Today’s forecast in Kansas City calls for Siege of Leningrad temperatures with wind chills below zero, so what better way to spend one’s time than by reliving one of the most horrific events in human history through the sounds of Dmitri Shostakovich? Valery Gergiev and the Marinsky Theater Orchestra provide the performance. Crank that volume up.
In light of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, continuing events in Bahrain, and upcoming events likely to take place in the Middle East and North Africa, I submit that revolution is in the air. With apologies to the 18th century revolutions in France and America, the Abbasids, Haiti, the Boxer Rebellion, and Pancho Villa, no one does revolution quite like the Russians. The trail from the Decembrists to the massacre of 1905 to the Bolsheviks and the birth of the Soviet Union is an amazing story. The fact that it all peaked with a paranoid psychopath at the top of the pyramid purging 30 million of his own people shouldn’t mask the joy of 1917. BTW, if you ever need context for just how bad a guy Hitler was, always remember that the paranoid psychopath who purged 30 million of his own people was our ally in WWII. THANKS FOR THE LAUGH WHILE SHAKING MY HEAD SLOWLY, COMPLETELY TRUE STATEMENT!
Seriously, though, 1917 was awesome if you had grown tired of Tsarism (judging by the fact that Tsar Nicholas’ entire family was murdered in a basement while they thought they were getting a portrait taken, I would say some people were tired of Tsarism). I imagine it’s what the good people of Egypt are feeling right now: an unbridled optimism in their future, destiny in their own hands! How can this not end well?! The subject of the October Revolution occupied a giant space in Soviet art, literature, and music. No one filled that giant space more than Dmitri Shostakovich. Continue reading
Opera in the 20th century became totally cool from a plot standpoint. Gone were the days of a plot that really solves itself in 3 minutes but takes 2 and a half hours to get through (she loves WHO?!!), and in its place were plots about all kinds of fucked up shit, with music to match.
Because it was requested some moons ago by someone on something, I have decided to make another list, this time consisting of the 5 best operas of the 20th century. “Why 5?”, you’re not asking yourself right now. Frankly, it’s simple: I don’t feel like I know enough 20-century operas to pare down to 10, but I feel like I know enough to pare down to 5 while maintaining something resembling integrity. With that in mind:
5) Porgy and Bess–George (and Ira…and Ira) Gershwin
If aliens come to Earth intent on destroying us, it is distinctly possible that we could shield ourselves from their hellish death rays and mind control by simply joining in a world wide chorus of “Summertime,” quite possibly the most versatile and oft-interpreted piece of music ever (Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Sublime, AND The Zombies?). But wait, there’s more. “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” ”There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” and on and on. Sportin’ Life is one of the all-time great opera characters (conceived for Cab Calloway as if it weren’t already cool as hell). And it’s historically relevant, casting an eye on the unseen side of life in the slums in the ’20′s.
Recommended Recording: Even though it’s cheating the system a little bit, it has to the Miles Davis/Gil Evans disc. My Lord is it good.
4) The Nose–Dmitri Shostakovich
Before Shostakovich had cemented himself as one of the premier composers of the 20th or any other century, he operated in quite a different sound world. The Nose comes from the pre-5th Symphony days (which seems to mark the cut-off point for a lot of things in Shostakovich) and more importantly squeaks in before Stalin came to power, which needs no further explanation; in fact, it lies between the 2nd and 3rd symphonies (as a reference point) and immediately precedes the infamous Nicolai Malko “bet you can’t re-orchestrate this from memory in an hour” Tahiti Trot challenge in Shostakovich’s opus numbers.
The music is a chaotic hodgepodge of styles, held together by strict musical forms (a concept we’ll see on this list again here shortly). The libretto is based on a short story by Gogol, possibly the best writer in the history of Russia and assuredly the best writer in Russian history if you’re asking me. It tells the story of a St. Petersburg official who manages to lose his nose and watches it achieve a greater social status than he himself before it magically re-attaches itself. Gogol’s ability to write satire is matched by Shostakovich’s ability to create it in sound, an ability Shostakovich would use in his “mature” years to great effect.
Recommended Recording: Rozhdestvensky/Moscow Chamber Theater/Leningrad Philharmonic in a recording of the folks who revived the opera after it was censored, overseen personally by Shostakovich himself.
