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I woke up way too early this morning, which I guess has the advantage of permitting experimentation with Daily Kos 4 a bit. Specifically, the group function looks like it could be fun, and nobody yet created a music group. So, here it goes.

To get things going, my musical background is as a pianist. I'm working thru more advanced classical repertoire and I play with a few amateur chamber groups here in New York. Most recently, the Beethoven Piano Trio No. 3 in C-minor. I've also sung in the past, including with the Philadelphia Orchestra in college, in performances of Carmina Burana, Beethoven's 9th, and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Once upon a time, I played clarinet in school band, both sitting and marching. My heart is in the piano, though. I need to be able to play multiple voices and counterpoint. There's also less saliva.

This is not to say I'm only classical. At various points I have tried to play jazz piano, with varying degrees of success. (I love Bill Evans and Monk, though.) My music tastes run from them, to old-school country, past the '60s, new wave, alternative, and indie rock, down to old R&B and soul, and ending with anything you can dance to. I care less about genre than whether the artist either does that genre perfectly or breaks it into pieces. I should also mention electric and delta blues.

As someone into music, living in New York is especially great. Yesterday, I saw the first series of Metropolitan Opera performances of John Adams's Nixon in China, the composer conducting. The opera begins with a wonderful chorus, "The People Are the Heroes Now," as the Chinese wait for the Spirit of '76 to land in "Peking," as it's called throughout the libretto. (Person and place names are what they were in the '80s when the opera was written.) Nixon, played by James Maddalena, who originated the role, lands and meets with Chou En-Lai, the Chinese Premiere. Maddalena has Nixon down, physically, but does not have the strongest voice, so his aria, "News," doesn't always rise above the orchestra. For his part, Adams was energetic and the superb Met orchestra had no problem with some of his interesting minimalist cross-rhythms or his segues into big band music. Nixon's meeting with Mao drags a bit. The tension is between Nixon's certainty that he is making history with his inability to think beyond cliches. Mao responds in aphorisms that make increasingly less sense as they express greater certainty. Chou spends the whole opera somewhat detached from proceedings. (Mao tells him in Act III that "Revolution is a Young Man's Game.")

Act II sets up a contrast between Pat Nixon and Mme Mao. It curiously inverts stereotypes of East and West, where Pat is depicted as stoic while Mme Mao sings of her will to conquer. After Pat visits schools, factories, etc., the group gathers to watch a performance of "The Red Detachment of Women," one of Mme Mao's operas. Here, the singer who plays Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink), who is mostly used for comic relief, reappears as an evil, sexually predatory landlord who is eventually vanquished by the Red Army. This scene has wonderful choreography by Mark Morris, with children doing a combination of classical ballet and martial arts. The music playing when the Red Army appears is not a triumphal march, as might be expected, but music that could come from Duke Ellington. The Act closes with the powerful aria, "I am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung," where Mme Mao sings that she "speaks according to the book," with wonderful high-notes putting emphasis at the end of the phrase -- the bo-OOK. Written during the Reagan administration, it's hard not to see the depiction of Mao as an indictment of Christian radicalism.

Act III ends without any real conflict ever having been resolved. Kissinger again is depicted as a lech and buffon. Richard and Pat Nixon sing of their experiences in wartime, and Mao and his wife sing of the early days in the revolution. Chou appears to die at one point but returns to ask another philosophical question, asking whether what they did was good. So, the opera aims for verite in its depiction of the main characters but makes few grand claims besides what emerges through allusion. Musically, the opera is largely minimalist, but some of the extended orchestral passages sound to me like Adams incorporated music from the Ring Cycle, as he borrowed from big band jazz. His orchestral piece, "The Chairman Dances," a fox-trot was originally written for Act III but is heard only in part. Having Mao and his wife dance the fox-trot wouldn't have advanced the plot but wouldn't have really hurt it, either. Although Act III was very short, it did drag a little.

I can see why this music lasts, and why audiences return to this particular telling -- precisely because it leaves so much unresolved, the audience can bring what it thinks of Nixon, of China, and of that moment to the story. Still, the libretto, by Alice Goodman, and the direction, by Peter Sellers, could have used a bit more conflict. And when parts of the opera do drag, the music, being minimalist, doesn't really fill in the gap the way an old-school verismo opera does. Nevertheless, the opening chorus, to the handshake in Act I, and all of Act II are fantastic, and there should be more modern opera in the canon.

Speaking of: the group name, Leitmotif. It takes its name from the Wagner Ring Cycle, which my user name indicates I kind of dig. (Also, "counterpoint" was taken.) From the way he uses leitmotives, it's a series of individual themes that combine and recombine in different ways to make up the opera. So, it seemed appropriate for various "voices" to discuss music.

Originally posted to Loge on Sun Feb 13, 2011 at 06:09 AM PST.

Also republished by Leitmotif.

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