Canadian company Tapestry Opera are known for being inventive. Their creative takes on presentation, production, and composition are, in many senses, helping to redefine what opera’s role is (and perhaps should be) moving into the 21st century. Next month they’ll be presenting the North American premiere of The Devil Inside, an adaptation of a scary tale by Robert Louis Stevenson that has been given a contemporary update. A co-commission and co-production by Scottish Opera & Music Theatre Wales, the show was lauded upon its premiere last month in Glasgow and is already creating something of a stir in Toronto’s music scene.
Before that, Tapestry is getting set to present Songbook VI, which continues their popular songbook series. The evenings are notable for their mix of old and new with a kind of aplomb that keeps respect of opera’s history intact while throwing its starchy pretensions out the window. Past concerts have heartily thrown together opera and electronic music, and presented the mournful with the playful in equal measure (and sometimes on the same bill). The concert, happening this Friday and Saturday (February 5th and 6th, respectively), is set in the intimate confines of the company’s studio spaces in Toronto’s historic Distillery District. The physical environment makes one feel as though dropped in the middle of a no-holds-barred rehearsal and an ever-unfolding artwork whose resolution is decidedly unknown.
No details from the evening have been released yet, but audiences are being promised snatches of works from some of Tapestry’s most popular shows, including 1992’s award-winning Nigredo Hotel, which features a libretto by acclaimed Canadian author Anne-Marie MacDonald. While we can’t expect any murderous wives or mid-aria heavy metal guitar solos, I’m also thinking: it’s a Tapestry show, so go with the flow. Anything could happen. That’s the great appeal of Tapestry’s approach, and, perhaps, of modern opera itself.
Songbook VI will feature the talents of mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and Tapestry Resident Conductor Jordan de Souza. Giunta, whom Toronto audiences may remember from her turn in the memorable Atom Egoyan-directed production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Canadian Opera Company in early 2014, took some time between gigs recently to answer a few questions about singing and repertoire; Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori, who was a regular panelist on my radio show last year, adds his thoughts about diversity in opera.
How difficult is it for you as a singer to go between various ‘sounds’ – from Mozart to modern work like that of Gordon Lightfoot?
WG: Not difficult at all. In fact, it is a joy for me, and often a welcome feeling for my voice to switch between different styles of singing, either within one performance or from contract to contract. There are basic principles of my vocal production that stay consistent no matter what the style is, like how I breathe, but for the rest of it, it’s like one part of my voice get a little break, while the other takes over.
Do you think it’s important for singers to embrace genres other than opera?
WG: I think it’s totally up to each performer, and where their interests and abilities can take them. It’s neither important, nor necessary, for all of us performers to be terribly diverse. To each their own. There are some people who can sing the bejeezus out of one particular style or role, better than anyone in the world, and then there are people like me: chameleons. As long as we have all the bases covered in this industry (and with the amount of singers on the market, that will never be an issue) I think artists can define themselves as they choose, and stray from the trodden path as much or as little as they like.
Photo by Amy Gottung
What are your thoughts around diversity in opera? MM: Diversity in opera is a loaded topic. The traditional repertoire is filled with works that stereotype, exoticize, villainize, parody, and/or simply exclude (perceived) “others”. Larger houses similarly face challenges in existing in the present, with diversity as one of many things that has not been dealt well with. (Name a big-house General Director, Composer, or Conductor that is either a woman or a minority.)
Contemporary opera, on the other hand, if true to its etymological roots (con meaning “with”; tempo meaning “times,” or “with the times”) should reflect the time and place that it is created in. So if a producer / commissioner / arts council does their job, it is a welcoming, inclusive… a normal place to be for a diverse public. There is an old rule that if you can see yourself reflected in the thing you are looking at, then it is more attractive and welcoming. (Potential “things” can include administrative leadership, performers, stories, creators, audiences, design, style, and language.) Toronto is widely considered to be one of the most diverse cities in the world; why wouldn’t its contemporary opera embrace that? Tapestry has a history and practice of representing gender and race diversity at all levels. Inclusion is a great opportunity to take advantage of a wealth of talent and perspective that reflects and informs who we are today.
Why is contemporary opera important?
MM: For the same reason that sex is important to humankind. Without contemporary opera collaborations and the subsequent conception and birth of works, the art form is doomed. A new generation of art builds a new generation of art goers…and when it is really good, there is nothing quite like it!
WG: It is relevant today and speaks directly to people’s experiences in life. Sure, the usual themes of opera drama will always be the same (love, revenge, and betrayal), but with modern opera, we hear stories that we know, and socio-cultural references that make sense to us, just as our classical operas did to the audiences of their time. I think this is very exciting and very important for the future of opera.
When I last spoke with soprano Chen Reiss, she was in the middle of planning a Beethoven album. At the time, she spoke excitedly about possible selections, and happily shared a few morsels of insight her research had yielded. The fruit of that study is Immortal Beloved (Onyx Classics) a delicious collection delivered with Reiss’s signature mix of lyricism and authority, accompanied with sparky gusto by the Academy Of Ancient Music and conductor Richard Egarr. Released in March, the album is the latest in Reiss’s very ambitious discography featuring the music of Mozart, Mahler, Meyerbeer, Lehar, Schubert, Donizetti, Rimsky-Korsakov, and many others besides. The title of this latest album is an intentional reference to the name Beethoven gave to a mysterious woman in his life (the identity of the “immortal beloved” has long been a source of speculation), and showcases of the breadth of complexity pulsating within Beethoven’s early writing style. Far from fantastical, flights-of-fancy lovey-dovey ditties (the composer didn’t do those), these are sounds rooted in a very earthy sensibility. Reiss’s performance of these notoriously difficult works is a heartfelt embrace of the human experience and the myriad of emotions within. What was a thoughtful listen in former, so-called normal times takes on an even more contemplative shade in the current one.
Like many in the classical industry, the usually-busy soprano has been affected by cancellations stemming from the corona virus pandemic. Just two days into rehearsals at Semperoper Dresden last month (as Morgana in a planned production of Handel’s Alcina) the production, following others in Europe, was shut down. Thankfully, Reiss did get to record a sumptuous concert with the Academy of Ancient Music and conductor Christopher Alstaedt in early March, at Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, one featuring a selection of tracks presented on Immortal Beloved, as well as orchestral pieces honouring this, the year of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. But, as with everything at present, the future is a giant question mark. Reiss’s scheduled appearances on the stage of the Wiener Staatsoper (as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Marzelline in Fidelio), with the Rotterdam Philharmonic (Mahler Symphony No. 2), and at Zaryadye Hall in Moscow have been cancelled; her scheduled performances in June (at the Rudolfinum Prague with the Czech Philharmonic; as part of the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch with Bamberger Symphoniker; a return to Wiener Staatsoper in Falstaff) have not. It’s so difficult to say what could happen now; the fingers, toes, and figurative tines of tuning forks everywhere are being crossed throughout the classical world, for a return, if not to normal (an idea that seems to bear redefining hourly), than to something that might still allow for that magical energetic exchange between artists and audiences.
Photo: Claudia Prieler
Such an exchange is one Reiss is well-acquainted with. She has performed at numerous houses, including Teatro alla Scala, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam, and, of course, at her home base in Vienna with Wiener Staatsoper, where she has appeared over many seasons. As well as opera, Reiss has made concert appearances with the Israel Philharmonic, Wiener Akademie, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Laeiszhalle Hamburg, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Tonhalle Düsseldorf, Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre National de France, as well as with festivals like Schleswig Holstein, Lucerne, the BBC London Proms, the Enescu Festival, and the Liszt Festival Raiding. Last spring the soprano was in Belgium as part of a sweeping performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Orchester Philharmonique Royal de Liège led by Christian Arming; not long after, she jetted off to Berlin, giving divine performances in Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) at Chorin and the Philharmonie, before embarking on a multi-city tour of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Munich Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Reiss also uses her considerable teaching skills in Master Classes at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute.
The notable cultivation of a wider array of repertoire over the past while reveals an artist who is firmly determined to be her own woman – on stage, in music, and through life. Such fortitude is reflected in the selections on Immortal Beloved, not easy works, in either musical or dramatic senses, but chosen, clearly, for the arc they provide for an holistic listening experience – a theatre of the mind indeed, with intuitive heart-and-head moments. The songs reveal not only Beethoven’s approach to vocal writing, but the types of texts he was attracted to (which, as you’ll see, she expands on in our chat). Many were written in the hot intensity of youth (Beethoven was mostly in his twenties), so it follows that the texts the composer set are equally dramatic, with Big Emotions and Big Feelings, instincts that only grew in shape and complexity with time. There is a definite dramatic arc to their arrangement on the album, with the Mozartian opening aria, “Fliesse,Wonnezähre, fliesse!” (“Flow, tears of joy, flow!”), taken from Cantata on the accession of Emperor Leopold II, composed in 1790. A young Beethoven was clearly wearing his influences on his sleeve here, an instinct which weaves its way throughout Immortal Beloved, where discernible threads of not only Mozart and Haydn, but contemporaries like Johann Baptist Wanhal, Fran Ignaz Beck, François-André Danican Philidor, and notably Étienne Nicolas Méhul can plainly be heard; the bricks laid by these classical composers along the path of composition – melodic development, instrumentation, counterpoint, thematic exposition – were absolutely central to Beethoven’s own creative development, and can plainly be heard on Immortal Beloved, both in the smart vocal delivery and the knowing, quiet confidence of Egarr and the Academy.
The emotionally turbulent “No, non turbarti” (“No, do not be troubled”), scena and aria for soprano & orchestra, features Reiss carefully modulating tone, stretching vowels this way and that with just enough oomph to quietly underline the vital schlau, a quality she feels is central to understanding the piece. “Prime Amore” (“First Love”), which follows, is characterized by Reiss in the liner notes, “a startlingly mature way of looking at love’s complexities” and is conveyed with piercing tonal purity and tremendous modulation. The melodic grace of Fidelio, Egmont, and the incidental music for Leonore Prohaska (for a play by Johann Friedrich Duncker about the military heroine) highlight the soprano’s elegant phrasing, easy flexibility, and sparkling aptitude for injecting drama at just the right time, with just the right phrasing and vocal coloration; even if one doesn’t understand each word within their broader tapestry, one nonetheless feels the threads of multi-hued emotion running through and between them. Delivered with controlled passion and a watchful eye for storytelling, the selection of songs clearly convey a keen sensitivity to both the complexity of the writing and the complicated histories of their creation. As the liner notes remind us, the circumstances in which these works were written (and only sometimes performed) were less than ideal, and were frequently the source of sadness and frustration for their composer.
