“The Source”: oratorio by Ted Hearne, based on career and “wikileaks” of Chelsea Manning — Bush’s and then Obama’s wars

The Source” is a 62-minute chamber oratorio by Ted Hearne (b. 1982),  libretto by Mark Doten, first premiered at the Next Wave Festival at the Chamber Academy of Brooklyn in 2014.  There are seven instrumentalists.

There are 13 poems or songs, with iconoclastic titles and texts, based on US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2010.  Much of the material comes from the “Iraq War Logs” and “Afghan War Diary” and incorporates materials from formerly classified military communications leaked by Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning,

Some of the material even comes from tweets, such as when another soldier Lamo debates whether to turn Manning in.  Some songs depict violent events, such as an IED explosion (the first song) and others depict political negotiation and even the question about moderate Islam.

The last song is “I encrypt as much as I can”, where Bradley/Chelsea characterizes him/herself as “very intelligent” and “very effeminate”, as if curiously elitist given the tone of today’s culture wars.

The music is angular, with voices in clear, parallel harmonies and rather simple chants.

The work has been performed at the Disney Center by LA Opera in Los Angeles. https://www.laopera.org/Source   The New York Times has commentary here.

This is the sort of idea that gets commissioned these days.  My own compositional taste is for large post-romantic, broken into miniatures sometimes, but still more in the tradition of classical instrumental and symphonic music that I grew up with (Schoenberg and Berg sound post-romantic to my ear now, but that’s as far as I got.

This work really ends quietly, with Sprechstimme of spoken voice only, “I opened up the computer and just talked.”  No wonder Donald Trump says “No computer is safe.”

One would imagine this work as choreographed, too, so that it is full chamber opera.  But for that matter, the 10-movement, massive two-piano suite “Shy and Mighty” (2007), by Timo Andres, ought to be choreographed, especially for the East Village.

The work is available on CD from New Amsterdam Records (NWAM071), which I purchased on Amazon (easier than Bandcamp).  The composer’s official site is here.  The cover has a frazzled picture of Kabul against the mountains.

Wikipedia picture of Kabul.

(Posted: Tuesday, January 10, 2017. at 9 PM EST)

Beethoven’s “Fidelio” or “Lenonore: The Triumph of Marital Love”: rather timely given today’s perils for journalists (and for old-fashioned “family values”)

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Name: Fidelio
Author: Ludwig van Beethoven, Op. 72, (and Sonnleithner)
Released: 1805, 1814;  2002 (performance)
Format: opera
When and how viewed: DVD purchase (2016/6/21)

Last weekend, the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC offered a chamber version of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Fidelio  (Op. 72), his only opera.  It wasn’t convenient for me to get there, but I indulged in getting the DG-Universal DVD of the 2002 Metropolitan Opera performance in New York with James Levine.

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The name of the opera is the name of the disguised boy character who is actually Lenore (Karita Matilla), the wife of Florestan (Ben Heppner), secretly imprisoned by Pizarro (Falk Struckmann), apparently after been kidnapped for trying to expose Pizarro’s corruption.  Sound familiar?  Like how China and other authoritarian countries treat journalists today?

Yes, the opera can be viewed in terms of two different issues:  free “journalistic” speech, and gender roles.  One of the subplots concerns the jailor Rocco’s (Rene Pape) daughter Marzelline (Jennifer Welch-Babidge) and her romantic interest in “Fidelio” which would technically be lesbian. But opera practice sometimes allowed blending of genders (look at “Der Rosenkavalier”) and it doesn’t seemed to have been particularly controversial with audiences.  If Marzelline really experiences Fidelio as a “man”, then her sense of attraction must go way beyond the external trappings of manhood.

The libretto is by Joseph Sonnleithner, and the full title of the opera was “Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love”, or “Leonore, oder der Triumph der eheliechen Liebe”.

