Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To Be or Not to Be......Hamlet as Opera

Have any of you had a chance to attend the Met Opera's live HD broadcasts at your neighborhood cinema screens? This past Saturday in NYC they performed an operatic version of Hamlet composed by the relatively unknown Ambroise Thomas, beamed live in HD to millions of people around the globe, who were watching (and presumably cheering, as our audience was) in theaters that had to be open during the middle of the night in some timezones. Regardless of the broadcast time, reports show theaters in all locations are absolutely full at each of these live Met Opera HD broadcasts and having to open adjacent theaters in cinema complexes to accommodate the overflow crowds.

And now I can see why! Hamlet, in this case, was an all-around amazing, energizing and unexpectedly fulfilling experience both in terms of the shared media performance in the packed cinema, and in the quality of the opera's music and the singers performing it. I had not had a chance to hear/see either of the two principals in a live performance previous to this, and was astounded at the acting ability (Simon Keenlyside, playing Hamlet, in particular) on top of the glorious vocal techniques. Gone are the days when typically-very -large opera stars stood still in place and sang their arias, then moved stiffly across the stage to their next blocking position to await another vocal cue. In virtually all of the operas I have seen lately, the singers are (almost all) quite trim, stylish and youthful - if you met them on the street you would have no idea what they do for a living - and their staging requires them to do varying feats of near-acrobatics in aerobic levels of movement while portraying the stories and action with the other characters.

Marlis Petersen, playing Ophelie, was beautiful to watch with a lyrical tone to match, singing demanding technical passages with absolute tonal assurance and heart-wrenching emotion in the "mad scene". The back-stage drama involved with her doing this role almost equaled the onstage story - due to illness of the scheduled soprano she was contacted in Europe, agreed to take the part on little more than 48 hours notice, and received coaching from the opera conductor via Skype until she could finish her current performances and fly to the Met in time for opening night! So we have yet another reason to rejoice over the benefits of modern media in its combination with classical music, beyond even the fact that non-wealthy music listeners everywhere can now, thanks to media advances, watch live performances of the Metropolitan Opera in NY with much better seats than the patrons in the opera hall!

The camera crews - placed not only on stage but also in the orchestra pit and backstage - are obviously extremely talented, experienced and well prepared, aimed on specific solo instruments in the orchestra interludes at exactly the moments they begin their particular solos, and catching tiny changes in facial expression or eye contact among the "characters" on stage. There were delightfully enlightening and honest interviews with the stars as they came off stage at intermission - for example, it was quite inspiring to hear Simon Keenlyside admit that he "doesn't read music very well at all" and learns his music/notes pretty much by ear, as he acts out the part - simply singing his feelings rather than expressing them in speech. The fact is, he is a more powerful and intense actor than most that are seen in movies or television - he just happens to have an incredibly expressive singing voice to go with it. It would seem to me that this makes him an ideal opera singer for the "masses" of folks who might never have ventured into exploring that dramatic form of music.

I hear that there is an encore broadcast of this performance being shown again the cinemas, perhaps this coming weekend or next. My recommendation would be to find out where, and "just GO!"

Friday, March 12, 2010

between heaven and earth: Mahler's Resurrection Symphony in San Francisco this evening

This blog is called "Pomoja" precisely because it was intended to discuss some of the ways that music can "unify" people, causes, cultures, or disparate groups in a shared goal or experience. For those of you who have never had the exhilarating and unifying experience of being present amongst a huge audience during a live performance of the Mahler Second ("Resurrection") Symphony, my enthusiastic recommendation would be "just GO!"

And if you ever have the opportunity of hearing Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas conduct this special Mahler work with the San Francisco Symphony (joined by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and guest soloists) then my enthusiasm would turn to urgent pleading: "you HAVE to go!".
Which is exactly what I was fortunate enough to do, just this evening.

