Saturday, March 3, 2007

More Fun Than Being Bitten by a Monkey

On a recent business trip to Africa, I had a most unusual experience, even for a seasoned mercenary. Usually, if I’m not too hung over, I like to wake up early and go jogging. Not for health reasons, of course, but to make sure that I can outrun the inevitable bandito gang. Normally this entails dodging kamikaze cars, leaping over chickens in a single bound, sucking in vast amounts of diesel fumes, and avoiding large numbers of disaffected youth wielding machetes, the only thing more universal than an AK-47 in Africa.

Fortunately for me, I was “visiting” a country that had a magnificent beach, which cut out most of the vehicles, chickens and fumes but not the machetes. Like most countries I work in, this one had long suffered a heinous civil war chock full of more atrocities than you could wag an Amnesty International finger at. While this is very troubling from a human rights perspective, it was also troubling for my jogging routine: war refugees swamped the city and used the beautiful white beach as their mass toilet. So, add multi-colored feces and gagging stench to my hop, skip and jump routine.

One morning I was running along in a vain attempt to keep my Nikes clean, and saw a small crowd of people huddled over something that had washed up on the shore. As I neared and elbowed my way into the crowd to get a view of the spectacle du jour, I was appalled, even by my cynical standards. Wrapped up in a filthy cloth was the body of a small child. Most of its organ were missing. It’s chest cavity was empty, and filling up with sand with every lapping wave.

The child was clearly the victim of ritualistic killing and cannibalism. It was done by one of the old secret societies that still penetrate the highest ranks of the country in question. The highest ranks. Probably even my boss’s boss.

It’s time like these when you need Erik Satie.

War orphans trying to find their parents, thanks to the ICRC.

As Satie once said: "More fun than being bitten by a monkey!" Satie was a fabulous anarchist who lived and died by the piano in Paris during the turn of the 20th century. He was the proto-Dadaist and ancient (by Rolling Stone standards) ancestor of punk rock. Largely overlooked during his life, he lived modestly, surviving on the royalties of his one-hit-wonder, ”Je Te Veux,” which played at the famous Chat Noir café-cabaret, as well as what he derided as his “furniture music” -basically the ambient “muzak” of the salon age – because of its lack of inspiration.

We can thank the academic, composer, and weirdo John Cage for reviving Satie’s legacy during the 1960s, when the US was undergoing its Cultural Revolution (not to be confused with China’s of the same period).

I know what you are thinking - anarchist, French, modern, ‘60s Greenwich Village – surely this music will entail someone, wearing a black turtleneck, banging away on a piano and calling it music. But you’d be wrong (although this is what Cage’s music sounds like, and worse).

Satie’s best music is sublimely beautiful and profoundly sad. How can I describe it? When I worked in the public sector, the U.S. Army stationed me in Germany. One of my postings was just outside the largest and most forgotten about holocaust Death Camps: Flossenburg. Flossenburg killed more people than its more infamous cousin, Dachau, outside of Munich.

Why was Flossenburg totally unknown? Is it because the German government built condos over it and renamed the streets for lost Sudantan land cities? No! Is it because Germany want to forget about the whole WWII thing? No! It’s because it was where the SS sent homosexuals, which was outlawed in both Nazi and post-Nazi Germany. Unspeakable, deadly sex crimes took place in Flossenburg by Sadists guards. Even if you did survive the horrific camp, you would never admit to it publicly for fear of being labeled ‘homosexual.’

My wife and I were fascinated by the phenomenon of Flossenburg, our neighborhood Death Camp. We would make frequent and somber pillages to pay our respects to lost souls, always listening to Satie’s six “Gnossiennes” piano pieces. They are eerie, numinous, cheerless, potent and perfect. They are like a message in a bottle from another plane, and if we listen carefully, between the notes, we might discern some mystical meaning from the departed.

Sooth the soul with Satie's Gnossienne number 4, played by de Leeuw:

Satie made up the word "Gnossienne" just as he did the piano piece’s format. Most composer’s during his day took some pre-existing format, such as a saraband or sonata, and compose within it, sort of like writing a sonnet. Satie sought to break all molds and created his own forms. This one he called "Gnossienne,” probably named after the word “gnosis,” as he was involved in a mystical Gnostic sect at the time.

