Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Melnikov delivers masterful recital of Shostakovich and Schubert

You might that Shostakovich’s “24 Preludes and Fugues” would be some of the driest music you’ve ever heard, but in hands of Alexander Melnikov, Shostakovich’s pieces acquire a life of their own. That’s what I experienced at Melnikov’s recital on Saturday afternoon (September 26) at Lincoln Hall. The Russian pianist made the most of his debut concert with Portland Piano International, delivering exceptional performances of the first twelve preludes and fugues of Shostakovich plus Schubert’s “Wanderer-fantasie” and “Three Piano Pieces.”

Shostakovich wrote his “24 Preludes and Fugues” (Opus 87) after hearing Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" performed at an international competition in Leipzig, Germany. Like Bach’s fundamental work, Shostakovich’s probes the circle of fifths with pairings of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. In lesser hands, the “24 Preludes and Fugues” would sound like an academic exercise, but Melnikov is one of those rare artists whose playing elevates this work to a higher plane.

Combining pinpoint technique and generous expression, Melnikov found the core of each prelude and fugue so that listeners could feel their way into the music and into the mind of Shostakovich. His articulate playing revealed the character of each piece, yet linked them together. Some were delicate and tender in nature. Others were forceful and demonstrative. Sometimes the left hand seemed to be holding a conversation with the right, at times bordering on a playful mood. There were lonely and melancholy moments as well, reminding the audience that Shostakovich wrote this music during a very stressful time after he had been reprimanded by Stalin’s policies, which dictated that art and artist must serve the Soviet state.

Melnikov opened the concert with Schubert’s “Wanderer-fantasie,” displaying excellent control of dynamics, crystal clear runs, and gorgeously shaped melodies. With cat-like reflexes, he guided the the listeners past dramatic landscapes and could also relax and enjoy the dreamy ones. He ended the first half of the concert with an immaculate performance of Schubert’s “Three Piano Pieces,” and the rousing ending of the third piece generated loud applause.

At the end of the concert, which lasted over two hours, Melnikov was rewarded with a standing ovation and cheers that brought him out on the stage several times. That must have gotten him re-energized in order to sign CDs, including his highly acclaimed release of Shostakovich’s “24 Preludes and Fugues” under the harmonia mundi label. He was scheduled to play the remaining pieces on Sunday afternoon, and I would think that they turned out equally splendid.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Before his upcoming Portland Piano International recital, Alexander Melnikov talks about Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues

Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov will be making his debut appearance in two concerts this weekend sponsored by Portland Piano International. Since winning the International Robert Schumann Competition in Zwickau in 1989 and the Concours Musical Reine Elisabeth in Brussels in 1991, Melnikov has enjoyed an international career that has included numerous recordings. His recording of Shostakovich's "24 Preludes and Fugues" received the BBC Music Magazine Award, the Choc de Classica and the Jahrespreis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik. Topping that off, in 2011, BBC Music Magazine listed that album as one of the “50 Greatest Recordings of All Time.”

It so happens that Shostakovich's "24 Preludes and Fugues" will be the focal point of Melnikov's performances in Portland on September 26th and 27th at 4 pm at Lincoln Hall. Shostakovitch wrote this work after serving on the judging panel for the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig, Germany, in 1950. He was so impressed with the 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" and with the competition's gold medal winner, Tatiana Nikolayeva that after returning to Moscow, he wrote the "24 Preludes and Fugues" very quickly. Nikolayeva premiered the work in Leningrad in December of 1952 and went on to record the complete set at least three times.

I sent some questions to Melnikov via email. Here is our exchange (edited for brevity):

How long did it take you to learn all of Shostakovich's "Preludes and Fugues?" Do you have a photographic memory?

Melnikov:  I played four of the Preludes and Fugues many years ago, around 1996 or 1997. Already back then I started playing with the idea of learning more. The rest I have learned for the recording, in two installments, I don't remember exactly how long it took me, over a year I think, but I was combining it with many other things I was doing. No, I don't have a photographic memory and (except those four in 1997) I have never performed the cycle by heart. During the recording I tried it (playing by heart) once at home - I could do it, but I would be never able to do it on stage, and even if I did I would have to concentrate so much on the memory issues that I would not be able to even start making sense of the music

What do you like most about this music?