However, not all the material on Immortal Beloved is steeped in poe-faced seriousness; “Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken” (“If a shoe is not to pinch”) is a jovial little number, performed with a wink and a definite smile in the voice. Written in 1795 and taken from the singspiel Die schöne Schusterin (The Shoemaker’s Wife) by Ignaz Umlauf (second kapellmeister to Vienna’s Hofkapelle, or Court Chapel), its jovial lyrics, reflected in the lilting music, fit within the overall playful nature of the work (the wife’s husband is named Sock, because of course), providing the album with some needed softness amidst its many sharper edges, ones which are displayed to perfect effect with the elegant ferocity of “Ah! perfido” (“Ah! Deceiver”). The famous two-scene aria, composed in 1796 and based on the work of Metastasio, has its roots in the mythological figures of Deidamia and Achilles. The song is an extended and emotionally varied lament over the antique hero’s abandonment and rejection of the narrator; it moves rapidly between fury, despair, confusion, and longing, feelings which inextricably fuse text and music. As has been noted, Beethoven’s Deidamia could be “a younger sister of (Mozart heroines) Donna Elvira, Fiordiligia or Vitella. Yet “Ah! perfido” contains elements that can act as premonitions of Beethoven’s later vocal style, where the mosaic of changing emotions is replaced by consistent and deepened psychology.” With “Ah! perfido” Reiss has chosen to close the album on a deliberately, and quite deliciously, thoughtful note. Indeed, there is something reassuring about Reiss’s sound across the whole of Immortal Beloved, one that blends strength, beauty, and wisdom, while showcasing an inherently intelligent approach to narrative and to creating a deeply satisfying listening experience, one which, in our current times, is more needed than ever.
Like many in the music world right now, the soprano has turned to the online world for sharing her talent, and for showcasing that of others. On her Instagram account, she hosts exchanges with fellow artists as part of collaborative digital project Check The Gate. One recent exchange featured cellist Gautier Capuçon, with whom she performed in Paris as part of Bastille Day celebrations in 2019; another featured director Kasper Holten. Her virtual performance with guitarist Lukasz Kuropaczewski, of Schubert’s “Frühlingsglaube” (“Faith In Spring”, with its encouraging text, “Nun, armes Herz, vergiss der Qual! Nun muss sich Alles, Alles wenden” / Now, poor heart, forget your torment! Now all must change”), is particularly stirring. Reiss has also been featured in broadcasts of productions streamed through the Wiener Staatsoper website. Most recently she can be seen as an elegant Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante, as well as a very cheeky Bystrouška (the Vixen) in Das schlaue Füchslein (The Cunning Little Vixen) by Leoš Janáček. Here the soprano conveyed a ferociously charismatic stage presence that alternated smoothly between thoughtful notions of innocence, experience, and everything in-between. Blake’s lines that “Mercy has a human heart / Pity a human face; / And Love, the human form divine; / And Peace, the human dress” never felt more immediate than when experiencing (however virtually) her elegant intonation and lyrical vocal prowess in handling the complexities of Janáček’s delightful and truly tricky score. One positively thirsts to experience her broader explorations into the composer’s world, and fingers are crossed for things to manifest in what is currently, as for so many, an uncertain future.
More livestreams are, however guaranteed, in the interim. On May 2nd Wiener Staatsoper is set to broadcast Fidelio, which will feature Reiss as Marzelline, a role she is well familiar with, and there are sure to be more interviews and performances on her Instagram page as well. Over the course of our conversation in mid-March, just as Reiss was preparing to leave Dresden for home in Vienna, we chatted about a wide array of topics, including Immortal Beloved, as well as the impact of the cancellations, and the possible meaning Reiss is taking from the current situation.
What was the motivation to do these not-so-well-known pieces?
Actually that was just it: these pieces aren’t well-known. There isn’t any one album that has collected all these pearls for sopranos under one roof – you have to buy an entire Beethoven edition. There are so few recordings of these works, and I thought, why not? They’re so good, they should be standard repertoire, they should be recorded as often as Mozart concert arias and performed onstage. Most are early Beethoven, taken from the time he was living in Bonn and before he came to Vienna.
With “Primo Amore” for instance, for many years everybody thought it was written during his time with Salieri in Vienna; researchers found out recently, in comparing ink and paper, that it was actually written in Bonn before he came to Vienna, and to German text, and it was never published. Most of the pieces (on Immortal Beloved) were not published in his lifetime; he did revise them and had the intention of publishing them but didn’t come to do it because he was so particular and such a perfectionist. I think that he just didn’t trust himself with (writing for) the voice – it didn’t come to him as naturally or organically as writing for piano or orchestra – so (his vocal works) were just left in the drawer. Magdalena Willmann was a neighbour’s daughter in Bonn, and he was possibly in love with her, and we known he wrote (“Primo Amore”) for her. And the shoe aria (“Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken”) is an unusual piece for Beethoven; it’s a buffa aria, written a very Haydn-like style. It’s a humouristic aria, he wrote it for her also; we know that because (Willman) was soprano and had a very good lower range, and in those pieces there are a lot of passages where he’s using the lower range for an effect, either a comic effect or to express very extreme feelings. (Willman held a position as first soprano at the Bonn National Theater.) So it is very challenging because almost in every piece there are two octaves at least!
Portrait of Beethoven as a young man, c. 1800, by Carl Traugott Riedel (1769-1832)
What’s that like for you as a singer? How do you approach it?
I put in ornaments – I built them in, because it’s early Beethoven and because I (recorded) it with an early music ensemble. Some of the (works) were written in 1791, 1795, around there – Haydn was still alive, Salieri was still writing, so they’re very much classical. The pitch we used to record is A=438 and not A=443 or A=442, which was used more in the Romantic time later on. It’s a very classical period (for these works) and I wanted to use ornaments, since some passages (of the songs) over two octaves. This is why I think it’s great for sopranos – you can show a very big talent of expression, of colors, of virtuosity. And with Beethoven, the virtuosity is not virtuosity for the sense of showing off the voice, but of showing big emotions: everything is bigger than life; we are pushing boundaries in every possible way, rhythmically, dynamically, harmonically. The length of the pieces is noteworthy too – “Ah! perfido” is fourteen minutes, “Primo Amore” is around fourteen minutes; no one wrote, at that time, such long songs. Mozart’s concert arias are between seven and ten minutes! Beethoven was using a bigger orchestra too. So clearly he liked to do everything big for his time.
For me it was pushing my boundaries, like “Ah! perfido”, a work which is so identified with bigger voices, like Birgit Nilsson and Montserrat Caballe and Cheryl Studer – these are big voices but I think today more and more lighter voices are singing it, and I believe this is the kind of voice that sang it in his time.
Over the last few years, that undercurrent of very dramatic, authoritative sound has been developing in your voice, though The Times described your sound as “soubrette”…
I don’t think I was ever a soubrette. I know some people say this but my voice never had this edginess, it was a light voice, a pure voice. Of course I sang roles that are soubrette-ish, like Adele (from Die Fledermaus) or Blonde (from Die Entführung aus dem Serail), but I no longer sing them – not that I can’t but I don’t find them as interesting. And I think the color of the voice… it was always an elegant voice, and in this sense I don’t know why people say it’s soubrette, I would not say it, but again, I’m very happy that they chose it as CD of the week! Everyone has a different view of voices; it’s quite individual.
You’d said when we spoke before that you don’t like being slotted into one style, a view that’s been echoed by singers I’ve spoken with since, and I wonder if that is the result of a need to be flexible now in the opera world, or of wanting to be more artistically curious.
I think it’s happening because more and more singers are taking their careers into their own hands – well, “career” is the wrong word, but singers are taking charge, yes. I think we’re tired of being told all the time what to do. When you start as a young singer, yes, you have to obey everything, you have to take every job that is being thrown at you, but when you get a little bit older, there are benefits to that, one being that you can also make your own choices and you can say, “no, I actually don’t feel like singing this role anymore, I want to do something else” and also, “I want to do my own projects” – meaning, “I no longer want to be just a team player, it’s great to be that and I love doing it when I do opera, but I also want to do my own projects where I am choosing the repertoire, where I am choosing the partners I will work with, where I choose what will written in the booklet and what will be the order of the pieces and what will be the title of the CD.” So basically, I think that it’s coming because we singers feel a need to be more, not more in control, but we want to have more responsibility over our artistic choices. And we want to present a complete product from beginning to end where we can say: this is me, this is mine, this is what I want to share with the world.
And this is why I took this (Beethoven) project. It was huge – it took me two years to realize it, to come up with the idea, the research, learning the pieces, learning the circumstances in which the pieces were written, finding the titles, choosing the photos, writing the booklet – it took a lot of time. I’m very proud of it and very, very happy because I feel that every tone that comes out of my mouth on the CD is 100% me, and no one is telling me how to sing and how to present myself, which is often the case when you do opera – they tell you everything: they choose your clothes, they choose your hairstyle, they tell you what to do on stage; how to move, how to breathe, how the lighting will be, the conductor is dictating the tempo whether it’s comfortable or not – usually you can’t say anything about it – the orchestra is playing as loud as they want to so… you’re kind of left out there … when you really have very little control of the end result, but when you do a CD and you are the soloist, you have much more control of the end result.
Some do albums because they want a broader appeal, but the songs on this album are musically complex – how were they to prepare?
They required a lot of practise and stamina – they’re long, and written… not in the most singable way, I would say. Some of them are very instrumental, some of the coloratura was composed, not for the voice but as if he wrote for violin – there are all kinds of weird intervals and sequences, and the voice doesn’t want to go there. Also dramatically they are not easy; to keep the tension, one has to have a very clear plan dramatically and vocally. “Ah! perfido” is the exception – that is an exceptionally well-written scene, dramatically and vocally, but it’s one that came later. Others, like “Primo Amore”… it is so difficult to make sense of the character, it’s like a big salad, Beethoven is throwing in every possible compositional idea that he had in there, and in certain ways, in terms of form, it’s not the best written aria! So to make sense of it was not easy. Some of these works just require you to spend more time with them – they’re not as organic as say, Lucia’s mad scene, which is pure bel canto. But I think they are very interesting!
