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November 9, 2011

Answering Questions about Charles Ives

IVES photo by Halley Erskine, MSS 14, The Charles Ives Papers in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale UniversitySM.jpg"The Unanswered Question," a chamber orchestra composition, framed the "Charles Ives: A Life in Music" opening concert November 3, 2011, in the Strathmore and PostClassical Ensemble series of programs entitled The Ives Project. The three-day Project as conceived by Joseph Horowitz, PostClassical Ensemble artistic director, offered a master class with Ives specialist, pianist Jeremy Denk; panel and lectures discussions illustrated by live piano music and rare recordings of Ives playing and singing his original work; and three nights of concerts culminating in the intimate Music Room of the Strathmore Mansion with the JACK Quartet mixing contemporary composers and Ives. The Dresser was pleased to attend the opening concert and the panel discussion "Ives Plays Ives" that featured Denk and Horowitz with a surprise appearance of founding PostClassical music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez. PCE Apr 2011 - StrathmoreSm.jpg

From these panelists, the Dresser gathered these words and phrases to define the musical predilections of Ives: fixed on textures and tempos, obsessed with improvisation and revision, love of fragments and unfinished music, liking massive chords and complex sonorities, inspired by literature (e.g. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau), dealing with subliminal music. The Dresser believes the reference to subliminal music is wrapped up with the term sonic exuvation, an expression Nicolas Slonimsky, an early interpreter of Ives, used to describe how Ives overlays a tranquil passage of music with a temporary outburst of sound that may be dissonant and unexpected. Ives used this technique in "The Unanswered Question."

What continues to surprise audiences about "The Unanswered Question" is the separation of the four flutes and trumpet from the orchestra on stage, which plays a lyrical passage. In the Strathmore concert hall and in keeping with what Ives intended, the flutes played their shrill lines from the balcony positioned close to the orchestra while the trumpet, adding another layer of dissonance, played from a balcony at the back of the auditorium. A possible interpretation of the instrument separation is the voice of nature in the lyric lines of the instruments on stage, the questioning voices of mankind in the flutes, and the voice of God in the trumpet. Ives called this work a "cosmic drama."

To the Dresser's mind, the point of the Project was to answer as many questions as possible about Charles Ives (1874-1954), a composer whose work speaks to contemporary classical music, but was under appreciated in its time and still is. Before the Dresser loses sight of this comparison, Ives to classical music seems to beg comparison with Gertrude Stein to literature. Both born in the Northeast United Sates in 1874 and schooled in New England (she studied with Harvard professors and he with Yale), they each broke significant ground with experimentation that combined elements of high and low art and each were marginalized by their critics. Both had to self promote but both have come into the 21st century as major influencers on 20th century and contemporary experimental artists. Undoubtedly, Stein was better at getting the public to pay attention to her, though what she got was notoriety and not appreciation. Joseph Horowitz, inspired by a letter written by the composer's daughter Edith Ives, realized that it was important to present "Ives the man and Ives the composer," which Horowitz accomplished by putting actors on stage during his Ives Project. During the "Life in Music" concert, actors Carolyn Goetzer and Floyd King both narrated and assumed the voices of the composer and his beloved wife Harmony Twitchell. The audience heard their voices through these actors--Harmony addressing Charles as "My Dearest Anything-Everything" and Charles calling her his "Best Beloved."

Ives wrote over 175 songs and so the introductory Project concert offered songs that were both accessible and challenging. Some of the songs sport words by the composer and seem like compositions typical of the early American musical except the music often follows a complicated rhythmic pattern or some other quirkiness. For example is his text to "The Circus Band," which seems to offer contemporary turns of phrase in the last two lines.


All summer long, we boys
Dreamed 'bout big circus joys!
Down Main Street, comes the band,

Oh! Ain't it a grand and glorious noise!

Horses are prancing, knights advancing,
Helmets gleaming, pennants streaming,

Cleopatra's on her throne! 

That golden hair is all her own. 

Where is the lady all in pink? 

Last year she waved to me I think, 

Can she have died? Can that rot! 

She is passing but she sees me not.

