Author: Catherine Kustanczy Page 2 of 46

Sir George Benjamin Wows With the Berlin Philharmonic

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

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

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner PhilharmonikerGeorges Benjamin

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

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

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker Georges Benjamin

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

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

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

A Rich Meal With The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

rehearsal RCO musikfest

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under conductor Manfred Honeck rehearse for their performance at the Berlin Musikfest. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

Whether owing to or despite the recent dramas the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has endured, their concert at this year’s edition of the Berlin Musikfest was remarkable in every sense. Even more remarkable was the number of empty seats within the Philharmonie.

“Berliners,” commented a seatmate, her eyes rolling, “only tend to come out for their own.”

Whether there’s any truth to this observation or not, it was a pity to note; this was a gorgeous, rich meal of a concert which featured a mixed program of works with an interesting commonality: initial failure. I attended with a heap of curiosity, not only to see how replacement conductor Manfred Honeck might fare, but to see how he and the artists might fit the works of Webern, Berg, and Bruckner together — works which, at their respective premieres (in 1909, 1913, and 1889) failed entirely. There was a riot at the performance of the Berg work; audiences at the premiere of Bruckner’s Third literally walked out as the music was being performed. These works were not without formidable influences; as the program notes remind us, “the composers, over the generations, found their own answers to Wagner’s challenge” —  but it’s worth noting that other sonic echoes — that of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Second Viennese School leader Arnold Schoenberg especially — are entirely palpable (or anticipated), in both form and style. There is an immensity of intention which draws clear parallels to the elder statesmen of late romantic/early modern music, along with a palpable, grand dread. This quality is especially perceivable throughout the Webern and Berg works, as if they were somehow intuiting the immense social reset and the terrible tragedy just around the corner. It is music within whose bars you can hear empires crumbling, a call into the total void, a questing for authenticity and meaning.

Remaking old forms and probing new avenues were hallmarks of the compositional approach of the Second Viennese School, and for all the atonal explorations and aural adventuring, the works of composers like Berg, Webern, and their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, has, at least for me, sonically luxuriant leanings, even amidst the most sparse sounds. Central tonalities or not (some have them; some don’t, and this can be initially strange for new listeners), there is a heartbeat of the real in this music, and that makes it captivating; I’m always struck, hearing the work of Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, at their immense presence, their reaching for the essential, the real, and even, to my ears, the sensuous. One simply has to have the right orchestra, and the right conductor, to draw (carefully) such features out. The Royal Concertgebouw, as led by Honeck, provided just that this past Tuesday evening.

royal concertgebouw orchestra

Photo: © Anne Doctor

Certainly, Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5, Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs , Op. 4 (also known as the Altenberg Lieder), and Bruckner’s Third Symphony have enjoyed success since their respectively disastrous premieres. The Concertgebouw Orchestra underlined the unique beauty of each in a rich, well-paced program that was a treat to experience. Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5 (the 1929 orchestral version), running roughly eleven minutes in total, is an exploration of color and tonality —or austere atonality, as it were.  The first movement is characterized by a conversationality between strings, with whisper-like pizzicato effects, a sinuous string tone, and virtuosic demands on the Concertmaster; in this, Vesko Eschkenazy handled the lines with aplomb. Resembling at times a film soundtrack (Jaws came to mind), Honeck highlighted the idiosyncratic bass work in the third movement, rendering chewy timbres that led to a dramatically hushed conclusion, echoed later in the rippling opening of the fifth movement, with its interplay between textures and colors. Held with a tenuous balance, Honeck ensured the ending was pointedly unstable, a close that provided the perfect foray into Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs, which featured the vocal talents of soprano Anett Fritsch.

soprano Fritsch

Soprano Anett Fritsch (Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann)

As scholar David P. Schroeder rightly notes, this work “defined Berg’s future direction as did no other of his early works.”  The cascade of sound opening the work was characterized by the Concertgebouw’s luxurious approach, with a deft mix of phrasing and tempi. Honeck emphasized the sonic resplendence with a lovely balance of strings and vocality, leading with an expansive lyricism which finds the soft edges and colors within Berg’s fascinating score. Based around a series of epigrammatic texts by writer  “Peter Altenberg” (real name Richard Engländer), with whom Berg shared a complicated friendship, the work is a densely rich collection that balances beauty and melancholy in one tension-filled package; one can clearly hear early indications of Berg’s 1935 opera Lulu within its score. As composer/violinist Jonathan Blumhofer rightly notes, “The Altenberg-Lieder feature Berg at his most direct and concise, as well as his most sumptuous.” Fritsch’s rich sonority complemented the pithy prose, with Honeck providing plush phrasing and beautifully capturing the push-pull of sounds of the Second Viennese School and its aims.

If the first half of the program featured music that aimed for pure color in and of itself, the second half, thanks to Honeck’s quilt-like approach, used all the colors, and textures, and patterns, making Bruckner’s third sound experimental, even playful, though its length (280 pages) might leave some wondering how playful it could possibly be. Conductor Herbert Blomstedt commented in an interview late last year that the lengthy didn’t mean the work took any longer to play than usual symphonies — there are just so many notes within this particular one. Honeck and the Concertgebouw made a point to distinctly emphasize all of them, whether in fast runs or sustained tones, and while this could prove aurally exhausting, the maestro shaped it into a greater listening whole, using a variety of colors and textures, and an expansive, thrilling lyricism. 

honeck conductor

Conductor Manfred Honeck. (Photo: © Felix Broede)

With a broad, Mahlerian intensity, he led the first movement through a series of glorious builds made of brass and strings, each time a trip to a precipice offering a different and unique view. A thematic underlining by a fulsome brass section showed a clear relationship to the rippling upward ascent of strings, deftly modulated and colored. The lusciousness of sound carried over, beautifully, from the evening’s first half — perhaps a sign of the clearly positive relationship Honeck has with the orchestra, who seemed to relish playing under the Austrian maestro’s baton. Honeck (named Artist of the Year by the International Classical Music Awards for 2018) could be seen smiling broadly at various moments throughout the work — surely a good sign, for the performance, the orchestra, and the audience?

