Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hope for the New Year

We in the United States have, as of this writing, a full day before the coming of the New Year.

2008 was a year of catharsis. Much involved unrest but also change. From chaos, however, often comes the greatest creativity. The Random House dictionary first calls creativity "the state or quality of being creative" but then:

"the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination: the need for creativity in modern industry; creativity in the performing arts."

No truer or more poignant statement can be made about the year to which we will, today, say goodbye. Stasis must and will be challenged.

As I have often done to my close friends, I more broadly call to attention in the New Year the tragedy of Healthcare and the plight of the elderly in America. My stomach turned in complete revulsion as I watched conservative politicians in the United States during Election 2008 continue to boast of the value of, and encourage the continuation of, "free market" economy in relation to health and prescription coverage. Unfathomably absurd statements about "freedom of choice", "tax credits", etc., flowed freely from the mouths of these disgusting liars who hide behind so-called faith as their social platform, while gleefully continuing to promote making the wealthy richer and taking away from the disadvantaged. While the greed of the most affluent people in what we were told was for many generations and led to believe will be again, presumably (artificially), the world's most prosperous country -- only, of course, for the chosen -- is being "discussed" but still not dissected or, Heaven forbid, curtailed, essentials for the least fortunate, most needy of our population are bantered about without a care. It is easy for politicians -- all of them wealthy (even the least well-off lawmakers, giving them the most unnecessary benefit of the doubt of their overall assets and the wealth required just to run for office in this country, earn salaries that are significantly higher than the average American) -- to make decisions, no matter how much they shed crocodile tears while doing so, to diminish services for senior citizens and other needy populations. Even if people find ridiculous justifications for the turning around of lives for the disadvantaged but still so-called "able bodied" in the U.S. (the bleeping "American Dream"), GET IT THROUGH YOUR HEADS FOLKS... NO MATTER HOW MANY ABUSERS OF OUR SYSTEM EXIST, NEEDY ELDERLY PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE OPTIONS TO "BETTER THEIR LIVES". PERIOD. So we watch the rich give nothing -- even when they are "generous", they only give to advantage themselves (tax write-offs, publicity, their own personal agendas, etc.) -- there is no true remorse to taking away from the genuinely needy.

The truth is, we are living in a specious concept of politics and economics with a series of fundamental untruths at the center. With the reactions to the current world and U.S.-specific economic crisis and the "change" brought about by the last election -- which will, at best, only spark dialogue among those who may, at the ground level, have very limited, but at least some, tangible effect -- all of it is in the name of "getting back to where we were before". We cannot. Where we were before advantaged some but never those who were really in need, or even those who have produced and not respected for it.

In 2009, as we hope for a better, albeit still artificial, economy, and betterment in this regard for ourselves personally, I pray that my words at least inspire one, two, 20, however many individuals as I can to at least THINK ABOUT Healthcare in America, and the plight of the defenseless elderly, and do something about it... whatever she, he, they can.

On a very personal note, I pray for love to prevail in 2009. This is not a "fortune cookie" quote; I write this with great seriousness. Love for an-other, others, opens our hearts and lets us look more sincerely at their personal and/or collective needs. Love is our heartbeat; it makes us recognize our own, and our sisters' and brothers', vulnerability and truth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Holy Night Trinity

For me, one Christmas song stands high above the rest. It is the carol, written by Adolphe Adam in 1847 (with the words from a poem by Adam's contemporary, Placide Cappeau), known in French as "Cantique de Noël", and by English speakers as "O Holy Night". It is this song that touches me the most at the holidays. Not only the extraordinary music, but the force of the original lines of the poem. I love so many aspects of popular music, but, in my opinion, no pop singer -- in pure pop, gospel, jazz, R&B, etc. -- can truly do justice to "O Holy Night". It is most effective in a person posessing a sweeping operatic instrument, capable of centering a listener's attention to the song with the sound of a great voice.

Three singers have most deeply affected me with their gift to mankind of performing this song; two on records, one live in performance. I adore other interpretations, including those of the incomparable Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi and many, many more fine artists, but there are three standouts in my memory that surpass even them.

One is the "Cantique de Noël", in the original French, sung by the great French dramatic tenor, Georges Thill (1897 - 1984). Thill had a combination of power and latin masculinity in his voice, as well as his beautiful singing of the French text, which gave the song infinitely more impact than virtually all others. Listen to how he delivers the words:
"L'amour unit ceux qu'enchaînait le fer.
Qui Lui dira notre reconnaissance,
C'est pour nous tous qu'Il naît, qu'Il souffre et meurt."
If you were not a convert to this version before, I believe this phrase alone could turn one permanently to Thill's side.

In my heart, Thill's true rival in this carol is the one-and-only Jussi Bjorling, the magnificent, all-too short-lived Swedish tenor (1911 - 1960). While Thill made many recordings, Bjorling lived into the maturity of electrical and long-playing discs. For anyone who has not yet experienced this voice, a hearing of his warm, sunny voice, with his almost superhuman top notes (although, in life, Bjorling was famously insecure), in virtually any of the operatic or classical song repertoire that he recorded, I would say is a must. His "O Holy Night", sung in Swedish (as "O Helga Natt"), is a model both of pathos and vocal control. The high C that caps the song, taken with complete fearlesness, is a unique thing indeed.