The text is so interesting, as are the characters – strong women, independent women, women with ideals of a different world, women who want to change the world, to take charge, to take things to their hands – these are the kind women he admired, and this I why I called the album Immortal Beloved; we don’t know who she really was… maybe an ideal in his mind.
In the booklet you contrast Mozart’s female characters with Beethoven’s, which is such a smart way to contextualize the world in which Beethoven was living and writing; he would’ve known all these Mozart heroines but he went for something entirely different.
Yes, I think he appreciated Mozart very much musically but I think he was much more advanced in the ideas of the world and society as related in that specific sense, but for me, Mozart is beyond a composer, it’s musica assoluta, it’s really… the truth, like, God has spoken! It’s music itself; there can’t be anything better than that. But it’s something not human, and Beethoven is very human – he’s perhaps the most human composer. It’s wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve music in the most direct way, although not at all in a Puccini way!
What was your experience of working with the Academy of Ancient Music?
I was debating whether I should use a Viennese orchestra, and I knew I wanted an original-instrument one. The English period instruments are really so fabulous, so quick, they have a great tradition, and in recording you need people who are really “on” there. I was doing the Egmont concerts with them last summer, so I thought, why not extend it and do the whole CD with them? Egmont was the starting point, the catalyst, and the performances were around the time I wanted to record, so it just made sense. I’m very happy we did it; they sound fabulous and I really enjoyed working with Richard, his energy is wonderful.
Your vocal work has become more varied over the last two years or so. I wonder if making this album has made you approach other work differently.
Marzelline as a character is really difficult – there is a lot of text in a very uncomfortable zone of the voice; it’s parking her in the passaggio, with lots of text. I’m trying to sing her as round and delicate as I can. Strauss is a completely different story! He’s a composer I think is so wonderful for sopranos, and I’m so happy to sing Sophie (from Der Rosenkavalier) because it’s so comfortable in the voice. I love singing Zdenka (from Arabella) too – it’s more challenging rhythmically and very chromatic, so one has to be more careful and really look at the conductor, otherwise you lose it! Sophie is a more fun role but Zdenka is a very interesting character.
In Beethoven, I like singing some things. I love “Ah! perfido” – it’s a great piece. It sits so well in my voice, especially in terms of the range – surprisingly. This was the piece I was most afraid of, but it just feels very good! I love singing the shoe aria too – I think it’s fabulous and so funny and really well-written. And I really love the aria with the harp (“Es blüht eine Blume im Garten mein” /”In my garden blooms a flower”, from Leonore Prohaska). I think it’s a jewel…
It’s a favourite of mine too, although it really goes against what many think Beethoven “sounds” like…
Yes! It reminds me so very much of Schubert; you can hear him going off in that (musical) direction throughout this one. I also like “No, non turbarti” because of the text. It’s an aria of deception: (the narrator) has deceived (the female subject), and in such a masterful way… he’s really a master of deception, and it’s very interesting to see how Beethoven fits the music and the text so perfectly. Every sentence has two parts, the parts when he’s carrying her, and the parts when he’s calming her down. He’s schlau, as we say in German, very cunning… there is no storm coming at all! He’s talking about the storm inside him, the storm of his soul, not about a real storm, but a storm of emotions, and she’s not in real-life danger – the only danger for her is him! Then in the continuation –”Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro!” (“But you tremble, oh my treasure!”) – he tells her, “I’ll be here at your side, I’ll save you, and when the storm is over you will go away, you will abandon me, you ungrateful woman!”
So this narrator is a bit of a drama king, then?
Oh yes… but (the words of the songs) are like a strange prophecy in terms of Beethoven’s misfortunes in love. It’s amazing that even at such a young age he was attracted to those types of texts.
In youth, every emotion is writ large, whether joy or sadness.
Speaking of the latter, you were going to do Morgana… ?
I’ve worked on it, yes – I learned it, though I sang it before, four years ago. So I approached it like new now – I wrote new ornaments – but we stopped rehearsal in Dresden. We rehearsed two days, with two rehearsals, and tomorrow, I’m going home.
You know, this whole virus… it makes you put things in proportion. I don’t know where the future is going, even now. The fact I’m unemployed for this month and I don’t know next month… if they’ll open the (Wiener Staatsoper) house, who knows? Thinking about the future of our profession… public finding has to go to the hospitals… it just shows the priorities, of where things go, so what’s the situation with us, the freelance artists? I’m sure orchestras in the UK are worried about that as well; a lot of the players are freelance, and it means that if concerts are cancelled, they’re not being paid.
Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
Do you feel there Is there might be any value – as you say, you learned the role, you did the prep – is there some good you still might take away from the experience?
Every time I learn a role or re-learn a role I have new ideas, new insights, and then in the future I share it with my students. But yes, you always learn about the voice, about different styles and different approaches to a role. You never know, maybe I can jump in again (to Alcina). The prep is never for nothing, it’s just… you kind of feel that it’s not complete. You have not completed the process; you complete it only when you go onstage and share it with the public.
But I think maybe this virus is there to teach us a lot of things; maybe it’s not bad to just stop. Everything just stops for a few weeks… everybody is thinking, everybody will reinvent themselves, hopefully. The one thing I’m happy about is that it’s really good for our planet; there are no airplanes flying, the factories in China were closed so the air above China is much cleaner. So maybe it’s a way for our planet to refresh itself and maybe we need to use this time wisely. Spring is a time of rebirth, so maybe we all need to clean our closets and throw out the rubbish that we don’t need and concentrate on the important things – to understand the whole world is one community and we are a small village and we need to stick together, to help each other.
Look, I’m very sad the performances are cancelled – I was very stressed this week. The worst thing for me is the unknown; you make plans, and what gives me confidence is that I know exactly where I am at on any given day for the next two years, and I know who takes care of my kids and… there’s a plan for everything. And suddenly, the whole plan falls apart. I don’t know where I am, the kids are not in school, my mother is stuck in quarantine in Israel. You come back to the basics and you see what is really important: we are healthy, we are together as a family, we have food, we have music – and thank God we can share it. I can share the CD with my friends, with all my fans, with social media. Even with all the bad things about social media in these times, it’s giving us a feeling of being together. And, I really hope this Beethoven album will give hope, comfort, and joy to people now that they cannot hear live music.
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Sometimes new works will wash over the listener like a gentle wave. Others will strike intensely, like a thunderbolt. The latter is an apt description of my reaction to hearing Moses, a late nineteenth century work by pianist-conductor-composer Anton Rubinstein. Written in eight scenes and based on episodes from the book of Exodus, the vocal work follows the story of Moses from his childhood through to being given the Ten Commandments and handing authority to Joshua. It’s a long listen (over three hours), but is a deeply evocative aural journey, with an abundance of rich vocal writing weaved throughout a plush neo-Romantic score.
Moses is so familiar, and yet not; epic and yet intimate, religiously specific and yet broadly encompassing, it sounds so much like the things I love and yet nothing at all like any of them. There are clear references backwards (to works by Balakirev and Mussorgsky), forwards (Zemlinsky and Henze), and most firmly within Rubinstein’s own time (specifically Wagner, and more specifically, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin). Being lots of things at once and requiring a very large number of musicians, the work was never actually presented during Rubinstein’s lifetime, or for a long period of time after. A planned presentation in Prague in 1892 fell through when the theatre (then Neues Deutsches Theater; later Státní Opera) went bankrupt; public taste had shifted too, and Rubinstein’s passing in 1894 left the work in relative obscurity – until the efforts of conductor Michail Jurowski.
First, the obvious: yes, Michael Jurowski is the father of Vladimir and Dmitri, both celebrated conductors. Yes, his father was a conductor and composer, and his grandfather, David Block, was a conductor too. Yes, both he and his sons have conducted the work of his father. And yes, Moses was an immense labour of love; the maestro dedicated years to preparing and restoring the score for performance, which took place two ago (October 15th, 2017) at Warsaw’s National Philharmonic Hall. The world premiere, recorded and released last year on Warner Classics, featured the immense talents of the Polish Sinfonia Juventus, Warsaw Philharmonic and Artos Children’s choirs, as well as a talented group of soloists including Stanislaw Kuflyuk, Torsten Kerl and Chen Reiss. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called the album “an immense declaration of faith and culture” and indeed, it is that, but it is also a deeply expressive work with a clear narrative sense, thanks to the precise work of its dedicated maestro. Jurowski imbues the work with palpable momentum while allowing moments of deep beauty to shine through: there’s a beguiling interplay between a textured, spindly orchestra and Irina Papenbrock’s silky vocal delivery in “Picture 3: Have You Come, My Friend”; further along, Chen Reiss’ ethereal soprano intones luxuriantly within and around rippling strings and sonorous brass in “Picture 7: Jordan Flows Around Its Loins.” It may be a Geistliche Oper (or sacred opera, a term invented by Rubinstein himself to imply a unique blend of opera and oratorio forms), but Moses has its share of magical moments that transcend the boundaries of faith, and, dare I say, offer a space where one might meditate on the integration of spatial, sensual, and spiritual.
That integration is something Michail Jurowski excels at, through his numerous recordings and live performances. Having studied conducting in his native Moscow under Leo Ginsburg, Jurowski went on to assist the legendary Gennady Rozhdestvensky at the National Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, and conducted regularly at Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre as well as Komische Oper Berlin. Before departing the Soviet Union in 1989 (he’d accepted a permanent post with the Dresden Semperoper), Jurowski had frequently conducted performances at the Bolshoi Theatre. Since then, he’s held numerous positions, including Chief Conductor of Leipzig Opera, Principal Conductor of Deutsche Oper Berlin, General Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Northwest German Philharmonic Orchestra, and Chief Conductor of WDR Rundfunkorchester in Köln; he’s also made numerous guest appearances (Leipzig Gewandhaus, Oslo Philharmonic, Bergen Philharmonic, London Philharmonic Orchestra, to name a few) and has conducted a myriad of operas and ballets in many prestigious houses, including Teatro alla Scala, Bayerische Staatsoper, Oper Zürich, and the Bolshoi.
