. Interchanging Idioms: October 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Singing songs about sex

Sex sells... it's been a topic of this blog on several occasions and, oddly enough, when ever I write about it the number of hits I get dramatically increases. No, that's not the reason I'm writing about it now. Now it's a topic of both song cycles and opera - although Richard Strauss' opera Salome has the famous dance of the seven veils, so sex has been selling songs in opera for a long time.

Here are a couple of events in the news.

From the Moscow Times: Michael Nyman is a British composer of some renoun, prehaps best known for his film music, particularly in The Piano (1993). He is traveling to Russia to perform works from his recent CD releases, "Mozart 252" and "8 Lust Songs: I sonetti lussuriosi," this coming Saturday at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. 8 Lust Songs is a song cycle based on "16th-century Italian pornographic texts by a fantastic writer named Pietro Aretino," said Nyman, "These are very sexual, very sensuous, powerful, lustful songs — which I think might be interesting to sophisticated Russian audiences."

British Novelist Ian McEwan has finished his first libretto, and, you've guessed it, it's about sex and sexual obsession. The opera, For You, is a story of sexual obsession centering around an overbearing and arrogant composer who yearns for the thrills and passion of his youth. Michael Berkeley composed the music and is performing at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio until Saturday when it begins a tour to Cardiff and Durham. According to McEwan "What I've discovered and really confirmed to myself is that opera really likes loud colors and you need something bold, something savage, unpredictable, passionate." Translation: sex.

Not to lessen the accomplishments of either of these gentlemen, McEwan has received numerous awards and the author of Atonement which resulted in a major film with Keira Knightly. Nyman not only has numerous film score credits, but has written a book about the effects of John Cage on 70's composers, written music in a variety of genres (to include pop) and in 2000 finished his own opera, Facing Goya.


Review of For You

Overall the new opera is doing well in the reviews. Lynne Walker of the The Herald gave the performance 4 stars with comments like, "Whether in the substantial sextets, involving the entire cast, or in the skilfully-wrought passages of intimate dialogue, the six singers are uniformly responsive to Berkeley's shapely writing." and "Berkeley's stylish score more than matches McEwan's absorbing narrative." In her review in The Independent she gives it 4 stars saying, "There is no doubting Berkeley's ability to write elegant and often entertaining music, with witty references to some of his earlier works and an overblown pastiche of the protagonist's magnum opus, along with a cheeky snatch of Mozart's Magic Flute and an opening gambit emerging almost seamlessly from the band's tuning... For You is a dazzling and taut chamber piece which gives passionate way to Bergian lyricism while referencing both Britten and Richard Strauss in its airy, word-driven vocal lines."

Neil Fisher of The Times was not as nice, giving the production only 3 stars. "Berkeley’s palette — all fevered chromaticism, suspenseful ostinatos and fierce but eminently singable vocal lines — is a heady concoction. But it gallops harum-scarum around the words without helping us truly to invest in the characters. We pity or mock them. Who do we feel for?" Mr Fisher did warm to the score by the end, but still not sure if the libretto and music "belong to each other."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

First Glimpse: Violin Concerto No 1

The first movement is nearly done...

Here is an mp3 file to listen to, and for those of you looking for a score a pdf version is here. As always, comments are very welcome...


The third movement is well on it's way. The second movement is the one that needs the most work. I don't have a violinist in mind as yet. So, if you know anyone who is looking for something virtuosic to play...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fifth Symphonies...

Ok, I'm a long ways away from writing my 5th symphony. The premiere of my 1st symphony was just back in June and now I'm working on my 1st Violin Concerto, so I have a feeling symphony No 5 is a long ways off. However, reading an article by Steve Smith article about Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s new Symphony No. 5 performed by the Juilliard Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Monday, I realised that looking toward the 5th may have interesting connotations. Mr Smith references a post by Bob Shingleton in An Overgrown Path and the significance of composers fifth symphonies.

Shingleton writes, "If you want to capture the essence of a composer's style you will find it remarkably often in their Fifth Symphony. Think of Beethoven, Bruckner, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Mahler, Martinů, Prokofiev, Nielsen and Tchaikovsky. Their Fifth Symphonies are not, necessarily, their greatest works, but somehow they capture the unique voice of those composers." I am familiar with the symphonies in question by Beethoven, Bruckner, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Mahler and Prokofiev and I agree that each of their 5th symphonies give a good example of each composers style.

Their first symphonies tend to more novice, immature. Beethoven's first is still firmly rooted in his classical background and has little of the romantic flavor of his fifth. Mahler's first is amazing, but no where near the score of his fifth. Shostakovich wrote his first his last year in University so understandably novice, while Prokofiev's first is charming but simplistic. Style comes with maturity and isn't age, but experience. After writing a few symphonies, their experience shines through.

One of the 'complaints' about my first symphony was a lack of strong style. Some of the comments I've received suggest the first movement is a bit too Schubert like, while the fifth movement had elements of Copeland and Holst (both influences in my music, so not surprising). Ives, Bernstein and Shostakovich are also mentioned in terms of style. The only movement in my symphony that has sense of individual style, something that says "Chip Michael" is the third movement.

It begged the question, "what is my style?" and I began researching, re-listening, and reflecting on my music (both the Symphony No 1 and the String Quartet No 1 written while I was finishing the 5th movement of the symphony and having a great overall sense of "Chip-ness" than the symphony). The general feeling is a like repeating irregular patterns, particularly with the number 7 (and other prime numbers) - the influence of minimalism. Tonality and melody are important, with jazz influences leading me toward the use of tri-tones, minor seconds (or ninths) and descending chord progressions. My music isn't always dark, but there is always a sinister sense to it, something lurking under even the lightest of melodies. However, it is the rhythm that gives my music the most modern edge and a voice all its own.

The third movement of my symphony is entitled, "You can't catch rabbits with drums" and features the percussion section in a relentless seven and a half minutes of constant thunder. It was written to be played by three percussionist and a timpani player, using a timpani, bass drum, two snare drums, tom-toms and gong. In Mr Smith's article, he speaks about Ms Zwilich's style, "Unorthodox percussion instruments (like the spiral cymbal, a dangling, serpentine coil that offers a distant roar) and techniques (timpani played with a model of wire brush known as dreadlocks) showed that Ms. Zwilich keeps up with recent trends." In the Pastoral Symphony by Brett Dean (reviewed here 19 October) also used a variety of different percussion, so much so it almost felt as if the piece was for orchestra and percussion section. Now, it doesn't seem right to complain about a piece of music that features so much percussion when I entitle a movement with the same intent. However, I find that, while some variance of the percussion instruments can lead to interesting colors, too much variance feels more like the orchestra has Attention Deficit Disorder. My third movement incorporates modern rhythms, but keeps the orchestration simple, enjoying the colors that a few instruments can express.

As I work on the violin concerto, I am aware of rhythm, intigral to every fascit of the music, constantly shifting while I struggle to determine which time signature best represents the music while offering playability. The orchestra is pared down even more to a chamber symphony (single winds and [right now] a single timpani player). Part of this is to allow the solo violin to soar above the ensemble, but mostly it is to explore the colors possible in the ensemble without getting overwhelmed with choices. The sound of the solo violin dueting with the horn, flute or oboe is wonderful and doesn't require more. Pairing the flute with oboe, oboe with clarinet, horn with bassoon or the trumpet and the numerous varieties possible with strings provides more than enough choices. This piece isn't going to be a grand, horns blaring fanfare; it's a violin concerto and should highlight both the wonderful sounds of the violin and the virtuosity of the performer.

I don't know that I've found my voice just yet, but I'm closer. Perhaps when this is done I'll be ready to start on my second symphony, and take a few more steps toward the goal of expressing myself fully in the fifth.


Work has begun on a website where I can post my music for you to listen to. Hopefully by the end of year it will be ready for prime time - so watch this space for updates.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Role of Music in Opera

There are numerous books on the topic, and every composer, librettist, director, singer and audience member has their opinion as to what role the music should play in an opera. In a play without music, the words ought to support the meaning behind a character's actions. However, in the case of action movies, often times the action is what tells the story and there aren't words, just images to forward the plot. We might hear music to accompany action, build tension, but the action tells the story. Musicals tend to speak until the emotion of the moment just "has" to break out in song - unless it's something like "Mama Mia" where the dialog is the rails we travel on between songs; the songs themselves, written before the concept of the musical, are the focus of the production, while the story is secondary.