Melnikov: This is a bit of the "dancing about architecture" question. But, yes, I find it one of the most important polyphonic works of the 20th century, and I find it simply fascinating how many characters emotions colours and stories Shostakovich could cram into this very rigid and dogmatic model he has chosen for himself.

Shostakovich dedicated this work to pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, who recorded these pieces several times. Did you try to find an interpretation that differs from hers?

Melnikov: No it was never ever the case that i tried to be different, or even tried "to find an interpretation. I am always trying (with sometimes lesser sometimes bigger success) to try to understand the composer's musical language, and to convey it with minimal losses. That's all there is to it, really. I have respect for Nikolayeva's recordings, and many others too.

Do you have any advice for pianists who are trying to learn this music? Is it best to learn the first one and proceed to learn them in order?

Melnikov: It depends. If they want to learn the whole thing - I would start with the hardest ones, but learning the entire cycle should never become a goal in itself. Otherwise I find the most natural way to start with the ones which are most appealing, but that goes of course for any music.

What is your next recording project?

Melnikov: Prokofiev solo sonatas on modern piano and Mozart violin sonatas with Isabelle Faust on historic. There are also couple of things already recorded but not yet released, not least 4-hands fortepiano Schubert CD with Andreas Staier...

While you are in Portland, will you have a time to travel or see anything in the city? Or visit the Pacific Ocean?

Melnikov: I very much hope so. So far my knowledge about Portland is Wikipedia limited, but I already love it - beer, roses, steam engines, direct democracy, and "keep it weird" - things don't get much better, do they?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Seattle Opera's 'An American Dream' tackles powerful issues

NOTE: This article was supposed to be published at another site and was not. The opera reviewed was performed at 8pm on August 21 2015. Apologies for the untimeliness of the post

The world premiere of Seattle Opera’s An American Dream, by composer Jack Perla and librettist Jessica Murphy Moo, was more than a traditional opera. It was a multimedia experience, beginning with audience members being ‘processed’ for entry to the self-guided tour, behind fake (but convincing) barbed wire and surrounded by dour-faced, pacing guards in dark glasses, who responded to queries with succinct, disinterested and well-rehearsed phrases.  

An attempt to impart something of the experience of Japanese Americans incarcerated by the U.S. Government starting in 1942 and lasting the duration of the war, the exhibits actually traced the lineage of racist anti-Asian laws passed by various governments in the U.S. beginning in the late 18th century, and culminating with the incarceration of Japanese Americans at the start of the second world war. By the time the music started, the exhibits had served their purpose admirably, creating a heightened sense of expectation of the performance to come.

The set was spare—a few household furnishings set against a backdrop of cavernous emptiness. As the overture played, projections onto the emptiness began to unfold: a splash of ink across the dark, dragonflies winging across the water. Perla’s score here was atonal yet pastoral at times. The video projections, while beautiful, tended to distract from the action onstage. The overture itself felt overly long for such a short opera (about one hour 7 minutes.)

The scene opens with the Kobayashi family hastily sorting through paperwork, looking for anything that a suspicious US government might use against them. In a powerful trio, the family voice their private regrets in starkly haunting melodies as they prepare to be forced from their home. There is a sense of time running out as Papa (Makoto Kobayashi, sung by bass Adam Lau) begins negotiating with American vet Jim Crowley (baritone Morgan Smith) over the sale of the Kobayashi home. Crowley’s wife Eva (soprano D’Ana Lombard) gushes over the beautiful farmstead, while her husband negotiates in bad faith with Kobayashi, knowing he has them over a barrel and explicitly stating that there is no time to negotiate before the government comes. Reluctantly, Kobayashi agrees to sell the farm at a huge loss.

Setsuko Kobayashi, the daughter (sung by soprano Hae Ji Chang) hides her beloved doll under the floorboards in her room, singing a moving lullaby to the ‘Empress’ as she calls the doll. As the FBI arrives to arrest Mr. Kobayashi away for possessing dynamite (which he had once used to remove stumps) the home passes to the Crowleys.

