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Review: ‘Wozzeck’ at Deutsche Oper Berlin Misses The Mark

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Which came first, the concept or the opera?

This is the question I kept asking myself through Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of Wozzeck at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Having been frequently presented in Berlin over the past few years, this presentation is, admittedly, up against some stiff competition, but not having seen any of those stagings myself, I was going in fresh, curious if I might finally experience a production I liked. Alas.

Keeping in mind what I’d written about Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and how Regie can and frequently does divide opinion, Wozzeck is one of those works that is divisive by its very nature. It invites abstract production because of its entirely abstract nature — the work itself, through its score and story and frequent use of Sprechgesang, resists the idea of tradition, purposely poking, prodding, and sometimes happily eviscerating the entire concept. Creative choices can sometimes thrive in and around such works, and yet, I have yet to see a live performance of Wozzeck that completely satisfies; alas, last evening’s experience at Deutsche Oper  Berlin did nothing in altering this stymied state of music affairs.

Berg’s opera is based on the play Woyzeck, and though it was left incomplete by author Georg Büchner (who died in 1837), it remains a highly influential work, particularly within the German theatre world. So too Berg’s Wozzeck within a classical music corollary; even now, a century after its composition, the work remains revolutionary for its whole-hearted embrace of atonality. Solidly resisting all the predictable sounds and techniques which had dominated Western classical music (along with standard operatic forms) up to that point, the opera, written between 1914 and 1922 and premiered in Berlin, went on to enjoy immense success across Europe before it was labelled “degenerate art” by the Nazis in 1933. It is, as Britannica tidily puts it, “a dark story of madness and murder,” its titular character a soldier stationed in a town near to a military barracks in the early 19th century; an unfaithful wife, an illegitimate child, medical experiments, and murder are all part of the narrative which unfolds over 15 scenes, spread across three acts. It is, in a word, haunting; within Wozzeck‘s score can be heard the oncoming horror of the First World War, the breaking point of the social divides within late 19th century/early 20th century Europe, the desperation of people in an unforgiving place — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually. It is a deeply affecting portrait of alienation, a trait various productions have attempted to underline, amplify, and explore, with varying results, since its first production in 1925.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Tandberg places the action in the early/mid 20th century, in, as the program notes, the interior of a coffee house near the Oslo Royal Castle, on or around National Day in Norway, May 17th. The work opens with Wozzeck (Johan Reuter) and the Captain (Burkhard Ulrich) debating morality, though viewers will clearly note the line of soldiers with their pants down as Wozzeck tends to (ostensibly shaves) them; he later bends over for an examination himself. The carefully sterile set design, by Erlend Birkeland, reveals a precise geometry of repression, with square school-style tables in a canteen-like space framed by more boxes: a long bar, imposing doors and windows, where things are seen but remotely revealed, not even when soldiers can be seen frolicking and stripping naked. The scientific specimens the Doktor (Seth Carico) looks at through his microscope are projected via a tidy white circle upstage, which later drips with color, a display of fragility and cruelty at once. These are striking images, to be sure, but feel oddly distant to the work and its concerns. Those twin concepts — fragility and cruelty — and the way they interact, are vital to knowing and appreciating the life (inner and outer) of the central character, yet they are never explored. Wozzeck and the other characters are so smartly attired, it’s as if the subtext of destitution (so closely connected to that fragile-cruel dance) doesn’t exist at all. Surreal free-flows of ideas are fine, but the ones here have been placed not in service of the drama, but before it, which short-changes both the characters and our sense of them.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

This emphasis is most clearly expressed in the use of video. Tandberg, who previously directed Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Bizet’s Carmen at the Deutsche Oper, presents each of the fifteen scenes that make up Wozzeck as pseudo-vignettes, tenuously (and tediously) divided by the closing and reopening of a black curtain, onto which is projected an immense, black-and-white close-up video of the face of its title character, blinking and silent. Rather than being an insightful and excitingly confrontational choice, the technique, in its insistent repetition, draws attention to itself and becomes a frustrating distraction that kills the much-needed integration of drama, characters, and music; Berg’s score becomes a backdrop to an aesthetic, or series of aesthetics, that creates a disconnect between score, story, and an integrated experience of each.

It doesn’t help that musically this Wozzeck seemed over-dynamic and yet frustratingly gutless. Musical motifs for the Doktor, Captain, Drum Major (Thomas Blondelle), and Marie (Elena Zhidkova), while prominent, were not clear in delineating characterizations within Deutsche Oper General Music Director Donald Runnicles’s grey reading, which had an unfortunate and consistent tendency toward limpid tempos and lack of coloration. Wozzeck’s motifs were jaggedly unfocused and suffered further by being diffused against Tandberg’s over-enthusiastic use of curtain/video. Any sense of vocal nuance baritone Reuter might have attempted to bring to form a more satisfying and complete characterization was washed out by the sheer volume coming from the pit, though baritone Carico, as a demented Doktor, and Zhidkova, with her plummy mezzo tones, fared better. The surreal tone of the production, while brave, added little if any value to the experience and understanding of the opera. Alas, all was also washed out to sea, drowning in more than the blood that flowed, mercilessly, in the final scene.

‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ In Berlin: “The Love Is In Me”

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Sarah Grether (Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Inner questions ran rampant during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) at Staatsoper Berlin this past Sunday. There was only one gazelle depicted onstage, but a veritable herd presented themselves with every moment, each one leaping with questions: what do the unborn children represent? Why do they matter? Should they symbolize something else, and if so, what?

These are the questions at the heart of this opera, and in German director Claus Guth’s production, the questions became meditations. Strauss’s 1919 opera, with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a symbolic tale of two worlds haunted by absence – namely of that ultimate symbol of family, children, but also, it must be noted, of mothers; the “woman” of the title, the ethereal Empress (whose mother is entirely absent), seeks her “shadow” (symbolizing children) in the world of humans, specifically via a Dyer, Barak, and his Wife, otherwise her husband (The Emperor) will be turned to stone. Guth stages the piece as the dream of The Empress, a vision that awakens into the consciousness of a need for her own inner revolution —and evolution. In many ways the production is an operatic Rorschach test of sorts (with ink blots in the program too), tied to themes of culture, family, experience, lived circumstance and accumulated moments. What do we carry from our families into our adult lives? How do we reconcile being the “shadow” of another, and casting our own? What responsibility do we bear to one another, and, just as importantly, to ourselves and the expression of our needs?

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Iréne Theorin (Barak’s wife), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Wolfgang Koch (Barak). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

A co-production with Teatro Alla Scala di Milano (where it was presented in 2012) and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (staged in 2014), the award-winning presentation, first presented in Berlin in April 2017, features fantastical elements and beautiful, Expressionist-style designs by Christian Schmidt. Instead of merely presenting pretty pictures, Guth wisely uses the assorted imagery to underline Frau‘s thematic resonance, allowing one to more clearly recognize and accept human fallibility, especially within the delicate arena of relationship.  The dynamics inherent those relationships is squarely the focus, with very little romanticizing despite Strauss’s rich score; it is a world fraught with  miscommunication, dysfunction, and deeply repressed fury. The length of the work (roughly four hours, with two intermissions), combined with a very intense musicality and highly allegorical narrative, means it can be a somewhat daunting work for newcomers, but the rewards, musically and otherwise, are immense. My premiere experience seeing Die Frau ohne Schatten live at the Met in 2013 marked a major turning point — creatively, emotionally, spiritually. It started what, in retrospect, I might term my own inner revolution (and evolution), still unfolding in leaps and bounds, and will always occupy a deeply personal place where art and life meet, though five years on, I still find myself swimming in the oceans of questions it inspires.

The role of offspring, the meaning of a missing “shadow,” the length and intensity of questing for one, and, as ever, the role family plays in that quest — these questions are all very much underlined in Guth’s smart and surprisingly resonant production. I write “surprisingly” because, while I enjoy much of the so-called “Regie” style of direction, it doesn’t always move me emotionally, though I recognize emotions don’t always have to come into play in order to have a good night at the opera. His production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Salzburg in 2006) had some interesting ideas to be sure, but left me cold, something I felt strange about considering the warmth of Mozart’s score. Barrie Kosky’s very unique take on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (premiered at Bayreuth last year) was hailed by many for its inventiveness, yet others vowed after seeing it that they would never again return to the annual Wagner festival. So while some deeply love Regie and think it is vital in moving opera forwards, others are convinced it is destroying the sense of wonder and fantasy that is part and parcel of opera.

