A Singer’s Notes 24: Words and Music

One Christmas my magic daughter gave me a picture of a baboon. Above it she wrote Prospero’s valedictory line: “I’ll drown my book.” The animal had an expression of imponderable grief on its face. Words are exclusively human. But could it be said that animals sing? Music sets words free, back to their primal origin, leaping into the heart. Music is a language of knowing, of certainty. It has the raw truth of the baboon’s face. Maybe Prospero, whose name signifies hope, begins to sing when the book is drowned and the grief is past.

MTT leads the San Francisco Symphony in Harrison, Copland and Tchaikovsky

Several solid hits and a bit of a bunt. That’s how it seemed last Saturday at the San Francisco Symphony.  Returning from a recent European tour, Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra set before the Davies audience three American works that played brilliantly to his strengths and temperament, and a performance of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony which brought the house down, but seemed a touch undetailed.

A Singer’s Notes 23: Three from the Bard

The Winter’s Tale is the finest play by Shakespeare which nobody knows. Form and content meet and marry in this play. Everything is focused in a concentrated and clear line. The poet had two dry runs before writing the tale. Pericles, one of the most popular plays of the 17th century, is a rough-hewn rollicking tale which finds its heroine converting lechers and being lusted after by her own father. Next up, in the trial of romances, is Cymbeline, a complex rambling play with too many resurrections. The rightness of the The Winter’s Tale takes us by surprise. The themes of the last plays: separation, fathers and daughters, emotional destruction and rebirthing, here seem to have found a shape which sears itself into the mind. The most played and latest of the romances, The Tempest, can seem almost valedictory after Winter’s Tale.

Blurring the Lines, Part 2 The Bard Retrospectives: “Berg and His World,” Second Weekend

In the second weekend of the Bard Music Festival “Berg and his World” there emerged more clearly a reevaluation of Berg’s historical position. It could be paraphrased this way: Berg’s true spiritual and musical father was Mahler rather than Schoenberg; he was also strongly influenced by Schreker and Zemlinsky, both of whom were more connected to Romanticism than Modernism. While Schoenberg’s role as mentor and colleague was crucial, Berg’s aesthetic sympathies were with tonal opulence, melodic expressiveness, musical eroticism, and formal expansiveness, even though he sought to downplay this throughout his life in order to placate Schoenberg. The larger historical consequence of this view is a revision of the narrative about Modernism: its advocates, including followers of Schoenberg and Webern (i.e. atonalists and dodecaphonists) saw it as the main line of artistic evolution, a music of the future that would last a century and ensure the greatness of German music. This view dominated the historical narrative until the 1970’s, but was never borne out by audience acceptance and/or popularity. On the other hand, the new, emerging narrative has it that Berg was a conservative sustainer of Mahler’s vision, and achieved success that worked alongside the post-1960 Mahler revival and the emergence of Neo-romanticism. In Friday’s day-long panel, Klara Moricz went so far as to classify Berg’s use of tone rows as an occult, mystical and therefore musically arbitrary elements unrelated to expressiveness and musical effectiveness or value. The implication was that while this mystical side of Berg’s personality resonated with that of Schoenberg and many other Viennese contemporaries, it played no role in the aesthetics of the music as experienced by the audience.

Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music: Old Copland, New Carter, and Others

Varieties of modern orchestral experience, British and American, were on display at the concluding event of this summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, with three out of four offerings featuring the full (or over-full) resources of large ensembles. The Carter song-cycle used the pared-down configuration of a good-sized chamber-orchestra to support the solo soprano. Each work inhabited a distinctive sound-world and had its own conductor; it was almost as if we were hearing four different orchestras. It would be neat if I could diagram the four pieces as the points on a musical compass, but the chronological distance between the Copland (1946) and the rest (1982-2010) was such that the picture would look more like a buried root system connected to the leafy ends of three branches, and not all even belonging to the same tree. (Freud said that you are bound to run into problems if you try to construct a physical model of the mind; I’m having the same problem with this set of pieces.) But one implicit subtext may have inadvertently bound three of the four works together, that of war and peace.

Save the Warburg Library! by Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger (from the New York Review of Books

In the age of austerity that followed the Blitz, the University of London saw Warburg’s library as a jewel to be cherished. An ugly but efficient home for the institute was built in Bloomsbury, and for decades the university took pride in supporting its work. In the new age of austerity, by contrast, the university, which now controls the funds once earmarked for the institute, is doing its best to destroy what it once helped to save. In 2007, like a Dickensian villain, the university began self-parodically demanding enormous “economic” space charges for the Warburg’s building—charges so large that the institute cannot possibly pay them. The only way for the institute to avoid these charges would be to move into much smaller premises and close its stacks, a decision that would destroy its essential character.

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