Friday, October 28, 2016
This an interview I conducted with Steve Reich for his 70th birthday, a decade ago. It contains several thoughts that are worth pondering today. Happy 80th, Steve. Steve Reich is preoccupied with contemporary torments. For the past year he has been writing a set of variations in memory of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who, in October 2002, was kidnapped and butchered in Pakistan while researching links between its intelligence services and al-Qaeda. Pearl was an enthusiastic violinist and his parents have created a foundation in his memory to promote inter-faith tolerance, and new music. Elton John, Ravi Shankar and Barbra Streisand are among its patrons. Steve Reich was enlisted to add his particular gloss of wisdom and consolation. ‘I thought automatically of the Book of Daniel,’ he says, ‘of exile and cruelty, and mercy and compassion. And then I saw the terrible video put out by his captors, where his opening words are “my name is Daniel Pearl”. Such a magical name.’ The Daniel Variations, interleaving the words of the two Daniels ancient and recent, will be premiered at London’s Barbican Centre during Steve Reich’s 70th birthday festival in October, itself a homage to a man who changed music forever four decades ago and continues to fret about its place and role in our troubled world. He is talking to me from his new place in upstate New York, having sold his downtown apartment with its nagging view of the 9/11 craters. ‘We’re living in a dangerous world,’ sighs Steve Reich. ‘What can music do about that? Music just goes ahead. It’s an affirmative human action, the positive side of being alive.’ Reich’s affirmation began 40 years ago this summer when, finding his music derided for its apparent simplicity by conventional musicians, he formed his own ensemble and pitched straight at the public ear. ‘I knew what I was doing,’ says Reich. ‘All I needed was a few people who could hear what I had in my mind.’ At the time, composers who wanted to be taken seriously wrote serial atonalities in the manner of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. Reich, who had studied with Berio in California, dismissed these complexities as intrinsically Eurocentric — a solution to problems he did not recognise or share. He found the lush romanticism of Mahler and Strauss equally alien to the busy, make-it rhythms of American city life. Music, to Reich, began with the beat. His impulse to write it began at 14 when a friend played him records of Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Soon after, he heard bebop — Charlie Parker on sax and Kenny Clarke on drums. ‘Basically, I went into that room and never left it,’ says Reich. By the mid-sixties, he was at the cutting edge of a counter-culture — literally cutting up tapes he had made of speech phrases and stitching them into hypnotically rhythmic loops that played in and out of phase with one another. The patterning captivated the psychedelic types that hung around downtown art galleries. He tried it out in live performance on two concert pianos, in Piano Phrase. At 30, Steve Reich had invented a form of minimalism that would alter the course of music history ‘Serialism is dead!’ he now exults, ahead of the 70th birthday accolades. John Adams and Michael Nyman have named Reich as their leading influence. Arvo Part is a soulmate. Ever Berio got to like his music before he died. More than any living composer, Steve Reich transformed the image of contemporary classical music from painfully abstruse to potentially cool. Vinyl remixes of his early works can be heard at many dance clubs (there’s a new set out next month from Warner). ‘There was a historical break in what I did,’ he reflects, without braggardry. ‘What happened was a similar kind of house cleaning to what Johann Sebastian Bach did 300 years ago, going back to basics. I didn’t envisage this when I was starting out. I just had my nose to the grindstone and plugged away.’ Playing mostly in galleries, he earned his keep early on driving a house-moving van in lower Manhattan with a young admirer called Philip Glass. After a few joint concerts, the pair fell out and have not spoken since. While Glass turned to opera, Reich worked on instrumental colours and rhythms, taking a research trip to Ghana and studying Balinese gamelan in Seattle. In the mid-70s, his Music for 18 Instruments sold 100,000 records and played on late-night rock stations between Dylan and the Stones. It was around this time that Reich met his second wife, Beryl Korot, and experienced a spiritual awakening. ‘I began to think I’m not African, nor Balinese. I’m a Jew.’ He studied Torah with Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald at Lincoln Square synagogue and became a fully practising Orthodox Jew, eating vegetarian kosher food, avoiding Friday night performances, unplugging the phone at sundown on Friday. ‘The effect was extremely positive in a personal sense,’ he says. It was not without external risk, though, for while music has accommodated all manner of mystics, it had never before embraced a composer who placed his demanding faith ahead of career opportunities. Reich went to Jerusalem to record Yemenite cantillations for singing the Torah and returned with the luminous Tehillim (Psalms) for chorus and ensemble, richly melodic and unmistakably individual. ‘People said I was writing Jewish music,’ he complains. ‘I said I was writing Reich.’ He returned to Israel with Beryl Korot to create The Cave, a work for live musicians with six-screen video projection that explores the common ancestry and beliefs that are shared by Jews and Moslems. ‘I’m not a person who deludes himself into thinking that artists can change the world,’ says Reich with a touch of world-weariness. ‘I don’t think The Cave will solve the Mideast any more than Picasso stopped the Blitz with Guernica.’ But he cannot shut his eyes to the ideas and outrages of our time. A further video trilogy reflects on Hiroshima, the Hindenburg airship disaster and the ethical implications of cloning Dolly the Sheep. Some critics have acclaimed these collaborations as a template for the operatic future, ignoring the inimitability of Reich’s method in combining recorded materials, philosophical teachings, original sound and political engagement. His is a self-made revolution achieved largely with his own hands, his own band — at one point actually barring other musicians from playing his works. Magnetic though it is, Reich’s music lacks the peacock strut of star interpreters or the gymnastic virtuosity that wins cheap ovations. Quiet, intense, unfailingly well-made, it comes without added colourings and chemicals, the organic alternative to industrial art. At its most self-involved, Reich’s music can play on and on until you are no longer aware of hearing music at all and are listening instead to the drumming inside your head. At his most communicative, on the other hand, Reich compels attention on several levels at once. No-one else could have twinned the misery of a shuttled boyhood in a broken American home to the backdrop of European Holocaust, as Reich does in Different Trains, creating not just a masterpiece for string quartet (with amplified tape), but a way for Haydn’s invention to find a relevance to modern lives. Nothing in Reich is mono-linear. He thinks in historical parallels, is intrigued by paradoxes, appalled by present atrocities. ‘Who would have guessed we’d face a medieval religious conflict in the 21st century?’ he demands. And which other composer, I wonder, is working on a musical subtext for our deepening confusions?
drumslight-11. Photo by Kamal Aboul-Hosn What a racket! Shostakovich punctuates his first opera, The Nose , with instrumental interludes, and the first of these is scored exclusively for unpitched percussion. An assortment of drums, cymbals and other motley instruments are bashed and rattled with explosive, feverish energy that builds to climaxes of nightmarish intensity. This ingenious movement is much more than a headache in aural form, though, as Shostakovich shows us that he can reflect the deadpan wit of his source material without needing to use either of those usually essential tools of the opera composer: words or melody. The interlude is sandwiched between scenes that show men with hangovers having awful days. First the barber Ivan Iakovlevitch wakes up hoping to solace himself with some bread and onions. But lurking in the loaf is a nose – possibly belonging to an unlucky customer. His wife screamingly demands he dispose of it, which Ivan miserably slopes off to do. But how to manage that without attracting the interest of the police? Platon Kuzmitch Kovalov, painfully waking after the interlude finishes, has an even worse time of it. Worried about a pimple he noticed on his nose the day before, he goes to fondle it – and finds, instead of a nose, a smooth flat patch of skin. His nose has done a runner. The source for this stupid story is Gogol ’s tiny tale The Nose, considered one of, if not the best, short stories ever written. One of the things that Shostakovich admired most about this miniature masterpiece was how ‘Gogol states all comic events in a serious tone’, and the same unshakeable deadpan characterizes his opera. ‘I did not want to make a joke about the nose’, Shostakovich says. ‘Honestly, what is funny about a human being who has lost his nose? The Nose is a horror story, not a joke.’ Indeed. Horror is laced throughout the many different musical styles Shostakovich co-opts into his score, and has its first real outburst in this gruesome, percussive interlude. He doesn’t give us just a lot of noise, though: like the comedy, this is horror in a very serious tone. As you would expect with a percussion ensemble, rhythm is the crucial compositional ingredient. Shostakovich marshals with ruthless precision the voices of his nine instruments. (Do you want the list? Here’s the list: bass drum, castanets, clash cymbal, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, tam-tam, tom-tom and triangle.) Quite dissimilar to the music of his near-contemporary Stravinsky, which delights in changing time signatures, Shostakovich maintains a regular pulse throughout, fiercely emphasized by ‘ta-ta-TAH’ rhythms and jabbing syncopation – a foreteller of the ferocious marches that storm throughout the music of his later career. There is, inevitably, some of the same militaristic sense here in The Nose. But that’s far from being all that’s going on. Drum roll, if you please! Shostakovich instantly conjures a shadowy circus, and it’s a roll long enough to cover all kinds of alarming animal activities. It ends, though, with a cheeky cymbal crash, punchline to a vaudevillian routine. That marks the end of the interlude’s first half, but its mirror at the end of the second half has bombastic, unsettling jolts like shells falling on a battlefield. Connecting these two long assaults is music that starts off like a fugue, an intricate subject passed between each voice, and becomes something more impressionistic, expressed through muttered outbursts that are quickly stifled. Connecting all those different feelings together, taken as a whole the interlude can morph yet again and even work as a simple (if complex) parody: David Syrus , The Royal Opera’s Head of Music, hears a send-up of Wagner ’s chorus of anvils from Das Rheingold , that track his gods’ descent into the grimy world of the Nibelungs. A march, a chorus line, explosions with a punch line, death and comedy – it’s all there. In this three-minute interlude Shostakovich telescopes the vibrancy of the whole opera, hinting at the wealth of methodical musical madness that is to come, alluding to all of the different styles that make up this exuberant, show-off piece. And he does it all without sounding a single note. The Nose runs 20 October–9 November 2016. Tickets are still available . The production is a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and Opera Australia and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Hamish and Sophie Forsyth, The Tsukanov Family Foundation and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund .
Madge/Sakramentskoor/ARMAB O/Blomhert (CPO)Composed as a dance and mime show at the height of the second world war, and never published during the composer’s lifetime, Frank Martin’s Totentanz is based on a series of 15th-century murals that once adorned the walls of a Dominican monastery in Basel. In the paintings, Death is seen as a benign figure, a gentle mediator between the worlds of the living and the dead, and the eight scenes in Martin’s work depict his encounters with ordinary people who may or not be about to die, but are guided to the afterlife if they are. A solo dancer takes the role of Death, with mimes playing the characters he meets. The musical forces include a boys’ choir, a group of baritones, wind band, string orchestra and solo piano, as well as three Basel drums, a type of military drum. The score partly comes from Martin’s earlier works and makes prominent use of a 16th-century soldier’s hymn. Brittle marches and uptempo chorales are interspersed with choral numbers; there are echoes of Stravinsky (The Soldier’s Tale) and Kurt Weill, even Gershwin. It’s a curiosity, really, but the music’s pervasive melancholy is oddly touching in this first-ever recording, which seems to have been prepared meticulously by Bastiaan Blomhert . Continue reading...
