It’s still #WagnerWeek (an actual trend on Twitter, believe it or not). The actual anniversary this past Wednesday was nice; it was great to see the various cyber-celebrations and listen to the broadcasts. It was as if the global community was celebrating together, even if I only saw students and my wife that day. You can read my birthday post here, as well as watch last week’s videos here.
Below are a trio of videos featuring Wagner’s orchestral side. Furthermore, they’re not from the Bayreuth canon. Those ten operas are largely what Wagner is remembered for. However, composed three earlier operas that were later disavowed and have therefore never been performed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Although, this summer, each of the operas will be performed in the city of Bayreuth but not at the Festspielhaus. (Consider it classical music’s Separate but Equal clause.) He also wrote a smattering of non-operatic works including a symphony and a half, select vocal works, and various orchestral compositions. Except for Siegfried Idyll and Wesendonck Lieder, however, these other pieces largely gather dust.
I attempted to get my own trend going on Twitter. Alas, the cheese tweeted alone:
Because I prefer to post actual performances instead of videos of pictures, finding usable clips for this collection was rather irritating. I wanted to include a performance of his Großer Festmarsch, written on commission to commemorate America’s bicentennial, but I couldn’t find video of a strong performance readily available. Given the limitations, though, some gems are below.
Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) is Wagner’s second opera. And, considering Wagner met his first wife around this time, the title is a bit humorous. Anyway, it’s such a rarity that a 2008 staging in Cooperstown, NY claimed to be the American “fully-staged premiere.” Here is a spirited performance in Munich by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding:
Rienzi, Wagner’s third opera, is perhaps the most well-known of the orphans. The overture isn’t easily confused with any material from Tristan or Meistersinger, but the style has matured beyond its predecessor. (I always enjoy those nagging violins.) Here is a 1988 performance by the London Philharmonic under Klaus Tennstedt:
Kaisermarsch is a standalone orchestral work written in 1871 to celebrate the outcome of the Franco-Prussian war. (I’m surprised there’s not a cameo for Hans Sachs.) Written decades after the above overtures, this is more representative of his mature sound. (And yes, Ein feste Burg is quoted…German through and through…) There is an optional choral ending that is not included here. Enjoy this 1996 performance by Venice’s Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice under Ricardo Muti (now a Chicago treasure!):
(Photo: Wagner’s grave at Wahnfried, taken by myself)
Today is Wilhelm Richard Wagner‘s 200th birthday. The real world and cyberspace are rife with celebrations today and throughout all of 2013. Although, as Dr. Mark Berry correctly noted, “every year is a Wagner year.” This blog is but a drop in the digital ocean of related tributes, and therefore I’m going to be realistic. First, I won’t be breaking any new Wagnerian ground here. Second, there’s no point in writing what others will and have had covered already. But I would like to share something, and so I’d like to jot down a few thoughts about my relationship with my favorite classical composer.
Being a saxophonist, I ostensibly have little to do with Wagner outside of my instrument’s namesake. (Adolphe Sax was whom Wagner turned to for the development of his Wagner tuba.) That, and Wagner’s use of the saxophone to fill out the needed twelve French horn parts for Tannhäuser‘s Paris premiere, cover most of his saxophonic bases. (Further proof that what you need a ringer, hire a saxophonist!) So what’s my deal?
Honestly, aside from a few random facts and musical excerpts, I knew very little about Wagner until covering him in my music history survey in college. I spent a number of years in my teens voraciously learning about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and so I was also aware of some sort of Hitlerian connection, but the specifics were lost on me until later. So I was a relative novice my class’s Romantic unit. I must say that I was instantly fascinated and even a bit overwhelmed. Some reactions, as I can somewhat remember them:
1. I was instantly moved by the music. If I remember correctly, we watched both the end of Die Walküre (I still have my worksheet) and a portion of Act III (?) of Tristan und Isolde (it’s been a while since that course…). And of course listened to the Tristan prelude. Two passages and works that I’m now all too familiar with but that were completely new to me at the time.