3) Wozzeck–Alban Berg
The subject matter of this, Berg’s first opera, is quite literally enough to depress a person just by reading it: exploiting the poor (for the benefit of science!), jealousy, insanity, adultery, and the inevitable struggles of literally just existing. The music itself is an amazing exploration of form, with each act being broken up into 5 scenes, and each scene being a unique form. Because it’s such a rad plot and structured so awesome-rad, I’m going to just quote the WikiPedia synopsis, which explains the opera rather well.
Scene 1 (Suite): Wozzeck is shaving the Captain who lectures him for living an immoral life. Wozzeck protests that it is difficult to be virtuous when he is poor, but entreats the Captain to remember the lesson from the gospel, “”Laßet die Kleinen zu mir kommen!”" (“Suffer the little children to come unto me,” Mark 10:14). The Captain greets this admonition with pointed dismay.
Scene 2 (Rhapsody and Hunting Song): Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks as the sun is setting. Wozzeck has frightening visions and Andres tries unsuccessfully to calm him.
Scene 3 (March and Lullaby): A military parade passes by outside Marie’s room. Margret taunts Marie for flirting with the soldiers. Then Wozzeck comes by and tells Marie of the terrible visions he has had.
Scene 4 (Passacaglia): The Doctor scolds Wozzeck for not following his instructions regarding diet and behavior. However, when the Doctor hears of Wozzeck’s mental aberrations, he is delighted and congratulates himself on the success of his experiment.
Scene 5 (Rondo): Marie admires the Drum-major outside her room. He makes an advance on her, to which she first rejects but then gives in.
Scene 1 (Sonata-Allegro): Marie is telling her child to go to sleep while admiring earrings which the Drum-major gave her. She is startled when Wozzeck arrives and when he asks where she got the earrings, she says she found them. Though not convinced, Wozzeck gives her some money and leaves. Marie chastises herself for her behavior.
Scene 2 (Fantasia and Fugue on 3 Themes): The Doctor rushes by the Captain in the street, who urges him to slow down. The Doctor then proceeds to scare the Captain by speculating what afflictions may strike him. When Wozzeck comes by, they insinuate that Marie is being unfaithful to him.
Scene 3 (Largo): Wozzeck confronts Marie, who does not deny his suspicions. Enraged, Wozzeck is about to hit her, when she stops him, saying even her father never dared lay a hand on her. Her statement “better a knife in my belly than your hands on me” plants in Wozzeck’s mind the idea for his subsequent revenge.
Scene 4 (Scherzo): Among a crowd, Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum-major. After a brief hunter’s chorus, Andres asks Wozzeck why he is sitting by himself. An Apprentice delivers a drunken sermon, then an Idiot approaches Wozzeck and cries out that the scene is “”Lustig, lustig…aber es riecht …Ich riech, ich riech Blut!”" (“joyful, joyful, but it reeks…I smell, I smell blood”).
Scene 5 (Rondo): In the barracks at night, Wozzeck, unable to sleep, is keeping Andres awake. The Drum-major comes in, intoxicated, and rouses Wozzeck out of bed to fight with him.
Scene 1 (Invention on a Theme): In her room at night, Marie reads to herself from the Bible. She cries out that she wants forgiveness.
Scene 2 (Invention on a Single Note (B)): Wozzeck and Marie are walking in the woods by a pond. Marie is anxious to leave, but Wozzeck restrains her. As a blood-red moon rises, Wozzeck becomes determined that if he can’t have Marie, no one else can, and he stabs her.
Scene 3 (Invention on a Rhythm): People are dancing in a tavern. Wozzeck enters, and upon seeing Margret, dances with her and pulls her onto his lap. He insults her, and then asks her to sing him a song. She sings, but then notices blood on his hand and elbow; everyone begins shouting at him, and Wozzeck, now agitated and obsessed with his blood, rushes out of the tavern.
Scene 4 (Invention on a 6-Note Chord): Having returned to the murder scene, Wozzeck becomes obsessed with the thought that the knife he killed Marie with will incriminate him, and throws it into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, he wades into the pond and drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright. The orchestra rise during the drowning is quoted in Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1968–69).
Intermezzo (Invention on a Key (D minor)): This interlude leads to the finale.
