I don’t know Ricky Ian Gordon personally but he e-mails me frequently with updates on his projects, never neglecting to sign off with “xxxooo” which I find endearing although I’m sure he does the same for all the guys.  I know and like his music mainly from Audra McDonald and a wonderful recording of his songs called Bright-Eyed Joy but nothing I’ve heard or read prepared me for the universal praise for the Minnesota Opera’s production of Gordon’s (with libretto by Michael Korie) The Grapes of Wrath.  What we have here, apparently, is a real contender for the title of the Great American Opera. 

Listen to the often cranky Mark Swed: “As far as I was concerned — and this is a minority opinion — the nearly four-hour opera was too short. Had Gordon and Korie been allowed to follow their original bliss and create a two-night or more American “Ring” cycle, I would have gladly returned for more.”

Or Variety:  “Gordon and Korie have produced a bit of a conundrum: a very long show about suffering and endurance that leaves the viewer enlivened. The intelligence and compassion of their work, combined with the evident vitality and belief of the cast in this opera’s merit, supply high emotion with depth and compassion. This is not a happy story, but its telling is nothing short of incandescent.”

St. Paul Pioneer Press:   “Ten years and $2 million in the making, the Minnesota Opera’s world premiere of “The Grapes of Wrath” turns out to be well worth the time and expense: It’s a grand, sprawling, politically astute and musically compelling affair that amply and accessibly answers the rhetorical question:  ‘An opera about Okies?'”

Bernard Holland?  Well, Bernie’s been sour grapes (not to mention irrelevant) for some time now.

25 Responses to “Is Grapes of Wrath the Great American Opera?”
  1. anonymous says:

    Various Critics weighing in on “The Grapes Of Wrath”

    Gordon, who first made his name in the theatre and as a composer of Broadway-style songs, fills his score with beautifully turned genre pieces, often harking back to American popular music of the twenties and thirties: Gershwinesque song-and-dance numbers, a few sweetly soaring love songs in the manner of Jerome Kern, banjo-twanging ballads, saxed-up jazz choruses, even a barbershop quartet. You couldn’t ask for a more comfortably appointed evening of vintage musical Americana. Yet, with a slyness worthy of Weill, Gordon wields his hummable tunes to critical effect

    Alex Ross, The New Yorker

    The music Gordon has written brings these events and characters to life. At once simple and
    complex, the score captures the scope and breadth of the story persuasively. Gordon’s musical
    language is a fascinating mix of different styles that incorporate the best of American 20th century
    music. The score for “The Grapes of Wrath” is a wonderful merger of Aaron Copland, Samuel
    Barber, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, all of which is mixed together and blended into
    a sophisticated concoction that is uniquely and unmistakably Gordon’s.

    one of the most important and vital works for the stage to come from a contemporary American
    composer in many years.

    a sprawling grand opera that
    captures the depth, vastness and
    poetic beauty of the novel

    Edward Reichel, Deseret Morning News

    As far as I was concerned — and this is a minority opinion — the nearly four-hour opera was too short. Had Gordon and Korie been allowed to follow their original bliss and create a two-night or more American “Ring” cycle, I would have gladly returned for more.

    the greatest glory of the opera is Gordon’s ability to musically flesh out the entire 11-member Joad clan… Each has a distinct musical style. Each is sympathetic.

    Gordon and Korie, through sheer conviction, and Minnesota Opera, through a brilliant production and cast, have found the timeless and timely essence of Steinbeck’s epic

    Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

    The great American opera? Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Grapes of Wrath” might be it.

    The score – without recitative – is song based and many scenes flow easily into the next. Gordon points to models in “Porgy and Bess,” “Street Scene,” “Showboat” and Sondheim, but he has gone beyond them in a score that is original and completely his.

    Wes Blomster, Musical America/Opera Today

    a grand, sprawling, politically astute and musically compelling affair that amply and accessibly answers the rhetorical question: “An opera about Okies?”

    a production of might and sweeping scale, one that in vision and craft, honors Steinbeck’s source material

    DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA, Pioneer Press

    The new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie masterfully captures
    the scope
    and spirit of Steinbeck’s Nobel-winning epic. “The Grapes of Wrath” works as grand opera, with its large
    cast and sweeping score, and as a pointed reminder that the social problems that vexed Steinbeck never
    really go away. “I swear, what’s this country comin’ to?” a chorus of Pump Guys sneers at the desperate
    “Okies.” What, indeed.

