Marina Abramovic: Performance Artist and Diva Extraordinaire

I was not able to attend this exciting and disturbing exhibit at the MOMA in New York City, which ended today after several months of publicity awash with scandal, mental and physical stimulation, protest, and worship.  Perhaps the most renown performance artist in the world today, Marina Abramovic is a woman of mystery, depth, and she leaves nothing undone…even if it means potentially causing her own death.  For years, I have followed Abramovic’s career after reading about her in various articles, however, for whatever reason, I couldn’t bring myself to walk into the museum where she sat in an exhibit called, “The Artist is Present.”  Since March, Abramovic has been present at the MOMA, sitting in a chair six days per week and for the entire period that the museum is open to the public, usually about seven hours per day.  To me, this not only exhibits the sheer magnitude of her presence, but also the determination and will-power this artist has to defy the odds.

Abramovic sits silent and motionless as continual admirers alternate in front of her

Abramovic’s art is meant to shock, is meant to disturb, and is meant to stretch the limits of what is socially acceptable.  She harms herself in the process as if possessing no fear of pain or death, and yet we are possessed to watch…to gaze, in fact.  Not only have thousands flocked to the MOMA to see her and the recreations of many of her other pieces, there has been a continual blog denoting the exhibit’s events and even video streaming.  Today, on the final day of the exhibit, those who wished to destroy her concentration went above and beyond the limits of a spectator, as the second link below explains.

The Artist is Present

The New York Times article interestingly calls the exhibit “A 700-hour silent opera,” and calls Abramovic “a Diva,” comparing her to one of the most beloved operatic artists, Maria Callas.  At first, I thought, “Hmmm, is that an appropriate comparison?”  Maybe it is.  Callas risked so much for her art and was extraordinary on stage, a true singing actress.  While in the past, Abramovic has performed endless disturbing sequences, even cutting a star into her stomach with a razor, here she simply sat and stared at the person sitting in front of her. It is a silent communication, and yet she has said more with her silence over two months than she might have with a thousand words.  Even if her voice is silent, her presence dominates.


A lovely woman, striking by her looks alone, I for one could not imagine sitting across from her.  I began to ponder the many artists who felt these same emotions toward other artists.  Mahler, who tried to avoid writing a 9th Symphony for fear of equating himself with Beethoven; Mascagni, who was fearful of meeting the great Verdi but eventually mustered the courage to do so; and, for me the most poignant was Verdi, who admired the great Alessandro Manzoni.  Spending many years in the same city, Milan, Verdi only met Manzoni at his wife Giuseppina’s insistence, and at that even the mention of Manzoni’s name brought Verdi to break into a cold sweat.

And what if it were Callas sitting in that chair, hypothetically speaking?  Would we simply go and sit in front of her?  The presence of an artist is powerful, but a silent meeting of the eyes and the mind forever solidifies a relationship that requires no further explanation.  It is the silence of recognition.

“700-Hour Silent Opera Reaches Finale at MOMA” from the New York Times

“Vomit, Nudity, Litter: Marina Abramovic’s Marathon Performance Ends in Chaos” from Gawker (Note to Reader:  This link contains graphic images and its content may be offensive to some).

“Lost:” Could It Have Been An Opera?

Yeah, it’s not an opera, but it could have been one during the Scapigliatura, the period of opera I have focused on for the past 13 years. Although I admittedly did not watch the series “Lost,” which is not surprising since I am just now returning to the land of the living after spending the last five years with my mind and soul immersed in 1860s Milan, many of my colleagues and friends did watch the series.  Since I have a deep connection to allegorical narratives and works like Dante’s Divina Commedia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and of course any poetry or literature of the Milanese bad-boys, the Scapigliatura, this television series seems intriguing to me.  I did watch portions of the final episode and realized, “I may want to watch this and try to figure out its metaphors and allegorical connotations.”

For those of you who did watch, DON’T spoil it for me, but here is a well-written and informative article from the New York Times writer, Mike Hale.  He sheds some light on those things that, in true Scapigliatura fashion, are not always what they seem.”

“No Longer ‘Lost,’ but Still Searching

Published: May 24, 2010
As the last two and a half hours of “Lost” unspooled on Sunday night, Desmond and Jack walked into a cave for the final showdown with evil, and Desmond said, “This doesn’t matter, him destroying the island, you destroying him.” Jack, serious to the end, replied, “All of this matters.”