More’s the pity, then, that not more Berliners and music fans made the trip to see this performance. It was a rich meal that left questions, to be sure, but the right sorts of ones that left you hungry for yet more.

Capuçon’s Breathtaking Shostakovich in Dresden

capucon viotti gmjo dresden

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The music of Shostakovich is not thought of by many people as an easy listen. Frequently characterized as discordant, atonal, and difficult, the work of the twentieth century Russian composer is at once epic, intimate, explosive, emotional, and very frequently uncompromising. It’s also one of my absolute favorites; when done well, it is one of the most rewarding of musical experiences.

And so it was an easy decision to see it live in Dresden this past weekend, especially since this particular performance featured one of my favorite artists. French cellist Gautier Capuçon (who I interviewed earlier this year) was on tour with the acclaimed Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Youth Orchestra, or GMJO), and would be performing the Concert No.1 for Cello and Orchestra in E-flat major, op.107 in Dresden, the day (make that morning) after the opera. The timing was ideal, though it was, admittedly, very jarring to go, a mere twelve hours or so, from the melodic sweep of Giuseppe Verdi and into the busy, cacophonous world of Dmitri Shostakovich, with a brief (if very lovingly performed) stop off with Anton Webern’s swirling tone poem,  Im Sommerwind (“In the Summer Wind”). The four-movement cello concerto, dedicated to and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959, moves, with equal parts grace and awkwardness, between bracingly modern and folkishly traditional. It’s this high-wire act, of desperately seeking a balance between the two, some pyrotechnics on the part of the soloist, and the composer’s frequent couching of his inner rebellious tendencies within a larger framework (fascinating on its own, and no less honest), that makes this work such a very rewarding listen, and one of my big favorites.

Understanding the work through the lens of history is useful. Shostakovich had already faced incredibly political pressure by authorities in Soviet-era Russia by the time of the concerto’s composition, most notably over his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. An editorial (the infamously titled “Muddle Instead of Music“) in 1936, two years after its premiere (notably after Stalin had seen the work), heralded a dramatic turning point in Shostakovich’s creative life, with the composer seeing commissions and income dwindle away in the aftermath. He became far more cautious in his output, understandably — though it must be noted that the subtexts of his subsequent works are frequently littered with a zesty, hardly-contained fury, a quality I think finds its best and most shattering expression in his monumental 11th Symphony from 1957, ostensibly about the past but so much rooted in the composer’s deep struggles, internal and external. While it’s true that the worldwide fame he went on to enjoy eased many of the earlier pressures, there is still a special bite to this particular concerto (composed during a particularly successful period), one which is notable and very satisfying.

So while the program notes for the GMJO tour (by Hartmut Krones) note that “(a)s compared to other compositions by Shostakovich, the character of (the cello concerto) is relatively cheerful” — I’ve always found the piece to be restless, biting, its “relative” cheerfulness a sort of papery ruse, a sarcastic smirk, an eyebrow-cocking question which repeatedly asks the soloist for definitions that fit them, and the music, and the passing moments in time, best. It’s a sort of Rorschach Test for its soloist, moreso than many other concerti I would argue, and Capuçon’s performance this past Saturday with the GMJO underlined his deep artistry while seamlessly capturing his conversationally rich relationship with orchestra and conductor Lorenzo Viotti.

gmjo dresden capucon viotti

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

So what did he bring, then? What did the “test” reveal? Some of that zesty, under-the-hood-yet-not anger, as well as a relentless and at times, fiersome questing for those ever-liquid definitions. Together with Viotti’s instinctual conducting (the two share a very palpable aural understanding that nicely brought to mind the friendship between Shostakovich and Rostropovich), this was a performance that probed the depths of musical definitions — it didn’t merely dance at its edges.  The initial motif of the first movement (Allegretto) was performed with a beguiling mix of angularity and sensuality, with instrumental juxtapositions and tempi, never settled on a staid set of sonic cliches, but with tones both clipped and rounded, and phrasing at once sour and sweet. This suitably unsettled energy continued through the second movement (Moderato), with its unmistakable lyricism — construction, destruction, reconstruction — reaching (racing at?) an apotheosis of sorts in the lengthy solo cadenza. Here Capuçon displayed a heady mix of  virtuosity and great warmth, confidently fusing Shostakovich’s arch geometric chromaticism with the luscious central themes at start and finish, resulting in something at once thrilling and thoughtful.

And it’s those twin qualities that make Capuçon exciting to watch; he is so fiercely, and rightly, communicative — with audience, instrument, fellow musicians, and most especially the music itself. It’s one thing to hear the recording, or watch a digital broadcast, but it is, of course, entirely another to experience such a work live.  When done well, this work, like so many within Shostakovich’s canon, is one whose sonic vibrations you feel within, in a real, tangible way; you don’t come out of a good performance the same way you went in. (And you shouldn’t.) Focusing on encores becomes something of a challenge in such cases — and so it went, that a loving performance of Pablo Casals “Song of the Birds”, done with the GMJO’s talented cello section, was initially difficult to fall into sonically, but again, Capuçon’s inherent communicativeness eased the transition. Of particular note was the way in which he aligned himself amongst the young cellists (not so surprising when one remembers he once played in the GMJO himself), allowing the spiralling, lilting sounds of Casals’ gentle lines to rise, then fall, then rise once more as one, allowing a long-awaited and necessary exhalation to properly conclude the unrelenting intensity heard earlier.

dresden dome

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

My recent visit to Dresden may have been far too brief, but it was filled with the sort of musical magic that reminded me that things discordant and difficult need not be daunting; when done so well, they lead to a wordless joy one feels resonating within, an embrace of authenticity, a homecoming.