    Gordon’s score is, as conductor Grant Gershon described it, “a patchwork – a quilt of American sound.”
    The composer’s antecedents – Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, among others – are clear,
    yet Gordon stitches them together in a way all his own. Folk music, swing, Andrews Sisters-style
    harmonies, jazz, even some Handelian word painting all pop through the contemporary opera fabric.
    Recurring motifs, such as “Handbills” and “It’s Not
    My Fault,” help tie it all up. And don’t be surprised
    if you walk out humming one of the tunes.

    By Catherine Reese Newton
    The Salt Lake Tribune

    What Minnesota Opera has come up with is a splendid, almost perfect production of an opera that is smart, funny, touching and harrowing, in all the right places

    Michael Anthony, Star Tribune

    waves of beauty and transcendence

    Gordon’s compositions are startlingly accomplished in range, and refreshingly uninhibited in scope. He frequently moves the score into meditative ballads, but also infuses elements of period jazz and pop in a manner that evokes emotion rather than seeming gratuitously referential. His emotional range is vast, from a number in which Ma Joad (Deanne Meek) lets go of her family’s past, to a jaunty tribute to truck drivers that opens the second act like a glass of iced lemonade on a hot afternoon.
    Korie’s lyrics are almost perfectly matched to Gordon’s score. As the music ranges from high to low, Korie writes passages of piercing beauty, then follows with rhyming couplets that both ably tell the story and evoke the poetry of the characters’ tortured lives. He uses blunt, forceful words that elevate the work’s emotionalism by mixing fatalism with optimism until the opera begins to sing in the range of the universal.

    Gordon and Korie have produced a bit of a conundrum: a very long show about suffering and endurance that leaves the viewer enlivened. The intelligence and compassion of their work, combined with the evident vitality and belief of the cast in this opera’s merit, supply high emotion with depth and compassion.

    This is not a happy story, but its telling is nothing short of incandescent.

    Quinton Skinner, Variety

    10 Best Lists at the years end…

    Vintage opera: The pinnacle of the opera season was Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s “The Grapes
    of Wrath,” co-commissioned by Utah Opera and presented in Salt Lake City in May. Gordon and Korie’s
    “Grapes” masterfully captured the scope and spirit of John Steinbeck’s epic novel.

    Catherine Reese Newton, The Salt Lake Tribune

    the world premiere adaptation of John Steinbeck’s iconic novel was also the most ambitious, galvanizing and audacious piece of performance I saw this year

    what emerged was a three-act, four-hour journey that had both the might of an epic and a naked, intimate honesty that slugged you right in the gut. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s rangy, cagey, nuanced score had one foot in the opera world and the other tapping more populist ground, referencing Gershwin and Broadway musicals. Michael Korie killed off more Joads than did Steinbeck himself in an unabashedly lefty libretto

    Dominic Papatola, Pinoeer Press

    Ricky Ian Gordon and
    Michael Korie took one of the great American novels
    and set out to write the great American opera. And
    they just may have succeeded, thanks to a deeply
    involving and imaginatively staged world-premiere
    production by the Minnesota Opera.

    Pioneer Press

    One of Ewers’ major operatic accomplishments during her time here was her involvement (together
    with the Minnesota Opera) in the production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which
    received its local premiere last May. An unqualified success and important contribution to
    contemporary opera, Gordon’s work without question has helped solidify Utah Opera’s position
    among regional companies.

    Edward Reichel, Deseret Morning News

    Korie’s libretto is smartly organized and written…
    Korie loves rhymes, bless him, partly for the feeling of punctuation they provide. Thankfully, he usually avoids the predictability of couplets inserted in a non-rhyming line. He also rhymes nicely within lines.
    Gordon’s music has a strong lyrical impulse that incorporates many American idioms, from Broadway shows to jazz and country fiddling, with complete ease and naturalness. The Prologue for chorus is particularly well-constructed
    Gordon’s vocal lines are beautifully set, with strong and natural rhythms and freshness in melodic contour.
    Mark Kanny, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