It was the sort of thesis-antithesis, drama-of-ideas moment that the show had always specialized in. The problem was that several hours later, after the show’s mystical, walk-into-the-white-light ending, it was Desmond who would be proved more right. The battle Jack was about to engage in with the monster inhabiting the body of John Locke mattered in the way that the proper placement of X’s and Y’s matters in an equation — meaning on “Lost” always having been largely abstract, as if it were a product of flow charts rather than imagination.

But when the entire island story line we had been following for six seasons turned out not to matter very much within the internal organization of the show’s narrative — to be largely disconnected from that final quasi-religious resolution of the plot — it was deflating, despite the warm feelings the finale otherwise inspired. Most of the post-mortem discussion of the finale will involve parsing and grading that final 10-minute sequence. Before conducting our own analysis, however, let’s talk about the previous 140 minutes of “The End.” It’s not uncommon — in fact, it’s probably the norm — for successful television shows to soften up as the seasons pass and viewers (and creators) get more attached to characters and more personally invested in how stories play out. It happened this season with “Lost,” and it reached its apogee on Sunday in an episode that was largely a pleasant, nostalgic wallow for the show’s fans.

Tonally, the episode was dominated by the sentimental machinations of the sideways story line, in which Desmond continued to act as a sort of spiritual mother hen or reunion organizer: gathering his flock of characters and leading them to reclaim their memories of the island, one after another, like nonbelievers seeing the light at a tent meeting.
Some of those moments were expertly orchestrated and very moving. Sun and Jin, whose memories were unlocked when they saw an ultrasound image of their baby, Ji-yeon, suddenly were able to speak English again, a plot trick that has always worked. Sawyer and Juliet touched fingers over a candy bar and jumped back as if from an electric shock. Jack’s final memory montage, when he saw all the moments in which he had raced to save others, was lovely.

Meanwhile, the island story, in keeping with a season-long trend, was eventful but strangely thrill-free.

The production crew was never able to make the cave holding the all-important, island-binding golden light look more impressive than a water ride at a cheap amusement park, and it was a major problem that the scenes of Desmond and Jack lugging stones around the sacred pool inspired giggles rather than awe. “The End” exemplified how pedestrian the action in “Lost” became over the years, a falloff that began even in Season 1. There was nothing to make you tense up in the scenes of Jack and Locke fighting on the cliff or of boulders rolling around as the island threatened to disintegrate. (One exception: Kate telling Sawyer, “I’ll see you at the boat,” and leaping off the cliff into the ocean. But that’s a hard scene to mess up.)

Now let’s get back to the ending of “The End,” in which the big reveal was that Jack Shephard, to all appearances a divorced father and successful surgeon in the sideways universe, was in fact dead. So were all the other Losties who had gathered in the church. The scenario was cleverly constructed to remove the possibility that they had been dead all along (a possibility I erroneously considered, and blogged about, before rewatching the scene), or that any of the events on the island or in the off-island lives of the Oceanic 6 had been other than real.

As explained by Jack’s (dead) father, and amplified by an exchange between Hurley and Ben, life had continued after Jack died on the island, stabbed by the monster inhabiting Locke’s body. The survivors on the Ajira plane, including Kate, Claire and Sawyer, had presumably made it to safety (Kate for the second time), while Hurley and Ben had remained as the island’s new protectors.

Now, beyond some future expiration date, they had all died and gathered because, as Christian Shephard told Jack: “This is the place that you all made together so that you could find one another. The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people.”

So that was the answer: the island was college, or home, or Outward Bound. The sideways reality was the former passengers of Oceanic 815, plus selected guests like Desmond and Penny, gathering for a self-affirming reunion before heading off into whatever sort of afterlife the swelling white light symbolized. (The producers hedged their bets by placing symbols of various religions inside the church.)

Rendered insignificant, in this scenario, were the particulars of what they had done on the island. Pushing buttons, building rafts, blowing up hatches, living, dying — all the churning action and melodrama that made “Lost” so addictive in its early seasons — none of it was directly connected to this final outcome, beyond that it constituted “the most important part” of all their lives.

The exception might have been Jack’s defeat of the smoke monster, though it was unclear if even that had been necessary for this beatific gathering to take place. If life on the island had been a test, everyone who mattered (or who wasn’t busy filming somewhere else) had been destined to pass. Except for Ben, who took an incomplete by staying out in the parking lot. The ending felt contrived and disappointing, which was probably inevitable. After years of insane complication of plot and character, no ending could have “explained” the show in a wholly satisfying way, and it might have been better not to try.

When the executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse announced in 2007 that they would cap the series at six seasons so that they could end it on their own terms, it made sense but raised a question: if artistic concerns were that important, why play the network game for even that long?

