Tuesday, December 12, 2006

La Scala says Boo to a Goof!

Well, it’s nice to see that classical music audiences are indeed still alive and kicking. While Domingo got away with having his knuckles rapped at the Met, Roberto Alagna - never one to be upstaged – has been firmly kicked out of touch at La Scala. It seems unlikely that his behaviour will be deemed acceptable, let alone reasonable, although there seems to have been little open criticism so far.

Certainly opera singing, being a highly rarefied art, demands qualities seldom found in your average Joe, which might've garnered some sympathy for Alagna’s predicament, were it not for the fact that La Scala is renowned for savaging those who are brave enough to confront its highly cultured and discriminating audience without first eradicating all trace of vocal insecurity or human weakness. [Callas, Pavaroti, Caballe and Fleming all having suffered similar assaults]. Alagna can no more hope to invoke sympathy by walking off the Milanese stage in a petulant huff than a heckled comedian can hope to assuage mockery by breaking down in tears. None the less, the human voice isn’t a machine; and the opera singer, lacking even the small protection that a temperamental mechanical contrivance affords other musicians, must display his or her human frailty to a demanding public in all its full-frontal nakedness. Indeed, part of the appeal and success of opera and theatre is the artist’s ability to reach out from the stage and make intimate human connection with each member of the audience. The utter tedium of televised opera represents the flip side of the same rationale: the electronic medium obfuscates human interaction rendering a pale 2-dimensional representation of the real, live experience.

But the rights and wrongs of Alagna’s behaviour interest me less than the audience’s reaction. Opera aficionados seem to be the sole remaining classical music audience to retain the right of veto. I can’t ever remember hearing booing at an orchestral or chamber music concert [except for the odd occasion when some contemporary work displeased a tiny minority]. Even a London performance of a work by Salonen in which an offstage percussionist knocked over a metre high tam tam, tearing open the scalps of 4 concert goers seated in front, failed to elicit anything but rapturous applause. This is perhaps attributable to the starchy straight-laced dilettantism of British concert-going audiences who I suppose typify my experience. But even here in Paris, de rigueur seal-clapping rhythmic applause at the end of every concert is endemic no matter the quality of the performance. I’d be interested in hearing other opinions – but I’d say that applause is most often a meaningless affectation providing one small window of opportunity for an audience to participate in what is all too often a predominantly passive experience where the overriding power of the social occasion dictates emotive conformity. From this perspective, one might conclude that Alagna ought to be delighted at having elicited a lively, active intuitive emotional response – albeit negative.

Is it reasonable to expect artists to perform to the very highest standard on each and every performance? Is it humanly possible for them to do so? I don’t really think so. Surely we have to acknowledge and accept some risk of disappointment on each occasion - regardless of the ticket price. What we should fear more than error is mediocrity. The pressure to be correct at all costs is one of the most destructive, anti-musical influences on modern performance practice.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Museum Tinguely

Pliable’s reference earlier this week to the Ticinese Swiss architect Mario Botta reminded me of the magnificent Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland. Designed by Botta and built shortly after Jean Tinguely’s death in the early 90s, principally to house the artist’s kinetic sculptures. The museum offers a remarkable sensory experience. Tinguely’s clunky iron sculptures are not only tantalisingly tactile but many, like his Méta-Harmonie works - some of which include a variety of percussion and keyboard instruments amid their riotus construction – are also fascinatingly engaging sonic experiences.
With only 115 000 visitors each year Botta’s architectural space presents a wonderful opportunity to experience Tinguely’s multi-disciplinary art in an uncluttered, clarifying acoustic. His sound-producing machines, although of the most basic mechanical construction, seem compellingly engaging and imperfect compared to the blandness of the high-sheen contemporary sound world to which we are becoming increasingly inured. Long before the conception of Botta’s museum the sounds of many of Tanguely's machine-sculptures were recorded and released on vinyl but unfortunately I’m unable to find any currently available on CD. I'd say such a recording project would be a wonderful way of presenting the artist's work within the museum space of Botta's acoustic design - but then again - no one's asking me.
The museum continues to develop its cross-genre programme linking music and the plastic arts with exhibitions such as Edgard Varèse – Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, which took place earlier this year, as well as the periodic Roche n’ Jazz performances, which also encourage an appreciation of interdisciplinary arts within the museum space.