Recently Heard Concerts

Charles and Lindsey Shere: homepage

CS in Cadiz: photo: Eve Monrad
Rome Opera, January 29, 2004
Edge Festival, Berkeley, June 5-7, 2003
Merce Cunningham, Berkeley, February 7, 2003
John Cage, San Francisco, January 27, 2003

Jan. 29 2004: Rome Opera’s Marie Victoire

(This review first appeared on San Francisco Classical Voice)

Rome Opera inaugurated its new season Tuesday night with the world premiere of an important opera composed 90 years ago by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, better known in the US for his colorful symphonic trilogy on the Pines, the Fountains, and the Festivals of Rome.

This first production of “Marie Victoire,” written to a libretto by the Parisian playwright Edmond Guiraud, compels a new examination of Respighi’s place in the complex history of 20th-century music. The opera is, in the first place, long, ambitious, sumptuous, psychologically probing, and historically aware. It employs an enormous cast -- 22 soloists and a big chorus. The melodic lines are spacious and compelling and quite suited to the voice. The harmonic language is that of late Romanticism, hovering over a newly discovered terrain between Richard Strauss and Mahler, and is propelled by a large orchestra.

The subject is demanding, but not unprecedented: a love story set within revolution. Marie Victoire and her husband Maurice, minor nobility from Brittany, are arrested by the Terror just after the French Revolution. Thinking her husband dead, and facing execution herself the next morning, she succumbs to the embraces of her husband’s friend Cloriviere, also on the list for the guillotine.

They are spared and released, however, by the fall of Robespierre. Six years later Marie, who has dedicated herself to the child born of that desperate night, is running a millinery in Paris. Cloriviere, absent since the night in prison, appears to see his son for the first time: he is about to leave France permanently. Maurice, also absent for the last six years, also appears, at first overjoyed at having a son, then bitter at learning the boy is not his.

In the denouement Cloriviere, ever the partisan, has set a bomb under Napoleon’s coach, but succeeded only in killing a few bystanders. Maurice, whose life is no longer worth living, feigns responsibility for the bomb and is about to be executed. Cloriviere at the last minute admits his guilt and kills himself.

* * *

In the major roles and the smaller ones Rome Opera cast beautifully. I saw the second night’s performance, with alternate principals: Anna Rita Taliento, who alternated with Nelly Miricioiu, was a remarkable Marie, her dramatic spinto effortlessly pacing Respighi’s long melodic curves, her acting fully up to the complexities of this role.

Dario Solari, who alternates with Alberto Gazale, was a fine sympathetic Maurice. This is an important role, though onstage only to frame the story: Maurice is the unspoken constant Marie ultimately realizes she needs and longs for through the turbulence of the action.

Alberto Cupido was the Cloriviere, a very complex role poised between idealistic loyalty to Maurice and abandonment to his sexual fascination with Marie. Cupido’s is a strong tenor; the role is placed in the dramatic range (like so much of the opera) and he sang with polish and precision.

Of the smaller, but still significant roles, Francesco Facini (who alternates with Giorgio Surian) was a compelling and sympathetic Cloteau; Mauro Utzeri flashed through the enigmatic role of Kermarec; Massimiliano Gagliardo was solid and warm as Simon; Paolo Francesca Natale bright and assertive as Lison (alternating with Taliento).

Fine and convincing as the singing was, though, it was Gianluigi Gelmetti’s conducting that inspired the considerable applause at the end of the long night. His direction was inspired and inspiring, probing every detail of the meticulous orchestration, maintaining the long, almost Wagnerian phrases, propelling the waves of climax and relaxation with extraordinarily intelligent dramatic rhythm.

It must be said that the orchestra, very good indeed, and the singers all benefit from a house like Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera, whose five or six tiers of boxes rise from an fairly small orchestra floor for a total of perhaps 1500 seats at the most. Every sound is clear, including the disapproving comments from the people down the row.

And what were they disapproving? What we all hated: the mise-en-scene. This was the responsibility of Hugo De Ana, who chose to force the opera into a Pirandellian play-within-a-play concept. The third and fourth act were combined into one, not itself a bad idea. The three resulting acts, separated by half-hour intermissions, each opened with a projected quote: the first from Louis XVI, the second from Robespierre, the last from Napoleon; all stating observations on the intersection of human rights and social responsibilities.

