Saturday, April 29, 2017

Portlandia

You won't get much blogging from me for the next couple of days as I will be traveling and recovering from traveling. After that, though, posting should be pretty frequent. But I did just run across something that struck a few resonances with me. The Wall Street Journal today has one of their travel pieces, this one titled "How to Spend a Perfect Long Weekend in Portland." Sample:
BEFORE PORTLAND, ORE., established itself as a hipster utopia and beleaguered punch line—a land of vegan tattoos, fastidious food-truck chefs and all things crafty and pickled—visitors were already taken with its abundant natural attributes. The Willamette River divides the city, forest trails wind throughout it, and Mount Hood and the coast each sit just over an hour’s drive away. A cleverly planned long weekend in Portland will tap both aspects: sampling urban obsessiveness and the abundant verdure of the Pacific Northwest.
You should especially look at all the photos that accompany the article, like this one:



Let me hasten to say that I have never been to Portland so what I am really going to critique is just the image of the city represented by the article. I also know quite a few really lovely people from the area. But what resonates is how very much Portland seems to resemble a place I was very familiar with: Victoria, British Columbia, something of a Canadian Portland with its own very similar natural beauty and cultural amenities. The same kind of rustic hipster vibe seems to emanate from both. Must be a Pacific Northwest thing.

So what do I think? I would really, really hate to spend any time there. Why? For me, all the cultural values are wrong--and likely false. These places reveal an emptiness in our culture precisely because they seem to enshrine a kind of secular paradise.

Now there is nothing wrong with any individual element: natural beauty in the form of gardens, forests, mountains and oceans (in the case of Victoria, if not Portland) is a Good. So are things like locally-sourced gourmet foods, craft breweries, cycling around town, shopping for all sorts of odd things and so on. Portland also has a very large and famous bookstore, Powell's.

What I want to point out is what is missing. This is hard to do without sounding like a snob, but here goes. Apart from that bookstore (which I haven't visited so cannot comment on), there really doesn't seem to be any actual culture here. By culture, I mean "high culture". Of course, they don't want any of that stuffy crap. That's why they are hitting the craft brewery tasting rooms, the gourmet locally-sourced donut shops and cycling around town to the vegan mini-mall. I know this culture quite well. Just look at that photo of the craft brewery tasting room. Everyone is relaxed, laid-back, casual, just enjoying life. A life entirely free of anything challenging or intellectual or genuinely aesthetic. This might seem a low blow, but c'mon, these people have absolutely no idea how to dress, but they are likely quite smug about it! They're hicks in logger shirts thinking they are sophisticates. That room is like an empty warehouse with no aesthetic pretensions whatsoever.

The last photo in the WSJ photo gallery on Portland is what really clinches my argument: it is of the Arlene Schneitzer Concert Hall, a renovated 1927 theater. So what cultural events are presented there? Here is the list from now until October. Standup comedians like Patton Oswalt and Jerry Seinfeld, progressive activists like Shaun King, popular musicians like Lyle Lovett and Bryan Ferry, crossover artists like the Piano Guys. And in all that long, long season there is one and only one classical music concert: the Portland Youth Philharmonic. This gives us a pretty good insight into the cultural values of Portland. They like entertainment like popular music and comedy, they like some crossover because that is, again, popular entertainment, they like social activists and they are willing to tolerate a bit of classical music if the justification is education and "for the children." All of this is flattering to the attendees, both culturally and morally, while demanding absolutely nothing from them. It's kind of like a cultural craft brewery tasting hall, all hoppy and vacant.

Isn't all this perfectly and absolutely vacuous and banal? Well, not if you have never known anything different, no. And that's the problem. This is a lovely and paradisiacal environment where no-one is consciously aware of what they are lacking. Any curmudgeonly bitching about the programs at the concert hall such as I have just engaged in is going to be greeted by simple puzzlement or outright denial.

What I believe is that the beauty and consolation of art must always be earned. You can't just suck it up like craft beer. In music, beauty, without the fraught journey towards beauty, is just melodrama and kitsch. Everything worthwhile has to be earned.