    Clearly the celebrated novel holds moments of staggering emotion, but Steinbeck left much more on the tree, sentiments waiting to be plucked like the fruit for which the Joad Family wretchedly toils. No better art exists than music to do that.
    This is essentially Ricky Ian Gordon’s achievement in his work, “The Grapes of Wrath,” which opened its run at the Benedum Center Saturday in a top-rate production by Pittsburgh Opera. It is not a retelling of the novel, but an unpacking of its emotional core and even the greater tragedy of the Great Depression itself. Set with unaffected melody and underpinned by an orchestra both evocative and foreboding, transgressions hit the listener harder and tender scenes made the eyes moister, at least than I remember when reading the book years ago. The criterion for whether a novel should be translated into another art form must begin and end with the question: Can it offer something new? Gordon’s most definitely does.
    Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

  2. zeno says:

    Yes, Washington Opera did Stephen Paulus’ “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, which I recall I attended. I most recall the “sexual” advertising campaign to promote the opera; one of the first of many many such campaigns employed to sell new American opera. (I am not being judgmental on how companies should promote American repertoire, but only making a comment. What was the new American opera premiere that was critiqued for not having enough love or sex?))

    I did not see Argento’s “Dream of Valentino”, which was the first, and I think only, American opera produced by the company that I missed. I also recall many American opera insiders saying that Argento’s “Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe” is an American masterpiece. Have you, or anyone, heard it? (I also wish the George Crumb had done an opera on Lorca, at the time he did his Star Child ‘oratorio’ work for the NY Phil in 1977. Perhaps he still will.)

    What about one of the three powerful one-act American operas that NYCO produced (and televised on “Great Performances”) 5 or 6 years ago. I thought that was a very fine and highly promising evening.

    I have seen one three-opera emerging American opera sampler at NYCO, and two three-opera emerging opera samplers at London’s Royal Covent Garden. I wish administrators had been able to do more with these, to me, highly promising evenings.

    I also recall, now, that the NYCO did an earlier three new American opera sampler in the late 1970s. It was a competition, I recall. I also recall that I entered the competition, but did not win. I recall being bogged down on the requisite proof of operatic rights issue.

    Now, who wants to name the six new one-act American operas and composers (and librettists) produced by NYCO over the past 25 years? [Jan Bach was one winner, in 1979, I recall. That leaves 5 American opera composers and their one-Act American operas.]

  3. Andrew says:

    Funny that you mention Argento–another composer living in the Twin Cities.

    I believe that Paulus’ “The Postman Always Rings Twice” has been produced by the Washington Opera.

    I believe it may be hard to locate a one-act American opera that would be a suitable partner for the Mascagni, which is why I mentioned the two short Menotti works.

    Otherwise, I am not a Menotti fan.

  4. zeno says:

    Thanks Andrew … Interestingly, the Washington National Opera, before it was America’s so-called “National Opera Company,” under designation from an Act of Congress, (the educated are laughing out loud in London, Vienna, [St] Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin/Munich, NYC, and Paris,) used to regularly perform Menotti’s operas – many of them, in fact; with the Domingo vehicle “Goya” as the last in the long series (I believe). I don’t know, though, whether a revival of one of his works is in the best interests now of “our” (or rather Congress’s) National Opera Company.

    Also, interestingly, the Washington National Opera, I don’t believe, has ever performed Paulus (maybe Thomas Pasatieri and Kenward Elmslie’s The Seagull, years ago); even though it is a luke-warm backer of (conservative) American opera and committed to performing one each season, unlike the New Metropolitan International Opera House. The old Washington non-National Opera was most strongly a backer of Argento; and I would acquiesce to a revival of The Aspern Papers (which was broadcast on PBS’s “Great Performances”); as long as the company promised a future production of Sessions’s “Montezuma” (which it could probably not do justice to, at this point in the company’s history. Maybe in 100 years).

    Can you, or someone else, come up with some other strong, One-Act American operas? [Harbison?] Doesn’t anyone on the paid-staff of OPERA America read Sequenza21’s “Opera Week” Edition?

    Also, David Savage or anyone else, do you know whether Leon Kirchner ever got around to revising his opera Lily [Henderson the Rain God] (based, by Kirchner, upon Saul Bellow) and premiered at NYCO in 1977? [Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976].

    (PS. Washington Opera must have produced Paulus at some point in time.)

