Monday 21 September 2015

Fascinating decay

The German neo-expressionist composer Wolfgang Rihm has written a new piano concerto, which was premiered at the Salzburg Festival this summer by body builder Tzimon Barto and controversial conductor Chris Esch:

Rihm produced a painful, calm lament in an idiom à la Alban Berg, but with a personal touch, harking back to the early 20th century, lovingly caressing a dying late romanticism. The piece has the colours and smells of dead flowers, autumnal graveyards, and old photographs of Vienna. A remarkable and beautiful admission of regret and loss of a classical tradition.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Liberated from the dungeon

On 12 September the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra gave a concert performance of Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. I will not expound here on all my impressions, which were too manifold, but only want to say that the performance, led by star conductor Jaap van Zweden, was superb. As we know, Wagner himself preferred quick tempi and clear textures, where the 'singing line' - both in the singers' parts and in the orchestra - were given a clear and expressive profile. Van Zweden met these requirements brilliantly and with great intensity, and turned the occasion into a gripping experience.

Given the many different types of inhabitants, it is impossible to generalize about countries; too many different trends give character to a nation. But where there are some trends that have taken-on a dominating character, they define a psychological and cultural climate. The Netherlands, where I live (most of the time forced by circumstance and against my wishes), with their multi-cultural and free psychological climate, are characterized by an increasingly populist culture in public space. Creative projects and initiatives are generously funded by the state, which has delegated the financing to many independent institutions, running a gamut of diverse activities where anybody with some nice ideas can get the money to realize them, unhindered by competence, artistic talents or even a minimum of intelligence. In the midst of this childish climate, there are the rather isolated circles of serious, figurative painters, the museums with the old collections, and institutions like the Concertgebouw which provide islands of quality culture to the remaining audiences who are not specifically attracted to cut corpses in formaldihyde or indigestion noises dressed-up as 'art' or 'music'. The Radio Philharmonic, narrowly escaping cancellation by the government a couple of years ago, has developed into a world class ensemble, a level of musical quality to which Jaap van Zweden has greatly contributed over the years when he was their principal conductor. Yesterday they served a completely full hall (the concert was already sold-out after a couple of days in June), with an utmost attentive audience which burst-out in a roar of enthusiasm after Isolde had floated away on the golden sounds of the famous 'Verklärung' with which this remarkable work is rounded-off.

Now, Dutch people share particular types of behavior which, after some time, are noticed by any foreigner who has, for some reason, made the decision to live here: emotions are not expressed but bottled-up and ventilated only in the family context; manners are considered right-wing and authoritarian and thus avoided at any cost; the value of everything in life is measured by the amount of money it brings-in, so music is on the bottom of the priority list and all things cultural are mere hobbies; morality is something inflicted upon others; a strong conformism and intolerance is hidden by a façade of progressiveness and tolerance; and - the most difficult to deal with for foreigners - reality is not the result of observation and analysis, but of consensus.... something is true when enough people believe it. This last characteristic is related to the idea, that there is no reality but only nuances of opinion, hence the strong Dutch tradition of 'discussion' where entirely incompatible parties sit around a table with the aim of reaching a point of view reflecting the one of the person who has the loudest voice of all. These misunderstandings and prejudices form a strong hindrance for living life to the full.... the soul is buried, tortured, thrown away in the dark where there is weeping and grinding of teeth.

But since human beings are, under the surface of local culture, basically the same everywhere, and in need of the same fundamental fulfilments, a lot of emotional yearning and frustration which is brushed under the carpet, does not go away - it is merely stewing. There, the entire range of profound spiritual conflict, longing, and all the other emotional gardening which has been so effectively explored by 19C romanticism, locked-up in the dungeon of cultural and social taboos, forms an explosive mix that occasionally finds an outlet in situations where the lid can temporarily be taken-off and the built-up pressure can escape without too much physical violence in the streets. Many Dutch people find this happy solution in football matches (as in England and especially, Scotland), while more culturally-developed sufferers find them in the concerts where the champions of profound soul-searching are celebrated: Bruckner, Mahler, and Wagner, composers who are surprisingly popular in Holland, to such an extent as if they represent something of a secret national cultural identity. At the concert yesterday, the pant-up emotions on and off stage, as carefully and intensity monitored and controlled by Van Zweden, exploded at the end with the catharsis of a prisoner, finally liberated from the worst possible oppression.

So, that is the absurdist state of contemporary Dutch public life: on the surface, we have the extensive field of incompetent nonsense, and underneath the suppressed emotional reality which hankers after the real stuff as provided by the old sorcerer from Bayreuth, since long dead and buried but still very much alive in a cultural sense. Jaap van Zweden gave the Dutch what they need - understanding the reality which tries to cut through the bars. In Holland, orchestras struggle to cope with subsidy cuts and dwindling audiences, and classical music is generally being looked-down upon as decadent entertainment for the rich - but when Van Zweden returns to celebrate something of the potential underneath, he is recognized by audiences as their therapeutic magician. The Radio Philharmonic should be thanked for their stubbornness to remain attached to the man who made them play like yesterday.

Monday 7 September 2015

American opera and its critics

Another revealing discussion on Slipped Disc... this time about contemporary opera, and the American way of criticizing it:

The difficulty of thinking out, or rather crawling out, of the aesthetic box of the last century, is still extremely hard for people who got finally more or less adapted to the 20C idea of 'progress' and 'advanced musical language'. On one hand, it is suggested that a new opera should connect with audiences, which are contemporary as a given, but on the other hand the music should be consciously contemporary in the sense of an implied necessity of using an 'advanced musical language'.

'Contemporary audiences' are supposed to like 'advanced' music but mostly they don't, it is the critics who fear to appear in the next volume of Nicolas Slonimsky's 'Lexicon of Musical Invective' and thus, advocate the 'new' of 100 years old. Then you have the contemporary composers who use contemporary entertainment material in the hope that audiences will feel 'connected'. But audiences who go to the opera, are NOT expecting the same banalities they can hear daily everywhere in public space. And when opera houses want to develop new audiences and thus commission such new works, where pop meets world music meets snippets from Bernstein, they create audiences who will find it as much difficult to unterstand Verdi, Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner and Puccini etc. etc. as if they had never enjoyed the new, contemporary entertainment products. You cannot have it both ways.

I strongly believe, and I know it is for many people an absurd point of view, that only a full embrace of oldfashioned opera music could ever produce a really worthwhile new opera. And I am not the first one saying this:

"Torniamo all'antico: sarà un progresso." (Giuseppe Verdi)