2008: A Fig Odyssey

starHello everyone!
Here I am finally updating my poor, neglected website.
2008 was a terribly intense and memorable year, what with elections and parliamentary prorogues and bizarre band-reunions. I was involved in a multitude of projects, big and small, weird and wonderful. One truly significant event was the reunion of The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir (remember them?). The gig, at Guelph’s magnificent Hillside fest last summer, was fabulous, as well as existentially wrought. It’s a pretty bitter sweet feeling to be standing in front of thousands, singing songs I haven’t touched in almost 20 years, wondering whether my 4-year -old in the front row needs to go to the bathroom…
For anyone interested, the lovely Darrin Cappe filmed the whole affair. Here’s a link…

The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band (another one of my multi-syllabic collaborations) finally finished recording our new CD. It was produced, for the most part, by our zany friend Dave Neufeld at his huge church/studio in Trenton, Ontario (the mix isn’t completed yet). We also recently filmed a video (!) for one of the songs, with Canadian directorial sensation, Bruce MacDonald.
For anyone interested, here’s a preview of the record. Note the wild sounds and English words! (With thanks to the great Kurt Walther) This is a little ditty called “Folk Song”

[audio:film_tv_mp3s/FOLKSONG MIX ONE2.2.mp3]

In the land of TV and film, I had another grand year of steady-to-panic-inducing work. Here’s some highlights:
-I continued my fruitful relationship with YAP films with a score for their much-watched CBC doc about the pet food scandal, “Dog’s Breakfast”, and for the second season of “Finding The Fallen” (Discovery Europe), an emotionally engaging and very original World War I history series.
-I worked with Kenton Vaughan on a great doc about the expansion of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, (and got to flex my Vaughan Williams chops)
-Jamie Shields, Adam White and I continued our ever-expanding professional association by working together on a feature length pilot for a thrilling new CTV/CBS police drama, “The Bridge”. We also scored Two Sands Productions’ “Extreme Clergy”. The series title doesn’t do it justice; it profiles religious figures who risk their lives to help people in war zones and urban squallour. Quite inspirational.
-Kevin Lacroix and I provided music for a new “spinoff” of The Nature of Things, “The Suzuki Diaries”, in which David and his youngest daughter travel across Europe in search of successful green energy solutions.
-there were a miriad of other projects as well, including a short film by Dan Berman featuring South Asian reworkings of Richard Wagner (more on him later!)

John Greyson, Jared Rabb and I finally finished the film version of our nearly decade-long collaboration, “Fig Trees”. Part of me can’t believe it’s over! Anyway, it was immediately shipped off to the Berlin film festival, where it won a “Teddy” award for best documentary/essay. It is being shown in festivals across the world, including the London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and Hot Docs here in Toronto, on May 1st. For anyone interested, here’s an excerpt (for a larger image, click on the title)…

Barcelona Aria (from John Greyson’s Fig Trees) from Jared Raab on Vimeo.

And another…

4 Throats (from John Greyson’s Fig Trees) from Jared Raab on Vimeo.

So far 2009 is looking big and fabulous. Jamie, Adam and I will be working on 2 series (the second season of “Stuck” for 52 Media productions, and “Tosca” for Upfront Entertainment). I’ll also be scoring an interesting doc for Associated Producers about the mind, called “The Science of the Soul” (History U.S.). I’m just finishing up the music for a powerful film about ex-cons by director Alan Zweig, called “Hard Name” (It’ll be premiering at Hot Docs on May 3rd). Meanwhile John Greyson and I are working up about a hundred new projects…

Enough already! How much of my awe-inspiring genius can you stand?

And now, for anyone interested, here’s part 3 of my ongoing discussion of Wagner’s operas!


OK. So, Lohengrin is Wagner’s worst “post-Rienzi” opera. I know this might ruffle a few swan feathers, but it’s the truth. Don’t get me wrong; there are fantastic highlights strewn throughout its’ ponderous 3-hours, even some of W’s best, but I think it ultimately fails as a mid-19th century musical/dramatic work (consider that Rigoletto premiered one year after Lohengrin). There are many reasons for this failure, but ultimately Lohengrin suffers from “In Betweeny Disease”. If Tannhauser is NYC and Das Rheingold is Philadelphia, Lohengrin is a greasy-spoon truckstop somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (if such joints still exist). Wagner has tried to leave behind the grandiose, over-emphasized trappings of French grand opera which permeate The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser by admirably scaling back the fortissimos and glossing over the separations between vocal “numbers” (arias, duets, choruses, etc.), but he hasn’t found the wonders of his late orchestral/motif style to replace these absences. To quote Gertrude Stein upon visiting L.A., “There’s not much ‘there’ there”.