Photo: T. Müller
Earlier this year Jurowski made his long-awaited North American debut, leading the Cleveland Orchestra in a program of works featuring Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich; the concert was met with extreme success, and, as you’ll read, meant a great deal to the maestro. Recently he completed a series of concerts in Sweden, where he opened the season of the Norrköpings Symfoniorkester; the well-received concert featured works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and the world premiere of Elena Firsova’s new double concerto for violin and cello, which featured violinist Vadim Gluzman and cellist Johannes Moser as soloists. Norrköpings and Jurowski have enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration, with numerous live performances and recordings in their shared history including, quite notably, a 2015 release through cpo featuring the work of his father. Jurowski has also made numerous recordings of the work of Shostakovich, particularly special in light of the close association his family shared with the composer. His 2017 album of live recordings (Berlin Classics) with the Staatskapelle Dresden from the International Shostakovich Festival in Gohrisch won the German Record Critics’ Prize, with the conductor also being awarded the third International Shostakovich Prize by the Shostakovich Gohrisch Foundation that same year. Along with Shostakovich, music of Prokofiev, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Meyerbeer, Rangström, and Khachaturian (another family friend) constitutes a good part of his discography.
A cornerstone of my own musical explorations is his 1995 cpo recording of Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 7 by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. Jurowski alternates moments of tenderness and dread in a seriously engaging sonic tapestry underlining textures between strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. One moment, shimmering, glittering and gleaming in resplendence, that beauty giving way to awesome, awfully gripping moments of piercing violence. Few conductors, I think, understand Kancheli’s music better than this; Jurowski engineers the sound against blinking, winking silences in a way that makes one rethink ideas around space, movement, and resonance. Such expertise highlights, once more, that holy, wholly beguiling trinity of spatial-sensual-spiritual in understanding music, an approach I strongly suspect transferred more than a bit onto his offspring.
Among his many engagements this season, Jurowski is scheduled to lead Boris Godunov at Bayerische Staatsoper (a revival of a Calixto Bieito production from 2013) with a stellar cast featuring Dmitri Ulyanov, Ekaterina Vorontsova, and Brindley Sherratt; he’s also returning to La Scala for a revival of Swan Lake. This Thursday he’ll be on the podium for a concert with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic featuring the music of Beethoven and Penderecki. Just as you’d expect, Jurowski is as much of a great storyteller with words as he is with music, and he’s happy to share more than a few intriguing tales. We recently spoke about a host of various topics: his American debut, meeting Stravinsky, and how the experiences of Dmitri Shostakovich underline the importance of nuance in relation to artistic integrity.
via IMG Artists
You had your American debut recently; how did it go?
I felt it was fantastic. It was a huge success. We got standing ovations, and it was a big present for me, especially after a long time waiting.
Well you see, better late than never!
Did you notice any differences between American audiences and European or Russian audiences?
In general, no, It is different between a prepared audience and one absolutely fresh, but it can be this way in Vienna, in Berlin, and it is not a question. I met a really very good, prepared, and cultured public. The Cleveland Orchestra has a very long and very big tradition. I heard this orchestra in the 1960s in Moscow with George Szell, and I remember these concerts very well — it was one of the most powerful feelings in my life, to experience such an orchestra and conductor. So when we met it was within the first five minutes we understood each other.
The program was fresh to the orchestra — not the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, but the Eleventh Symphony of Shostakovich, which is today rather seldom presented onstage. It is a symphony which had influence from Hungarian events of 1956, but Shostakovich’s special talent and his genius was that he referenced, in his compositions, the problems of the whole world. The vision of violence, of death, of life, everything, not in the biographical sense in one or other way, but in the intonation. This is really music from heart to heart, and I can say it was truly so. I had the possibility for these concerts to speak with the public, and it was about forty minutes. We spoke about my personal experience with Shostakovich, some biographical moments. It was in parallel with Vadim Guzman, who brought his violin, on which was premiered the Glazunov violin concerto. It was an incredible but historical instrument.
I was very happy. I had not only the possibility to make music together with this orchestra but also to have contact with the public. I had the feeling I was in paradise.
How much do you think music contributes to breaking down barriers — cultural barriers, political barriers, emotional barriers?
Music, first of all, is notes. It is really seldom we can find the direct connection between historical or political events, so music in general is a retrospective art, or an art for the future — what I felt, by some fact of life, or what I want to wish for humanity, and so on. The Tenth Symphony of Mahler connects with the event of the letter of architect Walter Gropius to his wife, and he understood his wife was not with him; it was a shock, and from this shock began the composing of Symphony, the climax of the first movement. It’s a question we know: what was this input (the source of inspiration)? For Shostakovich, for example, one of his most famous pieces is his Seventh Symphony. It was composed during the terrible blockade in Leningrad during the war, but you see, the material of the first movement was in Shostakovich’s head before the war. And for Shostakovich, violence does not have a national form; violence is violence, it is more than geographical. So this is one of the reasons why, for example, the Seventh Symphony has such success today. This season I will conduct it in Italy; I’ve done it almost every year somewhere, and this year it will be in Sicily.
Photo: T. Müller
In an interview earlier this year you said you had wanted to be a film director originally, and I wonder how much cinematic sense you bring, because some of your recordings are strongly cinematic.
Your comparison with cinema… maybe this observation is right. I try to blend with theatre. I am also a theatre (opera) conductor. I look behind and remember in my childhood I didn’t want to be a musician, because my father was a composer. I wanted to be a theatre director. Our house was open for contact with really fantastic artists of the time — among our guests was not only Shostakovich, but also Oistrakh and other great musicians. My father had very regular contact with various artists in cinema as well. In the West the names of Soviet directors are not so important, except maybe Dziga Vertov or Sergei Eisenstein, very big directors of the 1930s — of course society was absolutely closed, but I can tell you that such directors as Bykov, Romm, Gerasimov, and other Soviet directors – they were all top-quality in terms of artists of world cinema. For me, it was a very important moment (to be around them) and to ask myself, “What is moving conflict? How do I find inputs as to what brought this music?” Music is an abstract art; it is only notes. I just try to understand what happens with these notes, but it means I compose, in a sense: the changing of effects, the language of music, this moving between con moto and sostenuto, the idea of musical structure. Musical form can be only realized during live performance; music is when we play and in this case, form, structure. It’s what happens, I hope, when I bring the right form to the public during various pieces.
The other side, from my personal kitchen, is from a time when I had a big friendship with the TonkünstlerOrchestra. The traditions of this orchestra are to repeat one program through seven or eight concerts, so with this program, it was, as usual, a series of concerts including two or three in the Musikverein. It was sometimes rather difficult to repeat, seven or eight times, the same composition, night after night.
That seems rather strenuous!
Yes, it was. For a moment I changed my understanding of this program — what I must feel, what I must think, just come with this Shostakovich work that I had to conduct seven days in a row without pause. This symphony, as with almost all of them, needs very high tension, and after seven concerts I felt myself … well, the best thing was to go fishing afterwards. I was absolutely empty and terribly tired. I was fine up to the second day or after that, but before me was three or four next — that night I understood if I go by plot, so to say, by events, every time, and prepare myself for some climaxes or some moments which in life happened unfortunately, then for me it must be personally not only a pleasure to make big music, but interesting. And from this moment, the door for this action and understanding of what happens in music, was opened.
Composer Igor Stravinsky and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow, September 1962. (Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #597702 / Mikhail Ozerskiy / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
You observed in that same interview that Stravinsky would “imbue the music with a human meaning.” What did you mean?
I had the opportunity to speak with Stravinsky in 1962. He was in Moscow, playing there, it was his visit together with Robert Craft, his first time visiting Soviet Russia. He had received permission to visit. Stravinsky not only conducted – he was a very good conductor – but also he had some meetings with Soviet composers.
My father took me to one of these meetings. Standing there, about four metres from him, he asked me what I wanted to compose. I was sixteen years old. I told him I wanted to be a conductor.
“And what do you want to conduct?”
At that time we were allowed to know Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) — I had the score. I told him, “Of course, Sacre du Printemps!”
“Why?” he asked.
“It’s such a beautiful piece, but so difficult.”
“It’s not difficult,” he said, “everyone and his dog can conduct it.”
I remember this. He was highly intelligent when he spoke. It was incredible. I remember some of the musicologists asking him about his autobiography, things like, “In your conversations with Mr. Craft, what is true?” and Stravinsky said, “Truth is only music; don’t believe the words.”
Stravinsky gave us very different pieces, different ideas. He had personal experience with Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, but his expression became different from the Russian music of Firebird, Petrushka and of course Sacre. He was composing these anarchic, fantastic things, destroying all worlds, with these fantastic harmonies in his new classics. He’s a very important person of the 20th century and I would compare him with Picasso, because stylistically, he is like Picasso: he changed a lot during his life. Where is the real Picasso? We don’t know. And we don’t know where the real Stravinsky is either, but he is real, always.
Olga Lepeshinskaya as Assol and Vladimir Preobrazhensky as Arthur Grey in a scene from Vladimir Jurowski’s ballet Scarlet Sails, staged at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater of the USSR, December 5,1943. (Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #941010 / Anatoliy Garanin / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
How does that quality of ‘the real’ translate in leading pieces by your father? Or watching your sons conduct his works?
If you speak about my father, I find him one of the outstanding composers of his time. He died very early – he was 56 years old – and he was not in the music mainstream. We are Jews, the whole family, so within the Soviet Union, our stock line was “ten kilometres” behind others, so to say. His work was not forbidden, of course, he had a very big success with the public, but he had no help from organizations that developed success. His balletScarlet Sails, after the romantic novel of Alexander Grin, it was on for fourteen years, on the stage of the Bolshoi – it was on during the war. At the time there was a hunger for the high romantic, and a very, so to say, Christ-like idea about the inferno in life and paradise in future. In this sense it captured Grin’s theme, that patience of the soul has to be without any orders – then Captain Grey will come with a big ship, with red sails, and take one and one’s life. Shostakovich wrote a highly positive critique to this ballet in the central press.
Movie poster for the 1961 film Scarlet Sails (directed by Alexandr Ptushko) based on the novel. (Photo: Mosfilm)
The music of my father was high romantic. I cannot say he was like some other composers. His was tonal music, and with a very positive feeling, but step by step, his own view of life became worse and worse; belief was very difficult and he was ill. There were a lot of difficulties in his life. During the war there were difficulties experienced by everybody, but after the war it was sometimes very difficult, and very personal, and I’m very happy all of us – Vladimir and Dmitri and me – opened the pages of his music. My recordings of his work were met with good press, and there were very successful concerts in Moscow this year, by Dmitri – with his symphonic poem Otello; and Vladimir’s concert with students, he had a big success with Scarlet Sails; and my concert also, with the Fourth Symphony, and again with students of the Moscow Conservatory. The time for him is coming, but it’s not for only my father’s name.
