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Arts & Entertainment Preview - October 1999

Classical Music
B Y   A U S T I N   B A E R

Tales from the Crypt

   Leon Botstein

Who among American artists in all media has had the widest and most lasting influence? The answer is surely the short-lived Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Generation after generation of writers and visual artists absorbed his mad, incantatory prose and verse like a drug. Composers have proved no less susceptible, for reasons that are hardly mysterious. To an uncanny degree Poe cast his spells through the magic of sheer sound. (Think only of the obsessive "Nevermore," tolling through "The Raven" like a death knell.) This month Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra commemorate the 150th anniversary of the poet's death with music prompted by his writings (October 15, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York; 212-721-6500). Two early-twentieth-century works from France -- André Caplet's Conte fantastique (based on "The Masque of the Red Death") and Florent Schmitt's Le Palais hanté -- conjure up Poe's visions by purely instrumental means. In Sergei Rachmaninoff's phantasmagorical The Bells and Einojuhani Rautavaara's On the Last Frontier (a North American premiere) the poet's voice is heard in the voices of a chorus. The text for the Rachmaninoff is an adaptation, but Rautavaara -- a contemporary Finnish composer with an excellent command of English -- gives us Poe straight, in pages from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Botstein, a professor and conductor who constructs concert programs the way he would compile the reading list for a graduate seminar, thus invites us to consider the range of responses to Poe's morbid genius.

Zemlinsky Returns

Seiji Ozawa conducts the BSO  

In the musical Bloomsbury of fin de siècle Vienna, Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was definitely a force. Brahms ad-mired him, Schoenberg studied with him, Mahler conducted his premieres -- not to mention amorous and matrimonial liaisons within the tight little circle. By the time he died, in Larchmont, New York, a fugitive from the Nazis, his name was forgotten. Today, despite continuing crusades by such maestros as James Conlon and Riccardo Chailly, he remains more a footnote than a presence. Still, the tide may be turning. Certainly the performances this month of his Lyrische Symphonie (first played in Prague in 1924) by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa are a hopeful sign (October 7, 8, 9, 12; 617-266-1200). Running fifty uninterrupted minutes, the score takes the form of an epic symphonic song cycle divided between a baritone and a soprano -- "along the lines of Das Lied von der Erde," the composer informed his publisher in a letter, alluding to Mahler's sublime symphony in song, which is of comparable duration and also involves a pair of alternating soloists. But within the ripe late-Romantic idiom that is common to the two works, their imaginative worlds are distinct. Inspired by classic Chinese poetry, Mahler spun out a supersubtle, achingly personal meditation on the evanescence of all created things, coming into being and disappearing like breath on a mirror. Zemlinsky, setting the fashionable mystical kitsch of the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, unfurls a tapestry in which barbaric splendor contends for dominance with ecstatic rapture. The writing for the soloists -- strangely monumental for the baritone; like looping ribbons of molten candle wax for the soprano -- enhances the aura of allegorical possibility that permeates the texts; the total effect brings to this listener's mind the timeless Hindu image of the divine embrace, erotic symbol of the interpenetration of spirit and matter. Whether Zemlinsky was thinking this way is anybody's guess, but the power and sensuality are there.

Indian Summer

  Plácido Domingo as Le Cid

We know this can't last forever, but at fifty-eight, Plácido Domingo is showing no signs of fading away. Even as he collects new administrative positions (artistic director of The Washington Opera, artistic director designate of the Los Angeles Opera, with rumors swirling of a similar post at Argentina's Teatro Colón, the greatest house of the Southern Hemisphere), the Spanish supertenor continues to outperform colleagues twenty years his junior. This month in Washington he returns to the title role of Massenet's Le Cid, an eleventh-century champion torn between family honor and allegiance to his native Spain. Last staged in America in 1902, this rousing epic comes to us now in a production from Seville, directed and designed by Hugo de Ana, whose gift for heroic pomp and circumstance is unrivaled today. Expect nothing less than opera at its grandest, with a hero to match. Don't miss it. (October 30, November 4, 7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22; 202-295-2400.)

Austin Baer is a writer based in New York.

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Photo Credits -- Botstein: Steve J. Sherman. BSO: S. Rosner. Domingo: Guillermo Mendo Murillo.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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