Let's see if we can find an envoi that illustrates this, sonically. Here is a challenging symphony by the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson, this is the Symphony No. 7 with the Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Antal Doráti:


Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The world would be a duller place without the adroit satires of The Onion. Here is a piece about the delight one orchestra expressed about an upcoming pops concert with John Mellencamp:
“To repeat the same sequence of eight notes over and over again while staring at the back of John Mellencamp’s head as amplified guitars and boisterous audience members drown out most of the sound—I can’t think of a greater privilege than that. The only thing better would be playing with Jon Bon Jovi, but I’m not getting my hopes up.”
* * *


Ringo is just about to turn 75--if you can believe it--and The Spectator has a tribute: Ringo's no joke. He was a genius and the Beatles were lucky to have him which to my mind is the simple truth.
...the Beatles were great only because of the greatness of four men composing and playing together. Without Starr in the mix, they would have sounded quite different, and probably not as wonderful.
Ringo got subtler the further the band left touring behind and the more experimental, from mid-1966, they became in the studio. Without him, there’d be no Beatles track like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, which ends the album Revolver. With its tape-loop screeches and Lennon’s eerie vocal, the whole is held together by Starr’s astonishing, off-the-beat control on slackened tom-toms. His drumming makes this piece of music shamanic and, still, utterly fresh.
So the next time you listen to a Beatles tune like Harrison's "Something", listen to what Ringo is doing. Without him, the song would be something quite different and not nearly as good.

* * * 

And again the Globe and Mail has a dreary article about Canada's "cultural policy" which always seems to boil down to limiting the choices of Canadians by forcing them to support local tv, music and movie production no matter how mediocre on the theory that Canada has to "listen to its own stories." But it seems the culturecrats seem to have met their match with the Internet. How do you stop Netflix without looking like an idiot?
Ms. Joly seems aware of the contradiction of mandating Canadian content rules for domestic services but praising the exploitation of a free and open Canadian Internet for foreign cultural products. But after months and months of consultations, it seems we’re no closer to either putting something on that Heritage table to address the contradiction; nor is it any clearer whether Ottawa might be ripping the government-supported Band-Aids off altogether and letting everyone be free.
Net neutrality may be good Internet policy, but it’s not a substitute for a cultural policy.
* * *

Sorry for the appallingly brief miscellanea this week. If you had the kind of week I have had... Let's end with a delightful envoi. This is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich played by Hilary Hahn with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Mariss Jansons:


That's the only violin concerto I know of to begin with a nocturne.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Patricia Janečková

Too busy this week to do much blogging, but here is a treat for you: very young soprano Patricia Janečková singing an aria from Le nozze de Figaro by Mozart: "Voi che sapete" followed by "Ach, Ich Fühl's" from "Die Zauberflöte"



For a classical singer, she is very young, still only eighteen.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Farewell to Robert Pirsig

I see that Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, passed away yesterday. I ran across this book at a friend's house where I was staying way back in the 70s. I like to read in bed before I go to sleep and I picked this up off the shelf because of the unusual title. But I ended up reading the entire book instead of sleeping! Years later I read it again a couple of times. I was just thinking a couple of weeks ago that I was due to read it again. This is a profoundly unusual book. The idea of the title has been copied many times, but the idea of the book has not. It is as much about Plato as it is about Zen. And it is as much about life and psychology as it is about philosophy. I recommend it highly.


