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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.

Krisztina Szabó: Singing Is “A Lifelong Process”

szabo mezzo

Photo: Bo Huang

Krisztina Szabó is a busy lady.

A recent whirlwind trip between her home city of Toronto and Berlin left the mezzo soprano jet-lagged but, one might suspect, quite happy; within the space of a few days, she’d made her German debut at the annual Musikfest with the acclaimed Mahler Chamber Orchestra, performing the work of Sir George Benjamin under his very baton. Considering the number of engagements she’s had over the last few years, it’s probably fair to say she’s used to the pace.

Since postgraduate studies at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she’s had a busy career with incredible highlights, including working with celebrated Russian baritone with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Don Giovanni Revealed: Leporello’s Revenge, as soloist with Plural Ensemble in Madrid under the baton of composer-conductor Peter Eötvös, and having a part composed by Benjamin specifically for her voice (more on that below). She’s worked with a number of celebrated institutions including Wexford Festival Opera, the Mostly Mozart Festival, L’Opéra National du Rhin, and the Colorado Music Festival (just to name a few), as well as Canadian companies including Vancouver Opera, L’Opéra de Québec, and Calgary Opera. Her passion (and talent) for new work is clear in her bio, having worked with a number of organizations specializing in contemporary repertoire, including Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal, Soundstreams, and Tapestry Opera, and living composers including Anna Sokolovic, James Rolfe, and Aaron Gervais, as well as the aforementioned Eötvös and Benjamin.

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Phillip Addis and Krisztina Szabó in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2015 production of “Pyramus and Thisbe / Lamento d’Arianna / Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

In 2015, Szabó sang no less than three leading roles one show production, a triumvirate vision that combined Claudio Monteverdi’s 17th century Lamento D’Arianna and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda with Barbara Monk Feldman’s 2009 Pyramus and Thisbe, directed by Christopher Alden. In my review I referenced Szabó’s compelling stage presence, admiring her range, projection, chemistry with co-star Phillip Addis, and amazing versatility, both vocally and physically (at one point she was required to sing lying flat on the stage floor), though what has really stayed with me since has been her innate sense of theatre; the haunted look she would give Addis at points (the production was a fascinating look at the battle of the sexes), her loose physicality, the keen, cool balance of control and vulnerability, combined with a lovely mahogany-meets-cognac vocal tone, are qualities that give her a special place in the opera world.

That was reiterated in her recent performance with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, in Benjamin’s 2006 chamber opera Into the Little Hill: that same haunted look, an immense energy, a fierce vocal prowess. Szabó, who also speaks fluent Hungarian and is a member of the voice faculty at the University of Toronto, has drama running through her veins, and her work with the MCO (who matched her intensity with ferocious intelligence and quiet elegance) was a highlight of this year’s Musikfest. She has, she admits, done “a ton of Benjamin”, including performances of his celebrated 2012 opera Written on Skin (twice in concert and once in an Opera Philadelphia production), as well as his new work, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (where it made its world premiere in April) and at Netherlands Opera, where she worked alongside fellow Canadian singer  (and contemporary repertoire virtuoso) Barbara Hannigan, who has a close relationship with the work of Benjamin herself.  The same goes for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the celebrated troupe whose repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary compositions. Founded in 1997, the orchestra premiered Written on Skin in 2012 (the composer/conductor has said he had heir specific sound in mind when he wrote it) and they’ve also toured the work internationally, in both opera and semi-staged concert versions. Into the Little Hill, though presented in concert at Musikfest, lost none of its dramatic power (the work is based on the fairytale of the pied piper), with Szabó and soprano Susanna Andersson making a fine, fierce duet onstage, their delivery crisp and careful, their characterizations gripping. 

Prior to the performance, Szabó made time to chat about Benjamin, working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and what she takes away from here whirlwind trip to Berlin. (It doesn’t include beer, I don’t think.)

What is it you find so rewarding about Benjamin’s work as an artist?

I find the colors he gets from the orchestra one of the most striking things about his scores, and you’ll find that again in Into the Little Hill — it’s just remarkable. It’s so delicate and yet it can be so full and impactful as well. It’s quite striking. This one is scored for contralto, which I am not, so for me it’s a on the low side but the low stuff is lightly scored, so it’s doable. Written on Skin has some remarkable passages — some are quite low, some are quite high; it’s a large range. It’s rhythmically really, really detailed, just like his scores. I love that kind of stuff — I love rhythmic complexity, it’s like a sudoku puzzle I have yet to figure out. That’s my anal-retentive nature coming out, maybe.

Some of his scores also feature a cimbalom.

Yes, Written On Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence both have the cimbalom. The first time I was looking up the score for Skin, I was like, “Hey! That’s the instrument of my people!”

What does that add?

It’s an exotic color, it’s that twangyness. Into the Little Hill has a banjo too, but the cimbalom has this cut-through sound; the violins, when bowed, have this lyrical sound, and plucked they have another certain sound, but the cimbalom has a certain cut to it, which gives it this exotic flavor.

Benjamin Lloyd

Photo: Matthew Lloyd

What is Benjamin like to work with?

I have worked with a lot of living composers, not at his level obviously, but working with him is a particular adventure because that man likes to rehearse! And if you look at his score it’s incredibly detailed. You have to be on your toes and be super-prepared, but he always appreciates musicianship and preparation and detail; if you give that to him, then it’s great. He’s such a sweet man, actually. But at my first rehearsal for Written on Skin, I thought, “Oh, I don’t have as much to sing” — we had a two-hour call — “we won’t use all the time up.” But I was sweating by the end; we used every bit of it and I thought, “This guy likes to rehearse!” He doesn’t smile necessarily, he’s very serious, very focused, very British. After a few rehearsals he starts to loosen up, and it’s like, “Okay, he doesn’t hate me!”

And you’ve developed something of a relationship now because you have worked together a few times and he knows how he can push you.

Yes he does, for sure. I mean, the part in Lessons in Love and Violence was composed specifically for my voice, which was kind of cool — it was written particularly to my strengths, which was fun. That’s not going to get old!

How has working on Into the Little Hill stretched you creatively?

Vocally it’s stretched me for sure! It’s scored for contralto, so I am trying to find my inner contralto. I live higher — I’m a high mezzo, I straddle soprano repertoire as well, so making friends with my middle-low register has been interesting – a little scary, but a welcome challenge. In terms of the drama, I play several characters. Both soprano and mezzo have to switch and make quick changes (between various characters) and (Benjamin) wants those changes really sharp, to make it clear for the audience.

And you’re doing this as part of your Musikfest debut…

Yes, this is a wonderful opportunity for me. I am thrilled to be here, but for me the biggest hurdle is making sure that George likes it. When you have the composer standing two feet in front of you, he’s the audience I am trying to impress the most.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Photo: © Manu Agah)

What’s it been like working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra? They have such a celebrated history with Benjamin.

The quality of the musicianship is extraordinary — Susanna Andersson (soprano) was saying during rehearsals, “They are playing things I cannot believe they are playing!’” As detailed as George is with the singers, he is super-detailed with the instrumentalists, picking them apart, so it’s very clear what they’re doing. Some parts of the score have extremely complicated passages for them to play. He’s not a showman conductor; he’s clear and detailed and precise and delicate.