Drama In Dresden With Verdi’s “La forza del destino”

semperoper dresden

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Dresden, with its fascinating history and ornate Old Town, has always been a city I’ve long wanted to visit. Two recent events, scheduled within a mere sixteen hours of one another, gave me the opportunity for a brief if fruitful and very music-filled visit. The first, of course, was opera.

It was something of a treat to be present for the official start of the Semperoper Dresden season, which kicked off with a revival production of Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Power Of Fate). Conductor Mark Wigglesworth led a bold, cinematic reading of the score, underlining its epic nature with bold brass sounds and exuberantly lush strings. Suitably subtitled “A Melodrama In Four Acts,” I half-expected Errol Flynn to pop out of designer Julia Müer’s angular scenery — not entirely an exaggeration, considering the episodic and highly sentimental nature of the work.

semperoper interior

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave used two sources as basis for the opera: an 1835 Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (Don Alvaro, or The Force of Fate) by Spanish dramatist and politician Ángel de Saavedra; and a scene from Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp), the first part of the German poet/philosopher’s famous literary trilogy. Forza premiered at the Bolshoi in Saint Petersburg in 1862 before undergoing extensive revisions (including additions to the libretto by Italian writer Antonio Ghislanzoni) and being presented in 1869 at Teatro Alla Scala Milan. Its overture is one of the most performed and popular of orchestral works, and with good reason; it accurately reflects the unfolding drama with memorable melodic lines and some very grand orchestration. 

The story, with its themes of vengeance and redemption, seem made for a 1930s Hollywood caper, one of its two central male roles, Don Alvaro, a swashbuckling bad boy who murders the father of his beloved before going on the run for decades, and winding up in a monastery, where he later kills the brother (Don Carlo) of his beloved. So much for penance! But as director Keith Warner rightly notes in the program, the narrative also very much is a study in contrasts, chiefly that between haves and have-nots; this divide underlines a broader social “kaleidoscope,” as he terms it, that went on to be explored and examined in all forms of art, including the literary works of Dickens and Balzac. Warner made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival this past summer, with the equally intense Vanessa by Samuel Barber. “We are spectators in a big arena of life, in which all events influence each other,” Warner says in the notes for Forza. Such connectivity that drives so much great art, and I think, sustains it over decades, even centuries.

forza dresden

The curtain call for “La forza del destino” at Semperoper Dresden August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Certainly a well-known facet of Forza for some time now has been its superstitious connections; it could well be considered the Macbeth of the opera world. Baritone Leonard Warren famously, tragically collapsed and died during a 1960 performance, having just sung an aria which begins, “Morir, tremenda cosa (“to die, a momentous thing”) no less; tenor Franco Corelli, well aware of the work’s unlucky reputation, was meticulous in exercising various rituals during performances; superstar tenor Pavarotti never performed it at all. Despite its spooky history, the opera was one of my mother’s favorites, with a 1969 recording (featuring Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill, conducted by Thomas Schippers) being given regular plays on her grand old cabinet-style stereo system.

I kept thinking of what she might’ve thought at Friday evening’s performance in Dresden. I am confident in stating she would have been absolutely delighted that the first full opera I happened to experience here, in my period of temporary relocation in Europe, is one by her very favorite composer. Considering Verdi’s work was the first opera I heard and knew as a child, it felt like the force of fate indeed. I’m also confident that, like me, she would have been thrilled by the singing, which was, in a word, stellar, and were amply aided by the wonderful acoustics of the gorgeous Semperoper Dresden house. As the vengeful Don Carlo, Russian baritone Alexey Markov was a sparky, dynamic presence, his vocal flexibility and great stage presence expanding the character’s range beyond one-dimensional-angry cliches; I would love to hear his (oft-performed) Eugene Onegin at some point. Russian soprano Elena Stikhina presented her Leonora as so much more than a simpering victim, but a multi-faceted, deeply feeling woman whose hungry search for her own unique identity leads to leads to some dark, desolate (literally) places. Stikhina’s vocal richness was balanced by a resplendent tone; she channelled steely, soft, sensuous, and strong with ease, confidence, and charm, and deserved every “bravo!” directed at her at the curtain call.

marcelo puente dresden

Tenor Marcelo Puente at the curtain call for “La forza del destino” in Dresden on August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Tenor Marcelo Puente, who I interviewed when he appeared in Toronto last spring as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, has the right mix of macho physicality and leading-man-charm for Alvaro — and that voice! With a thickly virile sound, Puente’s bright top notes are nicely balanced by a very impressive oaken bottom. Many of Alvaro’s musical lines require thrilling flexibility and smart modulation, and Puente was more than up to the task in each. Since hearing him in Toronto, his voice has taken on a greater variety of tonal color; it’s become broader, more sensuous, lush. The Argentinian demonstrated ample drama in both runs as well as sustained tones. It was a performance that made me hungry to hear more of his Verdi repertoire. Fingers crossed.

So La forza del destino was the perfect start to my opera season; it was also an ideal introduction to the Semperoper Dresden, though it was not the only time I experienced the gorgeous house during my whirlwind visit — Shostakovich, Gautier Capuçon, and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra awaited the very next morning.

Kirill Petrenko Exceeds Expectations With The Berlin Philharmonic

petrenko Berlin Philharmonic

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

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

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

Petrenko Berlin Philharmonic

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

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

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

Petrenkp Berlin Philharmonic

Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold

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

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

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

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

Johannes Debus: “Going to concerts stops time”

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Photo: Bo Huang

The interesting thing about arriving in Berlin in the middle of summer is the big adjustment it’s forced in terms of activities and communicating; everyone’s been away (or is away still) on holidays. The quiet of summer has meant I’ve had lots of time to think, plan, and go through what a friend once termed an “input” phase; if anything has reminded me, in whispers and shouts, there may be a book (or memoir) in me yet… this has been it. My “output” phase is, however, rapidly approaching, what with the imminent start of concert and opera season. It’s still festival time in Canada still, of course, and a new one which caught my attention lately joins my favorite things: wine, food, song, with a bit of European flair.