Fine: that’s what Respighi’s and Guiraud’s opera is about, and that’s one of the things that makes it an important opera today. But De Ana’s staging, both fussy and curiously static, sacrificed the clarity of the text to what seems an unnecessarily ironic interpretation. He set the action in the year of the opera’s composition, on the eve of World War I, with crowds of fugitives in a railroad station (the chorus) surrounding a Brechtian troupe of street-theater players (the principals).

One sees De Ana’s point: as if apologizing for this tardy premiere, he puts as much distance between his staging and Respighi’s composition as there was between Respighi and the French Revolution that inspired him. But look: this is a premiere. Before subjecting the opera to historicist interpretation, let’s stage it as it was first conceived.

* * *

At the end of the performance yet another text was projected onto the scrim: “This opera was composed ninety years ago and has waited until now for its premiere.” In fact it continues to wait: Gelmetti’s loving musical direction, and the care that’s gone into the singing, deserve a direction that is as respectful of the text.

Because in seeing this opera we begin to understand that the assignment of Respighi’s real place in musical history has been misdirected by the very popular success of those symphonic poems. He was closer to Mahler, curiously enough, than to either the Ferde Grofe’ of the “Grand Canyon Suite” or the Puccini of “Tosca.” He was Modernist, fascinated by the collage and interpenetration of things, not an early Postmodernist, content with unintegrated parallel pluralism.

The score of “Marie Victoire” is seamlessly integrated, but shot through with quotes and references to historical music. It opens with Marie singing the sadly Royalist “Il pleut, bergere,” and one high point -- for once well captured by De Ana’s staging -- is the staging, by prisoners, of a scene from Rousseau’s opera “Le Devin du village.” There are onstage musics and sounds of various kinds, offstage choruses, alarms and sonic excursions.

The opera is about the collisions of things -- morals, ideals, loves, duties -- and these collisions are marvelously represented by musical procedures. One of the most perplexing successes of “Marie Victoire,” in fact, is its counterpointing of complexity and accessibility: Respighi was an intuitive master of this, and we know now that his mastery extended to the opera stage.

So where does “Marie Victorie” belong in the repertory? With the middle operas of Richard Strauss, for one thing, particularly “Die Frau ohne Schatten”; with Janacek; with the glorious what-if of “Turandot.” Musically Respighi is not quite within that group; he eyes admiringly the Berg of the Three Pieces for Orchestra.

But “Marie Victoire” is, for all its composer’s identification with Rome, a French opera. It was sung, as it was composed, in French: a successful singing translation into Italian has yet to be achieved. The supertitles, in Italian, often showed how difficult that would be: the rhythms of Respighi’s text-setting are entirely French.

So where this opera really stands is perhaps with the unknowable lost operas of Debussy -- and, perhaps, with whatever Ravel would have done had he been able to propel the romantic histories of Berlioz and Meyerbeer into his own time.
Respighi, for his part, shows himself almost uniquely capable of doing just that, and “Marie Victoire” deserves to take its place in the repertoire for historical reasons as well as for its intrinsic pleasures and glories.

June 5-7 2003: Berkeley

I heard three of the five concerts composing the first Edge Festival in U.C. Berkeley’s Hertz Hall: a program devoted to Terry Riley Friday night; one given to improvisations by Steve Lacy, George Lewis, and David Wessel late Saturday night; and a retrospective of the late Lou Harrison Sunday afternoon. (Imissed two other concerts: one of music by faculty composers Thursday night, another of music by John Adams and Ingram Marshall early Saturday night.)

I didn’t go to these concerts with the intention of "reviewing" them, so I won’t be very specific. But some things were memorable: Terry Riley’s Cinco de Mayo(1997) for piano four hands, magnificently played by Joseph Kubera and Sarah Cahill, and his Ritmos and Melos written ten years ago for the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio who played brilliantly, as they always do. (It was fascinating to watch Julie Steinberg, as fine a pianist as I know, turning pages for Kubera and Cahill, beaming with pleasure at their performance and Riley’s music, and then bringing even more personality and substance from the instrument when she took her own turn.)

I heard later that Terry — I know him, and it’s hard to use his surname — was less than happy with the technical equipment (featuring Korg keyboards) needed for his solo performances, of music very different from that already mentioned; but A Rainbow in Curved Air brought the early 1970s back in all their hypnotic mindlessness, and the premiere of Baghdad Highway seemed to continue the line of long, quasi-narrative musings familiar from his music written for himself and the Kronos Quartet.

