22 September 2013

Denis Kozhukin, le sérieux

What a serious concert! What a serious pianist!

Denis Kozhukhin won the very serious Queen Elizabeth competition in 2010,  over another wonderful Russian pianist Yuri Favorin, all the more serious too. This year he came touring his Prokofieff disc, the last three sonatas, and he gave an incredible concert at Southbank. It was not the lighther program ever. Tonight, the program was vast, deep, tense, dense and a little bit funny. Yes, funny, but no banter: just some smiles and some grins.

Because Kozhukhin is not a joker, he had to think about how to sell the very serious bits of his program to the electric audience of sleeping beauties and sleeping non beauties.
The first part of the concert was some kind of sandwich, starting with smiles (Haydn’s Sonata in F Major HB 16/23), contemplation (Franck's Prelude Chorale et Fugue) and then some kind of acknowledgement that there are hits in classical music (Schubert’s Four Impromptus, op.90).  Intermission, and second part: Bach was drunk? No, Hindemith's third sonata, and then Brahms 7 fantasies (op.116), the 7 deadly sins. Then three encores: sgambatti, bach and scriabine. Wow, hilarious!

Kozhukhin is smart, is talented, he has beautiful colours, but he's not really fun. He does beauty, but he does not laugh really, he does not burst, he does not get angry. Everything is contained, always beautiful, but sometimes, you would like him to get to the extremes.

That being said, I can't complain about anything, the concert was splendid, and lots of ideas (Hindemith's use of diatonality and tonality is extremely interesting for instance). Highlight of the night, Brahms' fantasias. Brahms was probably the composer Kozhukhin was the most connected with tonight, it seemed so natural to him, while Haydn missed so outbursts.

Anyway, again a beautiful concert at Wigmore Hall,

Sleep tight readers!

30 July 2013

Ariadne auf Naxos, sex, war and rock and roll

Last May, my lovely friend Gary invited me to see Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1912/1916) staged at Glyndebourne Festival in May/June 2013. It was not only the first time I saw this opera but also my discovery of Glyndebourne, and the invitation ended up being a wonderful present (as usual with Gary). I liked being in a tuxedo in the middle of a field with sheep staring at me, then walking into an opera house in the middle of nowhere. Most of all, the show was great.

A few days later, as usual, I read what had been said about the show, and to tell the truth I was quite stunned reading some of the critics: they seemed to hate it. The Telegraph's review was very negative, mostly because of the stage direction (as were other reviews, but here I reply to this particular one). I think it is an unfair critique that missed the point. Before explaining this position, I want to give some background information.

Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera in two acts staging a story (a music show) within a story (a rich man commissioning to two groups of musicians a music show). As such, we easily understand it is an operatic mise en abîme.

Poster of the original production in 1912

Strauss's work begins with a prologue in a mansion where two troupes of musicians (one comic, one operatic) are commissioned by the master of the house to deliver a music show for his invitees. However, due to delays in the guests' dinner, both shows have to be performed simultaneously. "The horror, the horror," the opera composer gets angry, frustrated, shouts, but resigns. In the second act, the compromised opera is staged; it consists of a patchwork of the two originally commissioned works. It is a farce gathering all the basic ingredients of the operatic genre: a lonely princess who is sad because she was dumped by her lover, magical creatures, a comedy troupe trying to entertain the sad princess, a God that falls in love with Ariadne who chooses to love him in return. It ends with a love duet, of course. It is usually said that Ariadne is about the intertwining of low art and high art. 

Concerning Glyndebourne's production, critics usually disagreed with the stage direction. For instance Christiansen (just to name one) thought it was "only a bright decorative idea", "establish[ing] a series of resonances without basis in the text". According the Telegraph's critic, "it is a morbid ailment" where "apparently innocent operas are proved guilty of crimes of which their composers and librettists never dreamed, to the dismay and bafflement of audiences."