Operas are a different beast. The music provides emotion to the words spoken, but it also plays the role of ambience when there is only action. In "Peter Grimes" the court room scene has a fair amount of music to convey what everyone is thinking as Peter enters. It is mood music as we might expect in a film. Because the music is continuous in opera (even silence is part of the music - John Cage) it also needs to flow from one section to the next. It's not to say there can't be jarring moments when the music takes a dramatic shift, but in the end all the music should feel as a single piece, one continuous thread. Often this is one of the prime elements composers fail at when writing an opera. They will write an aria with a lovely melody, but not really consider how that fits with what comes before or after. Linking it into the opera doesn't happen and so, while it may very well be a beautiful piece of music, it breaks the line of the music which breaks the flow of emotion for the audience.

Richard Todd, of The Ottawa Citizen, gave a review of a performance of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet. Mr Todd states, "The opera's music can't always convey the necessary range of action or emotion without some visual support." While I don't know the opera, I suspect this has more to do with an overabundance of words, rather than the music's failing. In my review of "A Burial at Thebes" I felt the words actually got in the way of the music. Had Dominique Le Gendre removed some of the poetry of Seamus Heaney's libretto, she might have been freer to explore the emotion through music. Unfortunately, what we were left with was an opera where the characters had so much to say and no time to allow the music to process the emotion.

Ian Rankin, who is working on an opera, Gesualdo with Craig Armstrong says "the job of the music to get to the hearts of the people, and the words to get to the brain." During their initial work for Scottish Opera's Five:15 Rankin commented on the need to trim words, again and again. The initial performance (last February) showed an opera that allowed the music space and the words impact.

Margaret Garner, an opera by Composer Richard Danielpour and novelist Toni Morrison, premiered in Detroit in 2005. Mr Danielpour feels as if music is the driving force behind opera, "The most amazing thing about Toni is that she understood from the get-go that in an opera, music has to drive the drama... The composer is the dramatist." While the story was Toni's, Richard obviously feels the drama is his.

I don't agree. The music conveys much of the emotion, but if the words don't have an element of the emotion already in them, the music just comes off sappy and over the top. Some suggest opera is an over the top art form, but I'm not sure it has to be. Music also is the ambience behind scenes with no words, but again the music needs to be married to the action or (as in film) the scene will feel awkward. When working with film, the point of the music is to enhance the film, but (for the most part) be transperant, invisible, there but not noticed. If the music takes focus, the action fails and so does the film. I feel that music needs to play much the same role in a modern opera. The ambient portion of the music needs to be invisible, to the point the audience walks away affected by the scene, but not necessarily humming the music.

The arias should have the opposite effect. They need to have memorable melodies. The brain responds to music different than it does to words. A easy way to learn words is to put them to music. If the aria has a memorable melody, than the words and thereby the sentiment of the aria is also more memorable. But there is also the danger of being too song-like and venturing into music you would find in a musical, a lovely tune, but not one that flows out of the music prior. So, in many respects the music is the glue that binds the words and actions into a complete experience. In order to do that the music needs to play a variety of roles and not just one.

Monday, October 27, 2008

When sexy isn't enough...

Humour is good for the soul, and this story left me chuckling this morning. It has to do with Escala, the all girl string quartet I posted about last Saturday. They were suppose to be releasing an album soon, but it's been postponed; they aren't ready yet. What's funny about this are some of the comments in the article.

A spokesperson said ""The girls did not want to rush the process and realised that it was going to be impossible to get it out at the standard they wanted in time for Christmas." Well, good for them in wanting the album to be good.

However, Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, the principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London, where two of the band members studied, said: "Often with bands like Escala, the marketing people are very good at creating an image, but then find they haven't got the material to take it further.

"You can't hurry the process with classical music. They are clearly well trained and attractive enough not to need to patronise their audience and be quite so obvious. Classical music does not need to dumbed down to a base level for people to get it. There are so many other attractive ways to present classical music than the Neanderthal approach of a generic thumping rock theme."

I do not laugh at this delay because I wish the girls of Escala ill. I don't think packaging classical music with a touch of sex appeal is a bad thing - and I don't think the music of Escala is (to date) "dumbed down". Although, if you watch any of their videos, they aren't playing the most challenging classical music and there is a fair amount of drums and effects over the top of what they're doing so that the music can be simplified to give it the punch a pop audience is used to. They are talented; they put on a good show and I very much respect that.

What I find funny about this whole situation is that marketing thought they could take four classical players and treat them very much the same way they've treated other performers in boys bands and girls groups. I think they expected the girls to just "sparkle" and accept that as enough. The girls of Escala obviously want the music to be more than that, and so they should. No, I don't think they're going to match the technical skills of Hilary Hahn or Nicola Benedetti - but the music will still be enjoyable. And, if they get their way, perhaps a step up from what we typically get from same sex groups marketed for their sex appeal.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Next??? - sexy string quartet, please stand up...

Escala is coming...

They performed on Britain's Got Talent but didn't quit win. However, Simon Cowell has taken them on board with intentions of making them world famous. According to their old blog, they are currently traveling - around the world arriving in Bali on the 6th of October.

Are they new??? Well, yes, they are a new group. But the concept of four leggy women playing string quartet music isn't new. Bond, four girls from Australia (not to be confused with Bond Girls, scantly dress women who appear in James Bond films - although any of these women could step into that role) debuted their first album in 2001. Siren are four women who are graduates of the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music in London, serious musicians with their world tour back in 2006. Eclipse is a group of four men who graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Royal College of Music in 2005 and have been touring ever since.

This isn't to say the women of Escala aren't serious musicians. Victoria studied at the Royal College of Music and became the youngest member of the Royal Philharmonic after she graduated. Tasya went to the Yehudi Menuhin School for musically gifted children and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and was briefly a member of the London Symphony Orchestra. Chantalwon a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.

Their style, classical music with a beat, and more. Tasya says 'There is nothing wrong with crossover (a blend of classical and pop)...but we're looking for any music that can be done in an instrumental way.'

A little resarch on the web and a host of "sexy" female quartets pop up. Bellatrix is a female string quartet from Korea with several videos on YouTube. Other groups include Oreos String Quartet, Just Strings, performing since 1990, Highly Strung, performing since 1990 - and these are just the top of the pile from groups performing in the UK.

So, what's really new about Escala? They have serious financial backing and they're the latest group to appear on the scene. How successful will they be? Their album is out in 2009, so we'll see.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Opera or Musical: Varjak Paw, a new???... opera?

According to the Leamington Observer, Julian Philips has written his first opera, Varjak Paw. However, if you go to the Warwick Arts Centre, where the opera is to be first performed they are calling it a musical. With music by Julian Philips and lyrics Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Varjak Paw is based on the best-selling books by S F Said.

Mr Philips says he is writting a "rather dizzying mixture of opera, musical theatre, cabaret and Arabic music." I don't mean to contradict his own impression of his work, but I always though cabaret classified as musical theatre, for that matter so does opera, although I will accept that most people think musiCALS when they think musical theatre and an opera is different than an musical.

With an illustrious classical background with numerous awards for his vocal music, an orchestral commission by the Britten Symphonia and most recently the full length ballet Les Liaisons Dangereuses commissioned by English National Ballet and choreographed by Michael Corder, Philips skills as a classical composer is evident. Perhaps what is meant by Varjak Paw being an opera is the music is more of a classical feel and form, rather than the typical strophic song style of musicals and caberets. But then Philips says it's part that too.

Another article at glyndebourne.com, (Philips is composer-in-residence at Gylndebourne) mentions another first opera Dolffin (2006) and a chamber opera commissioned by the Welsh National Opera, Wild Cat. I couldn't find any song samples, so it's hard to tell what the music is like. Perhaps the best clue into understanding what Varjak Paw is in terms of music is an obscure post here, by Jullian Philips himself.

"The answer lies embedded in Kit’s libretto to a large extent, as much of the street cats’ text alludes more to cabaret, musical theatre or the blues than opera. Razor and Luger have a very slinky duet in Act 2 – When you want a real cat – and their metre and rhymes are heavily imbued with the traditions of the American musical; Luger’s aria in Act 5 – Here’s for fools who come along – feels like pure cabaret while the Scratch Sisters jump off the page as black soul divas, a kind of feline Supremes."
  • Is this opera new? Yes, in the term it has recently premiered (September), but it's not Philips' first.
  • Is it entertaining? Certainly to young children as the review by a 13 year old suggests.
  • Is it opera? I think you can safely call it children's opera, which (IMHO) is an art form all its own. But to put it into the league of say "The Magic Flute" (referernce Philips own comments) is probably giving it too much credit.

I haven't seen it, or heard it, and, simply based on Philips other works it ought to be opera in the truest sense. Only, I couldn't find anything (to include reviews, although the Varjak Paw website sites several) that would suggest this was anything more than a diverting children's opera.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Orchestrating Pop Music with Classical Instruments

In some respects the two styles of music are not so different (depending, of course) on what you consider 'pop' and what you consider classical. But, there are elements of each that can be found in the other.

One of the reasons so many classical vocalists stray into singing pop songs (I'll include Broadway tunes in with that category as most don't consider the songs from Broadway in the Classical Genre) is because their well trained voices can add power and emotion to the music and yet, singing these pieces isn't unfamiliar from what they sing normally. It can also be a lot of fun, letting your hair down sort of thing.

Numerous orchestras perform 'pop' concerts, and there are even famous 'pop' orchestras. Jeff Tyzik of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra understands that "One loud snare-drum hit is louder than an entire string section. So it's technically impossible to balance an orchestra and a heavy-metal band." However, there are ways to blend the styles and that's where orchestration and technology play a role.

Heavy-metal, as an example of pop, stems from a fusion of blues and rock, both have their roots in classical music. The rhythms used in heavy-metal are nothing different that classical musicians have been playing for years. The driving beats we might associate with a Black Sabbath isn't all that different than the driving force behind Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Led Zeppelin occasionally used irregular rhythms, but in a repetitive manner, not unlike what Holst does with Mars. So, if you're trying to orchestra a heavy-metal piece for orchestra, the rhythms are pretty straight forward, just be aware of where the accents are in the music.

Distortion can be somewhat problematic, as heavy-metal uses a lot of electronics, and the nature of amplified sound, to create the music. However, numerous classical composers have used techniques like sul ponticello to get a different sound from the strings. Putting the low strings on a root note and the low brass a semitone up creates a nice warring sound between the sections, while maintaining a sense of the root. Add the same sort of effect using high winds split between two very high notes a semitone apart and then tremolo the high strings across the same two notes and you'll get a shimmering shrill. There are lots of other ways to play with sound to get a unique tonal color that emulates the biting sound of heavy-metal without using amplification.

Of course, you can use amplification and electronics too. Numerous composers since the 60's have been incorporating electronics into their compositions. So, if what you're trying to do is re-create an electronic sound, sometimes using the same electronics as in the original sound overtop an organic sound of the orchestra can be very new and yet, indicative of the original. Amplifying some of the instruments can also drastically alter the sound, as there are a number of effects that can be applied to the amplified sound making it unrecognisable to the original. However, the full force of an orchestra can produce a great deal of sound and amplifying the entire ensemble would not necessarily be effective (and would be very expensive). So, perhaps in all things, think moderation.

In the end, have fun, fun with the music, orchestrating music you enjoy, creating a "cover" for your favorite piece but for an orchestra. Be inventive, don't just stick with putting the loud bits in the brass, and the soft bits in the strings or woodwinds. Use percussions, use it lots and often. But most of all explore not just classical music, but classical instruments with all kinds of different forms of music. You'll be amazed at what you might find.


There is a group called Trans-Siberian Orchestra which plays symphonic rock, which is rather like 'Phantom of the Opera’ meets 'The Who'. They've sold millions of records, so not is this sort of thing fun, it can be profitable too.

New Opera - a Writer's Perspective

Following up on Chip's post about this Anthony Tommasini article, I would like to weigh in on the text of a new opera. As an art form opera has achieved a mythic reputation, shrouded in the aura of the 'Great Repertoire' and fraught with pitfalls for the daring new writer. Writing for the operatic stage today is similar to the pursuit of the 'Great American Novel', a literate version of tilting at windmills.

In my approach to writing It Must Be Fate I am endeavoring to remember Me Tommasini's admonition:

Could it not be argued that the epic comes out of the personal?
So I am concentrating on the individuals and what exactly makes their story worth the telling. If each character's storyline is compelling, demanding the audience's attention and empathy, then the music will have space for the epic expression that is so much a part of opera.

But more than simple plot, or character arc, I am concerned with why these characters must sing. If what they express could be complete as spoken text, then why not write a play or screenplay? The emotions of my characters must demand the music, must need the notes as we need air. I have known people who move through life as if they have an inaudible soundtrack propelling them; they move gracefully, they speak musically. It is this nature that I hope to imbue my characters with.

To rhyme or not to rhyme? Everyone has an opinion on this, and for many people it is a iron-clad clause - opera librettos must rhyme. Period. End of discussion. I don't necessarily think so. Rhyme has a place - it can contribute to understanding, create a framework, and highlight dramatic or comedic thrust. Rhyme can also sound stilted, old fashioned and inflexible. Worse, it can become an exercise in wittiness that does not serve the story. I think rhyme is a tool to be used in a libretto for emphasis, comedy, pathos or clarity, but there is no reason that the entire libretto must be in rhyme.

I am working on providing my characters with natural speech rhythms and dialogue exchanges. It is important that the characters come off as being real, and modern, and vital. I am lucky that my composer lives in the same house as myself and is open to ideas. This gives us the opportunity to write up a scene in more than one way - to try different musical and linguistic approaches and to settle upon the words and sounds that seem most natural to our characters.

As the work goes on we learn more of each others style and the invention process and it becomes easier to let our characters 'speak'. The end goal is an opera where the words and music combine into a seamless tapestry and the emotions of the story come to the fore with power and transcendence!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

New Opera Press Release: Matreya Rock Opera

According to Newswire, there is a reading of a new Rock Opera at The Mint, Los Angeles, Sunday November 2.

Matreya Rock Opera
The Reading of an Original Rock Opera by Jayne DeMente & Gilli Moon presented by
Women's Heritage Project & Warrior Girl Music
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 2 1pm (ends at 3pm) @ THE MINT
6010 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles CA
Between LaCienega & Fairfax Blvd.'s

$35 (non-profit tax donation) includes special “Mint” Beverage! in cabaret style, the Mint kitchen will be open to order from menu. Due to limited seating, reservations are preferred. Group table seating needs RSVP - For information & rsvp's, phone Jaynemarie DeMente, 323.463.2264 or 310.880.7139. We Take Most Major Credit Cards - Our Apologies but No Refunds.

According to Gilli Moon's blog, she's writing the music/score for this "musical", so I'm not sure what you're likely to see. If you'd like to hear some of Gilli's music prior to the performance of the opera to get a sense of what's to come (at a much reduced price - $7) Wednesday, October 29, 2008 gilli moon's Songsalive! Showcase at 740 N. Fairfax Ave. L.A CA 90046, or you can visit her website.


I took sometime to go out and listen to some of gilli's music. it's definitely in the pop genre - think of Edie Brickell or Tori Amos.

Ocean of Rain, another new opera attempts to swim upstream

In June, a new chamber opera by Yannis Kyriakides entitled An Ocean of Rain opened the Aldeburgh Festival. The reviews were not favorable, not the reviewers weren't willing to give the piece a chance, but that rather hoped for something more.

As Geoff Brown of the TimesOnline put it, the music consisted of "quirky on-stage acoustic musicians (the Dutch group Ensemble MAE) with jagged and bleating vocal writing, a sensitive wraparound electronic blanket and a heroine who never sings a note." Rachel Sloane of EADT was more enthusiatic finding it "Beautifully sung in the main" but "usually an orchestra accompanies and supports singers but, in An Ocean of Rain, the two scores ran parallel rather than in harmony." Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph was the harshest critic, "...his electronic score...is a limp and exiguous affair, static in mood and entirely lacking in tension or development. The over-use of high soprano voices set my teeth on edge and rendered words inaudible, though a lot of the text is spoken over aimless instrumental accompaniment."

Kudos to Yannis Kyriakides for not giving up. Cryptic Productions brought the production to Glasgow in early October. Cathie Boyd, the director of this new production felt Aldeburgh wasn't the right place for this type of work. "The audiences at Aldeburgh in that wonderful hall at Snape Maltings are used to piano recitals, chamber music and orchestral works. So to open the Aldeburgh programme with a composer like Yannis Kyriakides, who wants to break all preconceptions of what opera is, was very daring. In hindsight it probably wasn’t the right place to open that work, but since then I’ve developed it, cutting scenes, adding music, so the journey is now quite different."

