Nota Bene

As the spring semester hurtles onward after the break, take refuge in many heartening concerts this weekend. Tomorrow evening, the storied saxophonist and artist Dickie Landry will regale anyone lucky enough to grab a seat in the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel. Saturday morning, KINETIC is giving a pop-up chamber music performance at A 2nd Cup–a worthy outing for a number of reasons.

And come Monday, Sebastian Stefanović, a former writing student of mine and a fierce violist, will take the stage at the Shepherd School in a solo recital you’ll not want to miss. In December, I was witness to his performance of the harrowing Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130. Energy and enigma don’t begin to cover it. True to form, on offer in Monday’s concert is György Ligeti’s remarkable (and rarely heard) viola sonata.

NYC phone book note, circa 1966

From July 1966 to January 1967, John Cage and Morton Feldman recorded several conversations for radio at WBAI in New York City (happily published by MusikTexte in 1993). In a conversation in July, 1966, they ended up talking about looking names up in the phone book:

“I’m sure there’s only one John Cage in the telephone book, but there are quite a few Morton Feldmans in the New York book. Varèse once called me and said he’s just called another Morton Feldman. And he said to him, ‘Well, are you the composer?’ …and the man said, ‘No, I’m in lingerie.'”

Calling Down Numbers from the Sky

Last night, at the American premiere of Black over Red (My dialogue with Rothko), I think I heard the music of the spheres. Presented by the Menil Collection and Dance Salad Festival in the main foyer of the Menil, Black over Red pushes against unseen barriers and struggles with imaginary demons only artists will recognize in a combination of movement and sound that is, quite remarkably, celestial.

Choreographed by Carolyn Carlson, Black over Red is a solo dance with a spare props—small tables, one large table, painter’s gloves, and the material on the dancer herself, Paris Opera Ballet’s Marie-Agnès Gillot, who pulled fabric across her shoulders to transform into a flying creature at one point. The work, as the program noted, is designed to vibrate with Mark Rothko’s creations and the true nature of being. If there is a narrative, it is the agonizing process the artist faces when creating something profound—slamming, throwing, casting, jolting, veering from despair to exuberance.

I don’t often see chamber alliances—the intuitive nods between string quartet members, the subtle gestures of two singers in a duet—like the one Gillot and Jean-Paul Dessy shared. The music, composed and performed by Dessy, is a mixture of recorded and live sounds, some of which border so closely on improvisation it seemed Dessy was taking cues from Gillot’s fingertips. Opening with rolling arpeggios on the cello, a twentieth-century renewal of Bach’s unaccompanied suites, Dessy soon shifted the aural environment into pulsing, poetic territory. Text, from Carlson’s book Dialogue avec Rothko, dialogued with birdcalls and whistling.

It is a work that, in the moment but for many hours after, will compel you to wonder how to conceive of something so abstract yet unequivocally tangible. Earlier in the day, I had finished reading J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Schooldays of Jesus, a similarly abstract work with deceptively simple prose. In the story, a six-year-old boy decides to attend a dance academy rather than receive a traditional education. His parents are concerned when they hear he is learning arithmetic, reading, and writing through dance. But the boy, exasperated, keeps explaining his dance of two, three, and seven; how he listens to the patterns in the room and calls down the numbers from the sky through his movements—it’s the music of the spheres, he tells them, what could be simpler than that?

The music of the spheres, a theory Pythagoras devised, is the idea that the planets emit sounds as they travel particular to their course in the universe—the sun, the moon, the stars. By tying music to mathematics, science, and philosophy, Pythagoras crafted a way to mediate heightened human emotion and existence. And this, I think, is also perhaps the best way to conceive of Black over Red: something that, sliding in and out of worlds, says everything but is itself an unknown; a concert of vibrant colors and words; a way to call down the numbers from the sky.

Calling all Scholars!

I’m proposing a session about my favorite things at the 2018 Modern Language Society  Convention in NYC and I would love to get your proposals! See the call below. (And wide range really means wide range, but if you have questions you can email me too.)

Special Session: Opera and Literature
Throughout the history of opera and literature, the two have overlapped and informed each other. This session welcomes a wide range of papers on the topic. 300-word abstracts by 15 March 2017; Sydney Boyd (sboyd@rice.edu).

Mysteries of the Macabre

In 1978 at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, György Ligeti premiered his opera Le Grand Macabre. It’s sort of the opera that has everything, running the gamut from tragedy to comedy. Wild, dramatic, absurd, but still philosophical, the opera offers two perspectives that feel incredibly relevant to our present times: to live in fear of tyrants and monsters, always anticipating the worst, or to embrace what joys are within immediate reach.