The idea of the director, Katharina Thoma, was quite simple and actually quite smart. In the first act, we see the two groups of musicians in a beautiful mansion, but unfortunately, because of the war and bombings, they have to perform at the same time. In the second act, the beautiful mansion is turned into a nursery and the musicians/comedians/dancers have to entertain the wounded, who also take part in the production. Apparently Christiansen didn't like the war, he didn't like the bombs, he didn't like the requisitioned stately home, he didn't like Zerbinetta being a nymphomaniac, etc.

Before explaining to mister Christensen that this reading of the opera is not a "decorative idea [...] without basis in the text", let us not forget that Ariadne auf Naxos was originally planned as part of Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which is a comédie-ballet, a royal entertainment intended to please and where Molière specifically explored the links between comedy, dance, and music. In some sense, Molière aimed at transforming low art into high art.
Cover of the original version of Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme
Given Ariadne's genealogy, it is obvious that Strauss's opera is thought of as a comédie-ballet and I am pretty sure that Hofmannsthal and Strauss had two elements in mind when they worked on Ariadne:
  1. Writing a piece mixing music, dance, and comedy, aimed at entertaining the audience (at least partly), combining both low art and high art. It is the case here because Ariadne is about group of musicians presenting an opera and a troupe of comedians and dancers. 
  2. Re-creating a work that already exists. Ariadne is a re-creation of Molière's work, and features a wannabe character (the composer, echoing Molière's Monsieur Jourdain); actors (the comedians, echoing the grand mamamouchi); musicians and dancers (this is obvious in both works); some references to somewhere far and exotic (the divinities/the Turks); and in the background an institution that is targeted (the opera world/the French bourgeoisie/aristocracy). Ariadne also stages the re-creation of an opera, where two troupes perform at the same time and merge their works.

The Turks' dance in Molière's play

In a nutshell then, Ariadne auf Naxos is a re-creation that talks about opera and talks about high art and low art, as is Thoma's work.

Re-creation for Molière meant transforming low art (royal entertainment whose function as only to please the king) into high art, shaping simple material into more evolved forms without forgetting that récreation also means entertainment. Strauss and Hofmannsthal follow this tradition though reversed, as they intended to make high art as accessible as low art. Katharina Thoma's work embodies wonderfully this idea showcasing a thrilling, passionate, and fun work around an moment in history that speaks to a 2013 audience: the second world war. To some extent, it also alludes to the morals of relationship and sexuality, which I guess is a pretty contemporary issue.

Thoma's production at Glyndebourne in May/June 2013
Setting the scene in a house destroyed during WWII not only aims at creating a set of images and references known to any audience, it also refers to Strauss's and Glyndebourne's own histories. During the war, Strauss refused his home to be transformed into a nursery home, while Glyndebourne was turned into a huge dormitory for evacuee children and babies. Therefore, Thoma's work eventually appears to be a re-creation of Hofmannsthal's work and a mise en abîme of the theater as a stage where the performance happens (she's a stage director afterall). It seems to me (at least) that it highlights Glyndebourne's own history in order to throw shade on some aspects of Strauss' life.
Thoma's direction at Glyndebourne in May/June 2013

I would hope that Mr Christiansen might reconsider his views about Katharina Thoma's work after reading this post and about what stage direction should be. The first function of opera is to entertain, and the high art/low art debate is all about this function. If audience is suppressed from references that are understandable, opera is locked into a very elitist form. I am not sure that this is what we want, at least this is not what I want because I think there is so much in opera, and in classical music in general, that would make people much happier.

Finally, to end this post, just a lovely image. In Thoma's work, the final love duet is followed by a silent scene where the composer smiles alone on stage. He is happy about what has been premiered, and he finds peace. The composer, Richard Strauss, finds peace after refusing to give help during the war (he probably had very good reasons, I'm not judging, but he probably thought back at it) because his work rewrites his own history. The composer, in the play, finds peace because in the end his work was not betrayed after merging with the comedy troupe, acknowledging that this burlesque patchwork was a success. Katharina Thoma's direction at Glynedbourne was similarly a success.

ps: David Nice wrote a cool post about the production too: here.

