Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Night Videos - Ballerina on a Boat

Here's a delightful piece of Russian animation, with music by Alfred Schnittke. Enjoy! And I promise there will be more next week.

And I'm off to the cottage, to enjoy the rural splendour and take in three musical theatre productions!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cavalli's Ipermestra

I managed to catch the Utrecht Early Music Festival’s production of Cavalli’s Ipermestra on Norwegian Radio (Thanks again to Operacast for making the world of opera so easily accessible).

Did any of my readers hear this marvelous work?

It was a beautiful performance, and one hopes that it was not only captured in audio, but in video as well - you can take a look at some performance stills over at Wim Trompert's site, the prduction's director.

Interestingly, one of the reviewer's on that site mentions that the Florentines would have expected something much larger, but it seems that Cavalli himself used an uncharacteristically small orchestra and singing cast for this performance.

According to Jan Glover (Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 102. (1975 - 1976), pp. 67-82) this period of Italian opera was characterized by a certain economy, and it was interesting to listen to the production, noting how little there was in the way of aria, and how they would simply emerge from the recitative, only to fall back into them, without much of the sharp division one is used to.

Can I make a bold claim that we don't see this kind of musical drama again until Wagner? As I've written before, Cavalli stands on the edge of the full separation of drama and music that was to occur in Baroque opera, that sharp division between recitative and aria. Ipermestra, to my ear, stands very much in between, and in contrast to some of Cavalli's other work, seems less fragmented, and more fluid in its handling of the dramatic and emotional material.

Need I mention also that Cavalli wrote wonderfully for the voice? It is always so easy to understand what the singers are on about with Cavalli, but he doesn't spare any beauty for the sake of clarity.

Again, I hope that someone will fully wake up to Cavalli's rich and varied musical dramas, and we'll see more regular stagings of his work.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Go West, Young Divi

How is that that Calgary is the New Opera capital of Canada?

An anecdote. I was in Fidelio's (one of Calgary's lost departed classical music stores) in Mount Royal Village, rooting through their selection of 18th Century Romanian operas when I overheard the shop's owner speaking to this woman about the upcoming opera season.

She was outraged at the upcoming season, and had cancelled her subscription. The reason? Calgary Opera was staging Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. She had heard that Britten had been born in the 20th Century, and was deeply offended by this point, fearing that her ears and her nerves would perhaps never recover from the dissonance should would have to squirm through during a performance of 20th Century opera!

Just so she lived up to the stereotype I was quickly constructing in my head, she leaned over the counter, and, looking side to side, mentioned quietly, but not too quietly, that Britten was a homosexual.

Yes Virginia, Benjamin Britten was a homosexual. Now I wondered at the time, feeling as she did about homosexual composers, what she did whenever Tchaikovsky ever made it onto the radio? Did she shun Schubert too, fearing his melodies would draw her into a life of all-night partying and snappy dressing?

I digress. But there was a larger point. She had said her other friends had also cancelled their subscriptions in vile, ignorant protest, a work that, had they bothered to investigate, has all the drama and controversy of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But to my youngish music school ears, this was horrifying. These people really do exist, people who hold a gun to the heads of arts organizations and demand they perform the same three songs on their organ grinder or else the monkey gets what's coming to him, and it ain't a banana.

It was one of the many things that stuck in my mind about Calgary, about the kind of people who went to concerts, and my prospects when it came to being a musician in this kind of environment. So I left, for the vastly better developed artistic shores of Toronto.

Cue the present. Boy am I glad that people like me don't live in Calgary anymore. There's a ton going on out there, and many of the people I went to school with are gainfully employed as musicians in Calgary. I made a terrible mistake thinking the woman above represented Calgarians and culture.

In fact, being into opera or classical music is like being a liberal in Alberta - there are lots out there, you just can't bring it up in polite conversation, rather like being a conservative in Toronto.

Which brings me to my main point - why is Calgary Opera Canada's largest producer and developer of new Canadian opera? From the early 1990's, where staging Albert Herring was a risky decision, to staging Frobisher, Calgary Opera’s third new opera commission in the last five years?