The only unfortunate part, in my personal opinion (but also that of the audience members around me whom I talked to), was that the performance took place in Davies Symphony Hall, the home of the San Francisco Symphony for many years now, which has acoustic and ambiance issues that diminished the experience a bit for those of us who happened to be seated in sections that are beneath balcony "overhangs".
When one has been fortunate to hear a beloved work (such as this Mahler Symphony is for me)in many different halls worldwide, it is impossible not to "compare" the overall affect of the experience and ambiance in each location. This evening I tried very hard not to compare some very memorable experiences in much larger halls - with stages that could accommodate choruses 2-3 times the size of tonight's excellent (but less powerful) ensemble, where the sound of the timpani and brass threatened to blow the roof off the building, and the close of the work found the entire chorus, orchestra and audience in visible tears because the ambiance and structure of the hall assisted in creating that unified moving experience.

Because I feel strongly that the San Francisco Symphony's conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (known affectionately as MTT in these parts) is the greatest living conductor/interpreter of Mahler, I went to Davies Hall tonight hopefully expecting an equally memorable and spiritually uplifting experience. The fact that this did not quite happen in spite of MTT's (and the orchestra's) brilliance of execution and affinity for the composer, was most probably due, I suspect, to a couple of things: 1) this Friday evening concert began at 6:30 so that city workers could attend before going home - great idea but I wonder if the orchestra was still a bit emotionally exhausted from the regular 8pm performance of the work the night before, and not quite "warmed up" to this slightly unusual start time? 2) as mentioned earlier, our being seated under the overhang of a balcony, which dampened a lot of the power and "immediacy" of the orchestra's live sound, making their presence on the stage feel more emotively distant and less personally involved (as my seat neighbors also remarked)...and 3)again in comparing experiences (even subconsciously), I could not help but be amazed at the amount of noise and distracting movement going on throughout the audience in general - constant coughing (but some folks seemed to save it up for the most important silences in particular), rustling of programs or throat candy wrappers, shifting in squeaky seats, etc...in contrast, as I mentioned, I have heard this piece performed live in halls 2-3 times the size, where one could have literally "heard a pin drop" throughout the entire symphony. Obviously I am not sure if this was due to the hall acoustics actually being excellent in the wrong direction, or to the current cough bugs inhabiting San Francisco, or if Friday evening audiences are restless in particular, or all of the above....
So- having digressed a bit to describe my own slight personal disappointments vs expectations, am I still urging and begging you to go? Absolutely! And if you happen to be in San Francisco area this weekend, March 13 or 14, DO go to Davies Symphony Hall and try anything you can to beg, buy or steal a ticket for the two remaining performances of this symphony (just don't get seats beneath the overhangs!)

Why? Partly the piece.....and partly the conductor.
In my opinion and that of many of my musician colleagues, MTT is rightfully referred to as "Gustav Mahler incarnate". When MTT walks out on stage to conduct Mahler, one almost feels that discussions of his "interpretations" seem perhaps an irrelevant or even inaccurate assumption, because the phrasing, orchestral shading, rhythmic nuance, dynamic contrasts - and above all, the emotion in the perfectly-timed "silent pauses" - all seem to flow naturally from within, as if Mahler were there, composing and conducting it, all at the same time.
And that was certainly true this evening as well. As previously mentioned, I have been fortunate to hear this work in live performances with many recognized Mahler conductors, and of course in countless recorded versions. But I have never, before tonight, been made so effortlessly aware of tiny distinct details that revealed emotive changes and personality characteristics within each phrase, each color, each instrumental section and each thematic change of direction.

