Quarter notes: end of summer edition

Summer is winding down, classical performance — with the exception of Seattle Opera’s head scratching new production of Tristan und Isolde – are more or less on hiatus until September. All of this leaves a blogger with little to blog about. Yet a few noteworthy bits have popped up here and there.

This Sunday George Shangrow will be remembered at a service held at the University Christian Church in the U District. The service starts at 2 pm and runs until 5 pm. Get there early. Seating is limited and because George’s presence was huge there will no doubt be an overflowing crowd.

Tristan und Isolde wraps up this weekend at McCaw hall. I saw the new production last weekend. The general consensus among critics has been reservedly favorable; consensus among the audience hasn’t been as generous.  Nearly everyone I spoke with thought the orchestra sounded spectacular. Fisch whipped the band into grand Wagnerian shape but it never missed a chance to embrace the score’s warmer moments. Most also liked Tristan’s cast as well. the golden age of Wagner singers is long gone but that didn’t stop Clifton Forbis and Annalena Persson from giving a memorable performance of Tristan and Isolde.  Once again, Persson started her Tristan performance with uncertainty in her voice and a wavering tone.  By the second act she had found Isolde’s voice; her arresting Liebestob provided a satisfying conclusion.

If the audience appreciated the musical qualities of the performance, production elements weren’t regarded as favorably. “The directing and set design were so bad I periodically closed my eyes to listen so I would not be distracted” read one comment posted on the Seattle Times web review.  The painted sets looked like cheap, grey particle board. A new projection system — written up extensively in the Tristan program — added little to the opera’s texture. Israel’s changing costumes were interesting, highlighting the opera’s mythology, but with very little else on stage, they seemed out of place. Kazaras looked to explore “Tristan time” and the idea that an event which takes a few seconds in real time might seem much longer in the mind. This is all well and good as an idea, but on stage it failed to translate, turning the opera into a series of incomprehensible moments.

The music is always paramount with an opera.  But for professional company’s like Seattle Opera the music can’t be everything.  Audiences already expect big things in the pit and on stage — for Wagner especially.  For a production to be successful then, the sets, costumes, stage direction, and everything else that isn’t musical must be good too.  Fisch’s orchestra and Jenkins’s cast were memorable, while Israel and Kazaras’s production forgettable.

Pianist Stephen Hough has weighed in on the vibrato debate. Frankly, I’m tired of the historic performance debate. Performance styles change; instruments change and so do the musicians who play them. Looking back has benefits: it gives a chance to hear what a performance might have sounded like when a piece of music was written. But just as valuable are musicians who today take chances with classic pieces of music, giving us performances suitable to the 21st Century.

Just as incomprehensible as the vibrato debate, is the back and forth between Greg Sandow and Heather Mac Donald, a writer with City Journal. Sandow has issued a barrage of defensive responses to Mac Donald’s argument that we are living in the golden age of classical music. She basis her thesis on a number of points which you can read yourself; all of them are valid observations. For instance, she states that there is more classical music available that is better played than ever before. Sandow’s counter arguments are equally compelling. However, Sandow loses me with his tone. He is dismissive and derisive. He pokes fun at her name — “that’s really how she spells her name; the space after “Mac” isn’t a typo” — which is a subject that should never come up if you are serious about having a debate.  Sandow defends his position, and the conventional wisdom of the classical music industry, that as an art form on the margins, classical music is in trouble.

His flurry of posts convey desperation, like a someone defending the notion the Earth is flat after being presented with incontrovertible proof the Earth is really round.  Mac Donald’s lengthy response is as convincing as her first.  The problem with conventional wisdom is that it changes. For the sake of classical music I hope Mac Donald is right.

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