Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Second Stage Theater, NYC
A fascinating night at the theater was enhanced by a complete disagreement about the play at hand.
Tonight, two friends and I attended Albee's "Peter and Jerry" at Second Stage. The first act, "Homelife" (2004), a new prequel written to "The Zoo Story" (1959), was willfully mundane. I have to think the playwright, who can so devastatingly plum the depths of sordid familial strife, restrained his hand in "Homelife." Albee's blinding verbal pyrotechnics were hardly in view. How far we are from the extremes of "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?" In "Homelife" all the angst is muted in domestic pastels. The reoccurring props of the wife's dish towel, and the husband's "boring book" act as sponges, absorbing even the couple's most troubling personal revelations in limp familiarity. It was rather a relief knowing that when the husband decides to get some fresh air in the park, he will enter the world of "The Zoo Story." We needed some action.
Intermission's funniest line came from one of my friends, who, surveying the packed house of hip mid-week theatergoers, said, "There are too many communists here tonight."
The Baroque excesses of "The Zoo Story" thrilled me; they always have. I remember reading the play, mouth agape, in my hometown public library when I was 16. I read it again and again. Tonight, its resplendent bleakness (and the virtuoso performance of Dallas Roberts as the crazed Jerry) left me in tears. So it came as a shock when one of my companions, who had never seen the play, said he hated "The Zoo Story."
For me, the two characters that eventually mortally fight over one park bench, are but warring sides of one man unable to reconcile his dual Freudian natures. My friend disliked the use of the poor man's suffering as a utilitarian instrument for the enlightenment of the upper class. For him, it was as if the crazy man's suffering only had meaning—his pathos only a purpose—if observed and reacted to by the bourgeoisie. In his reading of the play, the poor man's plight is exploited for the learning of the rich. His reaction, literal and totally visceral, resulted for him in an awful stench.
The dual (duel?) catharsis of the play, which resulted in my tears and his recoiling, is difficult to reconcile. It brought to mind a dinner party last winter at the home of an art collector and an artist. In their living room, which is full of stunning art from antiquity to the contemporary, hangs an important work of Cy Twombly. That night, one guest said he liked every work of art in the room, save the Twombly, which he thought utter rubbish. Though he said he liked all the other works, the only one he spoke about all night was the one he disliked. And he spoke and spoke and spoke about it, in great detail, focused on every perceived flaw, every artistic failure. Our sophisticated host listened, his head cocked in characteristic interest, and finally he said that he loved the work and though he was sorry his guest didn't share his opinion, he was glad to have a work of art that elicited such a strong response.
Tonight after the play, there was a friendly quarrel on the corner of 43rd and Eighth Avenue. There is a thrill in knowing that one might just be dead wrong, and sublimity in knowing one will never know.
This week The Orchestra of St. Luke's is playing a string of morning educational concerts for New York Public School students at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. (M11 to 125th, Bx15 to the theater, I'm there in 12 minutes.)
The response from the students is so enthusiastic, it's heartening. We start with the first movement of Beethoven 5 and after the opening call, there is an outcry from the audience each concert in anticipation and recognition. We play the Barber of Seville and the last movement of Mozart G-Minor before ending with Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach. The can-can receives screams and shouts and long applause. The students are then asked which of the four pieces they'd like to hear as an encore. There is a splattering of applause at the suggestions of Beethoven, Rossini, and Mozart, but the offer to play the Offenbach again elicits roars of approval! Who said kids don't like classical music?
And when it's this good, who could blame them for choosing candy?
Bart Feller and I attended a performance of this uneven Shakespearian oddity at Lincoln Center last night. I thought of minor pieces by major composers; it comes from genius but does not arrive a masterpiece. Harold Bloom finds the work so full of the author's self-parody, as to defy genre. "Everything about Cymbeline is madly problematical, as Shakespeare, in a willful mood, evidently intended." He writes in "Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human."
In Act III, scene iii, Morgan tries to dissuade his two young male charges from their desire to move from the mountains where they live to seek their fortunes in the city.
"Did you but know the city's usuries,
And felt them knowingly: the art o' th' court,
As hard to leave as keep: whose top to climb
Is certain falling: or so slip'ry that
The fear's as bad as falling.
Nay, many times,
Doth ill deserve by doing well: what's worse,
Must court'sy at the censure."