2. The theoretical concepts – leitmotif, gesamtkunstwerk, endless melody, etc. – scratched me where I itched. Saxophone literature is largely twentieth (and twenty-first) century or bust. Chronologically, Wagner’s music and musical approach and philosophy represented the first time we covered music in a similar vocabulary (i.e., late Romanticism, highly chromatic, etc.) as some of the solo literature I’d been learning.
3. DRAMA. Wagner’s focus on drama sucked me right in. That music should serve the drama – the actual end – is something with which I whole-heartedly agree (in many contexts still, but at the time it was absolute).
A few weeks after my aforementioned introduction, I checked a recording of Tristan und Isolde out from the music library, and the rest is history. From there I moved to Der Ring des Nibelungen – the Levine/Met recording of the whole cycle – and then Lohengrin, and beyond. I was hooked. A couple years later I completed an independent study for which I researched and wrote about exclusive similarities between Der Ring des Nibelungen and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth works, separate from both creators’ common mythological sources. (Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, was at one time quite the Wagnerite.) While at first blush it seems like an easy target, there’s much debate surrounding this topic. Sometime I’d actually like to revisit that paper/project for revision and expansion.
The following semester I saw the full Ring cycle live at the Chicago Lyric Opera featuring James Morris, Michelle DeYoung, Plácido Domingo, Jane Eaglen, and John Treleaven. From the rushing, flowing E-flat chord that opens Das Rheingold to Valhalla’s destruction at the end of Götterdämmerung, I was transfixed. And not just when I was in the theater, mind you. For example, I saw Joshua Redman with the SFJazz Collective on the night between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and remember only bits of that performance. My mind was with Wagner throughout. It was my first Ring, and surely not my last. There are so many aspects of that performance I could write about here, but suffice it to say I was profoundly moved. I will say that one of the many things that stood to me was Sir Andrew Davis‘s musicianship. He phrased throughout the whole cycle. For example, the loudest and biggest moments of the whole week were Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” and Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” both in Götterdämmerung‘s Act III. He let the music unfold with the drama, and therefore the audience and production alike grew throughout the week.
At this point, there was (and has been) no turning back. In 2008, I had the good fortune of spending some time in Bayreuth while on vacation. Having not been on the infamous years-long wait list, I didn’t attend that afternoon’s Tristan. But simply touring the grounds of the Festspielhaus and spending considerable time at Wahnfried was all I needed (and hoped for) for that trip. (And I ended up seeing Tristan that following fall in Chicago. Another moving performance.) Hopefully I’ll get a chance to return this summer while teaching abroad.
(Photo: Yours truly at Bayreuth, 2008)
Yadda, yadda, yadda. I could go on and on, but it’s best to find a point.
So those are some things I’ve done. But what does that have to do with today’s bicentennial? The day I returned to school after seeing the Ring, I met with my saxophone professor, John Nichol, to talk about my trip. I jokingly told him that by the end of Götterdämmerung I felt like I had accomplished something just by sitting through it. After a good chuckle, he asked, “But did Wagner accomplish something?” I told him that he did. And I really meant it. Much like Beethoven with the symphony, Wagner composed a relatively “small” number of operas (13, with only 10 being performed regularly). But most of those compositions seemed to dramatically shift the music world in its own way. Most of the operas are artistic behemoths, requiring significant work on behalf of both performer and observer. Unlike Beethoven, however, he wrote very little outside of his operas.(Various orchestral works, songs, and piano work exist but are rarely performed, with Siegfried Idyll being arguably the most well known. I recommend The Other Wagner as a nice, comprehensive starting point.) He also wrote a lot of prose, and his ideas were/are just as game-changing as his music (and not all for the better).