Here’s what I mean: First comes the admittedly magnificent prelude, but then act I is Wagner’s dullest, most prosaic offering ever (again, not counting Rienzi and before). It is full of simplistic, military fanfares and empty royal pomp with very little to be remembered or celebrated. There are sweet moments, of course, like Elsa’s pitiful utterances and her evocation of the envisioned hero. But it isn’t really until Lohengrin himself hits the stage that the music really takes off. Here is Wagner at his best; silken, shimmering strings and a beautiful, restrained vocal line. The argument has been made that this contrast is intentional; boring, derivative music for the earthbound Brabantians, versus splendid, magnificent music for our heaven-sent hero. But do we have to sit through all of it? The finale, like all 3 in this opera, is pretty amazing. Incredible counterpoint and harmonic invention. But aren’t exciting, full chorused but static act-enders a leftover from Meyerbeer, Rossini and all of the composers Wagner loathed?

Act 2 begins with a rehearsal for the prelude to Siegfried. There are no high instruments (violins etc.) for a very long time, because R.W. is telling us that evil is afoot. Sure enough, Ortrud and Telremund, Wagner’s first-ever genuine villains enter and spray their deep, delicious darkness all over the place. Telremund has to be one of the thickest, most easily manipulated figures in operatic history. After Ortrud has ruined his life and caused his complete rejection from society, all it takes is a little bit of sexual teasing to get him back in line. Idiot. There follows an incredble, Iago-like monologue for her (more on this in a moment) and then one of two excellent, distinctly un-Wagnerian, act 2 duets. This is when Elsa comes in and the plot thickens. Another great duet and then a lot of dullness, in which we hear the “forbidden question” motif about 2 dozen times. One cool moment happens when Elsa and chorus seem to be winding the act to a big finish as she triumphantly moves towards the palace in a massive wedding procession, only to be suddenly interrupted by Ortrud. The musical “volte face” is almost Mahlerian in it’s emotional shock. The finale that follows is, of course, exciting.

Act 3 is immediately impossible for me to enjoy because of two musical blemishes: It’s terribly ubiquitous, dramatically innapropriate prelude (it never sounded like joyful wedding music to me, only like teutonic military bombast. Admittedly it might also have been ruined by my long-entrenched childhood association; it was included on the soundtrack album to the Beatles’ “Help”). And, of course, the horrible “Wedding March”, surely the blandest of all Wagner’s famous melodies. There follows a bizarrely chaste wedding-night duet, which quickly transforms into Lohengrin trying to claw his way out of the doghouse. he keeps making it worse for himself, with stunningly self-absorbed lines like “I want to live in you” and his terribly ill-conceived description of all the great stuff he’s given up to live out the rest of his days in boring old Brabant. This reveals one of the work’s biggest flaws: Elsa is right! This pompous, nameless braggart has no business concealing his identity from his own wife! I would have told him to make up something (Like, for example, “Taylor”, the name of Charleton Heston’s character in The Planet of the Apes. But more on this in a moment). So she’s dropped the big question just in time for Telremund to run in and get instantly dispatched by our dejected hero who tells everyone to meet him in front of the boring king, where he’ll let it all out. When he finally tells the gathered Brabanters the news (the audience, of course, already knows the scoop because it says his name on front of the theatre program), Ortrud makes a major gaff and spills her own beans as well. Thing is, if she’d managed to wait until Lohengrin actually left, she would have been fine. Instead she lets him overhear that she used her terrible pagan magic on Elsa’s brother. What’s a goody-two-shoes knight of the grail gonna do? Bring back the brother! Ortrud literally dies of embarrassement. When L finally makes his exit, Elsa dies of sorrow. Wagner loves killing the ladies like this. No blood; no mess.

I guess it’s no big surprise that Lohengrin is a boring and silly opera with only odd highlights to keep the listener going. Maybe it’s a tall order to expect something miraculous from a work composed in the 1840’s. But R.W. had already managed such miracles, I feel, with his Dutchman and Tannhauser offerings. For Grand Opera thrills and chills, Dutchman easily trumps the Swan-rider. For sheer strangeness and musical adventuring. Tannhauser is the clear winner. Also, both of these earlier operas have better tunes and more memorable set pieces. And both are full of dramatic and musical events in a way that Lohengrin is significantly not.