Scene 5 (Invention on an Eighth-Note moto perpetuo, quasi toccata): Next morning, children are playing in the sunshine. The news spreads that Marie’s body has been found, and they all run off to see, except for Marie’s little boy, who after an oblivious moment, follows after the others.
Recommended Recording: Claudio Abbado/Vienna State Opera
2) Salome–Richard Strauss
Sometimes when you baptize Jesus, you totally become famous. So much so that chicks start demanding your decapitation as a test for the creepy desires of their stepdad. Salome is based on the Bible by way of Oscar Wilde (that’s weird to type), and has everything you’d ever want in an opera, including nudity (which is great unless Birgit Nilsson happens to be in town), shield-crushing, veils, and King Herod. Strauss’ music is Strauss’ music, which is to say lush, evocative, and entertaining. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” is one of the great pieces of music, evidenced by the fact that it’s excerpted all the time, and the final scene is the craziest soprano lunacy this side of Brunnhilde taking a perfectly good horse with her into a huge fire. There’s something about the shock value that occurs when the story unravels…no matter how many times you see it, and you know what’s coming, you still feel completely repulsed, terrified, and enthralled all at once. Think of it as the Maury Povich “Who’s the father?” episode of opera. Shit, I should make an opera out of the transcript of one those…a new project born right before your very eyes. Your very eyes!
Recommended Recording: Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic and the only Jokaanan worth really sinking your teeth into…or cutting the head off of…Jose van Dam.
1) Bluebeard’s Castle–Bela Bartok
The beauty lies in the simplicity (that’s fucking ingenious if I understand it correctly, Walter…it’s a Swiss fucking watch). 2 onstage characters, 1 large set, 1 act, 1 hour. Bluebeard elopes with his new wife, Judith, and takes her back to his sweet pad (the importance of the castle is duly noted by Bartok, who actually lists it on the dramatis personae list…which is cool and creepy at the same time). Once there, Judith wants some natural light and begs Bluebeard to open some doors, but he refuses. She keeps nagging him until he gives in, making their relationship just like every other relationship ever, and we start seeing shit behind doors.
The doors and rooms all have colors associated with them, as follows:
- (The torture chamber) Blood-red
- (The armory) Yellowish-red
- (The treasury) Golden
- (The garden) Bluish-green
- (The kingdom) White
- (The pool of tears) Darkness; the main hall is darkened, as if a shadow had passed over
- (The wives) Silvery
Blood stains everything she sees, and her mind begins to piece everything together. By the time she sees the pool of tears, she knows what’s up, but demands to see the 7th door opened. If there was anything that would be cooler than Bluebeard having killed all his wives…it would be making them wear heavy-ass jewelry and crowns and shit, worshipping them, forcing Judith to join them, and then locking them up (I hope my girlfriend isn’t reading this…I don’t have a castle anyway).
The minor second plays a huge role musically…they call it the blood motif, as you hear it anytime Judith notices blood on Bluebeard’s stuff. There is a broad arching key structure of F# moving to C and back to F# which some people apparently think represents darkness and light, and which, now that I think about it, makes perfect sense. That type of synergy is what makes this the best opera of the 20th century…it has so many awesome puzzles in it, it’s as ominous a story as you can imagine, and it has the benefit of Bartok at his “A” game.
Recommended Recording: Istvan Kertesz/London Symphony with Christa Ludwig as Judith and Walter Berry as Bluebeard, and also Walter Berry looking VERY suspiciously like a modern day Bluebeard taking women back to his apartment and acting inappropriately on the Decca Legends cover photo.
There it is. I issue apologies to every Britten opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Elektra, The Rake’s Progress, Lulu, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Rusalka, Tosca, Jenufa, The Golden Cockerel (the suite is one of my all-time favorite pieces, though), The Love for Three Oranges, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, Moses und Aron, Antony and Cleopatra, Turandot, Die tote Stadt, and The Cunning Little Vixen. I literally immediately regret my list not having Britten or Janacek on it. But it’s too late…I’m already wearing the heavy-ass jewelry.