After a brief light moment when the new couple moves in, Eva, a German Jew whose friends and family were not so fortunate to escape Hitler’s Europe as she had, begins to piece together just what happened to the Kobayashis and how her husband procured their new home, the darkness returns, and stays.  Lombard’s performance was particularly compelling: her lush, dark timbre and convincing acting spoke volumes as to the emotional import of the work. When she discovers Setsuko’s doll and finally understands what happened, the comparisons between the racial cleansing happening in Europe and America begin. Her husband Jim angrily says ‘we don’t murder the innocent here,’ and while there is an understanding that the detention centers in America are far different than the concentration camps in Europe in both design and purpose, the image hangs like a shameful question mark. If we don’t murder the innocent here, just what do we do to them and with what justification? Given the travesties and disparities in  the current American judicial system and culture at large vis-à-vis race, the topic is still disturbingly current.

As Mama (Hiroko) Kobayashi ails in the detention center, Setsuko attempts to cheer her up, trying to envision what her father might say, lying to her mother. This leads to a trio between Chang, Lau and a cello, as Setsuko imagines her father standing next to her, telling her what to say to comfort her mother. 

In the final scene, as Jim is confronted by his shame when Setsuko returns to their former home to meet her father, all the threads come together. Chang sings ‘I have nothing—don’t you recognize me?’ She is no longer the child who left a doll years ago, but a young woman, defiant in the face of Jim’s suggestion that she leave, and Eva finally learns the fate of her family in Europe. They have all been killed.

All of the vocal performances were fine—in particular Chang and Lombard. Their acting most especially drove the story forward, and exposed the ugly truths behind the similarities to be found in racial hatred no matter where it lies. Perla’s score and Moo’s libretto were up to the task of imparting this powerfully disturbing message—appropriate in tone and timbre, yet not so heavy as to labor the point in any way. Though the through-composed score read (fittingly) like a threnody from beginning to end, with an almost perpetual eeriness, it was lively and varied at times--there was a moment of domestic levity as the Crowleys lament the dusty, hard work of moving, a light moment that drew the audience in—who can’t relate to that?

The entire experience, from the exhibits at the beginning to Setsuko’s final reunion with her father at a home that is no longer theirs, Mrs. Kobayashi having died from grief while in detention, was incredibly moving, an experience that will not soon be forgotten. Seattle Opera plans to take the performance on the road if suitable venues can be found. Hopefully they can, because this work deserves to be seen far and wide.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Schiff-abration with Fear No Music at Kaul Auditorium this Sunday

From the press release:

"70th Birthday Celebration”

Longtime Portland composer, author, teacher, conductor, and mentor to generations of Reed College students, David Schiff has a milestone birthday this year, and fEARnoMUSIC celebrates the occasion with a concert devoted to his chamber music. Renowned NYC saxophonist Marty Ehrlich will join fEARnoMUSIC as a special guest for a performance of Schiff’s seminal work “Singing in the Dark” for alto saxophone and string quartet.

fEARnoMUSIC’s program will span over 30 years and a wide gamut of compositional styles. In addition to “Singing in the Dark,” the program will include the early Joycesketch II (1981) for solo viola (performed by FNM Artistic Director Kenji Bunch) and Schiff’s jazz-inflected love letter to New York City, “New York Nocturnes” for piano trio (performed by Jeff Payne, Inés Voglar, and Nancy Ives).

Combining the craft and complexity of American modernism, the rhythmic vitality and harmonic bite of jazz, and a soulful expression rooted in deep spirituality, Schiff’s has been one of the most important and unmistakable musical voices in the Northwest region for several decades.

Schiff himself will appear before the concert at 6:45pm for a talk with All Classical Portland radio host Robert McBride.

Tickets ($10-$30) are available for purchase online:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oregon Symphony season kicked off with Spanish-inflected music and guitarist Pablo Villegas

A festive mood swirled in the air at the Oregon Symphony’s gala concert, enhanced by many of the female orchestra members wearing colorful dresses and a concert program devoted to Spanish-influenced music, including two concertos that featured guitarist Pablo Villegas. Led by Music Director Carlos Kalmar, the musicians played works by Paul Dukas, John Corigliano, Joaquín Rodrigo, and Maurice Ravel. The Corrigliano piece was a curious choice for closing out the first half of the concert because it closed on a quiet note, but it only temporarily dampened the celebratory atmosphere on Saturday evening (September 12th) at the very full Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Written for solo guitar and chamber orchestra, Corigliano’s “Troubadours” was the subtlest of pieces. It had some of the quietest passages that I have ever heard, especially for the off-stage ensemble which sounded incredible distant at times – as if they were playing from a street two blocks away. Sometimes naked notes slid eerily and very slowly from one tone to the next, creating a sense of decompression. Villegas played incredibly cleanly, executing wild runs with gusto and slower passages with equal intensity. Duets between Villegas and Principal Flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen were exquisite as were the combinations between the Villegas and the strings with Concertmaster Sarah Kwak’s gentle solo on the tip top.

