Month: February 2011

CSI: Atonality

In 1914 young Frances Glessner fabricated a model of the famed Swiss quartette, the Flonzaley Quartette. Her handiwork was presented to the musicians at dinner one evening, an event remembered by her son: “It was covered with a large floral piece in the center of the table, which gave no hint as to what was underneath…. After dinner, the floral piece was removed with a flourish, and there, two feet from their noses, was this model of themselves playing!… For a moment nobody spoke, and then all four members of the quartette burst out in voluble language…. Each one of them pointed with delight to the eccentricities of the other three. I still remember Mr. Betti, with a magnifying glass peering over the shoulder of his own miniature, trying to read the music on the music rack. It had been specially written by Frederick Stock, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, in the style of Schoenberg, but was impossible to play—a fact which Mr. Betti soon appreciated.”

—Carol Callahan, Prairie Avenue Cookbook:
Recipes and Recollections from Prominent
19th-Century Chicago Families
, p. 54

Prairie Avenue, on Chicago’s South Side, was the address of choice for the city’s Gilded Age industrial barons; the Glessner family—John Jacob Glessner was a vice-president of International Harvester—fit the profile in style, living in a mansion designed by H. H. Richardson and dispensing largesse as major supporters of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Due to family pressure, however, Frances Glessner Lee would have to wait until her 50s before she was able to pursue her true calling: forensic pathology. With George Magrath, the chief medical examiner in Boston, she founded Harvard’s department of legal medicine. One can surmise that her model of the Flonzaley Quartet was impressive indeed; she later produced her famous “Nutshell Series of Unexplained Death” (example pictured above, via), intricately detailed one-inch-to-one-foot dioramas of crime scenes, designed as case studies for prospective investigators. Now located at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, the Nutshell Studies still serve their purpose, training the forensic eye to notice their crucial, grisly eccentricities.

Di piu’ risorgere speranza e’ muta!

To be honest, there aren’t as many perks as you might think to being a freelance classical-music critic, but one of them came in the mail yesterday: this new transfer of one of the great performances of Verdi’s La Traviata: live, from Covent Garden in 1958, with Maria Callas as Violetta. Now, while, if forced to name my favorite soprano, I would probably pick Callas, I am hardly a Callas expert, but even I have long been aware of the run of Violettas she sang in the late 1950s—the La Scala performance in 1956, the famous Lisbon Traviata from 1958, and this Covent Garden version. (Callas also sang Violetta at the Met around the same time, before she was “fired” by Rudolf Bing; after Covent Garden, she took on the role one more time, in Dallas.) Callas in La Traviata is kind of like Citizen Kane—not everyone will agree that she was the best Violetta of all time, but the suggestion is more universally plausible than any other. And I’m not sure anyone has ever single-handedly raised the bar on a role the way Callas did; Violetta is, today, a much more challenging role, much more of a career benchmark, because Maria Callas sang it the way she did.

I am probably in a minority in that I prefer the Covent Garden Traviata to the Lisbon Traviata, but my rationale is pretty simple: for me, the heart of the opera is “Ah! Dite alla giovine,” the duet that Violetta sings with Germont in Act II, and Callas’s Covent Garden “Dite alla giovine” surpasses all others. With this new release, I thought I would try and figure out just why that is. It’s tricky: by this point, Callas’s general conception was pretty consistent. Compare the 1958 Lisbon with the 1958 Covent Garden, and they’re pretty similar: the pared-down sound, the implacable rhythm. But there are differences—and, in the Covent Garden version, by design or accident, they pivot the duet from operatic drama to a traumatic critique of operatic drama.

