Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera in HD

The Met is offering an attractive schedule of its productions via satellite to viewers at remote locations around the globe. These live offerings supplement the Met's radio broadcasts, which have been a mainstay of the Met's outreach for over 60 years. The Met insists on venues having appropriate receiving equipment, both video and audio, to receive its HD transmissions. For many viewers who cannot or do not attend live opera performances on-stage (either at the Met or elsewhere), these HD broadcasts are an attractive, relatively low-cost opportunity to see opera as presented by one of the world's great opera companies.

For opera lovers who attend live opera in the opera house more frequently than occasionally, however, the Met's HD broadcasts may have only limited appeal. Even at a lovely venue like the restored Paramount Theater here in Charlottesville, the sense of occasion that attends a live performance in the house is largely lacking. The big screen presentation has much more the feel of a film screening than a live performance in the opera house.

At a massive house like the Met in particular, the sense of distance that is an integral part of the opera experience is compressed by HD. Instead, the direction of the Met's HD broadcasts is much more intimate, with almost claustrophobic obsession with close-ups of the principals. Opera is melodramatic and scaled to be presented at a distance on a large stage. The intimacy that is key to the film experience is alien to the theater-goer's experience in the opera house. Even on a big screen and in HD, the action feels much more in the nature of a televised production on PBS. Especially in a production as large-scaled as Zeffirelli's Turandot at the Met, the intimacy of the obsessive close-ups is jarring.

Opera singers can be, but usually are not, as physically attractive as film or television actors. The physical appearance of opera singers is (or certainly should be) subordinate to their skills as artists. When exposed as the principal singers are at a Met HD broadcast, their physical appeal (or lack of appeal) can detract from the artistic experience. This limitation is no limitation at all for Renee Fleming, for example, but it may have played a part in Deborah Voigt's decision to have weight-reduction surgery, perhaps at the risk of her career (which happily did not occur).

Film is literal and explicit, characteristics that makes it unappealing to this writer. The imagination of the viewer plays only a small role in the film-goer's experience. The director's choices (be they well-considered or mere conceits) define the film. Stage directors, especially in today's opera world, also define the visual aspects of the production, but it can only be done (fortunately in most cases) at a distance. In the opera house the viewer can, but need not, watch the principals at all times. The distance to the stage is so great, and the scale of the production is so vast that there are virtually unlimited visual choices available to the viewer. In HD, the choice of a single visual presentation is made entirely by the director.

The Met HD broadcasts are in "high definition." By its very nature, the exceptionally, even artificially sharp visual definition of HD is distracting. Sonically, the broadcasts feature the worst of digital sound reproduction. The sound is compressed at the source to accommodate the bandwidth required for transmission, then expanded at the venue for presentation. The auditory experience bears little relationship to what is heard in the opera house. Even assuming acoustic correction to mimic the cavernous acoustics of the Met's Lincoln Center auditorium, the balance between orchestra and stage is grossly distorted to emphasize the latter. Furthermore, the acoustics of any live theater vary from section to section. The Met's HD broadcasts sound equally bad everywhere. Digital sound reproduction has the virtue of clarity, but at the expense of warmth and realism. Surround sound in HD sounds much more like the multiplex than the Met's auditorium.

So, bravo to the Met for making its productions available to thousands of opera fans around the world. Surely the HD experience will be improved. But I was only able to last through two acts of a so-so Turandot recently, finally yielding to boredom. I love opera and have seen hundreds of performances over the years. This is one of the few that was so uninvolving that it was not worth a whole evening's investment. If I had been in the audience at the Met, however, surely I would have found much to enjoy. But by all means, try the Met's HD broadcasts for yourself.

Alt-Classical and WTJU

Greg Sandow coined the term "alt-classical." What is it? As Sandow says, it describes a different kind of modern classical music, different than the academic musings that fails to attract the next generation of listeners.
"[It's] another kind of new music that a young audience really does like, and that's what Mason Bates writes, and I'd think also what Anna Clyne writes. I've called that style alt-classical in endless posts... pointed out that it has an audience (in New York, quite a large one), and challenged mainstream classical music institutions to wake up and start programming it."
Jessica Duchen agrees, citing several examples in the UK (like James MacMillan) and Norman Lebrecht's poll of living composers whose music will survive.

Talking with my colleagues in the Rock Department at WTJU, I know that there is something to this. Pierre Boulez isn't high on their list, but Steve Reich is.

There's this living, breathing, vital alt-classical genre bubbling just under the surface, appealing to younger, primarily non-traditional classical audiences. So where does WTJU stand with alt-classical music?

