viernes, febrero 14, 2014

Sad stories about orchestras and institutions


            High culture isn´t immune to political and economic factors; their institutions don´t inhabit a preserved oasis of calm, sane ideas and illuminated sponsorship. I will tell you four stories, and to my mind all are rather sad.

            By now it´s common knowledge that Venezuela, incredible as it may seem in the disastrous country of Chávez, has been perfecting for three decades the best system in the world of children and youth orchestras, symbolized by the superb top of the pyramid, the Simón Bolívar led by Gustavo Dudamel. Mario Benzecry has long been an admirer of the Venezuelan model and he founded twenty years ago the Orquesta Juvenil Libertador San Martín; he had to wait all that time to finally obtain a national subsidy last year; a hurrah for his constancy. And an admirable girl called Valeria Atela, my disciple in musical criticism, founded fifteen years ago the Orquesta Escuela de Chascomús, now the best of several provincial projects. So the idea has taken hold. And the enterprising Andrea Merenzon has organized huge international meetings of children and juvenile orchestras in such places as Iguazú or our Luna Park.

            You might wonder, what´s sad about all this? On the contrary, although we are far from Venezuela´s prowess, these are good steps. But the main effort in our capital is now being undermined by the Macri government, and that´s what I want to stress.

            The Buenos Aires Program of Children and Youth Orchestras started about fifteen years ago, created by pianist Claudio Espector following the ideas of Maestro José Antonio Abreu, the soul of the Venezuelan project. The consistent work of Espector has been widely praised by the musical community, and last year the City Legislators declared him Distinguished Cultural Personality; the day before Christmas a massive mobilisation gave him total support in front of the Ministry of Education.

            Why? Because Soledad Acuña, Undersecretary of Educational Equality and overseer of the orchestral program, wants to fire him as coordinator of the project. Her reason: they have a different outlook (she doesn´t specify) on the social educational aspects, not solely the musical. But she is accused by parents and teachers of suspending concerts and workshops, reducing food and cutting the budget for   instrument repair and replacement.

            There is now an impressive number of these orchestras so markedly social : 16, with 1700 pupils between 6 and 18-years-old. Eduardo Ihidoype, who had been the Director of the Colón´s Instituto Superior de Arte during recent years, was named Director of the Operative Management of Music for Equality. There are also several string and tango orchestras as well as so-called Orchestras of Associated Management with foundations. According to the Ministry of Education, all this is in addition, not replacement, of the children and youth orchestras.

            But Espector is angry and he says "they want to break up the effort of 16 years of development";  he adds that the lives of many boys have been positively changed.  The basic principles must be preserved: musical formation, social inclusion, artistic development. Will they be? And why is this attack on the founder supported by the Minister of Education?

            Another sad story concerns the Orquesta Estable de la Radio y Televisión Pública Argentina, a  little-known organism that has existed for the last nine years but is now endangered. In Europe such orchestras have a long tradition and some of them are world-class, such as the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (which will visit us this year).  Veterans such as myself remember fondly the Orquesta de Radio del Estado doing splendid work in the Fifties and Sixties with first-rate foreign conductors, until the Illia Government suppressed it. Currently Radio Nacional has a small chamber orchestra of good standard.

            The OERTPA should have had enough budget and support to have quality seasons with classic repertoire, but it has been poorly treated and in recent months the conflict has come to a boil. It is a 50-player  orchestra with some players of distinction, such as the concertino Gabriel Pinette and the hornist Silvia Lanzón.  Tristán Bauer, who controls it, has decided to disregard the claims of the players, who point out the incongruity of being called "Estables" but having no normal recognized rights. Bauer has put them in the condition of an "eventual" orchestra with no set plans, just a step away from dissolving it. They deserve the solidarity of other orchestras and of musical criticism and I wish them well. Bauer is being shortsighted and unfair.

            My final two cases are of a different kind: private institutions that either have called it quits or are evaluating doing so. The Pilar Golf Concerts have been the best of the "Gran Buenos Aires", providing quality artists and programmes for the last decade to residents of the area; now, with the lowest of profiles and no announcement, the organizers have decided to close shop. I won´t be the only one that will regret it: the place is beautiful and the music was worthwhile.

            For twenty years Susana Santillán has sustained La Scala de San Telmo, offering hundreds of concerts and giving priority to the promotion of young talents. The hall is very small and that was always a problem, acknowledged by a parallel series, "La Scala fuera de La Scala", where bigger venues were host to established artists. Now she is pondering whether the results vouchsafe going on, discouraged by very poor attendance at the San Telmo house. I hope that she will persist, maybe changing some aspects of programming.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Operatic paradox: production crisis, glamorous new houses

            Readers of the Herald know that I disagree with the by now lengthy trend of conceptual operatic production, a plague that started about thirty years ago and has contaminated opera houses all over the world. I am deeply convinced that it is ruining the art of opera and provoking in many people a mass exodus from live opera. However, there´s a substantial number of opera lovers (generally under 50) that support this development and consider that it has renovated what they think would otherwise be a dying art. I strongly believe they are wrong and I will try to  express my reasons in this article.

