HIP (Historically Informed Performance) is not so hip as it used to be. William Christie does Baroque opera with cutting edge directors. René Jacobs records a Matthew Passion with tempi that rival Furtwängler’s. The information age was what made historically aware performances possible. It did not give us all the answers. In fifty years will we have HIP performances that are more like the 16th or 17th century than they are today? And how will the information we gain then be applied? Will not the actually application of it be indelibly tied to the decade?
Benjamin Bagby has been performing Beowulf now for twenty years, usually to sold-out houses, especially in New York City. (I’ve tried and failed to get tickets more than once.) Audiences and critics rave about Bagby’s ability to create a spellbinding effect in his recitation/singing over the hour and forty minutes of its duration — all in what is practically a foreign language, even if most people call it Old English. With brilliant success, Bagby has transformed what was once the bane of American English majors — all too long ago: that last of those required to address the older stages of our language are hoary of head and halting in gait — into a thrilling entertainment full of color and expression. It is as if the early music movement had finally spawned their Stokowski. The effect is so essentially baroque. What Lear or Hamlet has speech, declamation, and singing in his dramatic quiver? In this way Bagby has bridged the language gap and made it possible for modern audiences to share something like the enjoyment a medieval scop’s audience would have experienced in a bardic performance. Of course today we sit decorously in Seiji Ozawa Hall or some place like it, and there is no mead or beer at hand. On the rare occasion that a line comes out as comprehensible modern English, we laugh. Our eyes flit back and forth to and from the supertitles…
Everywhere around me leaving two great concerts at Tanglewood this week, the talk was of those phenoms of memory, Benjamin Bagby and Pieter Wispelwey. Mr. Bagby spoke, sang, and roared Beowulf, and Mr. Wispelwey played all six of Bach’s Cello suites. What is it about memory that engages people? Do they think they can’t do it themselves? They’re probably wrong about that. We are told that toddlers have a nearly photographic memory. The skill can be greatly enhanced with steady practice. Just ask a soap opera actor. Do we have so many machines that memory is becoming a slow information feed for us? Musicians and actors know in their minds and their bodies how second nature memory becomes when a great work is concentrated on. There is something else to it. I remember a great teacher saying when asked what artists do replying, “Artists remember in public.” The whole act of performing is one of memory or if I may make a word work for me, rememory. Rememory is not the same as memorization. The latter is a technique; the former a state of mind. Easy memorization skills can be limiting. Nothing about a performer’s work should be facile. Rememory is a state that leads the great work out of the performer’s imagination with some kind of a dependable flow which can be trusted.
The news I have been expecting has now officially arrived:
James Levine will withdraw from his concerts with the BSO and Tanglewood Music Center due to further recuperation time needed after recent back surgery.
Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the BSO opening night performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on July 9, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem on July 16, as well as the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on July 17.
Christoph von Dohnányi will conduct the staged Tanglewood Music Center Production of Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos on August 1 And 2.
Johannes Debus will have his BSO Debut, conudctin Mozart’s The Abduction From Seraglio on July 23
Hans Graf will lead the BSO in program of marches, waltzes, and polkas by the Strauss Family on July 25 .
An announcement about substitute conductor for program of Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Soprano Hei-Kyung Hong on July 31 will be forthcoming.
These and other changes have been entered in the season schedule below.
What can one say to this? I left my opening sentence as it was, because Maestro Levine’s cancellations are now routine. I wrote a defense of the Maestro back in February, and that still stands. Levine has improved the orchestra, organized some excellent programs, and conducted some brilliant performances, along with some mediocre ones. There is nothing sadder than being unable to work, especially if it is an artistic vocation to which one is devoted, and Mr. Levine’s health may well be out of his control, but he has disappointed his audiences and his TMC students for too long. He has missed 60% of his BSO engagements this past season, and now there is more. We don’t know what to expect next season, either at the BSO or at the Met, where Levine was to inaugurate a much-publicized new Ring Cycle. There is enough evidence for us to conclude that he is truly physically incapable of pursuing the agenda he has taken up at both institutions. It is time for him to cut back his commitments to the point where he can give his best to his public and his students on a reliable, if not consistent basis.