Tuesday, March 31, 2009

 

Trembling on the brink of April, it’s finally getting to look and feel like spring up here on the hillside. I’m going to keep my eyes open to see if I can catch a glimpse of Botticelli’s Primavera dancing through the woods with her various companions heralding the coming of the growing and flowering season.

I’ve had an interesting introduction to micro-environments; although we’re only about 500 feet further up the hill from Fritz’s Center, we’re a good two weeks or more later in the sprouting of bulbs and other early spring plants. Up here, we’ve finally got crocus in blossom, day lily and chrysanthemum foliage developing.

The big colony of crows we got to know last summer is back again in the patch of woods between the house and the Center. I like crows for the same reason, I think, that I love cats. They’re smart, curious and they act like they own the place which, of course, they do--as long as nobody cuts everything down and puts up another s__tbox condo development.

*******

I was running garden hose up the hillside to the site of the future garden terraces last Saturday when Fritz popped his head out of the second floor rear door and alerted me to the fact that at long last the town appraiser had arrived. Our certificate of occupancy was issued early last June. I thought they’d get an appraiser out here buckety-buck so as to get property taxes higher than just land value out of me as soon as possible. But it took this long and I saved some money on the last two bills.

Norm was a nice guy, complimented the look of the house and, interestingly, asked if we’d come up with a name for it yet. This surprised me since Americans don’t generally name houses unless they’re up in the grand estate category. The fact is that we’ve talked a lot about a name but haven’t settled on anything yet, except that it’s going to be something about light. The house is filled with light and in fact, architecturally it’s ABOUT light. Maybe we’ll call it Lucifer (“light bearer”)—although that might bring the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons up our driveway to try to “save” us from Satan worship.

Anyway, Fritz was careful to point out to Norm that there weren’t hardwood floors anywhere in the house (we’d been warned that appraisers frequently assume you have them and drive the tax way up) just the cement slab downstairs and underflooring topped with linoleum upstairs. We also gave him a set of the construction drawings and a scale ruler so he could do his measurements quickly and easily instead of having to crawl around all around the house outside. I can go to the town’s municipal offices in a couple of weeks and get the word on the appraised value and find out just how much the taxes will be. Raymond tends to be higher than surrounding towns in taxing property, unfortunately.

*******


This was sent to Fritz by a friend and we both loved it. The original caption is: Retired Florida Squirrel, although it could also be Squirrel Auditioning for Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

*******


And this was sent by another friend and is posted for everyone’s amazement but particularly for Doug Taron (although he’ll probably find it to be “business as usual”).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

 
Not to be melodramatic, but it’s a perfectly horrid day here in southern New Hampshire. It’s raining incessantly but even though the temperature’s scraping the underside of 40 degrees, it feels a good deal colder and very raw. I braved it a little earlier to purchase a piece of salmon and the makings of a parmesan and mushroom risotto, but now that I’m home I wouldn’t go out there again for love or money. Fortunately, the love is right here inside with me.

Yesterday morning was much the same, absent the rain but with the addition of an unpleasant wind. The afternoon, however, was unexpectedly clear with a warming sun, so we got out fast to do some landscaping.


This is vinca minor, a lovely, tough little perennial ground cover that we’d decided we wanted in several places on the property. It can grow well in sun but does really splendidly in shade. It spreads rapidly and also holds loose soil together like a champ. Fritz had surrounded part of the old house down the hill with it, the north side in particular becoming very dense with what he’s always called myrtle. I can’t find anything that looks like it when I google Myrtle, but it’s the first thing that pops up when I google vinca.

At any rate, we thinned out one section of a bank of vinca down at his old house and got it all into the ground up here before dinner last night. We still have more to do, but it was a big start and today’s ran is just what it needs to get established. There are also yellow and purple pansies in the planters across the front of the house. I want the property filled with flowers this year.

*******

The second Rusalka of last week was a highly respectable performance in spite of a couple of wrinkles. The score sounded wonderful in the hands of conductor Ari Pelto and the Boston Lyric Opera orchestra. The level of playing in the Boston area is very high due to all the music conservatories and schools and it makes a big difference to have this kind of playing in Dvorak.