That delicacy was what I found so amazing when I saw him lead the Berlin Philharmonic recently; it was so very noticeable and gave the music so much more depth and color. 

Yes, and we haven’t had a hell of a lot of rehearsal for this, but… that man has bionic ears! When someone plays a wrong note somewhere: “Was it you?” He can pick it out. I know conductors can have that ability, but to take the most delicate chord and pick out, immediately, what needs to be worked on… he’s very organized and detailed about what he wants, and how to get something.

… whether it’s the Berlin Philharmonic or the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

He said, “Oh they’re reading this for the first time” today and I went “WHAT?!” It was already at a level… it did not seem they had just cracked the score.

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Photo: Bo Huang

What kinds of things are you already taking from this experience in Berlin, especially in your role as a teacher?

I think about my students more often when I perform now. I think I take away the idea of stamina for sure. You hear students complain a lot: “I don’t have time to do that” and “I’m tired!” Well, I haven’t slept, I’m jet-lagged, I’ve worked six-hour days the last two days straight on a piece that is stretching me vocally, balance the stamina vocally while giving the composer/conductor what he wants. These are the things they have to learn. There’s vocal technique, but there’s all the other stuff, and it’s still an ongoing process. What I tell them is, learning singing is a lifelong thing, because it will change daily: how you feel, how you’ve slept, what you’ve eaten, if you’re well, if you’re unwell, if you’re upset, if you’re happy. All these things factor into how you sing on that day and it is a lifelong process of how to deal with that in any given moment. You don’t know what you’ll wake up with but you have to get the job done, and I am all about getting the job done. It’s about managing what’s important.

A Gorgeous Grisey With Ensemble intercontemporain

Ensemble intercontemporain Musikfest

Ensemble intercontemporain, conductor Matthias Pintscher, and mezzo soprano Salomé Haller perform at the Boulez Hall as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

In a previous post, I wrote about how a recent concert attempted to (and was largely successful at) making its listeners examine their relationship with time, space, and sound. Despite some complimentary words, I still don’t feel I did a very adequate job in explaining just how Sir George Benjamin and the Berlin Philharmonic achieved such a mighty thing. Try as I might (many hours were spent frowning and sighing), I simply could not put into words the uniquely special effect this past weekend’s concert had within such a specific context. My more recent experience Monday evening with the Ensemble intercontemporain at Berlin Musikfest underlined this futility of language to describe the aurally sublime, while also providing clues about getting thoughts to page and expressing that unique and sometimes-elusive how. Masterful, powerfully moving performances of works by Berg, Boulez, and most especially Grisey, showed me the way.

Maybe it’s more precise to say that Ensemble intercontemporain showed me the way; the French group brought a special flair and intense focus that only musicians in a full-time group dedicated to modern works can bring. Formed in 1976 by Pierre Boulez (with the support of then-Minister of Culture Michel Guy), the group, which employs 31 soloists full-time, is dedicated to the exploration of instrumental techniques and the developments of interdisciplinary projects, blending theater, film, dance, visual art, video, and music. As their official bio reminds us, new pieces are commissioned and performed on a regular basis, and they also have a strong commitment to music education. Resident of the Philharmonie de Paris, they take part in various worldwide festivals and have consistently won acclaim for their meaty, fascinating programming.

ensemble intercontemporain

Photo: © Christophe Urbain

The ensemble’s palpable blend of exploration, experimentation, and education was melded with a deep poetry at the Boulez Hall in Berlin on Monday night, with the ten musicians (plus mezzo soprano Salomé Haller) in perfect alignment with conductor Matthias Pintscher. The first piece featured pianist Dimitri Vassilakis and clarinetist Martin Adámek in a wonderfully sensuous reading of Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano op. 5. Composed in 1913 , the work is notable for its brevity (it’s only about nine minutes in total), one which music writer Paul Griffiths’s excellent program notes remind us is “more characteristic of Webern”, another Schoenberg pupil known for composing expressive miniatures. The clear chemistry between the soloists here added to the inherent drama of the harmonies; while Vassilakis placed special emphasis on shaping lyrical piano lines, Adámek’s clarinet produced full, rounded tones, giving the piece a dreamy feel. It was a poetic performance packed with narrative intent, and a perfect introduction to the heart-and-head, forty-plus-minute opus of Gérard Grisey’s Vortex temporum I-III for Piano and five instruments, composed between 1994 and 1996.

It’s worth noting here that I think any listener who comes to the work of Grisey will have a very strong reaction to it; you can’t hear his work and remain indifferent. I first heard the French composer’s music as a teenager, and though I loved it, I was strongly discouraged from further exploration by an Italian-opera-loving mother who dismissed modern composition as “irritating noise that goes nowhere.” Moving past that pronouncement had its own set of challenges, but also a rich mountain of rewards; through regular (if sometimes covert) exposure, I began to listen to things in a far deeper way, finding it was music that went everywhere, most especially places I didn’t think I was smart enough to enter. (I still struggle with this feeling of utter intellectual ineptitude.) Shortly after my Grisey discovery (and directly related to it), I came across the work of Claude Vivier, which I had the privilege of writing about professionally earlier this year. A live presentation of the work of either composer is, for me, a thing apart; I never leave as quite the same person after such performances, and without speaking for them, I can only wonder if Grisey and Vivier might take some sort of delight in this.

Grisey’s Vortex temporum has an opening like circles in water, referencing what Griffiths smartly describes as a “little flurry” taken from the dawn scene of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. Grisey was part of the spectral music movement (though he disliked the term), one which music writer Alex Ross describes in his monumental 2007 book The Rest Is Noise as “often just a step or two removed from the singing and shimmering textures of Debussy and Ravel.” The presentation on Monday night at the acoustically gorgeous Boulez Hall brought this relationship to the fore. String players were flanked, on either side, by woodwinds (flautist Sophie Cherrier and clarinetist Adámek), with piano behind them, affording those of us situated in a certain spot to catch tonal flurries as they underwent various progressions of renewal, reiteration, and revolution, each sound stretched and distended, a “rotary tuning par excellence,” to quote the composer himself. The experience of this “rotary” and its subsequent metamorphoses would be experienced differently for each member of the audience on Monday night; my own view allowed not only observation Vassilakis’s flying fingerwork, but to experience the sound of the strings — lilting, twisting, floating, stabbing — in unique and unusual ways. I kept wondering how people in the seats ringed above me were experiencing such ethereal sound; surely it had to be different and no less sublime?

Boulez Saal Berlin

Photo: © Volker Kreidler

Between the musicians’ seating arrangement and the hall’s architecture (a long oval, and not dissimilar to a basketball court), perceptions and direct experience with the sounds being produced were being gradually if very clearly altered and moulded, highlighting the paradoxical nature of performance: individual and communal, personal and shared, epic and intimate. Echoes of ritual were also underlined, a connection with a wordless divine shaped by the shared and yet highly personalized experience set within formal parameters at once predictable (people blow into instruments or put bow to strings and sound is produced) and unpredictable (how do they blow in those instruments or touch that bow to strings?). Technique was utilized not merely in the service of imitation (for instance, the sawing of strings recalling the sounds in nature) but as part of exploration and meditation, which become twins in Grisey’s rich and spectral sound garden. A ravishingly virtuosic piano section (using purposefully detuned notes) became part of a larger continuum  of time and space, where even the turning of pages was part and parcel of an insistent and entirely holy sonic exploration.

