Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review Dump 3

Mahler Symphony no. 6: Alsop/BSO - November 12th It's taken ten years, but I think I've finally figured out Marin Alsop. Her true artistic forbearer as a conductor is not Leonard Bernstein - she isn't bold or imaginative enough to be anything like the teacher whose connection she plays up for all the PR it's worth. Her true ancestor is Andre Previn - she loves big tunes, she loves it loud, she can convey enormous excitement, but profundity is not her thing. With the exception of Das Lied von der Erde, I've never come away from one of the sacred cow megaliths of the repertoire convinced that she has its full measure. The most telling moment of this performance was an audience reaction when the hammerblow sounded - I saw a college-age looking kid whisper to his friend "Fuck Yeah!" The first three movements were truly loud, but I had to agree with Charles Downey rather than Tim Smith that this was a performance that stayed wide of Mahler's mark. Still, it was better than Semyon Bychkov's snoozer Mahler 6 with the New York Philharmonic back in January - let's see if he does any better with the Concertgebouw in Mahler 5 in DC. The performance was only truly impressive in the finale - which is so mammoth that if played well can banish memories of mediocrity in the rest of the piece. Alsop seemed to view it as a virtuoso concerto for orchestra, none of Simon Rattle's extraordinary tragic daemonism, but it was still extremely impressive in its way. I don't think Alsop would know how to convey real catharsis or pathos, she doesn't have much in her toolbox in the way of refinement, but she does know how to make a truly impressive noise. She's of course at her most impressive in American repertoire (no shame in that), and truly fantastic at creating concerts that are enormous events. The best performances of hers' I've seen in core repertoire over the years are in those gigantic megaliths full of flash and fury that skirt the line between depth and vulgarity - Mahler 2, Mahler 3, Alpensinfonie, Shostakovich 7. In all of the above, she most certainly landed on the vulgarity sound and made some truly glorious noises, but I'd hardly call any of those performances particularly insightful. When she does anything earlier than Mahler that requires a smaller orchestra, I usually stay away.

Anne of the Thousand Days: Chesapeake Theater - November 13th With all the troubles and dread we have, we all need our emotions purged through catharsis. I expected catharsis from Mahler 6 and got no such thing. Instead I got catharsis from a faux-Shakespeare costume drama by a mid-20th century American playwright who shared with me the great fortune of a superb cast and director who played on his text and my fears like a violin. Henry VIII's England was a society that got exactly what it deserved - a society that put pleasure and personal fulfillment above all, and none moreso than the personal fulfillment of the King. It was personal fulfillment taken to the most logical extension - openly risking a century and a half of war as a demonstration of the King's love for a conquest who gives her body but not her heart. Like all the world's bloody conflicts - particularly the bloodiest, it was all so easily avoidable were the priorities of societies who provoked them not utterly wrongheaded. It was as though we were watching a prosperous, peaceful society unwind past the point of no return, precisely because they were convinced they would live forever. We watched as famous historical figure after figure seemed to perform mental contortions that turned their rationality to logical gibberish. Here is the stuff which the bloodiest wars - be it the English Civil War or the Wars of the Roses or the Thirty Years War or The World War (if you see the two as one long conflict) - are always made of. This production was so utterly superior in every way to their Othello, let alone the abysmal Titus Andronicus I saw around this time last year. Maybe they should stick to faux-Shakespeare rather than the real thing.

North by Northwest: Senator Theater - November 16th It is impossible to watch any work of art today without relating it to the 'situation' in which we find ourselves. I could construct a whole paragraph around how totalitarian societies operate by stripping us of our identity, but our inner resourcefulness can be what saves us... I could probably also relate it to Kafka and say that North by Northwest is Kafka if the Bugmaster from Prague were trying to have fun. Perhaps all that gives Hitchcock too much credit - even if the movie is easily one of the greatest ever put to celluloid, it basically seems like an excuse for a collection of cinematic setpieces which Hitch needs an excuse to throw together. I have no idea if there's any substance whatsoever to North by Northwest, and I don't care. The best thing I suppose I can say is that the title comes from Hamlet, and the full quote is "I am mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." If there's a larger point, the point is that Cary Grant is the only sane person in the picture, and seems insane because what happens to him is so insane. I prefer North by Northwest to Vertigo and probably to Psycho too, though not to Rear Window - Vertigo is so grim and almost humorless, Psycho is obviously too macabre to love, but no amount of suspense in North by Northwest, or Rear Window, gets in the way of the fun. Which brings us to...