If I were a journalist, I would interview Calgary Opera's current General Director, the delightfully named W.R. (Bob) McPhee - could his there be a more apt name for a Calgary impresario? The man and his team are doing something right.

But I'm not, so we'll just have to wonder why Toronto's own COC has done little in the way of new opera over the years, or why our own new opera company here in Toronto, Tapestry New Opera Works, has done some phenomenal work, but have struggled financially? And despite the fact that this supposed to be a big theatre town.

Perhaps, had he lived, this is something Richard Bradshaw was going to explore. One can only hope that his successor will take up the next challenge in building opera in Canada - the creation of an indigenous opera repertoire, similar to what's going on in Finland.

What's going on in Finland? Well, it's really hard to say, because all the stuff about the finnish opera boom is in....Finnish.

But new opera there is big. Perhaps all we need here in Canada is a Janacek-like figure, a highly gifted composer with a theatrical bent who speaks powerfully to the Canadian condition.

Well, I think we already have him. But he will likely never work with the COC again, after they produced one of his other works from the Partia cycle. Or perhaps people will awake to him and we'll stage his entire Patria cycle on a regular basis here in Canada.

Perhaps, Calgary's the perfect place for the real start of this boom. Indeed, "Calgary" and "boom" go hand in hand, and so again, Toronto will catch play catch up, and we'll then pretend that it started here all along. Plus ça change...

But you, faithful reader, you will know who really got things going, when people sit on the subway here and argue about the latest production of Barney's get the picture.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Richard Bradshaw has Died

The man who made opera something here in Toronto, has died unexpectedly.

With the COC's season just about to begin, I don't know what they will do. He was, to a great extent, the Canadian Opera Company, and the legacy he has left the city will be difficult to top.

As an aspiring conductor (at the time), I met him on a number of occasions, and he was always warm and charitable with me, letting me come into rehearsals, and offering advice.

He was an amazing man.

Sweet Narcissism

It's as though I have never been blogging.

Why did I think this thing would be about anyone but me?

How did I never recognize this before? Why now?

I am not the most prolific blogger. I tend to vanish. I usually have a good reason at the time I stop - work and life and all that.

But there's also these nagging question - who's my audience? What am I looking for?

And sometimes I stop and ask myself - what am I doing with this blog? Why?

I know these are stupid questions. But I cannot stop asking them.

But now I believe I have the answer to what I'm doing here. It's the answer I have been dreading to accept since I began writing - I want to be known.

What's that you say? How can an anonymous writer want to be known? Well, that will change.

I would also like to distinguish wanting to be known for wanting to be famous, or wanting to be an authority. I want this to be another way to talk about things that interest me, the upshot being that what interests me interests others, and I get to hear from them.

The one thing I've always like about blogging is the communities that form, and the ideas that get exchanged in those communities, and how what you write helps to determine the communities that emerge.

This is absolutely nothing new to anyone, but for a long time, I have been at cross-purposes at this blog, trying to deny the personal side of blogging for something more, shall we say, objective.

But then I went back and read what I've written here. And I realised something. They're all personal. Even the ones that weren't meant to be.

And I suddenly feel myself inside that little box, looking for the way out. And then I remember what Rorty and Wittgenstein told me once in a really, really boring dream, and I give up looking, and I go back to reading Either/Or (you know which part I'm referring to).

So this is me giving up.


We bought a piano in January. I had not played the piano in nearly two years. This was due to the fact that the piano I used to practice on, one at a local church, was no longer local.

So the first time I sat down to play, I was quite good. Indeed, I felt as though I had never stopped playing.

You know, the body has this wonderful way of picking you up and letting you play well when you haven't played for a while, as though it doesn't quite know what's going on.

And then it remembers.

The next day, I was horrible. I remained that way for months.