Johannes Debus, Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company, is, like the company’s General Director Alexander Neef, a German native. He graduated from the Hamburg Conservatoire and went on to become Kapellmeister at Frankfurt Opera, where he led both old and modern works, a talent he continues to cultivate. Since then, Debus has led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and been guest conductor with the Biennale di Venezia, Bregenz, Schwetzingen, and Spoleto Festivals, to name just a few. Last December he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera conducting Salome, and earlier this year led  the Austrian premiere of Goldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci at the Bregenz Festival. He has collaborated with a number of acclaimed ensembles (some of whom I’ll be seeing shortly at this year’s Berlin MusikFest), including Ensemble Intercontemporain, Musikfabrik, Ensemble Modern, and Klangforum Wien.

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Johannes Debus with Graham Abbey, Artistic Director of Festival Players of Prince Edward County. The pair are collaborating on a Water Week event. (Photo: Elissa Lee)

Lately he’s put on something of an organizer cap, as one of the driving forces behind Water Week (running August 25th to 31s) in Prince Edward County, a picturesque part of southern Ontario a few hours east of Toronto, along the shores of Lake Ontario. Inspired by Stockholm’s World Water Week Symposium, Water Week unites environmental and cultural aspects in a beautiful (and wine-rich) part of Canada. The array of concerts and events on offer have been programmed by Debus and his wife, violinist Elissa Lee. Highlights include a performance by the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, Lee’s Ensemble Made In Canada, a performance by soprano (and COC Ensemble graduate) Danika Lorèn, and a special event which will feature the talents of Canadian theatre artist Graham Abbey, bass Alain Coulombe (whose performance as the Commandatore in the 2016 Salzburg Festival production of Don Giovanni I found so affecting), and Debus himself. There will also be regular screenings from productions at this year’s Bregenz Festival. 

Because of the nature of this festival — it’s new, it’s varied, it’s in an area many Torontonians are relocating to — I wanted to get Debus’ thoughts around the whys and wherefores of his programming choices, and also get his thoughts on the role of social issues within the arts. The maestro faces a busy upcoming season, with a double-whammy of conducting duties with the Canadian Opera Company, for the (world premiere) of Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian, and the behemoth that is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

How did you decide on the programming? 

The choices sort of naturally came to us, we tried to bring in as much variety as possible so we can try to gain an understanding of what people are interested in. We also wanted to be sure to included musicians from Quebec and Ottawa, to try and bring these musical communities closer together.

What role do you see classical music playing in relation to social issues? I wrote about this in relation to the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin’s upcoming season (which has an environmental theme) and am curious about your thoughts.

I think music has the power to unite people and can break all boundaries that sometimes exists in society.  Environmental issues should be on everyone’s minds, and any means we have to bring more awareness, and eventually change in habits, overconsumption and unnecessary waste production, the better. Everyone points the fingers to others for change, and I believe it starts with the individual. 

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Photo: Gaetz Photography

Why do you think a place like Prince Edward County is uniquely suited to this kind of festival?

I think the natural situation of Wellington was the biggest draw for us, Lake Ontario is right on the edge of town, and the raw beauty of it is mesmerizing. Also, the fact that Wellington is situated so close to Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal is unique. We would like to contribute directly to the well-being of the community, and bring high-standard arts to locals living in Prince Edward County, but we do also hope to attract people from the three big cities.

What do you see as the challenges of having a festival (especially one with classical elements) in a rural location?

As an artist myself, the desire to share art with people and audiences is very strong and natural. People talk about (opera) being a dying art form; I am not sure it is. But if it is, then all the more reason why we try to sustain it and keep producing it. Going to concerts stops time, and the event gives people a refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. 

You work and live between North America and Europe; how much of what you do and see in one places influences what you do and see in the other? 

Having one foot in each continent is very satisfying, because you have the best of both worlds! I would say I am a hybrid between these two worlds and cultures, and therefore I try to bring the positive aspects from both continents to the other side. 

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Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef and Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus. (Photo: Gaetz Photography)

You are about to embark on a very ambitious and busy COC season; how do you see your work with the festival influencing your work at the COC, and vice-versa? 

Everything an artist does affects their output in their work and can affect their inspiration.  Anything that becomes simply a task, or a job to be accomplished, should be left alone. This project is a passion project, so for the moment, it is very inspiring, and it will fuel all other projects I have going on.

Christoph Pregardien: “You have to be authentic”

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Photo: Hans Morren

Lieder, or art song, is one of those cultural things that took me a while to appreciate.

Only fleetingly exposed to the art form as a child by my opera-loving mother (whose tastes leaned very heavily Italian), I felt, for a long time, that lieder was simply too dense, too serious, and frankly, too… smart for me. I may have made it something of a mission the last few years to fight against long-held (and frequently incorrect) perceptions around the approachability of classical music, but I freely admit to having held some of them myself. For me, lieder was daunting. Then I went to Berlin (a lot), and heard it live (a lot, and very beautifully), and my love affair with lieder began in earnest: not dense but rich, not serious but thoughtful, and yes, unrelentingly brainy and intellectual, but equally soulful and very romantic. Lieder is, like many of the things I’ve come to cherish, a beautiful marriage of head and heart, intelligence and intuition, the divine and the earthy. Much as humans love to place things in tidy mental boxes, there are some things — sometimes the most meaningful things — which, by their nature, live in and between and around several boxes at any given moment; I’m beginning to think this is the way life, love, and culture (and some odd combination of them) should, in fact, be most of the time. The trick is making peace with it all.