After the war, in the Soviet Union especially and in Moscow, there was an absolutely fantastic group of composers, really high-rate composers, not only Shostakovich, who I think was a genius, but also Khachaturian, Karayev,Weinberg, and others whose music now also is getting attention. Now I’m making a CD of Weinberg’s music with Staatskapelle Dresden; other pieces are already ready — the Clarinet Concerto, for instance. I hope by the end of this year it will be ready to release.
It’s encouraging to see the work of these composers being more frequently performed and recorded.
It’s very good! I must say, I, personally think society today has a lot of cliches that really close off the connection with the high-level composers of that time – the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. In this time, Soviet music was not only Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Denisov and so on – whose work I played a lot. Granted, it was not a very big group of composers, but there were enough that any musical culture would be proud to have them. I met practically all of them. After our immigration, I had no contact, not only with these people – most of them died – but the world in the West opened big doors for me, and I had a free feeling from different sides.
Now I’m almost 74 years old, and I don’t think I lived with a view that looked only behind, of course not, but I understand that not everything today is for the development of the soul, so I try with all my forces to compensate for that, and I’m very glad that Vladimir has done practically the same. It’s in a bit of a different form, but he has more possibilities. He is now at the age — well, a little older — as I was when we jumped to Germany. At his age right now is precisely when I really began my world career, incredibly.
It was like a whole second life for you to start over as you did.
In this form, yes.
Leading the Norrköpings Symfoniorkester in October 2019 with violinist Vadim Gluzman and cellist Johannes Moser. (Photo: Calle Slättengren / Norrköpings Symfoniorkester)
What role do you think authenticity plays? You mentioned cliches and the development of the soul. It seems like within the cultural world today authenticity is getting harder and harder to find.
I suppose that it depends from what point of view you take things. In the famous and very good Little Tragedies story of Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri, there is a whole tragedy from the phrase, “There is no justice on the earth, they say. But there is none in heaven, either.” I think that is wisdom and… we must give the last moments of our time for beauty, or for persons, and so on. Every event has different sides. It is today very simple for young people to say, “Shostakovich was a collaborator, he was a Communist party member” – but today it is not obligatory to be a member of some party.
At the end of the 1950s, especially for Shostakovich, he felt like Hamlet, “to be or not to be” – to live or not to live, because after Stalin’s death, it was a bit of fresh air. I remember this time, I was eight or nine years old. I remember it very well. And it was from one side to the other side; the role of music in creating a social community was incredibly important, higher than now. At that time, the leader of the Soviet composers Tikhon Khrennikov, was a composer – not a high composer, but good, and his idea was not to help somebody who might be better than him. That was clear. In fairness, I must say that Khrennikov managed to save the Union of Composers, unlike other creative unions – ones for writers, artists, theatrical figures, where there were many victims of the great terror after the war in the 40s. But, it happened with a lot of conductors as well, ones who didn’t want a guest conductor better than they were.
Photo: T. Müller
Some would observe that’s the negative side of human nature.
Yes, human nature. From the other side though, the position of composers was not only from the point of view of cultural but international presence, because internationally there were only two names – Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and later Khachaturian, who was from Armenia, which helped. Near to Shostakovich were some friends, who were also as I understand now, secret agents of the KGB. They gave him advice, and it was around this time when Shostakovich considered suicide.
It was at the time when his wife had died (in 1954), and Shostakovich had come to his moment and he could not compose or do absolutely anything. He had two children that needed at that time to come to the light road, so to say – his son Maxim, and his daughter Galina – but Shostakovich was absolutely destroyed as a person. His friend, cinema producerLev Arnshtam, who made the film Five days, Five nights, invited the composer abroad in what was then the DDR. (Shostakovich was composing music for the film, a joint project between the Soviet Union and East Germany about the WW2 bombing of Dresden.) When Shostakovich got to Dresden he was given the possibility to live in Gohrisch (roughly 47 kilometres southwest of Dresden). Nothing had been destroyed there during the war, unlike Dresden, which had been totally destroyed. Gohrisch was not a village, not town, but something between; it was filled with fantastic air, good views looking to the river, mountains – but Shostakovich cried every day, he could not compose, until one day he made the conscious choice to stop composing the film music and instead composed the Eighth String Quartet, one of the most important compositions of the 20th century. He wrote it in three days. Then he received the advice to be member of the communist party, and decide all his problems in one day. He was not really a member of the party as a big ideologue – absolutely not – but most people near him understood why he made this step, and from it, he was able to compose what he wanted. He said, “The more decent people in this party, the more likely it will be better.” Naivety…!
Is knowing when to compromise the secret to authenticity, do you think?
It’s the secret of surviving the regime. It was an opportunity to save himself. In Stalin’s time, he was in danger, and after Stalin died, he could’ve been a hero of fairy tales, but, I must say, political power was afraid of him, because he could write some tune for the anniversary of the Republic, or the Seventh Symphony inspired by the Psalms, or use poems of Yevtushenko in the Thirteenth Symphony with double sense – Shostakovich knew to do this, not only in his big symphonic works but in his quartets. So to give some reply here… when we speak about cliche, well, it originates from an order: “Who is not with us is against us. We must know that the crocodile that ate your enemy is not your friend yet!”
A cliche can today bring mass ideology, mass meaning, mass press, the point of view of one composer against another; this is very sad, because we have really very different points and conditions of life, and if we don’t understand this, we can’t give our true selves, guilty or not guilty.
It feels like there are a lot of artists now who still have to make those compromises in order to work and to ensure their ideas are heard.
I don’t know. Maybe. I understand today it is practically almost all the same, what happened with humans and artists – there are some groups of covert artists who are, so to say, in front, and these artists must be, possibly, in good shape with their souls. But, I don’t know if it’s good or not-good; we are not angels, and we also don’t live in paradise.
There’s really no such thing as a side-project for those who work in the arts; there are only many different aspects of one’s creative self that manifest in various ways, creating an ever-evolving tapestry of expression and experience.
This seems especially true for Philharmonix, a collective made up of members of the Berlin Philharmonic (violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley and cellist Stephan Koncz), the Vienna Philharmonic (bassist Ödön Rácz, clarinetist Daniel Ottensamer, violist Thilo Fechner), pianist Christoph Traxler (who’s performed with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the Staatskapelle Halle), and violinist/vocalist Sebastian Gürtler (first Concertmaster of the Wiener Volksoper from 1997 to 2008).One could easily label their efforts “gateway” – but I’m not sure classical music, when done well and presented with so much class and intelligence, requires any real “gateways.” If one is curious, open, broad-minded, and leaves preconceptions at the door, the wonders of the classical world tend to unfurl on their own, no gateways needed. There’s no denying a satisfying integration of entertainment, education, creativity, and chemistry greatly helps, and it’s here that Philharmonix excels. Their 2018 album, The Vienna Berlin Music Club Volume 1 (Deutsche Grammophon), is an eclectic mix of Central and Eastern European sounds, and happily raises a glass to the past while dancing firmly into the future, encouraging audiences to do the same. By turns playful, smart, and brimming with curiosity, it’s a musical fusion for dreaming, and dancing, for cooking, for cleaning, for primping and plying, for smiling, for silence, for living: “l’chaim,” “willkommen,” “rock on,” and “excelsior,” it seems to say, in so many tones and textures and tempi.
Mental workouts are sewn into the colorful quilts of their creative arrangements; one hears so many, many different sounds from moment to moment. Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” merges playfully with his theme from Peter Gunn; a classy, creative take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has snatches of “Ava Maria”; their thoughtful “Russian Overture” moves from stately seriousness (with vocals) to a Klezmer-like explosion of energy that references portions of The Nutcracker and Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. A charming rendition of “Felix Navidad”, with pizzicato strings, breezy piano, and buzzy percussion offers a lovely respite in an album of intense energy and verve; “Englishman in New York” blends Klezmer, scat, and classical chamber sounds. Then there’s the gorgeous (and for me, wildly familiar) sounds of gypsy in “Gnossienne” and “Balkan Party” – this is the music of my own childhood and cultural background, and I admit to being slightly greedy in the sonic sense of wanting more of it; perhaps their next album (The Vienna Berlin Music Club Volume 2, releasing September 27th through Deutsche Grammophon) will serve that fix, along with a panoply of other delicious sounds.
What makes Philharmonix special is that they provide not only a valuable perspective to what each member does in their respective day jobs (and it’s worth looking into those, because it changes how you perceive their work in important ways) but a very smart way to listen to past and present; you hear classical works differently after spending time really listening to what they do. This is one side project that doesn’t really feel like (much less sound like) a side project at all; its members sound as if they’ve known one another for decades, playing in one another’s living rooms, at one another’s graduations and weddings and bar mitzvahs, in bars and cars and trains and planes. Their curiosity feels much larger than a concert hall, but at the same time their musical understanding is more intimate than the coziest parlour.
That ease and familiarity was underlined in my conversation this past summer with two Philharmonix members. Noah Bendix-Balgley, First Concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2014, and Stephan Koncz, Cello with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2010, when they were between Philharnonix gigs in rural Austria. While lively and conversational, the pair were were equally blunt in sharing their thoughts on the role this project has playing in influencing the work they do with the Berlin Phil, and vice-versa. The band plays the Wiener Konzerthaus the end of this month, with performances in Dresden, Luxembourg and the U.K. in December.
(L-R) Noah Bendix Balgley, Christoph Traxler, Sebastian Gürtler, Thilo Fechner, Ödön Rácz, Stephan Koncz, and Daniel Ottensamer. Philharmonix live at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in May 2018. (via)
What’s it been like to play for audiences in rural European locations?
SK It’s been quite an experience to play on top of the mountains. As you can imagine, the altitude means the weather is quite spontaneous, so winds came up yesterday just before our outdoor concert, and the clouds were looking quite menacing, so we decided to go inside, to a brewery.
NBB It was also at the top of the mountain, but we had room for a good 400 or 500 people.
SK It was very packed and intimate atmosphere.
… which suits the music you’re doing.
SK It does. It felt wonderful in fact, to be near the audience, and they felt close to us,
That intimacy seems especially important to what you do in Philharmonix. How did you choose the repertoire? I hear a lot of the Hungarian music that was part of my childhood.
