Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wagner and the financial crisis

The other day I watched Das Rheingold, the first opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, and I think it has some important lessons about our current financial crisis. After all, there aren't many operas more obsessed with housing, contracts, and mineral resources, not to mention lying, greed, and theft.

I won't go into a full synopsis here, though you can find one elsewhere easily enough. At the beginning of the second scene, Wotan and Fricka have just awoken to find that their new home is completed -- the fortress that Wotan will later name "Valhalla" glimmers in the distance, as Fricka frets about how they'll pay for it. Two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, have built Valhalla for a price that Wotan has no intention of paying -- his sister-in-law, Freia. It may not exactly be the mortgage crisis, but there's clearly been some speculation and malfeasance happening.

Wotan has a financial adviser named Loge, who has promised they'll have no problem changing the deal at the last moment. They're just big dumb giants, right? Unfortunately, Loge hasn't shown up yet, so that when the giants arrive an irked Wotan has to stall for time. First he pretends the deal was a joke, and then he wonders why they'd want poor Freia anyway, and then he offers them anything except his sobbing sister-in-law. For all his fantastic powers, Wotan has a problem -- he just can't break a contract. He's actually the god appointed to defend contracts, so he's responsible for regulating against his own interests. When Loge finally arrives, he hasn't got any good compromise either -- Wotan will have to steal the infamous Ring of the Nibelungen, since that's apparently the only acceptable substitute for the love of a good woman.

And so thievery, deception, and operatic mayhem inevitably ensue. It's easy to fault all of the characters: Wotan is trying to cheat the giants, while they're trying to kill Wotan and all the other gods (Freia's gardening skills, it turns out, are essential to the gods' survival). Alberich, the ruler of the Nibelungen, himself stole the gold to make the ring, then forced all his people into slave labor to amass some more gold. Clearly no good will come of any of this -- just a lot of yelling, weeping, killing, and bombastic opera music.

This might not be helpful if you're already trapped in a bad mortgage or lousy investments. It seems like so much of this could have been prevented, or at least minimized, if only Wotan and Fricka had lived within their means -- just enjoyed being gods and munching Freia's magical apples, without always wanting a bigger house, fancier weapons, complete domination over every corner of the world and underworld, etc.

A contract needn't be a bad thing, after all, as long as both parties are acting in good faith, and can afford to keep their promises. When they don't, and can't, that's when people start getting cursed, transforming themselves into dragons, and then the entire world goes up in flames.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

putting El Salón in context

Speaking of politics in music, this week the CPO will be performing El Salón México by Aaron Copland -- a piece written in the early 1930's, during a phase Copland's career when he was actively promoting leftist and socialist ideals through his music.

Nowadays, the piece is most often programmed as a splashy, dancing burst of Latin color. That's how it fits into our program, which is titled "Tango Nights" and features several pieces by Piazzola, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and El Salón México. Until I read Alex Ross' new history of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, I wouldn't have noticed any deeper meaning to the work either. Ross puts El Salón into the context of the period, and explains the political intentions of its creator, in a way that sheds a fantastic light on this quirky, tuneful little piece.

I'd recommend The Rest is Noise to anyone who thinks they just don't get 20th century music -- who finds it confusing, intimidating, or exasperating -- or who just wants a deeper understanding of music like
El Salón, and how it relates to the political and social upheavals of our time. I guess that means I'd recommend it to just about everyone.

Monday, September 15, 2008

music under a bell jar

The Berlin Philharmonic, virtually alone among German cultural institutions, continued playing right to the end of the Second World War. Even after their hall, the old Philharmonie, was destroyed by bombers, they continued performing in the Admiralspalast downtown, and at makeshift hospitals around the city. It's understandably not a period people in the orchestra are proud of, but a remarkable new documentary by Enrique Sanchez Lansch, The Reichsorchester, chronicles and records the memories of the last two surviving orchestra members who played in the Berlin Phil during that time.

One of those members, violinist Hans Bastiaan, describes that time as "like being under a bell jar" -- the orchestra was protected and sheltered by the Nazi ministry of propaganda, performing a regular concert schedule and touring widely to boost morale and to symbolize of German cultural might. Bastiaan and double bassist Erich Hartmann, the other surviving member who speaks at length in the film, both understood that they were serving an evil regime -- yet they both claim the Berlin Philharmonic was never a Nazi orchestra, even if certain members were party loyalists.

The vast majority kept playing out of dedication to their craft; out of allegiance to their music director, Furtwangler, and to their colleagues; from pride for the stellar reputation and musicianship of their orchestra; and, in the final days, for sheer survival. Orchestra members were given an exemption from military service -- and their family members offered special protections and allowances as will -- and so from the beginning they were tied to the regime and its continued stability.

Only in the last few months, playing before audiences of severely wounded soldiers and civilians, did Bastiaan, Hartmann, and their like-minded colleagues recognize the shame of their role as state-supported artists. Other members, such as violinist Bernhard Alt (who earlier composed of a double bass quartet, written for his Berlin Phil colleagues) committed suicide. Still others died amid the chaos of bombings and occupation (this was the case with the interim conductor Leo Borchard, who died by American gunfire in a tragic accident). One violist, dismissed by Furtwangler for missing a concert early in the war, had his exemption revoked and died on the front -- just one terrible story among many that Bastiaan and Hartmann have to tell.

It's fascinating to hear them tell it, even though they still seem to struggle with the moral quandaries of that time. Among the musicians, Bastiaan notes, their understanding of politics was often "child-like", and they only wished to keep performing great music under the best conductors -- and yet the harsh realities around them wouldn't disappear, or be vanquished by sublime concerts. In the end, they were given a perfect opportunity to witness the crumbling of the Nazi regime, from within the protective 'bell jar' it provided, and to take part in the rebuilding efforts that followed.

The documentary includes extensive footage of the orchestra performing, mainly Beethoven and Wagner, including a complete performance of the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger, recorded in a German factory in 1942.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

hidden talents

The Calgary Herald today features an article on CPO clarinetist Jocelyn Colquhoun, who will be dancing along with other guest artists at next week's tango-themed concert:

"Sensual struts will set hearts aflutter"

Besides the sort of bizarrely poetic title, it's a clever article with several funny quotes and stories from Jocelyn. One of the CPO marketing department's goals is to get individual musicians' talents, interests, and abilities into the spotlight, and out in the media, so hopefully more people will keep stopping Jocelyn at the shopping mall to tell her how great she is. Then maybe she'll keep her ballroom tango posture, with the head held back all the time, as though to signal that the rest of us all smell really bad.