Good lieder performances make that job easy.  For those new to the art form and curious, I’d recommend listening to recordings by the late, great lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as well as by another German singer, one very much alive and busy, tenor Christoph Pregardien. He’ll be performing a concert of Mahler and Schubert works in Toronto tonight, with renowned pianist Julius Drake, as part of the annual Toronto Summer Music Festival. With a career spanning over four decades and several hundred recordings and live performances, Pregardien is one of those rare artists who brings a very innate yet approachable creativity to whatever medium he’s a part of. His performance as the title character in a 2005 production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at Opéra National de Paris had an immediacy which brought the rich inner life of the beset Emperor to life, imbuing Mozart’s rich score with both gravitas and grace. Likewise, Pregardien’s  recording of Schubert’s famous “Erlkönig” ferociously captures the total terror so inherent to the piece, as well as an enticing, manic lyricism within (and between) each note and breath. Pregardien understands drama in both broad and personal senses, and he is singularly gripping in his combination of the two.

We recently shared a wide-ranging conversation exploring the whys and wherefores of recital as art form, the challenges (or not) of bringing it to younger audiences, and why performing “naked” is so important for singers.

You’re doing an interesting recital with works by Mahler and Schubert. Do you see connections between the two?

Both of them are, for me, the most important lieder composers, and they have similarities — that’s why I put this program together If I listen to Mahler’s songs, and to Schubert’s songs, I have the immediate feeling that they grab the text and transform it into music which, for me, has a very intense and direct emotional height. And while with other music I’m using my brain to understand it, it’s not necessary for me to understand Mahler and Schubert songs the same way.

It’s an understanding of the heart…

I think, yes.

Recitals are such a big part of your career, and I’m curious what contrasts you note between European and North American audiences in doing them.

Many people who left Germany in 1930s and 1940s supported a lot of the German repertoire, especially lieder, and now of course because it’s been a long time since the Second World War was over, they’re dying. We have a great tradition of art song in Europe, especially the German-speaking part, and the same exists in England and in France and the Netherlands, so I have a good feeling about the future of recitals. I think that the reason why the English-speaking part of North America has difficulty with recitals… yes, in our time people are not used to concentrating for long periods of time, but on the other hand, I see many younger people attending recitals, and they are normally very enthusiastic about it afterwards. The problem is giving them the possibilities for the first step. There is also a huge number of young singers coming up who present song in a different context.

How so?

For example, by talking to the audience, by discussing themes with them, by preparing them for the music. Also, I think many people fear the atmosphere of the recital hall, with two men or a woman and a man in tails. Also I think programming has changed. And, so as far as I can see since I am onstage — which is now about 40 years! — everybody has complained about “white heads” in the audience, but it has been like this all the time. It’s  question of generations, because younger people, when they are between the ages of 20 and 40, they are living their lives, bringing up families. Later, when they are a little bit older and with grey hair, they get more time to walk to concerts and to visit recitals. I can see that myself; I have three adult children, one of my sons (Julian) is a singer too. My elder son is now 36 and he was not very interested in classical music, but during the last five or six years he started to go more into classical concerts — not only recitals, but also opera and orchestral concerts. I think of course you have to teach young people that next to pop music and rock music there is classical music, and you need more attention and more wisdom to receive classical music, because it’s more complex.

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Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

But the attainment of that wisdom need not be intimidating.

Why should wisdom be intimidating? Young people are learning so much at school, many things which, from my point of view, are not that important — they’re not taught enough about how to handle money for example, or taught how to cook, and they’re not taught about music and cultural life.

Artist Olafur Eliasson said in a recent interview that culture was just being used for promotion now, which I found interesting to consider within context of recital work, because it’s not an art form you can necessarily reduce that way — it turns against such reduction by its very nature. Recitals are a form you have to spend time with, and which force you to spend time with yourself.

Yes, it involves everything which goes deeper into the real things of life, which are not always nice; life is not only joy, life is also struggle, and death. I think what draws people is that they can experience all these normal, natural emotions — longing, desire, love, hate, all these very important emotions — in a recital. In our time it’s so difficult to experience that in normal life.

Is that why recitals matter?

It’s one of the reasons, yes. We have a cultural heritage we have to give to our children as well, and I think as we have museums for paintings and for sculptures and architecture, we have, as human beings, a longing for tradition and for giving good things to their children, and I think classical music, which started in medieval times and goes to the 21st century, it’s a huge and important heritage. What is also important is that it is a social event to make music yourself, not only listening to music but making music yourself; the voice is the most natural and first instrument of all.

I noted that in attending an interactive performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion live in Berlin this past winter. It was extremely moving, this act of singing communally, yet it was totally normal, not an Instagram moment at all, but simply something people were doing together as part of everyday life.

It’s dying out in Germany too, the choral tradition, because young people don’t have time anymore, they have many hobby horses, a big schedule. I have two smaller children, 8 and 10, and they started to play an instrument, and of course as parents you have to be behind them and say, “You have to take your twenty minutes or half-an-hour to practise your instrument” and they do it — but you have to convince and remind them.

Sometimes there are singers who need to be convinced to do recitals as well. Why do you think that is?

You don’t have a costume or theatre or an orchestra, you’re nearly naked onstage! For me it was a very natural thing to do, and I have a huge experience with it now, but I can understand singers who are used to having an orchestra in their back or in their front. If you’re doing an opera, from time to time you can go offstage, eat something, drink something, rest a little bit; during a recital you are onstage for one hour or hour and a half and you have to show everything you are able to do. You are exposed. But I love the feeling to be very close to my audience. I love the feeling that I can draw them into certain moods, that there’s a certain sensitivity to the personality on stage.

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

A singer has to be real for that moment.

Yes. That’s the most important thing for a singer, be it an opera or oratorio or concert singer: you have to be authentic. The moment when you deliver your voice to an audience, it must make sense, and it must have meaning. We are the only musicians with text, and you have to communicate and give your soul, or parts of your soul, to your audience, in order to grab them. We have the ability, with this beautiful instrument, to draw their attention in a unique way.

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

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Artwork by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alaina Viau (Photo courtesy Toronto Summer Music Festival)

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

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

How did you come to direct this?

