Florida State Opera: Werther

The following is reprinted with permission from the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 27 March 2005.

Sumptuous music, colorful costumes, striking scenery, outsized emotions, and some really fine singing. All of these and more are on tap in the Florida State Opera’s production of Jules Massenet’s Werther running this weekend and next at Florida State University’s Opperman Music Hall.

Massenet’s 1892 drama is an adaptation of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, one of the founding documents of Romanticism. The production team (stage director Matthew Lata, scenic and lighting designer Peter Dean Buck, costume designer Colleen Muscha, and wig and makeup designer Kathy Waszkelewisz) made the telling decision to set the action in the 1840’s, when the ideas in Goethe’s story (written during the Enlightenment and in part in reaction to it) had reached their full flower in the culture.

Mr. Buck’s sets and lighting were evocative, and his use of the vertical space over the small Opperman stage created a sense of openness that would not have been possible otherwise. Ms. Muscha’s striking costumes and Ms. Waszkelewisz’ wigs and makeup lent an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

As usual, Mr. Lata (of the FSU opera faculty) moves his characters around the stage with a balance of natural action and theatricality. There is always something to look at in this production.

And then there is the music. Director of Opera Activities Douglas Fisher led a very good student orchestra in a performance that gave voice to the full-throated late Romanticism of the score while maintaining a pace that kept the action moving along. Orchestral intonation and ensemble quality were solid.

Tenor Daniel Gerdes was a compelling Werther. His big, clear voice and expressive phrasing communicated the anguish of the doomed young man.

Melissa Garvey was a sweet-voiced and sympathetic Charlotte, and Lianne Coble was touching as a bystander to the tragedy.

Evan Jones brought a considerable amount of sympathy to the dramatically thankless but musically rewarding role of Charlotte’s husband, Albert. Michael Peters (The Bailiff), Michael Hix (Johann), Oliver Mercer (Schmidt), Amanda Matson (Katchen), and Brent Arnold (Bruhlmann) contributed to the production’s quality in small roles. A well rehearsed and dramatically mischievous children’s chorus added a light touch and poignancy at the drama’s end.

The Florida State Opera will undoubtedly continue, with this production, to add to its growing reputation as one of the finest college opera programs in the country.



St. Lawrence String Quartet

The following is reprinted with permission from the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 24 March 2005. Additions in brackets.

The 2004-2005 season of the Artist Series continued on Tuesday evening [22 March] with a riveting performance by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Florida State University’s Rudy Diamond Auditorium.

Franz Joseph Haydn may not have invented the String Quartet as both genre and medium, but he was present at the creation. The Quartet (Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman, violins, Lesley Roberstson, viola, and Christopher Costanza, cello) opened with an inspired performance of the Viennese master’s Quartet in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 2, “The Joke”.

The first movement was given with just the right balance of lilt and drive, aided by the group’s flexible tempos. This movement gave early indication of what would become clear was the Quartet’s modus operandi: performance as listening. They played every movement of every piece on the program as if deeply listening to the music, as a process of discovery. A good example of this was how they would linger over certain dissonances in this first movement before moving on to their resolution.

The E-flat Quartet has the nickname “Joke” because of the haltingly humorous way the piece ends. The St. Lawrence had set up the joke throughout their performance by emphasizing the silences that dot the piece’s surface. They were rewarded for their efforts by appreciative laughter and sustained applause.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets stand as one of the great quartet cycles in history. The composer explores every aspect of his musical language and expressive terrain in these focused and intense works. The Seventh Quartet (f#-minor, Op. 108), is an essay in irony and quiet despair. The reading by the St. Lawrence was marked by great ensemble playing, and a strong sense of style, astringent and close to the vest necessary and expansive and open when called for.

The program proper closed with a taut and gripping performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127. This Quartet is the first of a group of five quartets Beethoven composed near the end of life, and they stand as among the most personal musical documents we have. In these works, which are both concentrated in their expression and expansive in how this expression is played out, the composer grapples with ideas and issues that are truly beyond words.

Of special note in this reading were the timbral intensity maintained virtually throughout, the excellent ensemble dynamics, and the beautifully lyrical transitions of the second, theme and variations, movement.

The Quartet returned to the stage after an enthusiastic ovation. Calling it “sherbet after that heavy meal”, Mr. Nuttall announced the Scherzo of Maurice Ravel’s Quartet as an encore. The St. Lawrence played it with flair and joy, in a ravishingly sensual reading.

[The St. Lawrence String Quartet is the Quartet-in-Residence at Stanford University. FSU, can we get one?]


Zwolf at the Door

(Blame him for the title. He started it.)

Alex picks up on Kyle Gann's questionable use of the word "infertile" and gives examples of the special kind of fertility in 12-tone technique. Here's another, a very pregnant and powerful row that my teacher, William Hibbard, used a lot (starting on C in this rendering):

C F G A# D D# G# A C# E F# B

One particularly interesting feature of this row (among many) is how it can be used to change the level of dissonance (melodically and harmonically) over the course of a phrase or even on higher structural levels.