21 July 2013

Charles Rosen's costs/benefits analysis of modern music

Charles Rosen, a few months before dying, gave a talk on modernism organized by 21st-Century Music in Society. Although he was clearly not at his best and sometimes it is hard to follow his thoughts, he set the basis of a wonderful speech articulating modernism and performance.

I'd like to summarize what I understood from this intellectual journey because I found it particularly interesting. [Readers, all my apologies as I reshuffled a bit mr Rosen's ideas for sake of clarity shared, I hope it does not betray his thoughts.]

Rosen started wittily (he is a funny man!) alluding to Schoenberg who said that there was such thing as modernism, it is just music that is badly played. And this is the greatest challenge, according to him, because to make modern music comprehensible and enjoyable (an idea that he repeated several times throughout the speech), you need an awful lot of rehearsal to make it sounds nice. He gives two funny examples to illustrate this idea:
- Berlioz praised Beethoven's 9th Symphony première in Paris with a director he didn't like, who rehearsed every day for a year after the nightmare of the first rehearsal;
- Rosen saw the 13 show of Boulez' Lulu in Paris that was amazing apparently, after 45 recording session. This is a link to Boulez' rendition in 1974 at Paris Opéra with artistic subtitles in Japanese.

It becomes clear that right at the beginning the focus is on the issue of performance, which is essential to modern art because, he insists, modern art is difficult.

Modernism is difficult because of the decision to abandon what "might be called any idealization of form/material", the idealized material that is not reality but reflect it. For instance, as Rosen adds,  when looking at Degas' paintings, dancers are not really graceful, positions are awkward. But he takes takes something ugly and make a great picture out of it. Traditional beauty is out and the intention is now to tell the truth, which we are usually not ready to hear.

The abandon of idealization may take several forms, like the emancipation of dissonance which happened gradually. The history of dissonance starts as early as Mozart Rosen says with his "Dissonance" quartet or his G minor symphony.  Chromatic saturation became widespread in the 19th (as in Chopin, Wagner) and it probably peaked, according to Rosen, with Schoenberg' Erwartung: every note within the range of the orchestra is played at the same time.  I don't really understand why Rosen did not mention earlier music where dissonance is very important like in Bach, Rameau or Couperin,  or even earlier,  with Carrisimi or Monterverdi (I guess Rosen may understand dissonance as notes that are not part of any harmony, before or after its realization. In  that case I can understand, thought the physicial impact is the same). Here is an example with Carissimi's Jephte.

The emancipation of dissonance takes also the form of melodies written without any explicit reference to the tonic. Melodies and themes used to start defining with the tonic either horizontally or vertically (listen to Beethoven 9th symphony here).

But later, as in Brahms op.111, the tonic is not really defined by the melody anymore (but the accompaniement is tonal). Another example is Brahms op.119 which starts with eleventh whith lots of dissonances though as Brahms said to Clara Schumann: "every dissonance is well prepared and resolved".  Composers start to disobey the rules, sound is enough.

The abandon of idealization also takes the form of a gradual abandon of forms. Artists seem to renounce the basics of intelligibility. Examples of such a tendency are common in the literature. We may think of  Mallarmé's poems or Joyce's Ulysses. Rosen also alluded to Constable's vow of making something out of nothing to clarify this point.

Modernism is difficult also because the experience of novelty is painful. First, in contact with modern works, you usually feel stupid says Rosen, and it is understandable since there is no rule anymore and since artists make something out of nothing. What a mess! We need to understand what is nothing, and then we need to understand what they make of it, and this requires a great deal of effort! This is particularly exemplified by music, and I link Boulez' first Sonata because there are some nice bits of it.

It also painful because we usually you don't want to hear the truth: it challenges our tight perception of the world. Rosen talks about Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, and also Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Education Sentimentale.  Une Charogne de Baudelaire may illustrate this point (as well with the abandon of idealization) since we have to face a smelly rotten carcass eaten by worms as we read the poem (you can see the entire poem clicking here)

Rappelez-vous l'objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d'été si doux:
Au détour d'un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux...

