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Brindley Sherratt, bass, English, album, Fear No More, voice, singer, opera, song, Benjamin Ealovega, Delphian

Brindley Sherratt: “There’s A Great Intimacy When It’s Just Me And A Piano”

The classical world continues to be in a state of transformation since the shutdowns forced by the coronavirus pandemic, with varied forms of transformation rippling through an array of houses, companies, and, perhaps most especially, people. I last spoke with English bass Brindley Sherratt in August 2020, when he and English tenor John Daszak were busy rehearsing an unusual, socially-distanced production of Boris Godunov directed by Barrie Kosky in Zürich. “You want to shout, ‘Opera’s not dead!‘” Sherratt commented, a needed buoy amidst the near-universal opera world gloom at the time.

Since then, Sherratt has applied that brand of encouragement to his own work. The bass’s first album of art songs, Fear No More, was released by Delphian Records in April. Recorded in 2023 at Henry Wood Hall in London, the album takes its title from a song by 20th century composer Gerald Finzi, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun”, part of the composer’s Shakespeare-connected song cycle Let Us Garlands Bring (1929-1942) and itself based on lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Along with Finzi and fellow British composers John Ireland, Ivor Gurney, Michael Head, and Peter Warlock the album also features the music of Schubert, Strauss, and Mussorgsky. Booklet writer John Fallas notes in his album text that “not many singers record their first recital album two decades into a successful international career” – but one listen reveals a wealth of vocal riches underlining Sherratt’s deep musical intelligence and his innate understanding of text.

In a review of Fear No More for BBC Music magazine, writer Ashutosh Khandekar notes that “Sherratt possesses that rare gift – a genuine bass voice that carries its lyrical, expressive clarity from its ringing high notes right down to a full-toned basso profundo delivered without a trace of muddiness.” Indeed, Sherratt brings light, colour, texture, and a positively operatic splendour to the album’s smart lineup. Fear No More opens with six songs by Franz Schubert, all, with the exception of the famous “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”) written for a bass voice; Sherratt’s crisp diction, oaken tone, and colourful phrasing poetically illuminate the composer’s thoughtful vocal writing. Richard Strauss’s early 20th century song “Im Spätboot” follows and is given particularly a delicious reading. Songs and Dances of Death, Mussorgsky’s mesmerizingly macabre song cycle, is performed with a touching mix of terror and humanism. Sherratt especially soars in the English-language songs; John Ireland’s 1913 song “Sea-Fever” shows Sherratt’s careful modulation and colouration of the words of poet John Masefield, offering a masterclass in the art of storytelling through song.

That instinct for storytelling has also found expression in recitals, with the singer’s former reluctance around them replaced by something approaching glee. In addition to performances at Oxford Lieder Festival and Temple Music Foundation in 2022, Sherratt made his Wigmore Hall debut this past February, and more recitals are indeed in the works. There’s also a busy 2024-2025 opera season ahead, with performances of Billy Budd in Vienna, new productions of Semele in Paris and London, and a revival of Der Rosenkavalier in Munich. Sooner than that, Sherratt is set to perform in a BBC Proms presentation this August of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass with the Czech Philharmonic led by incoming Royal Opera House Music Director Jakub Hrůša; he will be singing alongside soprano Corinne Winters, mezzo soprano Bella Adimova, and tenor David Butt Philip.

A conversation with Sherratt is always a true pleasure, his easy mix of intelligence, passion, and kindness  creating a natural, good-humoured exchange of ideas and experiences.

Brindley Sherratt, Julius Drake, singer, piano, voice, recording, Henry Wood Hall, singing, Fear No More, performing arts, opera, classical, song

Brindley Sherratt recording Fear No More with pianist Julius Drake. Photo: foxbrush.co.uk

How did you choose the works on the album? You’d mentioned your love of text in a recent interview, and I wonder if that played a role. 

It was indeed that love of text, but a lot of other things as well. I felt it was an incredibly risky thing to do an album at my age, with my voice – some of that feeling was in my own mind, but there were other fears related to there not being many basses doing recordings of lieder. Also there aren’t many basses my age, with an entire operatic career, suddenly switching to song. I met Julius Drake after a performance at Covent Garden and he said, “Why don’t you come around to my house on a Saturday morning and we’ll play around with a few pieces?” I said, “I don’t know what to sing!” He said, “Come around; we’ll work through some repertoire – let’s have a go.” So we did. We spent about three hours exploring this and that.

I wanted to choose things for the album that A/ I like, and B/ I think suit my voice. As a bass, and I’ve said this before, songs and recitals are like wearing your sibling’s hand-me-downs: you have to transpose down and adjust everything. I knew from the get-go that I wanted to include Schubert. As for Strauss: there are three or four songs that wrote specifically for the guy who first sang them (Paul Knüpfer), a bass who went on to be a famous Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier, so I thought “Im Spätboot” was a good start. I’d already done some other Strauss songs with an orchestra –  and I do love his writing so much.

Likewise the Mussorgsky cycle; I’d done Songs and Dances of Death with an orchestra two or three times, and I thought, gosh I’d love to do this with piano. Julius said, “Why don’t we just put them on the record?” I also thought I would like to do something in my own language and then it became a case of finding things I like.

There’s something extra special about the English songs – why these ones in particular?

When I was a student decades ago and had just started to sing – I was a trumpet player and switched to singing – I remember learning a few songs, and thinking, well, I’m a singer so of course I should sing songs. One of them was Finzi’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” – I loved it ever since, but never had the chance to sing it because I’ve never done recitals. There’s something about this work, after all these years, that I still connect with, so I knew I had to include it on the album. For other songs, I had help: Sarah Connolly introduced me to “By A Bierside” (Ivor Gurney) – she said she thought it would suit me because it’s quite dramatic; Roderick Williams was a very big help also. He really knows his repertoire! I said to him, “Please help me out? Give me pointers as to what would suit me since you know my voice.” He’s been a very big source of information with the English song material. It’s like the TV show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” with contestants using a lifeline to call a friend and help them with a question – I phoned a friend, or rather several friends, who had done this repertoire and said “Hey, hello!”

On Being Pushed

Tell me more about your creative connection with Julius Drake – to what extent was he pianist, coach, mentor, critic… ?

He played all of those roles at some point – all of them. He kept saying, “Brin, you can do this” throughout. I would say, “Oh, I can’t sing this stuff, It’s too this, it’s too that.” And he said, “Come on, let’s keep going.” He would literally push me through the songs and offer ideas for others, and I would look at them and say, “Nah, don’t want that, it’s too boring” or “Maybe?” – and he was there to urge me on.

Brindley Sherratt, Julius Drake, singer, piano, voice, recording, Henry Wood Hall, singing, Fear No More, performing arts, opera, classical, song

Brindley Sherratt recording Fear No More with collaborative pianist Julius Drake. Photo: foxbrush.co.uk

Did this form of coaching happen with your recitals as well?

Oh yes! Having not done a recital for 20-something years or more, there I was suddenly doing two recitals on two consecutive nights. Whilst we were preparing Julius would say things like “Not like that, we need more colour here.” I’d try something else and say, “Is that right?” And he’d say, “Nah, not right. Try something else.” We’d try this and that, and in that process I discovered a whole softer colour to my sound, one I didn’t know I could do. I was able to play around a lot more as a result, and Julius would push me: “Bring that sound”, “We need to bring this text out here”, “That was too slow”, “That was too fast”,“That was close to being chamber music!” The process was new to me.

With opera, it’s just such a huge scale, and sometimes you’ll have a conductor who will coach, like Tony Pappano – he gives loads of notes like “Just sing this way”, “Try it that way” and I love that approach – but opera is still this big long process. You’re on stage, you have other things and people to add and interact with. Also, I might have said this already in another interview: I prefer my audiences in the dark about 80 feet away with a symphony orchestra in-between. The kind of intimacy chamber music demands was the thing that I feared most, especially in terms of doing recitals; it also became the thing I enjoyed the most. There’s a great intimacy when it’s just me and a piano. This whole process has been a revelation.

Does that include your recital work?

Initially I was worried about those. I thought, “What if nobody comes?” Well, I went out and there were big crowds who gave big cheers and I thought, “Oh, this is great!” At Wigmore Hall in February the place was heaving with people. All the students I worked with were there along with every bass in the country, including John Tomlinson. I found it overwhelming, though it also made me think that maybe I’m okay at this stuff; I need to trust that feeling.

Do you think recitals and art songs have made you a better opera singer?

I think so, yes. I was doing Rocco in Fidelio (in Munich) this year, and Gurnemanz a year or more ago, and I found I used a lot of soft colours which I would have not have used before. Those softer colours are really important, especially to basses, as you know. I feel much more rounded as a singer, and the songs (on the album) were great for that kind of work.

Keeping The Voice “As Fresh As Possible”

What have you learned about your voice through the last decade or so?

There was a stage I went through actually about eight or ten years ago where I wanted to make a big noise. At one point I thought, “I don’t think I’m singing healthily.” Going back to Gurnemanz, when I was first learning that part years back I was listening to Gottlob Frick, who is my favourite German bassist of all. He was 68 when he recorded Parsifal; he came out of retirement to do it. Having had a long career singing the heaviest roles, the Hagens and the Hundings, over and over and over again, here he is at 68 – when really the voice should be starting to wear a bit – and my God, he sounds so good, so vulnerable – it’s just sublime, beautiful singing. When I heard it I thought: I want to be able to do that.

It was while I was singing I was singing Ochs at Glyndebourne (2018) that I found a much more, what’s the word, a more contained and less fat kind of sound; I purposely took my voice down a little bit and worked. That moment was the foundation, as it were, because when I started to learn and sing songs, I realized that I want to be able to sing “Some Enchanted Evening” and have it be beautiful – that, or Winterreise, or Finzi’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun”. I want people to say, “That’s a beautiful voice” and not “That’s a ragged old voice.” So I think the combination of songs and opera is important to keep the voice as fresh as possible at my age.

What role does teaching play?

I coach a lot of young basses, bass baritones too, and for so many of them the pressure is on in their 20s in terms of making a career, and so they all want to sound as loud as possible. What happens is they go into a young artists program and they’re on stage with guys who really know what they’re doing, but they have to match it, or feel like they do, so they try to make their voice big before it’s kind of found its way. There are so few roles for young low voices – it’s a lot of Second Old Man or Third Gatekeeper – but young artists feel forced to make big sounds so early on, and I’m always saying to them now, “Learn songs, sing songs; learn a few cycles; learn Handel, and more Handel; listen to various artists.” I think you need to have that balance, and the confidence too – we definitely need to have that!

Brindley Sherratt, bass, English, album, Fear No More, voice, singer, opera, song, Benjamin Ealovega, Delphian

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

A second album?

Which songs might be in the future for you, on record or live in recital?

