Archive for April, 2008

I am blessed but also cursed with an ear for detail. I still remember that time in the 80s when a overly amplified saxophone sent an excruciating message to my brain for days, even though my intellect appreciated both the performer and the original music being created.

Especially with singers, I (for better or worse) can hear all the little flatnesses and sharpnesses that occur, and that makes the vocal landcape slighly more painful to navigate – but I am still able to enjoy every minute of it.

The acoustical problems are in the forefront of my perception, and they plague many of the spaces, which actually are mostly churches lately (thank God for that), as there seems to be a scarcity of creative venues, where we can listen to live music: sound bouncing too much, or not bouncing at all, flat, muddy.

Amplification issues may happen: everything was perfectly planned for natural acoustics but the room required miking of the instruments, meanwhile the performers can’t hear themselves from one end of the stage to the other unless they wear headphones… Sometimes it’s a theater made for drama, not sound, and where no matter where you sit, you’re going to hear something totally different – and none of it in keeping with what it should sound like, but no one will really know because it’s a premiere; one person says the violin was too loud, the other says they couldn’t hear it at all, but they are both complaining.

I hear the slightest out-of-tuneness of a piano, even a mere out-of-temperament-ness of the instrument and the other instruments being ever so slightly at odds with it…

The distractions from audience vibrations and moods, the near-psychic perception of how people are feeling at the time in a collective situation also have their part in the aural experience, and so does the presence of Critics with a Capital C, whether old-school ones who enjoy career-bashing power or the impression of it and new-school ones who will casually but just as irresponsibly blog it negative for the sake of being perceived as witty.

The programs can often be under-rehearsed because performers are so busy making a living they can’t really afford the time to learn the music properly, and they certainly cannot be blamed for it.

In brief, so many things can go wrong with a performance, and I doubt that a single one of them will escape my noticing. However, it’s funny how some events can turn out to be so grand that one is able to get beyond the uncomfortable and mundane aspects of the experience, such as bad seating, and how some other events can be nearly painful in the very humbleness of their endangered form.

This is really somewhat of a nightmare, isn’t it?

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After a particularly long and arduous winter, fraught with economic woes, hopelessness about world happenings (Shiites, Tibetans…., indecision about the upcoming election, and a general sense of potential doom, Satyagraha could not have come at a better time to lift our spirits.

I’ll admit that I have always been partial to the music of Philip Glass, especially his early works back in the late seventies when I was still trying to keep a rock band together. His music in its simplicity and clarity was a breath of fresh air. But Satyagraha is a work of depth where Glass makes a very serious and far-reaching statement, not only musically but spiritually and politically as well. The piece may have been written down quickly, but it is likely to have developed in concept over a period of 10 years through many trips to India, as Glass was initiated to Indian culture by Ravi Shankar and subsequently had first-hand experience of Indian spirituality and of the ideas that Gandhi left behind.

Upon arrival at the Met we were greeted by a large sign laid over the façade, painted by Francesco Clemente. Its understated light colors, with contrasting elements of tension, hinted to the piece’s mood.

The way I understand it, Satyagraha is a neo-opera that works perfectly in terms of its conceptual elements. First, the separation between the singing and the meaning: the choice of Sanskrit (the classical language of ancient India) a ‘dead’ language that the audience is not expected to understand, clearly places the vocalization in the realm of pure music; the meaning is conveyed through other vehicles in the staging including projected text messages that are food for thought. I quote the composer’s notes: “I like the idea of further separating the vocal text from the action. In this way, without an understandable text to contend with, the listener could let the words go altogether.”

Second, the orchestral design: the ensemble boldly departs from the traditional operatic orchestra; Glass determined exactly what instruments were appropriate for this setting and the quiet, meditative, pianissimo spiritual mood of the Indian scripture serving as libretto is carried without any percussion or brass; even the organ is understated.

Third, the choice of a story line that is more abstract than narrative. Composer’s notes again: “My music tends to have greater emotional impact when it is allowed a longer sweep of time in which to develop. I wanted fewer scene changes, which would permit longer stretches of music… In many ways, I found this somewhat more abstract storyline closer to my way of thinking.”

Fourth, the choice of a subject matter that is both universal and contemporary – I must mention the connection between Gandhi, Tolstoy and Martin Luther King Jr. here.

Fifth, the design of a new form that could be described as an elegant hybrid of oratorio and opera.