Quite a different evocation of city life than Milton's youthful lines from L'Allegro:
"Towered cities please us then,
And the busy hum of men,
Where throngs of knights and barons hold,
In weeds of peace, high triumphs hold,
With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize
Of wit or arms, while both contend
To win her grace whom all commend.
Such sights as youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream."
Milton was young when he wrote these lines, Shakespeare, experienced in the ways of London politics when he wrote Morgan's speech.
Czesław Miłosz's 1991 poem Youth, brings to mind, through veils of experience, this draw of the city to the young and its disorientations. I remember very well arriving in Manhattan at age 23. The city's hum, its pleasures, its cruel usuries and political treachery, all yet to come.
YOUTH by Czesław Miłosz (1991)
Your unhappy and silly youth.
Your arrival from the provinces to the city.
Misted-over windowpanes of streetcars,
Restless misery of the crowd.
Your dread when you entered a place too expensive.
But everything was too expensive. Too high.
Those people must have noticed your crude manners,
Your outmoded clothes, and your awkwardness.
There were none who would stand by you and say,
You are a handsome boy,
you are strong and healthy,
Your misfortunes are imaginary.
You would not have envied a tenor in an overcoat of camel hair
Had you guessed his fear and known how he would die.
She, the red-haired, because of whom you suffered tortures,
So beautiful she seemed to you, is a doll in fire,
You don’t understand what she screams with her lips of a clown.
The shapes of hats, the cut of robes, faces in the mirrors,
You will remember unclearly like something from long ago
Or like what remains from a dream.
The house you approached trembling,
The apartment that dazzled you—
Look, on this spot the cranes clear the rubble.
In your turn you will have, possess, secure,
Able to be proud at last, when there is no reason.
Your wishes will be fulfilled, you will gape then
At the essence of time, woven of smoke and mist,
An iridescent fabric of lives that last one day,
Which rises and falls like an unchanging sea.
Books you have read will be of use no more.
You searched for an answer but lived without answer.
You will walk in the street of southern cities,
Restored to your beginnings, seeing again in rapture
The whiteness of a garden after the first night of snow.
And finally, from Cymbeline:
"Nay, do not wonder at it: you are made
Rather to wonder at the things you hear
Than to work any." (Posthumus, V.iii)
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
After walking across the park from a lovely lunch with my friend, Joan Easton, I popped into to 67 Wines and Spirits to pick up something for tomorrow's Thanksgiving dinner at Pauline and Conrad's. (1998 Chateau Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac, should be very nice, and I couldn't resist the Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage. Who could, really?)
Walking out the store, I ran into Karathine Goeldner (It's become a pleasant, daily occurance . . . ), we exchanged a quick kiss for a happy Thanksgiving. No more than a few steps later, I ran into Bryn Terfel. I had attended the performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah Monday evening, with the Collegiate Chorale, Orchestra of St. Luke's, and soloists, including Mr. Terfel, conducted by Robert Bass in Carnegie Hall.
Terfel's performance of the Biblical prophet, like every one I've ever heard from him, left an indelible mark and desire for more. He brings to each role he undertakes a creative capacity larger than the task at hand. Even when faced with Verdi's (and Shakespeare's) Falstaff, there are no limits visible on the horizon of his work. Every risk, every opportunity, is met with generosity and artistry. Whether at the loudest or softest dynamic, the power and clarity of Terfel's words and music carried throughout the hall. (I should know, I was in the balcony.) He is a performing artist truly equal in creative power to our great composers.
"Beautiful performance Monday night, Mr. Terfel," I held out my hand. I identified a friend we have in common so I wouldn't seem like a run-of-the-mill-Upper-West-Side opera stalker. He sized me up and seemed unafraid, so we talked about Monday's concert Robert Bass, who was conducting for the first time in Carnegie Hall with his new heart. (Click here for an article in the Times about his recent medical trials and triumphs.) Terfel said what an extraordinary experience it was to sing this work with Robert Bass after all he had gone through. "All those uplifting words of Elijah, I sang them right to Bob."
The personal became the corporate, and the corporal transcended its usual bounds. I felt immense uplift after that concert. I know I am not alone, and I think I know why.