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Program photo: mine. Grisey photo: Salvator Sciarrino. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Thus the slow fade of a chord melted cinematically away into a windswept bassline, and the slow repetition of notes transformed into a plodding foreboding storyline in and of itself. Ensemble intercontemporain have an inbuilt sense of drama, whereby they imbue theatrical knowing into every tiny moment and microtone. The act of listening becomes far more than passive; you are being asked (nay, demanded) to thread tone with three tempo levels which, as Griffiths writes, “for the composer represented human time (the time-sale of speech and breathing), the dilated time of whales, and the effervescent time of birds and insects.”

With sound at points becoming pure building blocks, Grisey challenges us: how do we hear this sound right now? Are we all hearing it the same? What images do we associate with this tone, or this, or… this? Ensemble intercontemporain forced its audience to ask these questions even as Pintscher moved the work invariably forwards with thrilling momentum, and into the third section, with its reprise of spiralling introductory chords, a hypnotizing sound with intricate waves of sound — sweeping, careful, then broad. Pintscher emphasized the relationship between strings, which provided a clear counterpoint to lyrical piano lines, which led to a  grandiose pseudo-finale, musically anticipated, but magically transformed and then distilled, like mists of raindrops, into a breathing single note. 

Haller intercontemporain musikfest

Photo: © Adam Janisch

Thus the influence of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître  (The Hammer Without A Master), performed in the program’s second half, was made all the more clear, as Boulez, even in 1955 (when the piece was composed), was examining what Griffiths terms “the co-existence of spontaneity and system.” With Boulez, however, his work (scored for contralto and six instrumentalists, and  sets to the surrealist poetry of René Char) examines the relationships between psychological and technological, natural and mechanical, historical and inexplicable. This was the work that established the then-30-year-old composer’s international reputation, and, as my seatmate on Monday reminded me, shares unmistakable similarities (especially in its last movement) to John Cage’s Sixteen Dances, composed in 1950-51. Again, the spatial arrangement affected listener perceptions and experiences, though as the program notes, “Boulez’s logic was a logic in how the music was made, not in how it may be perceived: there his ideal was an opacity of scintillation and speed, an encounter with something too fluid and fast to be grasped.” Being behind the ensemble and close to the percussion section (with a vibraphone to my left and xylophone to my right) afforded an intimate experience with this opacity. 

With a spritely opening and bouncy interplay of strings, flute, vibraphone and guitar, Pintscher emphasized the pulsating nature of the work, with both vibraphone and xylophone aggressive in their attacks. Haller’s luscious tone became a distant call, less intimate, more beckoning from afar, expressively swirling through Boulez’s syncopated lines. The lyrical woodwinds in the third movement were complemented and continued by jagged if bright percussion, which led directly into the prodding strings of the fourth movement. Overtones of Ravel’s gentle lyricism could be heard in the final section, though by then, heart and head were at bursting point. 

This was an immensely moving concert that answered the how in my music-listening explorations, even if it inevitably left the imprint of a million more whys. Perhaps there are some questions that defy answers, and maybe, just maybe, that is just where music comes in.

 

On Stravinsky’s Soldier: “We Have To Safeguard The Things That Matter In Life”

stravinsky viau

Artwork by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

This year’s edition of the Toronto Summer Music Festival has a distinctly Russian flavour.

The festival (initially founded as the the Silver Creek Music Foundation in 2004) opened this past week with a concert by the celebrated Escher Quartet, who performed a program of works which included string quartets by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, respectively. The following night, members of the quartet joined pianist Lukas Geniušas and TSMF Artistic Director (and Toronto Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster) Jonathan Crow for “Mother Russia“, a concert featuring the music of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Moscow-born pianist Geniušas showed off his considerable technical abilities and a very expressive approach in the (piano-only) first half, his rendering of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes (Op. 32, No. 9-13) a gently modulated collection of lights and colours. Likewise, his work with members of the Escher Quartet, joined by Crow, showed off a considerable lyricism; altogether, the troupe provided a round, even sexy, approach to the jagged angularity of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57.

Audiences can look forward to further concerts with Russian works, including a presentation of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” on July 19th. Composed in 1918 when Stravinsky was facing tough times (including the recent death of his brother and serious financial shortfalls), the piece (“Histoire du soldat lue, jouée et dansée en deux parties” or (Story of the soldier to read, act and dance in two parts”, in full) was written with Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, a French-Swiss writer who he’d met as a fellow ex-pat in Paris just before the First World War. The work retells the Faust myth using a litany of musical styles and folkoric elements inspired largely by the work of Russian writer Alexander Afanasyev, one of the most famous Russian folkorists of the 19th century, and a big fan of the Grimm brothers’ work as well. Originally intended as a touring work, “L’Histoire du Soldat” has been produced in a variety of styles and iterations, though most commonly with one narrator doing all the roles, with musical accompaniment. Isabel von Karajan (daughter of conductor Herbert von Karajan) performed the work with members of the Berlin Philharmonic to great acclaim in Salzburg in 2011, and then in Berlin in 2012; it’s also been presented with pantomime elements in 2013, recorded with Jean Cocteau and Peter Ustinov in 1962, and, rather poignantly, by Carole Bouquet, Gerard Depardieu, and (deceased) son Guillaume, in the mid 1990s in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Stravinsky may have written “Soldat” out of basic financial necessity, but the work has proven to be a wonderfully enduring piece of music theatre, one that showcases his changeability and elasticity as a octopus-like composer with a multitude of legs moving easily between sometimes wildly varying eras, styles, sounds, and artistic movements.

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Stravinsky in the studios of Colombia Records, 1957. Photo by Dennis Stock (via)

Canadian music artist Alaina Viau is bringing a new production of the work to the Toronto Summer Music Festival this coming week, featuring dynamic Canadian talent including theatre artist Derek Boyes and choreographer Jennifer Nichols. In her day job, Viau is Assistant Production Manager at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but she’s also the founder and Artistic Director of sparky independent company Loose Tea Music Theatre, which specializes in presenting creatively-staged opera in and around the Toronto area. Viau has worked regularly with a variety of artists in various disciplines (including dance music, cinema, and visual art) to present re-imagined productions of opera chestnuts like Bizet’s Carmen and Gounod’s Faust.

The latter is especially relevant to Viau’s work with “L’histoire du Soldat”, but so is her interest in and commitment to social justice issues, especially as they pertain to contemporary presentation within the operatic form. I recently spoke with Viau about why this piece is so timely (and perhaps timeless), her decision in casting the lead role with a woman, and how her work as director of production for the TSMF presentation of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” contrasts and complements that with Stravinsky.

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Alaina Viau (Photo courtesy Toronto Summer Music Festival)

What’s it like to stage “Soldat” for the first time?

Exciting! I’ve known this piece for a long time and I’m what you’d call a Stravinsky nut! I have a lot of literature on Stravinsky and bought a special edition of Rite of Spring when it came out years ago; I have new book on him, and all his letters and things like that.

How did you come to direct this?