The finest performance of "O Holy Night" that I've ever witnessed "live" was on television. It was in the St. Patrick's Cathedral (Archdiocese of New York) televised Midnight Mass of December 1984. This performance was conducted by the late John Grady, leading the St. Patrick's Cathedral choir and orchestra (John, who I knew for a few years, was also affiliated with the Metropolitan Opera), and witnessed by the, then new, Archbishop of New York, John O'Connor (who, in the next year, became Cardinal). December 1984 occurred one season after the Metropolitan Opera's Centennial Season celebrations, and it is an artist on the MET roster that annually performs the "O Holy Night" at the Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's. Such luminaries as Pavarotti, Renata Scotto, Marilyn Horne, Renee Fleming and numerous others have given their services to the Mass in this song. In December 1984, it was a then new MET artist -- who made her debut on opening night of the 1983-1984 Centennial Season -- my beloved Jessye Norman. I was already a passionate devotee of the voice and art of Jessye Norman, and her arrival at the MET on the Centennial opening night in Hector Berlioz's epic opera, LES TROYENS, was one of the great moments of my life. I was 20 years old then, we didn't have the Internet and no matter how much information I could find about Jessye Norman before I had the blessing of getting to know her for many years, I didn't know she would sing at the Mass. We waited each year to see who would be "on" (since they've televised the event), and when Jessye started to sing, my jaw dropped. It never lifted. My mouth was open in awe of the sheer grandness of Jessye Norman's sumptuous, cavernous voice pouring out into the huge Cathedral, at one point even drowning out the entire chorus, orchestra and full pipe organ. That alone would be awe-inspiring -- I'll never, as long as I live, forget her final, massive high note on the final word of "glory" (in English) -- but it was the sublety of the singing and the interpretation, the piano and pianissimo notes, the sheer artistry, even in such a venue, that was truly something that I would never hear again by anyone else. I wish this performance could be released on a collection of music from the Midnight Masses so that it will never be forgotten. I certainly will never forget it. I've heard Jessye sing "O Holy Night" in subsequent years, and it has always been an event, but never the same as in that Mass. (A similar thing happened to me in the "Urlicht" from Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection", wherein Jessye sang the contralto part in this work, I believe in 1984 as well, possibly '85, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, with the New York Philharmonic. I've heard her sing the "Urlicht" many times hence but she never seemed to feel it as deeply, even when equalling the reading technically or giving a fine performance from other perspectives.)

Though I don't have a copy available of the Norman reading -- I do still have it, however, on a very fragile VHS tape, recorded fuzzily (without a satellite dish or cable television) -- below are the unforgettable Thill and Bjorling readings (from YouTube).


(Photo of Jessye Norman by Carol Friedman.)

  • Georges Thill:

  • Jussi Bjorling:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Deborah Polaski IS Elektra!

On December 9, I experienced one of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's concert performances of my all-time favorite opera, Richard Strauss's 1909 dramatic masterpiece, ELEKTRA. It was one of four outings of the work in the 2008/2009 valedictory season of the legendary American maestro, Lorin Maazel, as the NYPO's Music Director.

This concert performance was a true event. The expanded Straussian forces of the NYPO under Maazel sounded gorgeous--expansive, open, everything in tune, with exceptional attention to musical details. Where the orchestra could explode with bombast, it never did--climaxes were remarkably loud but the overall performance was captivatingly restrained and internalized. It let the drama of the work come out from within.

One must say, however, that despite Maazel's extraordinary interpretation of the score -- a more inspired performance from the maestro than most in recent history -- and the sheer beauty of the orchestra, this ELEKTRA belonged to the performer of the title role, the great American dramatic soprano, Deborah Polaski. In what turned out to be her astonishing 175th career performance of ELEKTRA, Polaski belied her veteran status with singing that was fresher and more focused than in several seasons past. She has always been a distinguished artist -- a Bayreuth veteran with a repertoire centered in the most vocally punishing roles of the operatic repertoire -- but she absolutely shone on Tuesday. Like Maazel, Polaski took an introspective approach. She towered where necessary, both in voice and presence, but it was never in an effort to overemphasize Elektra's hatred, fear or eventual madness. This was not a growling, vengeful fiend but a Mycenaean Princess driven to hate. Polaski's voice had the marvelously familiar "rolling thunder" in the middle and upper-middle ranges that I have loved since my first hearing of her almost 15 years ago -- in another astonishing Elektra in-concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, co-starring my beloved Alessandra Marc as Elektra's sister, Chrysothemis -- and her top notes were better placed than they have been in quite a while. All in all, as the person who accompanied me to the performance said about Polaski, "wow, she's really something... she really IS Elektra!"

Hear the one-and-only Deborah Polaski in Elektra's great opening monologue, "Allein, Weh ganz allein" (clip from YouTube):