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Verdi, literally

I’m getting to the end of our La Traviata run at San Francisco Opera.  For a conductor who mainly does symphony work, it has been refreshing and revelatory working on this score.  I can see why Stravinsky gushes about him so much in his Poetics of Music.  There’s something pure about his music: perfectly distilled sounds, perfectly distilled emotion and expression.  But more importantly, there is the beauty and sensuality of the sound itself. Human emotions and foibles and mistakes and failures are transfigured into something glorious and profound.

It’s also amazing to actually conduct a seasoned and accomplished opera orchestra. I love the feeling of each and every one of them listening along with me, ready to go any direction at any time.

And singers, well, it’s just sexy to work with a great singer.  

Beyond this, it’s refreshing to see how much is done in opera that’s not written in the score. Of course this is the result of tradition, and some tradition is bad.  But we don’t run into as much musical literalism here.  A 16th note is not necessarily a 16th note; what is written is not exactly what the singer sings.  Everyone knows this.  I’ve never been a fan of musical fundamentalism: the idea the the written text means literally what it signifies.  There are many musicians who are musical fundamentalists, which is infuriating.  They can’t see beyond the written page, like some religious folks can’t see beyond what is written in the Bible, or some legal scholars can’t see beyond what is written in the Constitution.  This can make Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony sound very bad, for example.

One of the greatest challenges in performing classical music now is getting an orchestra to go beyond the notation, because that’s where the expression really is.