Florent Schmitt's Antony and Cleopatra (Suites no 1 and 2, Op 69, 1920) with Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with movements re-ordered and interspersed with excerpts from Shakespeare, adapted by Bill Barclay of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, at the Barbican Hall, London. Lurid colours lit the stage, saturated washes of red and gold. Aquamarine lights shone on the platform floor, spotlights glowed on the sheets the musicians were playing from. The music was equally lurid, beginning with a wildly exuberant fanfare Not a military display so much as statecraft as theatre. Perhaps Cleopatra, like many rulers since, knew you can dazzle others even if you don't have much in the way of firepower. So spoke Enobarbus, describing Cleopatra to his fellow Romans : "The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold " No wonder Ida Rubinstein - another extravagant diva - wanted to portray her and asked André Gide to create a spectacular showcase. Stravinsky was asked to provide the incidental music since he, Diaghilev and Rubinstein has worked together since the early days of the Ballets Russe, For various reasons he demurred. Florent Schmitt's Antony and Cleopatra quotes so explicitly from The Rite of Spring that one wonders what Stravinsky might have thought, particularly as the angular "primitivism" of the Rite is overlaid with elaborate decorative ornamentation. Barely seven years before, the Rite of Spring had scandalized Paris, causing a near riot. In Schmitt's Antony and Cleopatra, the fierce chords depict the Battle of Actium so graphically that you can almost visualize ships battling on the open ocean. Swashbuckling stuff! Consider Erich Korngold's infinitely more original Die tote Stadt which also premiered in 1920, with great success, pretty much inventing a new musical genre. In the 1920's movies were silent, but spectacular. Consider Jacques Feyder's L'Atlantide (1921) where the Queen of Atlantis lives in North Africa. But what we now call film music had its roots in popular music for the stage. Orientalism in France has a long pedigree, dating back to Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt , bearing fruit in an enduring fascination with different exotic locales, which manifested itself in painting, literature and music. Berlioz La mort de Cléopatre, and Les Troyens, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Délibes Lakmé. Massenet Le roi de Lahore, and the songs of Maurce Delage and Jaubert. Ida Rubinstein's Cleopatra was part of a huge surge of public interest in things Egyptian which influenced fashion, decorative arts and popular culture, which still prevails today. The French Shakespeare tradition goes back to Charles Kemble, and carried no cultural baggage. Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, for example, is very much an original work, not a setting of the play Thus Rubinstein's Cleopatra, via Gide, is part of a much wider cultural theme. This Antony and Cleopatra was part of a year-long celebration of Shakespeare all over Britain. Hence the high-profile production, with the BBC SO, the flagship of the BBC stable of orchestras. Schmitt probably doesn't get luxury performances like this too often. Sakari Oramo conducted with panache, he and his orchestra clearly enjoying the big brass effects and theatricality. At one point, the actors "spoke" to Oramo, who is noted for his good-natured geniality. He beamed and acknowledged them without missing a beat. "Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes" The actors were Janie Dee (Cleopatra), Simon Paisley Day (Antony), Brendan O'Hea , Cassie Layton and Tom Kanji. The Director was Iqbal Khan. Shakepeare's Globe isn't Stratford but earthier. there's not much you can do about staging at the Barbican, but then Shakespeare's own productions seem to have been closer to Greek ideas than to Hollywood. The concert was recorded for broadcast at a later date, but I'm glad I saw it live.