The set was wonderfully atmospheric, a surround of rear projection material which dissolved forest, moon and water images in acts one and three. The act 2 palace was a cold, modern establishment that made Rusalka’s alienation perfectly plausible, but didn’t adequately support the entrance of the Water Gnome from the forest world into the human world. Costumes were variable—handsome uniforms for the men, OK dresses for Rusalka and the wood nymphs, but something that looked like hospital scrubs for the water gnome and a hideous shiny white hoop-skirted gown with an overcape for the Foreign Princess that made what seemed like a most attractive young woman look dumpy and immobile.


Singing was on a good level. Marquita Lister has been singing heavy repertory and her voice is neither quite as smooth nor quite as sweet as it was but she had all the strength the role requires and managed a very well shaped Song to the Moon, the score’s most famous excerpt. She did well by the men in her life. Veteran bass John Cheek was solid and sonorous as her father the Water Gnome, and young Bryan Hymel was a fresh-voiced, ardent Prince.

Nancy Maultsby was more than prepared and vocally equipped to make a meal out of the role of Jezibaba the wood witch, but suffered along with the entire cast, herself and Mr. Cheek especially, from the seeming lack of any coherent stage direction. Rochelle Bard as the Foreign Princess struggled in vain against both that awful costume and the fact that the role calls for a dramatic soprano; her light coloratura lyric voice was often swamped.

But nothing could distract from the beauty and power Dvorak’s great score, and the whole the other night proved to be much greater than the sum of its parts.

*******

The maple sugar season is over for us. The sap has stopped flowing and the weather shows no sign of returning to the cold night/warm day cycle that’s needed to get it going again. Our total was three gallons, half of last year’s.

Friday, March 27, 2009

 
We got back home again yesterday in the late morning after two days away working. By coincidence we both had gigs an hour away from each other, Fritz in central Connecticut, I in central Massachusetts. We stayed with a great friend of ours just northeast of Hartford and had a really fun mix of good food, good talk and introducing Fritz to three episodes of Family Guy on DVD.

The second and last Symposium in Greenfield was a big success and it looks like I’ll be back here again next year, possibly for a two- or maybe even three-day study of Richard Wagner; expanding to three days for Wagner, who is such a huge topic, was raised as a possibility. We’ll see where it all goes. The people there are lovely to work with and I like the program immensely. The title I proposed would be “Richard Wagner: the troubling genius who changed everything.” We’ll see what happens.

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Tonight brings my “Week of the Two Rusalkas” to a close. Antonin Dvorak’s opera Rusalka is based on the same myth that became Anouilh’s Ondine and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Since it descends from the Slavic tradition, there’s a real kick to the story—no happy ending a la Disney and the consequences for Rusalka (a rusalka in Czech is a wave in a lake or river that flashes and glitters in the moonlight) once she fails to connect successfully with the human world are not pleasant. The music, however is gorgeous, fully mature Dvorak at the height of his powers.

I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s production (four the fourth time—I dearly love this work) last Friday night with Renee Fleming for whom it has become a signature role. The sets and costumes were ultra-realistic in an Arthur Rackham-illustrated storybook style.

This evening the Boston Lyric Opera presents the opera in what publicity shots in the papers indicate may be somewhat more stylized vision of the action. Soprano Marquita Lister is featured as Rusalka, remembered in Boston particularly for a beautifully sung, totally uninhibited Salome several seasons ago.

Earlier in the week I said to Fritz, “don’t forget I have a performance in Boston Friday night.” He asked what it was and I said Rusalka. No, he replied I had just seen Rusalka LAST Friday night. I told him I was seeing it again in Boston Lyric Opera’s production. Seeing it twice in the same week boggled him a little, but I know that with two different casts and two different productions it will, in effect, be a different opera. I'm not certain I convinced him, but my father didn’t get it either when I was growing up. It was Mozart's Don Giovanni for me back then.