            From its inception opera has found its essence in telling a story through the combined resources of instruments and voices, plus proper scenery, costuming and lighting. By "proper" I mean "adequate to the times that are evoked". And even in the remote times of the late seventeenth-century/early Baroque Camerata Fiorentina, the aim was to obtain as inclusive a work of art as possible. Greek mythology, not Late Italian Renaissance, was what inspired those pioneers, as vouchsafed by such early creators as Jacopo Peri ("Euridice", 1600) and Claudio Monteverdi, author of the first truly successful opera: "La favola d´Orfeo" (1607). However, of course they weren´t classic Greeks and their views of Arcadic Greece were those of the Florentine and Mantuan intelligentsia.

            As Baroque opera matured, favorite subjects of "opera seria" were those of historical Rome and Persia along with mythological Greece, whilst current history was neglected to avoid censure. But the eighteenth-century "opera buffa" -both in the Baroque and in the Classical period- came close to the people first with short "intermezzi" (Pergolesi´s "La Serva Padrona"), later with full-evening comedies (Paisiello´s very successful "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" from 1782 antecedes Rossini by several decades): opera catered both to popular and aristocratic tastes and audiences.

            And so it continued to be as the language of music evolved and became ever more complicated during the ninetenth-century: Wagner gave us Medieval life with "The Mastersingers" or a huge Tetralogy of mythical German times (the "Ring") whilst bringing chromaticism to the very limits ("Tristan and Isolde"); meanwhile Verdi brought to us Babylonia or Egypt but was censored when he wrote about relatively recent magnicide in"Un Ballo in Maschera". There was another more revealing case of censorship: "La Traviata" was a true revolution for it was about a courtesan of Verdi´s time; at the première the librettist had to transport the story to the early eighteenth-century and only later was he allowed to offer it as inspìred by Dumas Fils´ "The Lady of the Camelias".

            Late Romantics as Puccini gave us wildly different locales and periods: Paris in the 1840s ("La Boheme"), early 1900s Japan ("Madama Butterfly"), the Pope´s Secret Police in Napoleonic times ("Tosca"). And so did Richard Strauss (Greek "Elektra", eighteenth-century Vienna in "Der Rosenkavalier"). But Berg´s "Wozzeck" (1925) was stark contemporary drama (Büchner´s amazing original, from 1836, was fully relevant in Berg´s time) with twelve-tone music, and from then on, although there were skilled practitioners of older styles as Menotti, things changed forever.

            You may think that I´m giving you a potted history of opera, but I needed this to give valid examples. In WW II´s postwar times one singer-actress changed the stand-up-and-sing school: Maria Callas. But she didn´t do it alone: Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli were those that were essential in the enormous change which I fully back: Visconti in "La Traviata" and Zeffirelli in "Tosca" demonstrated with Callas that opera was important as drama, not just as a vehicle for singers.  Visconti´s "Traviata" showed the right way: an absolutely precise evocation of Paris in the 1840s down to the minutest detail, and within it an immensely moving love story: he gave us the mores of the times, and she offered the most heartbreaking interpretation within the purest singing. And so did Zeffirelli´s uncannily true "Tosca": Toscas usually come on stage majestically, but not Callas: she was what Puccini wanted, an anguished jealous woman trying to find her supposed rival.

            On the other extreme, Wieland Wagner  revolutionised the staging of his grandfather´s operas by abstract symbolic designs and perfect lighting. But Wieland died and his brother Wolfgang innovated in the wrong way: Patrice Chéreau´s "Ring" was the starting point of the current trend, with Wotan in smoking and Siegfried´s anvil a modern factory. "Concept" staging was born...and we never recovered.

            The culprit is today´s a-historic generations; they believe only the present matters and don´t realize a glaring truth: the present is this very instant and all the rest is the past: unless we understand this we dont have a future. The fascinating thing about opera is that we are submerged into different cultures: Pharaonic Egypt ("Aida"), Napoleonic-era Rome ("Tosca"), Renaissance Mantua ("Rigoletto"), Medieval Flanders ("Lohengrin") and an enormous etcetera.

             Why are young people impressed by meticulous evocations of Medieval times in TV such as "Game of Thrones" or by Tolkien´s world but reject the same principle applied to opera? It makes no sense, but producers and opera directors, unfortunately promoted by many colleagues of mine and audiences that want to seem progressive, do enormous cultural crimes. Cleopatra as Evita, Rigoletto in Las Vegas, our last dictatorship in the Ring, the Madonna in full frontal nakedness (Bieito´s version of "Pepita Jiménez")...there´s no end to monstrous distortion. This is not opera.

            Producers aren´t authors: they are interpreters of the libretto, as conductors are of the music. Now if a production accords with the libretto it is panned by critics and some audiences! This is a sick society. You can be innovative but faithful, and this is the essential point.

For Buenos Aires Herald