I’d only ever heard it in the way most people hear it, with one person narrating all the roles, and then the ensemble around them. Jonathan Crow and I started talking about this project two years ago — I work for the TSO as well, and the TSO Chamber Soloists (of which Crow is a member) were doing a series of performances of this piece; it was done at Roy Thomson Hall and the Art Gallery of Ontario and at the Hearn (Generating Station), and at that time, it was just with Derek Boyes and the ensemble. It was then that Jonathan and I got talking about how we’ve never seen it fully staged, and what a shame that was, because it was originally written for a touring performance with actors and a set and such, so we said, “Hey we need to see this!”

So TSMF audiences will see a full type of production?

Yes. We have Derek, who is doing the roles of the narrator and the devil — because he does such a great job with the devil! – and we have a dancer/choreographer, Jennifer Nichols. We also decided to cast the role of the soldier as a woman — traditionally it’s a man, but…  it’s an all-male show, and Jonathan and I were like, “That’s kind of shitty!” We don’t change the relationships with the fiancee or the princess — it’s any relationship, really. We didn’t feel we needed to harp on that fact; it’s a relationship that exists. I wish I didn’t even have to say that, really. The idea came through conversations on gender parity. There’s a lot of men in the show, and a lot of men in the ensemble, and we were like, “That’s a lot of men on stage! It isn’t fair; I think we can fix this.”

How much were you influenced by what you’d seen and experienced as a Stravinsky fan?

I don’t believe I’ve taken any influences in doing this. I’m sure there are some references to some of the research I’ve done, but what I’ve seen (of Soldat) I haven’t really liked. So that is a thing: I have decided not to do some things. That is an influence of sorts! I knew what I didn’t want. That is sometimes just as strong, if not stronger, than seeing things I do like, so I was able to really think, “Well I want to make this fun, engaging, with great music, and a great story” — it’s a warning story.

… although it can be presented as drily didactic as well. I would imagine as a theatre practitioner you have to be careful not to wave a finger at your audience. “Fun” and “engaging” are the words I’d use to describe what Loose Tea does.

Well it is my style, and my question is always, “Why tell this story now? Why does it matter right now?”

Picasso Stravinsky

Sketch of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso, 1920.

So why “Soldat” now?

It’s a story of being too greedy, of consuming too much, of not being appreciative of what you have. That’s something I think we can always relate back to stuff in the US and what could potentially happen in Canada: we need to be aware of what we have, and not be greedy. We have to safeguard the things that matter in life. What the soldier comes to learn is, in fact, the things that matter are things that money can’t necessarily buy, that there is greater value in having some sort of meaning in life. I think that’s a tale that is always worth telling.

It’s timeless and timely and really elastic, not solely in themes but in presentation possibilities.

Yes, and what I really like is that it’s not a happy ending — he gets the princess and then screws it up again. It’s that reminder that you have to be constantly working on that aspect of yourself.

It’s a wry comment on the nature of humanity also, the nature of which seems very Russian in nature.

That too. The question is, how do you tell this story to a Canadian audience, who may not have that understanding of Russian folklore? That folklore is quite brutal sometimes.

How does your work on “Quartet for the End of Time” complement what you’re doing with “Soldat”?

I get excited about it, really. What I’m particularly enjoying is that I did a Masters degree in music, and it’s really nice to geek out and go back to the score, do my research, do my score study — it really helps me come to important realizations.

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Olivier Messiaen (Photo courtesy Toronto Summer Music Festival)

For the Messiaen, all I’ve been doing for months is consuming a lot of research, which I love doing, and really trying to think about how Messiaen saw the piece. He had synesthesia, and we wanted to explore not just what he saw but what role this plays overall: why do we care about “Quartet for the End of Time”? Why do we care about the visual aspect of it? And how can we make it make sense to us? Because he was very religious, and in the context of the Toronto Summer Music Festival…  religion is not a really strong (theme), it’s not the strongest point to bring out in this piece.

But it’s unmissable in the music.

Yes. Although he wrote it with religion in mind, something that really inspired him, and what I think may inspire many people, is a commonality of hope of this piece.

That sense of hope contrasts with the ending of “Soldat”quite strongly.

It is what got him through his internment in the camp; he couldn’t escape physically, and the more difficult things became physically, the more he escaped into his brain. You hear it in this Quartet — because he did have a strong sense of hope and of things working out, even in an internment camp.

Vision over visibility.

Yes, it’s a good fit with the festival.

Gautier Capuçon: “When You’re Onstage, It’s As If You Are Naked.”

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French cellist Gautier Capuçon. Photo ®Jean-Baptiste-Millot.

What to do when you’re ready to speak with one of the world’s foremost cellists, and you have the world’s wonkiest phone/internet connection?

This was the conundrum I faced recently in London, when preparing to speak with Gautier Capuçon. All had been fine in my apartment up to the very minute, and then… le chaos a éclaté. Thanks to some last-minute manoeuvring and buckets of wonderful flexibility and good humor from Monsieur, we were finally able to connect. It was a pointed, passionate conversation, a bright and vivid exchange reflecting Capuçon’s extreme passion for his art — and if that sounds cliched, it’s one of those rare moments when the cliche is, in fact, true.

Described as “a true 21st century ambassador for the cello,” Capuçon, who began playing cello at the age of four, got his start in his hometown, where he was a student at the École Nationale de Musique de Chambéry. After graduating with first prizes in cello and in piano, he went on to study in Paris, and then Vienna, and before long, was a member of both the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra) and the European Community Youth Orchestra (now called the European Union Youth Orchestra), where he was led by a variety of illustrious conductors including Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez.

Along with a raft of prestigious awards and prizes, and a hefty discography (comprised of both orchestral and chamber works), he’s worked with an array of celebrated orchestras (including the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, Staatskapelle Dresden, the Royal Concertgebouw, the New York Philharmonic, and the Orchester National de France) and conductors (including Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Paavo Järvi) and collaborators, including, at points, brother Renaud, a celebrated violinist in his own right. The pair have performed together on various occasions, including Bastille Day celebrations at the Eiffel Tower last year.

The cellist’s latest albumIntuition (Warner Classics), was released in early February and features short pieces by Fauré, Elgar, Massenet, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninov, Elgar, and Astor Piazzolla, as well as work by Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima and pianist Jérôme Ducros, who performs on the album. Harrowing tale on photographing the cover art aside, the album is a deeply emotional journey through both familiar and unfamiliar terrains — you may recognize some of the pieces (the meditation from Massenet’s Thais, or Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” — “The Swan” — from his Le Carnaval des animeaux) , but at times you’re not quite sure what to feel experiencing them bunged beside other works, let alone how to perceive their varying subtexts when performed with such gripping (and largely unrelenting) drama and intensity. 

It’s a triumph for Capuçon on artistic, and I suspect, personal levels. This album is a deeply telling expression of an artist consistently in touch with both the earthy and the ethereal, in equal measure, and sees no tension between either. A relentless touring musician with a roster of high-profile appearances to his name, he recently performed with celebrated Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov at Carnegie Hall earlier this week, and tomorrow night (28 April) performs with French pianist Jérôme Ducros at Koerner Hall in Toronto, in a program featuring the works of Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Rachmaninov, and others. From there, it’s off to California, before jumping between appearances in Europe and North America — and that’s just in May.

In our chat here, he offers insights on the deeply synergistic relationship between soloist and audience, the importance of balancing technique and passion, and why intuition told him now was the right time for an album of dense, rewarding works. 

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In Verbier for “Intuition” (Warner Classics). Photo: © Sébastien Méténier Fournet-Fayard

Where did the title for the album originate?