  5. brett says:

    Mark Swed is the best writer on classical music today — musically informed, a fine storyteller, solid judgment. I happen to like Harrison, Reich and Adams, too, and can discern their best work from their not-so-hot, but I think Swed has sometimes been lukewarm on pieces by his admitted faves. I don’t always agree with his particular likes and dislikes, but I always understand why likes or dislikes something, and I always learn from his columns.

    It’s rare to find one critic who combines such technical expertise with such engaging writing. I happen to approve of the relative proportions he devotes to performance review and context, because I think most newspaper readers want more of the latter and less of the former, though I’ll concede that many classical music geeks (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, including myself in that description) probably prefer to hear more of the performance details. But he’s not writing just for us but rather general LA readers interested in music. His championing of important but neglected composers like Harry Partch and so on has made LA a place where ensembles and orchestras can take chances, knowing that Mark will be there to explain the obscure for readers who might be chary of chancing a concert by composers whose work they don’t know.

    How many other critics would have devoted a column to a Partch concert? Swed did, and it’s no accident that Disney’s RedCat theatre was sold out that night. John Rockwell credits him and Alan Rich with making LA the new center of postclassical music in America, because programmers know he’ll pay attention to the obscure but deserving stuff, and readers know they can trust his judgment.

    BTW, Swed didn’t write two Young Caesar pieces; he did write a review, but the other LA Times piece on it, a preview, was written by a freelancer.

  6. Andrew says:

    Stephen Paulus’ “The Village Singer” is a magnificent one-act opera, one of the very greatest of all American operas, although I am not confident that it would fit well with the Mascagni. “The Village Singer” should be in the active repertory.

    (I am not recommending this work simply because Paulus, too, lives in the Twin Cities. However, I do know Paulus and his wife, slightly, and I do have a tape of the opera which Paulus kindly gave to me after I mentioned to him that I would love to get to know that particular score. I like and admire Paulus’ music, although I generally prefer more adventurous, modernist scores.)

    My advice to the Washington Opera would be to 86 the Mascagni, surely in need of a prolonged rest, and to do the Paulus instead, coupled with some other new one-act American work.

    However, if “Cavalleria Rusticana” is set in stone, Menotti’s “Amelia Goes To The Ball” or “The Old Maid And The Thief” would be suitable American couplings–an American/Italian comedy, followed by a bit of rustic Italian melodrama, might be a double-bill of some appeal to Washington audiences.

    Skrowaczewski does not conduct opera often, but he has conducted “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera in what I believe was his sole appearance there, in 1970 or so. He spends much of his time in Germany now, conducting Bruckner.

    I am, alas, totally ignorant about “Solaris” and “Venus In Furs”.


  7. zeno says:

    I thought that Monica Groop was fantastic in the Finnish filmed version of Saariaho’s “L’Amour du Loin”! Maybe the Washington National Opera can match that work, next season, with Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”! They are apparently not yet decided on the second work for the program! (Though probably the Saariaho should stand alone, of course.)

    Can anyone think of an outstanding single-act American opera that would ‘fit the bill’ and move the Washington National Opera into the TWO AMERICAN OPERAS EACH SEASON League? (They are also doing a revival of the Arthur Miller-Bolcom-Weinstein “A View From the Bridge”.)

    Sorry for the sloppiness above; I had a 2 PM meeting. I was actually trying to recall whether Skrowaczewski conducted opera. I thought that he had, but I could be wrong.

    Andrew, perhaps you could propose to Skrowaczewski that he set the late Stanislaw Lem’s SOLARIS (or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s VENUS IN FURS.)

  8. Andrew says:

    Skrowaczewski still makes his home here in the Twin Cities, even though his tenure at the Minnesota Orchestra ended in 1979, the year before I was born. I have met him many times, but it never occurred to me to ask him whether he has an interest in writing for the stage.

    Personally, I have always found his music to be well-crafted but lacking in personality, which is all-too-typical of full-time conductors who compose on the side.

    He still conducts the Minnesota Orchestra one week each year. His appearances this season are this very weekend, and he is conducting his own transcription of a Bach work, Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. My parents are going to hear tonight’s concert.

