Friday, January 21, 2011

On Tenors: Professional Opinion

In response to my post yesterday about how interpretations today maybe limited, taking the example of "La Donna E Mobile" and Caruso, which I amateurishly posted, a friend of mine Andrew Moravcsik sent me this very informative and educational email.   Andy is an opera critic who has reviewed Bayreuth Opera and writes for Newsweek International and other publications such as Opera magazine and Economist.  He is the authority on operas for me, although he has a day job teaching Political Science at Princeton University, and to many, is an authority on European Union.  But when Andy calls at the last minute inviting me to go to an opera production, I basically drop everything and go.

I thought that his email is too good to just sit in my inbox, so I share it.  Here is what Andy wrote me:

Hi Mari!

Glad to see my favorite electronic violinist is slumming in the land of Italian opera favorites. But why don't you consult with your opera expert before throwing these things up?

You have very much the right idea that modern singing is one-dimensional as compared to older opera singing: Sung from the chest, little variation in expressive and musical means. This is the tragedy of modern singing. But you do miss three big items intrinsic to any "Donna è mobile" comparison:

(1) You compare on rubato, and that is important. But there are many more relevant dimensions of vocal expression that we are losing, besides simply tempo. Among them are dynamics, vocal color, whether to sing in the head or the chest, characterization, artistic imagination, diction, rhythmic articulation, etc. The use of these other tools has declined just as much as use of rubato.

(2) You compare 8 modern ones, 1 quasi-professional of the 50s (Lanza), and Caruso. But the greatest competitors to Caruso lie in between. In a serious 20th century comparison, most people might include, alongside Caruso, Pavarotti (for sheer vocal splendor), Kraus (for style), Domingo (just because of who he is, even if he is misparted here). None of the others rate in historical perspective, though I rather like the version by Kaufmann I've heard. The more interesting tenors are those between 1910 and 1970.

(3) Another thing any serious opera person will note is that Caruso recorded the aria three times, in 1903, 1904 and 1908. These are rather different. (There is a whole debate about his evolving style.) So which one do you like and why? The same goes for many of these others: Kraus, I believe, recorded the entire opera more than once. Pavarotti has recordings of the aria spanning 40 years. In the latter case, I rather like the early ones, which are freer and more imaginative, then he settled into routine that was much criticized. (See the piece I wrote for NEWSWEEK on his death on my website here:

Now, on to Caruso. I appreciate, as you do, the use of rubato at the end of each line (not just the end of the stanzas), and find it interesting. But I believe it comes at a cost, both musical and dramatic. Remember that this is an aria by an aristocrat who is at once arrogant and indifferent to those around him, and who doesn't have a worry in the world. The opera's plot turns on the fact that the Duke does not care about morality or mortality, for nothing can ever happen to him. He's untouchable. The injustice of this, viewed from the perspective of Rigoletto, his lowly jester, drives the plot: Rigoletto first joins the Duke, then tries to beat him--of course unsuccessfully and, in the end, tragically. The aria is brilliantly written to convey this. Any interpretation must be done with a light touch, projecting this uncaring, light-hearted personality, obliviousness to surroundings, simple-minded interest in pleasure, even his exasperating arrogance, yet at the same time a certain underlying fierceness and danger. It is more difficult to do well than it might seem at first.

Back to Caruso: I find there are real problems in the 1908 version. It is heavy, both in terms of vocal color (the voice sounds too old and heavy for the part--and it is notable that, though this was less than 1/3 of the way through his recording career, Caruso never recorded this lyric aria again), and in terms of interpretation. The tempo changes work against him in places: for example, the ends of the phrases seem clumsy and heavy, and stopping in the middle of the line makes him seem like someone who thinks too much. I like the 1903 more, and the 1904 even more. Caruso's voice sounds more youthful, he mixes and varies head and chest well, the rubato more naturally employed, there is more rhythmic snap and characterization to it all, and he sounds less mannered. 1904 Caruso would be on my top 10. Obviously, compared to Rolando Villazon it sounds great. But I think there are even better ones out there.