200 years on, Wagner’s legacy continues to cast a shadow over so much in the art world, extending far beyond opera, and in ways that most people perhaps don’t notice. For instance, film music – from the early talkies to present – owes much to his lush musical style and leitmotif-laden compositional approach. Just think: The Wizard of Oz would be a very different film if it weren’t for him (e.g., the overture’s lush orchestration and play-by-play of the various melodies/characters.) And, specifically, much later, how would Apocalypse Now have fared? And how many weddings use Lohengrin‘s “Bridal Chorus”? (That’s not without controversy, as most Wagnerian things aren’t.) And how many children have enjoyed this cartoon? And without Wagner there’d possibly be no castle for Cinderella. Hell, Wagner even gave us horns, spears, and breastplates. (And, occasionally, the all-too-familiar fat lady who sings.)
Yet, despite all of this and more, we Wagnerites must often defend our love of his art and publicly state that we’re not in fact members of the Nazi party. (I didn’t really address that issue in this post. That’s not the purpose here, and it’s much too broad and muddled of a topic, though I touch on it here.) A nice, humorous encapsulation of this, especially the latter point, can be found is “Trick or Treat” from Season 2 of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Imagine my delight upon first seeing this, considering that Seinfeld – Curb‘s older brother – is my all-time favorite show.) Here’s a slightly NSFW clip:
[NOTE: Larry David’s brief but hilariously clever quotation of “Springtime for Hitler” is especially entertaining when juxtaposed with the Meistersinger overture at the end, the latter having a main character named Walther – the clip’s antagonist – and being closely associated with German nationalism.]
Pros, cons, and everything in between, Wagner left a huge mark. As mentioned above, his legacy extends far beyond his own music. Price asks if Wagner is bad for us, to which I strongly answer NO. Speaking for myself, his music has left an indelible impression on me. Two of my favorite musical experiences have been because of him (seeing the Ring and Meistersinger), and he’s never far from my ears and mind. And that is why his 200th anniversary is worth noting for me. I’ll of course be enjoying some of my favorite recordings and may even go through some select scenes on DVD. Who knows, perhaps I’ll wear one of my t-shirts and play with my action figure…
For y’all, I recommend and leave you with one of my favorite clips from the great BBC documentary The Golden Ring (about Solti’s recording Götterdämmerung for his landmark cycle):
And so I say, in the manner of Cosima’s tweets: Happy Birthday, R.
“How brightly you once shone, glorious star of the depths!” -Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung
2013 may be Richard Wagner‘s bicentennial year, but this coming Wednesday 05.22 is his 200th birthday. Therefore I can’t help but post just a taste of his genius for this week’s video. (Finally back after last week’s absence as the semester wrapped up.)
More elaborate thoughts on Wagner are to come, but for now I’d like to share one of my favorite of his musical sections. Of course, with Wagner, one has a difficult time isolating segments. His concept of “endless melody” makes it difficult to find start- and endpoints in his operas beyond whole acts. Like many, arguably my favorite part of Der Ring des Nibelungen is in Götterdämmerung‘s Act III. However, unlike most, it’s the first scene. Most go to the Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” or Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” both of which are sublime, but the Rhinemaidens’ trio which opens the act (after the prelude) is heaven. (Believe me, I have a hard time placing the trio above the “Trauermarsch,” but right now I’m going by which track has the bigger play count in my iTunes library.)
(Photo: Arthur Rackham‘s The Rhinemaidens lament the loss of the Rhinegold.)
Oddly, this lyrical, light, and melodic passage by the three Rhinemaidens – Woglinde, Wellgunde, Flosshilde – doesn’t quite jive with the stereotypical Wagner sound, especially that associated with the Ring. If looking for aggressive Wagnerisms, see the aforementioned “Trauermarsch” and “Immolation Scene.” This scene occurs almost 17 hours into the Ring, offering a final respite before (SPOILER ALERT) Siegfried’s murder (after which is the “Trauermarsch”) and Brünnhilde’s destructive suicide (“Immolation Scene”).