Possibly because over time, people have caught on to Glass’ music and are beginning to understand it better, he has found remarkable collaborators who were able to correctly stage the piece. I cannot begin to describe all the wonderful surprises that occur on the stage, in an unusual anti-glitz, soft-colored, almost ecological, natural-fiber esthetic, seemingly recycling newspapers and baskets into temporary oversized characters or Asian-style puppets.

The performers were flawless. Interestingly, vibrato (an early Glass no-no) was present in one aria, to great effect. I was also moved by the soprano duet in the second act and especially the tenor solo at the end, with Richard Croft quietly delivering an upward moving natural scale, over and over. It is an absolute must-see.

Satyagraha: music by Philip Glass, libretto by Constance DeJong adapted from the Bhagavad Gita, staging by Phelim McDernott and Julian Crouch, conducted by Dante Anzolini, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Paule Constable, with Rachelle Durkin, soprano, Richard Croft, tenor, Earle Patriarco, baritone, Alfred Walker, bass-baritone.

Related happenings:
A collaboration of New York cultural, arts environmental, educational and spiritual institutions working with Glass has launched the Satyagraha forum, an initiative to create a dialogue on Gandhi’s concept of change.
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is presenting an exhibition of Satyagraha production photos and sketches, historic images and collages on view through April 19.

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I was, as usual, perusing the AMC Opportunity Update which conveniently lists upcoming commissions and other programs for composers. Lately, I have been noticing a trend, which seems to get stronger and stronger: opportunities are reserved for the young. Many programs list 40 or even 35 as the age limit.

True, young people should be encouraged, but it is the business of schools and conservatories to offer opportunities for composers who are starting out. To systematically shut out any composer over 40 is, outrageously, politically incorrect. This blatant age discrimination issue needs to be addressed in the broader social context of the arts industry.

What does such an age-driven policy entail? Composing is encouraged for young people; they get a start, get better at it, accomplish a few oeuvres until they reach the doomed age of 35 (!) and the carpet is pulled from under them. Oops… no one wants your music any more, you’re just an old fart now. The composing profession is not like sports or modeling; the activity is not dependent upon the condition of the physical body, but very much on the condition of the mind, which only improves with age and maturity and accumulated knowledge. The craft of composing and developing one’s own voice takes years, so why ostracize the practiced composers when they are just beginning to get good at it? Human life spans are now much longer due to the progress of medicine and health awareness; at 40 one may have another near 40 years to live.

Youth-oriented culture as represented in advertising and popular entertainment is giving a false picture of what our lives are like, and should be counteracted as a deceptive illusion. In our culture, unfortunately, seniors are still being denied even their dignity, and relegated to nursing homes away from the ‘living’, whereas in other histories and geographies age is revered and appreciated as it comes with a certain amount of wisdom, and seniors serve as guides and mentors. But more importantly, the artistic development of a composer takes place over a lifetime. Once discovered, a composer should be allowed to develop and make a worthwhile contribution to the culture. An appropriate form of support would be a long-term award program which would sustain work creation over a number of years.

The youth-oriented approach to support assumes that, once initially encouraged, the composers will reach critical mass on their own. But this is a fallacy; what in fact happens is a process of elimination; only a happy few will gain access to the profession, and many other talents will be lost, along with a culture that could be thriving and enlightening for society as a whole.

The most shocking aspect of this blatant injustice is that it is not being addressed, possibly in fear of challenging the already inadequate support system for composers. Being self-supported gives me the freedom to speak up. I think the practice of offering age-driven opportunities must be stopped.

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The Metropolitan Opera is running Satyagraha, the opera composed by Philip Glass in 1980 during his hyper-minimalist period, in other words the good old days when creators did not hesitate to carry on for several hours at a stretch (actually Satyagraha is only 3.5 hours long, which is considerably less than Debussy’s Pelléas) with very repetitive and meditative patterns; that was when meditation was hip, when there was an interest for nonviolence. This piece is in fact focused on a particular brand of nonviolence, as Gandhi explains: “Truth (Satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force… the Force which is born of Truth and love or nonviolence.” The libretto is in Sanskrit… so you’ll need to check out the meaning of the scenes with the link below to the very informative Metropolitan web page. The libretto is by Constance DeJong.

Satyagraha is a co-production of the Met and English National Opera, in collaboration with Improbable. The production will see its Metropolitan Opera premiere on Friday April 11 and will run on April 14, 19, 22, 25, 28 (the April 28th performance is available as part of the Connect at the Met series) and May 1; it features tenor Richard Croft, director Phelim McDermott and stage designer Julian Crouch, both from the previous London production. I can’t wait to see it.

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