There are many different reasons, the first one is that intuition is something we all have, we are born with it. When you see kids — even without before knowing how to talk, they already feel everything. Of course you lose this intuition; we have an extraordinary brain and we use it to explain everything, and sometimes to connect more or less to our first experiences. Then of course, we all are lucky to say maybe we get closer to intuition again — you can call it that, or inspiration, or many different things, but basically it’s what we have inside ourselves, and for me, the way I express music on the cello. I wanted to call it “intuition” because all the (musical) choices around this album were so intuitive;  every new project should come from something you believe in, from your feeling it’s the right time to do it. I wanted to do an album of short pieces quite a few times but wanted to wait for the right moment — and this is the right moment. It’s almost like, how do you call it, a picture album?

It definitely creates a lot of mental images, especially because your style of playing is strongly romantic. How much do you think soloists’ personalities should be infused in the work they perform? And how much work does it takes to shape and mould that passion accordingly? It can’t be all passion, or all technique, or all intuition.

That’s the big difficulty. I’m fighting with myself a lot because I am so much a perfectionist — I’m always questioning myself, knowing I can always do better or at least always go further, always searching more, never satisfied in a way, so that’s why i keep being curious — but even though I’m a perfectionist, I know that quality in music doesn’t exist, because there is no one way to play something. It’s not only about technique. Technical things are there to serve the music, so you have to find the mixture, the good balance between extreme precision of course, and … leaving a huge space for that intuition, that inspiration, and that creativity. You really have to let go in another way. You have to find the right balance. And that is what is not easy to achieve.

It’s the work of a lifetime.

Absolutely, and I am trying to get closer to it, but there is no school for it — the only school is being onstage. Some days you realize maybe you’re too focused on the technical aspect, and maybe too emotional other days because you’ve experienced something personal, and this is what makes music so fascinating. Every concert is different, every situation is different, even though you’re playing the same piece. The connection with the audience is so special too — sometimes they don’t realize how much so. When you experience a concert, it’s really a team: you have the crew, the acoustics people, musicians, and of course the audience. The big thing is making this musical journey together.

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Photo: Gregory Batardon

In that musical journey you’ve said that this album reflects the story of your life and stages of emotional development — how personal do you think art has to be to be meaningful? And how does that art change within the context of audience engagement and personal experience?

I think it’s always the same thing: when you’re onstage, it’s as if you are naked. It’s the same for any artist. Onstage, the audience sees you exactly as you are; you can’t lie. Of course there’s music written by Brahms or Mozart or these other big geniuses, but we show our soul and our passion, and that’s what is magical: seeing how far can you go… that’s always the question. You have to respect the composer, and respect, of course, your own way of seeing or reading the story of the composer. It’s like reading a book to kids; the words are the author’s, but the sound is the expressions in your own voice. The sound is the DNA of an artist; it is the first thing you will hear, a perfect thing, and the most important. When you’re live, you give yourself — it’s your passion, and maybe what you also receive from the audience. In certain halls the sound is going right through, but sometimes, with the design of some acoustics it happens as an artist when you don’t feel that energy coming back from the audience. It hits you hard.

You’re touring many of the works on Intuition, including works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff, among others  — some of those works are heavy, soul-baring pieces. What’s it like to tour this kind of material?

It’s exactly the same as what we were saying earlier: it’s all about balance. How much do you allow yourself to be really taken by the music? If you have one or two magical moments in concert, it’s a great concert. It’s that moment when you lose it. How far can you go? Can you allow yourself to be carried away and get tears in your eyes if something magical happens? Yes, it happens to me, but it doesn’t mean it will happen to you in the hall. There is no way to explain it. I love the moment where I’m really taken by the music, when there’s energy onstage and also a connection with the audience, when you have the feeling you’re really together. That’s really magical. It’s why I make music; I want to share that, experience that… it’s such a miracle! Even if you experience it just once in a concert, it is extraordinary.

My Favorite Things From 2017

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At the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Before my most recent trip to Berlin for my birthday in earlier this month, I quickly jotted down a few music events that stood out to me without thinking too hard about the whys or wherefores. There have been so many special moments, and it’s hard to squish them into a list, let alone words and descriptions, and sometimes too much analysis not only muddles decent reflection but kills the joy of remembrance.

Many year-end “favorites” lists that show up this time of year tend to be steeped in memories and sentiment, and music is the best and most direct avenue to both. As music writer Tim Sommer points out in his own year-end feature, “no art form is as connected to our memory and our senses as music. Although music appears to exist primarily in just one of the senses, in fact it spreads to all of them, creating a connection with everything we were seeing, touching, smelling, and thinking.”

So much of my life is made up of lists — for packing, for groceries, for trips, and for stories to chase and features to finish. If I could write a list of feelings throughout the year the way I quickly wrote out my list of music experiences, how would it read? Disappointment might feature largely, but so would wonder. With a second near-solo Xmas Day under my belt, a lot of time has been spent in remembrance, on events recent and not, and on people new and old, near and far, present and not. In returning to my music list, muddling through the sometimes sticky waters of sentiment and memory, and ruminating on the ease of my choices, I’ve come to realize that wonder is the ribbon tying everything together. It’s a quality I fully realize can’t be forced, but can, perhaps, arise out of the right set of conditions. It logically follows then, that next year I hope to be writing this list from Europe. (You read that correctly.) Until then, please enjoy, and feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.

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The cast of “La damnation de Faust” take bows at the Opera Royal de Wallonie (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

1. La damnation de Faust, Opéra Royal de Wallonie; Liège, January.

Though I have loved the work of Berlioz for years, never have I heard it so vividly and lovingly brought to life as here, in the beautiful, ornate opera house of lovely Liège. American tenor Paul Groves, currently onstage at the Met in The Merry Widow (my interview with him here), turned his Faust strongly away from tormented-hero cliches and into something recognizably (and touchingly) human; his chemistry with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Mephistopheles was warm, watchable, and quietly splendid. (More here.) Together with Director Ruggero Raimondi’s thoughtful production and strong orchestral vision from Music Director Patrick Davin, this was one of the best ways to start the musical new year.

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Lilian Farahani, Donato Di Stefano, and Anicio Zorzi Giustianini in “Il matrimonio segreto”. (Photo: Opera National de Lorraine)

2. Il matrimonio segreto, Opéra national de Lorraine; Nancy, February.

Conductor Sascha Goetzel led a vivacious reading of Cimarosa’s frothy and very Mozartean score (on the day of its 225th birthday, when I attended) in this fun production of the 1792 opera by Cordula Däuper in Nancy’s sumptuous opera house. Standouts included tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as the lovestruck Paulino, baritone Riccarado Novaro as seeming-fop Conte Robinson, and jovial baritone Donato Di Stefano as the bumbling Signor Geronimo. They, along with the entire cast, skillfully used Sophie du Vinage’s zany costumes and Ralph Zeger’s comical dollhouse sets to wondrous effect, embodying the very best sitcom stars with boundless energy and zesty, charismatic stage presences to match. This was “Three’s Company” 18th century style, complete with beautiful music and cartoon costumes — and it was fantastic.