It is a beautiful story, and imaginatively set, but there are still problems with the music. The electro-acoustic style, amplification and split direction of the music make it difficult to follow and not emotionally involving. Kyriakides is breaking new ground, but losing the plot along the way. There is still a ways to go with this piece ready to float.

What a New Opera Needs...

I have often quoted Anthony Tommasini when reviewing an opera. He writes for the New York Times and frequently has intelligent insight into a production he's reviewing.

Earlier (on my birthday no less), Mr Tommasini wrote an article about new opera, not a specific review, but rather a look at the recent success (or lack there of) of new operas. I find it most interesting that where he feels new operas have failed in recent years is the music. Both "The Fly" and "The Bonesetter's Daughter" are sited for problems with their scores. The composers of each is lauded for other projects, and given credit for being good composers, but both failed to make the transition from a good story to a good opera.

As the composer for "It Must Be Fate," getting the music right is a big concern for me. One of my prime concerns is taking the story of the three women of Fate, and moving it out of the ancient world into a modern "Sex in the City" context. This means (to me) the music needs to have elements of pop music, but also needs to retain a element of a classic nature. The women of "Sex in the City" were stylish, modern and perfectly comfortable at either a night club or a concert at Lincoln Center. The music of the opera I envision needs to highlight that same flare in The Fates.

"The Bonesetter's Daughter" and "The Fly" were both criticized for lack of "tunes." Part of what I think my music needs is memorable melodies the audience can take with them. The theme to "Sex in the City" didn't start out as iconic, but now it is. If you're a fan and you hear the first few bars you immediately call to mind memories of your favorite moments. I want some of the arias to do the same thing, to have melodies that immediately remind the audience of the opera.

Where "The Fly" went for atonal aspects, I intent to keep stick with the tonal realm. However, there is a lot to be said for the use of cluster chords, as referenced to the Requiem aeternum by Karin Rehnqvist. Her vocal writing is excellent, pulling emotion out of the words and never losing the words in dissonance. The chorus of her requiem highlight the use of drones, doubling voices with string and semitone intervals and their ability to sound beautiful. I need to incorporate more of this type of writing in my choral pieces.

Where "The Bonesetter's Daughter" went for ethnic sounds, the closest I will come will be the use of modes (originally a Greek musical concept). However, my modal writing tends to feel more like jazz than ancient Greek music (I'm not even sure anyone knows what ancient Greek music sounds like). Blending jazz, with classical, urban with opera will be the focus on getting the sound right. There is the danger of trying to blend too much and ending up with nothing (as the reviewer felt after the June 4th preview performance of It Must Be Fate). However, I think this is partially due to the preview being scored for piano only, and our pianist Simon Coverdale had his work cut out for him trying to pull off multiple melodic strands with just two hands. With the right orchestration I think the blend will be heard and very effective.

Other operas I've reviewed that Mr Tommasini didn't mention include, "Repo: the Opera" and "Lovelace: the Rock Opera". One is a film, the other is a live production in LA and both more pop/rock in flavor than people might consider as classical opera. However, the music for both has an edge that gives these pieces a really fresh, new sense. From what I can see, where they fall down is the over use of rhyming lyrics. They are both overtly pop music in style and so fail to get a sense that classical opera achieves. (caveat: I have not actually seen either production, so there could be parts that I have not seen which include this classical element).

Listening back on the Fate preview performance, there are problems with some of the music. We only performed 30 mins, and yet we have enough material for nearly an hour. The music needs to breath more, have more space, time for the audience to hear what's going on and feel the emotion - before it heads off to the next bit. However, some (a great deal-IMHO) of the music works well as it is. The music is sexy and fresh, while occasionally still managing to be operatic and deeply emotional. There are melodies that sink into the back of our consciousness and play over and over again after leaving the theatre. The chorus has power, but needs more. The styles move from one to another with a seamlessness, so the audience isn't really aware of different styles, but a blending of them. This isn't a pop opera, but it should still have pop appeal. It's not finished, but what we have so far feels as if it has what Mr Tommasini says is needed in a new opera. I can hardly wait to read his review...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Taking Classical music to the public, and money to the bank

Katherine Jenkins just signed a $11.8 million contract with Warner Music. This is for a five album deal and she's headed to Los Angeles to start on the first one soon. Her point, "My main aim is to try and take classical music to a wider audience." With the distribution power of Warner Music (and their need to get back some of their cash) expect to see her recordings everywhere.

According to her website, Katherine tries to emulate both Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. She's a Classical Crossover artist, singing opera arias, sacred music and other classical pieces, but with a look and feel that appeals to typical pop audiences. Her first album, Premiere, was the fastest selling album ever by a Mezzo-Soprano, selling 30k copies in the first week.

This isn't Katherine's first multi-million dollar deal, either. She had a contract for $2 million back in 2000, with the final album of that contract due out today - Sacred Arias. This new album will only add to the already 2 million albums she's sold in the UK alone. Sacred Arias is expected to make it into the top 10 on British Charts - quite a feat for a classical artist only 28 years old.

If you want a sneak preview of a video from her album click here.


Lesley Garrett, an older opera star, is attempting much the same thing, bringing classical music to a pop audience. Two years ago she moved from opera to musicals, staring in the West End revival of Sound of Music. Now she's traveling in a production of Carousel, performing 8 times a week.

After twelve years with the English National Opera culminating in parts like Rosina, the Cunning Little Vixen and the heroine of Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice, all performed in the Coliseum without amplification. Her latest album Amazing Grace is her 13th and due out next month to coincide with the London production of Carousel. It is a step back toward the classics's with a mixture of spiritual and classical pieces.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

New Requiem reaches Highs in Scottish Premiere

Last Night in Edinburgh Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) gave a World Premiere concert of Karin Rehnqvist's Requiem aeternam. It was an night of new music, premieres and requiems reaching for meaning in despair.

The concert began with the Scottish Premiere of the Pastoral Symphony by Brett Dean. While Dean suggests countless works since Beethoven's own Pastoral Symphony have found inspiration from nature, Dean's own symphony focuses on the "growing sense of loss;" what will the world be like when we have destroyed nature completely. The piece was orchestrated for an nonette, with wind, percussion, percussion and percussion. There was a great deal of tonal color throughout, starting with an imperceptible murmur on the strings, but eventually the piece gets so busy it's hard to tell the direction from the noise. It flowed with peaks and valley's, but never allowed us anything to grasp, to hold, to enjoy. Olari Elts, the conductor, did an amazing job at getting the ensemble to respond to the nuances of the piece. However, in the end, we were left with a sense of despair wondering how this was about nature. If so, then perhaps the composer did a wonderful job at creating "the soulless noise that we're left with when they're all gone." The polite applause at the end was evidence of an audience that felt they somehow missed it.

Toru Takemitsu's Treeline (1988) and Requiem (1957) were next on the programme. The music is very Debussy like, with rich harmonies and haunting melodies. Treeline floats along the strings with a very modern feel. The Requiem was dark and mourning, with an excellent use of sul ponticello giving the piece an eerie element, very tonal, and yet thoroughly modern. At the end of each piece (one at the end of the first half, the second started the second half of the programme), the audience gave a long and protracted applause very much resonating with the music deftly played by the ensemble.

The highlight of the evening was the Requiem aeternum co-commissioned by the SCO and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Based on several different texts, it doesn't follow the standard liturgy, but rather creates its own to examine death. As the composer states in her notes for the piece, "No one knows what happens after death. We may believe. We may speculate. But no living human being can say." The music cries out to understand not only death, but God in relation to it. The soloists, Helena Ek and Maria Koehane are both soaring Sopranos who can reach incredible highs and yet maintain a richness in the lower registers which adds depth to the music. Rehnqvist uses these voices with masterful effect, beginning the piece with a solo voice lilting over the audience. Eventually the voice is joined by winds, which melodically build the tension as the words of the piece explores birth, the creation of life. The next movement is a duet in plainsong, calling to one another across the hills, while the strings hum threateningly underneath, giving the movement an ancient feel. The SCO chorus is first heard in the requiem aeternam at the end of the second movement. Rehnqvist uses the strings doubling the voices to give accent to the sound, particularly with the basses and the double basses rumbling in their lower register. The Kyrie eleison uses the traditional words, and starts with a bass flute with a somber mood. Eventually this changes to a sense of pleading, "Lord, have mercy" as if to say, "If you exist, then please have mercy." The fourth movement uses the same words as the first with a return to the soft solo voice, accompanied by a harp.