    Tomorrow night, we are taking my parents to hear a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert. The orchestra will play Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 (one of my very favorite pieces) and the reduced orchestration of Mahler’s “Das Lied Von Der Erde”, which I have never heard in person. The conductor is Douglas Boyd, and the singers are Monica Groop and Vinson Cole. I am diffident about the guest artists, all of whom I have heard before, but the program is, to me, essential.

    For its next concert, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will program Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony.

    Such dual programming occurs all too often here. Our local orchestras need to keep in touch with each other to avoid so much overlapping programming.

  9. zeno says:

    On the other hand, Lwow, Poland-born Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s impact continues in the Twin Cities — including his Symphony composed by for the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003. I assume his symphonic and orchestral conducting responsibilities keep/keeps him from composing an opera.

  10. Andrew says:

    By the way, Ernst Krenek used to live here in the Twin Cities, and there are people here who remember him and talk about him with great fondness.

    For instance, my maternal grandfather, now deceased, knew Krenek on a casual basis and sometimes spoke of him and his music.

    Of course, Krenek’s MUSIC is never played in the Twin Cities now–the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra never touch his works, which I regret.

    Instead, both orchestras this season are focusing on that neglected master, Beethoven. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performed a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos earlier this season, and the Minnesota Orchestra is performing five of the nine symphonies this season.

    Good grief.

  11. Andrew says:

    Krenek’s “Karl V” has been produced at the Wiener Staatsoper, and it was conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, if I recall correctly. I believe that the production originated in the very late 1980’s or very early 1990’s.

    Whether or not the score was cut I do not know.

    I, too, believe that the Metropolitan Opera could do justice to Sessions’ “Montezuma”. I was in despair, learning that the Met had allotted $3,000,000.00 to Tan Dun’s effort, when that money should have gone to mounting a worthy production of the Sessions.

  12. zeno says:

    I had heard that Neil Shicoff and Franz Welser-Most were the front-runners. I mentioned only Mr Shicoff for purposes of discussion on this board. Perhaps unfortunately, I have not followed closely Mr Welser-Most’s career.

    I have heard no Britten operas in Vienna (only in London). Offhand and quickly, I recall hearing Krenek’s “Jonny spielt auf” and Cerha’s “Giant from the Stony Field” at the State Opera (the latter starring Thomas Hampson, a long-time Vienna resident); and Boesman’s “Wintermarchen” (A Winter’s Tale), twice, at Vienna’s Odeon. At about the same time, in Dresden, I heard Reimann’s “Lear” and Ruzicka’s “Paul Celan”; Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise” in Berlin; and Nono’s “Intolleranza” in Koln.

    I would be highly interested in seeing Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”, Sessions’s “Montezuma”, Imbrie’s “Angel of Repose”, and Eaton’s “Tempest” staged in Vienna. Also Krenek’s Karl V (uncut) or perhaps another Krenek later opera. Or perhaps Milhaud’s “Christophe Columbus”, which I recall was done at Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden. (Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice will be staged at the Volksoper and the German State Opera, as you know.)

    I know at least one musician at the Vienna SO — a trombonist — who I am counting on not to despise American art music (or at least not as much as my American host in Vienna, and his wife, despise Austrian contemporary painting and sculpture.)

    Do other readers have nominations of American works for the NEW MET and the NEW Vienna State Opera houses?

    PS. I believe that the both the MET and the Vienna State could do Sessions’s “Montezuma” justice — as could the Mariiansky/Kirov Opera, in Petersburg.

  13. Andrew says:

    I, for one, would not like to hear ANY American operas performed at the Wiener Staatsoper–except for Roger Sessions’ “Montezuma”, a very unlikely prospect, I’m afraid–because I do not believe that the house would do the works justice. Viennese musicians, by and large, despise American art music, and it shows in their performances.

    Have you heard any performances of Britten’s operas in Vienna? The orchestra and chorus perform them as if the music is by Shostakovich. Whatever would Barber’s “Antony And Cleopatra” sound like in a Vienna performance? Ernst Krenek?

    There is no way that Neil Shicoff will succeed Ioan Holender at the Wiener Staatsoper. The job is Franz Welser-Most’s for the asking.

  14. zeno says:

    PS. Did anyone in the Nashville area happen to catch, last year, Composers in Red Sneakers-founder Robert Aldridge’s “Elmer Gantry”, based upon Sinclear Lewis; which is described in NEA materials as “a melange of arias, hymn tunes, chorus spirituals, operatic duets, and musical ensembles”?