I think everyone wants to sing Winterreise, and I admit to being one of them! It’s an incredibly intimidating cycle but I find it so enchanting; I love listening to it and I love singing it. I’d want to do it in recital a few times before I went anywhere even near a recording studio. So that’s a possibility. I’ve also been thinking I would like to do a disc of songs in my mother tongue, and at the moment I’m leaning towards an album of English song; I asked Ryan Wigglesworth if he would write me something, and he’s up for that. Robert Lloyd said to me many years ago, “Make sure you do a song recital once a year; It’s so easy to just bellow” – it’s so true.

I was amazed in the recitals to note that after I’d sung a few phrases that are quiet and soft, I could sense everyone leaning in and really listening – it was just lovely! I never would have thought of having that kind of closeness with an audience, but it’s been amazing, and I definitely look forward to more moments like that.

Top photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Lecturing, Improvising, And Russian Piano Music: A Chat With Marina Frolova-Walker

piano, keys, keyboard, music, instrument, playing, hands, fingers, sound

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Toward the end of her life my mother would chide me for what she perceived as prolonged screen time. “You are always at that damn computer,” she’d sigh, “but I suppose you have to think about your audience and what they’d like to read.” What with everyone spending longer and more concentrated time in front of screens amidst the current coronavirus crisis, the lines between education, entertainment, and enlightenment can be fraught indeed. As an educator and writer, I frequently have to balance my desire to share information with a deeply-held urge to entertain, and then be able to skillfully juggle the added ball of measured impact. Those of us whose work is largely based in or around the internet (i.e. writers, artists, musicians) are at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms; we want to have our work seen, but we want to keep our voices and ideas intact. Playing to the desired young audience many classical institutions now eagerly pursue should, I suppose, be a priority, but playing to such an audience is not easy when you are no longer young yourself, not comfortable changing the nature of your work (or its presentation), and have an innate awareness that it is not desirable (or very dignified) as an aging woman with highly specialist passions and specifically artsy tastes, to attempt to compete with young/cute/sexy/etc. And yet, to note one’s work being read, shared, engaged with, and sense it is having an impact – it is gratifying. To play to the algorithm, or not to play to the algorithm; this is the question.

This juggling act can become even more complex when it is one’s modus operandi to impart what you feel is vital information whilst providing a modicum of inspiration which might (possibly, hopefully) encourage independent exploration, on and off the screen. Gresham College has been able to do all of these things, with incredible style and success, specifically through its Russian Piano Masterpieces series, featuring Professor Frolova-Walker and pianist Peter Donohoe. Introduced in September 2020, the series consists of what can only be described as lecture-conversation-concerts – in-depth, one-hour explorations of the history, structure, harmonics, and socio-economic-creative contexts of composers and their respective (if oftentimes linked) outputs. Frolova-Walker specializes in Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has published, lectured and had her work broadcast on BBC Radio 3; along with being Professor of Music History and Director of Studies in Music at Clare College, Cambridge, she is a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2015, she was recognized for her work in musicology and awarded the Edward Dent Medal by the Royal Musical Association. Peter Donohoe, CBE, is a celebrated international pianist who, since his winning the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, has worked with a range of conductors, including Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gustavo Dudamel, and Sir Simon Rattle. He has appeared at the BBC Proms no less than twenty-two times, and is steeped in the music of the composers who are featured in the series, though he also has vast experience with the music of Tchaikovsky, whose music Frolova-Walker had also wanted to include as part of the series, as she explains below.

The wonderfully easy rapport between Frolova-Walker and Donohoe – their mix of playfulness, intelligence, insight, experience, and genuine love of the material – makes the series a special event amidst pandemic gloom, and their impressive viewing numbers seem to confirm this. Algorithm or not, the series has hit a nerve with numerous classical-loving, culturally starving viewers; newcomers and old hands alike have been tuning in faithfully these past six months and interacting with good-humoured ease, judging (if one dares) from the comments shared and exchanged during live broadcasts. Indeed Frolova-Walker and Donohue do have their sizeable and frequently overlapping fan bases, but it’s heartening to note the embrace with which those fans have greeted a virtual presentation, and just how welcoming the community has been to newcomers. It was something of a thrill to chat recently for thirty minutes with Professor Frolova-Walker, whose work and style I have long admired, and to discuss not only the series itself, but wider ideas about classical music’s youth appeal (or not), how and why fashion intersects with events (or not), and the steep digital learning curve experienced by educators and artists alike over the past twelve months. The next presentation in Russian Piano Masterpieces is scheduled for Thursday, March 25th (at 6pm GMT), and explores the music of Sergei Prokofiev; the following presentation (the final one in the series) is on May 20th, about Dmitri Shostakovich.

How and why did this series come about?

Good question! When I applied to Gresham College I secretly was hoping I could get Peter to collaborate with me. Gresham College has been so proactive in using a different venue they don’t usually use, because we needed a piano. About a year ago we found out they managed to secure it, and I was absolutely delighted because it’s such a wonderful venue, everything is there; of course we couldn’t imagine how it would turn out, because it was planned as a live event, always. It was *never* supposed to be online. I mean, the online presence of Gresham College lectures was always an afterthought – it’s not the main thing, so you shouldn’t imagine we planned it as an online series at all – but emotionally it started with this great feeling of despair that we could only get 15 people. The next time we couldn’t get anyone, and then we got used to it. Now we’re just grateful for the opportunity, even if it’s in an empty hall! Really, it’s been a learning curve.

I would imagine part of that curve has involved upping technological skills, as has been the case with so many in the classical world.

I’m not sure I can claim anything in that field, really! The big moment was when, a year ago exactly, I was told I would have to do my other course, my Diaghilev lecture series, online; that was really… I was in complete panic, because basically I’m a person who draws energy from the audience. About 50% of my energy comes from the audience, from improvising in front of an audience, and in seeing their reactions. And suddenly, to not have this energy… I thought, “I can’t do this; I can’t write out text and read it. That isn’t me. I can’t do it properly!” So that was I think the worst, the steepest learning curve. It was primitive what I used – I just recorded myself and it was edited by someone else, but I had to actually speak to the camera and still have it be lively.

Marina Frolova-Walker, Professor, Gresham College, lecture, musicology, portrait, Russian

Photo via Gresham College

I find you very engaging – knowledgeable, passionate, with a really good understanding of pace and structure; I wonder if that’s because you have an artist’s understanding of the role of audience already.

It’s just something that was given to me. I think it’s one of the few gifts that I *was* given. Really, it’s not a gift of speaking coherently at all! But there’s something about connecting with an audience, which I was able to do since I was 19. I did my first lecture at that age, at a college in Moscow, and there were these students completely bored; they were basically forced into this room, it was their cultural program, they had to be there, and I was talking about Bach, and something just clicked at a certain moment, and they seemed to be really enjoying it so it was an opening. And I realized, “I want to do this” – but I don’t know what I do or how. It is just something I suppose I am predisposed to doing. And I’m sure I could learn to do it better, but I wouldn’t know how.

There has been a learning curve for everyone; my own output has been transformed and I’ve had to learn to release the need to know the immediate impact of my work on others.

It has been difficult, doing a series of undergrad lectures in an empty room, and there’s no connection! The previous year I was doing them so much better because I had the power of the audience. But what can you do?

Nothing. But it’s so hard sometimes…

It is!

… but things like your series help. How did you choose these composers and which pieces of music to feature in each segment?

When I was choosing which six to feature, it was very difficult because I had at least seven I wanted, but because I knew I’d be working with Peter, I looked at what he’d recorded and would play or remember, to bring it back to mind. One that is missing is Tchaikovsky; I would’ve loved to have had the music of Tchaikovsky as well, because Peter has a wonderful recording of his Grand Sonata and it’s a very I think undervalued work – people think it’s very loud and goes on forever, and I think it’s wonderful! So yes, Tchaikovsky had to fall off, but generally you know, I had some ideas of stories I could tell about some particular works, but then very often Peter would say, “Well let’s do this instead” and though it’s not what I planned it works perfectly, because there is no audience, and it’s not a concert. So it makes more sense to break things up, I think, and show different pieces in different ways.

Part of that method involves you and Peter trading various moments; how do you and Peter decide on these trade-offs in speaking, or do you just wing it?

I think you can guess!

I want you to tell me.

I think he believes in improvisation as much as I do, and you do, probably.

I do.

Right. So there is a certain amount of preplanning, but I think the interesting thing about this, and my thought behind it was, I’ve always known the way musicologists talk about music is very different from the way performers talk about it; I discovered that very early on when I travelled with a quartet. I was supposed to give a lecture about Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and then they’d play it; on the train (with quartet members) I was telling them my ideas and they were like, “Wow, we would’ve never thought of it in this way!” and some of them I know, like other performers, find some of these things weird. So I’m kind of… I know that some of the things musicologists say about music are completely opaque, and possibly the other way around is true as well, so these are two different approaches, and my idea was to see whether they can go together and whether people in the audience can gain a third thing which might emerge. As to what is working or not, it is not for me to judge.

Peter Donohue, pianist, performer, artist, music, classical

Photo via Gresham College

So musicologists, performers, and audience are in this interesting triangulation of musical reception and experience within the context of live experience specifically; where do you see the role of online presentation?

My idea, my vision for it, is that in principle (the series) can grab the attention of someone who is not into piano music, who is not into music at all, who doesn’t read notation or know many things about this, that they would get something out of it, maybe very different things from what what you could get out of it, or what my students would get out of it, or my colleagues would get out of it. Ideally I would like that *everyone* will get something out of it, and that’s why I think also, this series is so multilayered; those who, say, want to do a project on Shostakovich’s piano music, can watch it and stop and look at the slides, and get much more out of those slides than during the lecture itself, and download the transcript – which of course is not really the actual transcript, because I wrote it before the lecture, but it has references on things we cover. There is depth in it, and depth in varied slides. I don’t have time to address everything when we’re presenting it live, and especially when it’s an improvised performance, but I am secure the content is there, and if somebody wants to get at it in a deeper way, they’d be able to.

Do you imagine your potential audience and write to that, or… ?

You get a little bit of feedback on things, not ever, of course, as you would like, but you get a bit, and I know that some of my former students for example who work in schools, show it to their pupils, who are A-level music students. I know there are music lovers who tune in, but there are also people who are just into Gresham College lectures overall – because Gresham College lectures are amazing. I started getting into them as well, for instance, I listened to a lecture on bell-ringing and mathematical patterns, and about 25 minutes into it I was completely lost, the mathematics side stopped making sense, it was too complicated – but I could still enjoy what I got out of it. It’s still valuable as an experience. My attitude to everything, basically, is it’s better to have a part of something and not be a purist, instead of having the attitude of, “I don’t understand this at all; I won’t bother getting into it.” I think it’s the same with classical music. When you first listen to a Wagner opera you get about 5% of it, then after 30 listenings you get maybe 20% of it; I think this is very important for people who want to get into classical and feel it’s too forbidding. It’s a reminder not to be too hard on themselves.