Frau staatsoper

Paul Lorenger (Black Gazelle/Keikobad) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Die Frau ohne Schatten as realized here challenges the latter view entirely; it is very full of wonder, very much inspired by fairytales, and very beautiful to look at. But as I wrote earlier, that opulence is not for its own hollow sake; it isn’t simply pleasing costumes and sets. The design here serves a wider purpose, and in the world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, it is to underline the deep divides between the archetypal figures of men and women, and the healing, regenerative power of love, a love that may or may not manifest itself (in the form of physical offspring) but is experienced within one’s self, and through another second, separate self. Recognizing and accepting the division of a second self, and working toward unity (and it is work, as the opera emphasizes) is a worthy endeavor, though it comes with great risk. Our hearts might freeze in the process (or turn to stone); we might use these roads of discovery for nefarious and selfish ends; we may never be entirely free of the shaping our parents gave us. As Guth notes in the program, Keikobad (the Empress’s father) “clings to his only child — through a prison of determination — and the child does not manage to look behind the mask of power or tear it down to recognize her own emotions.”

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Sarah Grether (White Gazelle), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Michaela Schuster (The Nurse). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Equally, the role of the Nurse here is given extra prominence, opening up experiences, to paraphrase Guth’s notes, which the Empress could never reach alone, and “in this way, the nurse gives her her shadow. (She) is a catalyst, a primal form of dynamic energy, beyond all moral standards.” Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s vivacious performance as The Nurse was a highly charismatic portrait of ever-tightening control; while the character is certainly fascinating (and is, in my view, given rather the short end of the stick in the end), her portrayal here doesn’t attempt to gloss over the questionable power dynamics between her and the opera’s other two principle female players. Guth frequently places her standing over, above, or at the edges of a scene, arms folded, chin up, hovering, a silent dance of control and manipulation; not for nothing does she sport black wings to match the coterie of similarly-winged, top-hat-wearing gents who wield power in mysterious if highly felt ways.

frau staatsoper

Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (The Emperor). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Schuster’s Nurse, Camilla Nylund’s Empress, and Elena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife, created a powerful holy trinity that was implied via creative direction and design choices, noticeably through the contrasting use of textures: rock, glass, wood; bone, fur, skin. There are many seen and unseen forces within the realm of human relating, as Guth points out, and many of them involve an experience of the sensual which is central to an experiencing the spiritual (and vice-versa). The two here go hand-in-hand, as they should, something clearly reflected in Strauss’s luscious score, with luxurious writing for strings, percussion, and what I call low-b(l)ow sounds (basses, horns). Baritone Michael Volle, as Barak, and tenor Simon O’Neill, as the Emperor, both represent flip sides of a similar spirit (and a similar physicality certainly helps drive this point home), an archetypal male presence torn in two, silent yet mute, inert yet active. Again, Guth’s staging emphasized the multifaceted layers of intimate relations, and the quest to find, form, and notably evolve an identity within a traditional framework that frequently demands the subsuming of individual needs. The curved set housing Barak and his Wife in separate pseudo-cells at one point was a simple, powerful image, deeply symbolic and highly memorable, like so many of the moments in this multilayered production. Toward the end of the opera, the Empress proclaims that “the love is in me, and it is enough,” before being surrounded by tiny gazelles. Are they real? Is she dreaming? Are they actual children? Does it matter? The questions are in us, as Guth reminds in this production, and they are enough.

Sir George Benjamin Wows With the Berlin Philharmonic

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Musikfest Berlin 2018 (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

Attending the Berlin Musikfest is quickly becoming something of a habit. Since my first experience with the event last year, I’ve become captivated by its varied and very rich programming, which features local organizations (including the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, the Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester), plus a number of important chamber groups, vocal outfits, and an assortment of stellar visiting orchestras (including the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Boston Symphony Orchestra recently). What I love about Musikfest is that it is so unapologetically varied; there is no sense of needing to appeal to a so-called “mainstream” base, because the term simply doesn’t apply. Thus the programming is what one might term adventurous, exploratory, just plain smart — and features many modern and/or living composers, like the concert given by the Berlin Phil this past weekend, led by conductor/composer (and Composer in Residence for the 2018-2019 season) Sir George Benjamin. Saturday’s performance was a chewy, thoughtful presentation that examined notions of time, impermanence, and various states of perception. Like so much of the programming at Musikfest, the concert was a thought-provoking examination of how we experience music, in time and space, according to personal and historical perceptions, and how we live in, around, and outside of sound itself. 

The program opened with the work of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. Though he passed away in early 2016, Boulez was easily one of the most influential artists in twentieth century music. His experimental, and frequently ground-breaking approach helped to shape so very many  composers and artists (Benjamin included) who followed. “Cummings ist der Dichter” (“Cummings is the poet”) is a 1970 work that imitates through sound what the poet ee cummings attempted to achieve in text.  As Anselm Cybinski’s fine program notes remind us, “(p)erception is broken up into multiple perspectives; the possibilities for reading and understanding increase.” While the work can be jagged, there is a majestic beauty at work, an undeniable forward momentum despite “its gestures seem(ing) discontinuous and spontaneous.” Benjamin thoughtfully emphasized these multiple perspectives through careful (indeed, loving) emphasis on the relationship between harps, strings, and voices (especially female) via ChorWerk Ruhr. Their melismatic vocalizing was hugely complemented by the tremulous bass work of Janne Saksala, which made for a gorgeous fluidity that nicely contrasted the many crunchy chords and dissonant jolts. Benjamin himself has a gentle approach that is simultaneously intuitive and narrative-driven, equal parts heart and head, perhaps reflecting his own operatic considerable (and rightly celebrated) history. This gentle force would shape and define the program overall, becoming especially discernible in the final work of the evening by Benjamin himself.

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

Cédric Tiberghien performs with the Berlin Philharmonic as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018 (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

Before then, the audience was treated to a ravishing performance of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D major for the left hand, with French pianist Cédric Tiberghien. The piece, written between 1929 and 1930, was commissioned by concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had suffered grave injury in the First World War, losing his right arm as a result. The concerto is a fiercely virtuosic work which Ravel himself described as being in “only one movement” though its slow-fast-slow structure and allusions to various other works (some by the composer himself) make it far more thoughtful than its title might suggest. The opening, as sonically luxuriant as any from Ravel’s 1912 “symphonie chorégraphique” Daphnis et Chloé, featured beautiful bass and bassoon work, with Benjamin emphasizing sensuous tone and phrasing. The build to Tiberghien’s virtuosic entrance dripped with drama; Benjamin pulled a sparkling ebullience from the orchestra, with ringing strings and boisterous if well-modulated brass and woodwinds. A syncopated section featuring violas, cellos, and bassoons could so easily have been played cartoonishly (and in fact, frequently is), but the maestro avoided any easy sonic trappings, focusing on the probing heart beneath the plucky lines, with the piano as a blended and equal partner. 

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner PhilharmonikerGeorges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin with Cédric Tiberghien (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

In this he and the orchestra were matched by Tiberghien’s energetic playing, his laser focus never obscuring or erasing his highly poetic approach. The young pianist seemed less concerned with showing off his (clear) virtuosic talent than with coaxing color, modulation, a refined texture (clarified to a remarkable degree in his encore, “Oiseaux tristes”, the second movement of Ravel’s piano cycle Miroirs). The clear sonic references contained within the Concerto to Ravel’s famous “Boléro” (premiere in 1928), as well as to Gershwin works (especially “Rhapsody in Blue”, premiered in 1924) were made clear enough without belaboring the obvious; Benjamin emphasized percussion (as he did throughout the evening), with an insistent pacing echoed by cellos and bass, making the sound more akin to a grinding war machine than flamenco or jazz, a clear reference to the history of the piece’s commissioner and first performer. 

The contemplative nature of the performance also underlined the temporal nature of the sound experience in and of itself, and how it might be altered with the use of only one limb; such contemplations around temporality, perception, and one’s direct experience of sound would emerge as a dominant theme of the evening, highlighted in Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds for 12-part female choir and orchestra, written in 1972-73, and a reference to a lecture given by Karl Popper in 1972 in which the Viennese philosopher juxtaposes (as Ligeti himself wrote) “exactly determined (“clocks”) versus global, statistically measurable (“clouds”) occurrences of nature. In my piece, however, the clocks and clouds are poetic images. The periodic, polyrhythmic sound-complexes melt into diffuse, liquid states and vice versa.”

Like much of the vocal writing done by Claude Vivier (whose traces here will be noticeable for fans of the Quebecois composer’s work) the twelve voices sing, according to the program notes, “in an imaginary language with a purely musical function.” And so spindly strings contrasted with the sheet-like vocals of ChorWerk Ruhr members, before roles reversed and chirping vocal lines were set against (and yet poetically with) steely-smooth strings.  Benjamin held the tension between the worlds of voice and instrument with operatic grace, creating and recreating a sort of narrative with every passing note fading in and out as naturally as breathing. Interloping woodwinds and clarinets brought to mind the image of an Impressionist painting being projected in a darkened planetarium, against a backdrop of slow-moving galaxies. This was immensely moving performance, at once as emotional as it was intellectual.

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker Georges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Musikfest Berlin (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

The audience was given a good chance to reset heart, mind, and ears between the Ligeti work and the final piece of the evening, Benjamin’s “Palimpsests”, written in 2002 and dedicated to Pierre Boulez (who also led its premiere). Another stage rearrangement (many were needed this evening) allowed for numerous basses at one side, a line of violinists at the front, and good numbers of brass, woodwinds, plus three percussionists directly in front of Benjamin. The set-up, compact but equally expansive, allowed Benjamin’s titular layers (and their related, possibility-ladden connotations) to come in waves around and outwards and around once again, with clear references to the works of both Boulez as well as Olivier Messiaen, Benjamin’s former teacher. Expressive violin lines here act as a quasi-choir; at Saturday’s performance, there was a small but lovely moment between Concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa and violinist Luiz Filipe Coelho, in an almost-dancing lyrical duet which brought to mind Benjamin’s own edict that he wanted the piece to be “anti-romantic and yet passionate.”

Despite the sheer muscularity of sound particular to the Berlin Philharmonic violin section, Benjamin carefully controlled and shaped for maximum dramatic (and vocal) effect, placing just as much care on their twisting lines with harp, a highly cinematic and charged series of moments which recalled the sounds of film composer Bernard Herrmann. Impressively angry horn sounds were the loudest volume heard all night, complementing a stellar percussion section, whom Benjamin made sure to recognize during bows at the close. The gentle force which had opened the program now closed it, with thoughtful grace and a heartfelt elegance. In a current interview in New Yorker magazine, Benjamin says of his childhood that “I loved playing the piano, but it was the orchestra I went to see […] I loved the variety of instruments, the energy, and the source of drama through sound.” That drama was realized in this thought-provoking Musikfest program.

Kirill Petrenko Exceeds Expectations With The Berlin Philharmonic

petrenko Berlin Philharmonic

Kirill Petrenko conducts the 2018-2019 season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo: (c) Monika Rittershaus

It’s hard to leave one’s mental baggage aside when approaching things we feel strongly about. One brings a grab bag full of expectations, consciously or not, which frequently weigh down perceptions and any new experiences. When it comes to beloved works of art, one either approaches with an expectation of ecstasy or a suitcase of cynicism; rarely are there any in-betweens these days, let alone room for nuance, contemplation, or surprise.

As Kirill Petrenko so amply demonstrated in the season opener with the Berlin Philharmonic this past Friday night, it’s precisely these things — nuance, contemplation, surprise — that make the experience of live music so enriching. The current Generalmusikdirektor of the Bayerische Staatsoper and chief conductor designate of the Berlin Philharmonic (he formally starts next fall) is renowned for his gifts in fusing the elegant and the inexplicable, the artful and the soulful, the epic and the intimate. I used the word “orgasmic” on social media in a rather futile (in retrospect) attempt to capture the heart-pounding excitement of the 2018-2019 season opening performance, but really, that word in all its modern, explosive connotations, does not remotely capture its magic. What made this performance so very special was that Petrenko took essentially well-known repertoire and didn’t churn it out for easy effect, but plumbed several layers of sonic depth out of a deep and very clear love of the scores, the music, and the art form; he took the audience to new shores with a gentle confidence, using his passion as a passage through which we eagerly followed.  

Petrenko Berlin Philharmonic

Kirill Petrenko conducts the 2018-2019 season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo: (c) Monika Rittershaus

Opening with Strauss’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan, which paints episodes from the exploits of the legendary figure (based on work by poet Nikolaus Lenau), Petrenko carefully highlighted shimmering strings and bold brass section, counterbalanced by delightfully pensive winds. Albrecht Mayer’s poetically plaintive oboe work, his looping sonic interplay with Stefan Dohr’s lyrical horn and the rounded tones of Wenzel Fuchs’ clarinet were all kept in tight balance by Petrenko’s watchful baton. To use an apt phrase penned by Guardian critic Martin Kettle (writing about Petrenko leading the Bavarian State Orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth this this past June), the sound “was never permitted to meander into reverie” — which might bump up against a few expectations sonically, but earned a greater emotional payoff by the piece’s end, one less steeped in sentimentality and closer to quiet grace.

That grace continued in a lovely, thoughtful performance of Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), a tone poem completed in 1889. Petrenko kept a strident tempo, providing a sonically fascinating sense of momentum; this wasn’t a race to death so much as an inevitable countdown stripped bare, once again, of sentimentality, but with a rich and textured spirit. Concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto displayed a lovely virtuosic tone in his solos, as did flautist Emmanuel Pahud in the piece’s first section, with Petrenko never resting too long in pensive solemnity; he cleverly accentuated a palpable partnership of basses, percussion, and brass to underscore the passing of one phase of mortality to the next. The result was not a clanging, cliche-ridden sound implying transcendence at the close, but rather, a question, a contemplation, a deep joy.

Petrenkp Berlin Philharmonic

Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold

This joy was brought to the fore in the concert’s second half, which featured Beethoven’s famous Seventh Symphony. Ladden as it is with so many sonic expectations (everyone seems to have a favorite bit and thinks they know the best version), Petrenko threw the roadmaps away and blazed his own trail — not with a storm of fortissimos or percussive overuse, but with smart phrasing and energetic interplay between sections. It made for a meaty, mighty listen that allowed one to experience the work anew. Momentum in the first movement (Poco Sostenuto) was created via lilting tempos and carefully modulated exchanges between strings and woodwinds; this led, with stunning elegance, to a gorgeous rendering of the movement’s theme, first performed by Pahud, and then echoed with boisterous intention by the orchestra. The work’s ties to military history were made unmissable (Beethoven conducted the 1813 premiere himself as part of a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau), with Petrenko leading the charge with brisk tempos and evocative sounds that called to mind the clomp of horse hoofs and the dizzying speed of a charge. A watchful percussion section, working in tandem with basses, produced a lusciously fulsome sound that  avoided loud-Ludwig/big-boom-Beethoven cliches. Such an elegant approach went entirely against whatever sonic expectations one might bring — Petrenko seemed determined to embrace the score’s inherent lyricism while offering a fascinating, tapestry-like array of colors and textures.

The famous second movement (Allegretto) saw more than a few swaying heads in the formally-attired opening night crowd; as with the Strauss, the movement was firmly not played for sentimental effect, and was taken at a refreshingly (if not overfast) brisk pace. Petrenko cultivated efficient momentum through strings, swelling horns and percussion, yet never once wallowed in a too-rich sound, keeping very tight modulation on pacing, volume, and texture. He displayed a great balance of drama, lyricism, intellectualism, and contemplation, attending to each with care while never abandoning the other in the slightest. And so we heard the call response moments between brass and strings in a lively sort of pas-de-deux that brought to mind similar structures in the program’s first half, and indeed, in the musical lines from a production of Parsifal Petrenko conducted earlier this year in Munich.

Petrenko Berlin Philharmonic

Kirill Petrenko conducts the 2018-2019 season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo: (c) Monika Rittershaus

The Berlin Philharmonic’s season opener on Friday evening was indeed full of opera, though not one word was sung. The intensity of the performance was counterbalanced by a thoughtfulness that never veered into didactic intellectualizing but rather, used joy as a guiding principle. Each section within the orchestra became a kind of new and different voice, nay, each individual musician had their voice carried, shaped, blended, formed and reformed again, within distinct voices forming a perfect whole. No over-intellectualized approach fraught with ideological or historical baggage, but a concert filled with light, warmth, and life. Any and all expectations were thrown out the window, and it was magical. The Berlin Philharmonic are currently on tour with this program, along with soloist Yuja Wang. Catch them if you can.

Interview: Singing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion In Berlin

Passion Cantus Domus

Performers at the Cantus Domus presentation of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Easter Weekend inspires reflections on awakenings, growth, a sense of the new and fresh emerging at last. There are a number of works within classical music that deal directly with Easter, Handel’s Messiah being perhaps the most famous (programming it over the Christmas season is forever a pet peeve), but just as equally Bach’s Passions, which are widely presented and performed in halls across Europe in the weeks and months leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

During a trip to Berlin earlier this month, I attended a very special performance of St. Matthew Passion, one which asked something more than solitary contemplation; rather, the Baroque work conjured unique meditations on the convergence of heaven and earth, sound and silence, spirit and flesh, through the act of actually singing it. Cantus Domus, a choral group based in Berlin who specialize in conceptual presentations, have a number of illustrious performances under their belts, performing an array of repertoire that spans from the Renaissance to today.  Formed in 1996, the group has performed works by Bizet, Mahler, Mendelssohn, and Bach, and have also enjoyed numerous appearances at the annual German open-air music fest Haldern Pop Festival. Lets you think they only work within the classical idiom, think again: Cantus Domus have collaborated with a good number of contemporary music artists including Bon Iver, The Slow Show, and most famously, Damien Rice. For the recent presentation of St. Matthew Passion, they worked with renowned period instrument troupe Capella Vitalis Berlin, creating a community event in which the act of singing became a salute to its original presentation, as well as a beautiful way of fusing theatricality with spirituality.

Bach portrait

Johann Sebastian Bach, aged 61, in a famous portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. (Photo via)

The Passion, written in 1727, was, as conductor and musicologist  Joshua Rifkin rightly notes, “the longest and most elaborate work that (Bach) ever composed. It would appear that he saw significant phase of his life drawing to a close and took the occasion to produce a work that would synthesise and surpass all that he had previously done in the realm of liturgical music.” It only began to gain in popularity a full eight decades after Bach’s death (in 1750), thanks to the efforts of a young Felix Mendelssohn, who presented the work in Berlin in 1829. It is one of numerous sacred pieces Bach wrote during his lengthy tenure as director of religious music at Thomaskirsche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig. Based on the Gospel of Matthew, Bach worked with poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander) for the libretto, which explores the final days of Jesus, ending with Christ’s burial. It features a fascinating interplay of musical writing between four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) and orchestra which features, among many creative  musical choices, two lead violins in the string section. “The St. Matthew Passion, the final glory of one of the most productive periods in Bach’s life,” writes Rifkin, “holds a special place in his artistic legacy.”

At the end of February, Cantus Domus held a public rehearsal before the main event, which I attended one cold, bright Saturday morning. This was, I quickly realized, more than a jovial sing-a-long; these were serious music-lovers from every walk of life engaging in what was clearly perceived as an act of commitment and consecration. The act of singing, with a roomful of strangers, in a language I don’t speak, reading music — an act I had long believed to be a thing I wasn’t smart enough to do with any real talent — was a deeply moving one. The formal performance one week later magnified this feeling; sitting in Wisniewski’s wonderfully intimate chamber hall,  encircled by ever-mobile performers and an enthralled public, the music was a communal prayer; the voices of those beside, behind, and around me created transcendence which defies easy description. The strong vibrations of breaths and voices through seats, floors, hands, paper… was strange, shocking, beautiful, and the overall experience was and remains one of the most precious and profound ones of my life.

score St. Matthew Passion

The cover to a special edition of the score to St. Matthew Passion. (Score / photo: Bärenreiter)

I spoke with two people from Cantus Domus earlier this month in Berlin. Ralf Sochaczewsky is conductor and Artistic Director of Cantus Domus; he has a long list of credits to his name in both the classical and contemporary music worlds, including gigs with the Komische Oper, the Bolshoi Theater, the London Philharmonic, and the Konzerthaus Berlin Orchestra. Carolin Rindfleisch is a member of the Cantus Domus board and a singer herself; she came up with the presentation concept for St. Matthew Passion here and was its dramaturge. We had a wide-ranging chat just before rehearsals about the work, its influences, and why presenting it, with a full score but without tricks or gimmicks, opens the door to something very special.

Where did the idea come from to do an interactive performance of  the St. Matthew Passion?

Caroline: We’ve done something like this before, with the St. John Passion in 2014. When Bach wrote the Passions, people knew the chorales very, very well — they were part of daily life; people knew the texts by heart, the melodies by heart. They were musical elements that brought everyone together. Even though people didn’t sing it, they were involved immediately because they knew it so well, and it’s something which is hard to recreate nowadays because most people don’t have this kind of religious involvement or knowledge of texts or melodies with such immediacy anymore. So if you invite them to rehearse with you, and to sing them during the concert, we hope to create the same kind of involvement, which was the original purpose of the chorales.

St. Matthew Passion Bach

A page from the score of St. Matthew Passion in Bach’s own hand. (Photo: via)

This music is associated with a very sacred time on the Christian calendar. What’s it like to bring it into secular world now?

Carolin: I think the focus might shift a bit. Our lives are not focused so much on religion, it’s not part of our daily lives that much — but the story behind (this work) has so many different levels and dimensions, and so many different things people can relate to, even if they can’t relate to the religious aspect of it. It’s also a story of how groups and individuals relate to each other, how people treat each other, how relationships between individuals develop, and what problems there may be. There are so many levels people can relate to. If you ask people to sing the chorales with you, then they have to relate in a different way to the piece — they have to position themselves. If you say something out loud, you can’t distance yourself from it that much anymore, you have to think, “How does this relate to me? What am I singing here?” If you only listen, it’s much easier to cut yourself off from a part that doesn’t agree with your worldview — but if you say it loud yourself, you have to think, “What is my position within this piece?”

Singing is such an intimate act that makes some people self-conscious — they think, “I can’t sing!” and moreover, “I can’t possibly sing Bach!”

Ralf: You will!

What do you think the audience gets out of these kinds of experiences? 

Ralf: We did a similar (singing) project four years ago with the St. John Passion, and what the audience told us after the concert was that they were deeply involved. One woman told me that her relationship to her religion changed because of the reflection and the meditation while singing — it touched her so deeply in a way she couldn’t believe. So I think maybe many people will experience this at a deep level of feeling and believing.

Carolin: It’s not “Look at me singing!” — and even if you don’t want to sing yourself, if people are sitting all around you participating it creates an atmosphere where you can’t but relate to it in a way.

St. Matthew's Passion score

A portion of the program from the Cantus Domus presentation of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

How do you keep the drama within the score? Is it important?

Ralf: Absolutely. I think the person of Judas is maybe the most interesting part in this Passion. When you perform it you have to find a position about the guilt of Judas: is he maybe a hero? Is he maybe the Edward Snowden of this? What the music says and what the libretto says is a bit ambivalent. So we will try to find a solution to make later what Judas means to us, but…

Carolin: The Passions have a lot of changing places, between intimacy and public life. You can make the public experience those different atmospheres by how close you get to them or how much you concentrate the action into one corner, or spread it into all over, especially in the Philharmonie Chamber Music Hall — it’s such a nice room. You have the stage and the places where the audience sits, but you also have places you can position soloists at different corners of the room, and make visible how close or how far they are, and how they relate to each other, and what’s really powerful about working with a choir scenically onstage is that if even thirty or, say, sixty people do a very tiny little thing at the same time, it’s incredibly powerful but still subtle. You don’t have to have someone tearing his heart out…

Declaiming?

Carolin: Exactly, but you have sixty people that maybe do a specific gesture at the same time, and the whole focus shifts into another direction, and this is giving little guiding posts to where the action moves in the room, so we move very little, but the action shifts and the focus shifts in the room, and this can be a really interesting way of preserving the drama while not really acting.

philharmonie kammermusiksaal

The Philharmonie Chamber Hall is encircled by performers at the close of Cantus Domus’s St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Ralf: We just have small hints! Also you find interesting things in the music. For example, the opening of the second part is text from the Song of Solomon, sung by the choir: “Where has my Jesus gone?” The outer part is relating to Petrus, so you have a quite direct connotation it’s Petrus who’s talking. But in the earlier version (of the work) it was sung by the bass soloist, the aria section that is, which is related to Judas, which is interesting. I think it was meant by Bach, in the early version, that it’s Judas who sings, “Where has my Jesus gone?” And the chorus sings the Song of Solomon, it’s a very intimate and like … a love song. In many places in the bible, it’s said Judas was the most beloved of Jesus, and I think this is something which is really interesting in the relationship between Jesus and Judas, which gives a different color to this man, who in our perception is a very bad man.

Song of Solomon Passion

A portion of St. Matthew Passion. (Text via)

We even have the term “the Judas kiss” because of it.

Ralf: Yes but even this kiss, it’s still a kiss!

… which some believe is the ultimate betrayal of intimacy.

Ralf: I’m not sure that this is the only way of interpreting this kiss. Bernard of Clairvaux, a very important clerical figure and one of the most important mystics, preached about the Song of Solomon, especially the symbol of the kiss, and many texts in the Passion from the chorales go back to Clairvaux. There’s a close net of mysticism in (the Song of Solomon). So the Judas kiss, in a way, when you look at it from the point of view of Clairvaux and directly after that, within this Solomonic love song, it means something different.

Caravaggio Christ painting

“The Taking of Christ”, Caravaggio, 1602. (Photo: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

I’ve always found inclusion of portions of the Song of Solomon sends a message about the links between spirituality, sensuality, intimacy, and meditation — things that can get lost because of the tendency to present spiritual experience within a strictly defined religious framework.

Ralf: If you look deeper into (St. Matthew Passion) you will find real human beings who existed in the 18th century, and who exist in the same way today. And Judas needs to betray him, otherwise the story couldn’t work: no cross, no Christianity. It’s clear Judas has to do it, in a way, it’s fate. But on the other hand, you have the people and they do not understand, they condemn him, many people condemn. It’s a really interesting relationship. Also, Petrus is a very modern person, he’s very strong, a powerful man, but in the important moment, he’s very weak and he has fear, and he does not know how to behave. He’s uncertain what to do, which we all recognize. So this is the aim of our performance, that you understand while singing and reflecting, reflecting while singing, that you are Petrus… maybe you are also Judas…  maybe you are also Pilatus, who washes his hands like, ”I have nothing to do with this.”

Through singing, you taking these human dimensions and complexities into your own body. Do you think you ask a lot of your audiences?

Carolin: Yes, we know we do, but I think it’s a really good thing to do. You don’t have to do it all the time, there are performances that are more relaxed and have a more loose connection to the audience, but it’s refreshing to ask an audience to commit.

berlin philharmonie kammermusiksaal

The interior of the Philharmonie Chamber Music Hall, Berlin. (Photo: Heribert Schindler, via)

 

It’s unique to find a presentation of a Baroque work that asks its audience to have a direct relationship with both the score and its spiritual subtext without feeling the need to use tricks or gimmicks.

Caroline: There’s a point which is really important for us as a choir: we have the feeling that with every project we do we grow a little, because we demand something we haven’t done before or haven’t done in this exact way. And this is something you can offer to audience as well in this fashion: you demand a lot of them. But if you, as an audience member, are willing to commit to it, it gives you something you hadn’t experienced before.

Review: Schubert & Strauss From A Ballsy Berlin Phil

Berlin Phil

Baritone Gerald Finley and the Berlin Phliharmonic led by conductor Daniel Harding, March 1, 2018. (Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold)

Musical works which take the concept of nature as a theme are deceptive. There’s a perception they’re somehow full of soft and lovely, full of peace and tranquil sounds. Ludwig van Beethoven reminded listeners, however, of the terrible force of nature in his Sixth Symphony (nicknamed”the Pastoral”), with its dramatic, stormy scenes  in the Fourth Movement holding particularly memorable power. Titled “Gewitter, Sturm” (Thunder, Storm) it serves as a useful counterbalance.

Something very similar exists with Strauss’s Eine Alepnsinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64; its musical splendor allows for an abundance of sonic intensity  in which the orchestra can reveal a darker side of the nature it simultaneously worships. This doesn’t necessarily always translate into minor key transitions but it does, through the inventive (and expensive) integration of percussion, brass, and woodwinds, paint vivid pictures in the minds of its listeners. So while Strauss’ work is not at all musically incongruent, the work, fifty minutes in total and requiring an immense number of musicians (125 at least), is a study in contrasts, and in knowing how to use such intensity on a very large scale.

Gerald Finley Berlin Phil

Baritone Gerald Finley takes bows following his performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, led by guest conductor Daniel Harding.(Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold)

The Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of guest conductor Daniel Harding, explored these ideas in a the program featuring the songs of Franz Schubert for its first half. Baritone Gerald Finley, coming off a busy schedule of firsts (I interviewed him for Opera Canada magazine), was in vocally splendid form, delivering Schubert’s  works (in arrangements by Reger, Berlioz, and Brahms) with gorgeous delicacy and steely force. His “Erlkönig” (based on a very creepy Goethe poem about a child assailed by the supernatural “Erl King”) was particularly striking for the character-rich modulations Finley exercised, demonstrating unforced flexibility and a deep sensitivity to the material, from his beautiful and thoughtful rendering of “Memnon” to his exquisite performance of “Du bist die Ruh’, D.776, in an orchestration by Anton Webern, as an encore. Finley never lingered too long in a phrase or indulged in vocal flights of fancy, but kept a nice balance between crisp, character-driven diction, a ringing top end, a secure, oaken mid-range, and incredibly smart phrasing; the integration of these traits, combined with a clear love of the material, made for a very splendid and deeply satisfying musical experience. As the program notes of Berlioz’ orchestration (for “Erlkönig”), “(e)very instrument seems to be deployed according to its colouristic and dramatic potential.” No kidding; it’s a phrase that could well be applied to the entirety of the program.

Colour and drama were certainly a big part of the evening’s second half, which featured Eine Alepnsinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64. Partly inspired by a youthful Alpine adventure Strauss enjoyed, along with his later love of the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the work is less of a typical “symphony” in that it forgoes the traditional structure of movements, and instead features twenty-two sections which trace the experiences of a climber, from daybreak to dusk, scaling an Alpine summit. It received a mixed reception at its premiere here in Berlin 1915 (with Strauss himself conducting the Dresden Hofkapelle), with some sneering that it was “cinema music” — but it’s precisely these grandly cinematic qualities which, when brought out properly, with the right amount of love, care, commitment and respect, create such powerful sonic experiences. In all the times I’ve seen the orchestra live, I’ve rarely heard them sound better than last evening, when each element (and Harding squarely treated them as such, related to climate, nature, atmosphere) worked to create a journey as much for spirit as for imagination.

