and Levine pursued other interests, and his powerful, rock-solid interpretations of Beethoven surely must be among the achievements which have endeared him to the orchestra and its audiences. His approach is typical of his generation: large in scale and focused on the heroic, Promethean side of the composer, but entirely cleansed of unnecessary expressive mannerisms. His performances have the purity and grandeur of Klemperer without his austerity. He also is meticulous about detail without drawing attention to it.
For some reason that escapes me 2009 has become a “Beethoven year,” or at least a “Beethoven symphony year.” James Levine,* Leon Botstein, and Gerard Schwarz, to name only the conductors who immediately come to mind, have seen fit to begin Beethoven symphony cycles this year. 1809, however, was almost a fallow year for the composer. On the positive side of the ledger, he was able to parlay a job offer in Kassel into a secure contract from his chief patrons in Vienna. On the other, he was trapped in the city during the French siege and two-month occupation, cut off from his friends. The previous year he had finished both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy (and much else) and seen those works performed at a long concert held for his benefit on December 22, just five days after his thirty-eighth birthday. In 1809 he worked on only a few, but important works: the fifth piano concerto, the string quartet Op. 74, and the great “Farewell” sonata for piano. It is especially interesting that he composed quite a few cadenzas for all his piano concerti, from the very earliest, the second, Op. 19, which he had begun twenty years earlier, as well as the violin concerto. Was he looking back at his concerti as a finished body of work, codifying the group with cadenzas in his latest style? Was he looking forward to a busy concert schedule? In any case there’s not much to commemorate Beethoven-wise in 2009, other than his misguided proposal of marriage to his physician’s daughter, then nineteen, who was the last woman in Vienna to see Beethoven as anything other than a cranky, quite unhealthy fellow twenty years older than herself.
About two decades ago, big music schools decided that music theatre wasn’t all that bad. Somebody told them it was very difficult for a twenty-four year old artist to fill a hall singing a recital. Young singers need to look good and move well on stage. Eastman resurrected a long-lost Gershwin show. This spring Curtis brought back an alumnus to sing Wozzeck who had just made a name for himself on Broadway as Judd in Oklahoma. It pleased the powers that be in these king and queen-making institutions to erase or at least blur the distinction between what high-fallutin’ singing was and how people sang on Broadway. Some wonderful things have come from this. We now have stars of the musical theatre like Audra McDonald who sing with subtlety and beauty—no honking, no belting. If only we had shows good enough for them.
The fare tonight was not merely Beethoven as meat and potatoes: a twentieth-century work, Harold Farberman’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, was presented, as well as the U.S. premiere of Shulamit Ran’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (2008). The anchoring of each contemporary work to a Beethoven symphony was an ingenious touch. In each half of the program, after experiencing the colorful and exotic palette of new works, the Beethoven works were heard in the refreshing context as reference, foundation, ancestral, or even genetic code adumbrating the new works, and, indeed, all symphonic works to come.