Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Romeo and Juliet at the Steiner Schule in Mauer

An ambitious undertaking...scenes from Romeo and Juliet (Stefan with Luise, then Julia with Dominik---the latter a real-life couple as well), followed by scenes from Hamlet, performed by 11th grade students where Yvonne attends school. The kicker: a complex madrigal sung by the entire class with gusto as the farewell event. School’s out in two days for Yvonne and her class...meaning that our return to Los Angeles looms ever closer! Today was a long slog of working on Sucktion in the humid heat (3rd floor, only fans for cool wind), relieved by a late afternoon foray into the nearby Café Konditorei KuK Hofzuckerbäcker L. Heiner. This full service, extravagant yet friendly café delivered a refreshing cappuccino and a sweetly pungent Fruchtorte festooned with Johannesbeeren. Tomorrow I’m treating Yvonne, as a reward for getting through chemistry and math in German, to a recital of Italian arias sung by Cecilia Bartoli at the Musikverein...another method of relieving the heat of the later afternoon.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Relocation to Vienna Suburbs

During the past two weeks, I’ve been relocating from a beautiful grand old apartment in the center of Vienna to another just over the city border, in the village of Perchtoldsdorf. In a wine-growing region abutting the Vienna Woods, Perchtoldsdorf turns out to be a sublime location to be placed under semi-imposed house arrest. I’m right up against the finish line to complete my one-woman opera, Sucktion, for the group soNu, with performances scheduled this summer in Los Angeles as part of the New Original Works festival (REDCAT, July 31, Aug. 1 and 2).

However, there are occasional forays out of the apartment that I can’t resist, such as hearing the inimitable Steve Beresford, who I’ve known for nearly 30 years but only see once a decade or so, perform at the Viennese club Porgy and Bess with two terrific Austrian players (Nicholas Bussmann: synthcomputer; Dieb 13: turntables). Chock full of electronic wonders, mix of high and low tech, and toy instruments, Steve’s dynamic, charged sessions at the piano injected the contrast of a live acoustic instrument into the evolving electronic soundscape. We caught up after the concert (Steve remembers me, after all these years, as the composer of Concerto for Active Frogs) and discovered that we both have an intense interest in psychogeography. London, where Steve lives, remains central for all things related to this amorphous but intriguing field. I’m incorporating psychogeography into my HyperOpera course this fall at CalArts. It’s an especially relevant topic for me, with the exposure to the two contrasting geographical locations I’ve lived in during my going-on-four months in Austria, and how they’ve affected me physically and psychically.

The photo taken at Schloss Belvedere, a mere five minute walk from the previous apartment and a place that I would return to every few days for the sheer beauty of its gardens, was taken from Oberes Belvedere. (There are two palaces...upper and lower.) Next to it, one of the first photos after the move, taken during a walk in Perchtoldsdorf. I was drawn to this sign in front of a dilapidated house (unusual to see in a resort village), with its color-coded announcement of two of the ubiquitous spring offerings in this part of the world---strawberries, and asparagus. The Viennese, like the Germans, are expert at growing and preparing ‘spargel’ - wild, green, and white – and offer it as a main course during the peak season. It must be the only vegetable that is purposely grown underground to prevent photosynthesis, resulting in a nutty, mild flavor in the white variety. I have to admit that the asparagus I've cooked or had in restaurants here is lush and almost meaty, compared to our American spears. Maybe we should give the Royal Vegetable more attention and respect, taking a cue from the playful and striking wood sculptures of the artist (and a dear friend), Craig Nutt. (Actually, there's a connection between Craig Nutt and Steve Beresford. They may have never met, but Craig was the major moving force behind the 1976 recording of the Raudeluna Pataphysical Revue, which included, along with covers of tunes like Volare, and our noise-driven Captains of Industry, the first recording of Concerto for Active Frogs.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Meeting Arvo Pärt

The shimmering gold leaf and lush chandelier-lit Great Hall of the Musikverein was the setting for the world premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Stabat Mater for string orchestra and mixed choir (soprano, alto, tenor), written for the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, performing this evening with the Wiener Singverein. Modeled on a work from 1985 of the same title, for three voices and string trio, this version of Stabat Mater clearly reflects Pärt’s signature ‘tintinnabulation’ technique, with canonic procedures and related structural elements common to music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Latin text, 20 groups of three stanzas (the number three---also evident in the choice of choir voices, omitting the bass---symbolizing the Holy Trinity), has been set by well over a dozen composers. Translated as ‘the mother is standing’, it is a meditation on Mary’s suffering during the crucifixion of her son Jesus Christ.

The composer, Arvo Pärt, was present for this first performance, and received an ecstatic response from the audience. During intermission, I could see from my seat high in the right balcony where he had been cornered---mobbed?---and made my way down to greet him. What a thrill, to meet this man whose music I’ve admired for so many years. He graciously autographed my program, seeming much younger in person than his photos convey. The elegant conductor, Kristjan Järvi, who also leads the Absolute Ensemble in New York, started the program with a sensual rendition of the third and fourth movements from Messiaen’s L’Ascension. Järvi spun ethereal, otherworldly and sensual textures from the orchestra that set the mood for Pärt’s Stabat Mater, which followed.