From here the Requiem begins its ascent into dread, grief, anger, acceptance and eventually hope. Rehnqvist has an excellent command of the voice as we hear elements of folk music in the solo voice, sometimes singing in their lower register and at other times soaring at the top of the vocalists range. The choir often had moments where parts were singing in canon pitting voices against each other a semitone apart and yet never feeling like the music was uncomfortably discordant, quite the opposite, the close chords built tension but also gave the piece a rich harmony that was truly beautiful. The Sanctus started with accented whispers, startling and effective, while the Libre me used the chorus and all its strength to create a sense of anticipation and pleading. But in the end, we are left with quiet solace, wanting more and yet knowing it's over.

Requiem aeternum is an incredible addition to the canon of existing requiems. When the piece is performed in Sweden it will be paired with Faure's Requiem which should provide a wonderful companion to the music of Rehnqvist. While both pieces are approximately thirty-five minutes in length, if anything, Rehnqvist's could be much longer. It soars, but never seems to get quite high enough or stay there long enough to really satiate our desire to hear more. It's an amazing piece of music, and perhaps, like life, it ends too soon.

Friday, October 17, 2008

More on "Doctor Atomic"

previous post

There are new reviews so I thought I'd provide some tidbits:

    Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe: "the subject drew out some of his most compelling and imaginative music to date...The score of "Doctor Atomic" weds a cool Stravinskian precision and rhythmic vitality with a kind of seething Wagnerian dread. Rapid caffeinated figures dart around the orchestra like hyperactive electrons. Strange, darkly glowing woodwind chords hover like a vapor. Low brass notes rattle ominously as if marking the edge of an abyss. At various points, loudspeakers positioned throughout the hall project prerecorded sounds - truck engines, snatches of period pop music, and, in the end, a long, loud digitally distorted timpani roll whose vibrations rise from the floor like an earth tremor."

    Vibhuti Patel of Newsweek: "Adams's music is not unrelentingly modern—it is lyrical, romantic, Wagnerian by turns, and it matches the enormity of his myth. The choral singing is grand as the libretto uses the Bhagavad Gita's horrific descriptions of universal destruction to create the terror of the bomb."

I've only heard recordings of the opera, but I tend to agree with these reviewers; the music is an amazing blend of moderns sounds with traditional elements. It is at times, traditional opera, and yet completely modern in concept and execution. I suspect Doctor Atomic will quickly become as much a part of the standard repertoire as Peter Grimes.

Karin Rehnqvist: New Work Premiere

Karin Rehnqvist has a new work, Requiem aeternam receiving its World Premiere tonight at Glasgow City Halls and then tomorrow night at Edinburgh's Queens Hall (both performances at 7:30). This piece was co-commissioned by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with funding from the Scottish Government. It is a kind of requiem, though reflecting hope and consolation as much as the darker aspects of loss. Other pieces to be performed at this concert are the miniatures by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (Tree Line and Requiem) and Australian Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony.

The concert is exciting on many levels, one: the chance to hear a new work is always of interest, particularly when the new work is with voice and orchestra. With my interest in opera, hearing new works and the way the deal with the voice is always educational. Two: Dean's Pastoral Symphony will give me a chance to compare his chamber symphony to my own work premiered last June. Both composers are fairly frequently performed and have a sizeable list of works.

Listening to some of Karin's works she has a tonal style, that pushes the bounds of tonality, with shimmering semitones and cluster chords. Yet, there are elements of melody that sneak in, or soar above depending on the piece. In her piece In Heaven's Hall, the voices are clear, melodic with interesting harmonic movement as they climb toward the climax.

Brett Dean is almost exactly a year older than me and yet is already established as a composer/conductor world wide. That may be in part to the 15 years he spent with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He's won numerous awards and currently holds the position of Artistic Director of the Australian National Academy of Music. While it is not part of this concert, Brett wrote Komorov's Fall, part of a series of 'asteroids' to accompany Holst's The Planets. As I really enjoy Holst's music, considering it an influence to my own music, it will be interesting to hear how Brett's music plays out in his symphony.

The performances tonight and tomorrow (I am attending the Edinburgh performance) should be wonderful experiences.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Selling Opera or selling out?

Several years ago San Franciso Opera did a summer series, the Divas. It was a summer with Carmen, il coronation poppea and one more I can't remember. What I do remember is the picture on the poster was an artistic rendering of the three female characters, which had practically nothing to do with the actual performance and everything to do with creating the idea of 3 sexy women of opera. It doesn't really matter; it got me (and my family) in the door to see two of the three (yes, I took my kids ages 14 & 16)

OperaChic has some startling images by fashion photographer André Rival of Nadja Auermann, the former German supermodel in a variety of poses portraying opera divas to be used in the Deutsche Oper Berlin ad campaign for their 2008/9 season. More of these photos can be found on the Deutsche Oper Berlin press page.

But then again, when has the poster ever really represented images of the production we're hoping to see? It's a poster. It's suppose to get us interested. And if an image of a woman (with "possibly has the longest legs in the world") with her hand up her skirt gets punters through the doors, then the poster has done its job. Although, with the looks of some of the up and coming divas I'm not sure I agree with OperaChic (Supermodels to one day replace fallible opera singers?). Maybe some of these divas will be replacing the models...

Kelly Cae Hogan vs Lilli Lehmann

Then again, maybe not...

Sex and Opera, oh and a story too

A new opera is coming to LA, "Lovelace: The Rock Opera" detailing the life and times of legendary adult film superstar Linda Lovelace, but the opera is much more about Linda's life and struggles than it is about her role in the iconic film that changed the film industry forever. Linda Boreman was better known by her stage name, Linda Lovelace from the 1972 porn film "Deep Throat." She later denounced the porn industry claiming she was forced by her sadistic husband.

The opera was co-written by Anna Waronker (from That Dog) and Charlotte Caffey (from The Go-Go’s), with the originally the concept of Jeffery Leonard Bowman, who also worked on the project for years before it was presented to the Hayworth Theater. Although Caffey tends to focus on writing pop music, having written the hits “We Got The Beat”, “Vacation”, and “Head Over Heels” in her Grammy nominated band The Go-Go’s and co-wrote Keith Urban’s first #1 hit, is classically educated. Together Waronker and Caffey have created a highly emotional, dramatic, and sometimes hilarious piece about the life of Linda Boreman. In the style of previous smash hit rock operas “Tommy” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Lovelace: A Rock Opera” goes from Linda as a pregnant teenager in Yonkers, New York, to her turbulent relationship with her husband, the making of “Deep Throat,” and through to her life as activist and suburban wife and mother.

Caffey is quoted, "The whole thing is music. Not one word is spoken. No dialogue whatsoever. Over 40 pieces of music strung together into a score. There are a lot of catchy numbers and definitely some songs that stand out that will make you cry or laugh or be fun to sing along to, even though the lyrics might be evil, and some stuff to even tap your foot to. “Hide My Soul” and ”I've Done Things I Would Never Do” are the real heartbreakers. The character of Harry Reems has an hilarious song. And Linda’s got an anthem or two." All of this in 90 minutes with 30 different locations. Where "A Burial in Thebes" (see a previous post) is a piece with minimal set, few locations and fairly static stage direction, "Lovelace: the Rock Opera" will seem to fly across the stage.

I'm not in LA this week, but I'll keep you posted on any reviews I find on the net.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Film Music in the Concert Hall

Yes, there is yet another post about some orchestra (Chicago Symphony) performing film music in the concert hall. So, what's news about this you ask?

First of all, Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in its fifth season of performing these works, which means it's not only popular, but becoming a regular feature of their concert season. This year, as the concert will be on Halloween, the symphony are showing one of the 1930s Universal Studios classics, "The Bride of Frankenstein," with live accompaniment by guest conductor Richard Kaufman and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. So, not only will this be a wonderful concert, but a classic film and the chance to see the film with live music a rare occurance in our modern world.

Secondly, on the Saturday prior to their standard Friday night concert (Oct 31) they will perform additional works aimed at a younger audience, with works like Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" with selections from the scores of "Spider-Man," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and other films. What a great way to introduce children to classical music, by providing music they recognise and yet in a venue that is new (to them). My suggestion to the parents is to bring the kids back to the Friday night performance to augment the sentiment that orchestras are more than just current film music... THEN get season tickets and take them to see any (or all) of their upcoming performances to complete the picture of how wonderful orchestral music can be. (My particular favorite would be the concert in mid-November, "Echoes of Russia" with music from Glinka, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.)

For more details on "Friday Night at the Movies" or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra...

