Criticism

An Album Review: Lieder/Canciones by sTem

There are four pieces played on Lieder/Canciones by the contemporary classical trio sTem. Each piece is distinct. Two are commissions (Das Stunden-Buch and Preludio de un Diamante) and two are not (Der Hirt auf dem Felsen and Escúchame). Two are sung in German; two in Spanish. Both commissions are worthy touchstone recordings. The Schubert, new to me, showed off echo effects throughout for which it is probably famous. The final track Escúchame is a solid arrangement of an opera aria. Echoes are reflected there as well. This is one of the few obvious ties in the album other than the language bundles.

The most successful piece opens the album- Das Stunden-Buch, a commision from Rex Isenberg. Being very cool and mid-century it is a Sondheim-flavored miniature. Because it is sung in German, I had to rely on the work as a music event as it can’t speak to me any other way. This piece was a smart way to open the album as it best shows off the strengths of the ensemble: reliable piano playing by Sophia Vastek, remarkable clarinet from Eric Umble, and nice high-register control by the soprano Meagan Amelia Brus. This album opener successfully took me somewhere. I felt I was sharing an emotional journey- a foreign movie with no subtitles. Isenberg’s brocade sound world definitely has vaseline on the lens.

Unfortunately, each piece is best enjoyed individually. The album doesn’t take me on a ride like the individual pieces do.  At the end of listening, I wanted more shock and contrast. Not drama- I think the music has plenty of that built in. I would like to see the band chew the scenery a little more. They clearly have good taste in commissions and repertoire. I would like to see that taste slip a little when it comes to playing. Umble comes close at times with Klezmer chirps and breathy sighs. If the listener descends from the pastoral longings of the nineteenth century alps to the existential questions raised in a city like twentieth century Bogota, they had better know they are somewhere else musically and emotionally. Overall, I would like to hear bigger contrasts between the works.

The recording itself was the biggest problems that I had in listening to Lieder/Canciones. Das Stunden-Buch was recorded a little too close for my taste. It sounds as though the musicians are inches from you. I would have preferred a little more aural space. About nine minutes into the Schubert, Umble plays solo and reverb seems added out of nowhere. The mix is off kilter on many of the tracks. Again, in the Isenberg, the voice is suddenly shoved to the background while the clarinet comes to the fore. Elsewhere, I felt the piano was panned flat, but not fully, with the clarinet and voice laid in straight lines left and right and much too close.

This album would probably be most interesting to a soprano looking to spice up a recital or a clarinet player who wants to find an ensemble work to show off his chops. It has been out since September of 2016. It is well worth the $10 asking price at Bandcamp.

This is my first album review for brigglerintune.com. I hope to offer more in 2017!

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“They Said It Wouldn’t Work” – Margaret Glaspy – Sound Opinion – Railroad Jerk

On the subway this morning, I was reading A.M. New York, like you’re supposed to, and I saw a blurb promoting singer/songwriter Margaret Glaspy. I like to take a chance on new music from all kinds of places, so I gave her a listen before I read the interview.

I have Indie rock on my mind because of a Chicago based podcast called Sound Opinion that a young man who works for me suggested. Kyle said it was like “Siskel and Ebert” for music. It seems the podcast is mostly about Indie rock which they are very enthusiastic about. They didn’t disagree at all about any of the people they played on the episode that I listened to, so I didn’t get the pugilistic thrill that I had watching the Chicago film critics go at it. Siskel and Ebert was the only debates about art on T.V. when I was a kid. They were passionate and fun. I cared more about film than politics, so I skipped the McGlaughlin Group, the other debate choice.

I stopped listening to rock music after college. It wasn’t intentional; it happened naturally. Partly, I moved away from Texas to Europe where dance music rules the airwaves. I preferred punk to most Indie rock as a twenty year old. I never really fell into the whole NPR rock thing as I grew older. To bolster my “real rock” bona fides, I revisited an Indie band I saw live in Denton, Texas, around 1996  that Jeremy, my friend from home, urged me to see on a visit. This morning, I enjoyed The Ballad of Railroad Jerk again for the first time in twenty years.

I went straight to the NPR Tiny Desk concert video after an internet search of Margaret Glaspy. I have always been a fan of the live cut, much to the chagrin of most everyone else I know. You learn what kind of musicians people are when they play live. I always liked the way it sounded, too. Miss Glaspy played guitar solidly, writes very good songs, and works with top rate musicians. Tim Kuhl is on drums and Chris Morrissey is holding down the bass. “You and I” is the musical standout thanks to Morrisey’s bass lines – both florid and solid like wrought iron.  Shame on NPR for not including the band’s names in the YouTube description.

After I listened to the singer/songwriter with the small, powerful voice, I read the interview. It was interchangeable with all other pop or rock interviews. Always listen before you read.