  15. zeno says:

    Thanks, Robert. Interestingly (and perhaps sadly) “A Pairie Home Companion,” which featured the Steinbeck-based opera excerpts, was dropped from public radio in the Nation’s Capital last month [along with a highly popular American folk music program –“Traditions”] to make way for Classical WETA-FM’s new, almost strictly non-American music, wall-to-wall European music classical programming. Though I wasn’t personally a huge fan of PHC, I would sometime stumble upon it when looking for news. I will now need to see whether those excerpts that you heard might be available for streaming. (I only caught “The First Emperor” due to second-chance streaming, since I was out of the country on the original radio broadcast date.)

    Now, how many people here would like to see Picker’s “Emmeline” or Gordon’s “Grapes of Wrath” at the MET Opera House? (Recall that the MET Opera produced Weill’s and Brecht’s “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny”, Floyd’s Susannah, and, I believe Bernstein’s “Candide”.)

    Alternative question: What great or near great American operas would readers here like to see produced at the Vienna State Opera if tenor Neil Shicoff becomes the next General Director of that esteemed company?

    And does anyone recall off-hand the roster of operas that the NYCO produced during its All-American opera season, funded by the Ford Foundation, back about 50 years ago? And hasn’t the NYCO made more recent noises about repeating an All-American opera season?

  16. Henry Holland says:

    All that says to any of us is that you didn’t like those pieces and he did

    You missed my point. For Swed, Adams and Reich are sacrosanct, nary a negative word shall escape from his computer when it comes to their music; it’s the classical music equivalent of how Bruce Springsteen and U2 get a pass from a majority of rock critics.

    I read reviews from a variety of online sources and it’s instructive to see the consensus on a piece. There’s been pieces by those two that have gotten fair-to-decent reviews in general but if you only read Swed’s review, you’d swear it was the greatest piece written in the last 50 years. He literally gushes about those two’s music and it’s not because they’re writing deathless masterpieces every time out, it’s that he’s a cheerleader, especially for Americans who write non-serialist stuff.

    He’s no different than those risible writers in Gramophone or Opera who puff up anyone British; I still have the issue of Opera where a Joseph Barstow disc of finales from Turandot, Vec Makropolous and Medea was given an ecstatic review, I mean 10 stars out of 5. My friend Jim, who used to work at TowerRecords, said they sold a good number of that CD based on that review and *every single one was returned because the singing was awful*. I mean, Mark Swed actually got offended that European ritics didn’t rave about Adams new piece, The Flowering Tree, as if he took it personally that some of them thought it wasn’t fantastic. In sports terms, he’s what people say about announcers who fluff the team they cover: he’s a homer.

    I don’t trust a word he writes about the European post-war avant-garde and their descendants, I don’t believe him when he writes about the German/Austrian rep ca. 1890-1920, I don’t believe a word he writes when it comes to opera (he’s written some real howlers that show his lack of knowledge of the genre beyond a narrow rep).

    Plus, he’s turned a lot of people on to a lot of music; isn’t that what critics are supposed to do?

    It depends. If it’s a profile of a composer or an ensemble, sure, that’s very laudable. And if I don’t share the writer’s musical tastes, like I don’t with Mark Swed or Alan Rich, all that’s lost on me except as an “avoid at all costs” kind of thing. However, if Paul Griffiths, Joshua Kosman, Tim Ashley or any of a number of others write something about a new piece or composer, I’ll be interested. It’s the old caveat emptor thing, isn’t it?

    When I read a review of a performance –which is still the bread and butter of a critic writing for a metro newspaper– especially of the standard rep, I don’t need two paragraphs of biographical details about where Tchaikovsky was in his life when he wrote the violin concerto, with 2 sentences devoted to the actual performance –that’s a Swed staple, by the way– I want to know about the actual performance in more detail to see if it’s worth going to any remaining performances. Saying “Joe Smith played the violin part with aplomb” tells me almost zero about Mr. Smith’s playing, his interpretation, his intonation etc. Timothy Mangan of the Orange County Register is a far better critic in that regard.

    Mileage will vary widely, of course.