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Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Andreas Schager as Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Gotterdammerung.” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

3. Götterdämmerung, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, February.

Christine Goerke, who sang the role of Brünnhilde in this modern production, is one of the very great singers of our era, and you should run, not walk, if she’s performing in your town. This lady (my interview with her is here) understands, at a deep level, what makes Wagner  (and music) exciting, affecting, and fiercely human. If ever you’ve said ‘I don’t like Wagner” or “I don’t understand opera” or “Opera is boring,”  she is the person who will guide you to a place that may change your mind. This was her third turn in Toronto singing as part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and with each performance, including the one last winter, her Brünnhilde grew ever more alive and vivid. Goerke is truly a gifted vocalist and a great performer, and in this final instalment of the immense Ring Cycle, she infused every scene she was in with an earthy, robust presence. In a word: magic.

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The set of Willy Decker’s “La traviata” at the Met in New York. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

4. La traviata, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, March.

I have seen this opera many, many times in my opera-going life, but never have I seen one with more unusual characterizations. It forced a rethink of every single trope I had taken for granted. Alfredo, the male lead, was not a lovelorn romantic figure, but an obsessive weirdo bordering on abusive. Tenor Michael Fabiano captured every nuance of the character with magnetic clarity, and he was matched here, beautifully, by baritone Thomas Hampson, whose Giorgio was desperate, mean, and possibly more abusive than his son. It was a remarkably theatrical approach, and it was gripping to watch the two interact with Sonya Yoncheva’s sad, exhausted Violetta, a woman so desperately at the end of her rope she overlooks the character flaws of the men who constantly surround her. I had my reservations of Willy Decker’s production overall (more here) but I loved the central performances, and still think of them with awe.

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Colin Ainsworth and Peggy Kriha Dye in “Medea” at Opera Atelier. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

5. Medea, Opera Atelier; Toronto, April.

As with La traviata, the strength of the performances in Medea are seared into my memory. (My review here.) Tenor Colin Ainsworth embodied the wayward husband character with bravado, his Jason conniving, sexy, sensuous, and highly manipulative, always managing to say the right thing while shamelessly doing wrong, less a libidinous cartoon than a recognizably entitled man brought low by the slow-boiling rage of Peggy Kriha Dye’s titular sorceress. Their scenes together sizzled with an intense love-hate chemistry that so clearly reminded one of the all-too-human basis of mythology; these characters of yore may have odd names and be entangled in crazy-seeming stories, but Atelier’s production of the Charpentier work, for all its beautiful design elements, offered an important reminder that the human heart is a very messy and frequently painful place.

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky as part of Trio Magnifico. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

6. Trio Magnifico, Toronto; April.

The concert marked both the Canadian debut of soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov, as well as the final Canadian appearance of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. (My tribute to Dima here; my interview with Netrebko and Eyvazov here.) With the Canadian Opera Company orchestra led by Jager Bigiamini, the famed trio performed a Russian-heavy program that also featured several standard opera favorites, including Hvorostovsky’s anguished, heart-rending performance in a scene from Rigoletto. People can (and have) roll(ed) eyes that it was a concert about frippery and hype, that it lacked substance and/or deep artistry; everyone is entitled to such opinions. But for me, it was a concert where music became very real, where hearts were shamelessly worn on sleeves (and fancy dresses), and where the electric thrill of world-renowned voices was finally felt in a city that had waited too long for such a large-scale opera event. Bravo (and more of this, please).

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At the Konzerthaus Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

7. Herbert Blomstedt with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kit Armstrong, soloist; Konzerthaus Berlin, May.

Armstrong gave a beautiful, loving reading of Beethoven’s famous Third Piano Concerto, in a program that also featured Bruckner’s Fourth symphony. This concert was part of a series of programs dedicated to (and saluting the work of) pianist Alfred Brendel, and there was, I think, no better way to pay homage. The American artist didn’t pound the crap out of the keys or show off his Mad Finger Skillz the way some young soloists are prone to doing; rather, in perfect harmony with Blomstedt’s delicate direction of a creamy (if highly textured) Vienna Phil, Armstrong coaxed the gentle splendour out of  the fiendishly deceptive work with kindness, gentleness, and a profound sense of poetry. The focus was always very squarely on the music, as the audience at Konzerthaus so expertly proved with their careful, intense listening and, at the concert’s end, continuous applause and (rare for Berlin) standing ovation.

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The cast of “Die Krönung der Poppea” take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.)

8. Die Krönung der Poppea / Ball im Savoy Komische Oper Berlin, May.

If you’ve spent any time around me this year, chances are very good you’ve heard me rapturously talk about this, and probably more than once. To be plain: this updated version of The Coronation of Poppea was one of the best experiences in my entire opera-going life. Monteverdi’s score was infused with creative, modern, character-focused touches, thanks to Elena Kats Chernin’s ingenious instrumentations, and Katrin Lea Tag’s sexy, sparse design, together with Barry Kosky’s seriously smart direction, confidently underlined every bit of timeliness inherent to the work. This was sex, blood, murder, madness, power, set to repeat, and to a bang-up smashing soundtrack. The Komische Oper’s easy pairing of what could be called “high classical” works (like those by Monteverdi) with fun, frothy pieces like Weimar Republic operettas (i.e. a sassy, very funny production of Paul Abraham’s Ball at the Savoy, featuring the great Dagmar Manzel) highlighted the eclectic, culturally diverse performing arts scene in the Berlin opera world. This is a company (my write-up on them here) that understands the role both opera and operetta play in a healthy music ecosystem, and they do both with incredible style and smarts.

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The cast of “Der Rosenkavalier” take bows at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

9. Der Rosenkavalier, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, May.

Not only did this mark a goodbye (of sorts, maybe) for soprano Renée Fleming, it was also one of the most satisfying productions that has graced the Met stage in a very long while. Robert Carsen balanced every element with grace and panache, placing the story (about genteel Viennese in a battle of hearts and minds, of sorts) in a pre-WW1 setting, giving both the narrative and infusing its cast of characters with poignancy. The chemistry between Fleming and Elīna Garanča, in the pants role of Octavian, was gripping, magical, and very palpable. (More of my thoughts here.) We don’t have to guess at Octavian’s fate here; it isn’t, as so many productions might have you believe, happily-ever-after. Never has stripping the saccharine veneer off Viennese finery been more satisfying, or dare I say, beautiful.

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Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca, 2017. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

10. Tosca, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, May.

Mesmerizing stage presence, an imposing physique, a luscious tenor sound – this production could have well been called “Mario” for the heat Marcelo Puente brought to it. (My interview with him here.) The Argentinian tenor exuded star power in waves, even as he maintained perfect vocal control and demonstrated a deep respect for Puccini’s buttery score, his rendering of the famous “E lucevan le stelle” a clear cry out of spiritual and emotional darkness, dramatically rich as it was vocally fulsome. The chemistry Puente shared with leading lady Adrianne Pieczonka was notable for its casual ease; this was a Tosca and Mario who were clearly friends as well as lovers, something refreshing in an opera usually overstuffed with giant romantic gestures that don’t always feel sincere. This did.