Chaos at the Usina del Arte: for the third time this year a concert announced since March by the Colón to take place there had to be derived to another venue, in this case the CCK´s Blue Whale (called now the Symphonic Hall, Sala Sinfónica). Chaos at the National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional): as the Culture Ministry´s Administration pays absurdly late, renowned Chilean conductor Francisco Rettig had already cancelled one of the concerts programmed with his presence; the second, in which he was supposed to lead Stravinsky´s "Oedipus Rex" (already cancelled a couple of seasons ago for similar reasons), took place with Rettig though with a different programme: he was finally paid his fees for last year´s performances, but so late that the orchestral parts of "Oedipus Rex" were sent back to its foreign editors. So he had to choose one of his specialties available in the orchestra´s archive: Bruckner´s Fourth Symphony. A sad story, and with a very bad outcome: worn down by a continuous fight of many years, the Orchestra´s stalwart programmer, Ciro Ciliberto, finally quit. He had been a key figure during the long Calderón tenure; after the ailing and aged conductor finally stepped down last year after inaugurating the Blue Whale, Ciliberto was left in sole command as programmer and organizer. The policy was to have guest conductors known to the orchestra and of firm renown (Rettig, Lano, Diemecke, Neuhold) and talented young Argentine conductors and avoid for the time being the naming of a new Principal Conductor. That was so both in 2015 and 2016. Now the destiny of the NS is in the hands of a committee of capable first desks of the orchestra, but it will be tough for them to replace the constant day-to-day work of Ciliberto, a capable and hard-working man to whom the NS and the audience owe a great homage, for without him the NS wouldn´t have surmounted uncounted problems due to the uncooperating Ministry Administration. Frankly I have little hope of an amelioration: what´s needed is a wholesale renovation with new, sane and workable rules, with strong sanctions against offenders. Let´s go back to the Buenos Aires Philharmonic: it was their first concert at the Blue Whale, so they had to adapt to acoustics they didn´t know. The Phil had the benefit of refurbished acoustics that have diminished the bothersome stridency of the brass and percussion, for now a curtain behind the orchestra is veiling the black granite wall. Luis Gorelik, born 1963, is an experienced Argentine conductor, disciple of Calderón and of Mendi Rodan in Israel. In recent years he has been Principal Conductor of the Salta and Entre Ríos Orchestras, and currently he is also PC of the Filiberto Orchestra. The Phil played first the charming Boïeldieu Harp Concerto (1795) in which he wrote in "gallant" style what is still the most popular of the not abundant concerted literature for this instrument. Lucrecia Jancsa, first desk of the NS, played it tastefully and mostly accurately, though her volume is small. She gave us a nice encore melody, which sounded French to me. The orchestra accompanied well. The tremendous ballets Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev between 1910 and 1913 are still the most famous of all his compositions. "Rite of Spring" (1913) is the most important, but "Petrushka" (1911) is the one many of us like best, for its enormously innovative and varied music. For some reason, "Rite.." was initially programmed, but "Petrushka" in its 1947 revision was played instead; no complaints from me. The solo playing could be improved and the first minutes were rather garbled, but matters settled down and we finally had an attractive version, well understood by Gorelik. Now to the NS: Rettig is a Bruckner connoisseur, and his Fourth was predictably well built and conducted from memory. His style is sober, maybe too much so, but always very musical. Most of the playing was quite good, but the first horn wasn´t up to par. I would have preferred the longer Seventh or Eighth, but the one-hour Fourth was a last-minute replacement. For Buenos Aires Herald
Royal Festival Hall, London Esa-Pekka Salonen’s readings of Oedipus Rex and the Symphony of Psalms were thrilling while Peter Sellars’s staging of the opera-oratorio was deft Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Stravinsky survey came to a close in a concert labelled Tragedy. It’s obvious why the tag applies to the first half’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex; less clear in the case of the radiantly austere Symphony of Psalms in the second. The two pieces have plenty of other links, however: both in Latin, both choral, both monumental (though in different ways), both marked by Stravinsky’s re-embrace of religion, and both written in 1926-30 as his neoclassicism evolved in new ways. Related: Facing the music: Esa-Pekka Salonen Continue reading...
Igor Stravinsky (17 June 1882 - 6 April 1971) was a Russian-born, naturalized French, later naturalized American composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most important and influential composers of 20th century music. He was a quintessentially cosmopolitan Russian who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the century. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1934 and a naturalized US citizen in 1945. In addition to the recognition he received for his compositions, he also achieved fame as a pianist and a conductor, often at the premieres of his works. Stravinsky's compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/1947), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The Rite, whose premiere provoked a riot, transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure, and was largely responsible for Stravinsky's enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary, pushing the boundaries of musical design. In the 1950s he adopted serial procedures, using the new techniques over his last twenty years. Stravinsky's compositions of this period share traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells, and clarity of form, of instrumentation, and of utterance.
Great composers of classical music