But I got better, and I got to point where I could say I was better than I have ever been, and I stayed that way. My diet consists mainly of Bach and Beethoven, and I have one of those foolish plans to learn both books of Das wohltemperirte Clavier and all 32 of Beethoven's piano Sonatas.


Despite the fact that I have a music degree, and I have been paid to be a musician, I am really an amateur.

The instrument that got me in, the tuba, has long been abandoned, although it was the only instrument which I could say, until perhaps a few months ago, that I had some kind of control over.

On the tuba, there was a certain freedom, a bit of facility, like the point where you're learning a foreign language and you stop translating - you just respond in the language, and you don't think about what you're saying. This was nice back in the day, but I don't play the tuba anymore.

However, sometimes, this happens to me while I'm playing the piano. I'll be playing something like the 19th Fugue from the first book of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, and suddenly, I can play the damn thing. I can make one voice sound a bit heavier, and I can phrase.

Do you know how nice it is to hear something in your head, and then begin to hear it on the outside? It is everything.

Indeed, it happened today. After I wrote everything above this sentence.

So perhaps, as an amateur, if I can't have an audience to hear me play, perhaps the audience who reads my writing will help me become a better musician. I think that's what I meant about being known. Being held accountable, and being accounted for.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Imperfect Wagnerite

Sounds and Fury, a culture blog which I read with some regularity, linked to an article in the City Journal by one Heather Mac Donald. In it, she decries the Regietheater, or director's theatre, phenomenon that supposedly pervades operatic culture in Europe.

In a more recent post, AC Douglas at Sounds and Fury mentions that much of the negative reaction he received about linking to the article had to do with the fact that Heather Mac Donald is a conservative.

Anyone who has read anything I've posted here over the past couple of years would know that I am not what one would call a political conservative. Indeed, my views are nearer to the socialist straw man many conservatives enjoy setting fire to than I would care to admit.

But does it matter to Ms. Mac Donald's report on the state of opera that she's a conservative? No, and indeed, who cares what her political views are? She's talking about opera, for crying out loud!

Nevertheless, it seems to me that she exaggerates how many of these kinds of productions exist in Europe, using "Europe" as a kind of bogey man, relying on American attitudes towards Europe instead of really examining what kinds of productions are taking place beyond the ones that we hear about over here, such as the Berlin Idomeneo of last year.

And I really got a chuckle out of her comment about "Chéreau’s injection of anticapitalist, environmental politics into the story" of Wagner's Ring, referring to the famous (or infamous) Beyreuth Centenary production directed by Patrice Chéreau.

I know this production is held up as a model of european Regietheater and the horrors that entails. It shouldn't be.

If Ms. Mac Donald had done just a bit more research, she would have discovered that George Bernard Shaw, in The Perfect Wagnerite, had injected the Ring with "anticapitalist politics" before the turn of the 19th Century.

Indeed, he makes a rather strong case for reading the Ring the way Chéreau does. Wagner wrote the Ring poem around the time he was active as a liberal revolutionary, "liberal" meaning whatever you'd like it to here.

Many of Wagner's writings at the time of the Ring's composition as a poem are political, and indeed, the Ring itself, with its talk of contracts and laws, has something to it that one could, in a flight of fancy, construe as an overtly political dimension.

Maybe I'm just nuts, but I think it's safe to say that the Ring is a political work, as well as many other glorious and profound things, and that it is political in a way many other operas are not. If Ms. Mac Donald wants to fault Chéreau for something, it should be for a lack of imagination, or borrowing from Shaw without crediting him.

Using this as a pretext for a theory, how about, instead of hating Regietheatre tout court, one take these opera productions on a case by case basis?

So the recent Berlin Idomeneo production, with the decapitated Poseidon, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, could be making a political statement, I suppose, in the same way putting a bag of dog poo on your high school principal's porch and setting fire to it is, but question this begs is whether or not Idomeneo was missing this particular political dimension in the first place? Does it make sense to include these severed heads? Knowing the work, it doesn't seem so, just from judging from the internal incoherence of the four "gods" chosen, perhaps by lot, by the bored director.