SK We are seven people — two half-Hungarians, myself and Daniel Ottensamer the clarinettist, and bass player Ödön Rácz, he’s fully Hungarian. So it’s like automatism — we want to play Hungarian folk and gypsy music. Actually, that was our first big influence at the beginning. We came together in order to play the music we can’t usually play in the high and mighty concert halls with our orchestras.
NBB We were just driving from our last concert to our stop today in Austria, it was a couple hours of driving, and we had Ödön putting on various CDs, it was this huge mix — that’s the epitome of what we’re about — and we were saying, “Oh, we can use that sound for a new track!” or, “We can take this riff!” or “We should use that bass line!” We’re always looking for some sort of musical spark that gets us excited about playing something together and that’s the nice thing: we get to decide what we’re playing and how we’ll play it, because it’s our own arrangements.
SK We spend time with fantastic works by great composers yes, but obviously those composers were inspired by all the folk sounds and other contemporary works surrounding themselves back then. As with us, now we live in the times when we are surrounded by music; never in history has there been such access to music! So if there’s work being written and performed, and we’re inspired by it, we can’t just sit and play only our symphonic repertoire, or chamber or solos. The field of sounds is large, and we need to explore everywhere…
NBB … and not only as listeners, but as performers. We want to try our hand at a lot of different styles, even if we don’t know a lot about them. We try to dig in and make it as authentic as possible. If we’re playing a piece in the swing style or something that has more of a pop grove, things like that, we want to find the essence of what makes this music tick, and how we can get that across to an audience. It’s what we enjoy doing and what we do when we get together.
It feels as if because of this intimacy and immediacy, you have a lot more free reign for experimentation. How much improvisation you allow yourselves within this framework?
SK Quite a lot.
NBB At first when we’re starting with these, a lot of what we do is typical development: we’re working on a new program or new pieces to add to a program. Stefan and Sebastian will come to rehearsal with a new piece — or the skeleton of a new piece — and we start rehearsing, to see what happens. People throw in ideas or other references to other pieces, so that’s part of the process to come up with our end product, but it’s never really an “end product,” because in the concert we still want to surprise each other, and throw in different things. The best part is how audiences react to that, because if somebody tries something interesting we‘ll enjoy that, and that joy comes across to the audience. It’s really spontaneous, and happening the moment.
SK And that mood affects the programming. We’ll play two sets and sometimes it’s just made up onstage, depending on how the audience reacts to certain thing we do. We’ll see the audience needs certain tunes or a piece to wake up with or whatever, so we adjust accordingly. The program is not so written in stone. Of course since we are trained musicians we expect a certain level nevertheless, but it’s a relaxed thing, it’s hard to describe. It’s far more exhausting to play a Philharmonix concert than normal, but, I never feel more relaxed onstage than with these guys as well.
NBB We feel audiences can really tell the difference in whatever style. If we have a program and (musicians) are tired and going through the motions, in many cases, whether it’s classical or something a little more broad, an audience responds to that — they know if that sound is really together or not. And we feel it too. So it’s important we can always try to deliver energy from our end.
Noah Bendix-Balgley performs with Philharmonix in Beijing in 2018. (via)
Whose idea was it to start this project?
SK I mean it’s a mixture of friends from the sandbox, We’ve all know each other for a long time now; Daniel and I go back to playing together as kids. In the beginning I think one of the first ideas came from Ödön — he wanted to play his Hungarian folk music and couldn’t – he’s with the Vienna Phil. Like, what can you do about that folk music there? Well, you need an ensemble. so we went from that point. And now, for almost three years, we are doing this set-up, and it’s a wonderful voyage.
The international mix of members you have, and style you play in, harkens back to another era in some ways, It’s modern but it’s so old-school. How conscious were of that as you formalized this collective?
NBB We’re very conscious about trying to get the atmosphere and the sound of the particular style. So we have a piece on the first album, “Rose Room”, inspired by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and that sound, the bass and everything, is us trying to get to the essence of, “What was that sound?” We try to find that. Or with Hungarian gypsy things, like the Brahms Hungarian Dance arrangements, we usually defer to Ödön for that; he has very specific knowledge about to play the rhythm and approach notes and timing, all those things to make it authentic. So maybe that’s what you’re hearing, that sense of an old sound, going back to the roots and core of the style in that piece. For other pieces, ones with more of a pop influence, we go for something more modern and mechanical sometimes. We think about that and really do work on that when we rehearse. We do the same thing when we’re playing the core classical rep too, you try to play a different sound for Mozart than you do for Beethoven, than you do for Shostakovich. With the rep we do as Philharmonix, we can go much further and try out some really crazy things with our instruments.
SK And the performances with Philharmonix have largely, speaking only for myself, really influenced my core classical repertoire.
Rehearsing before a performance at Wiener Konzerthaus in 2018. (via)
I was just going to ask you how this this project has influenced how you do your day job.
SK Both show us how to perform onstage, because we feel that once we do our research, so to speak, on the roots of folk for instance, once we’ve done this for Philharmonix purposes, then this knowledge translates to most classical core performances, because classical composers made references to the pop music of their time, much more so than we allow ourselves to acknowledge now. It’s good and much freer because somehow if you have done the research, you can base your freedom on knowledge; you feel free because you have figured out what the base is for all of this.
You’ve given yourself permission to explore the creative things that aren’t always encouraged within some realms of the classical world.
SK It gives more confidence onstage. Beethoven himself was one of the most famous improvisers of his time, the way he composed sometimes was free improvisations, so as a performer if you hear, “Okay, he improvised this bit, and the root of it is that” then you more comfortable onstage.
NBB For performers and for audiences it’s in that moment, rather than being exactly prescribed how you take that timing, vibrato, things like that — it’s in that moment you can be more free.
SK The holy grail for performing classical is really to make it sound as if it’s been written in the moment. That’s the grail as a performer. We’re not the composers but we need to represent it as though it was just now composed to the audience. So people see it and feel it immediately, As a performer of classical music and for Philharmonix that’s what we do there: we try to create on the spot. This is the daily bread of every jazz musician, but for us, it’s a new stick in the game.
SK Today as we did our field research on our car ride, we listened to various types of folk, and the cimbalom is one of the heroes of Hungarian music, honestly.
NB We try to recreate other instruments with what we have, so for example Sebastian likes to imitate muted trumpet, and sometimes we do a thing where you hit a string with the wood of the bow to imitate a dulcimer, or imitate the pan flute sound. All these things broaden what our instruments can actually do.
SK I’m still thinking about the cimbalom and how we get that, though; to me, the sound is extremely unique…
It has that very identifiable ping. There’s nothing quite like it.
SK Totally! With the new album where our instruments imitate pan flutes, we tried to get the colour right, but it’s kind of old-Europe sounds with that cimbalom, and there isn’t the intention for this old Europe. It happens like this in Hungarian music, because the gypsies nowadays, they still play this romantic Brahms sound, in a way, but it’s just one of our styles that we like to be active in.
What do your Berlin Philharmonic colleagues think about this exploration?
NBB They might be a little jealous, I don’t know! One of the nice things about being in the Berlin Philharmonic, in addition to being an incredible orchestra and having this really urgent and vibrant approach, is that we have time to pursue other projects, Stephan and I are doing a lot of concerts in Philharnonix and other projects as well, but our colleagues are also doing things, like playing Baroque music in their free time, or tango, or jazz, or conducting and composing, so there’s a very open attitude to people going out individually to pursue creative activities themselves, with the thought that, “Okay, you go on a tour with your Baroque tour for two weeks; when you come back to the orchestra it will be invigorating, you’ll be refreshed and inspired.” What you do within the orchestra after that will be positively influenced by that activity. It’s very good the whole orchestra has this. A lot of musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic are very serious about other musical projects outside of the orchestra that nicely complement what we do in it.
SK The funny thing about the Berlin Philharmonic is that, whatever colleagues do on the side, they do it intensely. People do everything in an extreme way, and I think it makes the music better in the end.
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.
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 LittleHill, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Conductor Jordan de Souza is one of classical music’s best ambassadors.
The conductor, who celebrates his 30th birthday next year, has been making waves for years abroad, as well as in his home and native land. Originally a graduate of the prestigious St. Michael’s Choir School, a semi-private Roman Catholic boys’ school in Toronto, de Souza studied organ performance at McGill University and was conducting (at Montreal’s Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul) when he was a teenager. Jordan has worked with the Canadian Opera Company, Opéra de Montréal, Houston Grand Opera, and the Accademia Filarmonica Romana, to name a few. He’s also worked with the National Ballet of Canada. As Conductor in Residence with Tapestry Opera (a Canadian company which specializes exclusively in new works), he’s worked on a number of contemporary projects, and was Music Director for the company’s critically-lauded opera adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s short story Rocking Horse Winner last year. This past summer he made his debut at the prestigious Bregenz Festival in Austria, leading the Vienna Symphony (Wiener Symphoniker) in Bizet’s famous Carmen.
Scene from Komische Oper Berlin’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
The start of the 2017-2018 season this past September saw him formally become Kapellmeister of the Komische Oper Berlin. Regular readers will know I am a big fan of the work of their work for many reasons, among them a fresh, lively approach to staging and a smart, creative approach to scores. Most recently KOB received raves for their presentation of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which openedin mid-October, with Jordan ‘s conducting work receiving many plaudits; one review noted he let “the impressionism of the late-romantic score flourish.”(For my interview with the production’s Pelléas, go here.) Jordan is also conducting Petrushka / L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (Stravinsky and Ravel respectively) this season, which is a presentation done with visionary British company 1927 Productions (and one which I loved when I attended its opening in January) as well as Tchaikovsky’s Jewgeni Onegin, both running in repertory.
As you’ll hear, Jordan is an artist very much dedicated to not only his work, but to the art form as a whole, Whether it’s exploring aspects of Pelléas with Komische Oper Intendant (boss) Barry Kosky and various ensemble members, parsing the meaning of the word “Kapellmeister” for the average (non-classical) person, sharing observations on European and North American cultural climates, or musing why Berlin is, as he puts it, “an embarrassment of riches” – all these things point very clearly at a person who believes in music, at a deep level, and is excited by its possibilities, both inside and outside the theatre.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
I spoke with Jordan during a recent trip Berlin, which occurred at the end of a challenging trip to Italy. We met in the canteen of the KOB, so you’ll hear the sounds of various KOB staff grabbing their pre-performance snacks and dinners in the background. There’s a sense of the normalcy of classical arts in Berlin which I so utterly love. Classical music in the city is not some weird thing utterly removed from quotidian experience; rather, it’s simply part of the fabric of every day life. Eat; drink; concert. Expect a piece soon about my Berlin sojourn, and the many cultural goodies within those six days; meeting Jordan de Souza was certainly one of them. I look forward to experiencing more of his live work soon.