It would seem that, finally, there are cracks in the wall "protecting" Juilliard students from learning about historical instruments and the performance practice of our canonical composers. Last night as part of Jane Gottlieb's doctoral lectures series, Jaap Schröder spoke for just over an hour in Juilliard's Morse Hall describing his nearly half-century exploration of period instruments and historical performance styles.
Those of us who admire Jaap and have followed his career, were familiar with his themes, but I think his ideas may have been quite revolutionary to the Juilliard students. Jaap, however, is utterly persuasive, his curiosity, enthusiasm, and dedication winning instant converts.
He began with a discussion of bows, gut strings, and violins set up for Baroque music, explaining that the historically correct instruments will teach you how to play them. They will show you what they need and what the music needs. Producing a fore-shortened Baroque bow, he wondered whether we would thought it possible to play the Bach solo sonatas with it. "It's what they used, back then, and I have learned to do it," he answered. "Think of the opening chord of the G-Minor Sonata. You must use a very slow bow and start the arpeggio on the beat. It makes an intense sound, not what we now think of as intense, but a Baroque intensity." His demonstration left no question.
Clarity of sound, natural instrumental resonance, pure intonation, and a rhetoric that fits the text (the printed score) led Jaap through a lifetime of exploration, from the Baroque through Pre-Classical, Classical, and now 19th-Century Music. With his new Icelandic String Quartet, his sights are set on Brahms, and especially the Bruckner Quintet.
He played recorded examples from his extensive discography during the second half of his talk. At one point, Jaap played a Schubert recording by a very famous modern string quartet to show contrasting stylistic approaches to the same piece. He was respectful of the work of these modern players, but in the context of performances we'd been listening to, their performance sounded distorted with vibrato, muddy in texture, and utterly the wrong sound for the music. It was as if they wore stage make-up to a dinner party. When Jaap played his own recording of the same work, the music spoke clearly, with intimate power and persuasion.
The Juilliard students' questions demonstrated how removed this kind of thinking is from their current training. "Is it OK to play the harpsichord in early Haydn?" Yes, it is. "Can we improvise and ornament in Mozart?" Yes, you may. "I notice in your recording of the Schubert 'Trout' quintet, there are not the usual balance problems between piano and strings. Is that because of the instruments you use?" In fact, using the correct instruments allows the music to speak in its most natural way. This last questioner had a follow-up question. Since there were no historical keyboards at Juilliard, how could a pianist learn to listen well enough to correct balance problems when playing on modern instruments, he wondered. "I think all pianists should regularly perform with singers," was Jaap's answer, "Listen to the text, learn to express the meaning of the words, learn to breath. I think that would be most helpful to you."
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Playing solo English horn in the New York City Opera run of "Vanessa" by Samuel Barber has been an honor and a musical high point. I've known this rarity through recordings since I was a teenager; what a thrill to perform the work at Lincoln Center. The only sad note is that Albert Fuller, who loved the work and kept a piano-vocal score in his music library, didn't live to see the production.
Click here to read Anthony Tommasini's review in the New York Times.
Barber's score is richly orchestrated and he borrows liberally from good source material . . . Vanessa's innocent love music directly suggests passages from Stravinsky's Firebird both in melody and harmonization, as do many other passages throughout. The "Oedipus" music in Act I quotes the jazz standard "April in Paris." (Does this presage Anatola and Vanessa's trip to Paris at the end of the opera?) Richard Strauss, Puccini, Charles Ives, Mahler, Copland, Bernard Hermann, and Nelson Riddle are all frequent contributors to the feast Barber organized. Yet the derivative elements of the music weave together into an original musical tapestry, firmly set in its time, yet powerful and moving decades later. It pays to borrow from the best.
Lauren Flanigan, as Vanessa, chews the scenery in a searing account of self-blinded love. Katharine Goeldner's assured, nuanced account of Erika is one I will long remember. An intelligent artist at the height of her strength, when the music called for power, her clarion tone filled the hall with beautiful sound. Her quiet, heart-broken utterances reached out to the audience with generous intimacy.
During a post-performance dinner with friends at Jean-George, Katharine told the story of Rosalind Elias, who premiered and role of Erika and plays the Baroness in this production, demurely requesting Barber write Erika an aria. "Must Winter Come So Soon," is the haunting result. It could be a jazz standard, itself, (Audra, are you reading this?) and is the last moment of innocence before Anatol's greed-driven machinations ("Love Has a Bitter Core") forever changes the lives of Vanessa and Erika.