But Lohengrin is still, perhaps, one of Wagner’s most interesting works, from a theoretical point of view. In fact, I would argue that it is a kind of key for unlocking most of Wagner’s subsequent music dramas. Ultimately, it is the epitome of musical art that is “better than it sounds”, because it rewards study in so many ways, even if it doesn’t fully deliver as theatre or music.
Wagner’s entire post-Rienzi output was drawn from 2 literary sources. On the one hand, you have his libretti based on medieval european texts. These formed the basis for everything from Tannhauser on, with the exception of the Ring Cycle. The Ring itself was derived from Norse mythology, his other source. But it’s in the incredible text of Lohengrin that these two worlds intersect and we’re handed a Wagnerian Rosetta stone, as it were.

Towards the beginning of act 2 we are given our first moment alone with Ortrud. Telremund has run away in a kind of sexually aroused tizzy, soon to be sublimated into a frenzy of evil violence, and our slithering villainess utters an amazing, revealing monologue. In it’s inexplicable, impenetrable evil, it brings to mind Iago’s chilling “credo”. Ortrud, we learn, is deeply, profoundly disturbed, beyond the usual pragmatic lust for power, or even earthly revenge. Like Iago, her internal driving force is profoundly anti-Christian. But whereas Iago denies the existence of heaven and therefore the hegemony of any kind of discernible moral code, Ortrud is fully loyal to a different deified force. In an incredible, confessional moment, she cries out to “Wotan” and “Fricka” to help her exact her revenge. For what? for the destruction of the pagan Norse gods themselves! Christianity has eclipsed the old order and driven out the denizens of Valhalla and now it’s time for payback! In this light, we can look to the Ring Cycle as the ultimate “prequel”, more than a century before “The Godfather II” or “The Phantom Menace”. Lohengrin is post-Gotterdammerung, post-twilight of the Gods. And in this light, the Ring takes on a new meaning; Wotan and Albericht and Everyone else in the Ring cycle ultimately fail because they are pre-Christian and therefore bereft of compassionate love, anti-materialism and all the other supposedly Christ-bound innovations Wagner, Schoepenhauer and so many others went on about in the 19th century (in Wagner’s world, is the worship of Norse Gods a stand in for stubborn, supposedly loveless Jewishness? Or more aptly, were these “Jewish” characteristics intrinsic to any pre-Christian era?). But Ortrud is pre-Christian in yet another important respect. In her (understandable) nudging of Elsa to ask for our hero’s name and origin, she is the embodiment of Lilith, the garden serpent who compelled Eve to take that fateful bite.

And then we have Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, one of the most perplexing literary/musical works in western history. Again, for more obvious reasons, it is a prequel to Lohengrin; Parsifal is Lohengrin’s dad. I would look at the Ring cycle as Wagner’s “Conquest For the Planet of the Apes” and Parsifal as his “Battle for the planet of the Apes”. This would make Lohengrin, of course, the equivalent of the first, classic Ape movie, in which Charleton Heston comes from some mysterious other world on a silver, fiery swan, rescues the (mute) girl from the terrible pagan monkeys and is ultimately unable to integrate into his new, earthly surroundings. “God damn you all to hell!” he cries, and falls on his knees in his shock and horror at having seen the potential of human beings to destroy. Or is he actually Ortrud, bemoaning the death of the gods? Certainly a full academic analysis is needed…

And now for recommended recordings and DVDs. Maybe because many of the wonders of this opera have always alluded me, i seem to have more performances of it than any others in the Wagner canon, as if I’ve been hoping to be converted or something.
For sheer vocal slendour I’d go for the classic Rudolf Kempe EMI stereo recording from ’64. It has to have one of the best ever assembled Wagnerian casts. Jess Thomas, with his sweet, light-yet-heroic touch sounds suitably angelic. Elisabeth Grummer is among the greatest German language singers in history, and you can’t do better for the villains than Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau. Dietrich manages to convey the fact that Telramund starts the opera as a great, respected hero and, though he grows steadily crazier, should retain a modicum of dignity.
But the CD performance I always return to is Sawallisch from a ’62 Bayreuth live recording. It also stars Jess Thomas, but the villians are the unparalleled power house coupling of Astrid Varnay (a Brunhilde in her own right) and Ramon Vinay (one of the greatest helden-tenors ever, singing in a booming baritone). This performance is a little rough, with ample stage and audience noise, but it’s on fire!

As for DVDs, I own a few, but I’d recommend the Abbado/Domingo/Studer 1990 performance from the Vienna Stadtoper. Once you get past Placido’s ridiculous blonde hair (can’t Lohengrin be tall dark and handsome?), and the ever so slightly murky sound, the singing and conducting takes over. Domingo is perfect for this part; an expert at flowing, delicate, Italianate (or perhaps french sounding) legato. Cheryl Studer delivers nicely.

I am a fan of alternative, whacked out Wagner productions, so I’ve ordered a DVD of a famous Peter Konwitschny production in which all the action takes place in a high school classroom between hormonal teenagers. Perfect!

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