While “Troubadours” did evoke the image of a medieval poet-musician wandering into town and out into the countryside (or into the “clouds of memory” as Corigliano noted), it didn’t have any catchy melodies. Villegas and the orchestra made up for that with Rodrigo’s “Fantasia para un gentilhombre” (“Fantasia for a Nobleman”), which is one of the most popular concertos for guitar and orchestra ever written. The piece was superbly played by Villegas and the orchestra – with particular attention paid to the tonal blend between all forces so that the soloist could always be heard. In the last movement, “Canario,” Villegas cajoled a playful sound from his guitar that brought the audience to its feet with applause. He followed the ovation with a carefree encore “Tango en Skäi” by Roland Dyens.

The concert began with the Dukas’s “Fanfare to La Péri” and “La Péri, poème dansé.” The fanfare, brilliantly executed by the horns and brass section, contained some wonderfully engaging harmonics – even through the staccato passages. In “La Péri,” the orchestra laid out a lush, sonic fairyland. Creating a heightened sense of enchantment was the melodic line of the first violins against the subdued cellos and basses. Adding to the magic were swirls of sound from the entire ensemble and the trickle-down phrases of the flute (DiDonato Paulsen) and piccolo (Zachariah Galatis). It all ended gracefully with the horns guiding the sound into oblivion.

The final piece on program was Ravel’s “Rapsodie espangnole,” which Kalmar and company performed with élan. Again, DiDonato Paulsen played numerous tricky passages impressively, but Principal Trumpeter Jeffrey Work, Principal Bassist Jon McCullough (with smooth upward glissandos), Principal Clarinetist William Amsel(lovely ultra-soft tones), and the entire percussion section earned kudos for their outstanding contributions. No wonder the audience went nuts afterwards.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Ear Trumpet - concert listing of new music for September

A big thank you to Mr. March Music Moderne, Bob Priest, who compiled this information.

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1 - Tue - 7 pm
Jimmy Mak's

11 - Fri - 8 pm
Optic Nerve Trio
Redeemer Lutheran Church

12 - Sat - 7:30 pm
John Corigliano
Schnitzer Hall

<<< ET PICK >>>
19 - Sat - 8:30 pm
Ukrainian Neo-Folklore
Lincoln Hall

20 - Sun - 7 pm
David Schiff @ 70
Kaul Auditorium

26 - Sat - 4 pm
Alexander Melnikov
Shostakovich Preludes & Fugues

28 - Mon - 8 pm
James MacMillan
Schnitzer Hall

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5/12/19/26 - Saturday: 8-10 pm
All-Classical @ 89.9 FM

7/14/21/28 - Monday: 8-10 pm
KBOO @ 90.7 FM

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ET Recording of the Month:

City: Works of Fiction
Opal/Warner Bros

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ET West Coast Trail Concert of the Month:

8 - Tue - 8 pm
"Piano Spheres"
Thomas Ades & Gloria Cheng
Ades, Ligeti, Nancarrow & Messiaen
Zipper Hall

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ET was birthed by MMM with funding from
The Baby LeRoy Memorial Trust

March Music Moderne returns:
18-20 March 2016
5 Concerts for our 5th Festspiel

Friday, September 4, 2015

“Götterdämmerung” gets the full Castorf treatment with Hagen as an elevated agent of change

Frank Castorf’s maintained his anti-romantic stance with his production of “Götterdämmerung” at Bayreuth on Wednesday, August 26th, and went further by giving the heroic music of Siegfried’s Funeral March and the final measures of the opera to Hagen. That is, Hagen was portrayed (via video) as the recipient of the music. Perhaps it was Castorf’s nod to Hagen as the agent of change in the story. In any case, the many scenes of conflict in “Götterdämmerung” played well towards Castorf’s vision, because he didn’t shrink away from them. However, the addition of gestures that suggested voodoo (sacrificial chicken, shrine of candles, spitting, etc.) didn’t add anything. The singing and the orchestra, guided by Kirill Petrenko, were outstanding once again.

