First thing tomorrow I’m going to start writing about my current, and most exciting long-range project — I’m preparing to play and record my complete works for solo piano. This will be the focus of this blog for the next four years. Not my exclusive topic, to be sure. There are too many interesting things to write about. But I want to get my thoughts about the piano, and my contribution to its literature, down on paper, at least in cyberspace!
But first a comment on a subject Mary Jane Leach raised on Facebook. I find Facebook a remarkably stimulating arena of ideas about all sorts of things — politics, the state of American culture, how our friends overseas regard our fair country, how my relatives are getting on, who’s getting married, who’s had a baby, etc. But above all I enjoy posts about music.
On July 11th I visited Tanglewood and saw a semistaged concert version of The Great Gatsby by John Harbison. I had seen the premiere of the piece at the Met years ago, and had the privilege of hearing the composer speak on this opera, and his intentions to revise it, at Yale, shortly after the first production. Mary Jane reviewed the Tanglewood performance by Emmanuel Music in the Times Union, the newspaper serving the greater Albany (NY) area. Here’s the link:
Her Facebook post was an invitation to compare what she had written about John’s opera with what Zachary Woolfe had written in The New York Times:
If you ever wondered about what actually happened somewhere, and who’s telling the truth about what, there is no more perplexing field of enquiry than music reviews. Here’s what was said, back and forth, on Facebook. I’ll identify Mary Jane as MJL; I’m NB; another relevant comment shall remain anonymous. Call this writer SE (Somebody Else). Since the exchange can be viewed by any of our thousand-plus friends, I don’t see any problem with repeating it here, slightly edited and abbreviated.
MJL: After reading the review of Gatsby in the Times, I began to wonder if Zachary Woolfe and I had seen the same thing.
NB: Hi Mary Jane. I was at Tanglewood. I saw the opera you saw, not the one Zachary saw. Enjoyed it very much.
MJL: The Times makes it sound as if it was a disaster — pretty mean spirited. Granted there were flaws, but there still was a lot to enjoy.
NB: The good far outweighs the not-so-good in The Great Gatsby and none of it is bad. I would go see it again, for sure.
SE: I saw it at the Met. Not perfect, needed to be cut by about 45 minutes, which I heard he subsequently did. The music, when you focused on it qua music, was amazing.
MJL: Agreed — Woolfe seemed needlessly hostile in his review, since there were many wonderful moments.
NB: The NYT reviewer didn't get it. MJL got it. JH's opera is a subtle piece. It brings you in stage by stage, and then proceeds to a very satisfying conclusion, after you're totally on board. Not to everyone's taste, I know, but I enjoyed it immensely. As far as being "moved" by the piece, it's a contemplative take on the subject matter. A great deal to ponder, a great deal to admire, very little emotional manipulation.
I’d like to add a word of praise for the orchestration, which is uniformly good and sometimes thrilling. There is one special effect that is dazzling and not mentioned in either of the two reviews. When Harbison makes a transition into the party scenes, he does it by means of a clever and quite well-calculated spatial move. The stage band (that is, the jazz instruments playing at the parties) is at the back of the orchestra. The chorus, who sing flapperesque pop music and gossip about Gatsby, are against the upstage wall in a line. The jazzers are immediately in front of them. The orchestral music, which is never pop, never jazz, fades out by degrees, basically moving the sound from downstage to center stage to stage rear. As the symphonic music fades out (by stopping) the jazz fades in (beginning by degrees). As far as I could hear, the cessation of symphony sound spatially was quite strict — first the violins were out, then the cellos, then the other strings, then the winds and brass by degrees, as one became aware of the banjo and piano and the other members of the band. It worked like a charm!
The Great Gatsby is not going to replace Don Giovanni on the stages of the world, but I for one couldn’t care less. We need to think less about what pieces are not and far more about what they are. What this opera is, as I said first on Facebook, is a contemplative take on the subject matter. We are invited to ponder the story of Gatsby and its implications. We are invited to listen to conversations and consider their nuances. The orchestra takes us on a couple of wild rides. This is a drama that takes place in the music, and inside the mind of the characters, far more than it takes place through the action. Indeed, the most dramatic events take place offstage, and are only referred to in passing.
The notion of introverted opera is not unique. Several come to mind. Pelléas et Mélisande (an extreme case), Eugene Onegin (which has the most beautiful sung conversations I know of in all of opera) and of course Tristan und Isolde. John Harbison is in very good company.