19 April 2009

Scandalize My Name

I recently heard David Daniels with The English Concert; personally, I found it a peculiar evening, though many there seemed to have a better time than I did, which is so often true of my life. I was suffering from allergies, and I suspect Daniels was also affected; I’ve certainly heard him in better voice (though I’ve rarely seen him looking better; he’s slimmed down, though I still appeared to be one of the few people in the audience not mad-crushing on Mr. Daniels), though after a few relatively dry-sounding numbers, and lots of visible swallowing, his voice returned to his usual richer tones.

But I’m making this sound like a David Daniels recital, which is what I walked in expecting; it was actually a performance by The English Concert, led by Harry Bickett, with Bach in the first half and Handel in the second, and arias by Daniels in both halves, stuck like plums in a pudding. I’m sure it was made more or less clear when I sent in my San Francisco Performances subscription a year ago that this was not a regular recital, but since all the advertising features a prominent solo shot of Daniels, I have to forgive myself for forgetting. Not a big deal, especially since I’m full of love for SF Performances thanks to their Elliott Carter weekend and Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts, both of which I will be posting about eventually, because they were season highlights – and certainly it’s not as irritating as Cal Performances prominently featuring Yo-Yo Ma on every single program and publicity piece this year, only to restrict tickets to high-level donors – but despite the crisp, rhythmic excellence of the band, and the delightful music they performed sans soloist (the big pieces were Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 1 in C Major and Handel Concerto Grosso in A Major, Opus 6, No. 11, and there were shorter instrumental pieces from Bach’s cantata 42 and a passacaglia from Radamisto), I frankly at this point of my concert-going life would probably not have roused myself to buy a ticket to hear these pieces in the middle of the week. Yes, I know there’s always an audience for whom the familiar pieces are new, but I’m not that audience anymore.

The first three Bach selections, as I have noted, did not find Daniels in his best voice, but he hit his customary stride for the last number in the first half, Erbarme dich – and even before the last note finished vibrating in the theater, some oaf had to be the first to shout out, “Bravo!,” which is irritating enough in an opera house, but utterly bizarre as a reaction to even an average performance, much less a superior one, of Erbarme dich, which should be followed, if not by silence and muffled sobs, then at least by a decent pause.

But then I thought it was just in dubious taste altogether to program snippets of Bach’s sacred music as if they were purely an opportunity for the soloist to shine (we heard Vernugte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust, from BWV 170, Qui sedes from the B Minor Mass, Schlummert ein, from BWV 82, and Erbarme dich from the Matthew Passion).

Years ago the Handel & Haydn Society under Christopher Hogwood performed Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater followed after intermission by Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Richard Dyer in the Boston Globe commented that it seemed in poor taste to follow a meditation on the suffering of Mary at the foot of the cross with a commedia dell’arte bit, and since I heard a performance after the review came out I got to hear Hogwood rather testily defend the programming by saying that Stravinsky had used themes from Pergolesi. But that response indicated that Hogwood didn’t see anything in the pieces but the notes (also, I don’t think the themes Stravinsky used were from the Stabat Mater, which makes his response even weaker).

I felt a better defense would be theological rather than musicological: the sorrowful mysteries are preceded by the joyful mysteries and followed by the glorious mysteries. But with Daniels and The English Concert, there didn’t seem to any logic except that the first half was Bach and most of his big hits are churchy, so that’s what we get, and the second half was Handel so we get arias. It’s not as if the instrumental as well as vocal music in the first half was all “sacred,” to be contrasted with the “profane” second half. The emphasis on vocal display rather than what the music and text meant was emphasized by the fragmentary, highly selective nature of the excerpts. It’s one thing to perform the entire Credo from the B Minor Mass, even if you don’t perform the rest of it (by the way, lovely playing on the oboe d’amore by Katharina Spreckelsen on both this excerpt and the one from BWV 170), but it seemed simply strange to perform just one phrase, because that is the one that highlights the countertenor voice.

I was reminded of a CD I bought years ago, one of the first that made me think, hey, maybe I don’t need to hang on to this one – a recording of an evening of spirituals featuring Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. Being a fan of both singers, I bought the CD and gave it several listens, but I liked it less each time I heard it. I didn’t think Norman’s majestic instrument went together particularly well with Battle’s silvery tones; it was like a duet for flute and trumpet. But what really put me off was the whole glitzy, society-benefit aura of the performances – I recall in particular a weirdly campy version of Scandalize My Name. It was just wrong. I thought it was disrespectful to the tradition of the Spirituals, and wondered at the time if anyone would have treated Bach’s cantatas as an excuse for a gala evening.

I don’t think this is just me being fusty. The nuns were right when they told us that baptism will always remain part of you, but I think this is about more than an old-fashioned sense of propriety based on a time and place that have passed by. I have no problem going to hear sacred music performed for money and applause in a theater; whatever your motivation for going to hear the B Minor Mass or the Matthew Passion, if you pay attention you are having a spiritual experience, and it’s a matter for both debate and indifference whether your motivation is Jesus Christ or Johann Sebastian Bach.

In fact it might be helpful to remove this objection from a specifically Christian context and phrase it this way: it’s about whether words and meaning matter in vocal music, and what we feel to be the nature, purpose, and role of music. If it’s all just about purity of tone and vocal display, if you can excerpt Schlummert ein (an aria which, for many people, has been consecrated by the performance of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) and then follow it with a flashy operatic aria as if both pieces did the same thing, then is there any essential difference between the Matthew Passion and, say, Die Fledermaus?


Libby Fife said...

Is this like talking on your cell phone at a baseball game during the national anthem?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Well, no, but I find that obnoxious as well.

Civic Center said...

"Is there any essential difference between the Matthew Passion and, say, Die Fledermaus?" Well, yes and no. They're both in German and they both tell a story and they are both interminable in bad performances, but other than that...

Your essay reminds me of an old professor friend Jack Murray giving me a birthday gift years ago of an LP of Pergolesis's "Stabat Mater," complete with sad Italian Renaissance cover art of Mary standing by Jesus on the cross. As I opened up the gift wrapping, he said, "Oh, don't worry. It's an 'up' Stabat Mater." I can't hear the thing to this day without laughing.