Having things laid out clearly, with intelligence and confidence, and letting people use their imaginations as well, is a good way to introduce the classical idiom overall, I have found.

Yes, I think it’s good too – I mean, notation is such a hot topic right now, but it’s why I use it. I think even for people who’ve never seen it before, it’s like a diagram: you understand it when (the piece) goes up and when it goes down, and that’s all you need to know. The time goes like this, you have these two axes like that; just from those elements, you can get quite a lot. You can see how many notes there are, how fast it goes – roughly – so with this very basic knowledge you can get quite a lot of comprehension, just by looking at two bars of music, even if you don’t know what it sounds like.

That’s just it, and then having the immediate experience of hearing Peter play what might be shown too...

It’s amazing. I think the last lecture we did Peter sight-read a piece just straight off the screen – the whole piece! It was so funny!

When I spoke to John Daszak about singing reductions he mentioned working with Peter on the Das Lied Von Der Erde piano reduction and how he found it louder than the full orchestration, and Peter’s playing in particular to be very full-on.

People who would have been in the room to actually hear the sound… it’s *astounding*. What a loss not to hear him live. Our little group from Gresham College has been obviously privy to this, and myself, and you realize this kind of piano playing is completely on a different level; there’s nothing in common between how I play the piano and how Peter plays the piano, it’s just a different thing. First of all the range of sound, the range of pianissimo to fortissimo is six times bigger – he can be very loud but he can be very quiet too – and also the control is amazing, I don’t know to what extent… we are in the hands of the technical team, so many things can go wrong, but really, the live-ness can never be replaced.

I hear your lectures and all I want to do is hear these pieces live.

That’s nice to hear! Maybe we’ll have a CD sale at the last lecture. There’s a tiny bit of hope that by the 20th of May we’ll have an audience, but we’re not worried about this now, we’ve gotten used to it the way one gets used to chronic illness or chronic pain, but it’s not something you want to necessarily have permanently. When the restrictions are lifted I think, people will realize what they were missing.

Some, but it’s different for everybody.

I think you know this well, that what we need to realize is that there are different generations who have very different relationships with online. My son, for example, was born online and he lives online, and to him, it’s different, so I’m sure, he would enjoy things in the real world, so to speak. His attitude to online things is *very* different, and for that young audience I think the idea of a short video or something that is not actually a full-scale lecture but a short video, really well done and well presented, professionally done, expensively done, is the best possible teaching aid. And I think he would prefer those things to reading books, to having live lectures, I have a suspicion that young people think very differently about these things.

But then when you get them in the concert hall or opera house they are quite shocked at what they’re hearing –in a good way, but shocked nonetheless. “What do you mean it’s not amplified?!” etc…

Oh, it’s amazing, yes! But here we get into the ritualistic side of it, and also I found out by talking to him, for example, what would prevent him from coming into the Royal Opera – I would always demand he would put on some smart clothes. I was shocked by this. He wants to hear the music but feels there is something alienating and hostile about the audience, and you know, he feels he can’t really wear normal clothes. And that’s something we have to fight. It really was shocking for me to hear that.

I find the correlation between dressing up and elitism bizarre; I dress up because I enjoy it, but I haven’t done it every single time I’ve attended an event.

I dress up as well – because I’m Russian, we tend to dress up, it’s normal to go out of the house to the bakery dressed up, so it’s a different attitude. There’s a big long explanation for it, I am sure – Russia never had a hippie culture, for example – so the idea of casual clothing is, for us, still a bit alien. For my son, who is 18 right now, he doesn’t want to make that effort, and also I think, if I meet someone who knows me and say, “This is my son” – he hates that, so that’s another reason he won’t hear a Wagner opera. But I said to him, “You can wear what you like and be completely separate from me” – and that was the pact.

So did he go?

He‘s seen the whole Ring cycle, and he knows it’s amazing – he could feel the fire in Walküre because he was in the 2nd row! He said, “I could feel the heat… !” Really, he loved it.

If you can get young audiences exposed like that even once, they’ll get it.

Some of them will come back, I think… some. But we need this kind of thing, of just going at all; we used to have this sort of cultural exposure in Soviet Russia. We used to have concerts for children, and for teenagers, and you had to go to them with your school – you had to go to a symphony concert, it was not a choice. And for 80% it meant nothing, but there would be that 20% who’d get completely hooked.

So your series feels like the next logical step for people who are curious, young or not…

I think that’s probably why I can do this so easily with Peter – he thinks the same; he’s very open, he can talk to anyone about these things without trying to create a mystique about any of it. I mean obviously there is a sense at some point where we say, “The rest we can’t explain because it’s magic, it takes you over” – but there are lots of things you can explain in an ordinary way, with very simple language, and that’s what we try to do.

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Piano Heart

I don’t miss playing the piano. But I miss having a piano.

It was no easy thing to grow up in the shadow of a violinist and band leader, watched over by an opera aficionado, mocked by a large, grand piano parked like a monolith in the living room, its white and black keys jutting out like jagged, menacing teeth.
 
You don’t know what you’re doing! it always mocked, You’re just reading what’s in front of you! Anyone can do that!
Seeing 2 Pianos 4 Hands was an exercise in nostalgia. With its review of time signatures and keys, its lines about semitones and a syllabus, its portrayal of the dreaded Conservatory exams, the show, produced by Mirvish Productions and currently on at Toronto’s cozy Panasonic Theatre, gently, humorously reminded me of all the things I hated about my piano-centric past. When I began lessons at the tender age of four, I only knew it was fun to sit at a keyboard and go plunk-plunk-plunk. Over time, I derived a certain smug satisfaction from deciphering little black marks on a page. My considerably more-musical best friend across the street would come by and rock my staid classical world with his off-the-cuff, fast, fun, boogie-woogie improvisations and fancy-dancy pop tunes new and old. It irritated me because not only did it mess up the organized world of Bach, Beethoven et all the RCM presented, but it reminded me of what I could not do: play something fun, straight out of my head, without any little black squiggles for guidance. Music has an important role in my life, but it’s not an artform I can actively be a part of, because I am critically lacking in the one thing you need to make a go of it: real musical talent.
It was when I dropped formal music lessons that I realized visual and written arts come far more naturally to me than sonic ones. Writing, drawing, and photography are work -sometimes torturously so -but the kind of work I enjoy. I don’t revel in failure so much as get nervous at the prospect of throwing all my dirty laundry out for public scrutiny. It was bolstering, then, to see two men who, for all their success in other artistic disciplines, willingly reveal their shared failure at being full-time professional musicians. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, 2P4H’s co-creators, are good at a lot of things, mainly within the realm of performance -that includes acting, directing, writing, and yes, lots of very-able piano-playing. A pair of Horowitzes they are not, but then, that’s just the point. Not everyone can -or should -be.
2 Pianos 4 Hands paints a portrait of artistry frustrated by the relentless slings and arrows of reality. The show was first performed at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 1995, and has since gone on to play over 175 different theaters worldwide, including a six-month run at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The production is simple, with two huge grand, Yamaha pianos facing each other, and the leads kitted out in formal suits (including tails) and alternating characters: piano teachers, parents, their disgruntled childhood and teenaged selves. What could easily slip into saccharine territory comes crashing back into the sour zone, thanks in part to the duo’s finely-tuned sense of timing. Moments that could be difficult for non-classical music lovers to stomach (young Ted’s swooning over a live recording of Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, for instance) are quickly given necessary shots of levity (an eyeroll here, a shrug there), elements that work in tandem with the innate chemistry between Dykstra and Greenblatt. The trust they have, in each other, the material, their abilities, the music, shows, and extends itself to both emotional scenes (like those involving a face-off between young “Teddy” and his strict father) and comedic ones (such as young Richard’s meltdown during a music competition), offering some far more than the warm-hearted fuzzies a memory show might imply. Artistic passion and brutal truths are dished out with equal vigor, making the final scene -of the two playing J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor, 1st Movement -all the more poignant. With the two pianos joined in one fussy piece of Baroque splendor, the line between music and theatre is rubbed away, with performer and performance becoming one expression of frustrated dreams, of altered plans, of new awakenings. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is one of those shows that makes you think, and feel, and remember, and hope, all at once. No small feat.
My child-like urge to plunk around on the keys bubbles up every now and again, minus the heavy weight of classical-music education squashing my innate creative curiosity. That’s the spark of where all my artistic (and journalistic) pursuits come from, after all- from that prickly-skinned, many-tentacled, multi-eyed, fast-swimming creature called curiosity. Part of giving in to that creature means enduring the occasional mental shit-kicking to keep at it, to commit, to sit in the damn chair until it’s done, and to go deeper and reach higher and be better. But what if you hit the glass ceiling? What if there is no “better”? Coming face-to-face with that reality is no easy task; acknowledging it in public, in front of a group of strangers, in the dark, on a stage, every night can be downright terrifying, a horror show of the highest order. But risk is good, and, in the realm of the arts, an absolute necessity. Risk keeps curiosity happy and alive. Kudos to Dykstra and Greenblatt -and to all the frustrated artists. Thank you for putting your risk on display. We hear, we paint, we write, we read, we see. Thank you for taking that risk. Thank you for the music.
close up, orchids, detail, floral

Reading List: May Flowers, Rain, Sounds, & A Memory

May traditionally brings flowers, rain, more flowers… more rain, as well as abrupt temperature shifts. Those shifts might be a good metaphor for today (May 9th), a day fraught with many things, or possibly nothing, depending on where you happen to be. The whole month feels like a deep inhale before the intense demands which come with many summer music festivals. The following reading list includes oodles of opera, bundles of Beethoven, and little bites of chewy foods for thoughts when it comes to memory, live presentation, and seelenökologie; it also includes (I hope) a little bit of room to breathe.

In a personal sense, today marks 4o days since the passing of my godfather, who experienced his first opera at the age of 87. (More on that below.)

Spring has sprung – inhale, exhale, slowly; repeat.

Live Live Live (& Read)

My review of Medea (the Cherubini version), currently being presented by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, can be found here. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who had been scheduled to sing the title role, was forced to cancel the remainder of her performances during the run. Italian soprano Chiara Isotton is taking over. TL;DR: See if you can; Isotton is truly great.

Médée (the Charpentier version) is currently running at Opéra de Paris (Palais Garnier), with mezzo soprano Lea Desandre receiving much acclaim for her titular performance, together with conductor William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the pit. The production is, like Medea, directed by Sir David McVicar, and was first created for English National Opera in 2013 before receiving a staging in Geneva in 2019. The presentation marks the first time Charpentier’s opera has been presented at Opéra national de Paris since 1693. It closes on Saturday (11 May); allons-y!