Harding Berlin Phil

Conductor Daniel Harding leads the Berlin Philharmonic in “An Alpine Symphony” by Richard Strauss, March 1, 2018. (Photo; (c) Stephan Rabold)

Right from the pensive opening (“Nacht” or Night), through the glinting “Am Wasserfall” (At the Waterfall) to the careful “Stille vor dem Sturm” (Calm Before the Storm), and then, of course, onto “Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg” (Thunder and Tempest, Descent) and back to “Nacht” to close, the orchestra didn’t just lead listeners along the primrose path, but dropped them into the middle of a high, rough, rocky ledge, forming walls of enveloping sounds that underlined the dualistic nature of the work, the relationship (nay, need) for darkness and light between and around one another. Horn players Stefan Dohr and Sarah Willis led their sections with aplomb, shaping their phrases and long musical lines ever so intuitively around woodwinds, harps, and strings, while Harding ensured the busy percussion section wasn’t merely an accessory but a living, breathing organism, colored in shape and expression, the “heartbeat” of the piece.  This was far less a pretty excursion into the mountains than a fearsome journey into a ferocious darkness, one that in no way wiped out the capacity for the experience of beauty or majesty, or, in fact, community; more than once various orchestra members could be seen smiling instinctively at one another as phrases approached and receded. There is joy in the darkness, of course; it just sometimes takes bravery (and a few connected spirits) to stand and face it.

And face it, they did; this was the Berlin Philharmonic at its magisterial, ballsy best. I’ve spent many nights in many different symphony halls, listening carefully to many different orchestras, but very, very rare is the moment I will lean my head back, mouth open, and simply… sigh. It happened more than once lastnight. And it was simply beautiful.

Review: Pichon & the DSO Reveal The Steel in Berlin

DSO Berlin

The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin with conductor Raphaël Pichon, February 28, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

French Baroque music is a thing apart for many, whether or not they’re in the classical space. Just the phrase itself conjures up images of high wigs, corsets, buckle shoes, a coterie of nobility sitting by candlelight, heavily festooned and occasionally nodding off.

Raphaël Pichon stripped that image away, gently, with careful detail, in his concert with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin (DSO) last night. The native Frenchman, who is also an established countertenor and the founder of the Ensemble Pygmalion (a group specializing in historical performance) brought a sinuous approach to the material, which retained a delicate quality that nevertheless became more and more fulsome as the evening progressed. Admire this lovely fine glass, Pichon seemed to whisper, but remember it’s as strong as steel.

Raphaël Pichon

Raphaël Pichon. (Photo: (c) Jean-Baptiste Millot)

With a program modelled on Baroque music theatre and featuring period-specific pasticcio (or pastiche), the evening was a lovely treat which featured some stellar and, occasionally very robust playing from the DSO. Pichon moved the orchestra beyond the merely ornamental, drawing phrases and sounds out that clearly anticipated the future opera sounds of composers like Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi.  This was not a concert about bold sounds and choices; it was, rather, a fascinating exploration of the pasticcio format highlighting the connective nature of inspiration, in both creation and presentation. Composers, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, freely used, absorbed, and interpolated the work of each other into their own, mixing portions of both original and non-original composition freely; Handel, Gluck, and Johann Christian Bach used this technique in various operas, as did Mozart in his first four piano concertos. What we might think of as “stealing” today was merely artistic reinvention then. Add a layer of Baroque opéra-ballet theatre, with its format of prologue, three entrées, and epilogue, and you have the makings of a very satisfying evening.

While it may seem structurally daunting, nay even deadening, Pichon and the buoyant DSO ensured the evening was clear, involving, and musically concise. The program, which consisted of works by two French 17th-18th century French composers, Rameau in the first half, and Gluck in the second (with a Rameau piece to close), was dramatic and fiercely engaging. The orchestra brought a loving energy to the tambourine-tinged prologue to Rameau’s 1739/1744 opera Dardanus, extending that sense of careful control to Gluck’s “Danse des furies” (“The dance of the furies”) from his 1774 opera Orphée et Eurydice. Never one to luxuriate over phrases or lean too far into one section, Pichon teased out the undulating brass and woodwinds sections, perpetually in a dance; this suited the many ballet (/ ballet-influenced) works on the program, but it was also sonically satisfying to note the interplay between instruments, people, and conductor. This program wasn’t “pretty music” simply for the sake of it, but conveyed character, mood, and drama, without hitting its listener over the head or lulling them into passive listening.

DSO Fuchs Janiczek

The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin with guest Concertmaster Alexander Janiczek and soprano Julie Fuchs. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

The clean lines of the strings section were especially refreshing and were led with charismatic aplomb by guest Concertmaster (and Baroque music specialist) Alexander Janiczek, who shared a special, convivial chemistry with guest soloist, soprano Julie Fuchs, a very last-minute replacement for the ailing Sabine Devielhe. Fuchs, making her DSO debut, soared in her delivery, but smartly paced herself with the material; opening with the prologue “Feuillages verts, naissez” (“Green leaves are born”), Fuchs worked gently around the softly luxurious flute work of Gergely Bodoky, wrapping phrases and gorgeously shaped vowels into sounds that introduced the evening with quiet grace. Her performance of “Viens, hymen” from Rameau’s 1735 opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (The Amorous Indies) was shot through with both a suitably palpable sadness (which suits the character) as well as a steely clarity. By the evening’s close, Fuchs was in high-flying spirits, bringing a range of vivid colors to “Aux langueurs D’Apollon” (“The languor of Apollo”), from Rameau’s 1745 opera Platée, an innovation for its time in that it was a comic work. Fuchs playfully danced around both conductor Pichon (replacing him at one point on the podium) and Janiczek, modulating texture and bending vowels to create a memorable, comic, deeply felt performance that inspired smiles both on and off the stage. Merci and Vielen Dank, Raphaël, Julie, Alexander, and DSO!

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Contemplating Mahler And Rott In Berlin

Philharmonie Berlin

The Philharmonie Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

It’s taken me 72 hours to get to the Philharmonie in Berlin. That’s longer than many other visits I’ve made here, and while this was one of the shortest concerts I’ve attended in the storied music venue, it was one of the most quietly magical.

Performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester (Radio Symphony Orchestra) Berlin under the baton of guest conductor Sebastian Weigle (who is General Director of Oper Frankfurt), the Sunday afternoon concert was a graceful integration of contrasts, joining the vast passions of the material (and the composers’ intertwined lives) with a whispering elegance underlined by smoothly assured playing. Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of the Wayfarer) and Symphony No.1 in E Major by Hans Rott were performed with sparkling clarity and a passion that whispered rather than declaimed. The effect? Beautiful. No fancy bombast, this, nor any falling into comfortable mediocrity; it was pure musicianship.

RSB Weigle

Conductor Sebastian Weigle and the RSB at the Philharmonie Berlin, February 25, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Baritone Björn Bürger, a member of the Oper Frankfurt ensemble, filled in for an ailing Michael Volle for the program’s first half, infusing Mahler’s four famous works with a lovely youthful ardor and earnest endearment. The songs, romantic and yearning in nature, were written in the late 1800s and were inspired by Mahler’s doomed affair with soprano Johanna Richter; they are shot through with the sort of panting passion you might expect from a young composer. These qualities were nicely reflected via both Bürger’s glinting high baritone (tonally anxious in spots, no doubt due to nerves), and Weigle’s deeply intuitive, poetically astute conducting. Never leaning too far into a phrase or banging out motifs, Weigle and the RSB very clearly trusted their audience to appreciate the subtlety of a thoughtful approach, and delivered a loving performance that underlined the waterfall-like passion of the material with gossamer-like strings and a sinuous bass section.

That waterfall-like quality came into focus in the program’s second half, which featured Austrian composer Hans Rott’s First Symphony, replete with plenty of string runs and interplay between woodwinds and brass sections. A contemporary of both Mahler and Bruckner, Rott struggled with debilitating mental illness and died (of tuberculosis) roughly six weeks shy of 26. His work was largely dismissed in his lifetime — including, notably, by Brahms, who said the Austrian should give up music entirely. Mahler, however, recognized his talent, and wrote after his passing (in 1884) that “(Rott) is so near to my inmost self that he and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree which the same soil has produced and the same air nourished. He could have meant infinitely much to me and perhaps the two of us would have well-nigh exhausted the content of new time which was breaking out for music.”

roses RSB

Roses left by conductor Sebastian Weigle on the podium after leading the RSB in Mahler and Rott. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Traces of Mahler’s influence, as well as a clear anticipation of his output, can clearly be heard in Rott’s First Symphony, a work which only enjoyed its first full recording in 1989. The third movement, in particular, largely anticipates the sort of instrumental interplay Mahler would regularly deploy later in his career. The RSB performed this movement, a scherzo, with sparkling buoyancy, even as Weigle maintained strident sonic discipline; no large, sentimental displays here, but rather, thoughtful, clear, sensitive playing that showed the intricacies of Rott’s score while highlighting its expressiveness. The horn section was impressive with round, fulsome sounds, qualities not always associated with brass instruments, and yet so skillfully deployed here; perhaps Weigle’s fifteen years spent as a horn player with the Berlin Staatskapelle was making itself known. At the close, the conductor left the traditional bouquet given to artists on the score, gesturing as he did so, a nod to Rott and his cultural legacy.

It was a lovely, quietly elegant welcome back to the Philharmonie, and certainly a heart-and-ear-opener that underlined the energy of youth while underlining the importance of a mature approach. The material asked for it, and Weigle and the RSB delivered, beautifully.

Dancing With Ghosts In Berlin

Berliner Dom

In Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Landing in Berlin from a recent (and generally difficult) trip to Italy was bumpy but oddly calming. A violent storm was brewing, its intensity on a slow, fierce climb as the evening progressed. In some strange way, the scene felt, through gale-force winds and lashing rains, like a brusque reminder: “This is nichts; there’s so much left to see and to do…!”

One of those things was, mundane as it may sound, making a trip to the grocery store; I was tired but hungry, desperately craving a paprikas dip I’d come to know and love during my frequent visits to the city of late.

Supermarkets are, for me, fascinating places, for what they reveal as much for what they conceal in terms of cultural indicators. At my regular, it’s easy to find Eastern European things; paprikas-infused everything (not just dips but jarred sauce, flavoured meats, salads) are right alongside items like tabouleh, curry, tagines — items readily available in most Canadian supermarkets, especially over the last few decades. My experience of other cultures has come largely through music as well as food, and it’s nice to be able to buy harira, chana masala, fish sauce, pierogies, piri piri, and uborkasalata all in one go. Much as people may roll eyes and say it’s a silly, small thing, it isn’t for me.

Philharmonie Berlin night

The exterior of the Philharmonie at night. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Taking things for granted is something I’ve never been comfortable with. Distressing news from Poland recently has made me reflect carefully on my own Eastern European roots (extant on both sides of my parents’ respective backgrounds), on being a child who was raised by a culture-loving single woman in the highly unfashionable suburbs, on the role that culture plays in every aspect of my life — including its filling the many gaping holes left by absent family, chosen and not. I don’t take anything for granted; I can’t afford that luxury.

I don’t know if I would label it a luxury, but it is certainly good to have been raised without the spectre of war or obliteration. Again, that sounds obvious and silly, but for me, it isn’t. This past Saturday was Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in America, I have developed complicated feelings toward this day, mainly owing to something shared by a relative from my father’s side (who I barely knew) had shared years ago: a relative of ours perished in the Second World War, fighting, as she put it, “on the wrong side.” It has always been hard for me to know what to do with this information. Alternately, my maternal grandfather (who I didn’t know either) was an immigrant to Canada, who had been decorated for  bravery in the First World War, fighting for Britain, and later went on to be a trapper. Both my parents also have Jewish ancestors, a discovery I made through investigations years ago. It’s difficult to reconcile these various facets, never having known any of my relatives. They are all ghosts, frustratingly faceless and maddeningly nameless, dancing in and through my imagination, and I feel that dance keenly every time I’m in Berlin.

Barenboim conductor

Conductor Daniel Barenboim. (Photo:© Holger Kettner)

My mother let go of all her connections with my father (who had been a violinist) when they divorced, save for the one to music – the force which initially drew them together so powerfully. Daniel Barenboim, the Argentine-Israeli pianist/conductor, General Director of the Staatskapelle Berlin, and also the co-founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, who is celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow, expressed things so well at a concert in post-Brexit Britain in July:

… if a French citizen wants to learn Goethe he must have a translation. But he doesn’t need a translation for the Beethoven symphonies. This is important. This is why music is so important. And this isolationist tendencies and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is something that is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation.

I thought of these words recalling one of many special events I attended while in Berlin, American conductor James Levine leading the celebrated Staatskapelle Berlin in Mahler’s Third Symphony; it was, to quote one German media outlet, “Ein Jahrhundertkonzert” (“a concert of the century”). Levine was General Music Director and Chief Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC for 45 years, and has conducted close to 2500 performance of 85 different operas; among many accomplishments, he founded the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and has received a slew of awards and citations throughout his decades-long career.

Levine Berlin

Maestro James Levine led the Staatskapelle Berlin at the Philharmonie on 31 October 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

I grew up watching Maestro Levine (who is now 74 years old) conduct, both live and on TV; for me, it was part of my own education, one which continues in so many forms. I have vivid memories of the very beautiful Idomeneo Levine led at the Met last winter, to say nothing of the many times I watched him lead the Met Orchestra with my mother. It was very special to experience the work of someone whose work I’ve followed for so long, conducting at one of my favorite venues, playing the work of one of my favorite composers, in one of my favorite cities. The concert was a reminder of the special relationship between Maestros Barenboim and Levine (the former invited the latter), both of whom have worked around one another for decades. Levine, using a specially-installed ramp, led a deeply operatic rendering of the longest work in the standard symphonic repertoire, with a combination of elegant control, deliberate pacing, and a pointedly elegiac tone through even playful movements; he carefully shaped the work’s many moments of explosive intensity into something precious and wonderfully contemplative.

The five-movement work (given an intermission after its lengthy first section) gained an immense amount of thoughtfulness; this wasn’t about throwing a giant, over-filled platter in front of you, but rather, elegantly presenting small plates of delicately-curated specialties, every morsel both beautiful and tasty. Soloist/mezzo soprano Violetta Urmana and the Staatsopernchor (State opera chorus) and Kinderchor der Staatsoper (Children’s choir), together with lustrous string and horn sections, were carefully-treated ingredients, utilizing lovely legato phrasing and modulating textures. The effect was one of a whispered grandiosity.

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Maestro Levine at the Philharmonie. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

History didn’t impose on that particular evening, but in light of the news from Poland, as well as learning about histories I didn’t fully know and stories still unfolding, I’ve been confronting past, present, and future, in micro and macro ways; a Jewish conductor, leading the work of a Jewish composer, of an orchestra led by another Jewish conductor, would not have been welcome in Berlin a few short decades ago, and indeed, may not be welcomed by certain individuals now. Again, to quote Barenboim (from his website), “(n)ationalism is the opposite of true patriotism, and the further fostering of nationalist sentiment would be the worst case-scenario for us all.” Which Europe is supposedly being fought over, and died for? What should the role of culture be, especially in the 21st century? Is there any hope left? May I not enjoy paprikas and tagine together?

I want to say a hearty” ja” and “Na sicher” (“of course”), and remind myself of that mantra whispered amidst the lashing rains and howling winds as I landed: “This is nichts; there’s so much left to see and to do…!”

So very much.

Dominik Köninger: “You Grow With Every Challenge”

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Photo: Tom Schweigert

Baritone Dominik Köninger has been busy since our last conversation. That isn’t surprising, considering he’s a member of the Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) ensemble, where he’s sung a variety of roles, from a myriad of eras —Baroque, classical, bel canto, operetta, modern — since starting there in 2012.

Any artist who’s experienced the ensemble system is aware of the need to balance wildly different material in very short amounts of time. Scheduling and repertoire means a careful adherence to vocal sensitivities and recuperative demands, to say nothing of the challenges that can be presented in working with a sometimes revolving set of artistic personnel. During my chat with Wilhelm Schwinghammer this past January, the German bass baritone spoke of his own time as a member of the Staatsoper Hamburg ensemble, estimating he performed over seventy roles during his decade-plus time there. Ensemble work can also be an incredibly important and useful experience in developing skills, getting to know repertoire (well) and cultivating specific and sometimes entirely unknown talents. One might enter into one with the belief of being suited to doing x type of repertoire, only to learn (through time, experience, and exposure) that in fact, y type of repertoire is probably a better match vocally (and that z repertoire, which had never before been even vaguely considered, is suddenly looking interesting too). Ensembles have their ups and downs, but for some, they give needed grounding, requisite exposure (to audiences, repertoire, directors, conductors, and potential future houses), oh-so-vital  flexibility (vocally and otherwise), and a  broadening of perspective — all of which are so important to a burgeoning career.