Kyle Gann has posted an excellent and thoughtful piece about 12-tone technique, 12-tone music, serialism, teaching, and history. So has Tim Rutherford-Johnson.

It's hard for me to imagine someone designing a compostition curriculum without teaching the basics of 12-tone technique. The more tools you have in your box, the more likely you are to be able to make what you want to make.

And for me, 12-tonery is a constellation of techniques that can be used in combination with others. The music I am writing now doesn't directly use any of those techniques, but the influence is there in many indirect ways. I can't think of any great music that has been written since the propagation of the ideas that isn't influenced by them in some way.


Music of Laughter and Forgetting

I find the current production of Style Wars!, now playing at Composer's Forum and in its permanent run in Kyle Gann's blog (We are at war with serialism. We have always been at war with serialism.) desultory, tired, and sad.

But the worst of it is Mr. Gann's approving posting of this note from composer Art Jarvinen (whose music I like quite a bit):

I used to cover 12 tone basics in my Introduction To Composition class until a couple years ago. I realized that most of the students hate the music, don't like the technique for its own sake, didn't seem to get much out of the homework assignment, and generally find it all completely irrelevant to their own musical lives. Since I can say almost the same things for myself (with certain notable exceptions) and realized years ago that that stuff is basically dead in the water, I replaced it with another, much more amusing, topic: Plunderphonics.

Besides the inmates-running-the-asylum aspect of this move, 12-tone technique is kind of important, and 12-tonery is a precursor of minimalism in some substantive and important ways. But mainly I just want to let Mr. Jarvinen and others of like mind to know that, when they decide to remove 12-tone scores from the library, they can send them to me rather than go to the trouble of burning them.

First name o' Word. Last name o' Smith.

Call him Smitty. Alex Ross shows once again how it is done in this fine review from the New Yorker. His disappointment in one work and pleasure in another are palpable. But I come not to praise Alex, but to quote him. Among the felicitous turns of phrase, delicious puns, and just plain old damn good sentences are:

sonic thunder

hypnotically wayward narratives that reel from antic joy to frozen despair

. . . his 1998 maiden effort, “Little Women,”

The orchestral writing is often little more—or nothing less—than a play of light around the voices.

Rule Britannia

The following is reprinted with permission from the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 21 March 2005. Additions and corrections are in brackets.

It is a musical mystery: England produced no [concert music] composers of international renown between the death of Henry Purcell in 1695 and the emergence of Edward Elgar in the 1890s. There are undoubtedly many good reasons for this dearth, but the resurgence that began with Elgar has continued to this day.

The third concert of the Masterworks series of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra consisted of pieces by three of England's greatest 20th-century composers: William Walton, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

[Music] Director David Hoose and the orchestra began Saturday evening's concert with a spirited performance of Walton's coronation march, Crown Imperial. The orchestra's playing was crisp and lively, and Hoose's reading was well-paced and regal, with clearly etched phrases.

Britten's Peter Grimes is one of the towers of the operatic repertoire and the Four Sea Interludes the composer extracted from it are among his most popular and characteristic orchestral pieces.

The orchestra dove into the difficult work and delivered a taut and expressive performance. It was well-received by the audience, a testament to how far the orchestra has come under Hoose's leadership.

The orchestra is playing at, perhaps, its highest level ever, and the exciting programming of recent seasons is providing musical experiences that are rare in cities the size of Tallahassee.

The second half of the program was given over to a gripping reading of Vaughan Williams' strange and wonderful Sinfonia Antarctica, his seventh symphony. The Sinfonia was put together by the composer from music he had written for a film about the doomed Antarctic voyage of Robert Scott.

The Sinfonia is cast in five movements, each of which was accompanied by one or more quotations, either from Scott's journals or from literature. These quotations were provided to the audience or read by a narrator, Michael Richey in this performance.

I think the use of a narrator is essential to a good performance of this work because the descriptive texts act as a bridge from the music to the narrative. And this was a very fine performance, indeed.

The orchestra, with the help of wordless vocalises by soprano Cicily Nall and the FSU Women's Glee Club, brought out the awe and terror in this powerful piece.

[The dying away of the last chord was augmented by our old friend, the cell phone. Unless it was a reference to the famous last entry in Scott’s journal, "Can you hear me now?"]



"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry." So said John Cage, and I'm using that as my official reason for not posting anything of late.

I've added In the Wings, a blog from an Oakland pianist with the improbable name "Heather", to the blogroll. Give it a read.


Everything is Green (III)

I've finished a short prelude and am now into Scene I. I've changed the way I work a bit in response to how it has gone so far. In the past I've worked over passages to death before moving on, but what I'm doing with this piece is noting problems and planning to revise the passages in question in light of the piece as a whole after a first draft is finished.

I'm not sure how interesting it is to readers to see this stuff, or how much good it does me to post it, but I can rest easy in the knowledge that when A. C. Douglas writes that Everything is Green, if it is to be produced at all, could only be fully realized as an underwater pornographic Noh puppet show, he will have source material to refer to.