  17. What I heard was on A Pairie Home Companion–they had some of the cast on performing excerpts.

    It wasn’t until after my previous post that I looked at some of the reviews. Both Holland’s and Swed’s strike me as honest and perceptive responses to the same event, and in fact make a nice Siskel-and-Ebertish counterpoint. I can imagine being won over by the production as a whole, and appreciating the music much more in that context than when I heard parts of it on the radio. I might end up having to rethink my conviction that operatic music should be able to stand on its own. On the other hand, what I heard so strongly evoked the cheery, bloodless feeling of a Broadway score that I suspect I’d still find this part of Holland’s review to be apt:

    Mr. Gordon’s music is received from elsewhere: from the simple singing of American balladry, the wide-open-spaces style of American symphonists, and the bounce of the Broadway and Hollywood musical. There are tinges of dissonance to accompany the opera’s uglier moments, but this music’s main intent is to oblige. If Alban Berg or Messiaen had been painters, they would be regarded as artists. Mr. Gordon is more an illustrator.

  18. Re: Mark Swed, Henry Holland writes: The one who regularly gives every new John Adams and Steve Reich piece ecstatic reviews, even if the piece is mediocre?

    All that says to any of us is that you didn’t like those pieces and he did.

    Both are opinions. And in today’s world of “everyone is a critic” both matter just as much or just as little. Indeed, Robert Zimmerman is right: “[M]ention a few critics around here and the pot starts boiling”… But I will say that Swed’s prose is usually excellent and his advocacy efforts are extremely laudable. Few people are as tapped in to what is going on as he is. Ten years ago when he was based in NYC and stringing for the WSJ, I ran into him on the street sround the time I had a performance in a small gallery downtown and he mentioned reading about it to me. He actually knew about it! Plus, he’s turned a lot of people on to a lot of music; isn’t that what critics are supposed to do? But then again, that’s myopinion, alas…

  19. zeno says:

    Robert, what station did you hear the excerpts on? … While I strongly hope, and indeed expect, that this new American operatic work will be broadcast soon on NPR’s World of Opera (since the world premiere production apparently wasn’t featured on PBS’s “Great Performances” — as was Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy’s “Emmeline”), I should also note for those unfamilar with the Nation’s Capital’s reactionary radio musical landscape (under the control of a nominal Democrat, Sharon Percy Rockefeller!) that the New Classical WETA-FM station does not broadcast NPR’s World of Opera [nor virtually any American music whether by living or past American composers].


  20. Boy, mention a few critics around here and the pot starts boiling!

    I heard a few bits of this opera on the radio last weekend and found it very hard to take–it had the splashy but thin feel of a musical. Maybe the cumulative effect is quite different, as these reviews strongly suggest. I’m glad to know that it’s worth another listen.

  21. Henry Holland says:

    Crap. BerNheimer.

  22. Henry Holland says:

    Listen to the often cranky Mark Swed

    Is this the same Mark Swed I’ve been unfortunate enough to have to read for reviews in the Los Angeles Times since Martin Berheimer left? The one who regularly gives every new John Adams and Steve Reich piece ecstatic reviews, even if the piece is mediocre? The guy who seems contractually bound never to criticize any of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s music? The one who has wasted precious space in the Times –twice– on Lou Harrison’s dodo of an opera, Young Caesar which Swed admits has major, major problems but should be produced all over the world anyway, because, hey, it’s Lou Harrison, dammit! The Mark Swed who will spend 5 paragraphs giving us the history of a piece and then dash off what the actual performance was like in two sentences?

    That same Mark Swed?

  23. Bruce Hodges says:

    I saw it last Saturday night, the penultimate performance, and liked it quite a bit. I do agree with those who think it’s a tad long, but Gordon, Korie and the Minnesota Opera should all feel very proud of themselves. The biggest surprise was Korie’s literate and compelling libretto. I expected to like Gordon’s music, based on the little I’ve heard from Audra MacDonald, but the powerful telling of the story caught me slightly off guard. And the production was excellent, supposedly the most expensive in the company’s history.

  24. Graham Rieper says:

    “Well, Bernie’s been sour grapes (not to mention irrelevant) for some time now.”

    As I recently heard Dick Cheney say, that’s hogwash. And possibly sour grapes, too? Sorry if he doesn’t like every new thing out there, but Holland is the best music reviewer at The Times and, bloggers to the contrary, that still matters.