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As Pelléas in the Komische Oper Berlin production of ‘Pelléas et Melisande’ in October 2017. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

And so Köninger has done much since we last spoke close to two years ago. As well as making a much-awaited role debut as Pelléas in a brilliant and bold, brilliant production of Pelléas et Melisande directed by KOB Intendant Barrie Kosky, he reprised his role as Silvius in the frothy Oscar Straus operetta Die Perlen der Cleopatra (The Pearls of Cleopatra), appeared as Agamemnon in a colorful production of Offenbach’s Die schöne Helena (The Beautiful Helena), sang Papageno (something of a signature role) in the much-vaunted KOB/1927 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and gave a recital (one I found very moving) full of dark works by Mahler, Grieg, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. Along with more Silvius and Papageno performances this season, he’s also singing (/has sung) Maximilian in Bernstein’s Candide (with KOB), and Pantalone in Prokofiev’s Die Liebe zu drei Orangen (The Love for Three Oranges). A well-received recital of Schubert’s celebrated Winterreise closed out 2018.  This spring Köninger will be on a mini-tour with RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, in a presentation of Bach’s St. John Passion. For those of you assuming you may have to travel to Europe to hear him live, fear not: Köninger is set to make his North American debut next spring with Opera de Montreal, as Papageno, in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which he lovingly refers to as “my baby,” a nod to his history with the presentation.

This coming Saturday sees another first for the baritone: he’ll be making his debut in the title role of Handel’s rarely-staged opera Poro, Re dell’Indie (Porus, King of India), called simply Poro here (Poros auf Deutsch), which made my Things To See 2019 list. The story revolves around Alexander the Great’s time in India, and the love triangle which arises between him, King Porus, and Cleofide (aka Cleophis), Queen of a neighbouring realm. Handel’s opera is based Alessandro nell’Indie by celebrated Italian poet and librettist Metastasio, a work that inspired more than sixty other operas throughout the 18th century. The Komische Oper Berlin production opening this coming Saturday (March 16th) is led by conductor and early music specialist Jörg Halubek, but is may not strictly Baroque in that frilly-cuffed, big-wigged way; its celebrated director, Harry Kupfer (who was trained by KOB founder Walter Felsenstein), has, as you will read, made a few updates. The leap from Pelléas to Poros for Köninger isn’t as wide as you may think; his intense focus comes from a place of commitment and utter humility. So no matter the variety of plant, the ground beneath it is rich and sure, and is being continually cultivated with the utmost care and consideration; you can hear it in his voice with every performance, at the Komische and not. Köninger, quite simply, is one to watch.

The role of Poro was originally written for the famed castrato Senesino and is usually cast with a counter-tenor; in this production, it’s a baritone (you!) — what’s that like?

The whole thing is a bit of an adaption. It is Kupfer’s wish to have baritone in the lead role. In the 1950s, he was an assistant director in Halle, which was then East Germany, and they did this opera, but in German, with a baritone in the lead role — that was his intention. So putting it on now, it’s kind of the circle closes. He wanted the opera to be in German now as well, so we got a German translation — it’s more like an adaptation than a translation. Our production is set in British colonial India, a very specific and political time and context.

So Mayamaha in this production was originally Cleofide?

Yes! These are Indian names in the production: Gandaharta (Philipp Meierhöfer), Mahamaya (Ruzan Mantashyan), Poro’s sister Nimbavati (Idunnu Münch). That’s what Kupfer intended. Also, the role of Alexander, which was originally a tenor, is now a counter-tenor (Eric Jurenas). It’s all been adapted, but it all makes sense.

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As Poro in Komische Oper Berlin’s ‘Poro’ (Photo: Monika Rittershaus), opening on March 16th, 2019.

What’s it like to sing? Poro seems quite different to Handel’s other operas musically.

This opera is not so full of the fast coloratura arias and the demands of being perfect stylistically, but the challenge this time is that it brings much more out emotionally. Handel wrote these arias in a different way; he didn’t write them with fireworks, although there are some like that (like with the counter-tenor). Kupfer is keen on having us not doing too much when musical things change, but to have it more clear, more simple. It’s like, he doesn’t like a singer to show off. He wants real feelings, and to hear not what they can do with their voice, but to bring out the emotional colors of the voice, with the text and body, and the heart.

Is this your first time working with Harry Kupfer?

No, actually not, we did a production of  The Merry Widow in Hamburg years ago. I was just starting out then, and it’s different now. I’m much more experienced. The match is really nice. We had a good long rehearsal period and Kupfer was really detailed and really precise with what he wanted. First he broke down — and that’s what I like about his detailed approach — he broke down every recitative to its core, at the very beginning of rehearsals. If you would’ve heard this, you would’ve thought, “How will this all work?!” All the recits were so long and there were so many pauses, and it went so slow, because he wanted us to have the thoughts first and then sing the lines, or use the pauses while showing that we are thinking about something else and we go in a different direction, so it would make sense. That’s what I really liked about this project; this is a totally different style of theatre, and very different if you compare it to Candide or Cleopatra, but this is the fun part for me, doing various things.

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Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

Like St. John Passion… 

Yes, of course. It’s a small tour: one day in Italy, then Munich, then the third day we’re in Berlin. I’m only singing Jesus, so for me it’s just a few recits, but it’s a good way to connect back with the RIAS Kammerchor and with the Akademie für Alte Musik. My schedule is a mixture of heaven and hell, black and white, yin and yang.

Is that good for you as a singer? 

Yes, it keeps me really flexible, and I like that. Working on the Handel, I think I have six or seven arias in total but two are quite fast, so it’s really nice. Keeps me flexible — in the head, in the voice.

What repertoire would you still like to do?

If you talk about the next five years, it’s just the usual suspects like Giovanni or Marcello, but if we talk ten or fifteen years, there’s Onegin to discover, maybe there’s a little bit of Wagner, but I’m not sure about it because I have to see how the voice develops. The French stuff has of course a lot to discover — like Hamlet from Thomas, which would be great, but houses rarely do this sort of repertoire.

And there’s the Lieder works as well.

Of course yes, there are plans for making a CD, but you need time and preparation so I’m not sure when that will happen, but we’ll see. It is a difficult business; you’re always touring around, you have so many appointments and there isn’t always time to give everything to this one concert. There is a lot of responsibility every time you do a recital. People come to hear you and you need to be prepared, and learn the music by heart — that’s the very basic work, yes? Then you have to dive deeper into this new world, and it’s a responsibility, every time. And sometimes it’s hard to fulfill. It’s why I’m careful; I still have my opera engagements and my contract here in Berlin. Having recitals scheduled between, for instance, a Candide here and a Poros there and few days later a Pelléas… you know, it has to be well-chosen. Mentally, strength-wise, everything; it’s hard. I’ve been constantly working now since September — I just went from one thing to another. But I’ve really enjoyed focusing only on the Handel for the last six weeks. Once this is done I’ll prepare for my next recitals. When it gets calmer, it gets easier to let everything sink in.

What’s been the most surprising thing so far?

This Handel opera is much easier than the past ones I’ve done! I did Giulio Cesare in Egitto a few years ago; it had much more in terms of coloratura and furioso arias. I was younger. You grow with every challenge and every single thing you have to deal with. Maybe if I hadn’t had that experience four years ago, Poros would be that sort of thing now, and I would be a little bit struggling and lost and more fighting — but this time, it’s good, I’m super-relaxed, even though we open soon. When I’m relaxed I’m more on top of my game than when I’m closing in on myself and wanting something. If you really want something specific, it’s the wrong approach. That’s the surprising thing I discovered doing this. And of course the relaxed and productive way of working with Kupfer and Halubek, and Ruzan and Eric — it’s been a really nice, really positive experience.

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