Another piece that you will surely recognize are the three “Gymnopédie.” These pieces ethereally float along, slow but pregnant with emotion and longing. They are strangely moving. Accordingly, they have been adapted for orchestra, plagiarized by TV scores, ripped by rock bands like Janet Jackson, and venerated by the tribe of jazz. It is unclear what Satie meant by “Gymnopédie,” but he was, after all, an anarchist.

Sample the first Gymnopédie, played by Rogé:

Because these pieces are not terribly difficult to play, every pianists thinks they can play them. How wrong. Like bad high school poetry, more is needed than technical ability. In Satie's music, it is often the silence between the notes that speaks volumes. A great Sherpa in the Satie Cosmos is the French pianist Pascal Rogé, on the Decca label (ASIN: B0000041P2).

For those who want the full gravity of these pieces, especially the haunted "Gnossienne,” can live dangerously and try Dutch pianist Reinbert de Leeuw. He has the full measure of the score with a slow and somber reading, not depriving the music of its gravity; sample the Gnossiennes especially. His recordings come on a Philips Duo (2 CDs for the price of one! ASIN: B0000069CS):

There are several fine orchestral versions of the Gymnopédie. One of my favorite collections is by Leonard Slatkin, conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on the audiophile-quality label Telarc (ASIN: B000003CSO). It has other meditative pieces to contemplate as well: Vaughan Williams’s famous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Barber’s Adagio for Strings (a tear-jerker used in the movie “Platoon”); and a version of “Danny Boy” that you won’t easily forget. This is one of those discs you keep in your car for traffic jams.

Sample the orchestral version of Gymnopédie number one:

Or try some luscious Vaughan Williams to lower the blood pressure:

At the end of a long day - eviscerated children, rebels seizing aid supplies, warlords threatening your life with child soldiers – a scotch with Satie goes a long way to making the world a more livable place.

Dispatches from Russia

Changing times zones but not times, another one of my all-time favorite operas is “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky. Yes, I know, it’s shocking: Tchaikovsky. When one thinks of opera one doesn’t think of him. One thinks of Sugar Plum Faeries and symphonies. Not opera.

Why is this? Because classical music is like the jumbo-jet business: Boeing makes great aircraft but they never make the engines. Engines are always made by GE, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney or some other specialist. Opera composers never compose symphonies and symphonists never compose opera. Even Beethoven allegedly called his one opera, “Fidelio,” his stepchild, and – truth be told - it sort of is. And the Great Richard Wagner’s symphony is C is one big whoopee cushion of music.

Now purists will argue the many exceptions, such as anything before 1800 or Bizet. First, operas written before 1800 are rarely performed for a reason (except Mozart, but nothing is normal about that Salzburg boy). As for Bizet, he’s French, as is Debussy, Ravel and others who did both, but they’re French and enjoy French Exceptionalism. Just look at their foreign policy.

Back to Tchaikovsky. He tried in vain to enter the opera market, which was like Hollywood in the 19th Century, but failed because he wasn’t Jedi enough. Instead of being true to himself, he tried to emulate the operatic style of the most influential composer of his day: Richard Wager.

It was a musical train-wreck. Imagine Valkyries meet Nutcrackers. Horrific, I know. Of his ten operas, only three are listenable: “Mazeppa,” “The Queen of Spades,” and “Eugene Onegin.” It was this last one that he smashed through the superego of his generation and transcended into his own operatic rapture.

Russian literature fans who watch too much Jeopardy are already shouting: “What is a novel by Pushkin?” That’s correct for $500. In a time when German opera was looking backward to the Norse mythology and Italian and French opera were fetishizing the orient, Tchaikovsky wanted a Russian opera based on a relatively contemporary Russian author. Pushkin fits the bill, with his tale of scorned and then unrequited love ending in the utter tragedy, deep heartbreak, and death. Very Russian.

There is much to admire in “Onegin,” but it’s the “Letter Writing” scene that kicks Cossack ass. Let me back up. The story opens at a country estate somewhere outside St. Petersburg, where the teenage girls Tatyana and Olga live with their aristocratic parents. In comes Olga’s boy friend, Larina, having just arrived from The Big City, dragging along his reluctant best friend, Eugene O. Eugene is the classic disaffected youth of privilege – sort of Holden Caulfield from “Catcher in the Rye” meets a Brother Karamazov (the older one).