The second half of the concert, devoted to Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet, showcased the conductor’s affinity for rock, and rock it did. Järvi emphasized the weight and heft implicit in this ballet, investing it with a primitivism that sometimes brought Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to mind.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


“Henze has forged a dazzling chamber music,” reports Der Standard, in a highly favorable review of the Vienna premiere of Hans Werner Henze's opera Phaedra, which I attended last Sunday evening. (The first performance was less than a year ago in Berlin, at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.) Devouring most of the seats on the floor of the Theater an der Wien, the 20-piece orchestra (Ensemble Modern), supplanted and surrealistically stretched by occasional electronic intrusions, handled the elegant string writing, the delicate sonorities for piano, celesta, percussion, and harp, and the more stridently written brass with finesse and an extremely wide dynamic palate. The singers, despite the sudden replacement of the singer for Phaedra---Magdalena Anna Hofmann---were all enormously bewitching, especially the phenomenal countertenor and baritone Axel Köhler, who sang the part of Artemis.

Olafur Eliasson, the set designer, stole the show. His catwalk connecting the orchestra to the stage (bringing to mind fashion shows or even beauty pageants) allowed the singers to fan out from the orchestra, and to return to it as a kind of home base. Light was a major component, beginning with the steel ring that reflected beams of light around the space, twirling above, in the middle of the auditorium; expanding to three projections of the ring on the curtain, and then, when the curtain is removed, light is reflected and refracted by not one, but two full length and full width mirrors. Quite difficult to convey in words, but mesmerizing. The audience is reflected back onto itself, but not in the brash ‘in your face’ way of Richard Forman’s plexiglass (I’m thinking of “What to Wear”). Instead, the mirrored images are soft and diffuse, and serve to further break down the barriers between actors/singers and audience. (The image in the photo is taken of the mirror on stage, reflecting everything back to the audience, or in this case, the camera.) Had I attended the previous performance, this was a production to return to the next night, with its diverse layers and gripping Greek myth, retold by Henze and his librettist, Christian Lehnert.

There are two reviews in English with further details and contrasting opinions, including photos, of the Berlin premiere: culturekiosque, and musicweb.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Into the Little Hill

The one-hour opera that I saw tonight at the Jugendstiltheater, George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, was the fourth contemporary opera programmed as part of the Wiener Festwochen. The others were Michaels Reise, by Karlheinz Stockhausen (see earlier post); Jakob Lenz, by Wolfgang Rihm; and Phaedra, by Hans Werner Henze (posts to come for these two).

There are striking parallels among all of these relatively new operas. In each, the audience was subjected to bright light, either blinding, as in Jakob Lenz (where the subtitles couldn’t be read because of the wattage pouring right into the eyes), or intermittent (the circular steel ring floating above the orchestra, in Phaedra, shooting reflected rays of light around the space); or, in the case of the opera seen tonight, two vertical rectangles providing light and design (see photo). Michaels Reise was less aggressive in this respect, yet one major component of the set design was a large circular screen that both emitted visual phenomena, and functioned as a ‘receiver’ (a typical passive flat surface for projection) as well. Another commonality: the orchestras were fully visible in each of these four operas, and sometimes integrated into the stage action. This was most radical in Michaels Reise, with the protagonist (Micheal, the trumpet player) being hurled around in the air in a contraption that seemed like some insane fairground ride, and then landing next to musicians (who were on risers, stage right and left) with whom he performed duets. The orchestra in Jakob Lenz occupied nearly half the stage, and was set apart from the chaos (this was no minimalist production) by an overhanging rectangular umbrella that also served as a receptive screen for live video. The musicians, although occupying the same space as the singers, were clearly separate. Also true of Phaedra, but in this arrangement, the orchestra was situated smack in the middle of the hall, where normally the audience would sit (from about row 10 to the last row). Again, no interaction with the singers, but visually stunning, with the bridge leading from the orchestra past the audience seated on the ground floor (many of us were above, in balconies) to the stage.

The orchestra for Into the Little Hill was planted into piles of sawdust covering the stage, and was as much a part of the staging as the singers were, although the musicians of the Ensemble Modern performed ‘normally’, not engaging in any stage action. The Ensemble Modern, however, has a long history of blurring the boundaries between music and theater, especially in the works of Heiner Goebbels. Into the Little Hill, a lyrical tale, is an updated version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Simplistic and clear, the minimalist set, with platforms for the two singers emerging from the two vertical light boxes, not only complemented the sparse libretto, but was a foil for the intricately scored music---always in motion, often delicate but harsh when necessary. Soprano Anu Komsi (on the right in photo) approached her extreme high notes fearlessly and the sound, without vibrato, seemed like an audible manifestation of the blindingly bright light boxes. My eyes are still burning from that light! She was spectacular. The contralto, Hilary Summers, sang the roles of the Minister and the Mother with great command and presence. The 12-piece orchestra, which included banjo and mandolin (played by the string players), was conducted with assurance and flair by Franck Ollu. Directed by Daniel Jeanneteau, and libretto written by Martin Crimp.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Errand Boy for Rhythm

Saturday night, at the m.o.-x.x. jazz club in Graz, I joined Christine, her children Julia and Maxie, and a host of relatives and friends to hear a trio perform in homage to Nat King Cole. The trio was led by Simon Fanta, a young singer, pianist, and composer of exciting promise (a kind of Austrian Harry Connick Jr.!). Simon is the son of Christine’s childhood friend, Maria Fanta, an architect in Graz. The trio filled out two sets of American standards with virtuosic solos, Thorsten Zimmermann playing a rock-solid bass, and Samuele Vivian zinging thousands of notes out of his electric guitar. Many of the songs were well-known standards (All of Me; Autumn Leaves; Fly Me to the Moon). My favorite: I’m An Errand Boy for Rhythm, by none other than the honoree, Mr. Cole. “If you want to swing and shout, get your kicks and get about, I’m an errand boy for rhythm--send me!”