“Dite alla giovine” is one of opera’s great frozen moments. Germont has convinced Violetta to leave Alfredo, Germont’s son, on the grounds that it will remove the scandal that would impair the marriage prospects of Germont’s daughter. “Say to your daughter, so pure and fair,” she sings, “that there is a victim of misfortune whose one ray of happiness before she dies is a sacrifice made for her.” Germont expresses, rather effusively, his sadness at this turn of events. In the Lisbon Traviata, Germont was sung by Mario Sereni in booming fashion (to be fair, he’s only following directions—Verdi writes the part up to a double-forte). This actually made for a neat dramatic moment: when Violetta returns to her opening phrases in duet with Germont, Callas’s insistent quietness actually brings Sereni down from his heroic ring, and the effect is rather of the older man being jolted from public sympathy into a truer, private commiseration. But, perhaps anticipating the gap to be bridged, Callas has already opted for a stronger, bigger dynamic arch than she would use in London. By contrast, Mario Zanasi, the Covent Garden Germont, sings with a much leaner tone—almost tenor-like—and, as a result, the duet maintains a cooler, less roiled profile.

I think that coolness, that emptiness, is the key. You can hear it in the very start of the duet, the fermata “Ah!”:

As always in 19th-century opera, the fermata is an implicit invitation to ornamentation. In the Lisbon Traviata, Callas does an elegant little portamento from the B-flat to the G. At Covent Garden, though, she did a stripped-down ornament: just the B-flat, then an A-flat, then a break before the next downbeat. And that’s why I prefer the Covent Garden Traviata, because it’s where Callas’s conception of the character comes through with the most clarity. Her Violetta is not just a woman who has been forced by society into a corner. She is a woman who has, almost in a loophole way, leveraged the artifice of a projected personal image into a kind of defiant prominence. And, in punishment, she has that very artifice taken from her.

We sometimes compliment a performance or a work of art by calling it “artless”; it’s an illusion, usually the result of an art so finely honed that it disappears from the artistic surface. Callas’s “Dite alla giovine” is something more complex: it’s the illusion of a loss of art. It’s all the more shattering since her Act I singing, in both versions, is so vibrantly artful, a performance shot through with a confidence in its own performing flair. But Traviata is an opera all about pretense, and image, and how societal standing becomes more precarious as society gets more shallow. Like I’ve said before, the heartbreak is that Violetta is trapped in a world where Germont’s argument actually makes sense to her. But then the ultimate emptiness of her own carefully-constructed artifice is laid bare.

Opera is, of course, one of the most artificial art forms there is, in a glorious way. It revels in its artifice; it posits it as more real than real, and sweeps you up in its amplification. Callas’s Violetta plays off that, in a way that, perhaps, she knew would only work within the oppressive artificiality of La Traviata‘s world. For those few minutes of “Dite alla giovine,” Callas rips down the curtain—the artifice is gone, the trappings are gone, the opera-ness of the opera is gone, and we’re left with a palpably empty void. It is as if—to reference another opera—Salome were nothing but veils, her dance a dance of disintegration. Not many singers would dare to open up a glimpse of the abyss like that. Callas would, and it was, at least for me, quite possibly the most beautiful thing she ever did.

Unlikely music critic of the day

We are right off the park, and I get a lot of nature taking Harriet to the amusements. The other day, Anton Webern’s music was on the radio. She heard it and said, “It’s like wild animals thru the woods walking,” and then, “It’s like spiders crying together, but without tears.”

—Robert Lowell to Randall Jarrell, November 7, 1961

At the time, Harriet Lowell was four years old. Her Webernian impressions would turn up in her father’s poem “Fall 1961,” an anxious meditation juxtaposing “the tock, tock, tock / of the orange, bland, ambassadorial / face of the moon / on the grandfather clock” with “the chafe and jar / of nuclear war; / we have talked our extinction to death”:

A father’s no shield
for his child,
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.

Nature holds up a mirror.
One swallow makes a summer.
It’s easy to tick
off the minutes,
but the clockhands stick.

In his biography of Robert Lowell, Lost Puritan, Paul Mariani points out that “Fall 1961” was Lowell’s first poem after a difficult, fallow year following his wildly successful “For the Union Dead.”

Just asking

Okay, I’ll get to the fate of arts funding in the US federal budget in a minute. But first, let us pay proper regard to the parade of arts administrators falling all over themselves to preemptively pass the buck. First up: NEA head Rocco Landesman, who’s been making all sorts of noise lately about how there are too many institutions and too many arts jobs, &c. Example:

“There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists…. Do we need three administrators for every artist?”