With the confident piano accompaniment of Jeremy Denk, Baritone William Sharp was fun to hear and watch as he gave musical and dramatic interpretation to such songs as "The Circus Band" and "Memories," a composition that includes whistling and quickly delivered and repeated tongue-twisting words as "expectancy and ecstasy." Included in these accessible songs was "Feldeinsamkeit," (1897) a rather Romantically-inspired song with exuberant arpeggios where the young Ives was trying to best Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) who also wrote a song of this title based on the words of Herman Almers. The programming included the Brahms version (1878) allowing the Strathmore audience to compare the two compositions. The Dresser was surprised at how conservative the Brahms song sounded relative to the free flowing emotionality of the Ives version. However, the Dresser assumes that the difference in their ages (Brahms was 45 to Ives' 26 years) at the time of composing these songs played heavily into their respective approaches.

Continue reading "Answering Questions about Charles Ives" »

November 11, 2011

Lucia di Lammermoor, Girl Toy

Apparently the Dresser has not been to enough opera in Europe. Never has she experienced an opera production where the audience rose to their feet with thunderous applause but also booed. This is what happened for Washington National Opera's opening night November 10, 2011, at the Kennedy Center for David Alden's production of Lucia di Lammermoor sung in Italian with English surtitles.Lucia.png

What pleased? What displeased the Washington, DC audience that is usually too eager to show their appreciation? The cast pleased, especially and rightly so, the singing of Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu playing Lucia's lover Edgardo and American soprano Sarah Coburn playing Lucia, but apparently the director's interpretation, which made Lucia a girl toy to her cruel, maybe incestuously attracted, brother Enrico played by American baritone Michael Chioldi, angered a large portion of the audience.

For the Dresser's part, since her preference is for contemporary opera, everything about this Donizetti opera originally premiered in 1835 drew her in. The cast was outstanding. Take note that this casts sings only three more times November 13 matinee, 15, and 18. The black and white sets and costumes make an impressive metaphoric statement--something is horribly wrong with the landscape and people who populate it. Most importantly the direction added a new layer of attention.

Librettist Salvadore Cammarano based his libretto on Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor that depicts a brother in debt forcing his sister to forsake her true love to marry for money but she loses her mind and kills the unwanted groom with a knife. To the foundation story, Alden magnifies the brother-sister relationship. The most telling scene is where the brother, in her bedroom--a room stilled filled with toys, sits on her bed stroking a doll and says to his sister she must marry Lord Arturo Buklaw (American tenor Corey Evan Rotz). What cinches the concept of the brother-as-predator is that he helps put Lucia in her wedding dress and he does this with another man.

Alden.pngHow Alden frames the story is masterful. As the curtain goes up and the overture plays under the baton of Philippe Auguin, Lucia sleeps fitfully in a narrow bed whose railed head- and footboards look like a prison. Pretty soon the huge windows of her sleeping chamber are framed with men peering in and eventually prying open the windows and entering in this unorthodox fashion. Alden uses framing in another way too. He puts Lucia on a curtained stage high above the floor where initially she dangles her feet as she sits on the edge talking to her companion Alisa (American mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko) and waiting for Edgardo to appear for a late night secret meeting. When she jumps down from the stage landing on all four limbs, one notices she is dressed as a child. Her skirt does not cover her ankles like Alisa's. Later this stage, with curtains pulled aside, becomes the matrimonial bedroom where Lucia has murdered Arturo.

Did Alden get this angry reception when he premiered this production in London for the English National Opera? The Dresser wasn't in London in 2008 to know.

The bottom line for the Dresser is anything David Alden directs would be worth experiencing, because she is bound not to like what those booing in the Kennedy Center's opera house prefer.

Like Alden's Lucia, the woman in B. K. Fischer's poem "Paperweight Museum" is a sex toy who lives in a world she does not seem able to escape.


The girl goes walking in the city
and the storm begins, snow settling
on garlanded façades, taxicabs,
her coat. A world full of water
with a teaspoon of air at the top.
Bubbles blown in with syringes
while glass is still molten, a knife
plunged into multi-colored sand.

