Technical Difficulties

Screen Shot: Steve Reich's Three Tales uses film technology.

Steve Reich and his wife, video artist Beryl Korot, have finally completed their latest documentary video opera, Three Tales, now on a world tour that recently included a stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ever the musical moralist, Reich has looked back on a trio of cautionary historical events that he and Korot believe are emblematic of how powerfully technology can affect and possibly imperil civilization. First there is the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, an instance of a spectacularly failed technology. Part two deals with the Bikini Atoll atom-bomb tests, which proved our ability to destroy the entire planet. And the finale introduces us to Dolly, the famous sheep of 1997, and the hot-button issue of cloning that continues to raise troubling moral questions.

A great composer can hear music in anything, I suppose, and when interviewed about Three Tales, Reich repeatedly insists that here he followed the old Italian operatic dictum of prima la musica – musical concerns would come first, more so than in his earlier documentary music dramas, which were largely driven by words and speech patterns. Unless I’m mistaken, the Hindenburg sequence has been trimmed and revised since it was shown at BAM in 1998, and now the musical element definitely seems more prominent. The techniques that blend live vocals and instrumentals with electronic sound remain much the same – the rhythmic phasing, sonic loops, repetitive embellishments – but the effect is less scrappy and more smoothly integrated. Ironically, the latest advances in sophisticated computer technology have surely helped make the improvements possible.

That said, the overall effect of Three Tales is still pretty tepid. Reich’s compositional techniques may be more virtuosic than ever, but his basic musical materials are not especially interesting or dramatically arresting. Even Korot’s video is too abrupt and elliptical to register vividly, despite some clever strokes – the final sight of the Bikini Atoll quietly frying in a sickly yellow wash says infinitely more than the usual mushroom cloud. I also wonder how the scientists and geneticists in the Dolly sequence feel about having their comments wrenched out of context and so shamelessly manipulated, not to mention seeing themselves so unflatteringly photographed. The Reichs have created a serious piece of work, but predictions that such plodding video documentaries give us a glimpse of what opera will be like as the twenty-first century progresses seem increasingly far-fetched.

For musicians able to grasp the structural logic and musical intelligence that animate the notes, Bach’s music works nicely in just about any instrumental context, from kazoo band to the most rigorously authentic reconstruction. Perhaps the composer could never have imagined his keyboard concertos performed on a sleek Steinway grand piano backed by a contemporary chamber orchestra, but he would surely have given his blessing to András Schiff and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s performances of Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 in Avery Fisher Hall, the opening concert of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series. Setting the tone at the piano, Schiff gave us a Bach who is supremely civilized and quietly challenging, with an uncanny ability to bring a sense of order and comfort to a troubled world.

Schiff was already a fully formed Bach interpreter when he played an ambitious series of concerts devoted to the composer during the Bach tercentennial seventeen years ago. Now as then, the sheer beauty and clarity of his piano tone is what first strikes the ear, a deep-centered, warmly rounded solidity that never permits the slightest suggestion of a forced or unmusical sound. Schiff draws on all the resources of a modern grand, making his points with a wide range of coloristic, rhythmic, and articulative gestures that always establish the equilibrium that makes Bach’s world turn so flawlessly. Orpheus framed these deeply satisfying performances with Mozart’s Impresario Overture and Beethoven’s First Symphony. Some may have missed a strong leader’s point of view in these conductorless interpretations, but in the face of such trim and invigorating playing I’m not inclined to complain.

Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York serves two useful purposes: performing unusual works that our two big companies are unlikely to mount and giving us an opportunity to assess promising singers long before the Met gets around to hiring them. It was OONY functioning in the latter capacity that made the recent concert performance in Carnegie Hall of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles of interest. Most of the attention centered on Daniil Shtoda, a Russian tenor still in his mid-twenties who has lately stirred up much excited chatter in the British musical press. The curious were especially eager to hear him sing the role of Nadir, an ideal part for any young lyric tenor with the tonal sweetness and technical facility to spin out the opera’s many seductive hit tunes.

Shtoda’s attractively textured voice certainly possesses all the basic qualities for Bizet’s romantic young fisherman, and in time he may well get it all together. Right now, though, his singing lacks both technical polish and musical refinement – this was frankly not much more than a decent student effort not yet ready for prime-time exposure. Shtoda should stick to his studies and listen to a few recordings to get a better idea of how this music should be sung – he could find no better role models than Leonid Sobinov, Dmitri Smirnov, and Sergei Lemeshev, three of his distinguished predecessors back in the days when The Pearl Fishers was wildly popular in Russia. Also making New York debuts were Darina Takova, a Bulgarian soprano who chirped out Leïla’s music with faceless efficiency, and Jean-Luc Chaignaud, a rather throttled French baritone as Zurga, all under Mme. Queler’s enthusiastic if somewhat stodgy musical direction. Not, on the whole, one of OONY’s more impressive evenings.

Classical Music Listings
Classical Music
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Three Tales
An opera by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot at BAM
Bach Concertos
András Schiff and Orpheus at Avery Fisher Hall.
Les Pêcheurs de Perles
By Bizet; Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by Eve Queler at Carnegie Hall.

Technical Difficulties