There are subtitles in this clip if you’re interested, but I otherwise won’t get into the plot’s labyrinthine intricacies. (Though if you’d like to engage on that, I’m more than happy to. 🙂 ) I’m posting this for the music. Also, I generally strive to avoid posting commercial material in the MTH-V posts due to copyright concerns, but am afraid that I’m going to here. This footage is of Bayreuth’s landmark centenary Ring cycle by conductor Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau. This production was particularly scandalous at the time with its 19th-century industrialist setting. As you’ll see, the Rhinemaidens are presented as hydroelectric dam workers instead of water nymphs.
NOTE: I don’t own the copyright to this production.
FOR FUN: The three Rhinemaidens, with piano reduction, from Cosima Wagner‘s 1904 production!
Last week I trekked to Chicago to see my first live performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The Lyric Opera of Chicago is featuring the Glyndebourne production this season, and starring the Hans Sachs: James Morris. Rounding out the cast was Johan Botha, Illinois native Amanda Majeski, and Bo Skovhus. While I’m not here necessarily to write a review of the performance, I’d definitely like to reflect on my experience.
In brief, Die Meistersinger stands out among Wagner’s output. First, it’s his only comedy. (More specifically, it’s the only comedy in the Bayreuth canon.) As a loyal Wagnerite, I concede that humor is generally the last characteristic associated with the composer. He has occasional comedic moments in other works (e.g., “Das ist kein Mann!”), but weighty melodrama is often his weapon of choice. And, what’s more, it’s an actual comedy – instead of just “funny for Wagner.” (And if comedy’s not your thing, then you’ll at least find the subplot regarding arguments of aesthetics quite relevant.) Second, it’s his only opera that’s not about a vaguely Medieval – or earlier – plot or legend. It revolves around the actual singing guilds in Renaissance Europe. (And Hans Sachs, the main protagonist, was a real person, though he’s arguably more of a template than anything else in Die Meistersinger.) Third, Die Meistersinger is a structural departure from Wagner’s other works. In it he employs more traditional operatic devices – aria, chorus, ballet, a quintet, catchy melodies – albeit in his own Wagnerian manner. Finally, it’s long. And that’s saying something when discussing Wagner. Despite Der Ring des Nibelungen‘s mammoth length (~18ish hours over a week), Meistersinger is his longest standalone work. (Parsifal and Götterdämmerung aren’t far behind, however.) Including the two intermission, Chicago’s production lasted 5.5 hours, from 5:30 to 11:00 PM.
[Before going any further, it’s worth addressing the work’s controversy – something I’ll mention but not dwell on here, as it’s not the post for it. While Wagner in general was heavily propagandized by the Third Reich, Meistersinger was given particular attention by the Nazi regime. This stemmed from Hans Sachs’s final monologue, heavy with nationalistic sentiment. (It’s worth noting that the work was completed in 1868, a time rife with Franco-Prussian tension.) Also, the character of Beckmesser, the antagonist, is often considered an anti-Semitic Jewish caricature. It’s still debated today, and Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter and current co-director of Bayreuth along with her half-sister, has weighed in on the topic – she thinks Beckmesser probably relied on Jewish stereotypes.]
The production itself was wonderful. (See the above video for a taste.) While the staging was Walther’s peeping in on the congregation in the opening scene, the first act was “open” visually. Every inch of the stage was used in the second and third acts. From the streets and doorways and balconies of Nürnberg, to Hans Sachs’s detailed home and workshop, to the city’s celebration and contest, the sets were elaborate and helped to welcome the audience into a Nürnberg of centuries past. Perhaps what I appreciated most was the fact that the set grew in complexity throughout the work. After the prelude, the audience was treated to the opening scene’s expansive though minimal design. However, about four and a half hours later, at the start of the city’s festival, I felt as if the set engulfed the whole theater. (Did I mention that I sat in the first balcony?) The curtains rose on that final scene to full orchestra, chorus, dancers, jugglers masquerading on stilts, and other visual delights. Music and drama aside, it was a clever way to continually draw the audience in throughout such a massive work. After Chicago’s quasi-minimalist productions for 2005’s Ring and 2009’s Tristan und Isolde, it was nice to see something more fleshed out.
