November 18, 2008

Cornell Plays Host to Two Classical Music Performances

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Attending two musical events this weekend, I puzzled over the fact that no matter how precise musicians are in their interpretations, each audience member will ultimately hear something different. I began to feel like one of the characters in Howards End, who get carried away at a concert until they’re no longer focused on the sounds, but rather on their own romantic raptures. Both events, a “historically-informed” staging of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni at Risley, as well as a program by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in Bailey, filtered the past through the terms of the present. I wondered whether what we hear often tells us more about how our ears have been conditioned than it does about the music itself.
[img_assist|nid=33695|title=Mozart’s Classic|desc=Risley played host to Don Giovanni, a classic Mozart opera, last weekend.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Looking around the Great Hall at Risley, I saw “blue hairs” of both sorts — college-aged kids more familiar with punk rock sitting alongside elderly concert-goers and renowned musicologists. The performance of Don Giovanni included period instruments, a re-edited score and ornamentation, frilly costumes with periwigs and powdered faces, as well as meticulously researched stage-directions derived from 18th century source material. But, despite the elaborate preparation, there was no way to historically reconstruct the expectations of Mozart’s original audience in Prague.
Thankfully, the production succeeded by engaging not Mozart’s audience but its own; whatever had been lost — or simply lost on untrained ears — was more than compensated by the uncanny familiarity with which the baroque performance practice and gestural acting style was carried out; the performance seemed as witty and aware as any going today, even if this results from the fact that “authentistic” performance is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, having more to do with ideas espoused by the likes of Stravinsky and Brecht, or instituted by the mediums of recordings and films, than it does with whatever happened in the past. The performance refused to ensconce itself in a museum culture that seeks to conserve and edify more than entertain, and thus, the production interpreted the work as a comedic buffa instead of a stodgy drama. Titters ensued.
Florian Bonneau, a Frenchman imported from the Dutch National Opera Academy, pulled faces and hammed it up as a sprightly Leporello, putting a Jim Carey-esque slapstick spin on the faithful servant to the faithless Don, while his rich baritone voice proved as supple as his limbs. Rebecca Plack Ph D ’08, a more local talent, also stood out as Donna Anna (in a generally standout cast) for her clear cascading aria that pierced the air with perfect pitch. The full orchestra did a wonderful job in the drafty, acoustic echo chamber of the Great Hall to maintain an expressive dynamic range that never drowned out the singers, seeming light and playful even during fortissimo passages. Dorian Bandy ’10, conducting from the fortepiano, was an ubiquitous presence underwriting the whole production, practically doing everything but playing the leading role of the unrepentant libertine.
One of the funniest and most rousing moments of the opera was when Leporello belted out a musical quote from Figaro, Mozart’s prior success, amid a pastiche of 18th century popular music. Ironically, the production’s gesture toward historical fidelity allowed one to recognize the thoroughly postmodern way that Mozart “samples” a tidbit of his own famous crowd-pleaser.
One the other hand, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallin Chamber Orchestra performed Vivaldi’s “Beatus Vir” (for two choirs and orchestra) — a work that shows off a wide-range of baroque techniques including spectacular coloratura lines by tenor and soprano soloists — at the end of a program filled with contemporary music by Arvo Pärt and Erkki-Sven Tüür. The Vivaldi, however, helped highlight the continuity that these composers have with earlier traditions, especially sacred music before virtually all “classical” music became profaned as entertainment.
Pärt’s “Wallfahrslied” was a short, minimalist composition that seemed to purposely frustrate expectations of harmonic resolution, creating a spare and expansive soundscape of delicate, haunting pizzicato in Pärt’s trademark style known as tintinnabuli, which gives one the sense of water-drops or little bells puncturing an ethereal aura.
Tüür’s “Requiem,” by contrast, utilized the full array of harmonic textures of the choir and orchestra, creating unnerving discordant tensions and jarring juxtapositions of dynamics and techniques. During a rest in the middle of the piece that lasted approximately 12 bars, the silence felt like nails scratched on a chalkboard. When the piece resumed, the pianist soon crashed down on the keys, then ravaged the strings inside the Steinway’s belly, plucking them as well as dusting them with a percussion-brush. Chords kept piling up, but then as the dramatic choral parts reached a crescendo, the clanging keyboard and sawing violins eventually calmed down and resolved the tension; the orchestral accompaniment slowly died away into a perfect peace.
Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, tall and solid even by Scandinavian standards, was game for the dramatic performance, bouncing his shoulders, fluttering his fingers, reaching down below his squatting knees, and even looking out to an audience member to encourage him to sing along to the encore performance of an Estonian Christmas carol.
Despite all the modernist re-interpretation of baroque music that these two performances portended, it was the rapturous Romantic personalities of Bandy and Kaljuste that left the clearest note.