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Subject: Re: what Do we get?
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Date:Wed, 23 Dec 1998 17:29:52 EST
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Leslie Barcza:

<<I would like to make a suggestion.  I think that there are such
things as touchstones of excellence (Matthew Arnold's concept, not
mine), which is to say, examples that we use to define excellence.
They may not be eternal, but they are acknowledged by so many people,
that they do not go in and out of fashion so quickly, if at all. They
may come to be understood as the defining standard of excellence.  And
when someone says they don't get something, it has to be in a context,
vis a vis some other standards of excellence.  If I say I don't get
artist "x", it's because I prefer someone like artist "y".  The most
problematic IDGI statement comes when it addresses a touchstone. And
if, for example, you say you don't get someone acknowledged by the
previous generation as their standard, you may be part of a paradigm
shift(a shift of values) in progress.  Jussi Bjoerling is one of
these.  Call me a curmudgeon, but to someone who says "I don't get
Bjoerling", I would politely say, "then whom do you consider to be an
example of a good voice, at least in terms of vocal production?"  The
best lyric tenor voices I know? Schipa, Valetti, Wunderlich,
Bjoerling, Pavarotti. They're not identical, but there are certain
qualities they have in common.  If someone doesn't get Bjoerling,
what is the standard of excellence implicit in that statement?  Just
as one learnt beauty once upon a time in terms of its adherence to
the classical ideal (ie Greek and Roman sculpture & architecture), I
learned vocal beauty in terms of the ones who moved me first and
most, Bjoerling being the chief touchstone in this area.

But times have surely changed! Both the Bjoerling thread and the
Sutherland thread have in common artists of uncommon vocal prowess,
whose dramatic capabilities never matched their vocal abilities. This
didn't matter so much in 1958; in 1998, it sure does.>>

First, I want to thank Leslie for this eloquent, thought-provoking post.  I
have one small quibble, and it may not even be that.  When Leslie says that
Bjoerling's "dramatic capabilities never matched (his) vocal abilities," I
would agree insofar as stage presence was concerned.  As I recall, Bjoerling
long refused to sing the role of Lohengrin because, as he put it, "who would
ever believe that I would fight a duel of broadswords and win?"
On the other hand, I believe that while Bjoerling was far from an overwhelming
figure on stage, his dramatic abilites, from a purely vocal perspective, were
considerable.  Perhaps Bjoerling demonstrated more temperament in performance
than in the recording studio, but I think that places him in good company with
many, if not most, of the great singers of this century.  I can think of such
"in-performance" recordings as Bjoerling's 1947 Romeo, mid-50s Manon Lescaut,
or late-50s Cavalleria (all from the Met), each of which reveal a singer with
considerable artistic fire, not to mention of course, the exquisite voice and
admirable style.
These examples are not meant to be comprehensive, but in listening to them, I
feel privileged to listen to an artist who satisfies not just as a great
singer, but a great singing-actor.  But then, such terms shouldn't be mutually
exclusive.
Happy holidays.
Ken Meltzer

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