The performing was stellar. Botha was a joyous Walther von Stolzing and Majeski‘s Eva was heavenly. If what I saw last week was any indication, she’ll be one to watch over the next many years. She had a lighter timbre for Wagner, but the fact that it was never abrasive fit well with the piece’s tone. But James Morris towered over the rest of the cast – musically and literally (he’s 6’5″) – as Hans Sachs. He’s been arguably the world’s leading Sachs for the last number of years, as evidenced in The Met’s 2001 production (the one I enjoy at home). I saw him as Wotan in Chicago’s 2005 Ring, and he amazed me again in Meistersinger. Finally, honorable mention goes to the scene-stealing Bo Skovhus as Beckmesser. Not only did he sing magnificently, but his physical comedy throughout really brought the character’s foibles to life. I was struggling to contain my continuous laughter during and after Beckmesser’s his final, confused aria. (The rest of the audience was laughing, but I lost it.) He and Morris alone were worth the price of admission. Vocals aside, Sir Andrew Davis did wonders at the orchestra’s helm. Aside from a couple slight French horn hiccups in Act I – a farewell nod to Dale Clevenger? – the orchestra was near flawless.
Finally, the overall experience itself was transcendent. Again, Gesamtkunstwerk is better experienced firsthand rather than explained. All of the above elements, experienced together, led to my being transported out of my seat and into the story for a few hours last week. From the overture’s opening chord to the finale, I at no point looked down at my watch to check the time. I savored every minute of it, and it ranks as one of my favorite live musical experiences as an audience member. I look forward to seeing it again sometime. (Hopefully the next production and cast hold up!) Until then, I look forward to seeing Lyric’s production of Parsifalthis fall!
A discussion of the piece and production by Lyric’s creative heads Anthony Freud, Renée Fleming, and Sir Andrew Davis:
…and the blog returns. It’s been a quiet couple months for this site, mainly because the last part of 2012 was pretty intense away from the computer. Teaching, gigging, working, etc., aside, my wife and I bought and moved into our first house. (Hence the last MTH-V post.) While it obviously wasn’t unexpected, it was much sooner than we had anticipated. At any rate, 2013 is now in full swing. But more importantly, the battery has been recharged and most unpacking is complete. I know there are some readers out there – this isn’t completely in a vacuum – so expect regular posts to resume.
2012 was a great year musically and personally. (Since this is a music-centric blog, and not a personal one or otherwise, I’ll stick to musical highlights.) Looking back:
Playing: I played a wide variety of gigs throughout the year, as usual, but a few projects are worth special mention.
• Ongoing collaboration with Matt Borghi — Matt and I continued our somewhat schizophrenic musical quest. I don’t say that as a pejorative, but with pride. We have too many interests to stick to just one bag of tricks. (Longer discussions here and here.) We played a number of shows and also released a single under our acoustic rock moniker Teag & PK. And we also continued our ambient explorations. The latter yielded a full album, Convocation, that is to be released in the coming weeks. More details quite soon as the official release nears. We’re very excited about it.
• The Fencemen — I met and started playing with The Fencemen last year. I contributed some sounds to “Rented Rooms” (on Times Are Alright – my review here) and have been playing live with them since April. Gritty rock and roll…check it out.
• White Gold Scorpio — I laid down some tracks for Halloween Island (specifically “Throw Myself At You” and “Scare You Like I Do”). This was purely studio work, as the group is based in Brooklyn. It’s a real good album and I’m glad to be a part of it.
• I bought a piccolo. 🙂 (For pit work for Annie.)
Concerts: Regular readers (and those who know me personally) know that I attend a lot of performances. Every year I see shows that especially stand out. Here are a few, a number of them being firsts:
• Einstein on the Beach — “Would it get some wind for the sailboat?” Let’s face it: I started 2012 with more than a bang. Being fortunate enough to see this live really was one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences. It’s been just over a year and I still think of it almost everyday. (And occasionally dream about it, but that’s another story…) It had a profound impact on me that I can’t really put into words. (Though I tried to gather my immediate reaction here.) Alex Ross said it best: “ecstatically dumbfounding.” No other 2012 musical experience – and few ever – even compared to this one.