*******

Ted, or TED as his comment is headed (I always think of Ted as a larger than life personality) asked for a comment on Ms. Fleming's performance. I've seen her in the role three times now, and find that her involvement in the character is deeper each time. Having become human for the love of the Prince, she finds that actually maintaining a relationship with him is somehow beyond her emotional capacities. She wants to communicate but, having been deprived of her voice in exchange for a real body and mobility on land, she is unable and he is attracted elsewhere. It requires a good actress to spend the bulk of the second act silent in an opera, and she was heartbreaking in her attempts to reach him.

Fleming turned fifty during the early part of the run but there's not even a fleck of dust on her vocal cords; the sound is rich, even sumptuous as always, and the opalescent high notes that make her a great Strauss soprano spun out effortlessly. Age frequently warms and fills in a lyric soprano's lower notes and that seems to have happened for Fleming, who was very assured in dramatic descents into the lower register. But the top remains unchanged, strikingly beautiful and the overall impression is of a voice in its prime.

A couple of tenors over the years haven't been up to this soprano, but Latvian Alexanders Antonenko had a big success in his debut on the opening night of the run. He's definitely a dramatic tenor, an endangered species these days. The voice has a dark, rich color and the high notes are pretty secure if not yet under ideal control. At one point, though, he executed a perfect dimimuendo on a high note from double forte down to about double piano and that indicates a pretty good technique. The audience loved him, as they did Stephanie Blythe's Jezibaba, the forest witch who is the medium for Rusalka's transformation. Blythe's huge mezzo rang out impressively and she looked and sounded like she was having the time of her life in the role (reminding me delightfully of the superb animation production number Disney did for Pat Carroll's Sea Witch in Little Mermaid). Czech conductor Jiri Belohlaveck led a spirited, beautifully reading of the score.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

 
Marx Gets His Night at the Opera

If this Marx is what you’re thinking:



It isn’t--try this:

Compiled by DAVE ITZKOFF
Published: March 19, 2009

Workers of the world, unite and sing! A Chinese director is preparing an operatic adaptation of “Das Kapital,” Karl Marx’s treatise on economics, capitalism and the alienation of labor, The Telegraph reported.

The production will borrow elements from Broadway and Las Vegas musicals, and will add a plot to Marx’s text, first published in 1867, about a business whose workers discover that they are being exploited. After embracing the theories of Marx, above, some of the workers rebel against their employer, while others turn to collective bargaining. According to The Telegraph, the opera’s director, He Nian, told the Chinese newspaper Wen Hui Bao, “The particular performance style we choose is not important, but Marx’s theories cannot be distorted.”

The opera is planned to open in Shanghai next year.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

 
I’ve taken the day off, or at least off from business. I attended to a lot of family affairs, did errands with Fritz, baked bread, etc. Yesterday had been very busy but quite successful. The bulk of the day was taken up driving out to Greenfield, MA and delivering the first day of a two-day symposium on the four great composers of 19th century Italian opera: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. It went well—this is my third year with the Greenfield Community College Symposia—and the reception was warm, friendly and enthusiastic. I have more work to do on next Wednesday’s second and final section but today I needed to take a break.

*******

OK, it’s a meme 0f 3s. My friend Paul (aka Paolo) from Portland, Maine tagged me for this on Facebook and I thought I might as well double dip with it:

Three Names I go by
1. Will
2. Bill
3. Willy-boy (only by one particular friend, but from him I like it)

Three Jobs I’ve had in my life
1. Theatrical designer
2. Technical Illustrator
3. Salesman in the Sporting Goods Department in Macy’s, NY (for two summers in high
school, placed there because I was a teenaged male, not because I knew the
first thing about sporting goods or about sports in general)

Three Places I have lived
1. New York City
2. Middlebury, VT
3. Roslindale, MA

Three TV Shows that I watch
1. BBC News
2. Good Morning America
3. Ugly Betty



Three places I have been
1. Marimbula, Australia
2. Kiev, Ukraine

3. Tangier, Morocco

Three people that e-mail me regularly
1. My younger daughter
2. My older daughter
3. My best friend since college

Three of my favorite foods
1. butternut squash
2. bluefish
3. peaches

Three things I would like to do
1. Get a book published
2. Work as dramaturg for an opera company
3. Visit northern Italy

Three Things I am looking forward to
1. Getting the new garden up and running
2. Meeting my granddaughter some time in August just after she’s born.
3. Designing Benjamin Britten’s The Prodigal Son for production in September

Anyone who'd like to, please pick this up and have some fun with it, please go right ahead.

