Taking in a matinee with Garrison Keillor

A colleague of mine went to see Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin over the weekend – not at the Ordway or in Orchestra Hall, but at the Regal Cinemas in Eagan. As always, The Met broadcast the production live to radio, but they also beamed an HD audio and video stream to select movie theatres around the world.

Ms. Colleague said she was blown away by how wonderful it was, and even her dragged-there-against-his-will-husband got caught up in the magic.

I have to say I think it’s a brilliant move on the part of the Met. There’s a huge untapped audience of potential opera fans who’ve been scratching their heads all these years, wondering what all the fuss was about. Once they’ve seen the spectacle , everything will be made clear.

Apparently there was more than one MPRian in the theatre Saturday. Evidence: this super-lovely piece, spotted at Salon.com this morning.

Here’s a snippet:

The telecast I saw was live, not recorded live but live live, which made for some interesting moments. In Act I the stage is covered with dry leaves, a stunning visual, though for several minutes, the tenor Ramon Vargas had a leaf sitting atop his curly black hair. You wondered if it’s a small bald spot, and then you wondered if it was Yom Kippur. At one point somebody dropped a ring onstage and it rolled toward one of the microphones, sounding like a hubcap. The conductor, Valery Gergiev, looked like a Wisconsin dairy farmer who just woke up and had a beer for breakfast. But he was magnificent.

The next Met productions coming to a big screen near you: Encore performances of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor March 3 and 11 at Eden Prairie Mall, Regal Brooklyn Center & Regal Eagan Stadium and a live-live broadcast Rossini’s Barber of Seville March 24 at the two Regal theatres. The shows begin at 12:30.

Bravo to the Met. Bravissimo. For three hours on a Saturday afternoon, everything that had been on our minds faded to black and we lived as in a dream with a handsome man in search of happiness and a beautiful woman who found satisfaction, and then we walked out into the snow and started our cars.

The guy can write.

Part wins Danish prize

From the Associated Press: COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) – Estonian composer Arvo Part won the 2008 Sonning Music Prize, Denmark’s top music award, the prize committee said Tuesday. Part, 71, will receive the $105,938 award, which is announced a year in advance, during a concert in Copenhagen on May 22, 2008.

“With music rich in spiritual overtones, Arvo Part is one of the most original voices of our time in the international world of music,” the awards committee said in its citation.

The prize has been awarded annually since 1959 to an internationally renowned composer, musician, conductor or singer. Previous winners include Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Mstislav Rostropovich, Anne-Sophie Mutter and John Eliot Gardiner.

Encore! Encore!

A short piece in the New York Times this weekend really caught my attention: First Scala Aria Encore in 74 Years. It seems Juan Diego Florez, singing in a revival of “The Daughter of the Regiment” was chomping at the bit to sing an encore, but as he told an interviewer, only if it was called for.

And it was called for when the loggionisti (the same group whose boo’s sent Roberto Alagna walking out in the middle of a performance) yelled “Bis! Bis! Bis!” Florez was the first solo singer to break the tradition which has fobidden encores at La Scala. It was Toscanini who felt repeating a piece broke the dramatic pace and focused too much on individual singers rather than the opera as a whole.

The use of the word “encore” can be traced to the 18th century when it received this satirical couplet:

“To the same notes thy sons shall hum or snore

And all thy growing daughters cry encore.”

Although encore in French means again, you’ll only hear the word screamed in English-speaking houses. The French, like the Italians, yell “bis” (twice) when they are particularly moved by a performance. But nowadays, an encore usually means an extra piece played at the end of a recital or by a soloist after a concerto. In fact, we have a disc we’re practically playing grooves into here at MPR by Leif Ove Andsnes called A Personal Collection of Piano Encores that is one lovely little 2 – 3 minute tune after another, and surprisingly many quite slow or reflective. Interestingly, Andsnes’ concept is somewhat along the lines of Sir Thomas Beecham’s view. He called encores, lollipops and felt while the concert brings you up, the encore sets you back down.

I have to say I’m on the fence about the whole encore thing. On one hand the spell can be completely broken if an encore is added to a performance. I went to the SPCO last night and heard an incredible performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The mezzo had us spellbound as she faded away on the word ewig, “forever.” I couldn’t bear to make a sound when she finished. But I also couldn’t bear to give her lackluster applause, so we whooped and hollered with the rest of the audience. I would not have had a problem if she had sung an encore, even if it was completely in the wrong style. She was just that good. But, I play music all day that is a bit incongruous. Like right now, I have my earphones playing a new 20th century clarinet music CD I’m reviewing while Harry Christophers and The Sixteen sing Palestrina in the background, so breaking the continuity of a performance is not a problem for me. Bis! Bis! Bis!

More on Elliot Carter and coloring outside the lines

I’m loving the conversation going on here about new music, where and how to best listen to it, and what belongs on the radio. I had an interesting conversation with the Miro Quartet a couple of years back when they were playing a recital of Beethoven, Charles Ives and George Crumb in Houston. In addition to their formal recital, they were involved in outreach concerts with young kids. What surprised them the most, they told me, was the children’s response to the more “difficult” music. It was more immediate and authentic; I think the word they used was “visceral.” Surprisingly, with the Beethoven, the children were less interested or focused.