The run closed yesterday afternoon. When Katharine came out for her curtain call, rather than walking right to center stage to accept her enthusiastic applause, she went to Rosalind and brought her to center stage for special recognition. The applause swelled, the women embraced. Katharine turned to Richard Stilwell (who played the doctor) and swiped the handkerchief from his breast pocket to dry her tears. We all were reaching from hankies at this point. It was a great tribute.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased to see a full house tonight. My name is James Roe, I am the Artistic Director the of The Helicon Foundation, an organization Albert Fuller founded in 1985 to explore the use of period instruments in chamber music from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Emailing last week with Albert’s long time friend, Frank Heller, he mentioned how much Albert would have loved this program; indeed he would have. All the performers tonight are ones he loved dearly and with whom he had long fruitful association and so we thank them for being a part of this tribute. While I’m thanking people, let me express gratitude to President Polisi and Juilliard for hosting this event. On the Helicon side, I have to thank Matthew Herren for his indispensable assistance in planning this event. I also thank Helicon Board Member Karen McLaughlin and her friends at Live from Lincoln Center for producing and editing the recording of Albert speaking and for making the DVD included in your program. On a personal note, everyone who loved Albert owes a deep gratitude to Patrick Rucker, who in the last year of Albert’s life, and especially during his final illness, provided him with care, comfort and dignity as he lived out his final days in his own home.
I met Albert Fuller in 1990 as a student in his Juilliard Graduate Seminar called “Performance Problems in 18th-Century Music.” Seventeen years and two months ago, fresh and green from northern Michigan farm country, I was sitting just upstairs in Karen Wagner’s office planning my course work. “Why don’t you take Albert Fuller’s class?” she said, “I think you’d enjoy it.” Well, Karen, I’d say that was a terrific suggestion . . .
Albert referred to his graduate seminar as his STYLE CLASS. Any of us who spent any time with Albert, knew that his very life was a class in style — and his style was in a class all by itself.
His course didn’t follow the usual or expected linear format—usual, expected, and linear were never his abiding interests—rather it wended its way, equal parts Socratic and rhapsodic, through issues important to him: the power of artistic self expression to unite humanity, the development of an individual voice, and the recognition of historical music’s vernacular power. This last point was a great motivator in his exploration of period instruments and performance practice, the stripping away of grimy layers of interpretive build-up on centuries-old music could reveal audacious power in the original. But he also approached this question from the completely opposite direction, through popular music. For Albert, the question of cultural relevance was uncomplicated by category. He was touched by Madonna and Monteverdi, The Beatles and Bach, Aretha was divine, “Elvis was the translator,” and all music basically came down to singing and dancing!
From time to time, Albert would ask me to proofread his new Seminar materials. One day he handed me a nearly blank piece of paper, “Jim, take a look at my new final exam.” There was only one printed line which read: “Question: What have you learned from this class during the year? (Use both sides only of this one piece of paper.)”
This fall, I found a file full of answers to his final exam from 1998. Reading them, I was struck at the intimate and touching picture they painted of Albert as a teacher. He inspired these young musicians. They really got him. I would like to read you some excerpts from their answers. I happen to know that at least two people in the audience today were members of this class, and I’m going to read from both of their exams, but I won’t reveal any names. Don’t worry; you both got “A”s. So, here they are:
I feel that today, musicians rely too heavily on technique. It seems that fast, clean playing with lots of vibrato is what we strive for. But from this class, I have confirmed in myself that music comes first and technique is only a tool. Now I try to think about how singers would sing phrase and I imitate that on the cello.
In this class, we learned the importance of what earlier artists had to say and how to pass on their message by making music alive in the way it was alive for those who heard it for the very first time.
We should keep in mind that the audience we face is not of the past, but of the present. You have to look not only to the past to find music’s fundamental meaning, but also you have to look inside yourself for your own interpretation, which must inevitably reflect the psyche of your age.