An opera that made its premiere at the Opéra Garnier: Guercœur by Albéric Magnard, in 1931. The work, which has a tragic real-life backstory, is enjoying a renaissance with Opéra national du Rhin having just finished a run in Strasbourg; the Christof Loy-directed production will be subsequently be presented in Mulhouse, on the 26th and 28th of this month, with baritone Stéphane Degout in the lead. The 2024-2025 season sees another presentation of the work, by Oper Frankfurt and featuring baritone Domen Križaj; the production will be directed by David Hermann with Marie Jacquot (and later Lukas Rommelspacher) on the podium.

Among the many offerings at this year’s edition of The Dresdner Musikfestspiele is the event “Silent Voices In A Noisy World” which features the music of Amélie Nikisch (wife of conductor Arthur Nikisch) and Rachel Danziger van Embden (a student of Wagner biographer Jacques Hartog). Condensed piano versions of Nikisch’s 1911 operetta Meine Tante, deine Tante (My Aunt, Your Aunt) and Danziger van Embden’s operetta Die Dorfkomtesse (The Village Countess) from 1910 will be performed at Dresden’s Palais im Großen Garten, with arrangements, curation, and moderation by Dr. Kai Hinrich Müller, who, as I wrote last month, is spearheading a series of events this year for The Thomas Mann House connected to the formal theme of Opera & Democracy. The Dresden concert is part of this initiative, and is also part of the Musica non grata program, both which I will be writing about in more detail as part of my upcoming conversation with Müller. The interview will be posted later this month; stay tuned!

Also on Sunday: a performance from Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin at the city’s Konzerthaus featuring soprano Camilla Nylund (singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs) and led by Finnish conductor Tarno Peltokoski. In a recent exchange with Helge Berkelbach at Concerti, Peltokoski discusses his debut album with Deutsche Grammophon (Mozart symphonies), his passion for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the importance of clarity over emotions when standing before an orchestra: “Wenn ich beim Dirigieren von Wagner in meinen Wagner-Gefühlen schwimme, macht das überhaupt keinen Sinn. Ich meine, das Orchester wüsste nicht, was es tun soll, und das Publikum hätte auch keine Freude daran.” (“If I’m swimming in my Wagnerian feelings when I conduct Wagner, it makes no sense at all. I think the orchestra wouldn’t know what to do and the audience wouldn’t enjoy it either.”) Peltokoski’s responses belie his youth (he turned 24 last month), and I am curious to follow him on what may well be a very interesting journey involving Wagner, Strauss, and… ? We shall see.

Speaking of Wagner journeys: Wagner In Context (Cambridge University Press, 2024) has recently been released and it is a delectable slow read. Divided into clear themes (places, people, performances, politics), the book, edited by Cambridge Professor David Trippett, offers an assortment of thoughtful takes on varied aspects of the composer’s work and his impact on modern classical culture. Featuring essays from a wide range of contributors – including Barry Millington, Mark Berry, Katharine Ellis, Leon Botstein, and Gundula Kreutzer (whose  book Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera has been on my wish list since its release in 2018) – this is a book which quietly demands slow digestion. I hope to speak with Trippett in the coming weeks about the book and Wagner’s enduring socio-cultural footprint; stay tuned.

Progressive…ish?

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

In the new and not-so-new realm: a recent article published at The Stage provides food for thought on serious issues which reach well past the immediate British opera landscape. Quoting analyses released in March by Arts Council England, writer Katie Chambers includes thoughts from a variety of figures including Opera North general director and chief executive Laura Canning, Musicians’ Union general secretary Naomi Pohl, and stage director Adele Thomas, who offers a valuable insight: “The critical response to the way that any feminist interpretation gets greeted with has forced [opera] to give us a flatter representation of what women are.

At a time when many houses engage in self-congratulatory gestures on what they perceive as a wonderful form of progressivism (the examples are really not difficult to find), it’s interesting to note how many tow a traditional line at heart, particularly in the years since the worst of the covid pandemic. Approaches promoted as “progressive” often employ straight-male gaze wrapped in the coat of creative inquiry (italics mine); question it and you are deemed stupid or uptight, or (gasp) woke. I’m not sure what will change within industry except for the way productions are dressed (more accurately, undressed) via publicity teams and traditional media, an element Thomas rightly acknowledges: 

We are at the tail end of a generation of opera critics who don’t question how much of their opinions are internalised misogyny rather than a genuine reaction to what is in front of them. No criticism to them – it wasn’t what they were asked to do at the time of learning their trade. But it has to change. (“Opera in crisis: leaders warn sector issues go beyond funding woesThe Stage, 7 May 2024)

I hope to speak with various critics in the future about this issue, and explore their ideas on risk and live presentation; it would be good to have their takes on the role of criticism in 2024. I want to have faith that there’s value in its continued practice –even as arts criticism quickly vanishes, everywhere – so again: stay tuned.

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken!”

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Speaking of expressions of faith: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony celebrated the 200th anniversary of its premiere on 7 May 1824. An assortment of German music publishers posted fascinating histories, including photos of the original score. The birthday of the symphony has also inspired various documentaries – one by German broadcaster DW (in English), and another by Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein (Beethoven’s Nine: Ode To Humanity), recently screened at the Toronto-based Hot Docs film festival. A recreation of the first concert in which the Ninth Symphony was performed took place in Wuppertal (with period instruments), and there are more concerts on the horizon including performances by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in London and Paris, with a performance of the Ninth Symphony on the 29th of this month at St Martin-in-the-Fields, where they’ll be joined by the Monteverdi Choir & Chorus.

Amongst the many essays and articles which have appeared recently is one from Gramophone magazine (“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: the greatest recordings“, Richard Osborne, 7 May) outlining important aspects of the work, including Schiller’s famous text, and (hurrah) giving equal attention to all four of its movements. Osborne examines interpretations of the symphony by a range of conductors including Otto Klemperer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, and includes concomitant sound clips for each. Like many articles, Osborne also mentions Leonard Bernstein famously replacing the word “freedom” (Freiheit) for “joy” (Freude) in Friedrich Schiller’s text at a concert in Berlin in late 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whether or not one agrees with that replacement, Bernstein’s gesture was entirely in keeping with the mood of the times, a symbol of the way in which the work has been presented throughout various epochs.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski references Bernstein  in a recent written feature for BR Klassik, exploring the work’s links to historic events as well as personal memories, some of which are tied, quite touchingly, to portions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He also shares his thoughts on initially tackling Beethoven’s Ninth as an artist (“der Mythos um diese Symphonie herum kann einen auch erzittern lassen” – “the myth surrounding this symphony can also make you tremble”) and his decision to program the works of 20th and 21st century composers prior and sometimes even between movements. This approach to such a famous work brings to mind something he said to Hamburger Abendblatt journalist Joachim Mischke (in a podcast from earlier this month) about “Ökologie des akustischen Raums und seine emotionale und geistige Wirkung auf auf die Menschen” (“the ecology of acoustic space and its emotional and spiritual impact on people”). The idea of “seelenökologie” (soul ecology), especially within programming and live presentation in 2024, is one well worth considering, because of course it requires embracing experiences which move past the expected pushing of little emotional buttons – an experience that might be uncomfortable to some.

The first symphony concert I ever attended was a performance of a Beethoven’s Fifth led by Sir Andrew Davis. Roughly a decade after that, I experienced my very first live Beethoven’s Ninth, and by that point, I had formed opinions on how things should sound, and which emotional buttons I expected to be pushed. The performance happened to coincide with the night of my high school prom, but being a perennial outsider, I had no one to go with and I wasn’t too terribly interested anyway (or at least I told myself that at the time). Aside from the discomfort of a heavy velvet dress unsuited to a warm June evening, the most powerful memory from that time is of my hot teenaged fury at the tempos taken through a good portion of the performance; they were faster than what I was expecting, and they came as a total shock. How dare the orchestra not push my little emotional buttons! The whole experience was highly uncomfortable… but: my hate eventually withered and bloomed into real appreciation, dare I say love of this approach, though it took study, maturity, patience. Thank goodness for the local library in aiding with the bloom.

Big Reach

My first formal job, in fact, was at a library –retrieving, sorting, and reshelving books. Library services have expanded considerably since then, but essential purposes remain: the exercise of curiosity, and easy access to the results of that exercise. Cue those elements within a classical-viewing context now, thanks to a partnership between broadcaster Medici TV (who specialize in classical content and stream more than 150 live events annually) and Hoopla (an online borrowing system not dissimilar to Kanopy). Medici’s collection is now accessible to libraries in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. You just need a library card – and yes, the medici.tv/hoopla borrowing system works in Canada.

Another form of easy access comes courtesy of Wigmore Hall in London, which has a long history of presenting livestream broadcasts. Soprano Ermonela Jaho is set to perform live from Wigmore Hall on May 23rd as part of Opera Rara’s second ‘Donizetti & Friends‘ recital. Jaho, who is Artist Ambassador for the organization (dedicated to presenting little-heard operatic works from the 19th and 20th centuries), will be joined by its Artistic Director, conductor Carlo Rizzi, and his brother, violinist Marco Rizzi. The concert will be livestreamed on Opera Rara’s Youtube Channel and will be available for viewing for 30 days.

Space & Time

Speaking of viewing: the work of Alexander Calder is enjoying a special exhibition in Switzerland. Calder: Sculpting Time includes over thirty works which were made between 1930 and 1960 and explores what host MASI Lugano calls “the fourth dimension of time into art with his legendary mobiles.” Many of the pieces on display include items from the artist’s Constellations series, which he began in 1943. Calder won the grand prize for sculpture at the 1952 Venice Biennale and went on to be awarded the Legion of Honor in France and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the US; he worked across a variety of media, creating not only sculpture and mobiles but set and costumes designs, jewelry, and immense public installations. The MASI show seems a little more intimate, but the imagery at the website also conveys Calder’s signature knack for spatial integration: the epic and the intimate; the intellectual and the sensuous. There is a certain joy (Schiller’s Freude, maybe) in all of it, and particularly through the live experience.

woman, man, opera, performing arts, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.

Referencing that live experience, and as promised: my godfather enjoyed his very first opera just after his 87th birthday. He passed away at the end of March. Lately I’ve been thinking back on our times together, that 2017 visit to the opera very much included. Those who knew about our connection (and that opera visit) have asked me what we saw (Tosca) and more specifically what he thought of it all (he liked but didn’t love it, though did express interest in German-language works, specifically Die Fledermaus). He was mostly happy to finally be experiencing the thing my mother (with whom he had been very close) possessed such a passion for, and he was grateful for my initiative in taking him.

At his passing my godfather had been in Canada for seven decades but he never forgot his Swiss roots, and made a point of playing folk music (complete with yodels) on his stereo system during our visits. “It isn’t opera,” he would say, sipping brandy, “but it’s a little bit of home.”