I think the question "Does it make sense?" is the central one. The funny thing about art, at least to me, is that it's very difficult to predict how something as complex as a fully-staged opera production will come off, aesthetically speaking.

This is important, because I've seen productions at the Canadian Opera Company that one would call "conservative", like Carmen, that were lifeless and, given the costs associated with producing opera, a waste of money. If nothing else, it could have been well sung and entertaining.

Do I really have to fear Regietheater when productions like that Carmen are so much more pervasive? Or that most Bohèmes I have seen over the years appear to share the same drab Paris apartment set, you know, the one with the full moon shining through the cracked window?
Honestly, can anyone tell me the last time they saw an incredibly powerful, insightful performance of Tosca?

In other words, what about all the mediocre productions out there that don't even court controversy?

Does it make sense to champion this kind of status quo, where truth and beauty are phoned in just to fill seats?

Equally, what sense did it make to set Salome in a drug dealer's mansion, as the COC did a decade ago, where John the Baptist was, I suppose, an unfortunate Jehovah's Witness who went door knocking on the wrong day?

At least the Ring is allegorical - how do you set Salome outside of its historical context when the historical circumstances of one character's role is everything? It made no sense to me.

Sometimes we can move things around, sometimes, not so much.

If this sounds like a lazy approach to judging a work, it is, but it's also makes room for the new, and indeed, appears to be what we all do anyway when someone, like Wagner, comes along out of the blue and sets the world on fire. We judge the new on its own terms as much as we do in relation to what has come before it.

So coming back to Mac Donald's essay, I think her biggest problem isn't that she's a conservative, but that she doesn't devote enough time to the serious problem of lazy, uninspired stock opera productions here in North America and Europe.

Sometimes the greatest dangers are right here, in our own backyard!

Thursday, August 09, 2007


Have I told you how often my thoughts turn to opening a Viennese café?

There is something so distinctive about it. You can see glimpses of that culture here, in the fact that people are never asked to leave, that one can sit for hours. But here, there is a lack of sophistication, and an emphasis on the product, the volume of coffee, the size of the scone.

More importantly, no one ever brings you water. No one should ever drink an espresso without water to chase it.

Here, no one seems to care that, all too often, the espresso is too hot, and with a thin crema. And they don't care because they don't know. And then you go to Europe, and it's nearly impossible to be given a bad coffee, and North Americans travel there, and they think to themselves, "Wow, this coffee is fantastic, I wish we could have something like that over in Canada."

And they stop. They stop thinking right there.

I think most North Americans think to themselves that what happens in Europe stays in Europe, even though our consumer culture, and especially our politicians, tell them otherwise. They tell them that the world is their oyster, ready to be shucked.

But bafflingly, instead of asking for a nice rich crema, where, when you gently place sugar upon it, it holds the sweetness there, just for a few seconds, before yielding to let the sugar sink into the darkness, they are handed bitter brown water in a paper cup, and told that this is their coffee, their national heritage, their patrimoine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, did I mention I would only serve Viennese-style coffee in the Viennese café, which means no giant paper cups filled with nice-smelling yet foul-tasting coffee? Have you ever noticed that this is the big thing here? That they make the coffee smell like heaven and taste like shit? A clever bit of misdirection.

Look, I can do the straight talk, the vulgarity which people confuse for honesty here, as I've grown up with it, but I don't want it, and I don't care for it, and I would rather tell people I won't serve them something in my Viennese café because that's the way they like it. Instead, they can learn to like it the way I do, because the way I like things happens is to found inside a tradition (the European one and also in many ways the Asian one) where cultivating the ability to make a nice coffee or arrange flowers, or tie and tie, are all seen as primary, and second to how much one paid to do, or the quantity of things they’ve bought. But these are just tired old points about the vulgarity of North American culture, utterly unscientific and needlessly pompous.

So I would like to open that Viennese café.

My café will have a selection of newspapers and good magazines on racks, and people will be encouraged to linger, although the real money will be made from all those people who don't, god bless them. But they will only be accommodated as an economic necessity, and nothing more.