Hamlet: English National Theater Simulcast - November 20th 11AM I'm beginning to make good on my resolve to go to more of those theater and opera simulcasts in which the audience consists of me and two dozen old Jewish ladies. I had trouble sleeping the night before, and I slept through most of the first two acts and seem to have woken up right after the 'To Be or Not To Be' soliloquy, just in time for 'Get Thee to a Nunnery.' The last three acts of it were... thoroughly decent, if not better. Benedict Cumberbatch is clearly a capable actor, but I doubt I'll ever number among the cult which surrounds him, which I would imagine is thinking with organs lower than the brain or even the heart. He was a thoroughly intelligent Hamlet who spoke the speeches trippingly on the tongue as though Shakespearean verse were as natural conversation, but emotionally, he was stuck on one note, replacing real emotional nuance with a sort of adolescent whimpering. The real problem was not Cumberbatch, I would imagine the director was directing him to be more emotional even though literature's great narcissist needn't be emotional at all. Bad directorial choices were present all through this production, bad music, soliloquies done with a spotlight and the rest of the stage on freezeframe, imitations of cinematic slow motion, a set that looked borrowed from a door-slamming farce. There was, however, one truly brilliant directorial choice that practically made up for all the egregious ones. Act V, done after intermission, was rendered in an Elsinore already bombed out by Fortinbras. The revolution that Laertes nearly raises against Claudius makes much more sense. This is an interpolation from the text so brilliant that you wonder why you haven't seen it in any production before, or in every production. There are two main characters in Hamlet: Hamlet and Elsinore. Elsinore is a giant, creaking, antique machine on the verge of collapse which only needs a wind from North by Northwest (which is in fact Norway's position to it) to blow it over - or a fencing match gone awry, and Hamlet is its abstract and brief chronicler.

Beethoven's 9th: Baltimore Symphony - November 20th 3PM I thought I was seeing a somewhat different concert from the one I ended up seeing. Instead of seeing John Adams's Absolute Jest on the first half of the program, I was treated to the sight of Marin Alsop and Ed Polochick (long time choral director at the BSO) teaching everyone in the audience the German words to the 'big tune' which we were all supposed to sing along with when the time came (the soloists looked thoroughly amused). It was a very nice albeit slightly absurd gesture, fun to sing along, slightly moving to be a part of even if a bit ridiculous, and thoroughly appropriate on this of all weeks. The performance itself was... again, thoroughly adequate. I've now heard Alsop and the BSO twice in Beethoven's 9th, this was easily the better of the two. Alsop clearly prefers fast tempos in Beethoven, which is all well and good if you have a crack ensemble or conducting technique to pull it off - neither Alsop or the BSO is either of those. It was certainly much more together and rhythmically on-point than it was when I heard them do it two or three years ago. But on this of all weeks, this perhaps greatest of all works of music can't help but make its cosmic impact, even in an abysmal performance, which this was not. No work of music ever conceived by the human mind fulfills the purpose of music better than Beethoven's 9th. Whatever the prevailing wind is in capital cities, Beethoven and particularly his 9th, will sell the tickets in the provinces as nothing else does, because its message is both shallow enough for the masses, deep enough for experts to always find something now, and universal enough that newbies can find something higher in themselves than they ever thought was possible and for experts to endlessly appreciate both the musical humor and the musical good humor. It is a reminder of hope in dark times, it always has been, and it always will be.

Beethoven Quartet op. 131: 
Ariel Quartet - November 19th, Kreeger Museum, DC
St. Lawrence Quartet, November 20th, Shriver Hall, Baltimore
The late quartets are nowhere near as difficult as people make them out to be, but good god, op. 131 twice in twenty-four hours. Can anybody stomach that gravity along with taking in Hamlet and Beethoven's 9th?

As it happened, I was rather tired Saturday night, having taken a longer than usual these days bikeride before I went to DC and was rather sleepy through the performance. The Ariel Quartet from Israel is still young, and technically not quite to the level of the very highest - not that that should ever inhibit anyone's enjoyment. They're a 'moving quartet', which bounces around so much that each of the players seems in need of a second chair. I'm a big fan of uninhibited movement in performance, but it better be accompanied by equivalent enthusiasm in the playing or else it seems like choreography. In this case, I wondered if their movement simply inhibited some their playing. Some smudged notes don't usually matter, but other issues kept creeping up that severely cramped one's enjoyment - some of which were not their fault. Among them was the fact that the quartet was hooked up to loudspeakers, and balanced at severely unequal volumes - my guess is that the speakers were imposed upon them by the facility, worried that their room would not have sufficient presence for a string quartet (why the hell are you hosting chamber music concerts then?). The second violin and viola were half as loud as the first violinist and two-thirds as loud as the cello. You couldn't possibly gauge the balance of the ensemble properly. In any event, the reason I went to DC was because they were playing three quartets that are particular favorites of mine.

The Mozart K. 387 is a wonderful piece, and was unfortunately played as though they'd barely rehearsed it. What was embarrassing was not the lack of technical finish, what was embarrassing was the utter generic anonymity of their performance - nary an original phrasing or color to be found in this composer who lives and dies by an instrumentalist's ability to phrase and color. Fortunately, matters improved significantly in Shostakovich's 3rd Quartet. Israeli string players usually learn Russian style, and have the same thick tone and vibrato which works on Russian music like a charm. All the character and involvement thoroughly lacking in Mozart was present in Shostakovich. One even sometimes heard what you never heard in the Mozart, a soft dynamic! And then you realize it wasn't just the speakers that hamper your enjoyment, they really did play the Mozart that badly. After intermission came the Beethoven 131. It was thoroughly 'Russian' Beethoven, and no worse for it, full of enormous sounds, extremes of tempo and vibrato.... Huge variation of tempo in the long fourth movement, the 5th movement scherzo was so fast that I thought they'd fly apart (Mark Berry would have hated it...), but it didn't, just a fantastic piece of pure virtuosity to which they acquited themselves admirably. Would that there were a few more soft dynamics, but I'd imagine that the loudspeaker was no help at all in that regard.