It was clear from the start that the story could not stretch beyond a season or two without being resolved or completely rethought. Admitting that, and pitching the show as a limited series or mini-series, would have meant going to cable or working with much smaller resources, and you can’t blame the show’s creators for not wanting that. But it always made their protestations about how the show threatened to get away from them ring a little hollow.

And on the other hand: the ending was also elegiac and beautiful, with its stately pace, its elegant cross-cutting between Jack’s death on the island and his awakening in the present, its long shot of the cast arrayed in the church pews like passengers in an airplane. The actors seemed relaxed and genuinely happy, and Matthew Fox, as Jack, underplayed nicely (in a scene where shot after shot was ripe for overacting). The final image of Jack’s eye closing, a reversal of the show’s opening moment six seasons ago, was just right.

As it so often had been, “Lost” was shaky on the big picture — on organizing the welter of mythic-religious-philosophical material it insisted on incorporating into its plot — but highly skilled at the small one, the moment to moment business of telling an exciting story. Which is to say, the picture that actually fit on the television screen.

Yvonne Loriod, Pianist and Messiaen Muse, Dies at 86

Published: May 18, 2010

Yvonne Loriod, the French pianist whose musical exactitude and intensity inspired numerous masterpieces by her husband, the composer Olivier Messiaen, died on Monday at a retirement home in Saint-Denis, on the edge of Paris. She was 86.

Ms. Loriod had been in declining health since suffering a cerebral hemorrhage three years ago and had recently broken a hip, said Roger Muraro, a former student and close friend, who confirmed her death.

Yvonne Loriod, pianist

There may be no parallel in musical history to the performer-composer relationship that Ms. Loriod and Messiaen maintained across half a century. It gave rise not only to two immense Messiaen solo works — “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus” (“20 Glances at the Child Jesus”) and “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” (“Bird Catalog”) — but also to shorter pieces and quasi concertos, ranging in scale from the huge “Turangalîla Symphony” to “Oiseaux Exotiques” (“Exotic Birds”), for piano with a tight group of wind instruments and percussion.

The presence of birds in so many of these works was no accident. For Messiaen, birdsong provided intimation of the music of heaven, unclouded by human egotism. He and Ms. Loriod would often go off in search of these natural singers, with Messiaen notating their melodies in the field and later incorporating them into his music.

Loriod and Messiaen

In Ms. Loriod he found a musician who could provide avian qualities of agility and spectacle. “I have,” he once said, “an extraordinary, marvelous, inspired interpreter whose brilliant technique and playing — in turn powerful, light, moving and colored — suit my works exactly.”

It delighted him that her name was homophonous with that of a singing bird: the loriot, or golden oriole, which duly has its place in “Catalogue d’Oiseaux.”

“If Messiaen did not have a Loriod, a pianist wife like her, Messiaen probably would not be Messiaen,” said Mr. Muraro, who is a specialist in the composer’s music.

Ms. Loriod’s performances, in gowns of vibrant color, were exciting to watch, and even more so to hear. In her extraordinary range of timbre, achieved not only by touch but also by the split-second timing of attack and pedaling, she brought to the music the rainbow brilliance it needed. In her sense of rhythm as pulsation, especially in fast music, she gave it the energy it craved.

To some extent those qualities were written into the music under her influence. Messiaen became, from the time he met her, a more assertive and more public composer, and he paid far more attention to the piano.

Yvonne Loriod was born in Houilles, a town six miles northwest of Paris, on Jan. 20, 1924. She had piano lessons from childhood, as did her sister Jeanne, four and a half years younger. Jeanne Loriod, who died in 2001, became a leading exponent of the electronic instrument the ondes martenot.

Yvonne Loriod’s first teacher, Madame Sivade, who was also her godmother, had Yvonne giving monthly recitals as a young girl. By 14 she knew the whole of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and all 32 Beethoven sonatas.

She went on to study at the Paris Conservatoire, where she met Messiaen when he arrived in 1942 to take a class in harmony. Along with Pierre Boulez and other classmates, she became a member of Messiaen’s intimate group, with whom he would discuss his music, modern music generally and the music of other continents.

His awareness of Ms. Loriod’s pianistic prowess came soon: in 1943 he wrote “Visions de l’Amen” for the two of them to play on two pianos. That was followed by “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine” (“Three Little Liturgies of the Divine Presence,” 1943-44), for women’s choir and small orchestra with solo piano, and “Vingt Regards” (1944). “Visions” was presented by Messiaen and Ms. Loriod in May 1943, when Paris was still occupied; the two other works were performed in early 1945.