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Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi in Toronto. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions)

11. Hibla Gerzmava in concert, Roy Thomson Hall; Toronto, June.

Despite some apparent throat issues, Gerzmava gave a beautiful concert with the Moscow Virtuosi, providing a splendid introduction for Canadians unfamiliar with the soprano’s incredible range and repertoire. (My review here.) What struck me watching Gerzmava live was how easily she moved between modes: diva, philosopher, dreamer. Some opera performers have one mode, which they only slightly alter between pieces and roles, and that’s fine too — every artist is a little bit different, an they do what works best for them, in the moment and for the long term — but Gerzmava melted into every single thing she sang, one moment teasing Virtuosi performers, the next, falling beautifully into a French aria. Her clear commitment to the variety of chosen repertoire was matched by a quicksilver tone and a gracious stage presence that made me keen to see her live onstage again soon.

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RIAS Kammerchor at St. Hedwig’s. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

12. Berliner Festspiele; September.

Autumn saw a quick if very busy trip to the German capital to cover concerts and performances at the annual arts event for Opera Canada magazine (published in their next edition in early 2018). A standout from the Fest includes the RIAS Kammerchor, led by Justin Doyle. Together with period instrument ensemble Capella de la Torre, the choir marked the 500th birthday of opera forefather Claudio Monteverdi by performing a series of day-spanning concerts at both the historic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and the modern Boulez Hall; the contrast was stark and beautiful, and very haunting. (My review here.) Also memorable was the Korean Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra, who offered a program chalk-full of works by Isang Yun, a Korea-born German composer whose 100th birthday year was being marked with events throughout the Festspiele. The Konzerthaus audience at the Sunday morning concert responded with incredible passion and offered beautifully careful listening as conductor Shiyeon Sung led her very elastic orchestra on a very gripping sonic journey.

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Roberto de Candia as Falstaff in Parma. (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

13. Falstaff, Teatro Regio di Parma; October.

Go outside the Teatro Regio and into the streets of Parma, and I guarantee you would have found any of the characters featured in Jacopo Spirei’s smart production of Verdi’s classic, based on the (in)famous Shakespeare character. (My interview with Spirei here.) This was a presentation that got every element right, from design to blocking to performances, while leaving great respect for the challenging if fiercely sparky score. Roberto de Candia was brilliant as the titular Falstaff — not a fun-loving-fat-man cliche, but a vulgarian bordering on loathsome, who was only redeemed by the strength and grace of the women around him. This wasn’t merry old England but dirty old Blighty and it was brilliant — and a troupe of English travellers I met at intermission heartily agreed, adding it was the best thing they’d seen at the Festival Verdi this year. (I agree.) I really hope this production travels to North America at some point; it has so much to say, and says it in such a smart, and frequently funny way.

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Dominik Köninger with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

14. Dominik Köninger in recital with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin, Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie Berlin; Berlin, October.

In seeing Die Krönung der Poppea, I wrote that the German baritone delivered a “snarling, sexy, utterly magnetic performance” as Nero, an observation perhaps made more poignant for it being one of the few darker roles he has done. Köninger is, as he told me over the course of a subsequent interview (link), usually cast in what could be considered good-guy roles like Papageno, Orpheus, Figaro, and lately, Pelléas. Perhaps he should consider adding more villains — or at least more darkly tormented figures. Köninger’s propensity and talent for deep, dark, yearning repertoire was shown to full effect in a concert given just before Halloween at the Philharmonie’s Chamber Concert Hall with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. Titled “Totentanz” (or “Death Dance”), the program was a smart, carefully curated mix of Grieg, Purcell, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Schubert, and Mahler; it also featured gripping instrumental selections and abridged scores from various films (including Psycho), rearranged for strings. This was a concert that transcended the corny, faux-scary Halloween tropes and went straight to the heart – of darkness, isolation, longing, claustrophobia, sadness, desolation — and showcased Koninger’s coppery-toned baritone. Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) and selections from Schubert’s Winterreise were true highlights, performed with exquisite soulfulness. Forget the good guys!

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“Nabucco” at Deutsche Oper Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

15. Nabucco, Deutsche Opera; Berlin, November.

People who know opera have lots of opinions about this work (it’s too long; it’s never done right; it’s too narratively meandering) but everyone, opera fan or not, knows the famous Hebrew Chorus (“Va pensiero”). Unquestionably, that’s just what some of the Deutsche Oper crowd was there to hear this past November, holding collective breath until it unfurled, note by majestic note, under the careful baton of conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. Still, there was an overall curiosity and appreciation of the intriguing staging and strong singing. The audience was confronted with an uncomfortably familiar world where deep polarization was sewn by the brutality of fervent nationalism and intolerant religiosity. This spicy timeliness was underlined by Anna Smirnova’s magnetic performance as Abigaille, Nabucco’s doomed daughter. Director Keith Warner denied audiences the sentimental mood (and ending) which is sometimes presented in productions, instead presenting a world where tenderness is rare, and highly dangerous. The “walls” of Tilo Steffens’s immense set shut before the doomed Abigaille at the close; there was no forgiveness for her trespasses. It was a devastating, disturbing, and frankly, fantastic conclusion to a challenging production of a work too often soaked in sentimentality and star power.

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Katrin Wundsam and Elsa Dreisig as Hänsel and Gretel at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. (Photograph: Monika Rittershaus)

16. Hänsel & Gretel, Staatsoper Unter Den Linden; Berlin, December.

Director Achim Freyer is known for his vivid designs, painterly approach, and almost cartoon-like visual sense, and I was very curious as to what he’d do with the beloved (and widely produced holiday standard) Hänsel und Gretel. No sooner did the music begin and I found myself utterly besotted by the whimsical effect in the famous Humperdinck work. The lost pair were rendered as living dolls, complete with giant eyes (which performers cleverly moved with well-placed levers) and charming, child-like gestures. The Gingerbread Witch didn’t have an actual face, but rather, an enormous, beckoning finger as a sort of stand-in “nose” (complete with a long, red fingernail) , a coffee pot “head,” and various bits and bites of food and goodies making up the rest (think Pizza The Hut, but with less gross factor and far more style). Together with Freyer’s captivatingly creative design, wonderful performances (including tenor Jürgen Sacher as the very campy witch), and strong orchestral coloring (thanks to conductor Sebastian Weigle), the essential tension of the original Grimm fairy tale (abundance vs. poverty) was underlined in large, small, and entirely unmissable ways. It was also special to have this opera be my first experience in the gorgeously renovated Berlin State Opera theatre  — talk about a delicious birthday treat!

Berlin Thielemann

Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and soloists. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

17. Christian Thielemann with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Philharmonie Berlin, December.

I’m being perfectly honest when I write that conductor Christian Thielemann scares me — perhaps it’s the intensity, or that he reminds me of a few too many scowling band leaders from my high school days. Whatever the case, he didn’t need to smile or be cuddly to lead an astounding Berlin Phil through a non-stop, barn-burner performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Thielemann missed no chances to do the boom-bang version of Beethoven, but he also took time — lots of it — exploring, dare I say, the work’s many luxurious, foreplay-like moments (which sounds bizarre, since it is formally a religious piece, but!). The careful leanings into phrasing, the pregnant pauses, the fine drawing-out of vocal lines tenderly at one moment and whittling away strings and percussions into nothingness at others… some performances leave you (me) breathless, and this was one. When he held the rich, pregnant silence at the end, for several moments, no one in the Philharmonie breathed, or dared to; Thielemann has that effect. It was a very special and memorable way to experience the music of Beethoven at the Philharmonie for the first time — and again, was a special gift for my birthday week in Berlin.

