Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The choice may have been mistaken, the choo-choo-choosing was not

I've just returned from New Jersey where I participated in a conference celebrating Sondheim. I had the distinct pleasure of reading my paper in the company of Cornel West, with whom I had a quite engaging conversation afterwards. Also thrilling was getting to hear multiple approaches to the works, from literature, theater, and gender studies alongside my own musical one. It was good practice for me too, learning to communicate music on a more layman's level without falling to superficiality (or at least I hope that's what I did). I also enjoyed meeting one other musicologist and a theorist who both are working on Sondheim; we banded together. There was also a performance, a film screening of Hangover Square, and a fascinating Q&A with Sondheim at the close.

As you can see, it was busy, but it made a suitable Valentine's Day gift, spending it with Sondheim's corpus and a couple friends from college. The highlight for me was Saturday, though, in which the conference had ended and I had a day to spend enjoying the city and its musical (and Valentines Day-appropriate) offerings.

First up was the revival of Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim's take on the creation of George Seurat's Sunday on the Island of the Grande Jatte. It takes a couple minutes to get used to Dot's cockney accent and the digital animation, but that aside I found the revival to be beautiful. The first act has such a nice subtlety to it, from the delicate chamber orchestrations to the way George stands helpless in the corner, facing away, as Dot says her last goodbye in "We Do Not Belong Together" (which has the brilliant exchange: "There's nothing I can say is there?" "Yes, George, there is. You could tell me not to go"). And the end of the act, everything comes together in the painting in a magical moment. The second act is a little problematic--it feels rushed, and the characters don't develop as much, but it's hefty emotions as a modern day artist faces not just artistic crisis, but loses his grandmother, his last surviving relative. It's impossible not to get a little choked up at some of the more tender moments, and I love the way themes both dramatic and musical return transformed in the second act connecting the two. And the end not only undoes the relationship problems of "We Do Not Belong Together" but also undoes the creation of the art, leaving a nice open ending. "So many possibilities."

Second, I saw David Robertson conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. They have an amazingly crisp sound, beautifully balanced and tight without feeling mechanical. The concert eatured the NYC premiere of John Adams's Dr. Atomic Symphony. The work feels oddly assembled, with transitions almost nonexistent between material, but the material itself is quite good, especially the famous Act I ending Batter My Heart, Three Personed God, a powerhouse of an ending fusing raw minimalist energy with baroque lament. They also performed Sibelius's Tapiola on the same half, which is a piece I don't get, but in a sure-footed production it's much easier to take, especially the way a single note is seamlessly transferred among several instruments. The two are interestingly paired, since the Sibelius has almost no distinct material, but everything is so interwovenly connected. The first half started with the Brahms Tragic Overture in the best performance I've heard yet that highlighted the thematic solidity of the work without losing the orchestral color of Brahms. But the highlight was Christian Tetzlaff giving a superb rendition of one of my favorite pieces, the Berg violin concerto. My friend Jack was noting how much he loves the opening, stacked fifths that play with the orchestral and violin timbres. I'm partial to the closing. The second movement has that lovely Bach chorale that enters in so clearly before getting submerged among the other material (but always audible). The very last moment, the violin plays the row extending into the uppermost registers of the instrument, and underneath it briefly comes a solid, glowing major chord in the brass. That moment is pretty affirming, but Berg goes even further, ending on the most luminous, rich chord I can imagine. Fitting music for Berg's dedication, "to the memory of an angel." Who needs valentines, when you have this?


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