In a moving quartet, as only opera can do, the four simultaneously share their innermost thoughts with the audience upon meeting in the drawing room. Olga and Larina are ridiculously in love, and engage in cutesy love poetry to one another. One can just see bubble hearts emanating from their heads. Tatyana and Eugene are quite a different matter. Tatyana becomes hopelessly, madly, and irrevocably in love with Eugene. Eugene, however, thinks she’s an utter country bumpkin, and in fact thinks anyone who doesn’t live in the city is hopelessly, madly, and irrevocably uncool.

That night, as the boys return to St. Pete, Tatyana takes it upon herself to bear her love and soul to Eugene in a tender letter, which she spends all night writing and re-writing. After many false starts and much hand-wringing, she finally hits her stride, which Tchaikovsky let’s you know by shifting the shiftless music to one of aching panache, announced by soft French horns. If only blogging had an orchestral accompaniment!

Listen to Tatyana's famous "Letter Writing Scene," in an incandescent performance by Inessa Galante:

Her nursemaid discovers her at sunrise (which Tchaikovsky does a great job of portraying musically)...

...slumped over her writing desk, spent. The nursemaid posts the letter, Onegin arrives soon after, and…well…you know the rest. It’s not a ‘happy ever after’ story. But it will have you crying into your vodka before the opera is over.

There is a paucity of good recordings of this fabulous opera, which is unaccountably, except that Russian is a hard language to learn for singers. There is one good recording, one “off the beaten path” recording, and hopefully one great recording.

If you were to go out to the CD store today (if you could find one), I would recommend the recording directed by the under-appreciated, Russian-born Semyon Bychkov, leading the Orchestra of Paris. It stars THE Russian tenor of our time, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, singing the lead, and the surprising Sicilian-born Nuccia Focile as Tatyana. She does an admirable job of sounding both powerful yet girlish. It’s a hard balance to strike, as the part requires a mature voice but can’t sound like a misplaced Valkrie. It’s a two disc opera on the Philips label (ASIN: B000004162).

The next set, for those armed with intrepid ears, epitomizes the term “Great Recording." It is the pre-war Bolshoi Opera recording conducted by both Aleksandr Orlov and Alexander Melik-Pashaev (they did different acts for some reason). Yelena Kruglikova, plays a highly sensitive and vulnerable Tatyana (with much better Russian than her Sicilian competition), and Panteleimon Nortzov a romantically dark Onegin.

Should you go on an Onegin Spree (as sometimes happens to me) you will discover a subtle universe of differences between ‘modern’ opera practices and pre-war practices. This is not the time to map this beautiful jungle, but I personally am much more moved with this older recording over anything done recently. Opera is not like cars: newer is not always better.

We can thank one of my favorite labels, Naxos, and their Wizard of Oz sound engineer, Ward Marston, for resurrecting this legendary 1937 recording off of 78rpm discs. Note to the faint of heart: despite Marston's amazing ability to perform musical CPR on this recording, the sound quality is, well, old. 70 years old. It will sound thin and tin-like, as if you are listening to this opera through two metal cans strung together with twine and connected to an AM radio. (ASIN: B00007DWLN)

Lastly, for those who really just want a superb performance of the "Letter Writing Scene," along with a hit parade of other Tchaikovsky opera gems, look no further than the "Tchaikovsky Experience," featuring Inessa Galante and conducted by Neeme Järvi and the Royal Opera House, at Covent Gardens.

Ok, drum roll please…

What keeps me up at night these days (other than the lamentable state of the world)? MISSING TONIGHT'S METROPOLITAN OPERA PRODUCTION OF ONEGIN! Why? Valery Gergiev • • Renée Fleming • • Ramón Vargas • • Dmitri Hvorostovsky • • the Met Orchestra. It’s the dream cast that Onegin zealots like moi have been waiting for. You think I am alone in this madness? Au contraire, mon frere! The three only performances sold out almost immediately (why just three??!). Could I have nabbed a ticket today (and wasn’t an impecunious blogger), I would be blogging from the DC-NYC Accela right now. The opera is that good. As a service to humanity, the Met MUST record it for posterity. Meanwhile, the Musical Merc will conduct Onegin recons to scout out bootleg recordings of this performance...