The opening scene showed a stairwell, and the bottom level was decorated with candles so that it resembled a shrine. Black and white images flickered from a TV in the back area of the shrine. There was a fair amount of plastic debris, so we had the feeling of being in an urban dystopia. The First Norn (Anna Lapkovskaja) emerged from under a plastic bag, and the Norns (Claudia Mahnke and Christiane Kohl) slipped into view. One of them dangled a chicken that was apparently going to be sacrificed a la voodoo in order to read the future. Some of them began to paint the walls red, dipping their hands into a jar and smearing it all over the place. As they grew more despairing of not being able to see into the destiny, they threw the remaining paint at the wall and exited up the stairwell.

After the stage rotated, we saw the beaten-up Airstream in front of a huge wall. Siegfreid (Stefan Vinke) sat on a bench supported by beer kegs at each end. Brünnhilde (Catherine Foster) wore a bathrobe and tried to read the future with her tarot cards while Siegfried sang. After flipping the cards on the ground, Brünnhilde went into the trailer and brought out a baby doll – another voodoo gesture. Somewhere along the way, Siegfried gave her the ring and left for his next adventure.The stage turned again to reveal a worn-out food vendor stand. Gutrune (Allison Oakes), although very interested in Hagen (Stephen Milling), agreed to his plot to marry Siegfried. As an enticement, Hagen removed the plastic that covered a brand new Isetta. (The Isetta was one of the most popular cars in post-war West Germany.) Gutrune quickly got a box of chocolates and some champagne and stepped behind the steering wheel. The big screen showed close ups of Gunther (Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester) beginning to have second thoughts about Hagen’s plans.

The blood-brotherhood scene between Siegfried and Gunther was gruesome because it featured lots of blood streaming down their forearms. It was almost a relief to see them bandage themselves up with lots of white gauze-tape. In the meantime, Hagen would drink and spit out the contents – another nod to voodoo.

The stage rotated back to the trailer where Brünnhilde received an impassioned warning from Waltraute (Claudia Mahnke). The scene worked very well, except for the bare, bright lightbulb that was placed in the middle. Was the lightbulb a metaphor for Siegfried and two moths circling it? Who cares? The main thing was that its harshness of the light from the bulb was annoying to everyone in the audience.

The scene in which Siegfried posed as Gunther to conquer Brünnhilde and get the ring was extremely well done. At one point Siegfried shoved Brünnhilde so hard that she slammed violently against the trailer. It was a wonder that Foster could sing anything at all after that, but she was outstanding, and when he forced the ring from her finger, it felt like she had been violated.

Act II opened up at the stairwell. An unknown woman sat near the top and a baby carriage was positioned on a level below. As Alberich (Albert Dohman) walked by Hagen and up the stairwell, past the carriage, and to the woman, the relationship between them was immediately clear. This was another excellent scene – made all the better by Milling’s hauntingly dusky voice.

The stage rotated to the vendor stand. There was a balcony nearby, which the male chorus filled and was later joined by the women chorus, spilling over to the floor of the stage. They seemed to me more engaged with themselves and with the cameramen (we could watch numerous close ups of chorus members on a big screen) than with the turmoil between Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Gunther, Gutrune, and Hagen.

To the left of the vendor stand was a large set of stairs, and at the top was a baby carriage. Brünnhilde, in a gold dress, ran to the carriage. Hagen seemed to stalk her. Gunther descended the stairs and removed the plastic covering over some tables and chairs where the three figure out what to do with Siegfried. A man pushed the carriage from the top of the stairs, causing it to crash and spill a bunch of apples. That was a reference to a similar scene in the movie “Potemkin” by Sergei Eisenstein.

At the beginning of Act III, we noticed that someone has been left for dead on the street. The three Rhinemaidens (Anna Lapkovskaja, Mirella Hagen, and Julia Rautigliano) picked him up and put him in the truck of their car (the same car that they had used in “Das Rheingold”). After Siegfried entered the scene, the Rhinemaidens plied him with snacks, which he tossed aside. They tried to seduce him one way or the other and even showed him the body of the dead man in the trunk in order to warn him of his fate, if he didn’t give them the ring. He ignored them and walks over to the stairwell where he added some graffiti and then beat up a homeless man.