After this triptych of sacred concert works, Messiaen produced, from 1945 to 1949, what he called his Tristan Trilogy, on the theme of cosmic love. It was a glorious outburst of love music, and though Ms. Loriod performed in only two of the pieces — the song cycle “Harawi,” evoking Peru, and “Turangalîla” — it seems clear she inspired all three. (The third piece was “Cinq Rechants,” or “Five Refrains,” for small chorus.)

Ms. Loriod had become the focus for musical feelings that the composer had directed toward his first wife, Claire Delbos, in the 1930s but who by the 1940s was suffering a long physical decline.

In the 1950s, all the music Messiaen wrote for Ms. Loriod was bird-inspired: the concerto “Réveil des Oiseaux” (“Awakening of the Birds”), “Oiseaux Exotiques” and the “Catalogue.”

Ms. Delbos died in 1959, and two years later Ms. Loriod and Messiaen were married. A tour of Japan was their honeymoon, remembered by Messiaen in his “Sept Haïkaï” (“Seven Haiku”), for piano and small orchestra. (Ms. Loriod also traced her expertise in Japanese cuisine to that trip.)

In 1962, Ms. Loriod performed all the Mozart concertos at the Conservatoire, whose faculty she joined in 1967. From this point on she concentrated on her pupils — among them Michel Béroff, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Mr. Muraro — and her husband. Ms. Loriod and Messiaen traveled the world together and welcomed students to their apartment in Paris.

Messiaen’s flow of music for her continued, from big solo parts in the concert-length concerto “Des Canyons aux Étoiles …” (“From the Canyons to the Stars,” 1971-75) to a part in the unfinished “Concert à Quatre” (“Concerto for Four”).

Ms. Loriod recorded everything her husband wrote for her, in many cases more than once, and these recordings will remain an essential part of the Messiaen legacy. Invaluable, too, was the work she did after his death, in 1992, in editing his writings, not least his 4,000-page treatise on rhythm.

Ms. Loriod is survived by a sister, Jacqueline, and a stepson, Pascal Messiaen. Ms. Loriod moved to the Saint-Denis retirement home, in a leafy area, after her cerebral hemorrhage three years ago. There she could hear birds sing, Mr. Muraro said. In recent months, however, she had remained shut inside. “It’s spring and the birds are just beginning to sing now,” he said, but Ms. Loriod did not get to hear them.

Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 3:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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Anne Midgette of the Washington Post and Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times take Placido to task

Domingo as Simone

The critical world is really taking on a life of its own these days, especially where opera is concerned.  Just yesterday, I was immersed in very early critical reviews that were written in Milan during the 1850s and 60s–yes, Verdi’s time–and I couldn’t help but admire the manner in which these critics understood, spoke, and wrote about opera.  Their reviews left one aching to hear or see the work discussed, or rightly provided critical dialogue that was not invasive but critical in a musical sense, where aesthetics, style, genre, and national identity were concerned.  Newspapers like the Corriere della Sera, with its section on “spettacoli” or Il Giornale della Societa del Quartetto, among others, are so enlightened that they have remained in circulation until today.

The birth of music criticism, as we know it, actually began with Schumann and Berlioz, who felt that music could and should be discussed openly, critically, and that a critic must learn how to accurately describe what music is in words, a difficult task then and now.  This last week, two critics have followed one another’s ideas and while the main focus of their articles is Mr. Domingo, they really provided no criticism on the music, as it were.  I have provided a link to Anne Midgette’s article, that started quite a ruckus where Mr. Domingo is concerned.  And today, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times provided a musical review that left much to be desired.

What ever happened to talking about voices and singers with intelligence about aesthetics, fach, and historical truth?  It is not just about what one hears and whether it’s good or not, but how what we present today remains authentic, true, and accurate to the composers wishes.  Whether or not Mr. Domingo sings Baritone or Tenor is not what should be being discussed but, rather, was he true to the style and did he sing aesthetically correct.  Did the other performers?  Moreover, I find it more than farcical that the words “a real Verdian voice” are being thrown around when, in fact, no one has any idea what a Verdian voice is, was, or is supposed to be. Is it enough for a singer’s voice to simply move swiftly through notes but sing completely without aesthetic understanding of this style and be called “Verdian?”  I guess nowadays this is acceptable or it wouldn’t be at the Met, but it is not acceptable for me and certainly not for those who have studied the historical properties of this man’s music.  Let me pose my point in a question.  Would you perform in a modern string quartet and use Baroque stylization and perform on a Viola da Gamba?  That’s exactly what is happening here and yet…it continues to happen.  To me, this question is more important than whether Mr. Giordani’s voice “throbs” or not. In fact, if we were being true critics we would be asking whether he was able to present a viable, historical, and believable performance as his character in the style of Verdian singing.  While I withhold my own opinion on this matter, for now, I have chosen to present Ms. Midgette and Mr. Tommasini’s reviews.  You forge your own opinion.