Granted, the performances for the kids were live and it’s kind of hard to let your mind wander when the musicians are making some rather unusual and irregular movements; but the children’s willingness to just let the sonic experience transport them was what most interested me. So with this in mind, and making a small explanation along the lines of “just let yourself go a little limp,” I played one of Elliot Carter’s Diversions for piano solo, performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s newest Artistic Partner Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Admittedly, the piece was short and fairly direct, but pretty irregular and without any familiar harmonic or formal structure to hang onto. All the comments I received were positive, some even curious about maybe hearing more “coloring outside the line.”

Incidentally, I didn’t play the Carter for the shock value, just for my listening pleasure. It’s totally cool music if not always “radio friendly!”

More on new music and radio

In a comment on my Tuesday post, John Clare asks, “How often do you ‘put down the op-ed pages, turn up the radio and just listen’ with any radio broadcast: music or news?”

In the answer to his–and my–rhetorical question is the point: We don’t ‘just listen’ to the radio very often at all. We listen while we’re doing something else. Some kinds of listening are compatible with other activity. Carter’s Dialogues is not. Not to me, at least, and not in 2007. John makes a valid observation about the potential rewards of repeated listening, but I suspect even the year 2017 will be too soon to find Carter on my dinner music playlist.

(I am not, BTW, arguing for plain vanilla music programming. But if that’s how this comes across, sound off and we’ll continue the discussion on another day.)

Not clear on the concept, Part IIB

After awhile away from the blog, I just got caught up on the interesting exchange under the heading “Not clear on the concept.”

By coincidence, Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (mentioned in the comment string) was on Saturday night’s St. Paul Chamber Orchestra program, which I happened to take in. So was the (at least) equally challenging Dialogues for Piano and Large Ensemble by Elliott Carter.

Both came after intermission, so I was curious to see how many concertgoers would use the break to vote–in advance–with their feet. Most of the row in front of me bailed, but that was about all I noticed.

Afterward, a friend volunteered a thought that bears on the question of new music’s place on the radio, which John Clare raises in the comment string. My friend found that the Carter concert performance engaged him in a way that a radio broadcast of the piece would not have done.

I was glad to hear this observation come, unbidden, from a non-radio guy. We need new music infused into the classical bloodstream, so I’ve sometimes felt like an apologist when I’ve said the same thing to defend decisions not to broadcast certain pieces of new music. But I know the observation is valid. A piece like Carter’s Dialogues demands total attention. For the 14 minutes it takes to play it, who among us will put down the op-ed pages, turn up the radio and just listen?

Mozart meets Basketball

This dramatic commercial takes you on a tension-filled final seconds journey of a high school basketball game, with Mozart’s Requiem as the unlikely but perfect soundtrack!

Better still, I learned from an advertising website that the recording is by our very own St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and St. Olaf Choir, conducted by Anton Armstrong. Hope they get lots of residuals!

More on Applause

Andrew Druckenbrod weighs in on the Great Applause Debate, in a piece that’s received some attention in the classical blogosphere.

You can find some kind of precedent for just about any kind of applause behavior — reverent, silent, frantic, negative, you name it.

One that would have been interesting to hear is a story that I read somewhere about Wagner. As he himself told it, his “Entrance of the Guests” was being played in Paris, and as the music unfolded, at the end of a certain surprising phrase, the audience applauded: apparently they liked the contour of the music and clapped, just as we might at a particularly witty line in a play. You don’t get that too much anymore.

Of course with Wagner, you never know. It may never have happened. But at least he expected his readers to think that it could have happened.

Johann Sebastian von Dangerfield

Be careful not to put classical music and its composers too high on a pedestal–you’ll miss out on a lotta fun.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a complicated, and very real man. He was not a god (even though his manuscript scores were inscribed “Soli Deo Gloria”). As a young man he got into a duel with a bassoonist over a remark about his playing. He was put in jail after he left the Duke of Weimar’s employment without permission. He liked his beer and wine, and he must’ve liked sex considering that he fathered 20 kids by his 2 wives.

Bach could, with Rodney Dangerfield, complain of never getting any respect. He was not the first choice by the city of Leipzig to be their new main man of music. He wasn’t even the 2nd choice.

The competition for that post is the subject of a new play called “Bach at Leipzig” getting its regional premiere this weekend at the Loading Dock Theater in downtown St. Paul. They describe it like this:

It’s Leipzig, Germany, 1722, and the sudden death of organ master and

cantor Johann Kuhnau has brought to the city an eclectic mix of misfits

and also-rans intent on winning his vacant post. The competition’s

stiff, and their skill at bribery, blackmail, and betrayal is even

stiffer. And who’s this latecomer Johann Sebastian Bach?

The Loading Dock is an intimate (106 seat) theater at 509 Sibley Street, between 9th and 10th on Sibley in Downtown St. Paul. The show runs weekends through March 11th. The box office number is 651-228-7008.

I’m gonna check it out.