So I would serve coffee only in the Viennese styles. Especially the one, which, for me and me alone, defines Viennese coffee culture — the Kaisermelange. It's coffee and a raw egg and brandy.

I would feature the Kaisermelange as the house specialty, and most would be grossed out, but those intrepid few who know a good strange thing when they see it, would embrace it. And I would rue the fact that one cannot serve liquor here in Ontario before 11, meaning no one could start their day here in Toronto with a Kaisermelange.

Again, why do we think ourselves to be so civilized?

By the way, when you’re in Vienna, you should try to check out Café Hawelka on Dorotheergasse 6, just off the Graben and behind the road of the hotel where I stayed in Vienna back in1994. The owner, Leopold Hawelka, opened it in 1939, and he's still there, supposedly!

You should have a coffee there if you can.

Many of the cafés in Vienna are expansive, cathedrals to the bitter elixir, but Hawelka is more intimate, darker, perhaps less inviting to tourists, but a refuge to locals. I would like that kind of quality, although I suspect the more open ones would be more popular here in Toronto.

What I don't want is the forced down-to-earth feeling of a Starbucks or Second Cup. I want a place that feels lived in despite being so young.

We would also have real classical musicians playing music there. No jazz. You can go anywhere to listen to jazz. You cannot go many places to listen to live performances of Haydn string quartets while sipping an Einspänner. However, this is completely inauthentic, and just something I'd like to have there.

And maybe I'll learn the cello again, and learn it well enough to play a part in those quartets myself!

It is hard to describe to you how real doing something like this seems to me now. But I'm just thinking out loud here, and have made no commitments to starting this venture.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Antoine Brumel

Tonight, while listening to my latest favourite radio station, the third starion of Hrvatska radiotelevizija, I discovered Antoine Brumel.

I consider myself an early music lover. Perhaps I would even call myself somewhat of an aficionado of this music. I have read Music in the Renaissance by Gustav Reese, as well as the more recent Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400-1600 by Allan Atlas, and yet, despite this, when this stunning music poured through my speakers, I was at a loss. As best as I could tell, I thought it was Thomas Tallis. It just had that kind of sound to it.

So I try to silence my toddler son who is jumping on a bed behind me, in the hopes that my rudimentary knowledge of Croatian will allow to find out who wrote this stunning piece. The fates smiled upon me, and I pierced the veil of unintelligibility long enough to determine that the piece I was listening to was an Agnus Dei by Antoine Brumel.

I've never heard of him.

So much for my self-proclaimed knowledge of the field. I suppose someone's going to want to confiscate my lute now...

Well, as any of us do these days when we know nothing but a rigid designator, or for your continental philosophy types, a name, I typed "Antoine Brumel" into google, and it delivered me right to his wikipedia entry.

Now, the big question - was what I was listening to in the Naxos Music Library? Could I pump this sweet, sweet aural liquor back into my system, to again bathe my senses in its rich broth?

Yes. It was there, in fact, it was the very recording I had been listening to on HRT, by the Tallis Scholars.

The mass I am listening to right now, the glorious, life giving bit of music, music everyone in the world should listen to, is the Missa Et ecce terrae motus, or Earthquake Mass.

Wikipedia also quickly reveals why I thought it was Tallis - the Earthquake Mass is for 12 voices, which was highly unusual for the time Brumel wrote it, if not outright unheard of. The richness reminded me of Tallis' famous Spem in alium, although the Tallis is 70 years younger, and as I listen now, it seems clearer, with the strangeness of the cadences, that we are not quite yet at the fulcrum that is Josquin, when things begin (I mean begin in the lightest possible way here) to turn towards the great aesthetic paradigm that emerged alongside probability, calculus and gravitational theory - western tonality, or the major/minor tonal system, or whatever you want to call it.

One day I will attempt to articulate in much greater detail what I mean by that, perhaps in an academic thesis, or perhaps here. Who knows.

But who cares about that. Enjoy the Brumel.