The Lacy-Lewis-Wessel improvisations spanned an intermissionless 90 minutes, and it went by fast. Lacy’s soprano sax and Lewis’s trombone flanked Wessel left and right; Wessel, seated, played keyboard and touchpad controllers; and the music, while reliant on computers and synthesizers as well as the more historic instruments, was human and humane, conversational, witty, inventive, and often quite moving — one of the finest live/electronic collaborations I’ve heard in the last forty years. It was timeless, reaching back to the avant-garde of the 1960s, reaching out to the present to enchant the sizable and responsive audience. Everything worked. There was a standing ovation, and a crush to greet the performers afterward.

Lou Harrison seemed present more in the minds and intentions of his performers, Sunday afternoon, than in the music itself. You can’t blame anyone for that: it was a somber occasion. Even the normally rollicking percussion pieces from the early 1940s, Simfony # 13 and Fugue for Percussion, though lyrically played, seemed subdued. Harrison’s music is often colored with sweet regret, and David Abel didn’t flinch from that quality in the 1967 Music for violin with various instruments. After the intermission the Gamelan Si Betty took its place on stage, the first time it had been convened without Lou himself participating, and we all knew a river had been crossed. There is consolation: the music itself. It is heartening to know for example that Lou’s Varied Trio, written in 1987 for Abel-Steinberg-Winant, was being played in two venues by two ensembles on that one day.

Earlier there had been a short panel discussion about Lou: Sarah Cahill moderated — very ably, I thought — and gamelanist Jody Diamond, dancer Eva Soltes, choreographer/author/artist Remy Charlip, New Albion record producer Foster Reed and I reminisced about this man who was so many men, so lovable and demanding, so profound and deft, so discriminating and generous.

Feb. 3 2003: Berkeley

We’re here to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in its annual booking at the University of California. Merce had dinner with a number of the company last night at Chez Panisse, and he looked like he enjoyed himself thoroughly. His gait is worse than ever; he walks with considerable difficulty. But he was beaming, holding his own at a table for seven or so most of whom were less than half his age, and he ate everything on his plate.

Why wouldn’t he: bollito misto with pecorino white sauce; tagilatelle made with nettles and served with tender spinach; spit-roasted chicken with black truffles under the skin, citrus bombe with sweetened blood oranges and kumquats.

But you want to know about the dance. It was a spectacular evening: three big serious pieces, each with its own character but each also in its characteristic way participating in the character of its neighbors.

Let me try to clarify. Suite for Five, choreographed in 1956-58, with John Cage’s Music for Piano and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, was a lyric pastoral. You could see these five dancers (Jonah Bokaer, Ashley Chen, Paige Cunningham, Holley Farmer and Jennifer Goggans) were taking roles originally set on masters (Cunningham himself, and I’m guessing Carolyn Brown and Remy Charlip with others); it was as if the geniuses of those roles exist somehow apart from individual dancers, and choose to occupy them, like incubi, when they find likely hosts -- as they certainly must have nearly fifty years ago, and do again today.

This was vintage Cunningham: the antic postures, nervous gestures, sudden flights, counterpoised to Cage’s quiet, distanced, measured score, beautifully played by Christian Wolff. (What a marvelous collocation, transferred across that half century!)

MinEvent, set only last year to Cage’s 1983 Thirty Pieces for String Quartet and with a fabulous drop-curtain (in fact a slowly rising, then flying painting) by Rauschenberg (his painting Immerse, 1994) left the realm of the lyric pastoral and moved indoors: it was a baroque court-piece, a Modernist 20th-century version of a work for Rameau’s Versailles.

This was set for the entire company, sixteen dancers, with the Kronos Quartet flanking the stage -- cello and violin at the footlights; violin 2 and viola further out in the house, in side boxes. It was a long piece, extremely complex, with its lyric moments but more often given to structures of large numbers.

The back wall began in beige-grey, a series of stretched flats turning their backs to us; Rauschenberg’s familiar reds and oranges took over, first in the costumes and then in the painting (and Josh Johnson’s fine lighting); day was declared; the dance went on; the painting ascended; afternoon inexorably blended into dusk, and we were left with the memory of a dance which suddenly stood for a day’s transit and a lifetime. The piece was calm and celebratory and somehow classical, a work of great substance and message though utterly private as to meaning, like an acknowledged masterwork in an unknown tongue.