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor, Dario Acosta, classical music

Remembrance: Sir Andrew Davis

To say “I grew up with Sir Andrew Davis” isn’t quite accurate.

Davis was a regular a sight growing up in southern Ontario in the 1970s and 80s. As Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1975 to 1988, Davis led a varied and fascinating series of programmes, helping to cultivate new ideas on sound and its live iteration. He felt as familiar as the green carpet in the little house where I grew up – as familiar as the fruit trees in the front yard and the glass Pop Shoppe bottles in the refrigerator. It was normal to climb into a rumbling old station wagon with my music-loving mother twice a month (sometimes more) and see Davis stand on the podium in front of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the then-new Roy Thomson Hall. He didn’t make classical cool – I didn’t care about any of that; to me it existed outside of such labels – but he did help to make that world less daunting.

No one smiled at the creaky Royal Conservatory building where I took my yearly piano exams. No one smiled at the opera, either; very few smiled at recitals or chamber concerts. Davis was different. Vaguely resembling a large teddy bear, Davis had a discernible warmth that you could feel, whether seated near or (for us more often the case) far. I felt that warmth, especially when we sat in the hall’s choir loft behind or to the side of the stage and observing Davis made me want to listen more to everything with more care and attention, to make mental notes of things I heard and saw, to think about relationships between pieces within one programme. Davis also made me want to learn more about conductors and their mysterious art: a flick of the wrist, a raise of the shoulders, a big swoosh of the arms; what did it all mean? I began, slowly, to try and understand.

Trips to the hall were not limited to ones with my mother; those arranged through school, though far less frequent, were nonetheless welcome variations to the drudgery of boring gym and daily bullying. They were happy journeys to a second home – green carpet replaced by grey carpet; fruit trees by labyrinthine halls and escalators. They were also opportunities to finally become an authority, however briefly. I would lead my fellow students to the loos and show them the drinking fountains, and tell them to shut up when Davis (and Gunther Herbig after him) inhaled and raised baton.

“Just listen… ”

And then I would listen too, open-mouthed and pie-eyed. It was one thing to hear this music on the radio and records; it was quite another to hear it live. I started to hear counterpoint, instrumentation, texture, colour. Davis, perhaps more than any other musician at that time, made classical music real for me – me, an art-loving nerdy, oddball girl from a small suburban town who began to desperately want to pursue a musician’s life, who eventually skipped classes in grades 6-7-8 to sit at home and play the piano, who would pause from Beethoven-Handel-Liszt-Kabalevsky and ponder the memory of Davis’s arms as they moved through a space that hardly seemed empty. “How would he play this passage?” I wondered. “What would he tell me?”

News of Davis’s passing today at the age of 80 was met with immense outpourings of grief – from singers (including Sarah Connelly, Christine Goerke, Alice Coote), conductors (Sakari Oramo, Dalia Stasevska, John Andrews) and a number of classical organizations, including those with whom he’d held longtime positions including Glyndebourne (Music Director, 1989-2000), Lyric Opera Chicago (Music Director and Principal Conductor, 2000-2021) the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Conductor Emeritus), and BBC Symphony Orchestra (1989-2000; Conductor Laureate). Norman Lebrecht praised Davis’s wide repertoire, noting that “Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Britten, Elgar and everyone else were treated with respect and meticulous attention.” He led 700 performances of over 60 operas by 22 different composers, including Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. One of my favorites is his recording of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Singers, released via NMC in 2021; I’m not sure I would have considered the work of Birtwistle were it not for Davis.

In early 2020 Davis commented in a video for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a preview of a concert he was leading) on the connections between Beethoven and 20th century composer Michael Tippett. “In their different periods, they were both kind of looking to show us the same thing: a way forward that would enrich us.” Beethoven’s Third Symphony may well have been the very first thing I experienced Davis leading live; the sound was riveting to my young ears – thrilling, poetic, profoundly moving. Today I re-listened to the acclaimed 1991 Teldec recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.6, (a longtime favorite) with Davis leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and I experienced precisely the same feelings as a child, along with that now-deeply-planted desire to simply, quietly… listen. Davis was so much a part of my musical life and it seems strange and sad to now have to contemplate life without his presence. I am so grateful for having grown up, in my own way, with Sir Andrew Davis. Thank you, maestro.

Top photo: Dario Acosta

Update:

My feature with New Zealand Opera’s Brad Cohen, announced last Thursday, will be publishing this week. Sincere apologies for the delay.

tulips, flowers, spring, orange, colour, petals, vibrant

Reading List: Movies, Music, Media, & … Butchers?

Another university term has wrapped and I am still busy, largely with self-initiated things including interviews, chases, planning, and (as ever) copious amounts of study. Herein, a few things that have caught the attention, inflamed the imagination, cocked my head and furrowed my brow; I may have smiled once or twice also. Voila, news, views, musings, questions, reprimands, and previews… April showers bring what? We shall see.

This week: A series called “Opera and Democracy” has been unfolding in an assortment of locales throughout Manhattan. Presented by The Thomas Mann House and musicologist Kai Hinrich Müller (also a 2023 Fellow of the organization), the series hopes to explore “how the opera can contribute to diverse and inclusive societies” and uses Berlin’s Krolloper as a symbol of both art and politics. (Built in 1844, the facility became an opera house in 1851 and eventually served as the assembly hall of the Reichstag from 1933 to 1942; it was demolished in 1951.) The topics of  the series, according to the website, include “aspects of the democratization of opera, to questions of power and representation, new formats, casting and programming policies, audience expectations as well as to academic challenges and opera’s ability to amplify the voices of silenced or persecuted artists.” The series has already hosted themed conversations in Los Angeles and Munich. Its next events happen next month in Dresden, with June’s week-long online series exploring involving the Black Opera Research Network (BORN). I’ve put out a request to speak with Müller about this – fingers and toes crossed for a future feature on a timely topic.

Later this month: Dame Felicity Lott will be performing at London’s Institut Français on April 30th as part of a screening of Jean Cocteau’s first film, the 1930 avant-garde work The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un poète). Considered a masterpiece by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, the film is the first installment in The Orphic Trilogy (subsequently followed by Orphée in 1950 and Testament of Orpheus in 1960), which explores themes of identity, creativity, fame, and the unconscious. Lott’s performance (happening after the screening) will be accompanied by composer Jason Carr, with whom she has worked extensively; the appearance  is part of the Institut’s broader series celebrating the work of French composer Georges Auric (1899-1983). Cocteau’s film includes a rather perfect line for classical watchers: “Those who smash statues should beware of becoming one.”

Next month: If you don’t know the music of Maria Herz (1878-1950), you might – soon. Born in Köln to a music-loving family, Herz and her family eventually moved to England in 1901 because of the rising tide of antisemitism in her homeland, though they would return in 1914 and be forced to stay. After her husband’s premature death in 1920, she would use his first name in her compositions, in order to, as website Music And The Holocaust puts it, “gain a foothold in her male-dominated profession.” By 1934 she had produced over 30 works, though only five of her songs (as well as her arrangement of a Bach Chaconne) were published during her lifetime. She died in New York City at the age of 72. Much of her music sat forgotten in drawers until grandson Albert Herz’s heroic efforts in Switzerland; he would go on to donate it to the Zurich Central Library. In 2015 Herz’s music became a permanent part of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s music department. As publisher Boosey & Hawkes recently announced, a new recording is on the horizon. Set for release in May via Capriccio Records, the album will feature Herz’s Concerto for cello and orchestra Op. 10 (soloist Konstanze von Gutzeit), Concerto for piano and orchestra op. 4 (soloist Oliver Triendl) and various orchestral works, all performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the baton of Christiane Silber.

Carving up space

London’s Southbank Centre recently announced a new festival based on Kate Molleson’s book Sound Within Sound (Faber & Faber, 2022). I interviewed Molleson not long after the book’s release with relation to a feature I was writing for The Globe & Mail on changing ideas of the classical canon.  The festival, named after the book, runs 4 to 7 July and places its spotlight on the ten composers Molleson identifies in her book, ten artists whose work has, for various reasons, flown well under the radar – until now. The festival will include concerts, installations, stories, DJ sets, and recitals, including pianist Siwan Rhys performing Galina Ustvolskaya’s harrowing and extremely timely Piano Sonata No. 4 in 4 parts (1957), Piano Sonata No. 5 in 10 movements (1986), and Piano Sonata No.6 in 1 part (1988). You might feel yourself walking out of the Purcell Room in pieces following the performance, but then, it’s up to you to put them back together again in a way that makes sense with every other musical morsel – and maybe that’s the whole point of the festival.

Speaking of pieces and morsels: butchers have been on my mind, thanks to a thoughtful essay at Longreads. Along with a fascinating history, author Olivia Potts gets meaty (pun intended) input from a variety of people in the industry, many of whom left careers in other areas. This element has a special personal significance – I considered this very path over a decade ago; my opera-loving mother said I would probably make a good butcher indeed but for my small stature, not – as the author points out – that this is an entirely insurmountable thing. The feature immediately brought to mind other industries, ones with overwhelmingly male leadership and/or overwhelmingly clubby, insular attitudes. (I’ve mused on this theme frequently in the past, most recently in last month’s reading list.) Among the many brilliant observations and direct quotes, one section particularly stands out to me:

“It feels axiomatic to say that those who come from outside an established or “validated community of knowers” will find it significantly harder to both acquire knowledge and have that knowledge recognized than someone whose path is a well-trodden one. One of the most common ways of excluding non-traditional entrants to an industry is to be dismissive of them. This idea of being “taken seriously”—often those exact words—comes up again and again in the butchers I speak to about women in the trade.” (“The Women at the Cutting Edge of Butchery“, Olivia Potts, Longreads, 15 February 2024)

Shut your (my) filthy (rich) mouth…

Still in the non-conformist (or is it?) category: Theatre writer Lyn Gardner has written a chewy column for The Stage explores the rise of self-censorship in both organizational and individual aspects. I long for something to be added here around the normalization of false equivalence – how and why some views are given equal weight when they are not clearly not equal – and on the proliferation of hate speech, particularly within the realm Gardner points at as being the most problematic (social media), and how that proliferation has leaked into current cultural discourse. She does touch on an important aspect to all of this – money – and the role of funding bodies, but I wonder to what extent so-called “cancel culture” (whose popularization has made a tiny handful of tech people very rich) actually informs real programming decisions. After all, the moral authority to which she alludes doesn’t come cheap, and it largely flies out the window to keep the money rolling in; ever has it been thus. That tendency is more pronounced now that revenue sources are becoming increasingly scarce. Gardner’s mention of her students not knowing about Britain’s history of theatre censorship is somehow both depressing and unsurprising. (“Self-censorship doesn’t only silence voices but erodes moral authority“, Lyn Gardner, The Stage, 8 April 2024)

… but do speak up

The GVL (Gesellschaft zur Verwertung von Leistungsschutzrechten) is conducting a survey on the state of the German music industry. The survey is intended for artists who are either self-employed or active in the music industry and based in the country. Responses are due by no later than 19 May 2024. Co-founded in 1959 by the German Orchestra Association and the German wing of the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), the GVL represents the interests of both producers and performing artists related to audio recordings, as well as ancillary rights through different forms of media. Machen Sie mit!