One of my favorites is Beniamino Gigli 1934. ( but I do not like this transfer, the original is warmer of sound, so use the version attached above, which I think sounds more natural). This one, in my view, has it all. The tempo creates the right mood of insouciance. It is slower, relaxed. It passes your rubato test, but in a different way. His tempo is steady through the first part of the stanzas. He does not use rubato at the end of each line, and I think (see above) in this light aria, that is the more appropriate choice. (There is a debate about whether in the 19th century singers varied tempo more, what we have lost, etc.) You can almost see the strolling aristocrat, who cannot be bothered to notice anything except the little tune he is singing and the girl he is chasing. He uses a more conventionally placed, but perfectly judged ritard on the high note, followed by a snappy acceleration.

Gigli mixes and varies head and chest voice well--in a way that is varied, natural, musical, and in character. He starts mezzo-forte with mostly chest, a very focused tone, goes from full voice to an audaciously pure head voice (pp) on the high note (Caruso does this once, suddenly, but with an uncomfortable break, near the end of the 1903 recording, but this is much better), then back to mixed. Only on the last notes of the phrase does he open up the voice to forte, and only on the last notes of the entire aria, after the little cadenza, does he exploit his voice's full, golden richness, more chesty and darker than the start, at ff. Notice also that he starts the second verse in a slightly more head voice than the first (Caruso hints at this in 1904, as well).

There are, in addition, myriad rhythmic and stylistic details. The mordents are perfect, musically lovely, and dramatically suggesting aristocratic disdain. The diction is very clear, and there is a wonderfully teasing quality about it. In the first stanza, listen to how crisply the words "cento" "penSIEro, "pianto" are enunciated, and the way he snaps "mobile" halfway through the first stanza, tracking the violins exactly. (You think there is nothing at all in the thin accompaniment to this aria, until you hear an singer make use of it like this.)

All this is high art, very subtle, and yet the most amazing thing is that you do not notice any of it. Gigli is so personable, so innately musical, and so firmly embedded in a stylistic tradition, and yet so idiosyncratic, that it seems entirely natural. He adds all this without crushing what is the simplest and most unaffected of arias. In my opinion, it is sheer genius.

There are dozens of performances between 1910 and 1970 worth parsing in this way, though few quite as good as Gigli. But no time!

BTW, if you want to hear the greatest conducting of Rigoletto ever, which really makes a virtue of this mix of restraint and freedom within a proper style required to be truly great, listen to the celebrated live Act IV from Madison Square Garden under Toscanini.  Toscanini pushes the tempi, which is correct in Italian opera, and yet it feels open and natural. He understood the need to make each line breath, as if it were sung, and the need for rubato where appropriate. Listen, for example, to his handling of the Quartet, which comes right after "La donna e mobile." The first (allegro) section (from 4:45 to 6:11) is played with unmatched deftness and lightness, combined with irresistible flow and forward momentum. What he gets the orchestra to do between the two stanzas with the accelerando and rubato--for example, that sudden violin sfz articulation at 5:38!--is just magical. This section just sweeps you into the more famous andante that follows. Toscanini He underscores the contrast by not initially varying the tempo, giving the line a magical sense of stillness. As in Gigli's "Donna è mobile", he exploits the dramatic potential of an initially steady tempo. There is a slight increase in urgency when the other voices come in. Then at the end of the verse, a little accelerando and a big ritard on the tenor high note. In the tutti that follows, the slight tempo changes are all natural, not forced as in Caruso. Once in a century it sounds like that--despite being live in a basketball stadium.

You should hear my evening talk on "10 tenors of the 20th century" sometime. I do one aria each by, arguably, the 10 greatest tenors of the 20th century, arrayed to tell the story of the tenor aria from Monteverdi to Britten. I contrast Gigli and Pavarotti on "Donna e mobile" to show the decline of singing. People are blown away by how low we've sunk. You certainly got that right! I look forward to your other forays into opera!

Andy Moravcsik
Princeton University

Is "score" a Bible of Interpretation?

