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Too Much of a Good Thing? All six Bartok string quartets

Friday, September 19th, 2008

I started listening to the Bartok string quartets when I was in college.  I liked them.  I really liked them.  And, as I’ve gotten older, my appreciation for them continues to develop.

So I was thrilled when I saw that Music at Menlo was going to do a concert program of all six of them in one day–starting at 10 a.m. and going into the afternoon, with breaks.  After consulting briefly with my “inner accountant” I ordered a ticket.

And I decided to take this a bit more seriously than I sometimes do.  So, I bought a study score for the quartets, and listened through some of my recordings while reading the score.  The score of a quartet is written, not surprisingly, on four staves–compared with what I think of as the usual two–like piano music.  So I found it a bit trickier to track along four lines all at once while I was listening.  On the other hand, I sing in a chorus, and the four vocal parts are often written on separate lines.  Hmmm.  If I had noticed that earlier, it might have helped.  Or maybe it means that when I’m singing I’m not paying enough attention to the other parts.  That could be a problem.

But there is a lot more going on in Bartok than in most choral writing–or at least any of the compositions that I’ve ever sung.  It did add another layer of intellectual processing to the experience of listening.  Even after all these years, I find that there are still things that I’m learning about these pieces; adding the visual representation of the music allows me to pick out things that I hadn’t noticed before.

On the day of the concert, I made a big thermos of coffee, took my score and headed off to the concert venue.  I hadn’t been before, so I left myself plenty of time.  Good thing; it took longer than I thought.  I settled in and the concert started.  The quartet [the Borromeo quartet] played the first two; then there was a brief break; then they played ##3 and 4.  Those were followed by a longer break for lunch.  The afternoon segment included the last two.  Each segment was roughly an hour and a half.

It was very reavealing to listen to them one after another.  It seemed that, with each new quartet, Bartok was asking himself to go farther into the music.  To develop more profound expression of what it all means.  Over lunch, I said to the people that I was sitting with that I hear the Bartok quartets as a kind of “even later Beethoven quartet”.  I hear them as pieces that come from a composer who has really internalized the late Beethoven quartets [some of the strangest music ever written] and then is looking for ways to go onward.  One of the things that I hear that ties them together in my mind is an almost architectural approach to the music.  That the composition must, first of all, fit together like a well-designed bridge.

I suppose that, of all of them, #5 is my favorite.  It’s full of the uneven rhythms of the Balkan dances that I’ve loved for a long time.  When it finished, I found that I had just run out of intellectual muscle.  I couldn’t muster the attention that #6 deserved.  But I was still delighted to have gone; and I’d do it again in a flash.  

Falling in love with Baroque opera

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Over the past few years, I’ve started to go to performances of Baroque operas, particularly the operas of Handel.  I’m delighted that these operas are getting performances these days, and that there are so many fantastic singers that have the ability to sing them. 

It took me a while to understand how the genre works, since the first operas that I had come to know were Wagners, and those are almost the complete opposite, in terms of the way that the story is communicated.  In Wagner, there are few moments that qualify as an “aria”…mostly what happens is that the characters on stage sing the dialogue back and forth at each other, and the orchestra provides commentary and clarification.  It’s that layering of thematic material that makes repeated hearing of The Ring so rewarding.

But I digress.  The way that the story is told in Baroque opera goes differently.  The dialogue is sung, usually in fairly simple phrases with minimal accompaniment as recitativo.  And all the “plot” happens in these understated parts.

But then, one character [or occasionally a duet] will break off and let loose with an aria.  The content of the aria is not plot–rather it’s psychological insight about how the character is feeling about the situation at hand.  The musical structure is usually ABA.  That is, there is an opening part, a contrasting middle, and then the opening part “repeats”.  The technical term is a da capo aria–meaning “from the top”.  Part of the tradition of these operas is that the singer is supposed to ornament the repetition.  I suppose that some listeners hear that as only more beautiful singing–and more technically demanding–but to me the main function is to intensify the emotional content of the aria.