And then a premiere, Fluid Canvas, with music by John King (his scorelongtermpiano ), projected computerized light-decor ( Lifelike ) by Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar, and Paul Kaiser), and simple but elegant silkshiny mousegrey or mulberry Lycra unitards by James Hall.

Now we were clearly in our own time, a decidedly urban and technological ambiance. Again Cunningham set the piece on the complete company; again the result was fluid intricacy and substantive structure. King’s score seemed uncharacteristically narrative and episodic for a Cunningham piece; it moved between threatening machinelike sounds and more conventionally pitched ones. It even sounded referential, recalling Cage himself at times, and (to my ears) the George Harrison of Wonderwall. More than usually Cunningham seemed to ignore the score, rather than simply coexist with it.

But the result was to retain the historic integrity of the multivarious Cage-Rauschenberg-Cunningham genius without the presence of two of those immortal Three, and to move that genius firmly into the present day, Code Orange and all. Fortunately we get a second sitting with Fluid Canvas tomorrow to verify the process.

I read the other day, in a recent history of American culture, the old canard that Cage is not a composer but an idea man. And that he was the forcer of Postmodernism; that his multivalency of ideas required the close of the Modernist period. What rubbish. Cage and Cunningham are great artistic geniuses, two of the greatest of their century. Learned and intelligent, they know and understand the work of their predecessors throughout history, in both the vernacular and the elevated forms. Liberal and ethical, they are citizens of the entire world, engaging in active cross-pollination of human activity. Utterly authentic, their work is unmistakeable and can not be counterfeit.

And, best of all, absolutely humane, their work represents, even if in spite of their programmatic intention, expressions of the frailty and humor and heroism and love of the human condition. I can’t imagine life without them, any more than life without Mozart.


Jan. 27 2003: John Cage

One of the best concerts in years, to my ears anyway, was given on Mozart’s birthday by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. Julie Steinberg played The Perilous Night (1944) on the most extensively prepared piano Cage ever demanded. The music is mesmerizing: spooky, insistent, a little neurotic; fraught with emotional content, especially if you know the circumstances of its composition. Her performance was intense and focussed but always lyrical in its rhythmic pacing and its subtle command of dynamics and tone production.

From 1992, the composer’s final year, came Four6, one of the great “number” pieces named for the quantity of performers intended. Fred Frith played an elaborately electronified guitar, joined by Joan Jeanrenaud (cello), Peter Wahrhaftig (tuba), and William Winant (percussion). These pieces are often quite spare and evanescent, and though this ensemble sounds weighty and substantial the musicians always served Cage’s intent, which is objective and phenomenal. It is odd that one can so easily identify a composer on hearing only a few seconds of his music; this is as true of Cage as it is of Mozart or Puccini. Four6 revealed this artistic presence in almost every moment, but was also in almost every moment transcendent.

I am not sure I’d previously heard a live performance of the String Quartet in Four Parts (1950); but of course it is familiar through a number of recordings to most Cage enthusiasts. The Ives Quartet respected the sustained motionlessness of its first three movements and brought unusual brashness to the final Quodlibet. This is a fascinating piece to see performed, as each player is given a very small gamut of sounds to play, and the gestures they require become familiar, weaving a tapestry of motion parallel to that of sound. My friend Douglas Leedy wonders if Cage knew the Benjamin Franklin string quartet, a curious predecessor in terms of its hocketing technique -- in which each player contributes isolated pitches to an ongoing single-line melody, as individual piano keys do to the conventional piano melody. I don’t know the answer to this. It would be good to hear the two quartets on a single program, perhaps with Ruth Crawford Seeger’s quartet separating them.

Hall Goff growled low, quiet, melismatic glissandi on his trombone, to recreate the curved lines in the graphic notation of Ryoanji (1985), inspired by the appearance of the famous rocks-and-raked-gravel Zen garden of that name; and Winant returned to strike a single percussion instrument, a sort of inverted bowl, methodically, perfectly evenly, and with great concentration, representing the rocks, I suppose, whose insistent presence offsets those graceful contours.

And Winant was joined by Christopher Froh, Daniel Kennedy, and David Rosenthal in the 1941 Third Construction, loud, complex, vital, and solid. The theater was packed and the audience heard all five performances with quiet attention. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years. It was a marvelous night. San Francisco Contemporary Music Players: John Cage Retrospective. Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco; January 27, 2003.

top            rev.: February 2003            copyright © 2003, Charles Shere