Since I went all out yesterday with French pop "grandma's music", making my French husband and in-laws quite alarmed :)  Today I go back to classics.    Like anyone, I like comparing performers, listening to different violinists playing the same pieces; or at least I used to, comparing old timers.  Today not so much, as younger generation of violinists seem to be not too distinguishable from one another, and I don't find it fun.   Just because my daughter is playing the extraction of "La Donna E Mobile" from Rigoletto for her piano lessons, here I go.

As I mentioned yesterday, I really like listening to singers of any genre, and get a lot of performance ideas in terms of phrasing.  My old violin teachers also used to say, "listen to the singers!".  I'm not an opera specialist but my interest is very specific in today's case: rubato of a part of a phrase.  Here is the text of the first 16 measures of the song.  I'm specifically listening to the underlined italic places:

La donna è mobile
Qual piuma al vento,
Muta d'accento — e di pensiero.
Sempre un amabile,
Leggiadro viso,
In pianto o in riso, — è menzognero.

(Woman is flighty
Like a feather in the wind,
She changes her voice — and her mind.
Always sweet,
Pretty face,
In tears or in laughter, — she is always lying.)

Call me old fashioned (I really am, despite all the "revolutionary" Subharmonics and interactive computer systems  :)    but my favorite is hands down, the good old Mr. Enrico Caruso.   And here is the reason.   At the underlined second-half of the phrase, he is practically the only one I could find, who does "rubato" to the degree that's almost distorted in terms of tempo.  He takes quite a liberty in making a very noticeable ritardando (slowing down).  He does it every time,  making very clear contrast, as the text corresponds in contrasting character.   Even if you don't understand the Italian lyrics, you know something is different because of the way he sings.

So I was curious, as I can't really find anyone sing the way Caruso does, I went on Youtube doing a "La Donna E Mobile Sing-Out"  :)  The quality of these recordings isn't the issue; you are just listening to how these tenors sing the first 16 measures.  I found it curious that after Caruso, the singers of the following generation sings with more and more rigid tempo-- almost no inflections at all.   Really, nobody sang like Caruso after him.  I do enjoy all of them in a different way, but again, I'm just interested in this specific item.  If you like, click on the names and compare yourself:

1. Here is my "winner" Enrico Caruso. (b. 1873)
2. Mario Lanza (b. 1921) slight "tenuto" where Caruso slows down
3. Richard Tucker doesn't quite slow down as much as Caruso but clearly sings with contrast
3.5 (new) Alfredo Kraus does almost slow down once
The "Three Tenors" sing it with no tempo change at all.
4. José Carreras, and his earlier version which I prefer (less audio quality)
5. Placido Domingo  slowest, no rubato except for the fermata at the end of the verses like everyone
6. Pavalotti sheer power house, I don't have much else to say...
Now, the younger generation, theirs maybe slightly more in variety and freedom than the previous generations of giants.
7. Rolando Villazon pretty much following the previous generation
8. Marcelo Alvarez see above, even more straight than Villazon
9. Jonas Kauffman no real rubato, but certainly a lot freer than the "3 tenors" from the last generation (at the end you can see Carreras is in the audience)
10. Juan Diego Florez does the slight ritardando a few times a la Caruso

I wrote yesterday, that without the recording of old works while the composers were alive, even with today's scholarly performance practice studies, we maybe performing a very different music from what was originally intended.   Caruso is the closest to Verdi's generation obviously, born 20 some years after Rigoletto was first performed in 1851.  He sang Rigoletto making his debut two years after Verdi died in 1901.   It is very possible he heard Rigoletto while Verdi was alive, and it maybe that the singers of that time sang the way Caruso does.  Or, this "slowing down" was Caruso's unique way, that he made the mark on his own.

More "composer-centric", or clearer the interpreter/composer division became in the 20th century, the "liberty" such as of Caruso's, seemed to have become shunned or frowned upon.  "It is NOT WRITTEN!" to slow down, so you don't slow down like that.   We have become more faithful to the score, taking it as the "bible" of interpretation.  It seemed to have made us sacrifice the freedom of individual expression and we have achieved the conformity instead.  Is it too cynical the way I put it?  :)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"La Belle Vie" and "The Good Life"

And both are great :)   For no apparent reasons, today I listened to Sacha Distel's "La Belle Vie" and "The Good Life", English version sang by Sinatra, comparing over and over again for about 10+ times :)  My French husband said Distel is like "grandma's song" but as a violinist, it interests me immensely how singers carry their words and phrases, in any genre.  