Margaret Glaspy Bandcamp $2 digital download!

Totestod – A Bleak Tristan and Isolde at The Met

Photo Credit: Gregory Briggler ©2016

I am not a fan of Wagner in general. Well, a fan of his orchestral writing, but not the rest. Who can tell if the singers are making up the never ending vocal lines as they go along? The storylines are often silly or become so. I never felt like he managed to “do it all” successfully. I feel the same about Tristan and Isolde specifically. The music is often precise and pulsating, but the story detail, the character development, is what kills the momentum especially in the first act. The first act is a prolonged lover’s quarrel on a ship after the kidnapping of Isolde. I fell asleep around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!” and woke up around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!”. That’s right, I dozed during the dress rehearsal I attended. Wagner writes the perfect napping operas.

The new production at the Metropolitan Opera, captained by Mariusz Trelinski, was licensed from the Polish National Opera give or take. Gird your loins for six hours of visual abuse. It is primarily bleak – brutal even – in true modern European style.The musical work is made secondary to the ideas of the directorial auteur. The stage is black and white each act. The only relief from that is a whisper, a breath of blue and green occasionally. Be prepared for the stunningly subdued “pop” of color when Isolde reveals her dark maroon velvet dress during the second act. The black and white aesthetic is made more intense by the bullying of the stage lights. The default light is a bare white. Upstage, there is a row of Klieg lights that are used like cannons to wake up or ambush the audience. Also, the director always needed to have “something” happening during the overture and prelude to the second act. The circle of a working sonar screen (green, of course) was projected onto the curtain for the duration as well as a film. The director was very fond of circles, they play a major role in the symbolism of the staging. At one point in the second or third act, another circle was projected onto the haze that constantly smogged the stage to great effect.

Not everything was an assault. Sometimes the stagecraft was amazing!  The most impressive stagecraft was the appearance and disappearance of characters while onstage. I was honestly surprised over and again by this device. The sets confined and defined the acts in a purposeful way. In the first act, the result often was to give the stage the feeling of a film which seems to make sense for Trelinski who began his career as a film director. The set for the second act was inexplicably “boaty”, though no less impressive. Over the course of the production, the staging opened up so that by the third act there was plenty of space for nihilism.

There was a choice by the director to exaggerate the importance of the fact that Tristan as a child lost his father to the sea. One line late in the opera was used to justify  a lot of psychological speculation. This idea was used in a film projected during the overture inside the sonar ring. Is this the story of a forbidden, tragic love of two young lovers? No! It’s the sea swallowing up lives. The production was so brutal and acerbic, the Liebestod comes across more as a Totestod.

The famous Liebestod, the culmination of operatic longing, the most famous melody from this sing-a-thon, and the point of the opera, is the end point of an arguably silly idea. But, it has its place and purpose as the logical conclusion of the action. How is the intractable problem of hatred turning to love ripening to despair solved? Life apart is resolved by death together. A powerful, ridiculous idea akin to the juvenile logic of Romeo and Juliet – both romantic and wrong. Or is it romantic because it is wrong? The story itself hints at the mindless origins of this poisonous thinking with a switch of love for hate by Isolde’s handmaiden early in the action. The faulty Liebestod is the fruit of magic- a poison switched for a potion, the effects of which were finally nullified by tragedy. Far from immersing myself in the ideas even for a short moment, the staging kept me from accepting the flawed logic and yearning for the power of forbidden, eternal love.

What can be said about the music and singing? Not much, but in a good way. Nearly flawless, from beginning to end. The orchestra, directed by Sir Simon Rattle, sawed away, unflagging for the duration. Tristan played by Stuart Skelton had a presence of voice that eclipsed everyone onstage until the end of the third act. By that point he began to chip around the edges. Nina Stemme sang beautifully, allowing her voice to blossom fully at the bitter end. Support was near perfection from Ekaterina Gubanova and René Pape.

My summary? This would be a horrible first opera to take a novice. The unceasing music is made less bearable by the bleak staging. What’s worse than six hours of Wagner? A stage director trying to one up Wagner for six hours.

Only a few more days to suffer for art’s sake. Tristan and Isolde is at the Met through October 27. Tickets almost certainly available here.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part Four)

A still from “Crossroads” (1976)

Go for the films! Notice his use of Rock and Roll of all kinds. “Three Screens Ray” (2006) is a film triptych which pulses with love, death, desire, silliness and light. A live version of Ray Charles’ “What I Say” accompanies the film and echos through the exhibition by the comings and goings of slightly embarrassed museum goers. It is the most overtly sexual film in the retrospective. After watching, the music “bleeding into” the gallery is a constant, musical reminder of the big ideas in Conner’s head.