*******

First mosquitoes and now
ticks—for whatever reason, I’m a parasite magnet. I have friends who are never bitten by anything while mosquitoes swarm around me. I’ve lived here full time for just over 19 months, many of them winter months, and already Fritz and/or I have pulled three ticks out of various parts of my body. If you’ve never had one, trust me you’re lucky. I woke up Tuesday with #3 firmly embedded in my left thigh, probably picked up while collecting sap from the big sugar maples that mark the line between mowed grass and the woods down by Fritz’s Center.

Must be my hot Italian blood.


Monday, March 16, 2009

 
Spring is pushing its way in strongly here in New Hampshire after a long and fairly severe winter. We've got crocuses popping up everywhere, the birds are returning and the many thousands of daffodils have already sent up their green shoots. For some reason, the maple sap is flowing slowly despite seemingly perfect conditions of nights well below freezing and days up in the 40s and even 50s. We boiled down six gallons of syrup last year, but unless something dramatic happens to kick the trees into high gear, I don't see us approaching that amount in 2009.

*******

What follows is long, a welcoming address to new students at Boston Conservatory of Music last fall. I don't think there's any question that there's a massive shift going on in he arts in the U.S. and probably world-wide, although the culture in Europe, Asia, parts of Latin America and Australia still appears to include far more of the so called high arts in the consciousness of the general population than here.

Certainly, cutting arts classes out of the curricula of so many thousands of schools across the country has has had a devastating effect on the development of new audiences and has also led to the false and destructive myth that the arts are somehow "elitist" and not something that good, right-thinking American kids should be interested in. The welcoming speaker in the welcoming talk (sent to me by a colleague) addresses this particular issue.

As musicians, we believe deeply in the importance of what we do, and the power of music to heal. We know that you do also, as a fan of classical music, so the following may be of interest to you. It is a welcome address given to entering freshmen at the Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack [who has been addressing groups all of the the country with variations on this message], pianist and director of the music division:


Welcome Address, by Karl Paulnack


"One of my parents' deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would
not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn't be appreciated. I
had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math,
and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an
engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I
still remember my mother's remark when I announced my decision to
apply to music school—she said, "you're WASTING your SAT scores." On
some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the
value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they
listened to classical music all the time. They just weren't really
clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit,
because we live in a society that puts music in the "arts and
entertainment" section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind
your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to
do with entertainment, in fact it's the opposite of entertainment. Let
me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient
Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music
and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as
the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external
objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between
invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the
big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping
us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some
examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the
Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier
Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the
war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of
1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a
concentration camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper
and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp,
a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his
quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in
January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison
camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the
repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration
camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy
writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day
to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape
torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we
have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn't just this
one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a
place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare
necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow,
essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope,
without commerce, without rec reation, without basic respect, but they
were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the
human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of
the ways in which we say, "I am alive, and my life has meaning."

On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I
reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the
world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as
was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking
about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and
put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat
there and thought, does this even matter? Isn't this completely
irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this
city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I
here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a
piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey
of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and
in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the
piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn't shoot hoops or play Scrabble.
We didn't play cards to pass the time, we didn't watch TV, we didn't
shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized
activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People
sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang "We Shall Overcome".
Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public
event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at
Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized
public expression of grief, our first communal response to that
historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that
life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery
was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is
not part of "arts and entertainment" as the newspaper section would
have us believe. It's not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from
leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass
time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the
ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express
feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with
our hearts when we cannot with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber's heartwrenchingly beautiful piece
Adagio for Strings. If you don't know it by that name, then some of
you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver
Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that
piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your
heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn't
know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at
what's really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely
no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have
been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And
something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up
with all kinds of emotions, and then there's some musical moment where
the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute
or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn't
good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry
at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The
Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of
ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we
feel even when we can't talk about it. Can you imagine watching
Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music?
What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET
so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the
same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music
stripped out, it wouldn't happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the
understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I'll give you one more example, the story of the most important
concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a
thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I
thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed
playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St.
Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music
critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most
important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in
Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We
began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland's Sonata, which was written
during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland's, a
young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our
audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing
them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began
the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later
in the program and to just come out and play the music without
explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near
the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later
met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70's, it was clear from his
buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a
good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd
that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of
that particular piece, but it wasn't the first time I've heard crying
in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to
talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the
circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its
dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience
became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly
figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage
afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: "During World War II, I was a pilot, and I
was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team's planes was
hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but
the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned
across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the
pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing
that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but
during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to
me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn't
understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out
to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost
pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do
that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?"