Hallo Medien

Amidst recent German media speculations regarding the current situation at Bayerische Staatsoper, its multi-award-winning in-house record label (BSOrec) is not mentioned once. Am I the only one who finds this strange? The label, founded in 2021, has so far released ten acclaimed audio and visual works, the most recent being last autumn’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Elias led by former company leader Wolfgang Sawallisch and captured live in 1984. Does media (local and international, equally) not consider BSOrec part of the musical ecosystem of the house (or city)? The exclusion is particularly galling if one considers the excitement such releases tend to generate globally; as well as being good for ears and eyes, they further the branding of the organization, and, more broadly, that of Bavaria overall – something Markus Blume must surely be aware of (we hope). Furthermore: why is the label’s work so under-promoted by the house? Why are there no related online updates – ones that might impress Herr Blume and demonstrate an interest in engaging with the wider public? Does Guido Gärtner need to come back from Bremen?

Lebeswohl, Scheiße

Writer Anne Midgette has penned an open letter to the musicians and administrators of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute, and what she terms “other classical music organizations and orchestra musicians’ collectives.” The letter is a response to their posted expressions of solidarity with relation to an article by Sammy Sussman in New York Magazine detailing the 2010 rape of New York Philharmonic horn player Cara Kizer by two fellow musicians and its horrific aftermath; since the article’s publishing, the two are, as of 16 April, are no longer rehearsing or performing with the orchestra. Midgette takes aim at the statements of support posted by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute (along with those unnamed others) for their rampant hypocrisy, something I’m not sure she would have been able to do with such clarity in her former position as classical critic with The Washington Post. Along with the force of her prose, Midgette provides stellar links and digital trails. I have met many people who intensely dislike Midgettes reporting, the #MeToo movement, what they feel she represents and supports – dislike these things as much as you wish, but you cannot deny Midgette excels at bringing the damn receipts.

Coming soon:

This weekend you can read my recent conversation with New Zealand Opera General Director Brad Cohen. The company’s first-ever New Opera Forum takes place next week (22-26 April) with composer Jonathan Dove, librettist Alasdair Middleton, and baritone Kawiti Waetford. The company recently opened their production of Dove’s 2011 chamber opera Mansfield Park – the work’s libretto is by Middleton and based on the 1814 novel of the same name by Jane Austen. Cohen and I had a fulsome discussion in which he offered thoughts on what opera can and should be in 2024, for artists as much as for audiences.

This sense of possibility is one of the things I’ll be exploring in an upcoming exchange with Renaud Doucet and André Barbe. The busy director-designer duo have two productions on the go right now, in Liège (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande) and Toronto (Donizetti’s Don Pasquale); their 2019 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote in Glyndebourne  (which I previewed in Opera Canada magazine) incorporated aspects of real-life hotelier Anna Sacher into its dramaturgy. The last time was at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when the pair had made a dramatic escape from Venice; this time will (we hope) be a bit less dramatic.

In the meantime, remember the c-word– and use it. 🙂

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
sketch, drawing, ink, quick, study, motion, figure, movement

Essay: Hype, Money, Music

Everyone in the classical world seems to have an opinion on news of Klaus Mäkelä being named as the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The Finnish conductor will end his respective directorships in Paris and Oslo in 2027, and begin prestigious tenures with the CSO and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. He will be 31 years old by then, hopping between continents and, one may assume, making guest appearances with various orchestras as well. Since news of the Chicago appointment last week, reactions have been extreme; either Mäkelä (or his agent; or both) are out of depth, out of touch, out for money and in it for the glory; he isn’t serious; jetting in and out implies a lack of commitment! – or he is the lord and saviour of classical, he is especially brilliant live, he is beloved by musicians and audiences alike, he is talented and how dare everyone be so mean!

I am not a fan of hopping on bandwagons of any kind; they’re hot, they’re noisy, they’re airless – but sometimes such rides are required to ascertain the nature of a journey, its sites and stops, instead of looking to one final, ultimate destination. Money is not the final stop here but every bump along the road, with marketing teams and board members steaming up the windows. The people organizations choose as leaders have always been reflections of aspirations related to the artistic, intellectual, organizational, social, communal, as much as to an organization’s history with and around those elements. Leadership must be in a package incorporating all of these things, and be appealing to boards, donors, ticket-buyers, CEOs. Being good at smalltalk is every bit as important as studying scores – it greases the financial wheels, related parts of which are rather squeaky these days.  Attendance in Chicago is on the rise, but so is the cost of everything else, with Chicago’s rents roughly 20% above the national average – a fact worth considering; even the CSO’s lowest-price ticket of $35 is well beyond the means of a great many.

Recent upheavals within the city’s theatre scene are, as The Chicago Tribune‘s Chris Jones noted last year, symbolic of a wider problem involving the performing arts sector:

Companies run the gamut from nonprofit, community-oriented, avowedly anti-capitalist organizations with fundamentally social missions focused on political change, to high-cost commercial operations in the very capitalist business of producing profitable live entertainment. Often, their needs are divergent. And the former typically is contemptuous of the latter. (August 17, 2023)

One can make a face that classical music should never bow to commercial considerations, that it ought to be properly (however that is defined) funded by government at all levels – that classical music is so holy it must never bow to such a vulgar consideration, in which case the names Esterházy, Belyayev, von Meck, van Swieten, Coolidge, and various members of European royalty may not mean much. Flap arms about the nature of non-profits as much as you like; organizations need to feel they have secure futures, and they need a suitable figure in which to place those hopes. The cries of “Welcome!” that greeted Mäkelä’s recent appearances in Chicago following the news were obviously sincere, but also likely infused with a needed optimism for the art form as much as the organization and its illustrious history.

Feeling one is a part of that history, and a part of making that history, is attractive to audiences, even if they are largely unaware of the realities that are inherently part of working within the classical industry. Conductors, especially General Music Directors (GMDs), have never had only one job. Coach, counsellor, educator, initiator, glad-hander, poster boy/girl, diplomat, ambassador, peacemaker, activist, attractor of money, pseudo-guarantor of financial health and organizational stability – a few of the roles GMDs must play, in addition to that of leader, interpreter, and scholar of scores. Between the three-letter word “art” and the five-letter word “music” is the real four-letter word: work. Audiences want to feel the GMD is working for them even if they don’t know (or don’t want to know) the nitty-gritty, usually-unglamorous details. Those details involve shaking hands with strangers for hours on end, being agreeable to disagreeable if potentially useful people, coddling insecure players and soloists, courting CEOs of corporations who may know little about music, making appearances at various events, preparing for and partaking in of any number of meetings, creating programs that will be friendly to the box office, and negotiating those programs with a board and any number of administrators who may well think they know better (perhaps they do); the process of recording (and post-production) is a huge beast unto itself.

Such duties must also be negotiated around and within an immediacy digital culture demands, one specifically younger generations understand and (hopefully) respond to. Actual attendance at cultural things may be down but digital engagement is up, and boards are paying attention, relying on marketing personnel to manifest that digital engagement in real ways. As Los Angeles  Times music critic Mark Swed recently noted:

Boards! We can’t live with them, and we certainly can’t live without them. By their very nature, they are about money. They keep the institution running. They raise funds. When boards are excellent, they recognize the artistic vision and make miracles happen. But that can take some doing, because by their very nature, they operate by committee. (March 20, 2024)

Committees by their nature tend to have varying degrees of groupthink, an approach which rarely if ever (as Swed wisely notes) courts risk within the musical realm; that, in turn, leads to a perceived need to play to the masses, en masse, and in 2024, that’s social media. So in addition to all their usual duties, MDs of the 21st century are also expected to be online influencers of sorts; cue portraits of said leader in designer turtleneck or crisp shirt, in a well-lit locale, with score open, brow furrowed, wielding a pencil with carefully-manicured fingers, all of it Photoshopped to wipe away bumps, wrinkles, sags, and jowls. The face of the organization, so carefully edited to match digital ideals, is barely human; classical people are, you see, beyond the masses. (This is probably not the consciously intended message but such adherence to unrealistic and ageist beauty standards entrenches popular ideas that tie classical music to a perceived elitism;  I may write about this further at some point.) There is a kind of robbery at work when it comes to simply showing the actual people who work in classical, including (or especially) its leaders, the ones who must be the face of the organization, for good or bad.

Sometimes organizations demonstrate a great trust in their leaders, and they, in turn, opt for a touching (and refreshingly untouched) public authenticity. The social media presences of non-digital natives Paavo Järvi and Gianandrea Noseda (GMDs, respectively, of Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and Opernhaus Zürich) are good examples, as is the Tonhalle’s “Tram For Two” episode featuring the two maestros musing on their shared passions and ideas. Whether the CSO or Concertgebouw will emulate this kind of thing is a mystery. Two people who love and work in music, talking about music and music-making, in all its various angles, unscripted; would groupthink allow it? Will we see Mäkelä in conversation with, say, Enrique Mazzola or Lorenzo Viotti?

Paris, Philharmonie, orchestra, classical music, L'Orchestre de Paris, live, performing arts, Klaus Mäkelä, conductor, musicians, stage

Klaus Mäkelä and the L’Orchestre de Paris taking bows at the Philharmonie de Paris, March 6, 2024. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

To what extent Mäkelä will be the face of classical music in both Chicago and Amsterdam, and just how that image might be shaped, curated and spun back out to the public, remains to be seen. The open and hotly-debated question of his music choices – whether he will program things that reflect places and related histories, epochs, and demographics while offering a forward-thinking approach –  is one that only time will answer. (He would be wise to ask Esa-Pekka Salonen for a few pointers.) Will it be possible to do anything meaningful at either locale, given travel schedules? Is youth an impediment or an opportunity?

I want to stay curious, if also mindful of what I heard at the Philharmonie de Paris last month. Mäkelä led the L’Orchestre de Paris in a programme consisting of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (The Year 1905); I came away with highly mixed feelings. The conductor did have a palpable chemistry with soloist Yunchan Lim, and it was special to see the effect that had on the orchestra – but there is nothing wrong with not following the crowd in other aspects (in this case Shostakovich). And as my former music professor Rob Bowman once said, energy goes where attention goes; extending energy to the work of  other conductors who are less firmly in the heat of a spotlight seems like a logical choice, one I hope classical music watchers will consider.