“Looking for Mushrooms” had many iterations, but the one shown here is from 1996. Again, the music is by Terry Riley. The footage is in color and was shot mostly in Mexico by Conner. One of the versions of the film included a song by the Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows”. I think you can see the affinity between the images and music in both versions. The gallery notes mention a cameo by psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. It is a beautiful film to experience. Even with the galleries outside crowded with Sunday morning museum visitors, I shared the experience with only one other viewer.

It’s hard to believe the seven minute musical portrait of the beautiful Toni Basil “Breakaway” (1966) was made in the 60’s and not a few weeks ago at the House of Yes in Bushwick.  To accompany the movie, he plays her song Breakaway forward, completely, and then backwards, completely. The transition is a light touch after a fade out. The beat -unlessened- goes on, and the intensity of the images grows for this film portrait.

Personal energy is the subject of “Breakaway” and an equally powerful energy is the subject of “Crossroads”(1976).

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The flickering film shows the same 1946 Pacific ocean nuclear test over and over filmed from many different positions by military planes and warships. As if Conner had chosen the location himself, the test was performed with a wink over the shoulder in the Bikini Atoll. The film has music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley, but it is the sound which caught my attention. The rumble of destruction sometimes begins with the image of the explosion. Sometimes the sound continues as the explosion begins again.

Again and again, Bruce says:

Behold what we have done.

Behold the power,

the cacophony,

and the fury.

The navy ships

that won the great war

bob

like driftwood

In a timid circle.

We –

great and small.

 

Behold the image on the screen

as the film rat-a-tats through the machine.

Isn’t it awful!

Isn’t it amazing!

Our nature-

best and worst.

 

This is the final post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part III)

A  stolen frame from “Looking for Mushrooms” by Bruce Conner

Conner photographed the San Francisco punk scene of the late seventies- a micro scene really- and the resulting photographs and collages hang out in the gallery just outside of the showing of his film “Crossroads”. He went to hear the not-yet-famous Devo at the Mabuhay Gardens club at the suggestion of Toni Basil (whose energy and person is the subject of “Breakaway”). For a few years, that place became his bar, the bands and crowds his people while punk sparked and smoked. Oddly quiet is this noisy scene.  He probably saw his younger self in these young musicians. His early melting sculptures and collages are as punk as any baby-pinned cheek or torn nylons.  He never seems to slip into the punk aural aesthetic entirely, but he did make a music video of Devo’s Mongoloid (1978) during this period.

About twenty years later, using some of these pictures in collage, he eulogises the same men whose angry, destructive lives brought them to early deaths.

Always in the thick of things, Conner continued making music videos in the early 1980’s. As much a collaborator as collage maker, he made collage videos with the art-rock dream duo of Brian Eno and David Byrne. He pairs the pairs’ sound collage songs with images that flicker and dot with retro found funkiness. The videos don’t add to the music or detract from it, either. The sound is the hum of the box and the video is the embellishment on screen. Three black boxes wait the museum-goer on the first floor in front of the elevators which rise to the main exhibition hall. Give them a listen. Mongoloid is there. I liked Mea Culpa which is in the middle.

 

“Easter Morning” (1966/2008) is a meditation on love and resurrection. Placed at the end of the show, it clangs with the music of fellow bay-area legend Terry Riley. The music used is Riley’s “In C” which plays with a simple chord and leaves the when and where up to the individual musicians. The changing sameness of the strange soundtrack is emphasized by the use of traditional Chinese instruments instead of western instruments. The color film begins with flowers, crosses and spots of light and leads to a naked woman sitting demurely on the floor bathed in Van Eyck sunlight.

This is the third post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part 2)

From Angels (1986) with Edmund Shea

In one visit, it is difficult to appreciate the welter of media, styles and experiences of Bruce Conner: It’s All True. Mandalas are framed and hung on the wall in one gallery- inked in minute, cramped detail. Intentional or not, it reminds me of the test patterns and countdowns that one often sees in his films. Those images make me “hear” the beeps and sine waves of the behind-the-scenes machinations of watching T.V. and movies as a kid. Sometimes the curtain would open and you would see and hear the wizard, or at least the technician, before the show started.

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#100 MANDALA (1970)

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1950’s  era television test pattern

Conner likes working with other artists.  Angels is one cooperative effort with Edmund Shea from 1986. The room for Angels is painted black and hung on the walls are several gelatin silver prints of heavenly light piercing a black plane. There are eight almost-full-sized portraits, each cutting through the dark in its own way. According to the information sign, Bruce liked making his gallery shows “theatrical”, so these images were originally accompanied by crickets in a box, chirping. MoMA shied away from this idea by playing a close recording of crickets into the gallery space. I guess bait shops and potato slices aren’t plentiful on 53rd street.

 

The chirping warms the room, accompanying the angels not with the sounds of  heavenly hosts, but with a summer night. The angels are made familiar by this friendly, earthy chorus. Angels is now associated in my mind with the sound of chirping crickets, and they are more alive in my memory. Clever how he attaches his angels to my memory with sound.