Siegfried returned to the car and Gunther and Hagen enter. All three were erotically entangled with the Rhinemaidens, behind them an enormous white sheet fell to the ground, revealing the famous façade of the New York Stock Exchange. The stage rotated past a sign that read BUNA. (I found out later that BUNA was the name of a big company in East Germany that made plastics.) The stage stopped in front of the worn-out vendor stand. That was where Hagen loudly murders Siegfried with a huge club that reminded me of a baseball bat. During the funeral music, Siegfried was not carried out. The chorus vanished, and instead we watch Hagen exit the scene and follow him on a big screen as he goes deeper and deeper into a forest. So, Hagen got the heroic music instead of Siegfried.

The stage turned again to the large steps. Siegfried’s body was laid out on a sheet of large plastic. Hagen murdered Gunther with the baseball bat. There was a number of oil barrels stacked in front of a table. Hagen hit one of them and oil gushed out. At the sight of Siegfried, Gutrune clutched her head and went insane. Brünnhilde wandered over to the Airstream trailer, which was parked in front of the New York Stock Exchange. The Rheinmaidens were asleep at the wheel of their car, and Brünnhilde shows them the ring. Brünnhilde then opened the trunk of the car, and pulled out two gasoline cans. She poured the contents onto the floor of the stage, but instead of light the floor and burning down the New York Stock Exchange, a barrel of oil catches on fire. The ring was dropped into the burning barrel and Hagen tried to get it. The last scene was shown on the big screen with Hagen on a bier placidly floating across a lake.

All of the principals received thunderous applause with the most given to Milling, who was indeed superb. Marco-Buhrmester’s voice showed a vibrato that was starting to get out of bounds. The chorus, prepared expertly by Eberhard Friedrich) rocked the stage. Again, Petrenko and the orchestra got the most acclaim.

Overall, this “Götterdämmerung” and “Das Rheingold” were the two best evenings of the Ring Cycle that I experienced in Bayreuth. The idea of elevating Hagen to near-hero status was intriguing. So, if you want to see this unusual take on the Ring Cycle, you have two more chances, because the Castorf Ring runs will run next season and the following.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Oregon Symphony Waterfront Concert

(Rain date: Friday, September 4)

Tom McCall Waterfront Park
1020 Naito Pkwy

  • 1:00 – 6:30 PM
    Afternoon music festival
  • 7:00 – 9:30 PM
    Oregon Symphony
No tickets are required. Bring low-profile chairs or blankets for lawn seating, a little something to eat and sit back and enjoy!

Closing festivities include the traditional grand finale—Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with an elaborate fireworks show, complete with military cannons from the Oregon Army National Guard 218th Field Artillery.

Waterfront Concert Schedule

1:00 PM – 1:30 PM OSU Steel Drum Choir
1:30 PM – 2:15 PM Metropolitan Youth Symphony
2:15 PM – 2:45 PM Kevin Burke, Irish fiddler
2:45 PM – 3:15 PM Bravo Youth Orchestra
3:30 PM – 4:00 PM Hillsboro School District Mariachi Band ‘Una Voz’
4:00 PM – 4:35 PM Stephanie Schneiderman/ Tony Furtado, vocals and guitar
4:45 PM – 5:15 PM Portland Taiko Drums
5:15 PM – 6:00 PM Portland Youth Philharmonic
6:00 PM – 6:30 PM Bloco Alegria Portland/Rio-style samba band
7:00 PM – 9:30 PM Oregon Symphony

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Castorf provokes everyone at Bayreuth with his “Siegfried”

Perhaps Frank Castorf was in a bad mood when he conceived his production of “Siegfried” for the Bayreuth Festival –or he was just mischievous. In any case, his “Siegfried,” which I watched on Monday, August 24th, succeeded in provoking a thunderstorm of boos from the audience after the curtain closed on the final act. The negative reaction was most likely provoked by several scenes, including the one in which Siegfried guns down Fafner with an AK47, the sex scene between Siegfried and the Forest Bird, the fellatio scene between The Wanderer/Wotan and a prostitute who may have been Erda, and the scene in which the crocodile that eats the Forrest Bird.

Well, if that doesn’t have your mind spinning, then you may want to read the rest of this account, which goes into some detail over other oddities of Castorf’s interpretation of “Siegfried.” The heavy hitting started right away with the curtain revealing a Mount Rushmore consisting of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao instead of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Their stone faces definitely anchored the story’s action in a mythical communist landscape. At one point, The Wotan's and Siegfried's faces are superimposed over Lenin's and Stalin's. That was one of the few nice touches in this production.