This particular DCD does not include a performance of the “Leonore Overture #3” (C Major) which should occur after Scene 15 in Act 2.  The defiance of the music toward the end (of either Leonore #2 or #3) fits the opera better than most of the sung text, and the final chorus is not yet quite on the level of the later Choral Symphony.   The shorter, playful “official” overture is somewhat underwhelming,  but there is a famous march half way through Act 1 and a nice somber prelude to Act 2. Yet, the music as a whole seems light and “bel canto-like” to my ear (even resembling early romantic Italian opera in some arias) compared to most of Beethoven’s “cyclic work” output.

(Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2016 at 11:30 PM EDT)

Sir James MacMillan conducts his own works, as well as Elgar and Vaughn Williams at Kennedy Center

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Name: The Sacrifice” (interludes); “Miserere“; also a cello concerto and Symphony 4
Author: MacMillan, Elgar, Vaugn Williams
Released: 2006, 1919, 1034
Format: concert
When and how viewed: Kennedy Center, 2016/5/12

On Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Kennedy Center offered a concert by Scottish conductor Sir James MacMillan.

The program opened with Three Interludes from his 2006 opera “The Sacrifice”, to a libretto by Michael Simmons Roberts based on a Welsh myth (maybe epic poetry) called Mabinogion.  Probably English departments know this stuff.  Following a Romeo and Juliet like plot, lovers Sian and Evan must part and accept arranged marriages in a heavily tribal world.  Conflict leads to tragedy, in a somewhat complicated plot.  My own father used to say, “To obey is better than to sacrifice”, and maybe this opera proves the point.  Does the movie 1973 “The Wicker Man” come to mind?

The three interludes follow the example of Britten (“Peter Grimes”) with a passacaglia for the second movement. The outer movements are called “The Parting” (of the lovers) and “The Investiture” ( a ceremony that confers rank, maybe related to the historical “Investiture Controversy” of the Church in European history). The music is more dissonant than Britten, although similar in spirit.  The ending of the last piece is violent.

The second work was the Cello Concerto in E Minor of Sir Edward Elgar, Op. 95 (1919), with cellist Alban Gerhardt. The work is in four continuous movements, starting with a Moderato stating a unifying theme. The scherzo may be the most familiar part.  There is a brief Adagio, and the finale tends to wind down before a brisk ending in a minor key. At one point, it seems to quote the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor.

The main course, after the intermission (and reason I attended) was the Symphony #4 in F Minor by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1934).  The work is notorious for a case of Vaughn Williams “being mean”.  The four note motive suggests Shostakovich, maybe, and also Scriabin in using the minor ninth and half-step dissonances – but in this work the orchestral color will enable the composer to bring the dissonance into balance with his normally pastoral style.  There are four short movements, totally 30 minutes, the last two connected, working up to a violent fugue on the 4-note motive, and ending abruptly on one loud minor chord. It’s interesting that Scriabin’s “Black Mass” piano sonata is based on some of the same harmonics, and is centered on the same tonality (F).

There was a post-program.  I was taking notes on my cell phone because the printed supplement had not been included with my copy of the Playbill.  There was a panel discussion, with MacMillian and Gerhardt, and a “choral postlude” with the University of Maryland Concert Choir.  The group sung four a cappella works by MacMillan.  These were Two Strathclyde Motets: “Factus Est Repente” (“Suddenly a Sound Came”), for Pentecost, and “O Radiant Dawn”, for Christmas.  There followed a complete mass “Miserere” (or “Missa Verde” or “Green Mass”), 15 minutes, with a little more dissonance than in the motets.  Then there was the song “The Gallant Weaver”, which would remind us of “Silas Marner” from high school English literature (but based on a poem by Robert Burns).

In the QA, the cellist said he plays with earplugs, because the sound from the other players is very loud.

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There was a pre-show on the Millennium Stage, where the Washington National Opera presented the “Ring” singers in a concert with piano.  One of the arias was from Rossini’s “Italian in Algiers” with humorous lyrics about women taming men, and even whether women prefer “smooth” men (“thmooth”) to hunks or brutes (“hairy”).  Later there was some Sondheim, as well as Offenbach, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Verdi.

(Published: Thursday night May 12, 2016, 12:45 AM after midnight EDT (Friday)).