In the meantime, it’s time to leave the bandwagon and jump into the clear, cool evening. Remember the c-word.

Top image: original sketch, mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Henri Vidal, Cain, Abel, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, sculpture, French, biblical, story, brothers, regret, horror, murder

Reading List: Marching Into April, Reading & Remembering

Easter weekend is finally here. Whether you plan on indulging in chocolate eggs and hot-cross buns (or not), the current moment is really an ideal time for pondering. The notions of suffering and loss seem very close at the moment. Good Friday is a particularly profound day for quiet reflection. Along with recommended listening, I suggest spending the day with hot tea, soft light, and a bit of reading.

Realities

First up: the UK Musicians’ Census reveals the extent of gender inequity in the British classical music scene. Surveying 6,000 UK musicians, the findings are not surprising but they are depressing. The acknowledgement of ageism is certainly interesting (I’d like a more extensive study focused on Europe as a whole), and the results around financial realities for women are equally pointed. As The Strad reported (March 27):

The average annual income for a female musician was found to be £19,850, compared to £21,750 for men – meaning women earn nearly a tenth less.

Women also only make up just 19 per cent of the highest income bracket of those earning £70,000 or more from music each year. […] The data on the pay gap comes despite the fact that women musicians are qualified to a higher level than men.

This lack of balance was addressed recently by bass baritone Sam Taskinen in conversation with Van Musik‘s Anna Schors (March 27), in which the singer shares her challenges within the opera world as a trans person. Along with exploring aspects of vocal technique and auditions, Taskinen states that what is really needed within the industry is “many more women in leadership positions at the opera houses. In the artistic directorate, as general music directors”, adding that “we need a much greater diversity of people who have responsibility behind the scenes. The problem is not so much that those responsible have no good will. It’s just that some of them have a lot of blind spots.” This reminds me very much of what tenor Russell Thomas said in an interview with me in 2019, that meaningful change within the industry will only happen off stage and within administration; that what is seen onstage is often mere optics, with little if any meaningful transformation powering it.

Report on Business editor Dawn Calleja added meaningful context to this idea of change-through-management in a recent feature for The Globe and Mail (March 28) in which she updated a story she’d done on retail giant Aritzia, and their own challenges in terms of diversity and leadership:

One woman succeeding at an organization does not automatically mean it is welcoming to and respectful of all women.

And that’s the problem with today’s diversity discourse. Sometimes we can get lost in the data and forget the most important part: making sure women and people of colour stick around, and are given the chance to participate fully in and contribute to the corporate culture. Hiring, in other words, is just the start of the journey.

Ruminations

Reading these items I was reminded once again of composer/writer Moritz Eggert’s recent post for NMZ’s Bad Blog Of Musick (March 13), in which he mused on the challenges of cultural presentation in 2024.  Opera/classical leadership is trying to navigate a range of pressing issues, including diversity and access, both onstage and off. Eggert uses the mythological figures of Scylla and Charybdis to explore arguments made by the political left and right around creativity and its manifestations, particularly within the operatic realm. Using various readings of the 1978 film Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Eggert writes that “It is precisely this openness to interpretation and multiple readability that makes great works of art.”

I agree with much of what he writes, but I am still very unsure as to whether or not the sides to which the author refers are actually equal. Whenever I hear (or read) the phrase “artistic freedom” I also sometimes hear (see) “financial incentivization” and/or “unquestioned validation”. Imagining a work which sits outside the realm of one’s immediate knowability raises important questions as to how much of gender, race, spirituality, and nationalistic identity are individually or collectively used as exoticized costuming as opposed to actual reality. Can creators grasp lived experienced through an imagination which has been wholly shaped by their own immediate socio-cultural worldview? Should they try to? Should audiences be asked to go with them? And – crucially – should artists be officially funded for that pursuit? Should audiences pay for it? Or should there be outright denial across the board? Who decides? And in whose interests?

Natasha Tripney, International Editor of The Stage, recently published a fulsome account on various forms of censorship in theatre communities based in Hong Kong, Hungary, Slovakia, the Balkans, and Belarus; if there’s anywhere the (overheated, algorithmically-juiced) term “cancel culture” works, it might well be these places. Her examination has tremendous bearing on the opera world, especially in terms of content and context – the place in which a work is presented, its cultural norms and demographics, are inexorably tied to governing powers and their control of the purse strings. Any contemporary discussion of art and creative freedom, no matter how idealized, which doesn’t mention funding is worth questioning, at the very least.

Speaking of which: many European houses have announced their 2024-2025 seasons and from most indications it looks like Euros will be flying around – and, they clearly hope, through the front doors as well. Opera national de Paris is featuring Offenbach’s Les Brigands as its first new production of the season, led by operetta king Barrie Kosky and conducted by Michele Spotti. Paris’s Opéra Comique has its own fascinating October offering, a staging of Sir George Benjamin’s fairytale-like Picture a day like this, led by the composer himself. Opernhaus Zürich is presenting Leben mit einem Idioten, Alfred Schnittke’s satirical 1992 opera, to be staged by Kirill Serebrennikov and conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer. In November, Dutch National Opera presents Le lacrime di Eros, a very unique-sounding project which will feature both Renaissance and electronic sounds. Romeo Castellucci is director and dramaturg; the work will be led by Raphaël Pichon and include his acclaimed Ensemble & Choeur Pygmalion. Next summer Bayerische Staatsoper presents Fauré’s only opera Pénélope by Andrea Breth and conducted by Susanna Málkki; the work is making its debut with the house, and the premiere on July 18 will be broadcast live on BR Klassik (radio). Also worth noting: new Ring Cycles being set in motion in Munich, Paris (Ludovic Tézier will be their Wotan) and Milan.

Sooner than that: Opernhaus Zürich is presenting two complete Ring Cycles this May, a revival of Andres Homoki’s 2022-2023 stagings and led by house GMD Gianandrea Noseda. Wagner’s super-epic is also currently wrapping up at Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden, also a 2022 presentation, this one by Dmitri Tcherniakov and conducted by Philippe Jordan.

Remembrances

The classical world has lost many greats this month, including Canadian director Michael Cavanagh, who was artistic director of Royal Swedish Opera (RSO). Cavanagh was very beloved in his home country and abroad, with the Manitoba Opera, Vancouver Opera, San Francisco Opera, and RSO all posting tributes to the unique and widely-loved artist, who died on March 13th at the age of 62 . My obituary for The Globe And Mail, featuring quotes from Cavanagh’s family as well as Edmonton Opera artistic director Joel Ivany, is here.

Composer Aribert Reimann passed away on March 13th at the age of 88. His 1978 opera Lear, based on the Shakespearean play, was commissioned by and subsequently premiered at Bayerische Staatsoper; the company posted a beautifully thoughtful tribute at the announcement of his passing. The recording of the work’s premiere, led by Gerd Albrecht and released in 1979 on Deutsche Grammophon, is a cultural touchstone; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone cuts like a knife, delivering the full measure of the work’s tragedy in every careful, anguished note. I spoke with Gerald Finley not long after he’d finished performing the role himself in Salzburg in 2017, and at the time he called it “a fiendishly difficult piece of music”, adding that Fischer-Dieskau’s recording was a real source of inspiration even before he began preparing for the role. (It was Fischer-Dieskau himself who urged the composer to write the work back in 1968). Reimann himself said the opera explores the “isolation of man in total loneliness, exposed to the brutality and questionability of life.”

Composer Peter Eötvös passed away on March 24th at the age of 80. His deep talent for dramatic writing was expressed through his fourteen operas, which include Tri Sestri (Three Sisters), based on Chekhov’s play (1998), Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s play (2004), and Love and Other Demons, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2008), along with Die Tragödie des Teufels, commissioned by and premiered at Bayerische Staatsoper, who posted a remembrance. Eötvös’s 2011 Cello Concerto Grosso really caught my attention –  the conversational nature of this piece, the kinetic give-and-take rhythms between soloists and orchestra, is hypnotizing. Eötvös remarked about the work (at his website) that “My concerto is a series of short dance-acts, it well may be that the “last dance” is coming from a traditional Transylvanian culture which is doomed to a slow disappearance….” The work was most recently performed by the Bremen Philharmonic and cellist Sung-Won Yang, and led by conductor Jonathan Stockhammer.

Pianist Maurizio Pollini, who passed away on March 23rd at the age of 82, was known and rightly celebrated for his recordings of Chopin, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, and post-modernist composers Boulez, Nono, and Stockhausen. His Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the Beethoven sonatas were so central to my younger, intensely-piano-playing days. I was especially drawn to his 1989 recording of numbers 17, 21, 25, and 26 – the quiet, unshowy poetry; the slow, intense drama; the easy mix of grace and control; the clear sense of line running through and connecting it all. “My feeling is exactly the opposite of controlled,” Pollini told the Chicago Tribune in 2004, in an attempt to bin an undeserved “cold intellectual” label. I returned to those Beethoven recordings (and more besides) at learning news of his passing last weekend. Pollini’s performance of the second movement (Adagio) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 In D Minor, Op. 31, still has the power to make me drop everything and stop, breathe, listen, 35 years after first hearing it.

In closing: New York’s wonderful Rubin Museum is presenting its final exhibition, at least within its physical space on West 17th Street in Manhattan. (It’s about to go digital-only.) Reimagine: Himalayan Art Now, running now through October 6th, explores contemporary art from the region through a variety of media, including sound, sculpture, video, painting, installations, and performance. The exhibition showcases the work of 32 contemporary artists alongside a variety of items from the Rubin’s collection. New and old, engaging in fruitful dialogue; imagine that.

Happy Easter wishes to those celebrating. Remember to use the c-word in your Sunday dinner conversations. (That would be context.)

Top photo: Henri Vidal, Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, 1896; Jardin des Tuileries, Paris. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Amphitheatre Olivier Messiaen, Opera Bastille, Paris, auditorium, performance, space

Review: Ligeti, Crumb, and Gelin in Paris

György Ligeti is not a name one associates with fables – unless one knows his oeuvre, and his broader life story. The composer, who died in 2006 in Vienna, spent a long and illustrious career in Germany and Austria perfecting his angular, detail-driven work. Perhaps best-known for his  Atmosphères (1961), which utilized a micro-polyphonic technique, and his so-called “anti-anti-opera” Le Grand Macabre (1977), he was a master of atmospheric, dense textures which combined elements of 20th century absurdism with polyrhythmic layering. Born in Transylvania in 1923 to Hungarian Jewish parents, Ligeti was often prevented from pursuing his passions in his native Hungary because of his Jewish background as well as his passion for the avant-garde. He fled to Austria following the 1956 Soviet invasion. A recent chamber concert by musicians of the l’Orchestre de L’Opéra national de Paris, specifically named after a movement from one of his works, effectively evoked a strange, otherworldly, fable-like world of which the composer would have surely approved.

