March 29th, 2014

eyes black and white

La Bohème

Last Wednesday, I saw Puccini's La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. As usual, the Franco Zeffirelli production is lavish, with magnificent sets, and a hundred extras in the parisian streets scene, including horse and donkey on the stage. Whoa. That's what makes the Met a unique place for Opera — not to mention the world class orchestra and singers. (And that makes me yearn for the Zeffirelli Tosca, unhappily replaced by an inferior creation.)

La Bohème is sure not Puccini's best opera (that would be Tosca): The action, true to Henri Murger's original book that inspired it, is but a series of loosely connected tragic and farcical scenes, and the opera only sports two good songs. But these two songs are so good they are in the all-time opera hit-parade: Mi chiamano Mimì, that Anita Hartig sang touchingly, fully incarnating Mimi; and Musetta's Waltz, that was competently performed by Jennifer Rowley, though she failed to be the vamp. It's telling though that despite the story being mostly around the four main male protagonists, the two songs that stand out are the female arias. And so, Vittorio Grigolo may have been a great Rodolfo, and the other singers may have been good, somehow their songs didn't touch me much, and the blame is upon Puccini: frankly, contrasted to those two fantastic arias, the rest of the Opera is just filler.

These four guys are living together la vie de Bohème, which consists mainly of artistic failures and accompanying poverty, with fleeting moments of being in the money from some moderate success — which itself, it seems, consists mainly in separating some rich mark from his dollar, in a Carnie spirit that was better described by Robert Heinlein or Fredric Brown. There is pride indeed in being a successful artist, even when it involves being something of a con artist: competence in anything is worthy of respect. Importantly, the enmity between predator and prey does not as such imply disrespect for the prey — far from it. The landlord, nobleman or politician, had his own talent for acquiring (honestly or dis-) the capital off of which the artists live, and that makes him worth defrauding. The protagonists of La Bohème may celebrate success, they certainly don't claim the moral high ground in their scams over their victims (though they would be entitled to it, in the cases of the politician and the nobleman, if not necessarily in that of the landlord). In that, they are much more honest than their disgusting, loathsome 1994 copycats of Rent who have the incredible gall to blame society for their self-inflicted wounds.

No, these artists may live in poverty, but they know it's the hard price for their freedom: the freedom to be themselves, and to create what they love, whether the public likes it or not. And that's something respectable, even though it leads to the death of Mimi by lack of funds to pay a doctor. For whatever their spectacular but overly late readiness to pawn their last belongings to bring relief to a dying Mimi, we must not forget that these men, starting with the in-and-out lover Rodolfo, purposefully failed to do what could actually have afforded Mimi sufficient healthcare to survive: getting a stable job. If Rodolfo actually valued Mimi's life as much as he claimed, he would have put his literary career aside and taken a job that pays well, despite the drudgery and the humiliation, as a secretary, clerk, accountant, journalist, ghostwriter, teacher, public writer, anything that would have earned enough to pay for her medical treatment, until recovery. Instead of complaining about the deadly cold wind blowing in the apartment through holes in the walls, he might also have filled them, be it with papers and rags. Or moved with her to the South of France. But he chose not to do any of that. And who am I to dispute his moral preferences? Maybe she wouldn't have loved him anymore if he had denied his way of life and stooped to earning a salary; and then she might have indeed left him for a richer lover, as he was both jealously dreading yet desiring for the sake of her health. I will not cast a stone — but I will point out this moral choice that was made, this preference that was revealed. And I admit to seeing nobibility in that choice: not because it was a matter of man against society (it was not), but because it was a matter of man choosing to be true to his own values — above health and wealth, above honor, and above love itself.

La Bohème: an opera that celebrates freedom over love. And not by the word — but by the deed. Yay.