I am somewhat surprised that Landesman has not been lambasted for the sheer disingenuousness of that statement, considering he in all likelihood pulled the 5.7 million figure from Amercians for the Arts and the 2 million figure from his own agency without bother to consider that a) the NEA’s 2 million artists are included in AFTA’s 5.7 million workers, and b) that 5.7 million is a tally of total full-time equivalent jobs, not just administrators. But, anyway: then there was Michael Kaiser, dodging blame: “The arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created.” (Don’t sell yourself short, Michael—you stuff your foot that far down your throat, it starts to look vaguely Philip-Guston-esque.) And then there was this blog post by New England Conservatory president Tony Woodcock that the Internet kept trying to direct my attention to the other day. On the surface, it’s your standard classical-music-needs-to-reinvent-itself hand-wringing, full of concern over Relevance and Legitimacy and Its Place In Culture (i.e., in the thrall of irrelevant network effects). But this article was interesting: I scratched that surface, and was kind of amazed how little there was actually there, as it were. I mean, anybody who tries to take both sides in the Detroit Symphony strike is not really putting their foot down very hard. I took it as a sign that our public discourse on the arts may have finally reached the point where all sides have abandoned specificity for rhetorical wheel-spinning. Woodcock’s peroration:

We need to reassert the power of music and the power of musicians to be extraordinary in their music making and in their ability to re-invent themselves for all our futures.

It sounds good, I’ll give him that.

And give those administrators credit for sensing the shift in the wind: in terms of arts funding, the White House’s new budget proposal starts the negotiation at a 13% decrease in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, from $168 million in FY2011 to $146 million in 2012. Keep in mind that the opposition started their negotiation at zero, and it’s looking pretty grim. Here’s the real fun: scroll to page 439 of this bit of high-performance eye-glazing, and you can see that the long-term assumption is a steady erosion of federal arts funding—that estimated $163 million in 2021 is, in real dollars (based on standard CPI inflation estimates), not even as much as the reduced proposal for 2012. If you think that this is a planned devolution and that states will pick up the slack, I will answer you as soon as I catch my breath from laughing.

But, as cynically satisfying as regarding the collapse of civilization can be, it’s still, again, rhetorical wheel-spinning. So here’s my line in the sand: I want to see that proposed $146 million tripled in a decade. I want a commitment to annual 11.5% increases—and, Race-to-the-Top style, I want state access to those increases tied to the ensured health of state arts agencies. And by 2021, the NEA budget should be $438 million. You want to spur private-sector activity? According to this research (which I’ve cited before), such an increase could potentially boost private donations to arts organizations by somewhere between $40 and $340 million annually. You want to create jobs? Compare this analysis and the AFTA analysis: the alternative energy industry—which the proposed budget supports to the tune of some $8 billion in research grants and breaks—generates 1.67 jobs per $100,000 spent, while the arts generates 2.94 jobs per $100,000 spent. You want some political cover? Tripling its budget would merely be returning NEA funding levels, in real terms, to their high-water mark under the Reagan administration (1984, which wasn’t even the high-water mark for NEA funding overall).

Truth be told, I didn’t do a lot of research and then come up with a tripled NEA budget as a result. I pulled that tripling out of thin air, and then went looking for justification. And, truth be told, it wasn’t hard to find it. Does this indicate, perhaps, that I am less than serious about deficit reduction and/or economic growth? Well, as far as I can tell, that puts me in good company. Nobody in government, for all their shouting and posturing, seems really serious about it, either. Nobody seems serious about actually raising taxes or shoring up entitlements. Nobody, for instance, seems serious about scaling back military spending to 1990s levels, even though that’s killing jobs in the long run. It’s just political point-scoring—rhetorical wheel-spinning. Might as well spin that wheel towards the arts. At least they do some good.