Well, I can only speak for my own program -- Gamut -- but with a show that "runs the gamut of music from the Middle Ages all the way up to the present day," I think I've given alt-classical a fair shake.

Skimming some names from my master playlist, I've aired multiple works from:

John Adams
Thomas Ades
Gavin Bryers
George Crumb
Henri Dutilleux
Philip Glass
Henry Mikolai Gorecki
James MacMillan
Magnus Lindberg
Arvo Part
Einojuhani Rautavaara
Evan Zyporyn

- as well as many others living composers who skirt that alt-classical designation. And let's not forget Bang on a Can, Kronos Quartet, Evelyn Glennie, and other artists and ensembles whose recordings sell very well outside the classical reservation.

I don't present this music sequestered off in some corner someplace where it won't frighten away too many listeners. Rather, I make alt-classical part of the show's mix, rubbing shoulders with all the works from all the other sub-genres created over classical music's two-thousand year history.

Alt-classical may still be finding its audience (at least in the concert halls), but as for WTJU? We're alt-ready there.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Smartest Classical Composer Ever

Being a classical music announcer on WTJU often means looking for stories as well as music of interest to listeners. I’ve recently finished a superb book, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, that describes the apogee of Romantic poetry coupled with the surge of scientific advancement in late 18th century England. Unlike current culture, in the 18th century science and the arts coexisted in the wonder of discovery.

A key figure was Sir William Herschel, often described as the Father of Modern Astronomy. Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, the first planetary discovery in over 1,000 years. He made seminal studies of nebulae and binary star systems. He also discovered infrared light, which exists outside the wavelength of visible light. His proof that that the solar system had movement and direction and that most stars existed at huge distances and time from Earth gave scientific credence to evolutionary hypotheses for creation of the universe and helped dismiss theologically based myths.

Overlooked by most music lovers and scientists is that Herschel began adult life as a successful professional musician. As was his more musically renowned predecessor G.F. Handel, William Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany. Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined that band of Hanover Guards and eventually moved to England with the Guards when George I, also a German, became king.

Herschel settled in the resort city of Bath, which due to its aristocratic patrons had a sophisticated musical tradition. Herschel became head of the military band, a leader of the Bath orchestra, an accomplished organist and oboist, and teacher. His compositions were heard frequently in Bath (and beyond), and Herschel regularly gave subscription concerts of his music. Herschel routinely attributed his astronomical instincts to lessons learned from musical study and composition.

We had a chance to sample the music of Sir William Herschel on WTJU on Monday, 23 November on the classical program Dawn’s Early Light. The Oboe Concerto in C major and Chamber Symphony in F major are delightful pieces and demonstrate Herschel’s competence and melodic sensitivity.

When one thinks of the smartest of all classical composers, perhaps one should look beyond the great prodigies such as Mozart and Mendelssohn or the great innovators such as Bach, Haydn, and Schoenberg. With the infallibility that comes from being a volunteer announcer on WTJU, I make the claim for the smartest composer to be Sir William Herschel, Father of Modern Astronomy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Opera Without Staging

Opera was conceived as a musical art indissolubly associated with its staging. To say that La Traviata, for example, is intensely theatrical relates directly to its effectiveness as a work of musical drama on the opera stage. Opera is being performed unstaged in more than a few concert venues. Are opera's musical values enhanced or diminished when the work is divorced from its staged setting? The answer, inevitably, is "It depends."

A recent transcendent concert performance of Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung by the Washington National Opera on November 15, 2009, put the issue into sharp relief. Actually the performance was "semi-staged," meaning that while there were no sets or costumes, the characters interacted as though there were a staging, and the orchestra was in the pit of the Opera House of the Kennedy Center, rather than on the stage with the singers, who usually sing "on book" from vocal scores on music stands. Some of WNO's singers were "off-book," but others relied at least in part on the vocal score. Musically, the performance was sublime, with especially noteworthy contributions by Iréne Theorin, Gidon Saks, Alan Held, and debut conductor Philippe Auguin leading the WNO Orchestra, which played as never before heard.

Washington Concert Opera presents two performances each year, usually of works (such as Il Giuramento or Esclarmonde) not commonly staged, at least in Washington, often with singers in their Washington debut. If many of these works were not performed in concert, at least with these cast members, the works would not be heard at all. The music easily sustains an evening's entertainment, because vocal display often trumps dramatic values. More contemporary works, the operas of Benjamin Britten, for example, do not work as well divorced from the stage setting.