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships
between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important
work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help
him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their
memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his
friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year's freshman
class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I
will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student
practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because
you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz
into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life.
Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your
concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is
overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again
will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell
yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a
musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies.
I'm not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a
firefighter, a rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of
therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor,
physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they
get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with
ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music;
I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness
on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual
understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come
from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even
expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem
to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a
future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of
how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it
will come from the artists, because that's what we do. As in the
concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones
who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

 
Quote of the day: Tom Bergeron interviewing Melissa who was dumped by The Bachelor:
"So, what was The Bachelor like—like high school but with better lighting?"

*******

I think that maybe they’ve reprogrammed the computer that makes up the comment non-spam verification words. About a month ago I started noticing a shift from meaningless jumbles of vowels and consonants to groupings that are either actual words, close to actual words, or that are structured like actual words.. In the former categories were subpar, dedhead, and fukz; in the latter category was yesterday’s enicaria

Enicaria crassifolia & enicaria boveana are species of food plants.

*******

Richard Slade (Richard the Tenor) tagged me for 15 Albums. My life since age seven has included ever-increasing amounts of symphonic and operatic music--particularly after I began designing operas, beginning with John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and most recently with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea.

I started collecting around age eight and currently have about 32 feet of LPs and 28 feet of CDs. The open reel tapes are probably a dead issue but there are quite a few cassettes, mostly devoted to live performances taken off the radio. My taste is very eclectic, so the 15 I pick will probably be all over the place.

1.Puccini: La Boheme. This is the one that started it all, a gift from parents who had no interest in opera but realized where my tastes were going. This set was a quick throw-together job done when an RCA Victor classical division manager realized that a dream cast and conductor were available in New York all at the same time. It’s still considered one of the finest Bohemes of the well over 100 recordings made of it: Sir Thomas Beecham conducting
Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Bjorling, Robert Merrill, and Lucine Amara.

2. Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung. The four music dramas that make up the Ring, recorded at the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth. I own and love the first studio-made Ring conducted by Solti, but this one is live and crackles with a theatrical quality under Karl Bohm’s briskly dramatic conducting. The only recording I own, live or studio, that captures the true size, splendor and visceral impact of Birgit Nilsson’s voice. There’s also an incendiary first act of Die Walkure with Leonie Rysanek and James King overwhelmingly passionate as Siegmund and Sieglinde.

3: Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks & Concerto #2 for Two Wind Choirs and Strings. In 1968, Charles MacKerras engaged the finest wind, brass and timpani players from London’s many orchestras to record the original scoring (26 oboes, 14 bassoons, 4 contrabassoons, 2 serpents, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 3 timpani and 6 side drums) of the complete Royal Fireworks. It’s the most splendid noise imaginable—the first entrance of the horns is like an electric shock. I’ve almost worn the recording out and have despaired of it ever having been re-released on CD. This isn’t “polite” Handel, but grand Imperial-scale music making.

4: Songs of Scandinavia, Birgit Nilsson, soprano. A rare chance to hear Nilsson sing in her native language and song repertory. It’s joyous music-making. For years, whenever I was exhausted or depressed, I’d put this on and my spirits would soar. The tireless Nilsson recorded these songs during breaks in recording sessions for Wagner’s Ring.