The performance of the first movement in particular gave entirely new meaning to the concept of "story telling" in music. The opening phrase was perfectly crafted both technically and emotionally, raising a question and suspense before an entire cast and characters seemed to appear in bold colors or sinister shadows. The care and tenderness that MTT lavished on the lyrical phrases was so heartbreakingly beautiful as to be almost painful, and this seemed to be partly due to the uncanny amount of spaciousness with which he allows the lyrical lines to unfold, while giving much meaning and energy to each pause. Tension built in the contrast between dry cellos and basses in their descending lines and a sweeter, almost "heavenly' instrumentation given to ascending lines - meanwhile this gentle pulse, like a heartbeat, beneath it all. "Beauty" battled with "ugliness" at moments when Mahler intentionally uses piercing woodwind or brass instruments to cut into the proceedings, and even more impressive than the final three notes of the movement were the perfectly judged spaces between them. It brought to mind something a friend of mine often says - if you go to an old cemetery and look at the tombstones, they usually have two dates carved on them - the date of the persons' birth and their passing - and those dates are usually separated by a dash (-)....so my friend points out that what matters in life is what we do in the "dash". It is so often the same with music - it is most profound, moving and unifying by what we do in the silence between the notes. Both Mahler and Michael Tilson Thomas would seem to be unparalleled in that aspect.

Mahler actually stipulated for an extended period of that silence (or break) to occur after the first movement, so that listeners could "clear their minds" before continuing with the next four movements that complete this massive work. The following movements offer a marvelous juxtaposition of many different musical genres, as if glimpses into different periods of a character's life....the Viennese elegance of waltz and minuet, superbly played by the orchestra this evening, and then immediately a Kletzmer-like episode that was brilliantly shaped by MTT and played with just the right amount amount of "attitude" even at tempi that were a bit faster than this writer has normally heard in that section.

Mahler Second Symphony is often called the "Resurrection" Symphony due primarily to the words that Gustav Mahler chose as the sung text for the choir and vocal soloists that join the orchestral forces in the final movements, and I have been told that this piece also has the interesting distinction of being mentioned the most times (of any classical music work), by people describing a permanent or life-changing "spiritual experience" that occurred unexpectedly when attending a live concert. If these "conversions" are true, I would suspect they most often happen in the shining moments of the final movement or the magical entrance of the Mezzo soprano solo in "Urlicht".
Soloist Katarina Karneus performed that role with great dramatic passion, conviction and warmth of tone, though from our seat location I wished for a more legato line and effortless sense of soaring, particularly in the highest notes of the mezzo part. Soprano Laura Claycomb seemed on this evening (again perhaps due to acoustics in my region of the hall) a bit weak, lacking in radiance or color and at times drowned out by the musical goings on. The Symphony Chorus, as mentioned earlier, was generally excellent despite a couple of slightly ragged entrances and being restricted in numbers (one assumes) by the space availability above the stage. The orchestra, even if they might not have been quite as zealously energetic as in other Mahler symphony performances under MTT that I have attended in Davies Hall, were still phenomenally good, particularly the piccolo and percussionists, but it seems unfair not to then mention the strings and the french horns and the woodwinds and the brass in general....and on and on. (If you want to see each member of the orchestral family in full action, and hear its unique colors and capabilities, go watch a live Mahler symphony performance!)

The real star of the evening was Gustav Mahler, an incredible composer who was, first and foremost, a human being who endeavored to portray every possible human emotion in his music so that generations to come would have the opportunity, in live performances, to experience through his music a unity amongst their humanity. But with Mahler's music as perhaps with no other composer, the humanity, insight and genius of the conductor leading the performance becomes the all-important ingredient that determines the quality of that live experience for the orchestral players and for the participating audience members. Any orchestra and every audience is fortunate indeed if their Mahler has MTT at the helm.

So if you can't make it to Davies Hall in San Francisco for the remaining two performances of Mahler 2nd Symphony this weekend, try to catch another concert date, especially for any of the Mahler symphonies with MTT conducting.
{A little tip: in symphonic programs where no choir is involved, the hall sells the seats behind the orchestra, up at the back of the stage. Personally, as a musician and performer when attending a concert, that is my absolute favorite place to be, where one can watch the orchestra members each contributing their part of the whole, watch the conductor living the piece in union (hopefully!) with the orchestra, and watch the audience beyond them respond to the thoughts, feelings, values and experiences being so timelessly expressed. The sound of the instruments is also the most "immediate" and "live" from this unique vantage point although of course the blend of instruments may not sound the same as from out in the balconies and rows}.