But the Ring has become a repertory staple for larger opera companies, some of which mortgage their futures to present a Ring cycle. So it is uncommon, if not rare, to hear one of these mighty works in concert. But WNO's Die Götterdämmerung worked on all levels. Musically, it was a superior performance. Of all Wagner's operas, Die Götterdämmerung is in some respects the most problematic to stage. How is the end of the old world and the birth of a new world to be staged? Having seen a number of Ring cycles, none of the concluded in a staging that was convincing visually, at least not to me.

Fortunately, all the drama is in Wagner's music. An unstaged Ring has the virtue of provoking the imagination to visualize what Wagner conceived. Too often opera, and especially Wagner's operas, is at the mercy of egomaniacal, misguided, or even delusional stage directors who use great works as vehicles to parade their puny visions before the public. Katharina Wagner's misguided, even perverse 2007 staging of Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth is only the most recent, but hardly the worst, example of "Eurotrash" productions in my experience. Concert performances of these great repertory works eliminate the annoyance, if not outrage that these productions engender.

So, long live concert opera!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bend a knotted oak

The Wall Street Journal recently published a fascinating article about the uses of music in the treatment of sufferers from dementia and Alzheimers disease. A Key for Unlocking Memories explains how music therapy is helping these patients by reaching them in a way that other forms of communication can't.

"Music hath charms to sooth a savage beast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak"
William Congreve

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

State of Classical Radio - WTJU style

In an intriguing interview, "Ten Questions for a Critic: The State of Classical Music," Tom Huizenge chatted with Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette. The questions ranged from the future of live performance to the situation of composers today.

Talking about classical music on the radio, Midgette observed:

I hear an awful lot about classical radio and people's frustration with it. And people's frustration with the conventionality of the programming.[emphasis mine] That real classical music lovers are frustrated with having to listen to the real meat and potatoes, the same symphonies over and over again. And yet classical radio stations say that in order to get the donations that we need to survive, this is what we need to play.

And that's the dilemma many stations face. Adventuresome programming, or the same old same old that brings in the pledge dollars.

We've always kept it adventuresome here at WTJU, as even a cursory glance at our schedule will reveal. We feature a complete opera every Sunday, we have dedicated programs for early music, vocal music, and even organ music.

Most of our announcers started off as listeners, and, I think, the kind of listeners Midgette talked about.

We've chosen to explore classical music in all its diversity and not just play the same old same old. We think it's worthwhile, but do you?

Because the other part of what Midgette points out is true as well. When you stray beyond the confines of classical Muzak, you start to lose mass appeal -- and potential donors.

So if you're someone looking for something more than just the "meat and potatoes" kind of classical programming, welcome to the sonic smorgasbord that is WTJU.

And if you're already partaking of the buffet, then let me ask: have you made your donation to support WTJU? We're not at the point where WTJU needs to choose between playing real classical music and starving, or playing classical pops and thriving -- and your donation ensures it stays that way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Boppin' with Babbitt

Bad Plus is an interesting jazz combo. Interesting in the sense of hard to classify.

Case in point: they've taken a classical composition and arranged it for their trio. Now that's not a surprising statement in an of itself. George Gershwin's shared by both the classical and jazz worlds, and the rich harmonies of romantic and post-romantic classical music lend themselves naturally to improvisation.

But Bad Plus chose Milton Babbitt. Babbitt's music is very complex, and for many people require several hearings to understand just what he's about.

Not quite "I Got Rhythm." Although Bad Plus supplies it (rhythm, that is). And choreography. It's a refreshing take on a part of classical music that usually remains untouched by other genres.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Music and Context

I always find it interesting when people tell me they don't like "contemporary" music. And generally they're not talking about music composed within the last few years -- they mean Arnold Schoenberg and his dodecophonic disciples, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. You know, the composers that ruined classical music.

Except, of course, that they really didn't. And those folks who say they don't listen to works by the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, et al) hear quite a lot of music inspired by it -- and quite often.

Because while concert goers may have been slow to embrace the sonic possibilities of 12-tone music, many musicians and composers have -- especially film composers. They found the unsettling and vagueness of music freed from a tonal center ideal for suggesting menace, horror, mental instability, and similar emotions.

The clip below beautifully illustrates that. Michael Monroe noticed a very strong similarity between the suspenseful music cues used in the very mainstream "Andy Griffith Show" and Anton Webern's work. He substituted one of Webern's "Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6," with the following result.

So consider giving the Second Viennese School a chance. It's really a musical language that's very familiar, even outside of a visual context.