"Doctor Atomic" Explodes on Stage

"Doctor Atomic" opened at the Met on Monday to rave reviews. John Adams opera premiered in San Francisco back in 2005, but the original production by Peter Sellars, who was also responsible for the libretto was not the one to open in New York. British film director Penny Woolcock was given control over the Met's production and seems to have brought out more nuances and depth than the previous production.

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times writes, "The impressive baritone Gerald Finley, who created the daunting lead role unforgettably, brings his portrayal to the Met, grown even richer, more vocally visceral and emotionally nuanced...But the big news may be the work of the conductor Alan Gilbert, in his overdue Met debut. The performance he draws from the Met orchestra and chorus is a revelation. This score continues to impress me as Mr. Adams’s most complex and masterly music. Whole stretches of the orchestral writing tremble with grainy colors, misty sonorities and textural density. Mr. Gilbert exposes the inner details and layered elements of the music: obsessive riffs, pungently dissonant cluster chords, elegiac solo instrumental lines that achingly drift atop nervous, jittery orchestral figurations."

Not all explosions are good. Keith McDonnell of MusicOMH writes, "Adams' harmonic language has shifted a long way from the repetitive chord ostinatos that made Nixon in China such a beguiling work but as he has failed to find a distinctive voice to replace them with all of the music he has provided is utterly nondescript and immediately forgettable. This was soundtrack music of the worst kind that delineated neither character nor atmosphere - the two fundamental ingredients of operatic musical language."

David Finkle of TheaterMania feels much the same, "during much of the opera's latter stretches, Adams' inspirations flag. He conjures passages of bad-weather music and running-for-cover music that wouldn't be out of place as thriller-movie underscoring...Adams, Sellars, and Woolcock may require a return to the drawing board for Doctor Atomic to become a fully explosive piece of work. "

There is even reason to suspect U.S. physicist Robert Oppenheimer (the person whom this story is based) wouldn't care for the production. This isn't Mr Adam's latest work (A Flowering Tree, 2006 and Fellow Traveler, 2007), but it is one that will likely stand the test of time being both topical and musically edgy (even if not everyone likes its edges).


Ok, not everyone thinks this new production is better - or even that the opera is completely formed. One thing it does do right: it puts microphones on the vocalists. Mr. Adams uses amplification and electronics in the orchestra, so he requests the singers and chorus use body microphones, the achieve the right balance. Earlier this year a Wagner production had to replace both the lead male and female twice during the first two weeks due to vocal fatigue. There are points during the "Doctor Atomic" where the volume of sound is huge. Forcing vocalists to sing over that is ridiculous and pointless. We have the technology; we should use it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Antigone Resurrected then Buried in an Opera

Sophocles' Antigone has been resurrected into opera at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. The Burial at Thebes, with libretto by Seamus Heaney and music by Dominique Le Gendre, transforms Sophocles' play onto the intimate Globe stage pouring emotion and a great deal of text over the audience in one of the classics of literature. Even before the production began, thumbing through the programme I noticed the libretto was extensive. Every detail of Sophocles' original was in place, and many of the long exclamatory speeches were retained, although re-written in Heaney's award winning poetic style. Keeping all these words in play and still allowing the emotion of the music to present itself is a huge task and in many ways Le Gendre succeeded.

The prelude to the performance brought the cast on stage, and presented characters at a party. The music was slightly indicative of the events, but it was pre-show music so I didn't necessarily expect anything too striking. However, when King Creon took center stage with his wife to perform a "show" dance, not only did the music fail to get the full impact of a celebration, but the dancers failed to adequately pull of the raw emotion needed for such an event. I knew the story, and King Creon had just was a major battle. If you didn't know the story, this "pre-show" must have felt awkward; for me it just felt flat.

Then the opera begins with Antigone, played by Idit Arad, speaking to her sister Ismene, played by Andrea Baker. The opening speeches are long and could have been aria like, but they weren't. Le Gendre could have sent the stage for melodic development, but she didn't. The recitative was very operatic, and the accompaniment was harsh attempting to set the tone of anger and conflict. Unfortunately, Antigone's long speeches leave Ismene little room to do anything but stand and watch. The music doesn't seem to have ebbs and flows, so there is just harsh tones and condemnation. I was standing the yard (cheap seats, so cheap you have to stand) and it felt like it was going to be a long performance.

Enter the Greek Chorus, or the Cabinet Ministers. The opera used these very effectively. The performed the smaller speaking rolls as well as the role of the chorus, integral to Greek Drama. However, the music on their entrance should have been glorious, triumphant; the Cabinet speaks of the "gleaming sun" and "Burning away the darkness", "Argos is defeated" but the music never has a fanfare feel to it. The orchestra is a chamber ensemble, with only one trumpet, one trombone and two french horns, but this is plenty to give a proper brass fanfare.

King Creon, played by Brian Green, appeared on the stage. His performance was one of the finest of the day, nuanced with emotion, clear in his diction and deft in his handling a large amount of text in his aria. The music was a good, quick tempo to keep the pace propelled. Finally, there was something melodic to grasp, although not quite to the degree I would have liked. From the outset it was clear Le Gendre was writing tonal music, focused on harmonies and progressions from the tonal world, and yet, up until King Creon's speech, there was little evidence of melody. Even after the performance was over, there was nothing to retain in terms of lasting melody. Le Gendre did an amazing job making the libretto fit the music, but not so well in getting the music to fit the mood, or to be memorable. While I enjoyed King Creon's aria, it fell short of what it could have been musically.

Enter the Guard. His lines were comic humor and yet they were spoken. When I read the libretto prior to the performance I was so looking forward to hearing how Le Gendre brought life to the comedic relief in an otherwise very heavy piece. Well, she didn't set it to music and the opera came fumbling to a halt. While the performance by John Joyce Guard was well timed, it should have been sung.

As the opera progresses there are few high points. One such is the roll of Tiresias by Martin Nelson. He appears on stage a blind man and yet commands attention from everyone, including the King. Nelson's voice is perfect for the range and he sings out with power, yet providing nuances filled with emotion. His aria is Le Gendre's finest moment in the opera. With a background in opera, musical theatre and non-singing roles, it is obvious Nelson can act as well as sing and he did both extremely well.

The chorus did well in their role as Chorus. Unfortunately, individually they were less strong, but this had more to do with the orchestration than their voices. Daniel Keating-Roberts singing Counter-Tenor has an amazing voice but not particularly strong, so often his lines were covered by the orchestra's relentless repetitive figures. This could have been a problem from where I was standing, as Counter-Tenor voices rise and the Yard is at the actor's feet, but I'm not counting on it given the other problems with the music. Franz Hepburn was a lovely, resonant bass voice, but again the arrangement of the music accompanying his words was often too loud to make what he sang understandable, particularly in his low register. Le Gendre tried to make his voice menacing, but then covered it with a menacing orchestra. Magdalen Ashman was dressed to standout, but neither her character nor her voice did. But then, that is the role of the chorus. Adam Tunnicliffe was the only one of the chorus I could hear clearly throughout the performance and that due mainly to his lines written for the power portion of his range, so he could sing out.

Overall the music was disappointing. While there were moments of joy, so often the music resorted to anger and angles, repetition rather than resonance. Occasionally, as in King Creon's aria and Tiresias' aria, the music and the worlds blended beautifully. But a few bright moments don't let to getting to the emotional end we expect with Antigone. Le Gendre uses a variety of different effects in her small chamber ensemble, but in the end the tone of the piece is just edgy and angular; there is little flow in the music to match the poetry of the story. I might have felt assaulted, but honesty, in the end I felt nothing.


Erica Jeal of the Guardian gave a similar (shorter) review.
Richard Morrison of the TimesOn was even more harsh.
Rupert Christiansen at the Telegraph adds his dirt to the grave of this performance.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Music Videos worth watching (and they're free)

YouTube has been a boon for music artists (as well as video artists). Numerous performers and composers have works on YouTube, some videos of just the music, other videos with discussions on the process. I find this particular illuminating when composers get the chance to talk about their works.