As preparation for the upcoming run of Handel’s Ariodante the San Francisco Opera offered several occasions to learn more about it.  One is their Insight Panel Discussion, where several of the people involved with the productions discuss the opera.  In this case, the panel consisted of the conductor Patrick Summers, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, and bass Eric Owen.

Patrick Summers explicitly compared Handel to Shakespeare as two great psychological dramatists.  And he explicitly compared the arias in Handel to the soliloquies in Shakespeare.  He even said that they run about the same length.  But he pointed out that, in the case of Handel, the text is usually only a line or two.  What takes time is that the aria tends to look at the words from several directions, using the musical accompaniment to amplify the emotional meaning.

Susan Graham gave the example of the aria “Scherza infida…”, in which Ariodante is reacting to the [false, as it turns out] news that his bride-to-be has been unfaithful.  Ms. Graham said that she probably says the words “scherza infida”–mock me, faithless one–several dozen times over the course of the six minutes of the aria.  But each one, with its musical setting, is communicating a different emotional color that moves through–anger, disappointment, sorrow, bitterness, resignation and on and on.  Here’s Anne Sophie von Otter singing the aria. And here’s an amazing version from Philippe Jaroussky, a male soprano.

In thinking about why the form of Baroque opera doesn’t seem too unfamiliar, I finally realized that it’s actually the same idea as the pre-Sondheim Broadway musical–there’s some dialogue where the plot is moving forward, then the emotion gets to be just too much, and the characters break into song.  I know it’s a bit of a stretch to think of Guys and Dolls and L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the same time, but they do have something in common.

I got to see the final dress rehearsal for the SF Opera production, and it was totally fantastic!  And, I get to see if for real at the end of the month.

Film “Note by Note-The Making of Steinway L1037”

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008
I don't see many movies over the course of a year, but last weekend I went to see a new documentary "Note by Note--The Making of Steinway L1037".  The film follows the assembly of one piano, over the year that ... [Continue reading this entry]

Concert Week(3)–Final Run Through and Performance

Sunday, May 4th, 2008
This morning we had a final run through with the orchestra.  The basic task is to get through the whole piece with no interruptions [and no "do overs"].  Orff's Carmina Burana is divided into sections, but within the sections, the ... [Continue reading this entry]

Concert Week(2)–Adapting to the Orchestra and the Hall

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008
Today, I spent a total of 5 hours rehearsing among the Chorus, with the Orchestra, soloists, and children's choir.  It's usually a fairly big adjustment to move into the hall where we'll performing.  The space is far larger than our ... [Continue reading this entry]

Concert week(1) –Working with the Conductor

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008
I sing with an amateur chorus, but one that occasionally performs with professional orchestras.  It's quite an honor; one that we try to live up to.  The process of rehearsing for a concert with an orchestra is a bit unusual--compared to ... [Continue reading this entry]

What’s a first opera for adults?

Monday, April 28th, 2008
I think that the standard answer to the question: What's a good choice for a first opera to see?--is usually either La Boheme or Madame Butterfly, both by Puccini.  They're both fine examples, full of gorgeous melody, and definitely evoke ... [Continue reading this entry]

Three performances–Sometimes it’s magic, and sometimes it isn’t

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Over the past few days I've seen three live performances.  I want to use this post to ponder the complexities of how we react to live performance.  I want to say at the start that no one wants to give ... [Continue reading this entry]

“Practice makes permanent”

Thursday, April 17th, 2008
We've all heard the saying "Practice makes perfect".  Some years ago, the director of the chorus that I sing with rephrased that saying in a way that stopped me in my tracks.  She said "Practice makes permanent".  Her point was ... [Continue reading this entry]

About me.

Saturday, April 12th, 2008
   I'm a gay man who has been living in San Francisco for about 15 years.  I've spent a certain amount of time in various countries, including three years in the Peace Corps in Borneo, teaching mathematics.  I have a ... [Continue reading this entry]