This year, you didn’t once say, “You must agree with this interpretation,” you said, “This moved me, does it move you?” I don’t want to make your class sound like a therapy session, but now that it’s over, I feel that was its effect on me. In the past, I would pick up a new piece and say, “Where’s the hardest lick?” Now I think, “WHY did the composer write this? And WHAT does it mean?” You got me to confront getting on stage and saying something outrageous, something dark, something much more wild than the audience expected. This class has made me want to stop being a student and starting being an artist.
I think this class should be required for all Juilliard students. Everyone knows about music history and theory, but so few musicians know about themselves.
Your coaching me in the Beethoven C Minor Violin Sonata was particularly memorable. As you worked with us, I realized that I had never been taught to truly respect or create a logical interpretation of the set of instructions written down by the composer. I have also learned that there is a great deal of good French music.
I grew up in communist China and was taught early on to think like everyone else and to play the violin like everyone else. But you told me to become the artist of my own life and listen to my own heart. When I walked out of Juilliard after your class, I felt the sun shining on my face for the first time in my life. Thank you, Mr. Fuller.
All of this, of course, begs the question: what did you and I learn from Albert’s class and from his style? As we grapple with this question over the course of the next months and years, channel the Positive Bar: don’t give much heed to self-doubt, do not censor yourself, remember, fantasy precedes fact and your most precious possession is your own creativity.
The work and the joy of remembering Albert begins now. We’re all charged with it, and I can think of no better group of people to undertake it. I hope the champagne at the reception in a few minutes will charge up a bunch Albert stories. I have one would like to leave you with you that best describes what I learned from his class.
During my first years with Helicon in the early 1990s, Carnegie Hall presented us in a series called, Vintage Originals. Before one of these concerts, Albert gave a preamble that he ended by reciting the opening seven lines of the poem, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens. The New York Times critic (I will refrain from naming him) complained in the paper the next day that Mr. Fuller had spoken of personal matters rather than technical. Therein is Albert’s lesson: technique is itself meaningless without something personal to say.
Here are the lines of Wallace Stevens that Albert so loved:
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Friday, November 09, 2007
Monday • 12 Nov 2007 • 6 PM
Paul Hall • The Juilliard School • 144 West 66th Street
To attend, RSVP to (212) 799-5000 x 329
A TRIBUTE TO ALBERT FULLER (1926-2007)
Monday, 12 November 2007 at 6:00 PM
Paul Recital Hall, The Juilliard School, New York City
Joseph W. Polisi, President
Handel Trio Sonata in G Minor, HWV 404
Marc Schachman, oboe
Linda Quan, violin
Myron Lutzke, cello
Arthur Haas, harpsichord
F. Couperin Ténébreuse
Rameau Entretien des Muses
Le Roux Preluce and Chaccone
Andrew Appel, harpsichord
Recording of Ablert Fuller’s remarks
at the First Helicon Symposium
20 October 1985
Matteis Fantasia in C Minor for Solo Violin
Jaap Schroeder, violin
D. Scarlatti Sonata K. 208 in A Major and K. 545 in B-flat Major
Lionel Party, harpsichord
Purcell Music for a While
Murray I’ll Walk Beside You
Robert White, tenor
Aymeric Dupré la Tour, harpsichord
Jonathan Ware, piano
James Roe, Artistic Director
The Helicon Foundation
Schumann Kreisleriana, Op. 16, No. 2
Pedja Muzijevic, piano
Recording of Albert Fuller playing Bach’s Bist du bei mir
Monday, November 05, 2007
Tonight, the Orchestra of St. Luke's performed at the New York Public Library's Tenth Annual Literary Lions Awards. A tony affair, stars of every stripe, draped in ermine and pearls, filled the decked out (and already splendid) reading room. Before the event, a young man had been assigned to walk through the whole place spritzing pine cone scented air perfume. Armed with a two-way radio head set like a manager at Banana Republic and a spritzer, methodically he minced, spritzing with every foot fall. Right mince spritz, left mince spritz, right mince spritz, left mince spritz . . . "oops, sorry, did I spritz ya'?" . . . for an hour, at least! (I don't know when he started, he was in full-spritz when I arrived, and I was early.) Well, I have come to learn that I am powerfully allergic to artificially-flavored pine cone scented spritz. Now home from the event, everything inside my head is inflamed. I feel like I've been drinking perfume.
"What and give up show biz?" (Some of you know the joke from which the punch line comes.)