The Golden Horn

So I arrived back home from an evening out, having missed the Grammys, and discovered that, apparently, I am some sort of inadvertent, telepathic kiss of death: nobody I was rooting for won. Darcy didn’t win. Steve Mackey and BMOP didn’t win. Harry Christophers didn’t win. Janelle Monáe didn’t win. The late, great Solomon Burke didn’t win. Apologies all around for the magical jinx of my advocacy. (I am a Cubs fan, after all.) At least, in categories that had flown under my scattershot radar, Pete Seeger and Kaija Saariaho came away with awards.

Scrolling through the list of winners, my eye did alight on the category of Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance. The nominees: Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Robert Plant, and John Mayer. Average age: 57.6. Baby boomers: please step away from the levers of cultural power and keep your hands where we can see them.

Another one rides the bus

I don’t normally stoop to highlighting contemporary-music-hurts-my-ears ridiculousness, but this lazy, ill-informed screed from one Michael Fedo (Contemporary music sounds like bus crashes! Supporting evidence: three vague anecdotes and a Terry Gross interview with Paul McCartney) commits the compounding sin of attempting a joke at the expense of tripe, which, as anyone with a modicum of culture knows, is at the pinnacle of the culinary pantheon. Begone, Michael Fedo! We’re just fine with our bus crashes.

One of these days, I am actually going to write an article about how right now is a golden age for tripe eating in Boston. (Exhibit A: Jacky Robert’s Tripes à la Provençale. Exhibits B, C, D….) Of course, the classic statement of Bostonian tripe was the eponymous staple of the old Parker House hotel; you can still recreate it at home.

Noblesse oblige

Apropos of nothing, or maybe something—you never know with the way my brainstorms play out—I got side-tracked yesterday digging up dirt on Boston Symphony Orchestra trustees from the 1950s. That’s a lot of Ivy League WASP rectitude right there! But I did find a good story about N. Penrose Hallowell. Hallowell was a brahmin banker (his BSO trusteeship was an outgrowth of his partnership at Lee, Higginson & Co., BSO founder Henry Lee Higginson’s firm), whose propriety was such that he wouldn’t support his mistress until, after many years, they were properly married. But maybe the experience contributed to this instance of magnificent equanimity:

When Mr. and Mrs. N. Penrose Hallowell were selling their home to Mr. Howard Johnson of eatery fame, Mrs. Hallowell expressed the hope that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson would have a happy future in the house. There was a perceptible silence. Then Master Johnson, age nine, piped up, “There isn’t any Mrs. Johnson. One’s dead and one’s divorced,” adding hopefully, “but Daddy’s got a girl friend.” As the silence turned glacial, Mr. Hallowell rose from his fireside, smote the roadside restaurateur smartly on the back, and speaking for the first time said, “Bully for you, Johnson.”

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?

Kansas is the latest state to take financial aim at the arts, with their governor, Sam Brownback (yes, he’s a Republican—how’d you guess?), issuing an executive order abolishing the Kansas Arts Commission, though the abolishing is via some sort of gradual-privatization-through-the-auspices-of-the-Historical-Society smokescreen convoluted enough to make Freudian analysts rub their hands with glee. At least there’s some nominal outcry. But this is par for the course—political point-scoring over economic impact. It is, in other words, the result of playing nice. And I was musing this morning: maybe part of that playing nice is something that arts advocates normally tout as an advantage, namely, institutions’ deep ties to their communities.

You know why states never pull this kind of crap on corporations? Because corporations don’t care about their communities beyond PR necessity, and governments know it. Go on, Kansas—rescind all the tax breaks on Koch Industries and see how long they stick around. Companies, factories, sports teams—they all know how to work this sort of blackmail. Arts organizations? Not so much. Now, I’m not saying that theaters and opera companies should go to war with their communities. But I, at least, would be curious to see what a little mercenary action could accomplish. Say this Kansas thing holds up—what if the Topeka Symphony could broker a little sweetheart deal with Nebraska to move it and its 100 jobs north of the border? How would that play in Wichita?

Realistic? Probably not. But arts advocates are now forced to deal with an entire generation of free-market fundamentalists that would never risk having their fragile faith tested by something as dangerous as the carrot of an economic impact statement—so why not consider the stick?