To stay positive, I've been working hard and taking mega-doses of music. Here's what I've been aurally self-medicating with:
TOSCA at the Los Angeles Opera
Tosca isn't my favorite opera. It's not even my favorite Puccini opera. (I prefer La Boheme and Madame Butterfly.) But I've listened to the legendary Maria Callas/ Giuseppe di Stefano/Tito Gobbi recording about a million times, and this was a chance to see Sondra Radvanofsky, currently the top American soprano and one of our favorite singers, in a role that's perfect for her. In fact, we saw her in this very production in 2013.
The Tiny Goddess and I have seen Sondra four times: as Leonora in "Il Trovatore," her signature role ... a stunning Suor Angelica in Puccini's one-acter, directed brilliantly by William Friedkin ... ... in recital ... and as Tosca. Each time, she has delivered "Golden Age" thrills to my ears, and this time was no different.
Conducted by LA Opera's musical director James Conlon (leading, by his reckoning, his 69th performance of TOSCA – more than any other opera) and directed by John Caird (co-director of the Royal Shakespeare Company's stupendous NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and other things including a knockout Siegfried and Roy show we saw with the kids in Las Vegas many years ago), this was a straight-ahead TOSCA with few surprises but many blessings. First of all, it was very well-sung and well-conducted. Conlon and Radvanofsky have obviously studied the Callas/ recording and made perceptive choices, deviating from the "perfect" line created by conductor Victor de Sabata for interesting dramatic purpose.
The Cavaradossi was Russell Thomas who sang well once he cleared his throat at the beginning of "Recondita Armonia." We saw him as Pollione in last year's LA Opera NORMA. He's no di Stefano or Corelli or Bjoerling, but he'll do. The Scarpia was Ambrolgio Maestri, a fine old Italian pro.
TOSCA is all primary colors – critic Joseph Kerman's famous "shabby little shocker" – but it was good to see and hear. The first act Love Duet ... Recondita Armonia ... E Lucevan le Stelle ... Vissi D'Arte: these are among the most famous, cherished pieces in all of opera. It's always a rush for me to sit in an opera house, hearing live, music I've heard so many times on recordings in my house, my office, and my car. And Conlon's pre-show lecture was, as usual, generous and informative. A conductor of his stature doesn't have to give pre-show lectures; he just loves his art so much that he has to spread it as widely as he can.
Here are few morsels of TOSCA:
Callas singing "Vissi D'Arte" from the 1953 studio recording – the Gold Standard
Callas and di Stefano – the Love Duet from Act I
Franco Corelli singing "E Lucevan le Stelle" in Parma, 1967 – a miracle of singing
Corelli's "Recondita Armonia" in Parma, and a stupendous 12-second A-sharp on "Vittoria!!" at 2:00 that drives the crowd berserk
JAMEY JOHNSON and MARGO PRICE at the Ace Hotel
Man does not live by classical music alone. At least this man doesn't. Occasionally I have to get out and see something with a little contemporary life. And this prime double bill – Jamey Johnson and Margo Price – fit the bill.
Every few years, someone comes along to "save" country music from abject mediocrity. This year, it was Sturgill Simpson. Last year, it was Chris Stapleton. A few years before that, it was Jamey Johnson.
And Jamey Johnson is still doing it. He threw a GREAT country rock show. Ten piece band, including full brass and two drummers. Some great covers: two Merle Haggard songs – "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and "Mama Tried" – and The Band's "The Shape I'm In." And fine versions of Jamey's own best songs.
I understand that he's been having some legal problems with his management – surprise, surprise! – and he hasn't recording any new songs since 2010's THE GUITAR SONG. (His only recent album was a tribute album to the great country songwriter Hank Cochran.) So he seems to put a lot of energy into his live shows: they're all he has now.
Perhaps the sweetest moment of the concert was when the audience stood and sang along with Jamey as he played his BIG song, "IN COLOR" – 2009's Song of the Year according to both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. It's one of those country songs that encapsulates all of life in a four minutes. The whole audience sang loudly and swayed along with the music as if it were a summer camp reunion.
Opening up for Jamey was Margo Price, a young singer with some good honky-tonk chops. She did a brisk, effective 45-minute set, peaking with her soon-to-be-classic "Hurtin' (On the Bottle)." Check out this fine country lyric:
"I put a hurtin' on the bottle
Baby now I'm blind enough to see
I've been drinking whiskey like it's water
But that don't touch the pain you put on me"
Jamey Johnson's IN COLOR – with lyrics
Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss sing IF I COULD ONLY FLY from the Merle Haggard tribute concert in Nashville, April 6, 2017 – just because I want access to this (That's really why I put up most of these links: I want to be able to get to them quickly and easily. And now with my blog's new Search function...)