In the foreground, below the stern communist forefathers, is an old, beaten up Airstream trailer, which serves as the work station for Mime (Andreas Conrad), who futilely tries create the sword that will kill Fafner, the dragon who sits atop the horde of Rhine gold. His mutterings and sputterings are interrupted by Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) who immediately flings a couple of lawn chairs and camping tables over the disheveled area. Siegfried also brings a bear, which is usually a humorous moment, but the bear in this production is a human being, and after briefly clowning around, the bear/man sets down and smears oil all over his head and upper torso. Later, after he has cleaned up a bit, he enters the trailer and eats and drinks snacks. He also reads books and gets in a bucket-lift that takes him up close to Marx, where he proceeds to clean Marx’s nose with a broom.

The Wanderer (Wolfgang Koch) walks next to the trailer while Mime climbs the scaffolding that goes up and around the communist Mt Rushmore. Both men sing primarily to the audience rather than to each other, and consequently the tension in the question/answer scene is totally destroyed.

In the second act, a screen shows the upper torso and head of Fafner with his fist raised in a mildly threatening way. Alberich (Albert Dohman) pastes some newspaper pages on the side of the trailer and later polishes Lenin a bit. The stage then rotates to show Alexander Platz, which is a square in the former East Berlin that has a huge TV tower. (The tower is still the tallest building in Germany.)

Fafner (Andreas Hörl) strolls into Alexander Platz with three women who are gaga over the jewelry that he has given them. Together they wander out of the square before Siegfried arrives. He plays footsie with the Forest Bird (Mirella Hagen), who takes a keen interest in him to the point that she tries to seduce him. The Forrest Bird is decked out in a huge, Las Vegas showgirl costume (interestingly enough, there was a popular revue in East Berlin that lots of showgirls). Fafner returns to the square where he encounters Siegfried, and Siegfried kills him with the machine gun (a very loud blast that obliterates any sound from the orchestra). Siegfried tastes some of Fafner’s blood that splattered onto the barrel of gun, and that enables him to understand the Forest Bird. She warns him about Mime’s intentions. Siegfired then kills Mime and empties a trash can on him.

The third act opens with The Wanderer/Wotan and Erda (Nadine Weissmann) drinking heavily on a big screen. In Alexander Platz, Siegfried copulates with the Forest Bird. After they leave, Wotan and Erda, who is wearing a tight dress, eat spaghetti in a vulgar way and argue until Erda leaves in a huff. She goes inside a building where she changes to a blonde wig (shown on the big screen). She then returns to Wotan and while he sings a long soliloquy, she services him while the waiter comes out to give Wotan a bill for the food and drink. Wotan doesn’t even look at the bill and he doesn’t bother to tuck in his shirt either. He shoves Erda aside and leaves, and the waiter then tries to collect from Erda, who angrily flips him the bird.

Siegfried returns to Alexander Platz where he removes a big, crumpled, sheet of plastic to find Brünnhilde (Catherine Foster). They sing of their love for each other but never look at each other or embrace. Four crocodiles (a male and female and two offspring) crawl into the scene, and one of the crocks swallows the Forest Bird so that only her heels are showing. Lucky for her, Siegfried pulls her out.

Immediately after the curtain closed, the booing began and didn’t let up until the singers appeared. Vinke sang with unbelievable strength, but he was unable to show off his lyrical side. Foster also had plenty of power. I don't know how Koch was able to sing while Weissman put his finger in her mouth and pulled out his shirt, but he was terrific. Conrad sang with plenty of gusto and could delve into rawness at the drop of hat. Dohman was dark and subdued. Hörl exuded a wonderful dark timber as did Weissmann. Hats off to Mirabella Hagen for singing with clarity and grace despite having to run all over the place in a cumbersome costume.

The sex and the reptiles did nothing to enhance this production. Instead, it detracted from the music and the story. Overall, Castorf seemed to thumb his nose at the whole enterprise in an effort to be remembered as the grand provocateur. Fortunately, the music still carried the day, and once again the singers were rewarded with tons of applause and cheers , and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and its conductor, Kirill Petrenko got the most acclaim.