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

So TSMF audiences will see a full type of production?

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

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

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

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

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

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Sketch of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso, 1920.

So why “Soldat” now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Olivier Messiaen (Photo courtesy Toronto Summer Music Festival)

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

But it’s unmissable in the music.

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

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

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

Vision over visibility.

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

Dancing Norman McLaren, One Frame At A Time

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)

If you don’t know the name Norman McLaren, you will, and soon, thanks to a new production happening at the National Ballet of Canada. The UK-born, Canada-based animation innovator, who won an Oscar for his 1952 anti-war film Neighbours, was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of film. It has been rightly been noted that McLaren (who passed away in 1987) “extend(ed) the boundaries of creative animation” through his unique and highly experimental approach. His 82 works (along with 52 test films) were added to the UNESCO heritage collection in 2009, and his name is slowly coming to be recognized more widely outside of experimental cinema circles. It’s been keenly observed that “without him, (Canada) would be lighter an Academy Award or two, and likely much more.”

The title of the National Ballet of Canada’s new work, Frame By Frame, set to premiere at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre this coming Friday (June 1st), references McLaren’s painstaking method of drawing on film stock, frame by meticulous frame, and of his work with stop-motion animation sequencing. Each animated frame had a slight differentiation (being done by human hands, after all), which resulted in a charmingly wobbly end effect when viewing.

Canadians of a certain generation will remember, with glee, McLaren’s exuberant creations, having been exposed to them regularly in school and on television. They were an inescapable part of growing up in Canada, like so many animated works that came from the beloved National Film Board (NFB). I loved the wiggly lines (the so-called “boiling” effect in action) and the zealous embrace of surreal imagery that characterized so much of McLaren’s work; it forced you to think and feel at once, a new experience for small children more used to fantastical diversion and reaction-inducing entertainment. The jolly headless hen from “Hen Hop” forever makes me smile, even as it makes me think carefully about what’s on my dinner plate (to say nothing of reminders of the horror-meets-macabre-humor of my mother’s childhood farm stories, which I will leave to reader imagination). McLaren’s works were so unlike the Disney ones I’d see in cinemas as a child, more free and fun and loopy. Many also had strong social messages, like 1952’s “Neighbours“, a nine-minute film that uses pixilation to tell the story of two people who fight over a single flower; it garnered much praise and admiration, from artists like Pablo Picasso as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. He also worked with a host of famous music figures, including Glenn Gould, Ravi Shankar, Pete Seeger, and Oscar Peterson (the latter being featured in Frame By Frame), and his “Pas de Deux“, “Adagio“, and “Narcissus” are among the most beautiful dance films ever made. The animator met his life partner, Guy Glover, at a ballet performance in London, and his fascination with both music and art permeates his creations, whether they are music/dance specific or not. McLaren firmly believed that when it came to film, “how it moved was more important than what moved.”

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Norman McLaren working on “Hen Hop” in 1942. (Photo: BFI)

It is understandable, then, that one sees within McLaren the unmistakable qualities which are so suited to a stage transfer of his life and works. Choreographer Guillaume Côté (who is Associate Choreographer at the National Ballet of Canada and a longtime beloved artist there) and celebrated director Robert Lepage drew inspiration from McLaren’s works — their rhythms, their energies, their winking, sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-pensive spirits — in creating Frame By Frame. Along with a host of celebrated theatre productions and work for Cirque du Soleil, Lepage has also leant his talents to classical music arts; his opera productions have been staged at the Canadian Opera Company, Opéra National de Paris, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  In creating Frame By Frame, his first work with the National Ballet of Canada, Lepage recently said that “(c)lassical ballet is a wonderful craft, and I respect it a lot. It’s just that it also needs to be reinvented in a certain way if we want the craft to survive.”

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Robert Lepage and Guillaume Cote in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

The production is a collaboration between the National Ballet of Canada, the National Film Board of Canada, and Ex Machina, Lepage’s production company in Québec City. It is a project several years in the making, and will reportedly make full use of a range of multidisciplinary technologies, including live projections and camera work. The Québecois director has said he wanted to create a “digital homage” to McLaren’s analogue world, and Friday night, audiences will see for themselves the fruits of these labours, with the animator’s work being brought to life in a whole new way.

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Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

National Ballet Second Soloist Jack Bertinshaw will be performing the role of Norman McLaren in Frame By Frame. The Australian-born dancer has been in a range of works for the company since joining in 2011, including a sprightly performance as Uncle Nikolai in seasonal presentations of The Nutcracker, Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, Benno in Swan Lake, and the title role in Pinocchio. I was curious to ask him what it was like to work around the level of technology LePage is utilizing, his experience as an Australian in discovering the works of a Canadian icon, and the various joys and challenges of capturing life, art, and animation through movement.

What’s it like to embody a real person? It seems like a rather unique opportunity within the ballet world.

I’ve done quite a bit of reading and obviously Robert and his team have done a lot of extensive research. With each scene we talk through each concept and what their aim is and what it should be acted as, and portrayed as. They wanted to make sure I had enough of myself in it too. While I’m being Norman and staying as true to that as the kind of fun-loving guy he was, he was also around this this close-knit group of friends —we touch on that. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but you’re right, most of time it’s a character like the Mad Hatter, you don’t get to go through a life from beginning to end very often. We do things like Nijinsky and it’s a portrayal, but it’s rare. Certainly this sort of a part is new for me.

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)

Have you ever worked on show with this level of technology?

Not this much. My background is in jazz and tap, I came from one of those schools who’d do their yearly shows that were as high-tech as possible, with cool lighting and such — but not anywhere near this level of high-tech projection. (In Frame by Frame) it comes from everywhere — above, front…  I’m holding a camera at one point that works. It’s really amazing.

Does the technology make it easier or harder to perform in?