Jamey at Farm Aid, 2012 – "High Cost of Living"
Margo Price – "Hurtin' (On the Bottle)" – from Farm Aid, 2016
THE BEST OF WAGNER'S RING with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall
I have a hate/love relationship with Richard Wagner and his music. Growing up as a Jew (the secular, atheistic kind), I was raised to hate Wagner. After all, this was the music that was played to "serenade" my fellow Jews as they were marched into the gas chambers. And Wagner himself was a raging anti-Semite ("Jewishness in Music," etc.) and all-around nasty guy (backstabber, adulterer, creditor-screwer, etc.)
Wagner wasn't responsible for the fact that Hitler and the Nazis appropriated his music, but there are the seeds of fascism and nativism in his work that leave a bad taste. Granted, in the nineteenth century, German nationalism meant uniting the many disparate German duchys and provinces, not world domination. But Wagner's hero-worshipping philosophy is soft-headed, his ideas of love are confused, and it all ultimately seems a little silly.
But the music! Or rather "some of the music!" I subscribe to Rossini's famous judgment of Wagner: "Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarter hours." This concert – The Best of the Ring – gave us many of those lovely moments.
The Prelude to DAS RHEINGOLD (the birth of the Rhine River/the beginning of Time/Creation) ... the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla ... the Ride of the Valkyries ("Kill the wabbit!! Kill the wabbit!!) ...the Magic Fire Music ... Forest Murmurs ... Siegfried's Rhine Journey ... Siegfried's Funeral Music ... Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene (the fall of Valhalla/End of Time).
This is some of the most spectacular music ever created. Sometimes you can hear heaven open up and sound pour out.
Of course Wagner is one of the great geniuses of all time. The 15-hour, four-part Ring is among the most important works of art ever created by one man, and his "gesamkunstwerk" (total work of art) approach to opera, fusing the visual, the poetic, and the dramatic arts with the music, changed the art form forever, and inspired artists in other disciplines.
Wagner's influence cannot be underestimated. Many people date the beginning of modern music with "the Tristan chord" from TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, which featured the first prominent use of atonality in Western music in a thousand years. Alone among the great opera composers, Wagner wrote his own libretti ... which presents a problem for me. I'm not a big fan of Wagner's poetry or the "arioso" – airy, declamatory – singing that goes on forever, but the orchestral music is so magnificent, that a lot of things have to be overlooked. ("Sure it's silly, but who cares? Just listen!")
The Los Angeles Philharmonic was ably conducted by Philippe Jordan, musical director of the Opera National de Paris and chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony, one of the best young conductors around. He was very comfortable with the program, having recorded an album of symphonic excerpts from "The Ring" for the Erato label in 2013 with Nina Stemme, today's leading Wagnerian soprano. It was wonderful to see the LA Philharmonic in full flight: Wagner gives such brilliant cameos to individual instruments: a flute ... an oboe ... a single violin ... SIX harps for crossing the bridge to Valhalla.
Oddly, or not so oddly, the weakest part of the concert was the only part that was sung: Irene Theorin, a Swedish dramatic soprano who specializes in Wagner, came on to sing Brunhilde's climactic "Immolation" scene. The scene, bringing together many of Wagner's famous leit-motifs – his "guides-to-feeling" – that The Ring is built on, is a wonder of sound. But the vocal writing itself just isn't up to the level of the instrumental writing. That's my minority opinion.
The pre-concert lecture by a music professor from Cal Tech was very enlightening. The food from the cafeteria was quite good. The hot tub under the stars afterwards was ....
But the next morning, I had to suppress the urge to invade Poland. Rim-shot. (Pace, Woody.)
Magic Fire Music – Bryn Terfel – Die Walkure – from 2011
Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music – Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic – from Tokyo, 2008
The Ride of the Valkyries – the BBC Proms from the Royal Albert Hall – the original "Kill the wabbit!" music – the blonde at the left is Irene Theorin, our "Brunhilde" with the LA Philharmonic
Brunhilde's Immolation Scene – with Nina Stemme
"What's Opera, Doc" – the complete masterpiece with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd
Forest Murmurs – from Act II of SIEGFRIED – some of the most sublime music ever created
The Tristan Chord – at 0:08
Antonio Pappano on the significance of the Tristan Chord