5: Bizet: Carmen. In the five or so years after WWII, EMI recorded the core French opera repertory at the Opera-Comique with native French singers and conductor Andre Cluytens. They captured the French style in its last flowering before French opera was absorbed into the international style by singers with no idea how to pronounce the language. Even more valuable, this is Bizet’s original Carmen with the spoken dialog between numbers instead of the recitatives composed by Giraud that make the opera sound like a Mendelssohn oratorio. Solange Michel is a fatalistic Carmen who goes to her death not kicking and screaming but with an enormous stoic strength. Authentic and wonderful.

6: Janacek: Jenufa. Gabriela Benackova and the colossal
Leonie Rysanek, live with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Jenufa is Leos Janacek’s intensely moving story of a foster mother so devoted to her stepdaughter that she murders the girl’s illegitimate baby rather than see her disgraced in their small Moravian town.

7: Verdi: La Traviata. Pierre Monteux conducting Rosanna Carteri, Cesare Valletti and Leonard Warren in a consistently elegant performance of Verdi’s most intimate and personal drama.

8: Anthology of Spanish Song: Victoria de los Angeles. Early in her career, EMI realized what a versatile and intelligent performer they had under contract and began systematically recording representative selections from 1300 years of Spanish vocal music with the great soprano. From the Muslim and Sephardic songs of al Andalus to those of Granados and de Falla in the 20th century, there must be at least 12 albums in all, great music gorgeously performed.

9: The Long Road Home:
John Fogerty. My favorite rocker. Along with anything by Sting.

10: Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten. The great 1955 recording from the Vienna State Opera that began the revival of this superb work after WWII. Leonie Rysanek, who owned the role of the Empress for three decades, heads the cast. Karl Bohm had worked closely with Strauss for many years and conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra authoritatively.

11: Strauss: Elektra. Recorded at the 1964 Salzburg Festival with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. The role of Elektra is perhaps the most terrifying challenge for a dramatic soprano in the repertory. A close friend says it’s the only role with which a singer can get an ovation just for being able to remain standing at the curtain calls. Astrid Varnay moves from strength to strength, pouring out tone and hitting the exposed high notes thrillingly. With Martha Modl is eerily demented as Klytamnestra. Also, any performance by Varnay in any of her roles but particularly as Ortrud, Brunnhilde, and Senta.

12: Dvorak: Complete symphonies. The London Symphony conducted by Istvan Kertesz. Something in Czech romantic era music speaks directly to me and this set presents the nine Dvorak symphonies in admirable performances.

13: Joan Baez in Concert. I loved her when I first heard her and fell in love all over again several years ago when she toured with the Indigo Girls. One of the great voices.

14: Smetana: Ma Vlast. The famed 1954 recording by Vaclav Talich--"the Czech Toscanini"--conducting the Czech Philharmonic. Ma Vlast consists of six tone poems telling the story of Bohemia’s history and legends, describing its forests, meadows and the river that flows through its heart, The Moldau.


15: Sondheim: Pacific Overtures. Cast of
the original Broadway production under the musical direction of Sondheim’s close collaborator Paul Gemignani. My favorite Sondheim musical of all, this recording also serves as a wonderful reminder of the production of it that I designed, one of the best design experiences of my career.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

 
This is a very busy week for me with the production going into final technical and dress rehearsals, complicated by yet another very significant snow event that hit in the wee smalls of Monday morning. Living in New England is a constant meteorological adventure.

Fortunately, I’d managed to load almost everything into the performance space before the official load-in day, Sunday. Yea me--that meant we “merely” had to assemble the set’s components and put up the lighting trees rather than begin the day strong-arming it all up the flight of steps in front of the building. And it was a big advantage when we got all the instruments hung, everything hooked up and focused early, because nothing worked.

One of the lovely things my former colleagues at MIT have done for me is to give me the privilege of taking anything I need from stock any time I’m doing a production without charge even though I’m not still a member of the department. So, first thing Monday, I called very calmly and explained that we had a problem. After some head scratching on the other end, the lighting designer remembered some tiny slider switches that had to be set to a particular code for the dimmers to work at all. She got out the manual, gave me the sequence of switches that had to be up and switches that needed to be down and all was well.

First dress rehearsal went very well last night, with the thing sounding gorgeous and beginning to actually look like something. However one thing it didn’t look like was bright enough so I went off to a lighting rental shop today to pick up four more instruments and a sheet of gel to warm up some of the colors on stage.