A tribute to the composer to mark his musical centenary, the concert also featured the music of American composer George Crumb (1929-2022) and a new work by French composer Françoise Gelin (b. 1980). Heavy on percussion, the well-attended evening at the Amphithéâtre Olivier Messiaen (located in the Opéra Bastille) was a showcase of skill, musicality, and innate communication between artists, particularly orchestra percussionists Christophe Vella, Sylvie Dukaez, Jérémie Cresta, and Charles Gillet, Mezzo soprano Hilary Summers, fresh off the opening of The Exterminating Angel on the mainstage, opened the evening with Ligeti’s Három Weöres-dal (Three Weöres songs) for voice and piano (1946-1947). Based on the poetry of celebrated Hungarian writer Sándor Weöres (1913-1989) whose work Ligeti set throughout various projects, the songs blend the casual and the classy in a way that can be difficult to translate into other languages. Weöres’ writing is notable for employing what musicologist Amy Bauer characterized in a 2008 paper as “an exploration of sound symbolism, novel metric structures and absurd juxtapositions”, qualities Ligeti sought to reflect and expand on. Three Songs blends descriptions of nature with fairytale-like tableaux settings that contain hints of menace, particularly in the third setting, ““Kalmár jött nagy madarakka” (A merchant has come with giant birds), with its closing lines, “The princess is pale, and as quiet as always In her heart great birds are shrieking.” Summers captured this suggestiveness perfectly, hanging on certain syllables, with shapely phrasing and pointed consonants. Crumb’s “The Sleeper” (based on the 1831 poem by Edgar Allan Poe) has its own creepy poetry which ponders the deceased subject’s “length of tress / And this all-solemn silentness!”. Summers’ delivery softened but was no less gripping. her maple syrup tones winding around the work’s lyrical leaps and moody melodic line to create a unique transcultural bridge between mythologies.

That connection was especially present in Bolliakis’ performances, which included three extracts from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata (1951-1953) and two from Etudes (1985-2001). The former, according to musicologist Donald Gislason, has a double meaning inherent within its title, saluting the formal compositional style known as the ricercare (a work with one or more melodic lines) while simultaneously embracing the Italian meaning (wanted; sought). Boliakis performed the first three movements of the work, each building from the last, with the first movement (consisting of just the note A), performed with genuine conviction, underlining the “seeking” quality of the composer himself, a ‘seeking’ which was echoed in Gelin’s (… texte manquant”) pour quatre percussionnistes. Dedicated to Jérémie Cresta, one of the work’s interpreters, Gelin also used the poetry of Weöres as inspiration, though one might be forgiven for thinking of Claude Vivier in the theatrical mix of percussive lines and talky textures and the gamelan-like sounds evoked within and through their interplay.

The notion of ‘the fable’ expanded with George Crumb’s An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1985) for amplified flute and percussion. The composer himself wrote of the work that “flute and percussion are the instruments that most powerfully evoke the voice of nature. Ideally (if impractically), my Idyll should be heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August.” A rainy March evening in Paris wasn’t quite the setting Crumb had envisioned, and yet flautist Sabrina Maaroufi’s performance captured the work’s startling purity. Her performance of lines by eighth-century Chinese poet Su-K’ung Shu, spoken while simultaneously breathing into her instrument (“The moon goes down; there are shivering birds and withering grasses”) was a keen reminder of the ways innocence and experience are often grimly joined within the world of fables and fairytales.

The closing work, Ligeti’s song cycle Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With bagpipes, drums, violin) for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists (2000), expanded on this uncomfortable paradox, though the performance was shot through with wit and intense visual communication between the musicians, who were arranged around and behind Summers. Comprised largely of whimsical, often nonsensical language, the work is a fusion of Ligeti’s interest in the folk sounds of his homeland and the avant-garde sound world he helped develop. The cycle’s first song, “Fabula” (“Fable”) depicts a pack of wolves terrified of two unmovable mountains, and is a gripping call-and-response between voice and percussion section. The work uses a huge array of percussion instruments (marimba, tam-tam, log drum, bass drum, gong, vibraphone, tubular bells, to name just a few) which work in dialogue with the soloist. Its seven movements shifts between dance rhythms and meditative poetry, though the encore was less meditative – it was a repeat of the final, bouncy seventh movement – than brave, with Summers heartily tackling its fiendish rhythms one more time and thus proving that fables, while seemingly easy on the surface, can be difficult, knotty things, if also loads of fun.

Top photo: Simon Chaput
snow, winter, branches, cold, trees, twisting, scene, snowy

Essay: Ch-ch-ch-changes

Update 15 December: I have a January position, but not at Seneca Polytechnic.

This announcement was made on Facebook recently, but for the sake of  clarity I am announcing it here also: I will not be teaching at Seneca Polytechnic Institute in January (For further clarification: I was not fired but it was also not my decision.)

I graduated from Seneca’s Radio Broadcasting program in 2005, with the teaching offer coming a decade later. It was the first time I’d taught in a formal classroom, the first time I’d stood in front of a group, having only taught piano one-on-one for many years prior. I’d been an Associate Producer at CBC Radio but I wasn’t sure how to transfer that knowledge, or indeed, anything I’d gained from working so long in the worlds of writing, chasing, interviewing, recording, and producing. I remember the stomach-churning nerves of that first class, repeatedly losing my train of thought and looking down to my notes for reassurance. What am I doing here? Who do I think I am?! Fraudster syndrome is not a new experience for me, but I remember how sharp its edges felt that day in January 2015. It was a sign of things to come, particularly when I returned to writing within the classical world.

Despite the nervousness that day, I’d made my mother proud. It felt good to have the approval of the person who had been my most ferocious critic. The praise came with an addendum  (“I told you you should have gone to teacher’s college all along…”) – and was short-lived. I became ill (there were suspicions of Crohn’s disease, not ultimately found) and I couldn’t finish teaching the term. This was the time before Zoom classes. I couldn’t do a requested opera review for The Globe & Mail during that time either, and I remember crying over everything one grey early-spring afternoon, bemoaning the inertia of an existence that couldn’t – wouldn’t, refused – to move forwards, despite every hard push and expensive effort. Living abroad, graduate school, New York (twice!), tutoring, teaching, workshopping, networking, writing – so much writing – balanced with looking after my mother, and just when it seemed things were finally, at last, moving… kaboom, by accident or design, the wheels stopped turning. Sometimes I wonder if my illness was a reaction to her obvious decline. I remember her tiny frame perched just outside the doorway of my bedroom after one of my surgeries, her saucer eyes peering in. She would be dead four months later. I remained, barely, and the school term was over.

branches, trees, green, nature, trunks, paths, leaf, leaves, bloom, park, forest

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

I would go on to teach at Seneca every winter thereafter, and subsequently instruct Media And Communications students at the University of Guelph Humber every autumn. All those things I pushed for and lived through I now use, in one form or another; everything had a purpose, and continues to. The stress of teaching can be intense at points, but what job comes without that? Creativity, logic, and process are partners in the classroom. To borrow Byron’s line from Don Juan (written in a highly different context), “explaining my explanation” is something I think about a lot, as much as for teaching as for writing. But such educational basics (including standing in front of a group) don’t scare me anymore. Communicating, after all, is what musicians (actors, writers, painters, playwrights) also do, and like an artist I try to be both creative and chewy in my delivery, a mix of the blunt, the bizarre, the theatrical, a kind of Bernsteinian flight of ideas and history, approach and practice. (I don’t think Lenny would mind my taking inspiration from his speaking/lecturing style.) Encouraging young people to explore their own talents, demonstrate a capacity to meet real-world demands and exercise their curiosity has been a special blessing for someone who never had children of her own. I like students; I like their energy. Seeing (and sometimes hearing) the lights go on – formulating unique thoughts and ideas, planning and dreaming, standing outside (creatively, intellectually, mentally) the influence and validation of the known – communication!

At the moment I am in the midst of term-end grading. It is odd to think that in a few days, there will be no classroom to go to, no externally-imposed schedule to keep, no student things to grade, no new slate of new faces to greet. January will be a big empty slate for the first time since 2014. “Turn and face the strange” indeed. Exacerbating this surreal feeling is a (big) birthday on Thursday. Maybe pushing for the things society tells us we “should” have by a certain age isn’t as effective a recipe for contentment as acceptance of and gratitude for present circumstances. True,  there is no castle in the sky, no Prince Charming, no sharing the washing-up or small joys or exasperated sighs. I am my own roommate, and it’s not a question of “strange” or “fail” or even “like”; it simply is.

Recently I had a conversation with someone working in the European classical industry who noted that while I seem “split down the middle” in terms of my professional life, I really should give serious thought to pursuing the things related to the classical self, the self who must try to stay quiet amidst the focus, that side I can barely silence, even (or especially) in lectures. Of course my readers may have noticed there’s been little published here the last few months – there’s been so little energy to do so. But I am called The Opera Queen, FFS! I should have written about Callas’s birthday! I should have written about Turandot(s) and Don Carlo! I should have written tributes to Marlena Malas and Pauline Tambling! I should have asked for interviews with x-y-z! Alas, time and energy are finite at this point (this is where nightly cooking/washing-up help would come in handy) and lately it’s gone to my students, and I don’t really mind, but I worry my readers do.

torso, sculpture, Glyptothek, Munich, Apollo, physique, chest, ancient, antiquity

Torso of Apollo; copy, probably after a statue of Onatas from Aegina (ca. 460 BC). Taken at the Glyptothek Munich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Rilke’s 1908 poem “Archaïscher Torso Apollos” (Torso of an Archaic Apollo), with its striking paradox of the complete and the incomplete, comes to mind often, and not solely for its famous last line. Lately I am less statuesque and immobile, more messy and unsettled, as if I’m being shoved onto an empty dance floor in naught but socks, sweats, and dishevelled hair; all I can do is dance with myself – figure out next steps, tiptoe through financial terror, pirouette around expected hardship, kick at the doubts and do jazz hands to the doubters. Maybe I know the steps better than I think, else I am a good improviser. It’s nice to move in winter anyway; something about the season’s stillness makes things easier, its cold temperatures offering a brisk clarity. I am looking forward to long walks in the snow (if it ever comes) and listening to Sibelius, Strauss, Shostakovich… and silence.

In the meantime, I’ve an interview posting soon featuring Irish artist Gavin Friday, the driving force behind a new animated version of Peter And The Wolf done with childhood friend Bono – an update to their 2003 project for the Irish Hospice Foundation. Culture and rebellion, change, theatre, performance; creativity; shifting identities: Mr. Friday is every bit opera. The feature is posting prior to the short’s broadcast on Irish television December 25th.

Until then, enjoy the eierpunsch, dance with yourselves, and most importantly: remember the c-word. My students, I think, already know it by heart.

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