This is the second post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

The Rake’s Progress (A Concert Review)

File_002The evening begins…

The venue for Eli Spindel’s String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s concert version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Roulette Intermedium, sits within earshot of raspy-voiced island music thumping from cars on the street and within eyeshot of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. The intimate theater (“Prime seats at the Met”) was perfect for this production. The concert-goers sported blazers and bowties, jeans and t-shirts and cocktail dresses. The small theater was full of young and old adults chatting. Dressed in black, the orchestra prepared for three hours of concentration the score demands. A screen hung behind the chorus on which to projected the super-titles. There were microphones in between the audience and orchestra which framed the evening as an inviting, open recording session.

The concertmaster, Gina Dyches, a staff member at Roulette, entered followed by the guest conductor Tito Muñoz, music director of The Phoenix Symphony and five year S.O.B. collaborator, who said a few things before the concert. He mentioned that everyone involved in the project was a volunteer, incredible considering the quality of the performance. Also, The Rake’s Progress is one of his favorite pieces of music. And with that, they began. The orchestra performed very well overall. There were moments of uncertainty, but the proper bounce, blend, and sheer concentration smoothed out any rough spots. Rebecca Steinberg should be praised for her trumpet solo in Act 2. Stravinsky always treats the trumpet player with respect and Ms. Steinberg reciprocated.

The chorus was small and rag-tag. The members offered unintended diversions during the performance. One was asleep in the front row during the first act; another pursed her lips in disapproval at the stage action later on. There was a thirsty bass on the back row three minutes after intermission and, another time, a snarky joke between two sopranos on the front. The chorus was on stage the entire night, so these discreet indiscretions helped move the evening along. I also enjoyed the unintentional gravitas added by Rebecca Pechefsky, the capable harpsichordist for the production, who occasionally descended and ascended the stage right staicase like Eurydice.

The audience enjoyed the production and singing. Both Tom Rakewell (Gilad Paz) and Anne Truelove (Stefanie Izzo) received ovations during the performance. Many in the audience stood to clap when the progress had wound its course. I enjoyed both the staging and singing as well. The petite soprano Izzo’s voice is anything but,and her Anne endearing. John Kapusta as Sellem the Auctioneer made an explosive entrance which made me laugh. He kept up the energy and character to steal his short scene. Mother Goose (Caroline Tye) was convincing as the Madam of a brothel. Amy Maude Helfer, who played Baba the Turk with skill, was difficult to hear with or without the veil covering her character’s bearded face. I expect more scenery chewing from Baba. Paul An (Truelove) was the granite presence that the small role requires.

The scenario is straightforward enough, but the welter of elements keeps you guessing. Anne is the heroine of the tale, but it’s hard to believe the sophisticated Auden and Stravinsky thought so. Anne shows up in technicolor OZ like a black and white Dorothy. I was taken with the coming and going of the characters. Each has their arch which undergird the structure and symmetry of the work. The progress begins with Tom and Anne together in Idyll. The progress is completed, after Anne, her work and charity finished, leaves. Tom in the asylum Bedlam with the chorus of mad accompanying him,dies. An epilogue with the five main characters is added a la Mozart. The work itself is an odd mishmash of seriousness and silly, romance and morality play, classical music and 50’s broadway, with scene, mood and character development turning like the flick of a playing card.

In tonight’s production, Tom’s death scene was very effective and seemed genuine, a rare feat on stage. Throughout, Paz was quite the leading man, giving Tom a kaleidoscope of feelings and character quirks throughout each tableau. His chemistry with Benjamin Bloomfield as Shadow was some of the best on stage tonight. Shadow had some moments of flubbing his lines here and there noticeable only because of the ever-present super titles. In spite of these small mistakes, his voice was nicely present and he certainly looked the part of Shadow by sporting a goatee and slicked hair. The menace of malice became real in his demeanor when he began to lose the impossible-to-lose card game to Tom near the end of the work.

Evil is very present in this work- Tom is easily talked into leaving Anne for money, easily talked into whoring and then a bad marriage. (“Marry Baba neither for desire or duty! Marry her because you can to be free!” Odd logic if logic it be.) Magic is present in this work, with Baba silenced like a canary simply by covering her head. Love is manifest by Father Truelove, Anne and Tom. Even when driven mad by Shadow, Tom as Adonis remains what he became during the card game – devoted to Anne, his chaste Venus.

Try and see this production tonight. The musicians work hard so there is no need for you to.


The Rake’s Progress

Music by Igor Stravinsky

Libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman

The String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Conducted by Tito Muñoz

8 p.m., July 23rd

ROULETTE INTERMEDIUM, INC

509 Atlantic Avenue (Entrance at the corner of 3rd Avenue)

Brooklyn, NY 11217

tickets