Category Archives: music

Gnaoua or never

Essaouira is a great place to end a trip through Morocco. The cool air and wind from the sea felt wonderful after the intense heat of the desert. Seagulls wheeled and cried, and waves crashed on the rocky shore and nearby islands. The smells of salt and fish blew through the air.


Walking through the narrow streets in the medina, I fell in love with the shades of blue. Against the high white walls of the old houses, shutters and doors are painted pale blue or turquoise. Sometimes they’re surrounded with a border of yellow. I wanted to paint everything in my house white and golden yellow and pale blue.


And Essaouira is mellow. Even full of Moroccan visitors and European tourists, it felt relaxed and peaceful. If I lived in Europe, I might make it a regular vacation spot.

We were there for the Gnaoua and World Music Festival. (It’s also spelled Gnawa, but I seem to gravitate toward spelling Moroccan names the French way rather than English). Pronounce all the letters: Guh-now-ah. The title of this post, by the way, is stolen from some posters and t-shirts we saw at the festival. Continue reading



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And I don’t even like baseball.

The composer David Lang has a great editorial in today’s New York Times.

It’s “a pitch for new music.” You know how much I love puns. And as a kid I enjoyed baseball, at least the one or two games a year that I’d go to with my dad and my brother and, once in a while, my mom.

Anyway, back to David Lang and his great piece on baseball and classical music. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few excerpts worth highlighting.

Somehow the legendary magnificence of baseball’s past doesn’t get in the way of enjoying what is happening in baseball’s present. Can we say the same thing about classical music? Not always. Our love of the past can enhance what we hear but I often feel that the appreciation of classical music’s glorious past can get in the way of truly hearing the music being made right now.

It turns out that classical music fans do a lot of the same remembering and measuring as baseball fans. Both baseball and classical music have a great sense of history, a tremendous respect for the past, and a slew of nerdy people like me [and me!] who want to know all the details. Both are made of people who argue passionately with each other about who was the greatest.

The strange thing is that music fans and baseball fans remember the past with very different results; appreciation of the past helps baseball fans enjoy the game in front of them, while sometimes classical music’s illustrious past can keep us from enjoying what is happening right now.

It is a real problem — listeners who come to hear new music searching for only the composers and performers who can fly up immediately to some musical pantheon will almost always be disappointed. Not because musicians are worse now, or aren’t skilled, or inspired, or serious, but because “greatness” is not an objective measurement. It is the end result of an unpredictable communal process of the sorting of memories; the listeners of the future will decide if something is memorable through the simple act of remembering it.

I think what baseball projects, and what classical music needs, is the sense that one goes to a live event not to experience greatness, but to experience the possibility of greatness.

The possibility of greatness: yes.

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Drowning in Berg

After my last blog post, a fellow crank replied, “You’re cranky? Wozzeck’s Captain abuses him, his doc uses him for experiments, and his girl cheats on him.”

Good point.

Also, Wozzeck drowns. Then again, I practically drowned biking home from the New Haven train station in the driving rain. So we’re even there.

Alban Berg

I went to the Met today to catch the last performance of Wozzeck, and I’m so glad I did. I’d listened to recordings of the opera, and I’d heard excerpts of it in concert this past January with Janna Baty and the Yale Philharmonia, but I’d never seen it staged.

James Levine conducted, the first time I’d seen him, and the orchestra sounded fabulous. Through their performance, I reveled in Berg’s seemingly infinite palette, from the fleeting moments of tonality to the opera’s harshest crashes. The single-note crescendos before Act III were each a study in the myriad colors of a single pitch. The onstage musicians in Act II captured Berg’s half-illustrative, half-parodic tone. There were beautiful solos from the concertmaster and principal cello, fierce playing from the percussion section, and wonderfully subtle work from the brass.

I’m glad I saw the opera staged, but the best part of it was how it sounded.

The set’s high, looming walls and exposed square beams looked pretty cool, and they made good canvases for the striking lighting design, with its strong lines and deep shadows. But the set didn’t add anything in itself. It didn’t define spaces well: Marie’s house is only Marie’s house because of the bed. Wozzeck and Andre cut branches (or, rather, carry them around and tie them together) on a bare, raked stage. The tavern feels appropriately close and claustrophobic, particularly in the way it seems to funnel people toward its narrow upstage slot, but nothing about it communicates tavern-ness.

(If you had arrived late enough that you hadn’t had time to read the synopsis and freshen up your knowledge of the plot, you might think, “Where’d the party come from?” And only when the word “tavern” comes up on the Met titles do you realize where the scene is. I’m just saying.)

Robert Israel’s costumes were stronger than his set. (And if I could see anything of them from the family circle, that says something.) I liked the irony of Marie’s white dress, the just-below-the-knee length furthering the false suggestion of innocence. The doctor’s vest and watch chain perfectly captured his place in society and touched on his delusions of grandeur beyond his stature. That the boy wore Wozzeck’s hat in the last scene was a poignant touch.

I don’t know if the stage changes are particularly clumsy, or if there’s a particular dramatic reason to bring the curtain down every three minutes, but the curtain did a lot of falling and rising. It really kills the dramatic momentum of a scene to see the curtain begin to descend. What’s wrong with a blackout once in a while? Or in letting the audience watch the set changes? It’s not like there were a whole lot of props to move on and off stage. I thought back to the Met’s Boris Godunov and remembered how the transitions swept that (very long) opera from one scene to the next in a single breath.

