+++ PHOTOS PENDING (when the anti-SOPA blackout is over) +++
This weekend I went to a brand new, black-and-white silent movie called The Artist, and I saw international opera star Christine Brewer sing Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs in person.
I chose to see The Artist on Friday evening because it was starting immediately. Otherwise my choice might have been The Iron Lady, a Margaret Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep. While I still may see the Streep flick another weekend, I'm glad I saw The Artist. It was really a beautiful movie, and fun to watch too. Using a minimum of dialogue cards to explain what people are saying, and accompanied by a steady stream of really good film music, the movie tells the story of a silent film actor whose career goes into crisis with the advent of "talkies." Meanwhile, his young female protege takes off like a Roman candle. Their life trajectories pass in many different ways, until a romance grows up between them.
Featuring an international cast, including French leads and several supporting American actors (notably John Goodman), plus an adorable dog, it's a delightful fantasy that plays around with the idea of silent films giving way to the sound era in a variety of ways. For example, there is a dream sequence in which the protagonist starts hearing sound effects intruding into his silent world; and later, a nightmarish scene in which he can't seem to hear anything anybody says. The movie is loaded with gimmicks and in-jokes—I was the only one in the theater who laughed when the starlet told her chauffeur, "Take me home. I want to be alone"—and did I mention that the music is awesome? I would like to see David Robertson conduct a performance-to-projection version someday.
But this evening, I saw him conduct three other pieces of music. In the first half of the program, he played the socks off of Dvorak's 7th (Sorry, I meant to paste in the spelling of his name with all the strokes and squiggles, but as I write this Wiki is down in protest against SOPA). Robertson's pre-concert lecture really sold this symphony short. Dark and brooding at the start, with a complex and mysterious slow movement, a wildly rhythmic scherzo, and a finale that moves from horror to triumph, I thought it absolutely was the type of piece that would have brought down the house at the end of the concert. But in his lecture, Robertson opined that, although he considers it the greatest of Dvorak's nine symphonies, it lacks the blockbuster appeal of the 8th or 9th that make for a really good closer. So, instead of the usual program order, he put the symphony first, then after the intermission he programmed a 20-minute piece by modern composer George Crumb and the Four Last Songs.
Robertson may or may not be surprised to hear that some, like myself, felt that the concert order of which he was so proud ran counter to order in which the pieces interested us. But even I was surprised to discover that I liked the Crumb piece ("Haunted Landscape") better than the Strauss. The first reason is that the Crumb piece was actually cool to listen to. I disagree with the patron I overheard bitching about "New Age music" at the end of the concert. I heard an intelligible structure with distinct musical ideas. I heard a composer playing around with sound, really quite like Robertson's pre-concert comparison between Crumb and a child messing around with fingerpaints. And I picked up on a real, scary-movie type of spookiness which I believe the music was intended to convey.
As for the other reason I preferred the Crumb to the Strauss... at the risk of exposing myself as a complete boob in the world of high culture... I have to admit that Richard Strauss' music generally leaves me cold. I can't explain exactly why. But the Four Last Songs was no exception. I've given many of Strauss' works several chances each, and I just can't seem to get excited about them. In the case of Four Last Songs, I'll admit the harmony is very expressive and the orchestral colorings are deep and lush, but I was constantly irritated by the balance between the orchestra and the voice part. Christine Brewer has a wonderful voice, so I don't doubt the fault lies with Strauss, but only rarely does the vocal line soar above the accompaniment; seldom is it even very interesting. More often, it seemed to me that Strauss only gave the voice part a minimum of notes to cover the syllables of the text, then stretched them out to fill enough of each movement's length to make it seem worthwhile. And then he scored the orchestra so that it would all but drown out even as renowned a Wagnerian as Christine!
I'm a Christine Brewer booster, so I have to assume there's something to this piece. After all, according to Robertson, she fell in love with it at an early age and has performed it dozens of times worldwide. But the way I look at things, it seems odd that an opera star would choose to be upstaged by the orchestra. What they played was worth hearing; but I still don't understand what Christine sang that was worth singing. I've felt the same way about certain other pieces, including (here I go) Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, so my quibble may really be with an aesthetic of setting words to music shared among composers of the Strauss-Mahler generation; it may simply be a sign that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Rossinian, or Mozartian, or maybe Bach-and-Handelian, where the relationship between lyrics and music is concerned; but even if there were valid principles that drove Strauss to treat his leading lady so, I think these four brief songs took those principles to an extreme.