It depends — if anything, it’s easier and harder. Something Guillaume and I have had to figure out, mostly, is how we can best enhance this technology; we can’t fight against it. We have to be clear on the certain themes we’re dancing as there’s a camera from above on us, and that’s being projected onto the back screen so the audience in general will be looking at the above aspect — we can’t fight against that. It’s been a learning process over three years now, and it’s been really unique. This is the first time for dancers that we’ve been in the process from the get-go, from the round-table of, ‘let’s create a ballet.’ We normally get to the process where the choreography arrives, and they’ve got things in order, with storyline and sets and costumes/designs somewhat figured out. This is the first time where we’d go to Quebec for a week or two in the summer and we would be with Ex Machina, at their building with all their equipment, and we’d workshop. We played with so many different types of technology there — what works, what doesn’t work.

And LePage was open to all of it?

It was his idea! He has the studio and the technology to do all of this on the regular, for his works with his team.

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Greta Hodgkinson and Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

What’s this kind of collaborative creation been like?

Inspiring! Working with Robert LePage and his team has been incredible. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done. It’s going to be so different — that’s one thing we’re interested to see: how Toronto audiences perceive it, how they take these ideas. It’s a lot of fun in a lot of scenes — a lot of Norman’s works were fun and funky, with odd humor and quirkiness, so we’ve made sure that’s a good part of it while also maintaining enough of Norman’s life throughout.

There will be audiences who either know McLaren’s work very well, or don’t know his stuff at all but love the ballet. What do you think they’ll come away with?

The show is so versatile, I think audiences who don’t know anything about him will still certainly come away with quite a lot. We sometimes portray exactly the work and sometimes we recreate it, like with “A Chairy Tale” — we’ve studied that video, and we do every single chair move and have black light going. We’ve tried to do the exact replications and bring (his works) to life so people who know it will appreciate it, and people who don’t, it’ll be like the first time watching his work. 

So capturing the spirit of his work.

Yes, a lot.

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Jack Bertinshaw (Photo: Sian Richards)

Guillaume has said that “everything that’s put on stage nowadays should be multidisciplinary, in a way.” Do you think there should there be a multidisciplinary Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake? Using contemporary technology in producing traditional works is a big issue in the opera world also.

I certainly believe we should respect and honor the old original works. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake today, I believe, are the most beautiful how they were originally created, but when you’re creating something new that’s never been done before… it’s why multidisciplinary is a bigger thing. Today we’re so exposed to new technology anyway, but there’s still a crowd that loves that original stuff.

Introducing anything new means risking people getting angry…  

Nijinsky was one of the first originators of conceptual dancing and they threw tomatoes at him!

Once the shock of the new fades, it’s been suggested it then becomes the new norm. Some productions have to fight against history, but with this it seems like you’re less fighting it than celebrating it. What’s it been like to learn about these works? 

Being Australian, I’m wasn’t aware of McLaren or his movies, but my mother is, oddly enough — she’s in film and television PR, so she’s a lot more in that world. She’d heard of him, and my uncle in London, he’s a cameraman for film, he knew his work also. My mum’s company and circle of friends heard about Frame by Frame and were like, “Wow, Norman McLaren!” Meanwhile I’d never heard of him before three years ago. I’ve done a lot of research and found out a lot more. We’re not making our own version of things; we’re honoring his works as truly as we can.

Yiddish Glory: “If You Can Laugh At Something, It Cannot Kill You.”

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Manuy of the songs on Yiddish Glory were written on scraps of paper. (Photo: Six Degrees Records)

Just before Easter, I wrote about a memorable musical experience in which I sang in a language I didn’t speak, to music I wasn’t completely familiar with. It was a haunting, beautiful series of moments I still recall fondly and often; I thought about the experience, in various facets, listening to Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of WWII (Six Degrees Records), a very unique collection of songs which, again, are in a language I don’t speak, but which have a powerful impact, and, as it turns out, a very powerful history.

There are stellar performances from an array of gifted musicians here, including Russian singer-songwriter (and album co-creator) Psoy Korolenko, Juno Award-winning artists Sophie Milman and David Buchbinder, longtime Yehudi Menuhin collaborator Sergei Erdenko, and many more. Lyrical, sad, funny, and very feisty, the album, released this past February, is made composed entirely of works written by Holocaust victims and survivors during the Second World War. They offer not only unique and important historical perspective, but a creative lesson in resistance, resilience, and fierce, vibrant resurrection.  The sheer force of musicality on offer here is noteworthy, but combined with the power of the lyrics and their history, makes for a profound, joyous, and very moving listening experience. 

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Anna Shternshis (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

Anna Shternshis, who is Al and Malka Green Professor in Yiddish Studies and Director, Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, helped to put Yiddish Glory together. Professor Shternshis discovered the songs while researching a book about Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust. As she told CBC“I stumbled upon this collection of Yiddish songs and something seemed off about those songs, […] They were about Stalin. They were about fighting against Hitler. They were about Central Asia. These were the songs in Yiddish I’d never seen before.”

Currently on a music/speaking tour for the album, with stops at Center for Jewish History in New York City and Purdue University last month, Northwestern University’s Chicago campus earlier this month, and Montreal today (May 13th), Professor Shternshis took time out of her busy schedule to discuss the album and its creation, its significance in cultural and historical terms, the role of humour, and the twin timeliness and timelessness of the songs.

Yiddish Glory, Psoy Korolenko (Center), photo by Roman Boldyrev

Psoy Korolenko performing live. (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

How were the pieces on Yiddish Glory chosen? 

Singer Psoy Korolenko and I worked together on bringing these pieces back to life as music. We selected songs that would give voice to the amateur authors of various backgrounds — women, children, soldiers, refugees — who composed music and poetry under the most difficult circumstances, and therefore provided some of the first testimonies of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union during World War II. Each individual composition has its own story, and together, these songs reveal a collective history of an entire generation, they provide an artistic comment on the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union during World War II

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Moisei Beregovsky has been called “”foremost ethnomusicologist of Eastern European Jewry.” (Photo via)

How did you feel when you discovered the history behind these works? It must have been a very dramatic moment.

