Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's (part 4 of 5)

- Tevot by Thomas Ades (2007, Berlin)

(Ecstasio. The Ades of old.)

It's been a slightly rough decade for this composer of Mozartian talent. His opera based on Shakespeare's The Tempest has extraordinary moments punctuating what sounds otherwise like a dutiful attempt to be a Great English Composer. The Piano Quintet feels like a series of completely disconnected ideas, and while the Violin Concerto is a fine work (albeit I haven't heard it since the premiere broadcast in 2005), it hasn't set the world on fire either. Now pushing 40, he's too old to be an enfant terrible. Music that shocked the public ten years ago can now be rendered tame. But it's been a necessary decade for Ades, and Tevot shows he's returned to form a stronger composer.

(Powder Her Face. Not only a shocking masterpiece of trashy camp - Almodovar and Douglas Sirk would be proud - which integrates jazz seemlessly into a classical fabric, but also probably the first opera in history to have an onscreen blow job. This is not that scene, but it's still not particularly SFW)

Tevot is a Hebrew word with a double meaning. On the one hand, it's the plural of the word 'ark,' on the other it is the Hebrew plural for the musical term 'measure.' Ades's idea of the piece is one of an ark that carries people to safety through a turbulent storm. Storm at sea is one of music's stock landscapes, and any list of the composers who endowed such scenes with excitement must include Debussy (La Mer), Sibelius (Oceanides), Mendelssohn (Hebrides), Britten (Peter Grimes), and especially Wagner in The Flying Dutchman. But what distinguishes Ades from the others is the sense that this storm is more internal than external (though one can make arguments for both Britten and Wagner). Perhaps it's the storm music Mahler never wrote. It is by turns frightening, exhilarating, and in the end triumphant. By the end of the piece, it's clear that Ades is the only composer who could write finest orchestral work of the decade and still be viewed as a disappointment. But I don't think there's much reason to be alarmed. Ades, who in his early years was a musical ironist par excellence in his early years looks to be finding sincerity a good fit. He will mature much further yet.

- Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson (2005, Los Angeles)

( No estes lejos de mi un solo dia, porque como)

When the news spread of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's death, nothing in American music circles elicited similar mourning since the death of Leonard Bernstein. She was thought of as a patron saint to American music lovers. Her performances were written of like holy rites in which critics fell over themselves trying to describe what they obviously viewed as an experience of the divine. But just as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson reached her prime, she experienced a metastasized breast cancer that claimed her life just after she would be immortalized. Only six years earlier she halted her career to care for her sister when she died of the same illness. Perhaps unaware of the significance of what he was about to do, her husband Peter Lieberson composed a set of five songs to Neruda love poems. Shortly after Lorraine died, Peter developed serious cancer of his own from which he made a full recovery. In light of what was soon to happen, the texts are almost scary to read today. The final song of the set, is entitled "My Love, If I Die and You Don't."

(Amor mio, si muero)

It is impossible to speak of this music without speaking of its creation's circumstances. But that does not change the fact that compositionally, it is truly something wonderful. Romantic not only in the usual sense but also in the poetic and compositional. If Richard Strauss ever lived in Santa Fe, this is what he'd have written. Lush, but never overstated. Emotional, but never extravagant and always elegant. It picks up right where Strauss's Four Last Songs left off.

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