However, I came across a real find the other day - Beyond the Score, a collection of videos by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra exploring more than just the music.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Composers and Agents

As per previous posts I've been pondering if it's time to find an agent. After asking number composers who are working in the field (many who have agents), I have been given some very sage advice by James Guymon. "My best advice is that the right time to have an agent is when they come after you. If you are making money, they will come find you and try to take at least 10% of it. You can then determine whether they will pay for themselves or not. But agents really don't go get work for composers - they negotiate the deals and create a sense of importance on the part of the composer, who can't be contacted directly, that translates into the mindset necessary to ask for and receive higher fees. "But even with an agent, my experience has been that composers are the ones primarily responsible for researching potential gigs, working their own contacts, and then letting the agent now what leads have been qualified and how to proceed with the actual contact. So if getting work is the problem, then getting an agent will only bring a piece of the puzzle. It is possible, and highly likely, that a composer who has trouble getting jobs would continue to have trouble getting jobs with an agent." So, since agents haven't come knocking on my door yet, I guess I need to still do a bit more on my own...


However, all this said, literary agents are important for writers, often before they publish their first book. The difference might be that there are a lot more books published (with a fair amount more money involved).

Friday, October 10, 2008

A New Conductor to Watch: Robin Ticciati

Scottish Chamber Orchestra just announce the appointment of Robin Ticciati as its Principal Conductor. Tim Cornwell does a nice job of covering the story, so no need for me to duplicate it here - just follow the above link. The Guardian wrote about him over a year ago when he became the music director of Glyndebourne on Tour. With Gustavo Dudamel getting the top post in LA, there seems to be several new conductors making waves!!! Both have lots of hair....

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Looking Forward in Classical Music

In juxtaposition of yesterday's article about the blend of pop and classical music, there is a post on TimesOnline by Igor Toronyi-Lalic about an emerging new form of music, Spectralism. The article is about the music of Gerard Grisey, whose Les Espaces Acoustiques are to be performed by London Sinfonietta.

According to Toronyi-Lalic, "Spectralists were trying to access a sonic rainbow, one that lurked naturally within each and every sound. Just like the spectrum of colours that makes up white light, a spectrum of faint noises makes up each and every sound." The process takes a computer to analyse sound waves, but this is only a means to an end. A new form of musical notation was created to deal with the nuances a live musician needs to achieve, when the music isn't performed by a computer. So, while many of the pieces performed live may sound not dissimilar to other minimalist music, the construction (and ultimately the result) is really quite different. (Here some examples to listen to).

Some of the music is quite interesting and has a primal nature to it, which is quite odd given the highly technical nature of creating it. Although huge computers are used to initially generate an understanding of the sound, most of the music is anything but electronic sounding. I've not sat through an entire concert of this style of music as yet, so I can't speak to the long term durability of it, but my initial impressions are favorable - but I'm not convinced 2 hours of this sort of music would hold my interest (then again, 2 hours of John Denver [ref: yesterday's post] wouldn't hold my interest either, so this comment is really just a matter of taste).

For more on Spectral Music. Richard Friedman delves further into other composers and trends in music development on him blog Music from Other Minds.

Blurring the lines between classical-pop

I'm not talking about classical pop music, the kind of pop music that will stand the test of time, or pop(ular) classical music, which is the kind of classical music which typically plays on ClassicalFM radio when they need to "soothe" the audience with candy-floss like classical music, which can be any number of pieces from Mozart to the Romantic Masters like Schubert, Chopin or Liszt. Classical-pop is a new form of music which attempts to use pop songs or idioms and play them in a classical format - so, in many respects, very much like the pop(ular) classical music I just described as candy-floss like and yet, perhaps more recognisable (read: familiar) with a modern pop acquainted audience.

According to Tony Sauro of Recordnet.com, there is a quintet which plays John Denver music, using classical instruments and classical techniques. Ok, it's not the kind of music I would have chosen, but the point of the group is bring familiar music to people to a style of performance more closely related to classical concerts. Consider it like taking baby steps toward solving a problem. If this group can get concert goers, who happen to like John Denver music, to accept music by a string quintet, then when the group plays other "tunes" by the likes of Schubert or Liszt the audience won't be so resistant.

Another group is called Alias, and features eleven performers of classical training who play everything from Schubert to Jazz to pop to avant-garde. Bill Friskics-Warren, staff writer for the Tennessean, writes, "Some are apprehensive about attending a concert because they might not be familiar with the composers or music on the program...All of which makes going to hear a performance by Alias, Nashville's most approachable — and arguably most intrepid — chamber ensemble, so refreshing." They like playing in a variety of different styles and performing pieces many have never heard of (particularly from notable female composers). The main point is to create entertaining, accessible concerts that typical non-concert goers can appreciate.

This isn't the first time I've talked about groups performing blends of pop and classical music. However, it does beg the question, why are these groups gaining such popularity? What is it about pop music (played on classical instruments) that appeals to people more so than the more challenging works of Shostakovich or Schoenberg? I think it has to do with the simplicity in the design of the music. While Schubert was beginning to explore interesting harmonic shifts, much of his music (and that of his contemporaries) were based on the three common chords (or their substitute chords), and melodies were still a primary focus of the music. Pop music is often criticized for being based on only three chords, and yet, if you work out the chords the Beatles used with Eleanor Rigby some of the chord substitutions are quite interesting. Sure, the piece can be played with just three chords, but if you really want to get the sound the Beatles had you need to substitute the chords. Many of the melodies by Schubert and Chopin can be simplified to three chord varieties, but if you really want to enjoy the pieces you need to play them with the harmonic varieties in place.

I believe the modern audience is more discerning than we (classical musicians) tend to give them credit. While they are willing to listen to simple song with simple chords, they tend to gravitate to music which is more complex - and yet, still has a melody and still has harmonic movement that isn't so far removed from Mozart.


Personally, the music I write tends to be further afield than classical-pop. I like the harmonic movements more adventurous than Schubert or Chopin and I very much like the inclusion of rhythms of jazz. So, while I list numerous classical composers like Coltrane, Brubeck and Davis also affect my musical style. However, I can appreciate what these performers are doing. They are getting more people to listen to classical music, which in turn will eventually get more people to my concerts. That is a good thing.


Composer Louis Banks is using Miles Davis themes and infusing them with Indian instruments and ragas to garner a Grammy nomination. This is written about in NDTV.com and discusses how Mr Banks manipulates the Greek modes used by Davis to the corresponding Indian modes, staying true to the themes, but giving the music as distinctive Indian sound. Another example of how the music of two cultures can blend to not only create new and wonderful music, but expand the horizons of listeners.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Real Film/Opera Composer

Ok, my previous post about "A Real Film Composer" is slightly overshadowed by another article in the Vacaville Reporter today about another Film Composer who is certainly one of the great all time composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. As the article states, he is the founder of the "Hollywood Sound."

He did more than just write for film, though. He also wrote operas; Die Tote Stadt is being performed by San Francisco Opera on October 12. Scott Cantrell of The Dallas Morning News says, "No opera has music more gorgeous – more brilliantly colored, more lusciously textured, more passionately yearning – than Die tote Stadt...Well, the title, "The Dead City," may be a little off-putting. And Erich Wolfgang Korngold's youthful masterpiece needs two lead singers, a soprano and a tenor, who can sing – and sing and sing – over high-cholesterol orchestrations that make Wagner sound like Mozart." Pretty high praise for any relatively unknown composer.

This production by Willy Decker was first seen at the 2004 Salzburg Festival. While the opera may be an amazing work, the review by Joshua Kosman, the San Francisco Chronicle Music Critic didn't much care for the performance on September 24th. "There's a potent irony lurking at the heart of "Die Tote Stadt," but it's one that this production dodges almost completely," pretty much sums up his feelings of the performance. Unfortunately, a review of the original production in Salzburg didn't feel it was any better, stating the best performances were from some of the minor characters and often the orchestra (and heavy orchestrations) overwhelmed the voices. (darn that Hollywood sound!)

Even though it may not be the best performance of opera, but still, the is rarely performed and I'm sorry that my short trip to California didn't afford me the chance to see it (or any of the other works currently on offer). If you can, go!, for no other reason that to hear one of the great composers in perhaps one of his finest works.

A Real Film Composer

Few films today are without music, and most of the time this music is programmed to the final product, the film is shot, edited and finalised before the composer does his/her part. So, the music is slotted in at all the right moments (if the composer does their job right).

However, before movies had sound, there were composers of a different sort, local organists that would play along with a film to add mood music as the film displayed on the screen. This sort of "in the moment" performance isn't one we tend to give much credence to any more, as it's been nearly a hundred years since we've needed this skill to accompany our films.

Fortunately, the skill hasn't been lost. In an article by Peter Hummers, of the Sentinel Staff, he writes about Dorothy Papadakos, a noted organist, who enjoys film-score improvisation. The beauty about this sort of performance is the live aspect of it; the performer is right there watching the film with us. As the mood shifts, so can the performer. Yes, there are elements of existing scores, bits that get used for their recognisably - Papadakos played Bach's "Toccata in D minor" to set the mood for Carl Laemmle's 1929 version Phantom of the Opera.