I’ve long admired it, but never had the pleasure of seeing it in person. Instead, I’ve scoured many recordings and youtube videos. Recently, a friend shared a video that is unlike anything I’ve seen: Barbara Hannigan sings an arrangement of three arias for soprano, “Mysteries of the Macabre,” with conductor Sir Simon Rattle (recorded in January, 2015). I don’t want to give anything away, but—wow. Incredible stuff.

But wait! There’s more: Your conception of what opera is can be radically redefined too. Watch it here.

Cosi at the Salzburger Festspiele

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In a time when opera is trying to reinvent itself and competing with all number of entertainment that has to do much less work to seem relevant, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at this year’s Salzburger Festspiele is a remarkably original balance of the old looking forward to the new.

This balance begins with supernumeraries who are already on stage as audience members find their seats. Enlightenment-era scientists, wearing long white masks and velvet robes, mull over two sketches of human anatomy—one female, one male. Pulling on long beards, frowning at the ovaries, these perplexed philosophers show that the scenes to come are already but a mise-en-abyme. Their antiquated science is quickly framed and replaced by our own rationalization of the romantic comedy before us. After all, who can make sense of love?

Conductor Ottavio Dantone makes his Salzburg Fest debut with this opera and controls the work with precise tempos both fast and slow. As he began the overture, a curious Dorabella and Fiordiligi scurry to stage left where the scientists have retired at individual laboratory tables, laughing and pointing at the diagrams. But the scientists follow the unsuspecting women back to center stage, seize them, and cover their mouths with a handkerchief of chloroform. The men position the unconscious women on a settee, who later awake as if in a dream, and Mozart’s comedy becomes a scientific experiment of Enlightenment proportions.

The program notes that director Sven-Eric Bechtolf wanted to capture this opera in the year 1790, when it originally debuted, as a moment of (violent) transition from scientific logic to the romantic chaos that the French Revolution engendered. What he’s done here with the stagecraft—from blocking to set to costumes—is a clever symmetry throughout. The two pairs-—Fernando and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Fiordiligi dressed in period costumes—organize so neatly across the stage, crossing paths and then re-organizing, that the identity confusion inherent to the plot is heightened to a satiric degree. Even while the plot tests the essence of opposite genders, it also makes this stark difference paradoxically homogenous.

The talent across the board makes it possible to raise this special peculiarity of time and space where historic attention meets innovation. German soprano Julia Kleiter, as Fiordiligi, floats and soars with transporting grace (she was undoubtedly the audience favorite at the curtain call). As Dorabella, Angela Brower fulfills the more changeable sister’s character with a sweet and accurate clarity while still performing as an amusing flirt. Alessio Arduini (Guglielmo), the experienced Martina Jankova (Despina), and the puppet master Michael Volle (Don Alfonso) all perform with the ease of true professionals. The standout is Mauro Peter in the role of Ferrando, who delivered a quintessential “Un ‘aura amorosa” with a thrillingly round timbre for a tenor. It’s singers like these that make you forget you are watching an opera and allow you to be simply consumed by it.

Naturally, the setting of the Festspielhaus in Salzburg, half cliff-half theatre, reminds one of the ancient, not to the mention the fact that Mozart’s birth house is a street away. How difficult it must be, then, to maintain ties to the opera’s roots while delivering something that feels as new and exciting as Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versaille.

The trick is in the details. When the opera proper begins, for example, the scientists unroll and set up idyllic watercolor backdrops around the six characters and then appear a level or two up between the cloisters built into the cliff. As they look down on the singers playing out their gendered experiment, emotion takes the lead. When Ferrando realizes he is betrayed, he stabs a watermelon brought out for refreshment and breaks into it with his hands, pulling finger-fulls up into the air and squeezing juice onto the rug below. Next he moves over to a pillow, which he also stabs and hurls the stuffing across stage left. The metaphor is not subtle, and while it is at one moment making light of the changeability of women, the next it borders on a darker aggression that many iterations of Cosi don’t even come close to.

If you paid your 10 Euros for the program, you’ll also get a list of the Cosi’s the festival has performed. Since 1922, the festival has produced the opera 44 times. The statistics makes this production even more impressive, if that were possible. This is Mozart opera at its absolute best, delightful and timelessly provoking, because it finds us racing to logic even as it presses on those human conundrums that find no refuge in rationality.