David Devan (General Director & President, Opera Philadelphia)
Andreas Homoki (Intendant, Opernhaus Zurich)
Barrie Kosky (Intendant, Komische Oper Berlin)
Michael Mori (Artistic Director, Tapestry Opera)
Alexander Neef (Ex-General Director, Canadian Opera Company), 2017; 2020
Creative & Written:
Lera Auerbach (Composer, Conductor, Writer, Artist)
Jack Bertinshaw (First Soloist, National Ballet of Canada)
Jessica Duchen (Critic / Author / Librettist)
Waldemar Januszczak (Art Critic / Documentary Filmmaker)
Matthew Jocelyn (Director / Writer)
Julie McIsaac (Theatre Artist, Dramaturge)
Douglas McNabney (Ex-Artistic Director, Toronto Summer Music Festival)
Edward Seckerson (Writer/Broadcaster)
Jacopo Spirei (Director; Part 1, Part 2)
Alaina Viau (Artistic Director, Loose Tea Music Theatre) VOPERA 2020: Rachael Hewer (director) and Tamzin Aitken (producer)
Mark Berry and Nicholas Vazsonyi (Co-editors, The Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Cambridge University Press, 2020)
Marina Frolova-Walker, Professor of Music History & Director of Studies in Music, Clare College, Cambridge
Una Hunt (Professor, DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama; Soloist)
Jari Kallio (Music writer; Teacher)
Anna Shternshis (Professor, Yiddish Studies. University of Toronto; Executive Producer, Yiddish Glory)
Martha Sprigge, Assistant Professor of Musicology, University of California, Santa Barbara
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2016 has been a terrible year. Between the loss of great cultural figures, a dramatically changing political landscape around the globe, and wars that feel tragically endless, it’s been a tough year for many to navigate, accept, or even survive.
However, I keep being struck by the strange reality that it’s been, on a strictly personal level, a really great year — especially when compared to my 2015, a year that was filled with loss, trauma, and horrible disappointments. 2016 was a year of discovery, delight, wonder. Sometimes it was hard to gel the beauty on a micro level with the hideousness on a macro one, but, to quote William Congreve, “music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” I saw a lot of great stuff this year; rocks were softened, oaks were bent, breasts were soothed — when not heaving in awe, a la Dangerous Liasons, that is.
Culturally, this was a good year in so many ways, but it was equally notable for being the first full music season I’ve experienced without my mother. I feel like she was with me throughout many, if not all of my travels, near and far, through good times and sad times and everything in between. I saw her make faces at some things, throw back her head and laugh at others, and clasp her hands in delight at yet more.
In the spirit of those hand-clasping moments, I present to you some of my favorite live music things from 2016. I confess I wasn’t actually planning to write about any of this; considering I write about and review music for a living, I want some of my own music-going to stay private and personal, free from analysis or too much thought, to live purely in a world of experience. I’ve found, however, that trying to turn off my critic’s brain is impossible. My mother would frequently admonish me, after a night of the opera and discussion, for “thinking too much.” I’m certainly guilty of this in more than the arena of music, but, I’ve learned over the last year to absorb more and analyze less, while still firmly embracing my thinky side; context matters, and insight is never a bad thing. I plan to continue cultivating my music love into 2017 and beyond, as you might guess.
Without further ado, here are my favorites from the year that was.
(Michael Cooper / COC)
1. Siegfried, Canadian Opera Company; January
Richard Wagner’s epic work, written between 1856 and 1871, is the third part in the composer’s sprawling four-work Ring Cycle. Remounted by the COC (from a 2006 production) as a kind of surrealist nightmare, director Francois Girard dramatized elements inherent within the complex score to eye-catching effect. With tenor Stefan Vinke as a hero free of macho qualities but still very much in the throes of petulant youth, his was a performance that moved between lost, amiable, and enlightened, with the vocal agility to match. Michael Levine’s vivid stage design featured, in its first act, a tangle of branches rising above the hero’s head, a kind of physicalized thought bubble; later, a fiery hole with undulating hands housed the angry dwarf Alberich (a stentorian Christopher Purves), while Fafner, the giant-turned dragon, was staged with a pyramid of men and some very great choreography (by Donna Feore) and clever, intuitive lighting (by David Finn).
These elements, together with a unique “tree” threaded with bodies in its stark branches, and white-clad figures bathed and swaying in red light, produced an incredible vision of hellfire, damnation, temptation, and salvation. Wagner’s musicality was seamlessly integrated with the Ring’s inherent theatricality, and, together with some inspired singing (Vinke’s duet with Christine Goerke’s spitfire Brunnhilde was truly magical), worked to produce a hauntingly beautiful vision of Wagner’s mythological world.
(Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
2. Manon Lescaut, Metropolitan Opera; February
This production is included purely for the singing; I found Richard Eyre’s production silly and filled with what the New York Times rightly termed “troubling questions.” But Roberto Alagna, as des Grieux, and Kristin Opolais, in the title role, made music magic, the French tenor showing particular skill as he quickly substituted for an ill Jonas Kaufmann. Despite being ill with a cold himself on the day I attended, his was a thrilling, vivid performance, beautifully complemented by a luscious rendering of the score, thanks to Maestro Fabio Luisi. The women around me may’ve been sighing over Jonas’s absence, but to my ears, Alagna’s sonorous tenor was perfectly suited to Puccini’s rich-as-fudge score, and it was a treat to experience such an exquisite pairing, so beautifully executed.
Opolais, who’d already sung Manon opposite Kaufmann at the Royal Opera in 2014, brought an anguished drama to the role, and she and Alagna shared an electrifying chemistry, one that carried through (indeed, paraded over) Eyre’s bizarre staging. As New York Classical Review’s Eric C. Simpson noted, “When left alone, the principal actors were in fact able to carve stunningly real portrayals.” This was one of those special performances with such incredible lead performances, and conducted with such a charismatic mix of passion and majesty, I actually forgot the dire production — at least for a while. Impressive.
(Michael Cooper / COC)
3. Maometto II, Canadian Opera Company; April
Italian bass baritone Luca Pisaroni channelled silent film star Rudolph Valentino in a remount of a 2012 production from Santa Fe Opera. Director David Alden made effective used of the carefully wielded elements of dance and design (including a strong, expressionist-influenced color palette by designer Jon Morrell) to bring Rossini’s 1820 opera to vivid, stunning life. The title character’s dramatic entrance (which happens no less than fifty minutes into the opera) was impressively cinematic, and certainly a strong announcement of things to come in terms of Alden’s passionate approach to the material, to say nothing of the performers.
This was some of the finest singing I’ve ever heard at the Four Seasons Centre, bar none. Pisaroni’s full, rich bass baritone, his careful, loving attention to detail and controlled, luscious vibrato was matched by soprano Leah Crocetto’s Anna, who nimbly showcased a vivid coloratura as well as sweet timbre with a firm undertone that’s perfectly suited to the various shades of the character. Mezzo soprano Elizabeth DeShong, in the trouser role of Calbo was, in a word, shattering; the sustained applause at the end of her aria convincing Anna’s father of her innocence deserved every hearty “bravo” it received. David Laera’s sensuous choreography, especially the sinewy, swirling bellydancer who featured in the production’s second half, made for a gorgeous opera experience.
4. A Little Too Cozy, Toronto; May
Against the Grain Theatre lived up to their name, going entirely… well, against the classical music grain in presenting Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a reality TV dating show, in an actual TV studio. The company, known for their unorthodox presentations of classical works, transformed the opera and its rather silly libretto into something relevant, smart, funny, and even moving. Was it Mozart? Was it opera? Yes and yes — and it was brilliant. Phone use and hashtags (#TeamDora, for instance) were actively encouraged throughout the performance. Seamless integration, between new and old, classical and contemporary, is AtG’s speciality, and they’re leading the way in reinterpreting opera for the 21st century in Canada.
It wasn’t only the premise that reeked of forward-thinking, risk-taking innovation; the actual performances were fun, knowing, and awfully familiar. Cairan Ryan’s smarmy game-show-host Donald L. Fonzo (Don Alfonso), did a charming buffo baritone, and was complemented by a very engaging, social-media-knowingness from the ensemble, comprised of tenor Aaron Shepppard (Fernando), baritone Clarence Frazer (Elmo), soprano Shantell Przbylo (Felicity), mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb (Dora), and soprano Caitlin Wood (Despina). Smart, engaging, fun — A Little Too Cozy epitomized all the things indie opera is nudging grand opera toward, slowly if surely.
5. Filarmonica della Scala, Salzburg Festival; August
Riccardo Chailly led a masterful performance from the Filarmonica that only moved past the workmanlike and into the poetic in the event’s second half. Cherubini’s Overture in G Major and Symphony in D Major were, to my ears, strangely lacking in momentum and buoyancy; it was good, but not great, and certainly not what I expect from Chailly, whose work I’ve enjoyed (and seen) for many years. But, with Verdi’s divertissement of “Les Quatre Saisons” (the Four Seasons) ballet music from Les Vepres siciliennes (the pre-1861 version, later Italianized), the orchestra came alive, delivering a poetic performance that caught the small, quiet corners of the piece, and shone a gentle light that gradually became a shining beacon. The choice of placing the overture to Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the program’s end was inspired too, with the famous piece providing a bouncy, boisterous close, if not conclusion, to the evening; the encore was an utterly thrilling performance of the overture to I Vespri Siciliani. I confess to sitting on the edge of my seat throughout its entirety.
Chailly is a fascinating figure to watch, his statesmanlike demeanor barely concealing a blazing fire, one he beams into orchestra members who spit it back in short controlled bursts or long, lean lines. I’d love to hear the Filarmonica play an evening of overtures; not only do they tell stories with their singing instruments, they conjure deep emotional states that move past the verbal and into the realm of the transcendent, rather like another orchestra…
7. Berlin Philharmonic, Toronto; November
… yes, this one. The famed Berlin Phil embarked on a tour through North America this past autumn, showcasing the work of Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Berg, and Brahms. Sir Simon Rattle was particularly interested in drawing sonic connections between them all, and he did a marvellous job of that, and much more, on the night I attended, with a program featuring Boulez’ Éclat and Mahler’s Symphony No.7. With just fifteen players, Boulez’ sparse if powerful work showcased the various reverberations of the instruments being used (especially piano) and the complex, nuanced harmonies therein. Intricate attention was paid to color and shape, with Rattle coaxing a quietly intoxicating drama that revealed its composer to be the logical inheritor of Mahler’s sonic explorations.
