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Arts & Entertainment Preview - November 1999

Classical Music
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   Oliver's Army: a staging of the opera

On the very short list of bright operatic adventures conceived for children, Oliver Knussen's brash, unbuttoned Where the Wild Things Are, based on the picture book by Maurice Sendak, ranks high. As musical inspirations Knussen cites Mussorgsky, "the supreme composer of music about children," and Debussy, whose music for his daughter Chouchou is "the perfect example of how a composer can make children's music not by 'writing down' to them, but by illuminating his harmonic language in particularly gentle and subtle ways." He goes on to say, "If the result sometimes sounds like an elaborate homage to Franco-Russian music from the first decades of this century, it is because that is the music I found most wild and exciting as a child myself." The libretto, by Sendak, expands on the not quite 400 words of the original text. Like the book, however, the opera is a miracle of economy, compressing mad Max's odyssey across the sea to the Wild Things' wild rumpus and back home to his hot supper into a fleet forty minutes. (Following time-honored operatic convention, the part of Max is written not for the circumscribed vocalism of a boy but as a trouser role, requiring the full capacities of a grown-up female soprano.) Ideally Wild Things is seen in the opera house, dressed up in Sendak's decor and costumes, but the piece also plays brilliantly on the concert stage. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs it that way on November 4, 5, and 6 (617-266-1200). Knussen conducts, which is the best possible news. Not every composer excels as an interpreter of his own music; Knussen is emphatically one who does.

Simple Virtues

The Shaker Tree of Life 

The songs of the Shakers, like their furniture, make a virtue of simplicity. The celibate Brothers and Sisters -- 5,000 at their nineteenth-century peak, just seven today -- have songs for every occasion, claiming a legacy of more than 10,000. The music is pure melody, sung in unison, without accompaniment. The texts are unadorned. A song named for Father James, sung, according to the manuscript, "after he was whip'd at Harvard" for his beliefs, has no words at all. Yet it bespeaks a faith that in the face of persecution remained unshaken, even cheerful. Five years ago Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata, early-music virtuosi as devoted to native traditions as they are to the more fashionable traditions of Europe, traveled to Maine to record this and nearly three dozen other Shaker chants and spirituals. Joining them on the CD Simple Gifts (Erato) were the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake, the last remaining Shaker community, whose homespun delivery contrasts touchingly with the tactful, unaffected polish of the professionals. This month, for the first time since the release of the album, the Shakers venture forth for live appearances with Cohen and the Camerata, at the University of Vermont, in Burlington (November 5; 802-656-4455), and in the Great Performers series at Lincoln Center (November 17; 212-721-6500). Dates at the University of Chicago and UCLA follow in February and May. Who knows when or if there will be future chances to see and hear them.

Boulez's Perspectives

  The maestro: Boulez

Originally trained in mathematics, Pierre Boulez approaches composition not as an exercise in self-expression but in the spirit of research, seeking to push the envelope of musical possibility. As a conductor, whether of his own works or the works of others, he is above all cool and analytical -- which does not prevent his performances from generating intense excitement. His days as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1971-1977) are remembered as tumultuous. Subscribers balked at a heavy diet of challenging contemporary fare and found his way with the classics off-putting. At Carnegie Hall this season, as the subject of a nine-event "Perspectives" series encompassing discussion, concerts, and training workshops, Boulez is again poised to ruffle the conservatism of the Big Apple. But not quite as he used to. At seventy-five, and as a star of the first magnitude, Boulez channels his unflagging energies exclusively into the music of the twentieth century -- and the twenty-first. "Beethoven doesn't need me," he explains, grand old man and young turk in one. (For details call 212-247-7800.)

Austin Baer is a writer based in New York.

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Photo Credits -- Where the Wild Things Are: Guy Gravett. Shaker Tree: From the collection of Hancock Shaker Village. Boulez: Reichardt.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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