(Photo by Lucie Jansch)
• Charles Lloyd’s New Quartet — I finally saw Mr. Lloyd in Ann Arbor in April. I’ve been a longtime fan of his, so that was a real treat. I can’t think of any other musician whose lines float over the ensemble quite like his. His rendition of “Go Down Moses” still haunts me. Some thoughts here.
• James Carter, Spectrum Road, and Neneh Cherry & The Thing at Montreux Jazz Festival — Although I was initially disappointed that Tricky dropped out, this lineup blew me away in three very different ways. Furthermore, it was great to attend the Montreux Jazz Festival. But even though my show was in Miles Davis Hall, I still wish I could’ve seen the real thing, particularly this 1973 performance.
• Radiohead — Finally. They gave an impeccable performance. I was worried that my years of wanting to see them would raise the bar too high, but shattered my very high expectations. Extended thoughts here.
• Pat Metheny Unity Band and Wayne Shorter Quartet at Detroit Jazz Festival — Technically two first, but not completely. I saw part of Metheny’s Detroit show during his Orchestrion tour (I was playing at the bar downstairs, so I snuck up for a bit), and I saw Wayne Shorter with Herbie Hancock’s quartet in 2004. (The latter show was really something special.) But this was my first Metheny experience with a backing band and I hadn’t yet seen Wayne’s powerhouse quartet with Brian Blade, John Patitucci, and Danilo Perez. Both were stellar. Metheny and Chris Potter were face-meltingly good, whereas Shorter’s quartet successfully opened my third eye for a time. I’m very excited for WSQ’s soon-to-be-released third album.
• Marcus Miller — Another technical first. I saw Marcus Miller as a sideman for Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters 2005 at Bonnaroo, but this was my first time seeing his solo band, which pretty much sticks to the coasts, Europe, and Japan. (That Headhunters 2005 performance was a killer band, and one of the best things I’ve ever seen: Herbie, Marcus, Terri Lyne Carrington, Kenny Garrett, Roy Hargrove, John Mayer [as guitarist, not lead singer], Munyungo Jackson, and Lionel Loueke.) Miller’s solo band didn’t disappoint. It was funky, crunchy, and high-octane from start to finish.
• DMB (various) — Of course. 🙂 Considering there were two separate tours, I was only able to catch four shows in Saratoga, NY, Chicago, and Toronto. (Teaching abroad got in the way of a few others I would’ve seen, and I took 2012 off from The Gorge.) Many of the new songs were really gaining steam by the last time I saw the band. They never disappoint.
Good thing I didn’t start down the path of albums purchased (but not released) in 2012…
Looking ahead, there are some musical items worth noting:
• Convocation, my album with dear friend and partner Matt Borghi, will be released in the coming weeks. More on that soon.
• Look for some new music coming from The Fencemen.
• 2013 = 1813+200 = Wagner’s bicentennial. Yes, Richard Wagner – a “complex” figure, to put it lightly. Horrible personal qualities aside, he’s by far my favorite composer. I’m sure he’s been referenced occasionally here. (Don’t let that fool you; the love runs deep.) For instance, one of the only musical experiences comparable to my seeing Einstein on the Beach was when I saw Der Ring des Nibelungen in Chicago in 2005. Expect regular mention of him, his music, and his legacy throughout the year. I’m celebrating by going to see Die Meistersinger vonNürnberg at Chicago Lyric Opera next month, and hopefully another jaunt to Bayreuth while abroad this summer.
• Chris Potter will be releasing The Sirens, his first ECM album as a leader. I’m very intrigued to hear what he’s like as a leader under Manfred‘s umbrella. Beyond that, ECM always releases great record, so I’m sure this year will be no exception.
• The blog will resume regular posts over the next couple weeks as this semester’s schedule settles in.