Like the Boulez, Mahler’s 7th makes use of the guitar and mandolin, though with very different effect. This was bold, passionate playing from musicians clearly happy to be there and clearly in love with the work and their conductor, who managed to seamlessly connect the six movements of Mahler’s notoriously lengthy work into one perfect, poetic thought. Seriously, you had to be there. Vunderbar.
6. Stefano Bollani, at Koerner Hall / with the TSO and Gianandrea Noseda; November
The Italian jazz pianist moved easily and confidently between the worlds of classical and jazz during his visit to the city last month, interspersing appearances playing Ravel’s famed Piano Concerto in G with an evening of jazz (original compositions and more) at Koerner Hall. Musicality positively oozes from this man; his improvised introduction to the Ravel with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (clearly unnerving to much of the Toronto audience) was full of characteristic playfulness and verve, while his loose interpretation of the Ravel brought all the whimsy and joy and pure musical curiosity that can sometimes go missing (or not be fully committed to) with more formal classical music performers. His connection with Noseda was also unmistakable, and it was fun to watch the two silently communicating, an invisible if entirely recognizable current of energy running between them. In addition to the playful Ravel, Bollani also performed a beautiful, improvised solo version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as an encore.
Experiencing Bollani do jazz one night and classical the next, I sensed a beautiful kind of sonic continuum and again, an unmistakable joy in simply making beautiful sounds. Amen and bravo, Stefano! Torna presto!
8. Macbeth, Los Angeles Opera; October
Many people have suggested at some point or another that Placido Domingo might want to consider retiring. Yet when all the elements are in place (as with Nabucco, currently on at the Met), there’s just something undeniably powerful about the tenor-turned-baritone; when he turns it on… the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I went to Macbeth not expecting to be moved; I went for more sentimental reasons, to see a living legend who I had not seen live since 1993, at the Met in Verdi’s Stiffelio. The times I’d heard him as a baritone (so-called “baritenor”) I’d not been terribly impressed… and yet I found myself won over. Despite the layers of makeup and wigging, Domingo used his age and experience to fuel his characterization, and though the voice is grainy, it is still powerful, resonant, and undeniably exciting. His Scottish king wasn’t a sullen brat at all, but a capable, smart army man who resented been passed over one too many times. His scenes, particularly with a wonderfully fiery Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth, were filled with rage, regret, and finally even, remorse. This was very special, and very worth the trip to LA Opera. I’ll be back.
9. Naomi’s Road, Toronto; November
Tapestry Opera presented a timely vision of Joyce Kogawa’s novel about her experiences growing up in an internment camp during the Second World War. Originally conceived and directed by Ann Hodges, with sets and costumes designed by Christine Reimer and built by Vancouver Opera, Tapestry Artistic Director Michael Mori’s Toronto presentation presented a simple, powerful show (without intermission) in a local neighborhood location loaded with historical meaning; St. David’s Anglican Church is the home of the last Japanese-Canadian Anglican parish in Toronto. The fact there was (and is) talk of internment camps in the news lately made this work all the more poignant, of course, but also brought with it an urgency that added to its quiet theatricality.
The production poetically integrated design, theme, and musicality that spoke softly if powerfully. With just one pianist and four exquisitely talented singers, including mezzo soprano Erica Iris, who made an incredible transformation from imperious older woman to girlish bully, a switch which was both vocally and theatrically thrilling. Entire worlds were created and explored with grace, economical elegance, and deep sensitivity. This was easily the most humble production I saw this year; it was also one of the most memorable and important.
(Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
10. L’Italiana in Algeri, Metropolitan Opera; October
Straight up, this was the most fun thing I saw this year; it had laugh-out-loud moments and a boisterous, bright Met Orchestra led by Maestro James Levine. Rossini’s comic opera revolves a kind of comic, sitcom-like face-off that masquerades about being between East and West, but is really about men and women. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1973 production is full of the kind of cliches that make you both laugh at their preposterousness and wince at their overuse. As New York Times classical writer Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim noted, “this battle of the sexes, framed by Rossini and his librettist as an abduction drama, may be the silliest and most stereotype-laden production in the Met’s repertory. But it’s still very funny — irresistibly so, as I found out.”
I’m on the fence about whether or not some of those tacky old costumes need to go; there’s a line between funny and tasteless, and I’m not sure that those those very deliberately fake-looking, hairy-Muslim-dude ones are entirely worth keeping. Sure, we can laugh because they’re preposterous and tasteless, but… they’re still preposterous and tasteless. They do, however, fit with the overall feel of the work itself, which is exaggerated, ridiculous, and extremely smart about presenting its true conflict as crazy comedy gold. Mezzo soprano Marianna Pizzolatti (a last-minute replacement for the ailing Elizabeth DeShong) was sprightly, funny, feisty, and highly watchable as the “Italiani” of the title, Isabella, and was beautifully complimented by a buoyant Met Orchestra under the baton of Maestro James Levine. To quote George Grella’s New York Classical Review piece, they handled Rossini’s bouncy score with a “crisp phrasing and a glinting sound.” For all my reservations over some costume designs, I still came away from this one smiling.
Gounod’s famous 1859 opera got a modern treatment at the festival, with the immensity of the Grosses Festspielhaus being used in some marvellously creative ways by director/designer Reinhard von der Thannen. A meditation on nothingness – even the opening scene featured a neon “Rien” sign — this was an existentially-themed vision with cleverly integrated elements of commedia dell’arte and surrealism. It also featured entirely zesty onstage chemistry between tenor Piotr Bezcala (Faust) and bass baritone Ildar Abdrazakov (Mephistopheles), both in very fine voice; Beczala’s silvery-toned tenor and Abdrazakov’s cherry-chocolate bass not only made beautiful music together, but nicely channelled the drama within both Gounod’s score and von der Thannen’s vision, bringing the high-minded ideas behind the production to a recognizably human level. Still, the production itself was truly special. As philosophy professor Mirjam Schaub wisely notes in the excellent program essay,
Standing in opposition to the RIEN, of course, is a very substantial SOMETHING: the stage space. It is entirely white, impersonal, functional, open for light of all colours and at the time itself a non-colour.. […] That the stage space of Grosses Festspielhaus is somewhat CinemaScope-like in format is a factor very congenial to von der Thannen’s commanding and spatially expansive vein of fantasy.
No kidding. I’d love to see it at the Met; I suspect it would effectively carry to anywhere in the house. The bright design scheme, creative use of white space, glittering costumes, Giorgio Madia’s sinuous, kinetic choreography, combined with stellar singing and some very neat makeup effects made for a truly eye-opening and riveting Faust. Salzburg, traditional? Nein…
… which segues nicely to my final selection. Don Giovanni is one of my favorite operas, but I’d never seen a production that vaguely satisfied me. Despite the exquisite score and fascinating characters, I always tended to walk out of any and every production feeling angry, frustrated, and utterly repulsed by the title character.
Then I saw Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production at the Salzburg Festival; it was wickedly smart, truly moving, and funny. Imagine, a Don Giovanni that takes the comedy seriously — not as a pastiche or a collection of tacky, crude jokes, but rather, trusts the talents of its performers so deeply that it allows them to find their own comical moments, for themselves and with cast mates. This production was, quite simply, one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced in an opera house.
Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello, for instance, was equal parts Jerry Lewis and Roberto Benigni, eminently comical and yet somehow relateably human. His was both an hilarious and touching portrait of a perennial wingman who fully realizes that, while he’d love to take the pilot’s seat, he is, at heart, not cut out for it. His interpretation of “Madamina, il catalogo è questo“ (the so-called “catalogue aria”) was the very best I have ever heard, filled with smart pauses, crisp diction, and a lively vibrato. Alain Coulombe brought cool authority and a quiet confidence to his portrayal of the Commendatore, a man clearly 180 degrees away from Giovanni, in both real and theoretical senses; he was order to the Don’s chaos, a minor key to his major; a firm, brief handshake instead of a warm, lengthy hug.
Physicality was, in fact, a very big part of this production, and Layla Claire threw herself into this aspect with bravado, giving the very best interpretation of Donna Elvira I’ve ever seen — wounded, but not at all simpering, and every bit as passionate and complex as Carmelo Remigio’s sexy Donna Anna and Valentina Nafornita’s feisty Zerlina, not to mention any number of maids in Bechtolf’s hotel-lobby-set production. All were agents of their own fate, each seeking a liberty (mental, emotional, particularly sexual) for themselves through the figure of this man they all want to possess, or be possessed by. It was hugely refreshing (and liberating) to finally see a Giovanni in which the women have agency, and to see not only them, but the main character freed from the their tidy, boring, cliche-ridden boxes of yore.
That theatrical approach, of course, made the title character fascinating and endearing in place of being smarmy and nauseating. It was so good to see a production — and a central performance — so firmly committed to breaking cliches while milking and gleefully mocking them at the same time. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was, by turns, funny, sexy, hateful, annoyed, prideful, world-weary — in other words, warmly, defiantly human, which is impressive on its own, but doubly so for someone who’s performed the role numerous other times in numerous other productions, but here was very much playing an idea (“Viva la liberta!“), as Bechtolf’s smart program essay indicated. A key part of this characterization was, of course, vocal prowess: D’Arcangelo’s is a wonderfully agile voice with watchful subtlety in its upper tones, an unforced richness in low ones, a beautifully mellifluous vibrato with a mahogany-hewed timbre, and a nuanced approach to some well-known material (his “Vieni alla finestra” was easily the most perfect I’ve ever heard), and… well, to return to Congreve, oak bends, rocks soften. You figure out the rest.
That’s the year that was. Just to make the circle complete, Sven-Eric Bechtolf is set to direct Stefan Vinke in Siegfried at the Vienna State Opera in May. Am I going? You’ll have to wait and see. That Oscar Wilde quote about temptation, so relevant to Bechtolf’s Don Giovanni, could very become relevant to my life in 2017. We shall see; I am keeping an open mind, and looking forward to more adventures.