The work of a historian consists of many hours of monotonous research, and this project is not an exception. But when I began analyzing the lyrics, and understood that these were grassroots accounts of Nazi atrocities, and that none of these songs had been known before, emotions took over. I felt excited about reading these materials, and strongly moved by the lyrics. Above all, I felt enormous gratitude to Moisei Beregovsky and his colleagues, Soviet ethnomusicologists of the 1940s, who spent years collecting these unique materials.  They were arrested by Stalin’s government for doing so, and died thinking their work was lost to history without any recognition for what they had done. I felt professional solidarity with these people, who, of course, I never met. 

What kind of a reception has the album and your work received in the places where these pieces originated? 

When we began this project, restoring these songs as music, we hoped that these compositions that detailed the experiences of how Jews lived, died, tried to maintain hope and even love under the most horrific of circumstances would touch people. And indeed, radio stations and publications from around the world have been drawn to the project, including incredible coverage in Germany and Austria where so many have really come to grips with the dangers of fascism.  

In Eastern Europe, we have received coverage in Russia, HungaryCzech Republic (and others), but more on specialized media, as opposed to their national broadcasters.  Back in the 1940s, when Beregovsky and his colleagues were preparing these songs for publication, many of the specific “Jewish” references in the lyrics were censored and replaced with Soviet terms. You can actually see the censor’s marks on the original documents.  The researchers were eventually arrested for this work during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge that began in 1948. The government wanted to stress how all Soviet citizens were victims during the war, even though the Holocaust specifically targeted Jews for their ethnicity. This tendency persists today as well.  

Russian-language media abroad covered the project extensively. When we present these songs live, a significant percentage of our audiences are of Russian-Jewish descent, and these songs represent their heritage, and the broad range of their families’ experiences.

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Cover to Yiddish Glory. The album was released by Six Degrees Records in February 2018.

Why these particular pieces? Do you have any favourites?

Each song was chosen because its lyrics conveyed a unique, often under-discussed historical experience, such life and survival in the Tulchin ghetto or in the Pechora camp, serving in the Red Army, working on the Soviet home front or fighting as a partisan. My favourites include one about a Red Army soldier singing about his machine gun that he uses to fight against fascism. Another favourite is one written by a child after losing his mother in Pechora. Both of these songs have raw emotional strength that just grab you by heart. 

What do you think accounts for the humour that runs through some of these works?

Many songs are so called “motivation” pieces, written by and for soldiers to encourage them to fight against Hitler and his army. Many describe the exact death that Hitler should endure – such as being sliced into pieces. The songs are angry because they blame Hitler, rightly so, for destroying the lives of Soviet people, including, of course, Jews. The hatred of Hitler, expressed in these songs, is raw, strong and emotional. Their authors do not spare curse words. One song, “Misha Tears Apart Hitler’s Germany”, for example, says that soldiers will drive Hitler away in the manner one chases a wild animal. 

Hitler is also an object of ridicule and satire. Many songs in the archive are humorous, sometimes based on the holiday of Purim, including “Purim Gifts to Hitler,” which compares Hitler to all of the failed enemies of Jewish people, including Haman. The song promises that Hitler, just like all other enemies of Jews, will end up being killed for his evil deeds. The fact that so many of these songs rely on humour is significant because laughing seemed to help people to keep their spirits up during horrific ordeals. Many survivors mention in their testimonies that if you can laugh at something, it cannot kill you. Songs indeed include ridicule of German soldiers running away with their pants down and Hitler dressed in funny clothes. Understanding that people wrote these songs during the time when the German army was destroying their cities and communities makes the presence of humour especially poignant and significant

There is an interesting classical connection with some of these pieces, their melodies being based on the works of composers like Glinka; how is this important to their overall story and history? 

About 80% of the songs in the collection did not have their original sheet music, so Psoy Korolenko had to analyze the texts to reconstruct them. He chose Glinka’s “Skylark” for “Yoshke from Odessa” because that song was very popular in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. It was inspiring to think about a soldier imagining himself as a popular Soviet tenor, and using (that particular piece) to tell his own both heroic and tragic story. 

How do you think an album like “Yiddish Glory” changes our perceptions of this period of history?

 One definite thing that we have learned from these materials is that Jews sang in Yiddish in the Soviet Union during the war, and that they forgot all about this decades later. During my work on a related project, on Jewish oral histories of Stalin’s Soviet Union, I interviewed almost 500 people from the generation of Soviet Jews born in the early 1920s, and not a single one of them could remember of a Yiddish song depicting the war. This material means that history and memory tell different stories of the war. Without these materials we would not have known that. 

The second finding is that Soviet soldiers, some of them amateur authors, continued to create in Yiddish during combat. We knew that Yiddish culture survived in the Soviet Rear, but we did not know about the soldiers — this is an important insight of how Jews made sense of these events during the war. 

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Sophie Milman is one of the artists featured on Yiddish Glory. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov)

Also, these songs give us a chance to learn about how children and women, who authored a majority of these songs, used music to make sense of their experiences: there are songs written by orphans, one by a ten year-old whose mother was murdered in the Holocaust; there are songs written by women serving in the army, women working in factories to support the war effort. The works give us an opportunity to hear their direct voices, something that rarely happens in the context of historical research.

Also, some songs are rare —  sometimes the only — eyewitness testimonies of the destruction of Jews in Ukraine. Some were written as early as 1941, and these represent the first documents of the Holocaust in Ukraine. Given that we have very few Jewish testimonies of this destruction, these are especially valuable.  

Why this album, now? How do you see it as relevant (indeed, needed) in the 21st century?

The fight against fascism, racism, bigotry and antisemitism is timely. Unfortunately, violence and wars did not disappear in the 21st century. Women and children are often the first, and the  least noticeable victims of it. The songs alert us to the dangers of wars and who suffers from it the most. 

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