I have long marveled at jazz performers and their ability to improvise a piece, much in the same manner Bach or Liszt were famed for their ability to dance along the keys. But Ms Papadakos is even more amazing as she matches what she does with a film. That is truly a skill!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pop-Classical fusion: Trend or Gimmick

There's an interesting article in the Ottawa Citizen about the various styles of conductors in the region. John Keillor writes, "the Victoria Symphony's conductor Tania Miller eyes that line between pop and classical." He then goes on to talk about Kent Nagano, of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and the more avant-garde music in their programmes. Ottawa's Musical director Pinchas Zukerman is more of a classical persuasion, cautious of gimmicks sticking with pieces from Mozart to Brahms.

Ok, there are differing attitudes in Classical music; that's already known. What I found interesting about the article were the comments by the conductors. Ms Miller is quoted to say, "Music has to reflect current culture, and open itself to popular trends." Keillor suggest her "approach isn't much different from the public recital tradition of the 19th century, when concerts were often more like variety shows, shamelessly attempting to draw the biggest crowd." Mr Nagano says, "Popular culture takes what it needs at any moment," Nagano says, "which means it will also tinker with the definition of 'classical' according to its guidelines, either accurately or inaccurately," and yet he performs Ligeti who explores they way instruments make music, tearing apart classical forms on composition in attempt to create new ways to look (and listen) to sound (music). Mr Zukerman, the most traditional of the three conductors feels, "maybe you think people will listen if your hair is spiked up. That's fine, but it won't get you a wider audience." Is he speaking about modern pop hair styles of that of Mozart in his day (who loved to wear outlandish wigs).

In the end Keillor says, "These conductors all follow their own artistic vision..." which is perhaps the most important part for any musician to do - follow your vision. If other's end up seeing the same thing, then perhaps you'll be successful. If not, at least you were true to yourself. Personally, there are aspects of all of the above styles that I resonate with. Only time will tell if my own vision has any popularity.

Fresh Flesh in Opera

Several Days ago I questioned whether opera was going for gore. Prior to that I'd spoken about the move in opera to show more sexually appealing vocalists. And then way back in August I posted about the use of sex with string players (and other performers). It seems these aren't the only trends, and I'm not the only one noticing.

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times finds singers disrobing more frequently in operas in order for productions to gather new audiences. He does a wonderful job of exploring some of the recent productions which have shown a near to full nudity, and then exploring the reasons behinding these performances, the impact on the audience and the effect to the artform as a whole. Toward the end there is even a cautionary concern for what may be going too far, or nudity foresaking the music (which isn't a crime, but probably ought to be).

Mr Tommasini's article is well written. While I've had similar thoughts, I wish I'd put them half so eloquently.

New York City Opera, Looking Forward or Looking Back???

News reports that New York City Opera is performing a concert entitled Looking Forward in music while it temporarily relocates while it's home is refurbished. Playbill Arts ran an post on 3 October listing pieces to be performed including "excerpts from Benjamin Britten's Les Illuminations with tenor soloist Brian Anderson (November 2, 16, March 7, April 11) and soprano Lielle Berman (October 4); Olivier Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine with pianist Aleck Karis, ondes Martenot soloist Jean Laurendeau and the New York City Opera Women's Chorus; Lukas Foss's Time Cycle sung by sopranos Jennifer Zetlan (October 4, November 2, March 7, April 11) and Lielle Berman (November 16); and Claude Debussy's Danse sacrée et danse profane featuring harpist Jessica Zhou. The program, performed by the New York City Opera Orchestra, will also include Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, Edgard Varèse's Intégrales, and Steve Reich's Clapping Music."

What I find interesting is the lack of anything from the last 20 years. Certainly all the pieces in this concert cover what happened in the 20th century in terms of variety of musical styles, from Debussy's modern harmonies to Reich's minimalist rhythms - the first performed in 1904 the second in 1972. It's all interesting music, but I'm not sure I agree with the concept that it's looking forward.

While many consider Glass and Reich to be contemporaries in style, Glass has moved beyond the simple minimalist style creating some elaborate textures. John Adams is another whose current musical output is much newer in style than the 1970's. If George Manahan, Musical Director for New York City Opera, wanted to perform music looking forward he might have considered, Reich's Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings first performed in 2005.

If what Mr Manahan is trying to do is show forward movement, then perhaps putting Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire with Brittan's Les Illuminations might have been an interesting exploration - showing the movement of compositional ideas. Even with that we're still dealing with pieces pre-World War II and so the relevance to current or future trends in music seems a bit dated.

The music to be performed in wonderful music, definitely cutting edge piece of their time. It is not the music I object to, but the reference to this concert's impression of looking forward. It would be rather like suggesting Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" forecasts anything Alicia Keyes is doing.

Acting and Opera

Often times when reviews are done for opera it's the voice the review comments on. However, opera is also a dramatic performance, so there needs to be some attention paid to the presentation. As per a previous post, some of this attention comes in the way of casting making sure the person playing the part has some of the physical characteristics. But acting is more than just looking the part.

Diana Damrau (pictured) obviously went well beyond just looks in her performance of Lucia in the Met's production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. According to Anthony Tommasini "As Ms. Damrau played the daunting mad scene, the unhinged young woman, having stabbed to death the man she was forced to marry — the well-meaning Lord Arturo — was not vacant-eyed and spectral, like many Lucias. Instead she was fidgety and manic, all spastic bodily gestures as she lurched about the ballroom of Lammermoor Castle before the horrified wedding guests. She was like Vivien Leigh’s broken-down, jabbering yet still flirtatious Blanche DuBois in the final scene of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'

"That Ms. Damrau executed the scene’s spiraling vocal roulades so accurately and held sustained tones with such penetrating steadiness lent a quality of eerie control to Lucia’s madness. And her gleaming top notes filled the house."

Mike Silverman of the Associated Press was equally impressed, "Her singing is likewise robust at the beginning, with house-filling high notes and expert ornamentation. But it's no mere exercise of vocal fireworks; there's a wonderful expressiveness in the way she modulates her tone and shapes the melodic line to fit the emotional moment. Later, in opera's most famous mad scene, she falls apart before our eyes, exploding in anger one moment, then floating mournful phrases that seem to hang in the air."

A blogger, Matt Windman on Am New York, was not completely overwhelmed by the performance but did have this to say, "showed incredible nuance and emotionality in her Act I meetings with her character's secret beau." Although he went on to say, "However, she lacked the young, almost childlike, occasionally zombie-like quality that Dessay brought to the role," speaking of Natalie Dessay who enjoyed in the title role originally in this production.

There are only six more performances of this production this month. Don't miss the opportunity to see some wonderful acting as well as first rate singing if you're in New York this month.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Religious Music Unwelcome in China

Classical music is booming in China, but some works, namely the religious ones difficult to get performance rights. This is odd as they have a number of world class classical musicians on the world stage and thousands (perhaps millions) of players from amateur to professional studying classical music. Richard Spencer, of the Telegraph, wrote from Beijing on 30 September about the difficulties some organisation were having when attempting to perform religious music, such as Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem. WorldNetDaily seems to confirm this with their own report, which also links to another report about the expulsion of Christian Missionaries prior to the Olympics.

This is not necessarily news, as China has long had a struggle with religious idiologies since Mao Zedung came to power in 1949. Before this point, there was tension between the east and west with the opium wars of back in 1839-1942, and earlier dating back to the cultural clashes brought about by the trade along the Silk Road.

While it's perhaps understandable why the two cultures clash (as differing cultures tend to do), there is a sense of frustration when great music is prevented because of a political agenda. Shostakovich certainly felt this during the Stalin years. While Stalin tried to repress the music, ultimately he and his regime failed. The 20th Century was rife with political regimes banning or restricting music for political aims, and every attempt failed in the end. Because musicians still push boundaries like the Icelandic singer Bjork did recently by singing her song Independence to Tibet at a concert in Shanghai.

As China continues to grow and become more widely connected with the west, through the internet, commerce and world political events, there will be more and more attempts at bringing music of all types to her people, as well as music from China to the rest of the world. It is this blending of cultures that ultimately creates cultures new. So, while it is disheartening to think there has been some limiting at the present, I do not believe the Chinese government has the ability to stop the cultural wave of Classical Music.