Asked what color I would like, I said a very pale, slightly rosy amber and we agreed on the famous old theater gel color, bastard amber. The origin of the name is somewhat legendary but apparently involved the accidental mixing of two dye colors during manufacturing, producing totally by accident one of the best gel colors ever for flattering skin color.

When the invoice came out of the printer, I had a good laugh, because the gel color was listed as “fatherless amber.” I thought immediately of a story from the earliest days of my career. I had taken a job running the theater and designing at Middlebury College in Vermont. Trudy, who did the books and the ordering, was married to the local Baptist minister. I came into her office one day, gave her a couple of lists and went into the set shop to work. A couple of minutes later, rather upset, she followed me into the shop and said, “I can’t order these things.”


I asked why, and without a further word, she gave me back my lists on which she had circled both tines the word bastard appeared as in bastard amber and flat bastard file. “You need to find something else to call them,” she said. A little voice in the back of my head told me that making a sarcastic comment, telling her to grow up, or simply laughing derisively was not the way to handle this one. “I can’t write that word,” she said by way of further explanation.

I said that these were the commonly accepted names for these items, known industry-wide, and I even opened the Sears catalog, that upright icon of consumerist Americana, to a small section devoted to flat bastard files, so called right there in print on the page, where unguarded small children and repressed adult Christians could find it and be seduced into a frenzy of depraved immorality by the dangerous power of that one word.

Trudy, standing fast against the evil I’d introduced into her world, looked to me for the solution. I asked if she could bring herself to write B.A.—the nickname for bastard amber among theater technicians--in the list of gels I wanted, and she said she could. I then suggested F.B. File but to make sure she put the item number prominently onto the order form so I'd get the right thing.

Visibly relieved, she returned to her work and to her hugely sheltered life.

*******

By coincidence, a second incident brought back memories from way back this morning. Mike who writes the blog guttermorality, told a story on himself about a call to his library. and this story, which I left as a comment, came roaring out of the mists of my freshman year in college:

I have always had good experiences with libraries, that is once I was past college and the old library culture began to change and become considerably more user-friendly.

I came to Boston to study, just barely 17 years old, a Boston that had only two tall buildings, neither over 25 stories. The Old Guard was very much in evidence--think Bette Davis against conventional Boston Society in dark Victory. I went to the Boston Public Library to get out a reading assignment--Lysistrata by Aristophanes.


Most of the stacks were out of bounds to the public then--you wrote your catalog number(s) on a card and as much as half an hour later your requested book (or a "not available" note) was delivered to your numbered seat in the
great reading room.

An ancient--1850s or 60s--copy of Aristophanes' play was eventually given to me. The translation was by an early-Victorian Englishman and defined the once-common term "fustian." More to the point, virtually every punch line in the bawdy, erection-filled play was either missing or rendered essentially meaningless, each instance followed by the stock notice "it was felt prudent to omit or alter this line in translation in the interests of public decency."

A play that’s supposed to burst with sexual energy and “uppity women” taking over had been castrated beyond recognition. Fortunately, very shortly thereafter, the Boston public Library modernized, reorganized—and finally bought some NEW BOOKS! About the same time, Boston also finally eliminated the official office of Censor, but that's a different story, albeit one that's also connected to a play.

*******


More signs of hard times: The two gigantic murals by the late Russian-French artist Marc Chagall that flank the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, have been put up as collateral against loans for operating funds. The two 30’ x 36’ murals were painted by Chagall personally as part of a package that included his designing a complete production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that delighted critics and audiences in 1966, the premiere season of the new Metropolitan Opera House. Although painted by others from Chagall’s sketches and only touched up here and there b y the famed artist, the MET was recently able to sell backdrops from the production for $1 million.



With the endowment fund decimated and donations down, the MET is cutting all salaries by 10%, and canceling some expensive (many scene changes, lots of chorus to be rehearsed) revivals of existing productions in favor of operas less expensive to present.

Chagall's "Triumph of Music" photo By Carol E. Goodman, published at
http://www.flickr.com/photos/splendidenvy/2475253246/in/set-72157604940513416/

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