PostScriptum: Note that the informal freedom that these artists achieve is different from the formal freedom claimed by libertarians, though it is related. In both cases, this freedom consists in not being harmed, threatened or defrauded because you're living your life and using your property in ways that other people disapprove, especially powerful people or large mobs. But libertarians seek to have this freedom formally acknowledged as a mutual agreement that drives the institutional use of force — or, mostly, the lack thereof. Instead, these artists neither seek nor grant this mutual acknowledgement. While they reject the constraints of society's prevailing social mores, they are content to live their a-social life under the radar; and while their ultimate ambition is to succeed at touching a large public with their art, they are not above denying the victims of their petty scams the right not to be defrauded. One could argue that their political victims, by their criminal professions, have forfeited this right; and that the landlord voluntarily accepts the deferral of rent payment and decides not to evict them, and may thus be frustrated but not defrauded. Thus, one might argue that their life style does not violate libertarian principles; still, the two concepts of freedom are in distinct categories. One is a practical freedom in the category of facts; the other one is a theoretical freedom in the category of laws, that consists in mutually acknowledging for everyone the legal right to this practical freedom over all of one's life and property.

eyes black and white

Style and Interpretation

Yesterday I attended Fabiola Kim's graduation recital at the Juilliard School. Fabiola through a combination of innate talent and sheer hard work has achieved complete mastery of violin, and plays everything with a rare, diminutive, smooth-flowing grace. Her rendering of the final piece of the programme, Beethoven's Sonata #3 for Violin and Piano, was memorable, especially the last movement. She totally owns that piece. However, and interestingly, the very same diminutive grace was out of place in the other pieces of the program, which inspires me to write about musical interpretation.

The first piece on the programme was Béla Bartók's Sonata #2 for Violin and Piano, Sz. 76, BB85, written in 1922, at a time when Bolsheviks and proto-Fascists were violently clashing to dominate the fuming ruins of post World War I Eastern Europe. This Sonata speaks of war, disquiet, violence and fear, with a few fleeting moments of rest, of happy distraction, even of hope. It calls for strident attacks — and in those fleeting moments, desperate pangs of life. Those pizzicatti toward the end: it's someone hiding from a gang of monochrome-shirted goons, followed by an elusive flight and a desperate run for his life. It's hard to say exactly what story Bartók had in mind if any while writing that Sonata, but odds are it was closer to The Miraculous Mandarin than to tea time in a fashionable salon. An even-mooded elegance while playing the score is thus a total misunderstanding of it by a pampered first-world citizen — or, if deliberate, quite an odd and insensitive way of covering the original. Fabiola Kim gave us a Taichi performance where Kung Fu would have been more appropriate, or better, the ugliest of dirty street fighting techniques, whereby a bunch of uniformed fatheads gang up on some helpless, undernourished, designated political victim, and beat him dead. Really, if you want to understand XXth century Hungarian music, your best bet is to visit Andrássy út 60 — it certainly was a revelation to me. The accents were so off in this performance of Bartók, that even the programme tellingly had the accents at the wrong place: on the "Bar" rather than on the "tók", and missing on the "Bé"!

I suspect a good deal of the blame for this travesty rests not on Fabiola personally, but the educational institution, and beyond it, on the current culture of the classical music industry as an art largely disconnected from the general public. I briefly talked with her teacher Ronald Copes, no doubt the talented master of many masters, and was quite dismayed by his answer, which was along the lines of "everyone takes away his own message from the music" or something like that. As if all messages were the same, as if there was no intent in the writing. It might have been a legitimate cop-out to avoid arguing with a stranger; but if sincere, it was worse than disappointing. I hope he has better things to say when discussing interpretation issues with his students — assuming he does indeed discuss the many ways to interpret or not interpret a piece, which I suspect does not happen often enough (I never once saw it happen during my short stint at a local conservatory in Paris). I am no great musician, but I played enough flute to understand what musical performance is about and to deeply appreciate master performers. And I am no great composer, but I wrote enough music to have utter respect for master authors, and also to know that yes, there is definite intent in how a piece is supposed to be played, though it may still leave a great deal of freedom to the performer. Denying that there is intent in the composition is disrespectful to the author. Certainly, there are many ways to play a piece; but they are not equal; otherwise, there would be no difference between master's performance and neophyte's bumblings — and a trivial computer rendering should be good enough for anyone. Of course, the author needs not have the last say on how his composition is to be played; and it is indeed a great artist who can discover a new way to perform an old piece. But I find it unsettling how the topic of interpretation, of emotional content and intent, seems to be vastly under-discussed in the classical music industry, where technique seems to be everything while emotion is taboo. Philosophical relativism makes for despicable aesthetics.

