Editor's Desk

Summertime Blues

(Recordings, Observations, Tristan Kraft, Listening, Crossover) Permanent link
Blog Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin 9110  

George and Ira Gershwin's melodies pervade popular culture with the same frequency as Carmen or Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Two weeks ago, Brian Wilson contributed to the fold of Gershwin interpretations, releasing his newest album "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin." The album, issued on Disney Pearl Series, is his second after the release of the much-anticipated "Smile" in 2005.

As you might expect, the former Beach Boy presents these standards, musical theater numbers and arias in cooing, three and four-part harmonies awash in reverb. Wilson plays "'S Wonderful" as a bossa nova, à la João Gilberto; he redefines "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" from Porgy and Bess as a instrumental jig for harmonica; and he adds both string and saxophone accompaniment to "Summertime" , singing with what you might call Southern California sprezzatura.

If it's too weird for you, there are plenty of other renditions to fall back on. Take the following, for instance: Leontyne Price singing "Summertime" for Jimmy Carter in 1978. spacer 

– TRISTAN KRAFT

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Sounds of Love

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Cinema, Listening, John Adams, Soundtracks) Permanent link

Luca Guadagnino's film Io Sono l’Amore, which is being billed in the U.S. as I Am Love, is an enchanting consideration of love in a modern Italian world.

The movie is a delight for the senses, and not just because of the shots of the ancient-seeming, lavishly appointed villas. The director cobbled together preexisting music composed by John Adams to create the film score. The results are anything but your typical, sentimental movie-music. The selections, including "The Chairman Dances" and excerpts from Harmonielehre, have the clear, ringing and invigorating sounds that mark Adams's early-career minimalist compositions — music that seems to awaken the movie's heroine, played by the magnificent Tilda Swinton, to the life-affirming power of love.

Below, Swinton calls it Adams's "unedited" sound, which is a nice way to put it. spacer 

—OUSSAMA ZAHR

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The Glass Mountain

(Observations, Cinema, F. Paul Driscoll, Nino Rota) Permanent link
Blog Images Glass Mountain DVD COver 82310  

Among my guilty pleasures are movies about opera — that is, film that feature opera in the plotline as opposed to movies of operas, such as the Zeffirelli Otello, or the Francesco Rosi Carmen, which despite their many virtues are somehow never as satisfying as an opera-house performance. (Captures of live performances, such as the Met's HD presentations, are in another, more exalted, class entirely.) What I love to watch are backstage films on the order of Serenade Mario Lanza and Licia Albanese as Otello and Desdemona! — or Interrupted Melody, which has Eleanor Parker lip-synching her way through everything from Musetta's waltz to Brünnhilde's immolation.

I recently watched a DVD of The Glass Mountain, a 1949 British film about a composer (Michael Denison) torn between his love for his genteel English bride (Dulcie Gray) and his passion for the earthy Italian girl (Valentina Cortese) who nursed him to health when he was injured in the War. The Glass Mountain was evidently very popular in the U.K., although not an international success on the level of 1948's The Red Shoes, another movie that presented a triangular love story within the context of a backstage milieu. Just as the climax of The Red Shoes was the presentation of an original ballet, the payoff in The Glass Mountain is a lengthy sequence, set in La Fenice, devoted to an original opera (or at least excerpts from an original opera) called The Glass Mountain. It's about a poor young man who loves a poor young lady but marries a rich young lady, only to have signora numero uno die and show up as a ghost at the wedding reception. The original pair of lovers are reunited when the young man plunges to his death while searching for his beloved in the mists that shroud the glass mountain of the opera's title.

The score is by the incomparable Nino Rota — the main theme is quite striking and almost impossible to forget, as is often the case with Rota's film work. The opera stars at work are soprano Elena Rizzieri, an attractive artist with a tangy sound whose work is otherwise unfamiliar to me, and the great Tito Gobbi, looking quite handsome and slim at thirty-six, sounding marvelous and handling the English-language dialogue with impressive ease. In an odd twist, Gobbi is meant to be playing himself — "Tito Gobbi of La Scala" — within the confines of a fictional story but pulls it off with complete conviction. In addition to his work as the hero of The Glass Mountain opera, Gobbi also sings a lullaby of sorts, accompanying himself on the accordion, to a group of wounded soldiers and does so with an almost indecent amount of charm.