The Canadian St. Lawrence Quartet is a completely different kind of ensemble. The Israeli Ariel Quartet is clearly more at home among romanticism and risk, the St. Lawrence Quartet loves classicism - their sound is leaner, their technical finish is much greater, and they love adding as many little details into the piece as can ever be found. The first work on their program, Haydn's "Joke Quartet" was well-nigh perfect. Never have I heard a Haydn Quartet played this well live before - hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny details in rhythm and phrasing and balance added up to a kind of musical miracle. This was music! If their Beethoven is not quite on the same order of miracle, it was at times astonishing how close they came. Beethoven quartets demand that you give absolutely everything to him and leave your blood on the floor. Their performances of opuses 135 and 131 tried to square the circle by saving themselves for the larger moments, and the climaxes felt not like something they earned but rather something 'turned on.' The tempos were not as extreme, but there were many more soft dynamics, and a huge variation of dynamics throughout. In the battle of the op. 131's, the Canadians won thoroughly, but I do wish they'd risked as much as their Israeli counterparts, even if some of the risks didn't pay off.

Book Revisitation: Hamlet Watching Hamlet made me want to go back for the first time in a few years to the text itself. When you read the text, it's not long before you realize what a goddamn mess it is. It's so incoherent, so dramatically unstructured, so deliberately obscure in its language, that at times it either seems like an extraordinary work of avant-garde, almost Joycean stream of consciousness; or, it's just, as TS Eliot defined it, an artistic failure. Shakespeare, of all writers, deserves the benefit of the doubt - particularly in Hamlet of all plays, which, even if I'm not quite 100% certain it deserves its reputation, the rest of the known world most certainly is.

What immediately becomes apparent, at least on this reading, is that Hamlet has been hacked to pieces by actors and directors who want to give him far more humanity than the text seems to give him. He is, from the beginning, something approaching a psychopath. I have often wondered if the 'To Be or Not To Be' speech is supposed to be given not as a soliloquy on self-slaughter, but as a murderous threat to an already on-stage (and possibly pregnant) Ophelia ("look to your daughter").

Hamlet is either too large or too incoherent to capture all of him in any one interpretation. But what truly reveals itself is Hamlet's utter nihilism - he's the dark reaching out for the dark, a nihilism beyond narcissism, beyond psychopathy, a force that sees the destruction of the court, of supposed friends like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of supposed allies like the Polonius family, and takes a kind of subtle delight in it. By the time Fortinbras says that Hamlet would have proved a most excellent King of Denmark, I half expect every surviving courtier to burst out laughing.  The bony specter of death reaches through it all, but beyond its nihilism is a somewhat pervading sense that Hamlet earned his nihilism. As Harold Bloom rightly says, there's no mention of anyone loving Hamlet, they merely kiss up to him in the hope of earning his favor. Horatio is the closest he has to a friend, but Horatio is a cipher, an audience stand-in, a receptacle for Hamlet's unsoliloquized thoughts. The Elsinore that surrounds him is a disintegrating antique ready to blow over with the slightest ill wind. Hamlet is rooting for its destruction, and if he procrastinates, I wonder if it isn't because he's worried that the destruction he can create

If I ever had a chance to play Hamlet - which of course will never happen but I'm still only four years older than he, I would play the nihilism for all its worth. The first lines of the first soliloquy ('o that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew') would not be addressed to himself or his own depression, but would be addressed as a comment upon the audience. Hamlet is a great hater, and hates everyone with whom he comes into contact. He's so bored with life that when he sees the Ghost who charges him with a mission, Hamlet's thought is not of awe or of hurt at his life circumstances, but of delight that a new perspective has arisen ('more things in the heaven and the earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy') that can surprise him for the first time in many years. He was well on the way to insanity before the Ghost appeared, what the Ghost did, rather, was to give him a new lease on life. Nobody ever treated him as any kind of peer, so Hamlet's only audience is himself, and to amuse himself, he babbles incoherently. When it's time for To Be or Not To Be, he's not focused on self-murder, he's focused on the possibility of murdering Ophelia ('with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in'), and I wonder why nobody has ever thought to have Ophelia do her mad scenes, and possibly much before that, in a showing state of pregnancy. The scenes with his mother have much less to do with veiled incest or incestuous thoughts than they do with his innate way of obsessively dramatizing and catastrophizing everything into the most nihilistic manner he can imagine. When he treats his mother with tenderness, it is out of the final vestiges of duty to which he feels. His 'trolling' of Ophelia's funeral is not a true outpouring of grief, but a way to stir up trouble and provoke a court which tried to send him to his death. At this point in my life, Hamlet seems a rank nihilist and scoundrel to whom nothing matters at the beginning or end of the play. If he is not a villain, it's because a villainous place made him villainous. 

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