(I attached the both lyrics at the end of this post)

I'm particularly interested in the pronunciation of words and the rhyme; it is very much like articulation in string playing, at least to me.    Articulation on strings, I mean the way the sound starts, is the consonances in songs.   I think that string composition and string articulation are very closely related to each other--you can have beautiful sustaining tones but if you don't start and end the sound in the way which you are meant to project, the phrases don't truly speak.

I did this Distel (French) and Sinatra (English) "listening match", and as expected the original French version has more rhyming with clear consonances, articulating the music the way it was intended.  The English version "The Good Life", the translation or re-write of the original lyrics written by Distel and Jean Broussole, are completely different, and the lyrics don't even mean the same thing.   Musically I hear almost a completely different composition.  I don't mean to say it's bad; I like Sinatra's juicy volumptuous voice very much, so it's a different song.

I also listen to "The Girl from Ipanema" a lot, comparing Sinatra/Jobim.     In this amazing footage, Sinatra singing in English, starts out with the band clearly marking the downbeats for him, for otherwise quite rhythmically intricate piece.  Then they switch to Jobim with his guitar singing in Portuguese.  His lyrics are very different, syllables quite pronounced and rhymed, and of course completely off-beat.   Sinatra himself hears the difference and murmurs at 0'34" mark, "That's the only way!".

When songs are imported from one language to another, it often seems to become almost a different song, except the notes and harmony are the same.  Does this apply to instrumental music?  Maybe if Chopin, Liszt, Vivaldi or Paganini were alive, those of us who play their works in the way "we" play, might actually sound completely different from how these composer/performer intended.  Even with scholarly performance practice studies, there are no surviving recordings.  Maybe what we are "interpreting", the works from the past, without the "correct" articulation and phrasing, we maybe merely tracing something that once was a completely different composition....

I attach below the lyrics of "La Belle Vie" and "The Good Life" I found on the internet.

"La Belle Vie"

Ô la belle vie
Sans amour
Sans soucis
Sans problème.
Hum la belle vie
On est seul
On est libre
Et l'on s'aime.
On s'amuse à passer avec tous ses copains
Des nuits blanches
Qui se penchent
Sur les petits matins.
Mais la belle vie
Sans amour
Sans soucis
Sans problème.
Oui la belle vie
On s'enlace
On est triste
Et l'on traîne.
Alors pense que moi je t'aime
Et quand tu auras compris
Je serai là
Pour toi.

"The Good Life"

It's the good life, full of fun, seems to be the ideal,
Yes, the good life, lets you hide all the sadness you feel,
You won't really fall in love 'cause you can't take the chance,
So be honest with yourself, don't try to fake romance.
Yes, the good life, to be free and explore the unknown,
Like the heartache when you learn you must face them alone,
Please remember I still want you and in case you wonder why,
Well, just wake up, kiss that good life goodbye.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Rolling in the Magic Carpet

Does this sound a bit x-rated?  :)  It's not; those of you who have read my older post entitled Magic Carpet might know what I maybe talking about.

Recently I attended a concert of a fantastic performer who presented a huge repertoire, truly a tour-de-force performance.  It was just impressive.  The performer was most competent, musical, and delivered the program with utmost integrity.  The concert was packed with select audience, many of whom were composers and fellow performers such as myself.  It was truly a treat.

I knew very little of these pieces; there were famous and familiar composers but it was not my instrument.   In fact most of the composers on the program were those whom I admire and respect immensely, however I never quite *loved*.   That's why I was taken by surprise that one of the pieces completely charmed me, works by my "respectable-but-not-lovable" composer.

The work in question was written quite early in the composer's career, therefore retained the early musical influence.  But I didn't think that was why.  The mark of the composer's voice was unmistakably already there in this early work.  I don't think it is because the work sounded rather "conservative" compared to the composer's later work, that I liked it.  There are works of similar style that I really don't care for.

