For over a decade I’ve covered the Glimmerglass Festival and have celebrated its ascension to an internationally lauded event under the direction of the boundlessly energetic and resourceful Franscesca Zambello. The cancelation of the 2020 season was another of many tragic cancelations of sister opera houses world-wide.
Maestro Søndergård gave his all, with the Berliners spurning any sign of pandemic gloom. Of course, the program reflected the bitter irony of the variegated excesses of the 1920s. Like a dream of a pristine past, Sibelius’s Sixth, the centerpiece, stood in reflective and almost solemn relief.
Let it never be said that French musical culture is reluctant when it comes to matters of the heart. Speaking in caricature, we incline to think of England as prudish and of Italy as choked-up and glottal-stopped with amorous emotion. The French, though, seem to be the official “culture of love," and--let’s be clear—French musical “impressionism” is largely about sex. All those satiny string breezes and quivering woodwind dewdrops mean little if we don’t imagine languid lovers at center stage. That’s what Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is all about, of course, as is Daphnis and Chloe. But there is a reserve in both Debussy and Ravel which keeps the listener at an artistic remove. No one would accuse Debussy’s Jeux or Ravel’s Mother Goose of louche sensuality. Florent Schmitt, on the other hand, like the film noir composer he could have been, is happy to confront sensual moments in real time. Schmitt’s constantly shifting rhythms mirror the quick intensity of actual emotions and thoughts, the changeable “eclectic” quality of human happenings and the physical process of sex itself. There are moments in La Tragédie de Salomé where you might as well be listening to the headboard banging against the wall.
Numerous early- and mid-twentieth-century German operas failed to reach our shores, or came but made little impact. Even today, several of Richard Strauss’s many highly accomplished and gratifying operas after Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos remain largely unknown to most opera lovers. True, their librettos are often cumbersome, wordy, or obscure, but the works are still well worth hearing and seeing—or getting to know at home through recordings and DVDs. The there’s Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who, having traveled to Hollywood to write film scores, ended up staying here because of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Yet his operas—quite successful for a time in the German-speaking lands—somehow never caught up with him in America.
What a strange, scary, and remarkable year 2020 has been, in all our lives! The social isolation that I have carried out pretty consistently has led me to look to music even more than usual for solace, enlightenment, and pleasant distraction. I gather that many music lovers have traveled a somewhat similar path since mid-March. My penchant for opera, and for vocal music and for the theatre generally, has led me to get to know a number of recent CD releases, many of which I have reviewed for American Record Guide or for various online magazines.
Those who have read my articles and reviews of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem's work, at least the Christmas Concert and the Bach Festival, will understand just how close these events are to the hearts, not only of inhabitants of the Lehigh Valley, but to an extensive community of Bach-lovers, former members of the local audience and the outstanding, mostly amateur choir, who have moved away, and people who have heard the Bach Choir sing once or twice, or more, and travel considerable distances to attend the concerts.
It gladdens my heart to confirm that Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Mermaid is no longer a “rescue” known only to early twentieth century enthusiasts panning for neglected musical gold. It’s too good for a fate like that. There are 11 modern versions of this work now on Naxos’s streaming site, not to mention live performances on YouTube, most of them, like this one, quite fine. The piece has arrived. It’s a fitting outcome for music which premiered in 1905 on the same program as Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande and was actually preferred by the audience.
Ax and Ma chatted about their relationship over the years and the personal idiosyncrasies that sustain or annoy them both. To engage novice listeners, the Beethoven’s sonata became the subject of some slightly nerdy talk about the tonic-dominant-tonic arches that propelled the Beethoven’s sonata. Finally, somehow, they drifted to discussing chef Jacques Pépin’s freaky tolerance for seizing hot skillets its supposed relevance in interpreting the piano attacks in the scherzo.