She has a bunny tail and bustier,
Tweety Bird eyes. If you shake her,
she disrobes; when the sediment
settles, the catsuit's on again. She
lives in a place where there are no
cypress trees, no Roman ramparts.
Interior figures are acrylic, lit
from a bulb in the melamine base.

The girl stays in bed long after
the lover has left. Props herself
against the cheap veneer. Lamps
are brass and bolted down, curtains
drawn with a cord on a pulley
that swings free. In the last gasp,
the lover looked away from her
flesh, as from a needle stick.

The girl is getting up now, opens
the window. Papers blow across
the bureau--map, take-out menu,
missive to herself on waking. Heavy
odor of workshirt, menthol cigarettes.
She looks around for something to
hold it all down--lead-crystal apple,
bronzed baby shoes, a rock from

the grave of Elvis. Just not a globe,
please not a globe, a little world.

B. K. Fischer
from Mutiny Gallery

Copyright © 2011 B. K. Fischer

November 20, 2011

Honegger's Woman Joan, a "Pretty Candle"?

Leave it to Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to pick and produce the most compelling concerts of our times. November 18, 2011, the Dresser and her friend composer Janet Peachey made their way through the two-hour gridlock DC-to-Baltimore traffic, no opportunity for dinner, to successfully arrive into the embrace of a packed Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in time to hear Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake). This rarely performed dramatic work with elements of oratorio and opera is a feast of musical styles that bring to mind Bach chorales, plainchant, folk music, and jazz. The production kicks off the 2012 celebration of the legendary Joan of Arc--heroine, soldier, and martyr--on her 600th birthday anniversary.

The assembly of musicians and singers for this work was awesome, a huge job for any conductor and stage director (James Robinson) to manage. However, it was apparent that Maestro Alsop loved the challenge and conducted an orderly and exciting concert. To understand the richness of musical texture, have a look at the orchestral makeup. The composition calls for an orchestra consisting of two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, E flat clarinet, B flat clarinet, bass clarinet, three E flat saxophones, three bassoons, contrabassoon, D trumpet, three B flat trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone or tuba, two pianos, celesta, timpani, two percussion players (bass drum, cymbals, rattle, side drum, tamtam, tenor drum, triangle, woodblock), ondes Martenot (played by guest artist Cynthia Millar) and strings. Add to this array of exotic sound the Morgan State University Choir, the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, the Peabody Children's Chorus, and the Concert Artists of Baltimore. The finishing figures were actors ActorImage.ashx.jpgCaroline Dhavernas (as Jeanne d'Arc--Joan of Arc) and Ronald Guttman (Brother Dominic) and featured singers soprano Tamara Wilson (The Virgin), soprano Hae Ji Chang (Marguerite), mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor (Catherine), tenor Timothy Fallon (Porcus), and bass Morris Robinson.

The libretto, which is in French but included English surtitles, is organized in eleven scenes. It follows a cinematic flashback path that includes a fantastic trial conducted by barnyard animals and a royal card game for the possession of Joan. Although the audience knows the terrible outcome of the story--that Joan will be burned at the stake, the tension builds throughout the scenes. Poetic lines that caught the Dresser's attention: "I myself will be a pretty candle." "This great flame is to be my bridal gown." "Is not Joan a great flame?" Lighting effects add to Joan's final scenes where she seems to be on fire and a transcendent spirit.

This program, which only had two performances in Baltimore, was also performed once at New York City's Carnegie Hall on November 19. Because of the successful blend of musical styles, poetry, and storytelling, the Dresser pronounces this concert the most compelling voice and music production she has seen in 2011.

In Yoko Danno's book trilogy & Hagoromo: A Celestial Robe, the emphasis is on a captured female figure who, unlike Joan of Arc, is not human, but forced to dwell among humans on earth. These fragmentary excerpts resonate with the emotional load delivered by the music of Arthur Honegger and the poetry of Paul Claudel in Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher.





a stone falls





the wind

the willow's
slender branches off

its trunk:

the ruffled


a trembling




gather round

the sun:

the darkening

is split

a flash
of lightning

at birth

a bird

Yoko Danno
from trilogy & Hagoromo: A Celestial Robe

Copyright © 2010 Yoko Danno

About November 2011

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in November 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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