The performer chose this work for whatever reason, but to me, the performer was so comfortable playing it, riding effortlessly on the Magic Carpet.  In fact it was so effortless that I didn't feel like the performer was playing the instrument, but rather flying or rolling around in it.  The performance was that spectacular that it made me forget which instrument the music was coming from.

Other works on the program were delivered by the performer with equal rigor and perfection.  But this piece I described in particular I thought, was just perfectly done.

Now, I must be careful; I am not saying that the performer didn't deliver other works as well as this piece in question.  But there are at least two possibilities.   1)  Indeed the performer was at most comfortable and indeed loved this particular work, therefore the Magic Carpet was flying.  That's why I, who doesn't really *love* this composer usually, loved this work.   2)  It was this particular work itself allowed the performer to ride, or roll in the Magic Carpet, whereas other works on the program didn't, nor the same composer's later works that I don't particularly love.

I was deciding it was 2), that it was the work itself which was better than others.  That would be the easy answer.  But the question is, how if it was 1) ?    If it was the first possibility, that every performance I've heard of any composer that I never cared for, were not performed by those who weren't comfortable enough to fly the Magic Carpet?  Have I been robbed of appreciating all these pieces?   That would be truly sad, and makes me feel the obligation as a performer.  Note to self....

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Facelift, or Plastic Surgery? :)

No, Not Me!!   :)   I'm just putting this title as a metaphor for revising or rewriting an older work.
One of this year's (2010-2011) creative project, during my Guggenheim Fellowship year, I decided that I would rework on my 1999 Violin Concerto and try to get it recorded.  It was commissioned by Guanajuato Orchestra in Mexico with grant from Jerome Foundation.   It was absolutely the first orchestra piece I have ever written, and with no real experience and with no guidances.  I did take a lot more harmony and orchestration courses than "normal" violinists at Toho School but still I am very largely self-taught when it comes to composition; my only composition "teacher", although that is not even too official--I wasn't enrolled in the "composition" department--was Mario Davidovsky when I enrolled in Juilliard-Columbia Univ. exchange program and took private lessons with him for a few years.

I decided to "upgrade" or rework on my old concerto instead of writing a new one.  I much prefer to write a brand new one (and I would like to actually); it would be a lot easier than to rewrite.  The main reason being that this 1999 work is the first Violin Concerto in history that used Subharmonics, pitches below open G, introducing those low notes in the violin repertoire.   An excerpt from the Cadenza was printed in an article on Subharmonics I wrote on STRINGS magazine in 2001 (August/Sept issue). The picture above is a measure from the Cadenza.  So it is already documented somewhat, but I feel I need to cast it in stone for the historical value.

The orchestra part is at times almost embarrassingly simple; when I got the commission I talked to Robert Dick, a virtuoso and revolutionary flutist who single handedly changed modern flute's capacities, and who also wrote his own concerto.   Since Robert and I are friends (and in fact we have a duo improvisation CD out, called Irrefrageable Dreams) I turned to him for an advice.  In his typical quirky and cheerful way, Robert said to me, "Whatever you do, just remember Mari, CHOPIN is the cut off" !   He meant that the orchestra part shouldn't be simpler than Chopin's piano concerto!  :)   

Unlike so many great contemporary violin concertos written by master composers today, I am curiously not ashamed to say that my intentions for creating a violin concerto as a violinist myself, isn't really in creating a master orchestral piece :)  My interest is foremost to showcase and feature the violin, which one could say that it maybe more "shallow" or superficial musically.   I personally find modern violin concertos (in general) too "thick" in orchestration that covers over the solo parts too much, but again that is spoken by somewhat egotistical typical violinist point of view :)  The modern composition ethics seems to dictate that the solo violin part should be more integrated into the orchestra as a whole.  I don't mean to be rebellious, but personally I am not interested in this aesthetics; other more competent people can write more "integrated" master compositions.  I write for the solo violin :)

Anyway, even with this self-serving violinist-pleasing concerto writing style, I feel I still would need to improve on my orchestrations and even some structural elements.  The orchestra I wrote for was a University orchestra, and I had consciously kept orchestra parts, especially winds and brass, rather simple.   The question is, when I start "improving" on the already-written score and parts, would that be a "facelift", pulling and tightening when necessary, or would it involve some major structural changes like a plastic surgery, shaving bones and such!?!?   As I'm already working at it, I am afraid that it is the latter.   

This is a "Violin Concerto, 1999", but when I finish revising it, I will have to add "revised 2011" and it will have more than a decade in between.  I am realizing that it will not be the same piece anymore.  Why didn't I do it before?  Good question; I guess I would just blame it on having two babies!  :):)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rehearsal scenarios and anti-click-track :)

So I just spent a good few days completely focusing on developing a "plug-and-play" interactive system for cellist Joel Krosnick, and made Ralph Shapey's cello piece "Solo, Duo, Trio" interactive using MaxMSP.  In terms of programming it was relatively easy, but the hard part for me was to imagine all the practicing scenarios that one would expect, if this was a human 3-cello piece.  "OK, lets play from m. 47", "can you do that again?" "just 1st and 3rd cellos only, let's go from where we stopped" etc. etc.    This is Joel and I rehearsing today at Juilliard. It is truly inspiring to work with such a remarkable musician who has worked with and recorded Carter, Shapey etc. intimately with their presence.  Joel discussed multi-rhythm schemes by these composers and the performance practice of these works.  I felt like I just attended a private lesson!

When you are rehearsing with human players, of course all you have to do is to "say" where and how you are going to rehearse, but for interactive performance with a computer, especially when there is no computer operator, and for a classical cellist who has never used any kind of computer music program before, AND who is holding a cello on one hand so essentially he has one hand or just a finger or two to press a key, it became surprisingly challenging.  I had to simplify the user interface, making it automatic enough but still keep flexible and versatile rehearsal schemes.  I also spent a good amount of time color coding cues and displays for at-a-glance recognition of what is happening, since Joel is mainly reading the music and have very little time to glance at the computer.  Having to plan for my another commission I'm writing for the Cassatt Quartet, this was a very good exercise for me.  I'm happy to say Joel is able to do everything on his own :)  So far so good!

Joel has been performing this piece by playing back the recording of his overdubbing, which is obviously cast in stone in terms of timing.  He said that he used click-track to make that recording.  He also mentioned that, at one performance he performed some notes a little too long, but of course when it was "played back" during the overdubbed part, it was different from what he just played.  So this time, he is performing it live, which Shapey originally intended.  Now that he has to live with "himself" so to speak, which isn't cast in stone but played live, Joel said "Now I have to get used to playing with ME!" and we laughed.

Joel and I discussed how people still use click-track in performance, which both of us don't like.  We agree that the sound of click-track itself dictates musical quality, and the price of "in sync exactly on time" kills the spontaneity of rhythm and live performance.   I have heard very young and talented composers even, while attempting to use the most sophisticated "score following" program and failing (or the system wasn't working as well), resorting to performers wearing click-track.  What is really a point of writing music that requires a click track and syncing with electronics so perfectly that requires an electronic conductor to dictate the humans?   That's sad.  But that's just me  :)

I have heard one exceptional performance by a young duo from Mexico, whose name I'm trying to remember--if someone knows them please remind me!  The second word of the group was "Ritmica"... I heard them at Anthology Film Archives concert years ago.  (I will update this entry with their name when I find it!)   Anyway the two percussionists were perfectly in sync, very musical and vibrant.  And they were using click track wearing headphones.  The music was very rhythmic and the use of obvious click track, for the first and only time for me to this day, didn't bother me; it made sense.  I went up to them after the concert and asked, "so what ARE you listening?"  They let me hear their headphones, and to my surprise, it wasn't the usual "ticking" with one pitch--which I find appallingly unmusical--but they were actually listening to some piano sounds in ARPEGGIO which was actually changing in 3, 4, 5, 7 or something in time!  What a creative and musical idea :)

BTW Joel is wearing a headphone but NOT listening to a click track :)  We also talked about how disturbing it is to wear a headphone and play an instrument at a concert.  We also agreed that we both prefer these "ear buds" to full-ear-covering headphones, since you really can't hear your acoustic sound well with those unless you uncover one ear or something.