My love, do you recall the object which we saw,
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed...

Finally modern music is also difficult because performance is intrinsically hard. You usually need a score to play because memorizing is very difficult. From a technical point of view, performances of such works are evolved and you need a lot of rehearsal and money. Appreciating modern music depends on good perfomances and they are very very rare and usually need to hear it a few times (and time is money again *laugh*) and a great deal of effort to understand it (which takes time, thus money QED *laugh laugh*). In the meanwhile, difficult music has a greater likelihood of surviving, which may counterbalance the costs of listening to music. 

The cost/benefits analysis of modernism, and modern music especially, clearly leans towards the costs side. However, and this is Rosen's conclusion, the greatest achievement of modernism seems to  highlight the importance of performance and the contact with music. He skipped this point as it seems he had no time anymore, which is a pity because it is the most interesting to me. At first, I thought that modernity was some kind of dry walk into abstraction where you gradually focus on the essential element of music - the relationship between sounds and silence (the rythm, length, height, space and volume of sounds and silence) - and you play in organizing them differently. (Here is a really nice video of Cage talking about sounds and silence where he says something similar- "I love sounds and I don't need them to be something else... I just want them to be sounds").

However, Rosen highlights the issue of performance, which is fascinating. He seems to displace the stress from the nature of music to its performance. Modern music is performance. Contact with sounds is key, and good/accurate transmission is fundamental. Some performers understood it very well and I can think of one that I really like, Karim Saïd, who gave a series of recitals around modernism at Southbank this year, where he would talk and show the audience what to listen before performing.

To conclude, here is an extract of Wozzeck, an amazing opera by Berg (actually one of my favourite operas), which can be a good introduction to modern music.

Even though my summary is amazing, you may want to listen to Rosen's speech. Here it is.

12 June 2013

It's proms night!

Tonight, I was like a student again, suffering the stress caused by final exams! The worse is probably that I was not the one graduating, and still my stomach was rumbling! I attended the final exam of a great musician, and very promising talent, although I think is Spanish (joke): Roberto González-Monjas.

This guys is a colossus, not really because he's tall, has big hands and is an incredible musician, but because he already has like 10 jobs before graduating. He's only 25 and yet, he is the leader of the Musikkollegium Winterthur, the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and the Verbier Festival Symphony and Chamber Orchestras (amongst others). He also plays chamber music with prestigious artists, and he already teaches at Guildall, where he just gradated tonight from (??!!) and in Columbia in a music program similar to el Sistema (if I understood correctly). And he's a conductor too (as shown in the video). Such a one-man band!

It is usually common for musicians to have crazy lives, but the teaching thing impressed me a bit (he was on the website before graduating!).  He also has a beautiful violin and a great sound - sometimes you wonder how such a small wooden toy can make so much noise! I am already conquered, and I am sure one day you'll read his interview on the blog :)

Anyway, he played a great recital around Bach's music. He started with Bach's second sonata, followed  by Isaÿe's 4th sonata, and finishing with Busoni's second sonata.  For the latter piece, his partner in crime, who was as impressive, was Big Mama Palmer alias Caroline Palmer. To tell the truth, I won't try to be intelligent describing the details of the performance and talking about fancy stuff: I was just listenning to the music, and that's it. Beautiful music, beautiful perfomers, I was happy. (discovered Busoni's piece, which is pretty amazing).

Well Roberto is definitely a musician that deserves attention, and I will be following him for sure. Here is another video: click here.

I bid you good night kind readers,

PS: Actually I lied because I thought a bit during (after) the concert. To what extent the references to dances (like in Bach and Ysaÿe) should be understood as real dances, or if this is just an abstract material based on rythm?

10 June 2013

Can you speak english? Style and National Identity in the 20th

The title almost looks like a PhD in comparative studies, but we will talk about music :)

Last week, I got deflowered multiple times! For the first time, I heard live:
- Elisabeth Leonskaja (Southbank, I love you: click here to see the program)
- les Valses nobles et sentimentales
- Enesco's first piano sonata
- la Plus que lente (that I hadn't recognized, shame on me I don't know my Debussy)

As usual for Southbank, many seats empty. The ushers invited us to move forward, which does not make great difference in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. This anecdote may seems irrelevant as such, but there is a post to write about it another day (I am convinced that Southbank is empty because it is not Glyndebourne :) QED).