When I was in grad school I did a theoretical analysis of the Symphony no. 11 by Dmitri Shostakovich, after being introduced to the piece by my conducting teacher. I became fascinated with and consumed by the piece because it is as intense as music gets and it has a theatricality (did I just make up that word?) that is unlike anything I have ever heard. As the cliche goes, a movie simply wouldn’t be as good if there were no music to underline the emotions at work, which is true. But now imagine music that is so vivid and so dynamic that were you to attempt to actually express the music in the form of a film, you would probably erase the power of the imagery at work in the score. That is the 11th.
Subtitled ‘The Year 1905′, it tells the story of the “Bloody Sunday” of 9 January 1905, when Russian troops massacred somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 unarmed, peaceful demonstrators outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The first movement, Winter Palace, sets the scene…cold, wintry, still, uneasy, charged. For 15 minutes, you are held completely gripped in this scene, waiting. It’s absolutely amazing. The second movement, 9 January, is a musical depiction of the massacre, complete with some trademark Shostakovich snare drumming, frantic strings and woodwinds, overpowering brass. It is completely relentless music, never losing intensity for 20 minutes, including a fugato that builds to one of the great climaxes in the repertoire. The third movement, In Memoriam, is exactly what it sounds like…a memorial to the victims. It is tremendously tragic, moving, and powerful. It all builds to the fourth movement, The Alarm, a ”look-the-fuck-out” message from the people to the Tsar that is a driving, forceful barrage, only interrupted by an extended, beautiful English Horn solo that precedes one of the coolest endings in all of music, with loud-ass chimes, 5/4 bars, D major chords, and repeated snare drum figures. If anyone has ever seen the movie “The Limey” you’ll recognize the following line that I always seem to conjure when hearing this movement:
You tell them I’m coming. Tell them I’m FUCKING COMING!
The menace, the threat, and the promise of this music was indeed fulfilled twelve years and one symphony later, in the 1917 revolution. The 11th is one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire…an absolute must-hear. The performance linked here is one of the best performances of this work I’ve heard…truly inspiring in its energy, scope, and power. Langree is not someone I was familiar with prior to this concert, but I will be seeking out more of his work based on this performance. I dare say that it is on a par with the great Russian masters’ readings that I discovered this music through…high praise. The Pittsburgh Symphony, as per usual, kicks serious ass.
The rest of the concert consisted of Mozart. The Masonic Funeral Music opened the concert, in another fine performance. A brief note from Dr. Bernhard Paumgartner, founding member of the Salzburg Festival and eminent Mozart biographer:
The Masonic Funeral Music holds a place all its own among Mozart’s works, not only for its form and homogeneity, for the ingenious choice of the instruments and their exquisite technical treatment, but also through the unique grouping of a solemn march around the fundamental element of a gregorian chorale. Mozart very accurately penned the Cantus Firmus on a separate leaf in order to avoid errors in the elaboration. According to Heimsoeth the first five bars of this melody (bar 25-29) are identical with the first Psalm tone with the first Difference after the Cologne Antiphonary. What follows is a local compilation of several Psalm tones for the ‘Miserere mei Deus’ — a Penitential psalm such as is frequently used for funerals in several places.
This music reminds me in all the good ways about the dark parts of Don Giovanni and the amazing musical atmospheres Mozart can create. While I don’t think it’s fair to say this music is neglected, it is fair to say that it should be performed more, because it is a fantastic work. A great way to set the tone for this concert.
Garrick Ohlsson joined the fray for a nicely crafted performance of the Piano Concerto no. 27. The music isn’t flashy, it isn’t always bright, but it shows a composer who has completely mastered every single aspect of writing a piano concerto. Unlike a lot of Mozart’s music, which was popular enough to be premiered on concerts featuring nothing but Mozart’s music, by this time his popularity had waned sufficiently to the point that it was premiered, at least according to legend, by Mozart on a concert featuring clarinettist Joseph Bahr (although it appears that it may actually have been premiered by one of Mozart’s students 3 months earlier). Regardless, the music stands up to anything else Mozart wrote. The performance here is worth hearing for Ohlsson’s sensitive playing, particularly the third movement, which sounds nicely (and, dare I say, “correctly”) understated, IMO.
Now, the technical info. It was recorded from WQED’s stream and converted to three 256K mp3 files and put into one RAR file. Download available from RapidShare here:
These concerts took place 6 & 8 June 2008 in Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh. Do enjoy this wonderful concert…it is absolutely worth every second.