The soundtrack for the Glass Mountain opera is conducted by Franco Ferrarra, who was later one of Riccardo Muti's teachers; the on-screen conducting is handled with painful clumsiness by actor Michael Denison, who plays the conflicted composer at the center of the drama's love triangle. Despite Valentina Cortese's sympathetic performance as the "other woman," the movie's stiff-upper-lip love triangle is mightily silly stuff. What makes the film of interest today is Gobbi and Rota's haunting music; the opera excerpts leave one wondering what the full score sounds like.

I watched the film on a VCI DVD that had poor sound — most noticeable in the disc's "extra," a 1939 cartoon featuring egrets meandering through a moonlit waterscape to the strains of Debussy's "Clair de Lune." But a YouTube clip of Gobbi at work in The Glass Mountain has been posted below that is well worth a look. spacer 

— F. PAUL DRISCOLL

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Musical Feast

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

This has been a pleasant enough summer in the Big Apple, with no shortage of cultural offerings on hand, but one longstanding tradition I miss is the Met's Operas in the Parks, whose forty-plus-year history of bringing free, full-length opera performances to tri-state-area parks has to stand among the greatest gifts any arts organization has ever offered to its public.

One of the great joys of summer is listening to music al fresco — preferably on a lush lawn, with a group of good friends and a lavish picnic spread before you. There's something about the fresh air that enhances both the love of food and the food of love and makes the whole experience transcend the sum of its part. Yes, the mosquitoes can be annoying, the ground is hard and sometimes damp, and the speakers, especially if one is a bit removed from the stage, can hardly be said to transmit a lifelike surround-sound effect. Indeed, it's often hard to tell whether what one is hearing is a transcendent performance by a great virtuoso or something more run-of-the-mill. Worst of all, the company outside one's own blanket can be noisy and noisome. We've all had to sit next to the chain-smokers, the chatty Cathys, the cell-phone addicts, the parents who think their children's shrieks of delight or whines of sheer boredom add something to the musical texture. Still, it is always great music being played or sung at a high level under the inspiring vault of nature, and even on occasions when all the aforementioned irritations have conspired together to detract from the hoped-for idyllic setting, I have seldom regretted spending an evening in this fashion.

Of course, New York still has the Philharmonic's summer concerts, and the Met, even in these hard times, has been generous enough to provide its own free Summerstage events, featuring up-and-coming operatic artists alongside some seasoned stars. But one of my favorite things about those complete opera evenings of yore, when I lay stretched out in the grass with thousands of my fellow New Yorkers as bel canto or verismo filled the air, was the pleasant awareness that many of my neighbors were just dipping their toes into this fabulous art form I love so much for the very first time, taking advantage of the chance to let a whole opera wash over them without having to commit to the price of a ticket or put on their Sunday best or sit still in a red plush seat for hours at a time. Despite the limitations of the sound system, a live, full-length performance gives a sense of what opera is all about that cannot be had from a concert of excerpts. (A week's worth of HD screenings on the plaza does provide the complete-opera experience, but not the thrill of living the music in real time along with the singers, or the decadence of lolling about on a blanket in the midst of a lofty cultural event.) I used to love to eavesdrop on the pre-concert and intermission conversations of my neighbors, as they tried to make sense of the often perplexing synopsis or offered their awed newbie takes on the singing, and on the astonishing scope and scale of the whole endeavor. And for every rambunctious child that spoiled my enjoyment of a favorite musical moment, there was another, rapt and open-mouthed at this novel sound-world, whose wonderstruck enjoyment exponentially multiplied my own.