I wont praise Leonskaja here, journalists do it very well, she's just great.  full stop. We can still praise her courage to program Enesco's sonata. Apart from being an incredible pianist, she dares programming rare pieces like Enesco's sonatas.
Enesco's sonata is lovely with 3 movements rather different at first glance (just heard it once, so please scholars, do not be too harsh on me). It begins à la manière du Prélude à l'unisson (Suite op.9) before turning into full-fledged piano-sonata first-movement,  It is followed by a tocatta-like movement the imaginary son of Prokofiev and Poulenc could have written (presto of course). Very funny.  The final (slow) movement starts with the resonnances of a cimbalom, from which a romanian folk melody springs, before letting the left hand introducing a sort of perpetuum mobile (re-using a motive that appeared in the first movement) while the right hand starts developping the romanian theme à la Liszt towards the end. Beautiful end. 

She also played lots of French music (1910-ish) with Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales and some excerpts from Debussy's Préludes.  The link between Debussy and Enesco was quite clear to me, not really in the composition style though, but mainly in the similarity of music material. It reminded me of the spectral experiments without the computers and the maths. Let's take a chord and let's listen to the notes created by the chord resonnances. Suppose we add one sound, preferably close to one that is already played, and another. Listen. Let's move the elbow and produce another sound. Quicker? Slower? What do we get? etc.

Then she played Brahms, 3rd sonata. Beautiful. Then encores: Mozart (finale of a sonata, I think in F), and La plus que lente.

Overall great concert, great pianist. Great moment (I was also with my friend A. We caught up eating scotch eggs at the intermission).

I was amused then by some of the comments I could hear drop around me. "This wasn't very French" (says the Brit), complaining that she would not play in style. At one moment, I wanted to interact and tell the woman: can you enjoy the conversation of a foreigner in English?  Then, you can enjoy the Russian playing French music!!

The notion of style in music is awkward in two ways:
First it means that people care more about the form, than the content; they care more about the historicity of the musical experience (at best, most of the time, it is the new fashionable way to do music) than the experience itself.  In some way it is in total contradiction to what music is.
Second musicians are all mixed now, their playing does not really embody a national identity, mostly because of international trade and the invention of mass produced recording.

At the end, I have the impression that speaking of style is just another way of acknowleding that people may have accents when they talk in a foreign language. But as far as I am concerned I am not bothered at all when an English person talks to me in French with a very seducing accent.

"Can you spike english?"

23 May 2013

A frog under the roof

Et bonjour tout le monde,

Jean Wiéner used to start all his radio improvisation with these words ("And hello to all"), a sort of ritual where he paid respect to whomever wanted to listen.

He was also there, with Cocteau, in the shadow of Louis Moysès (the founder), at the start of "le boeuf sur le toit". It was a mythical cabaret-bar in Paris where music happened in France, in between the two wars; all kind of music. Great names from France and elsewhere rushed in to these walls: Cocteau, Stravinsky, Hemmingway, Satie, Chanel, Tzara, Poulenc, Milhaud, Picasso just to name a few. I wish I were there (ok, just one night) amongst these inspiring musicians and friends, witnessing the debut of Jazz music in France, and listenning to Doucet (Wiéner's 2 pianos partner) arranging a theme by Bach, Chopin or Wagner "à la manière de...", and laughing and drinking bubbles.

I am in London in 2013 though, and there is no oax on the roof, but a froggie running concerts.  Most of the time they are too serious and sometimes people do not like music enough. I am pretty sure this can be fun too, should I drink more champagne at the intermission?

Anyway, these pages will be some sort of musical diary, for anyone interested (or not). To begin at the beginning, here are two videos of Wiéner and Doucet, hope you'll enjoy!

"Et voilà" ...