18. Märchen im Grand Hotel (Fairy Tales from the Grand Hotel), Komische Oper Berlin, December.

lieberman lie komische grand hotel

Talya Liebermann and Tom Erik Lie in “Märchen im Grand Hotel” at Komische Oper Berlin, 2017. (Photo: Robert-Recker.de)

Despite my lacking linguistic facility in German (which I intend to rectify in 2018), the production, with fantastically energetic conducting by Music Director Adam Benzwi, was totally understandable with its themes of sacrifice, acceptance, and change being the only constants in life. The assorted cast of animated characters were brought to vivid life by a dedicated ensemble dressed to the nines, with voices to match; soprano Talya Lieberman and baritone Tom Erik Lie were special standouts for capturing such lovely delicacy in their numbers. Another Grand Hotel-themed musical (the Tony Award-winning 1989 version) is being presented this coming season at the Shaw Festival (in southern Ontario), and I’m planning on a longer feature about this work’s various iterations in 2018, the staying power of Baum’s novel, and what it means for us in the here and now. Please stay tuned? More music adventures are afoot, though hopefully “close to home” will have a different meaning at this time next year.

Travels In Italy: Dolce e brutto

San Michele Arcangelo, the church where Verdi was baptized and was later an organist. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Two weeks ago I was touring the lands of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi in Emilia Romagna, northern Italy: the place he was born and raised, the splendid home of his benefactor, the lush gardens he would walk through. Those were the good parts.

Any sentimentality or indeed, romanticism, which so many feel in traveling to Italy, has been largely scrubbed out; never, in all of my travels, I felt more aware of my status — my vulnerability — as a woman. While there are finger-waggers who will tut-tut with inevitable “you should haves” and well-meaning “if only you hads” (instincts I find frustratingly passive-aggressive if not outright patronizing)  I stand by the validity of my reactions, deeply aware of the various costs of singledom as a woman, the frequently taken-for-granted privilege of coupledom, and the need to accept the wildly different realities of each, particularly within the wider context of travel experiences. I got to see a part of Italy very few people get to see, a unique experience to be sure, but one that comes with a bitter recognition in realizing that my only return to the country will be as either part of a tour, or for quick excursions to very specific places, namely Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, and of course, Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

A rose on the property of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

In retrospect, I wonder what Verdi, a man who felt such a clear kinship with the so-called “common man,” would have made of my experiences in his country as a woman in the 21st century. Would he have been appalled, I wonder, by the cat-calls, the leering, the begging? Being a solo woman traveler opened the door to an ugly jarful of assumptions, which led to harrowing experiences: theft, harassment, manipulation, and (as was the depressingly repeated case in so many restaurants), being totally ignored. What would Verdi have made of it all? What would he have made of my wrists being grabbed by a older woman wanting money? Or waiters running to serve amorous couples but consistently ignoring my inquiries about a missing lunch and requests for another glass of Lambrusco? Or of personal items being stolen from an abode? What of the forced kissing and repeated fondling after accepting help with luggage?  What am I to make of these experiences? Are they operatic? Is it “Italy being Italy” ? Should I not be bothered? Was it my fault? Did I somehow “ask for it?” Did I deserve it because I was alone?

In any terrible situation (or series of them), there are always minuscule shards of light, and it’s these shards I have to pick through now, with the benefit of hindsight. I will always remember the free shot of espresso provided by a friendly woman in a bustling shop in Parma; the plate of sandwiches set before me in a cafe by another woman who gave me a knowing nod when she saw I was alone; the warm, expressive tone of my tour guide at Villa Verdi (the composer’s primary residence for many decades), as I struggled in my limited Italian to understand her every detail. All of us were above a certain age, all of us perhaps had some shared understanding we couldn’t articulate. I remember these moments, cherish them, and I’ve taken a friend’s advice to try and focus on good things, like these moments, and the ones provided via music and history.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Jacopo Spirei’s Falstaff was my favorite production, and I don’t write that purely because I interviewed him about it before I left. Smart, funny, timely, and with a marvellously human lead performance by Roberto de Candia, the production (presented at the Teatro Regio di Parma as part of this year’s edition of Festival Verdi) was a true standout, and I wasn’t alone in that reaction, as chats with members of a refreshingly friendly British tour group revealed. Spirei placed the action in a familiar present, and filled the scene with very familiar people. De Candia played Falstaff as a kind of slobbish everyman, notably lacking the cutesy quality so common to characterizations. Instead, he was a kind of bar pig whom no one wanted to spend much time around — women especially; Falstaff wasn’t cuddly and harmless, he was slovenly and horrible. Only through his spectacular humiliation did he becomes semi-tolerable. The production made it abundantly clear that a character like Falstaff must be brought low in order to be raised once more, not as the phoenix, but as more of a messy pigeon who pecks around rotting porticos, and has to be kept in line with brooms and hoses every now and again.

Portrait of Verdi by Giuseppe Boldini, 1866.

I thought of Sir John Falstaff when I went to Villa Verdi some days later, because, as with Spirei’s magnificent production, I was being allowed to glimpse a vivid humanity which lives beneath an image. The house is located just outside the town of Busseto, roughly 40-odd kilometres north of Parma. Verdi supervised its construction, and, together with lady love (and soprano) Giuseppina Streponi, moved in in 1851. The house contains a number of mementos, as one might expect, all carefully and lovingly displayed.

Observing the bed in which Verdi died in 1901 (which had been shipped from the Grand Hotel in Milan) and various personal effects (including letters, knick-knacks, and the top hat and scarf he wears in Boldini’s famous portrait), a portrait of a good man dedicated to music and the people he loved emerges. It sounds hokey, but somehow, it wasn’t — but it was odd to walk around the living quarters of someone whose music was the soundtrack of large swaths of my life, to say nothing of my mother’s; it was ordinary and yet not, simple and yet grand, intimate and epic, all at once. Two pianos on which Verdi composed his works (early and later) were there, a clear case covering their keys. I stared at those pianos, longing to touch them. (No photos are allowed inside the house, alas.) I couldn’t rip my eyes off the second instrument on which he had composed Aida; this epic of the opera world, this contentious, difficult piece, with clashing ideologies and a gorgeously intimate subtext about loving the wrong person in the wrong time, “Celeste Aida” and the so-called “Triumphal March” — all that was done on the simple, upright piano sitting before me.

Gelling those reactions with the personal effects (to say nothing of the little section on Wagner) was surreal but also beautiful. I wish I could have had a few moments to stand in that room and take it all in, quietly, thoughtfully; it was one of the rare times during my travels in Italy that I actually wanted to be alone.

Verdi house

The exterior of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

A more fulsome piece about my visit to Villa Verdi and the town of Busseto is set to appear in a future edition of  Opera Canada magazine, but at this website, expect a piece (soon) about a very unique version of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) presented in Reggio Emilia, which featured members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Italian entertainer Elio. Mozart’s opera has been on my mind a lot lately, because it is, as Komische Oper head honcho Barry Kosky rightly has noted, a work infused with a deep loneliness, and that quality is one which haunted me throughout Italy. Perhaps it was the absence of my mother, the social isolation that comes with being an independent woman of certain means, an overall disappointment… whatever the case: I am happy to have seen and experienced the things I did in Italy — and it will take a lot to get me to return.

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