“Das Rheingold”: a mammoth “prequel” to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at Kennedy Center; is Wotan a proxy for Donald Trump?

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Name: Das Rheingold” from “Der Ring des Nibelingen”
Author: Richard Wagner
Released: 1869
Format: stage opera
When and how viewed: 2016/5/10, Kennedy Center in Washington DC

As I picked up a will-call ticket for Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” (or “The Rhinegold”) at the Kennedy Center later Tuesday afternoon, I said that this was like an airline ticket.  The host said, “no, more expensive than an airline trip”.  Indeed, $334, including “convenience fees”, for an orchestra seat on the right side, totally sold out.

I then went to the 5:15 lecture on the Millennium Stage by a member of the San Francisco opera (don’t have the name).  The presentation showed the musical excerpts, which are often based on simple triadic intervals with their mathematical relationships.  The rising and descending triads, in various keys (starting in E-flat) would become a leitmotif for the opera.  The lecture also notes that Wagner wrote his own librettos, and that he worked backwards as he composed.  The Ring cycle would introduce the idea of the darkened audience hall.

The opera is, of course, the “prequel” for the entire Ring cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”).  It is the shortest of the operas, in one continuous act and four scenes, running 2-1/2 hours.  The performance offered no intermissions and no late or return seating. (The other three operas all have two intermissions).  It started at 7:30;  a 7 PM start would sound in order, but then, the café upstairs was so crowded after the lecture.

The plot of the entire cycle seems to anticipate Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”, including the New Line film franchise directed by Peter Jackson.  Is Siegfried more or less comparable to Frodo?  Maybe, but Frodo lives on, even after screaming “The Ring is mine” near the end of the third film, over a volcano pit.

I could even mention one more allusion, which is Clive Barker’s “Imajica”, which may become a sci-fi series soon.  There is a connection here even to the concept of Wagner’s cycle. But let’s get back to the opera.

The first scene starts with the famous “drone” prelude based on E-flat major triads depicting the Rhine River in Germany (or in a parallel world). The content seems simple at first, as river maidens tease the dwarf Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) about his (sexual) unattractiveness and oafishness. We could moralize on this right away.

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The rest of the opera happens in Wotan’s (Alan Held) castle and in the gold mines.  It seems that gods have business contracts just like humans, and that hit men or debt collectors will come by if they don’t pay.  So there is human collateral from kidnapping and a near live burial (Freia, Melody Moore).  There is the hope to mine some more gold (read, bitcoins) to challenge Alberich, holding the ring that can rule the world or the universe.

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Toward the end, Wotan realizes if he gives up the ring, he can make his enemies fight over it – a concept known not just to Tolkien and Clive Barker, but also to Donald Trump.  Given the current state of US presidential election politics, the airing of the opera cycle in Washington this year seems particularly appropriate and prescient. Maybe Donald Trump will attend.

The “giants” (I thought, the New York Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl a couple years back) are interesting; their artificial hooks for hands suggest disfigurement.  But when I see a familiar face (from the Blade) of someone almost 80 inches tall (and fit) reading a college philosophy text on the DC Metro (before recent fiascos) I’m intrigued.  Or likewise by another similar person outside a concert in NYC Lincoln Center of the Bruckner Eighth some months back.

The background scenery, while often shown alpine views, gets interesting, sometimes looking like an alien planet surface, in one place with appearance colorful hurricanes.  Is this Titan?

The conductor was Philippe Auguin.

The opera ends with a triumphant coda based on the triad theme.  By contrast, “Twilight of the Gods” (with the sunrise following Armageddon) ends with a sweet theme that finally concludes on one huge D-flat Major chord that swells and subsides.  That same theme would get reworked in Scriabin’s “Divine Poem” which turns the desolation into final triumph.

It’s only fair to say that some people consider the concepts behind the Ring to be anti-Semitic.

 

The video above from YouTube shows a performance by Rattle at Baden Baden.

Wikipedia attribution link for photo of Markgafliches Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany, by Avda, under CCSA 3.0.

(Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 1 PM EDT)