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Eating music

I was listening to the Miró Quartet play the Brahms Quartet in C minor last night, and I had the inarticulate but oh-so-sincere thought: God, I love Brahms. I don’t even believe in God. But I have a longstanding faith in the power of Brahms’s music over me.

The Miró gave a delightful performance of Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat major, “The Joke.” They had the audience chuckling out loud at the end, enjoying the sudden starts and silences, trying to figure out when the piece had finally stuttered its last. And they were joined by Julie Landsman for the East Coast premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Horn Quintet. Which I’ll come back to later, after this derail.

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve blogged. I just haven’t had my critical thinking cap on. I’ve been voraciously consuming culture: concerts, theater, opera, musical theater, more concerts. I’ve been writing program notes and press releases. And yeah, I’ve been working more hours than I care to think about, but that doesn’t usually stop me from blogging.

Here’s something I can handle: a bite-sized look at some of the things I’ve seen and heard and tasted.

Meg Hutchinson at Club Passim: I enjoyed her songs, her straightforward singing, and her endearing stage presence. But the mellow set by the opener had put me (and my friends) to sleep, and I never quite recovered.

Romeo and Juliet at Yale Rep: I liked the physicality of it, the bodies tumbling and spinning and swinging. The raunchy jokes seemed overdone, but then again, that Shakespeare guy wrote plenty of them into his plays. The production strengthened over the course of the play to culminate in a wrenching final act.

Robert Blocker, piano: Scarlatti is completely underrated. When I have a real piano, I need to read through a stack of Scarlatti sonatas. I feel like a bad pianist for disliking Chopin as strongly as I do. And I’m glad I finally had a chance to hear Ginastera’s first sonata performed live. It was the strongest performance on the program, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Trannequin at the Yale Cabaret: So glad I saw this new musical by students at the School of Drama. Love the concept (a star female mannequin discovers and comes to terms with her desire to wear men’s clothing, while another character reveals a past transition and we discover that there’s more than one way to be a trannequin). It’s full of catchy tunes and clever, often hilarious, writing. Some of the key changes struck me as cheesy, a couple of the jokes were too easy, and the ending felt overly pat. But overall the show is witty and smart and so much fun.

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Watered and buried

The introduction to my latest concert review is up.

For the record: I did not write the headline. “Waterbury” twice in one headline, in the Waterbury newspaper? Gah. And most of the article is behind a paywall, but I’ve put a link below, in case you’re curious. (I should also state that this is the fastest I’ve ever – ever – had to write a review.)

Fortunately, the print version (pdf) had a much better headline – which I also didn’t write.

Also, I love the one web comment:
“Would have been nice to read about this BEFORE the concert. ”

To which I would like to reply:
Dear sir or madam: It’s a review. You can’t write a review before the concert even takes place.

Besides, it looks like the paper did run a preview of the event.

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What do you write about when you write about opera?

The other day, I came across this piece by Mark Prescott, in which he writes:

Most reviews of productions I’ve attended concern themselves nearly exclusively with a detailed analysis of the director’s conception of the drama. The fact that the writer is generally a music rather than theatre expert is even more bemusing.

Of course, my first (and self-centered) thought was: “Oh, crap. Do I do that?”

Sometimes. But.

One thing that Prescott neglects to point out is that, with a new production of an opera that’s part of the repertory, the critics will already know the music, while the production is new. So it’s hardly surprising that the critic will pay attention to what is specific to this production. Yes, the performance of the music is important, but the music itself is already familiar.

The audience can go listen to a recording of what the music (the composition, not that particular performance) sounds like, but there’s nowhere to get an equivalent overview of the staging. So the review will probably include a little reportage.

Also, everyone has their reasons for loving opera. What draws me in is when it’s about something big and complicated and resonant, like Nixon in China or Cardillac. The production will more overtly communicate what the opera is about than the singers’ and orchestra’s performance of the music will.

I wonder if he feels that reviews of new operas also focus too much on the production. A review of a new opera should probably split more evenly, because there’s no more previous knowledge of the music than there is of the production. The elements are usually more integrated,

Does he want something more like this review? A rundown of voices that reads like a sportscast? Really, there are more interesting things to me than a scorecard of how people performed. I mean, it’s a  positive review – “winning performance,” “admirable performance,” “top-notch ensemble,” “lovely sounds” – but there’s no poetry in it. Reading that review does little to communicate the experience of watching and hearing that Romeo et Juliette. It doesn’t do much to make me want to go see the opera.

What also comes to mind is Anne Midgette’s recent piece about multiple critical voices. Every critic will have his or her own slant, focus, interest, etc. The richest and most interesting conversations will be those with multiple voices and opinions.

So I find myself wanting to say, nicely: don’t tell me what to write about. Don’t tell other critics what to write about. We’ll each write about what stands out to us. We’ll write about whatever strikes us as important or relevant or just plain interesting. Because that’s what will make our responses our own.

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This is what it’s about.

I love when music addresses political topics, and this statement completely captures the dynamic between the music and the ideas it tries to embrace and represent.

Of course music cannot actually say anything about politics – music is just music. But political ideas refracted through music achieve a different dimension. The reality of politics on the ground may be too full of practical detail to make good opera, but opera, through being narrated by music, automatically lifts ideas on to an emotional and imaginative plane and we see political ideas in a different light.

David Pountney

Pountney is the librettist and director of an opera, with music by Peter Maxwell Davies, that tells three stories of student activism: from Germany, China, and the United States. And I hope I get to see it.

(Thanks to @NaxosUSA for posting a link to the article.)

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