It's great that some of the Met's young artists are getting a new kind of exposure via the free concerts on Summerstage. But I cannot help hoping that one summer soon the grand-scale, full-cast-and-orchestra performances that once captivated seas and seas of people on the Great Lawn will be back in business again. spacer 

— LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Bad Press

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Criticism, Advice) Permanent link

Not long ago I was introduced to a New York voice teacher, an ex-singer who had kind of a half-baked career and is still looking for someone to blame for it. When she found out that I worked for OPERA NEWS, she said, "Oh ... well, we all know how you get into that magazine, don't we?"

"Actually, no," I said. "How do you get into it?"

"Oh, come on — everyone knows that the singers' publicists pay for that kind of coverage."

Well, that's news to me. In the twenty-two years that I have worked for OPERA NEWS, I've witnessed many jaw-dropping incidents with people who work in the music business, but never has a publicist offered to pay to get a client into the magazine's pages. Who knows how people get these ideas about what goes on behind the scenes at our publication? If publicists paid to get their clients into the magazine, does anyone honestly think I'd still be living in a small one-bedroom apartment and planning budget trips on Expedia? But this little episode did get me to thinking about why people talk so much about music publicists, assigning them such a significant role in the way the business works.

I'll tell you something: many of them are quite insignificant. What's more, many of them are quite unnecessary.

Now, institutional publicists can do a great deal of good. Large symphony orchestras and opera companies need good P.R. and marketing people, and they can be of enormous benefit to the singers who perform with those organizations. (I'm not so sure about some of the smaller organizations: there's one group in New York that changes publicists the way I change rolls of paper towels, and it never seems to make any difference.)

But I think that every single one of my OPERA NEWS colleagues agrees with me on this point: an individual singer or a conductor has the greatest need of a publicist when the career has grown so unwieldy, so complicated by millions of details, that a publicist can act as kind of a combination of clearing house and production stage manager. A lot of singers — younger ones, especially — sign on with publicists because they are under the impression that publicists will bring them greater visibility and that greater visibility will yield more work. Back in the day when cultural departments in media outlets ran wider and deeper than they do now, and when everyone was reading the same magazines and newspapers and watching the same T.V. shows, that might have been the case. But the whole media scene has changed so dramatically. I'm not a member of the Greatest Generation, and I hate to sound like one, lecturing those darned kids on the importance of a proper work ethic. But: the best way to secure more work for yourself, to build your career, is by showing up on time for rehearsals, knowing your music, performing your heart out, not making a pest of yourself with management — in other words, doing your job. That way, you have at least a fighting chance of being re-engaged.

Whether you are a young singer or one in mid-career, a publicist really can't help you get work. If you are a young singer, what most publicists are going to do is charge an exorbitant monthly fee. Most likely you will be charged every time the publicist has lunch with someone like me for the purpose of pitching a story. One thing I think a lot of young singers don't understand is that a lot of editors and writers keep their eyes open — they can spot young talent and develop an interest in it without some paid handmaiden spoon-feeding information to them.

Now, I know that this is not always the case. There are some editors who rely heavily on publicists to supply not only the story idea, but the whole package — the writer included. I think this is a horrifying practice: at OPERA NEWS, we tend to resist the idea of the publicist recommending a writer, because we automatically assume that what we're going to get is a piece that the publicist has unduly influenced.

There are good publicists around, too — smart, seasoned pros who really know how to pitch a story and don't whine if you say no. But I'm afraid that they're outnumbered by the publicists who don't do their homework, pitch story ideas that have appeared in the magazine only a few months earlier, or alienate the editors by trying to use various forms of bullying or emotional blackmail to get their way. I'm not going to mention any names, not even the names of the good ones, because if I do, the "others" will be calling me wanting to know why their names were included, and why they thought I always liked them, and wondering what they've done to offend me and how they might make it up.

The music business is in a shambles, and it simply can't — or shouldn't — support the number of publicists who have hung out a shingle for themselves. So, especially to those struggling young artists, I would say: use that money that you were saving for a monthly P.R. commission to hit that sale at Barneys or Bloomingdales. Buy your grandmother that Three Irish Tenors CD she's seen advertised on TV. Hire someone to teach you how Wozzeck really goes. spacer 

— BRIAN KELLOW

 


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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10