Anne Midgette from the Washington Post


For Verdi, Masquerading as a Baritone


In 1959, when he was 18, Plácido Domingo auditioned for the National Opera in Mexico City as a baritone. The jury was impressed but told Mr. Domingo that he was really a tenor. Two years later he sang his first lead tenor role, Alfredo in Verdi’s “Traviata” in Monterrey. And so began one of the great tenor careers in opera history.

On Monday, three days before turning 69, Mr. Domingo returned to his vocal roots. For the first time at the Metropolitan Opera he sang a baritone role, the title character in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.” Some of his tougher critics would say that Mr. Domingo has been a quasi baritone for years, since he has increasingly asked conductors to transpose parts of the tenor roles he sings down a step or two.

But he sounded liberated as Boccanegra, a tormented doge in 14th-century Genoa. At times his voice had a worn cast. And when he dipped into the lower baritone register, he had to fortify his sound with chesty, sometimes leathery power. Still, this was some of his freshest singing in years.

Maybe taking on Boccanegra is a self-indulgent exercise for Mr. Domingo at this stage of his career. I almost hesitate to praise him, since I do not want him to get ideas. Right now the two companies he is running — the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera — are struggling financially. So he has big responsibilities.

That said, he earned an enormous ovation on Monday night. Over the last decade, when a role took him to the upper register of his tenor voice, he often sounded cautious and calculating. But as Boccanegra, he could not wait, it seemed, for the line to soar into the baritone’s high register, now his comfort zone.

Yet that auditioning committee of 1959 was right: Mr. Domingo was a tenor. Whether a singer is a tenor or a baritone is not just a matter of range. The coloring and character of a voice also identifies its type. There have long been dusky, baritonal qualities to Mr. Domingo’s singing, but the overall colorings and ping in his sound were those of a tenor.

Inevitably, he made Boccanegra seem like a tenor role. The long scene in which Boccanegra discovers that Maria, who goes by the name Amelia Grimaldi (don’t ask), is his long-lost illegitimate daughter, did not have the contrast of baritone and soprano colorings that Verdi intended. Still, Mr. Domingo brought vocal charisma, dramatic dignity and a lifetime of experience to his portrayal. Purists will complain, but Mr. Domingo’s performance was an intriguing experiment.

A week earlier Mr. Domingo was in the pit at the Met to conduct the first performance of Verdi’s “Stiffelio” this season, a run that continues. He did an able job. But what a difference to hear a similarly complex Verdi score withJames Levine in the pit. Mr. Levine, who conducted on Monday night, has often spoken of how much he reveres this score, and his respect came through in the somberly beautiful, nuanced playing he drew from the orchestra.

“Simon Boccanegra” is a hybrid in the Verdi canon. It was a flop at its premiere in 1857 in Venice. Almost a quarter-century later, in 1881, Verdi extensively revised the score, which combines elements of impassioned middle-period and magisterial mature Verdi.

The plot, however, is one of the most convoluted in opera. Verdi was drawn to the story because it allowed him to portray an imperfect man, once a ruthless pirate, who is conscripted into a leadership role for which he feels unfit, yet who tries to reconcile the conflicts between the plebeian commoners and the aristocracy; a man who made a mess of his personal life but eventually does right by his daughter. But do not try to untangle the strands of the plots and the multiple identities of the characters.

As Maria/Amelia, the Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was splendid, singing with clear, shimmering, pitch-perfect sound and lovely phrasing. The tenor Marcello Giordani can be a sloppy singer. But the role of Gabriele Adorno, the hotheaded aristocrat who loves Maria, suits him, and he sang with ardor and big, throbbing top notes.

The bass-baritone James Morris’s voice is weather-beaten these days. But as Fiesco, Maria’s father, he conveyed grave dignity and moving authority. Paolo, the villain (that much seems clear), was the bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi, whose strong voice flagged as the night went on.

Giancarlo del Monaco’s tastefully grand production was introduced in 1995, when Mr. Domingo sang the tenor role of Gabriele. Even with all his drive to notch records in the opera annals, Mr. Domingo could not have imagined then that he would be singing the title role at 69.