Yes, a same piece can be played in many different yet beautiful ways. I am reminded of that story in which a promising young violinist rehearses Vocalise with his professor, when insistant knocks on the door interrupt the lesson; an uninvited man joins in and starts accompanying the student on the piano. After they play the piece once together, he does the accompaniment again, only in a different style. And so they play again. And again. Eleven times, differently. Then he cries and leave, saying "it is my favorite piece". You can guess exactly who the man was. I also remember fondly an evening at the Dinard Music Festival, where the tenth anniversary was celebrated by a string orchestra playing an original composition, which we found was actually the birthday song — but played in ten different ways; it might not have been worthy of a world-class recording, but it was particularly thoughtful (See other artists also doing a similar exercise).

Now, just because there are many beautiful ways of playing a piece does not mean that every technically proficient way of playing is beautiful. Fabiola Kim's elegance was also out of touch with her second piece, Bach's Sonata #1 for Solo Violin, BWV 1001, which called for both majesty and a light foot. It's a dance, dammit! And as dances go, see how the score says "Bach", not "Boulez"! For a complete contrast, consider how Hillary Hahn plays Bach: she can extract feelings from that Chaconne I hadn't suspected were there. At the same time, Hillary Hahn's perfect precision sounds tin when she plays romantic concertos from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky or Sibelius, the feelings of which I hadn't suspected could be missed so thoroughly by such a great performer. Thus, every artist has their own style, that fits some compositions and not others. If you want a canonical version of Beethoven's Symphonies, try Karajan's; but please pardon his martial, german interpretation of Tchaikovsky's, and compare it with the expansive performance by some slavic orchestra and conductor, dripping with overflowing feelings. National stereotypes may be coarse generalizations, they do describe a cultural reality.

It's quite alright to only be great at a narrow subset of things: talent is judged at its peak, and to be great at one single thing is already greatness. If Fabiola can someday record the definitive performance of Beethoven's Sonata #3, who cares that her Bartók was bland? But know your limits; it is a sad spectacle to see the Great of this world making a show of their weakness. I remember a concert given at the Boston Symphony Hall by Itzhak Perlman, who I deem to be one of the greatest violinists of all times. He insisted on playing some pieces by Mozart in the first part of the concert, seemingly as part of an endeavor to play all of Mozart's violin works. Sure, he did a decent job of it, but frankly, there were good reasons why these were neither Mozart's most played pieces, nor Perlman's greatest successes. Speak of a waste of talent, and of the public's time. Then, in the last third of the concert, Perlman played his favorite concert pieces, that he announced from the stage. My, those minutes of musical genius made those expensive seats well worth buying. If only he could have made the entire show out of pieces like that! Those who left with dissatisfaction during the intermission missed quite something.

My conclusion is threefold. First, know thyself, and sell yourself for what you are great at, not for that at which you're incompetent or merely proficient — don't be the fool who doesn't know the difference. Second, if you want to improve yourself, try and discover different styles; take a theme you like in your line of work: in how many different styles can you do it? Rachmaninoff (he again) wrote (and played) 24 variations on that theme by Paganini. Lastly, if you get to choose where to invest your time and energy, shun an industry that is somehow "protected" from the market, from the salutary feedback of a public of willful consumers; instead, embrace the discipline of the market, that only brings true responsibility and true liberty, through a harsh but just requirement of accountability.