The very short apotheosis at the end of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at Hubbard Hall made me think of confluences — the building, the performers, the audience. All of these were here in a gentle and honest synch. It was the most evenly cast opera I have heard in this venue. The staging was honest. The two singers in the title roles were convincing in the simplest way. They looked right, and they sounded right. In the dream sequence, which no staging can match, director Dianna Heldman brought to me a naturalness which was moving in its humility and acceptance of the place in which it was performed. The old hall itself seemed an ideal house for this reality. Nothing which Alexina Jones and Kara Cornell did as Gretel and Hansel was prolix. There was no fake childishness. Humperdinck could be said to have produced an adult’s version of what childhood is- simple tunes, good things to eat, etc. I suppose when compared to “The Magic Flute”, an opera which really is childlike, this is true. But this dead-honest production and its raptly attentive audience in the golden light of the hall made it seem a miracle. There were no weak links on stage, and there were no false steps in the staging. It was great.
The greatest surprise in the Kronos Quartet’s concert at Usher Hall was that this was their very first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. I’d have thought that they’d be regulars going back many years, given their well-known mixture of daring repertory and popular appeal. For almost forty years now, they have achieved almost cult status by playing a certain kind of contemporary music: challenging works which demand concentration but which are sufficiently colorful and aggressive that they commandeer the audience’s attention from start to finish.
Tonight’s much-anticipated and touted performance of little-known Austrian composer Franz Schmidt’s magnum opus, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals), was nothing short of startling, and more than a bit revelatory. Being fashioned as a dramatic oratorio, the mystifying and unsettling text of The Revelations of St. John the Divine becomes, in Schmidt’s hands, a terrifying and sensational virtuosic musical juggernaut. It was clear from Leon Botstein’s program notes that this evocatively dramatic work is one his favorites; in his program notes, he wastes no time in dubbing it one of the twentieth-century’s greatest choral works.
Our first Edinburgh Festival and our first visit to Usher Hall opened with a delightful surprise. We didn’t have to get very far into Mozart’s Idomeneo for me to realize that the acoustics of the hall are surpassingly beautiful. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, playing period instruments, and the singers floated in a warm acoustic atmosphere, but the sound was also direct and present, so that the attacks of strings and brass and the fleeting nuances of the human voice were as clear as you could want them to be. Our seats were also several rows in the Grand Circle and well covered by the level above. In most halls the sound becomes rather muffled in that kind of situation, but, when I noticed that I was surrounded by fellow critics, I assumed that the Festival media representatives knew what they were doing. More importantly I loved what I heard.
Ah, the tone of a production. Was Schumann right when he quoted Schlegel at the top of his score to the Fantasie this way: “Through all the world’s dream there sounds one tone for him who can hear it?” I’m thinking now of many different pieces — Our Town of Thornton Wilder, first. This concentrated text has the bareness, the emptiness of Greek tragedy on the page. The actions, however, are humble. Is there a single tone there?
Today many musicians feel it necessary to organize their programs around a theme. Themes can be programmatic (music of spring/summer…, war/peace, food, etc); they can focus on nationality and/or time-period (modern Polish music); a particular characteristic (Maurizio Pollini and the Juilliard Quartet once presented a program of nothing but very short pieces, including Webern’s Bagatelles and Chopin’s Preludes); a survey of a certain repertory (e.g. the complete Bartók string quartets); or actual musical themes (music based on “L’homme armé”). In fact almost anything can be made into a ‘theme.’ When all else fails, you can call a program “Music of Sorrow and Joy” (or “Lament and Celebration”—you get the idea). The theory is that a thematic title gives an audience additional food for thought, and perhaps offers cues of what to listen for; it may create a more active role for the normally passive listeners, or it may simply provide a catchy headline.
Before the drawing of the curtains, five Mexicans squat on the stage, toiling timelessly, while a sixth peddles knicknacks in the stalls as though it were a plaza full of tourists with bulging pockets, which it is in a way. “Don’t encourage him,” one utters sheepishly as another plays patron of the quaint local arts and crafts, exported from Mexico to the Edinburgh International Festival.
The theme of Bard’s retrospective “Berg and His World” was clearly stated and restated: Berg needs to be liberated from the so-called “Second Viennese School” and seen in a wider context of Vienna and beyond. Too long has he been seen primarily as a student of Schoenberg along with Webern; this perspective masks his individuality as well as his stature, which, if anything, is as great or greater than that of his beloved “master.” The gauntlet was laid down right away by Leon Botstein, who gave the first pre-concert talk: Berg gives us the best of both worlds, the expressive, content-oriented approach to composition as communication, and the formally strict, self-contained structural world of the music for its own sake. Implication no. 1: Schoenberg and Webern over-emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Implication no. 2: other composers and artists than Schoenberg had powerful influences on Berg’s urge to compose expressively (read “romantically”). Implication no. 3: Berg was as much a romantic as a modernist. Result: Berg became by far the most popular (hence, successful) composer of the three.