The Horrors of Flying Just Got Worse


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Opera in Canada

It is illuminating to compare the origins of opera in Italy with opera in Canada where an iconic opera commissioned for Canada's centenary in 1967 has just been revived and revised to celebrate Canada's 150th. The opera is Louis Riel, the story of a Métis rebel in 19th century Canada. There is a review of the revival in the Globe and Mail by Robert Harris:
It’s hard to remember a production more eagerly anticipated than the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Harry Somers’s and Mavor Moore’s Louis Riel, which opened Thursday at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. Here was the iconic Canadian opera, conceived on a grand scale, commissioned for Canada’s centennial year and revived for its sesquicentennial. A co-production of the COC and the National Arts Centre. A Canadian opera presented in two major houses. An all-star Canadian cast. A renowned Canadian director.
And how did it turn out?
The problem with the COC’s and director Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel is that a surprisingly small story, in the end, was played very large. I’ve never seen the gargantuan Four Seasons stage seem so immense and lonely, with vast open spaces yawning between characters who should have been in intimate connection. Sometimes characters in conversation are 20 or 30 feet from one another. Perhaps that was Hinton’s idea, to portray the power of our landscape on stage, but the unoccupied spaces tended to drain the drama from the story, make everything into tableaux, turn intimacy into historical set-piece. Hinton used space this way because he had, in effect, two choruses on stage for virtually the whole opera – one representing white Canada, often arrayed in a jury box that stretched across the entire stage; the other a collection of Indigenous people, mute, the Land Assembly, as he calls it, one of his innovations to try to restore the Indigenous reality left out of the original Riel production. I wondered before Thursday whether the Land Assembly would seem irrelevant, or powerful, and in the end it was neither, actually. It was a dramatic technique that sometimes added to the sense of the story and sometimes provided mere visual interest, but tended to dissipate the drama on stage rather than heighten it. Often, the onstage chorus interceded between us and the main characters, diminishing our response to the drama those characters represented.
The composer was Harry Somers:
But the basic problem that all cast members had, as well as the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus, is that Somers’s score for Riel has not aged well in the 50 years since its composition. Somers wrote Riel in something of a quasi-dissonant, highly angular, international style in the mid-sixties, sort of the musical equivalent of all those anonymous steel and glass office towers that clog North American cities today. The problem with the style is that it is consummately anti-lyrical, refusing the human voice its natural concourse and ambit, and so fails to reflect a human story with essential warmth and needed passion.
I suspect there might be another layer of problems, both with the original and with the revival and it is one endemic to the arts in Canada. There is this deeply rooted belief that Canada always has to have a "national policy" for everything: crises, economics, and, sadly, the arts. There is always a kind of deadening collectivity like a blanket of mediocrity over everything. The essential truth about the arts is that there, as in everything, creativity always comes from individuals. Perhaps the greatest Canadian musicians were Glenn Gould and Leonard Cohen, both of them very unusual individuals and for that reason, often treated with suspicion by their fellow Canadians. Success in the arts in Canada is dependent on the good regard of your colleagues who run those sources of publicity, support and promotion: the Canada Council, the Canadian Opera Company, the National Arts Centre. All of them following some sort of national policy. And just as the individuals were lost on the stage of the Louis Riél opera, so the creative individuals in Canada tend to fall through the cracks of the "national arts policy". Good God, why would anyone think that the arts come from government bodies and policies! But that seems to be the view in Canada.

It doesn't work that way. My evidence is that there are no Canadian composers who are internationally known. The only two who come close are Claude Vivier and R. Murray Shafer and unless you are Canadian, I suspect you have never heard of either of them.

As an envoi, here is some music by Claude Vivier, Lonely Child, for soprano and orchestra:

Monteverdi and the Opera

The composer more responsible for the creation of the genre of the opera than any other is Claudio Monteverdi who wrote operas over a forty year period from L'Orfeo of 1607 to L'incoronazione di Poppea of 1643. We only have a partial picture of the early development of the opera because we are missing all the operas written during a thirty year span in the middle! Seven out of Monteverdi's ten operas (two incomplete) are lost with only fragments surviving. The most famous fragment is the Lamento d'Arianna, an extended recitative from the opera L'Arianna relating the classical story of Theseus' abandonment of Ariadna on the island of Naxos. This lament, surviving in three different versions, the original solo song, a five-voice madrigal and a sacred hymn, was the model for operatic laments for a hundred years and more. Let's have a listen. The singer is Anna Caterina Antonacci:


The full-fledged opera grew out of a host of musical theatre pieces of different kinds that were created for the amusement of the noble courts of northern Italy in the late 16th century. The first actual opera was not by Monteverdi, but by Jacopo Peri in 1597. This was Dafne, written for a circle of humanists in Florence, but first performed in Venice in 1598. The libretto was by Ottavio Rinuccini who also wrote the libretto for Monteverdi's Arianna. Indeed, one recurring theme in all these vocal works is the tight and interactive relationship between the text and the music that we see not only here, but in the madrigals we were looking at. Unquestionably, the most important poetic text for the development of this relationship was Il pastor fido, the tragicomic pastoral by Giovanni Battista Guarini published in 1590 and the source of the texts for a host of madrigals.

The first opera that we have complete that is regularly performed today is L'Orfeo by Monteverdi on a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, but it was very much inspired by the second opera by Peri, Euridice, on a libretto by Rinuccini, first performed in 1600. Euridice was, of course, the wife of Orfeo, whom he attempted to rescue from Hades. This is rather as if another playwright had written a play titled "Juliet" which Shakespeare emulated by writing one titled "Romeo"! It is remarkable what a close circle of creative poets, composers, musicians and noble patrons were responsible for the birth and flourishing of opera.

We are going to spend at least one post on the remarkable opera, L'Orfeo, by Monteverdi, but that will be for next time. For now, let's listen to a performance that attempts to recreate what the original might have sounded like. This rather magnificent performance was directed by Jordi Savall: