I learned of conductor Michail Jurowski’s passing yesterday morning, March 19th, 2022. What a blessing, to have met him and later spent time in conversation. Initially connecting at a concert (where else) we subsequently made arrangements for a proper interview, with him in Berlin, and me (then) in Bucharest. Kind, patient, generous, and full of stories, he was very keen to share his thoughts and experiences on everything from meeting Stravinsky to pondering the ways in which compromise and authenticity affect the work of being a conductor and artist. He was someone who took time with his responses, broke out big grins now and again, asked me to repeat things (“the sound on my computer is so bad!”). In other words, Jurowski was warm, human, and unpretentious.
I confess to feeling like a fraud at a few points, battling through the anxiety I could feel rising in waves now and again: who was I, after all, this eager-beaver Canadian without a music degree, asking such an accomplished person such questions? How long I had incubated that question, one of a perceived lack which had, up to news of the maestro’s passing, burnished into an acid shame that had become a near-unconscious part of every day being. I don’t fit in because I can’t! It was a shrieking demon of self-doubt.
In learning of Jurowski’s passing I was reminded of a moment when that demon was, if not silenced, content to sit in a corner, only making the occasional ruckus. Some days are better than others in facing down such a creature. Sometimes it shrieks, tells me I ought best quit writing about music. Imposter syndrome for writers is real; equally real is the rejection one feels from lacking what all the other members of the club seem to so easily possess. I am learning to negotiate such details and related feelings, to see a much broader picture with far less self-doubt there are things happening in the world. I am slowly learning to kick the demon’s tail out of the way as best I can, with a reminder (in my mother’s voice) that I’ve always been an outsider anyway; why should now be any different?
Maestro didn’t care about my perceived deficiencies, or if he did, he didn’t let on. Get the lead out, as my mother would say. The last thirty hours or so has been spent, in large part, ruminating on that 2019 conversation with the conductor, listening to his wide variety of recordings (from ones of his own father to those by Khancheli, Shostakovich, Schulhoff, and Lehar too), and then looking at a litany of news items, one more horrible than the next. That he should pass now, of all times, seems especially tragic. Moscow-born and with Ukrainian-Jewish roots, Jurowski belonging to a generation that looked to the West as a source of hope and even inspiration. It seems hard to believe, and yet. Jurowski didn’t buy the reductive Them vs. Us narrative made so popular (so widely if unconsciously carried) promulgated through Putin-era politics. His focus was European and Slavic repertoire, but he was well aware of administration stesses and funding realities and what they all meant, having held official positions in various organizations (Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden). He was highly aware of postwar perceptions of Russian-ness versus its lived reality, and painfully aware of what it was to be an outsider. He knew about audiences; as he told me in our chat, the one in Cleveland was among the most receptive he’d experienced. He didn’t carry heavily sentimentalized notions of his home country, or if he did, he didn’t let on about them publicly. (Through such a lens the final image of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia begins to make an awful sense, but more on that in a future post.) “My family has been through a lot,” he said, speaking about his father toward the end of our chat. I remember he shook his head, letting out a little sigh.
Whatever memories he did carry were firmly in the past, and not meant to be guides of the present, creatively or otherwise. It is painful to think he only enjoyed his American debut in 2019, at the age of 73, a few months before we spoke. Jurowski cared about a great many things, but what he didn’t care about where I happened to be from, what that might imply, or what that could mean in European classical music circles. (The recent cries from the continent, along the lines of, “Mon Dieu, don’t import your North American culture wars here!” seem especially absurd.) Maestro didn’t seem to care about my perceived lack, as someone born in North America: of the “right” background; of the “right” degrees; of the “right” books / movies / theatre / albums having been consumed in childhood / youth; of the “right” linguistic skills; of the “right” cultural knowledge. All of these things seem to hold a certain weight to some in the current cultural milieu, ironically, in an era that is (the marketing tells us) meant to be more inclusive. He was curious, and in today’s climate, a symbol of what Russian culture can, should be, and maybe still is: curious, yes, but also open, inclusive, generous.
Jurowski asked me again in that conversation, just as he’d done when we met: how did I know his work? Through his wondrous recording of Moses (by way of soprano Chen Reiss, who appears on the recording), released in 2018. How did I know about Kancheli? Well, Youtube makes sometimes-magical suggestions. And Pärt? Via the 1999 Meltdown Festival programmed by Nick Cave; I was living in London at the time and intrigued by Cave’s mix of rock, punk, blues, and classical. Isn’t that kind of mix the way music should be experienced? Maestro was flattered at my enthusiasm, my admitting to exploring things I didn’t grow up with, what I want to call my Canadian moxie. He was happy to exchange ideas, happy to listen to what I heard in those albums and others, keen to know the paths I’d taken thereafter. What’s more, he offered suggestions of things to listen to and watch. I left that conversation feeling not stupid but encouraged. What a refreshing, welcome feeling.
That sense didn’t occur because of some magical bridge that had been constructed over the course of our 70-minute exchange. Music is not, to my mind, a universal language; it does not always build bridges. To believe it does, or can, is to ignore the many varied landscapes and circumstances and realities of human experience – varied perceptions, inequalities, streams of thought, beliefs (and related intransigence); sadness, loss, engagements and learned behaviours. None of these things magically vanish via romantic artsy lenses, or should vanish, particularly now (universalism is a nice theory for and by the privileged) – but the thing music asks us to do, in its best form, matters: to use your imagination, and sometimes, do that in the active exercise of empathy, to make the leap across a chasm, sans bridge. Bridges are for the lazy. Get your feet dirty, and all the better in someone else’s reality. Some (composers, conductors, singers, ensembles) are more skilled at highlighting this than others. As listeners, we are often asked to imagine: other people, other worlds, the composer composing, the musicians playing, the maestro on the podium, the faces and hands of engineers and producers and audiences. Of course, one imagines one’s self sometimes too, as one or another – that’s the social media reality of navel-gazing, but more than that, it’s also a reflection of the human need to dream.
The music I love best is the sort that gently requests a look outside, away from self –and simultaneously within it, honestly enough to throw that shell away in order to glimpse another world, another time, another life, without attempting to understand. Some things don’t make sense, because they can’t. This has been something I think the last two years has constantly reminded us of; loss doesn’t ask to be understood. We cannot understand, we cannot control it; we can only mitigate its effects, minimize the transmission of grief, think, consider, act – stare at the chasm, wonder if we have the right boots to wade in. Sometimes the right sounds, at the right time, blow the fuse on the ouroboros of suffering. It isn’t the music doing that, it’s what what we’re bringing to it. Perhaps we’ll light some tiny spark, somewhere. Perhaps the chasm will fill in, however slightly and temporarily.
We also have the choice not to move at all. A quietly-yawning compassion deficit, prevalent throughout modern life and made noticeable amidst pandemic, is now writ horribly, painfully large through war. I’ve been writing about this lately and how it relates to the classical industry (including as part of an essay series; Part 1 is already up), contemplating its implications and origins a great deal – reading, watching, trying to understand various worlds, minds, lives, and ways of thinking and being, all of them largely powered on this horrendous deficit of compassion (Andrey Kurkov, Hannah Arendt, and Ingeborg Bachmann provide a few clues, along with the films of Yuri Bykov and Andrey Zvyagintsev). I have been avoiding and simultaneously diving straight into news, furiously hoovering, barely eating, avoiding mirrors, slowly completing student marking, booking a trip, cancelling a trip, pecking at writing and tossing around giving it up altogether; eyeballing graduate school, smirking at cat photos, and looking out the window at the pond across the street. The signs of life are there, though the colors are still muted; the geese have yet to return, but the robins are already out, bobbing along the edges of low bushes. I want to flick parked cars and noisy voices away like dirty crumbs. Perhaps a little bit of faith is required, hard and expensive it may be; perhaps a bit of patience needs be extended. Loss is a huge a hole to navigate, and it comes with consistently rough edges. There is no such thing as the “right” kind of grieving; there is only grief, and it takes as long as it must. In the meantime, one remembers, and keeps remembering.
And so I remember Michail Jurowski – his kindness, his generosity, his curiosity, and the ways in which his work touched so many. Seeing the various tributes of late, I am struck at their shared chords, the ones sounding out those qualities which are so precious, the ones which have become so scarce. He was Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, a musician, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a confidant, an inspiration, a mentor, an artist; he only made it to America once, but oh, lucky Cleveland. He affected so many, so much, and I hope his spirit lives on not only through his family but through those who worked with him, spoke with him, and those who listen to his work with renewed curiosity and enthusiasm. His mind, and his spirit, knew the notes as if burned into the heart; as he told me in 2019, he “composes” them in a sense, himself, every time he opens a score. He never used such knowledge as a weapon, but instead, as an umbrella. I imagine myself standing under its shade now, hearing the sounds of Kancheli, Rubinstein, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and those of his father too, and I imagine things blooming, slowly, however briefly, waiting out the storm.
Thank you, maestro. I wish we could have spoken one more time.
Jan Lisiecki has had a busy summer. Performances at a number of celebrated summer festivals, including Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival (SHMF), the Rheingau Musik Festival, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and Musikfest Kreuth left the pianist little time to prepare for his release of a long-planned project, Frederic Chopin: Complete Nocturnes (Deutsche Grammophon) but in speaking recently from his home base in Calgary, Lisiecki is chatty and energetic, a keen conversationalist who clearly revels in the reciprocal exchange of artistic ideas.
It’s an approach that colors his latest release, one which, as he explains, had been in his mind to do for many years. Hardly his first foray into playing or recording the much-loved music of the Polish composer (he’s released recordings in 2013 and 2017, respectively), his approach to the nocturnes conveys a delicate musical sensibility and a keen artistic maturity which belie Lisiecki’s own relative youth (he is not yet 30 years of age) and, even amidst pandemic, kept him in a creatively aware state which greatly aided in the realized recording. Lisiecki’s fame as a sort of wunderkind of the keyboard through the last decade-plus served to intensify such fastidiousness. At the age of 18, he became the youngest ever recipient of both the Leonard Bernstein Award (established by SHMF and named after one of the festival’s founders) and Gramophone‘s prestigious Young Artist Award (other recipients include countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and soprano Natalya Romaniw). Having worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Claudio Abbado, Daniel Harding, Antonio Pappano, among many others) and orchestras (Staatskapelle Dresden, Bavarian Radio Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, to name a few), his playing has been described as “pristine, lyrical and intelligent” by The New York Times. This month sees him playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Marin Alsop and DR Symfoni Orkestret in Denmark, before a series of dates in the U.S., both solo recitals and appearances with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. In November Lisiecki tours Europe, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic under its new Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner.
Amidst his busy live calendar (which, like many artists, extends years into the future) Lisiecki had long planned for a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes. Recorded in Berlin in October 2020 and released in August 2021, the work shows a distinctively thoughtful approach to the famous, widely beloved pieces. Chopin wrote the series of works between 1827 and 1846, expanding on a form developed by Irish composer John Field (1782-1837). Unlike other piano forms (sonatas, for instance), nocturnes do not possess a sort of programmatic narrative or formal structure, but mainly utilize a ternary form (ABA) which emphasizes a main theme and its related contrasts and embellishments. With a song-like right hand melody and the use of rhythmic, broken chords in the left hand, Chopin, in writing his own set, also utilized pedal effects and counterpoint in his composition to underline sonic tension and drama. There are a number of scholarly papers and debates around the tempos and role of rubato in the nocturnes, and the influence of such choices in relation to interpretative fidelity and style. In her 1988 book Performance Practises in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Applications (Indiana University Press, 1988), Sandra P. Rosenblum writes that “choice of tempo is a fundamental yet elusive aspect of performance practice. Tempo affects virtually every other aspect of interpretation: dynamics, touch, articulation, pedalling, realization of ornaments” and also observes that a pianist’s choice of tempo will certainly affect “what the listener perceives, hence it bears directly on the effectiveness of the interpretation.” Lisiecki has notably chosen to take a much slower tempo in his recording than many of his famous forebears, an aspect which has been questioned by some since the album’s release. If I may inject a personal view here, Lisiecki’s choice of tempi allow, to my own (admittedly non-conservatory-attending/music-degree-holding) self, a very thoughtful and lovely listening experience, one that skillfully combines intellect and imagination in ways that highlight the rhythmic nature of the writing (for both hands, equally) and the thought-to-word-like manifestation of clear creative articulation; such willful (nay, conscious) turning of the gears well reflect the sort of late-night contemplations to which the nocturnes directly refer. Don’t we all muse thusly in the middle of the night? This may not a so-called “traditional” reading, but, it doesn’t have to be – not for whatever perceived musical validity is deemed important by the classical world, let alone for one’s personal enjoyment. As musicologist Richard Taruskin argues in Text and Act: Essays in Music and Performance (Oxford University Press, 1995), traditions “modify what they transmit” via what he terms as “active intervention of the critical faculty, but also by what we might call interference.” Such traditions, he writes ( and most particularly within “a musical culture as variegated as the Western fine art of music has become”) are open to what he views as “outside influence.” It is this act, of combining inner critical faculty with various forms of external influence, combined with understandings of tonality, structure, and dynamics, that lends Lisiecki’s interpretations such innate power. Taking this course with such well-known works only serves to underline the pianist’s powerful blend of intellectual and musical instincts, and only makes one more keen to hear how he might re-adjust them for a live and considerably larger setting.
Despite, or more accurately owing to, the realities of the current pandemic era, Lisiecki was provided the an atmosphere conducive to the personal. The combination of simplicity (a room with a piano), proximity (or lack thereof, in relation to engineers), and the natural light in which Lisiecki recorded at Meistersaal (in Berlin) last autumn was, as he noted recently, good for encouraging a sort of natural approach, one which is so easily perceived on this, his eighth release with Deutsche Grammophon.
What struck me about your album is how you personalize everything, but without sitting and steeping in a so-called sentimental sound. Your tempo choices, for instance, are well considered.
Well, I might not agree in ten years about them, but at the moment I did them it felt right, because, to be honest with you, those tempos choices were completely natural in the sense that I had no knowledge of them being that much slower. I’ve played the nocturnes a lot, in concerts and otherwise, and I know how I feel about them, some in the studio just ended up being like that. Listening in the booth and going back and forth, it never felt unnatural. I’m happy with it; I think it’s a good reflection of how I connected with (Chopin’s) music.
You didn’t consciously say, “I want this one to be this specific tempo” or do any sort of preplanning then?
No, definitely there was no, ‘Everybody’s playing these too fast; I’ll be much slower!” – I was recording the material at the tempo in, I guess, the way it felt right.
To me it makes them seem almost like speech if that makes sense…
… it very much has the sound of somebody musing in the middle of the night on something; as a writer I like that.
Aw thank you Cate, I appreciate it.
But you recorded this in Berlin, in a space with natural light, during the day; did that make a difference energetically?
Let’s say, first of all I’m an artist and musician who plays concerts in the evening but I like working in the day; I’m not an evening practiser. I finish my work day of practise by 2 or 3pm, if I can, so to me recording during the day is when I feel most comfortable. What I like about natural light is feeling I’m connected to the day and not in a studio, especially since it was late October. During the day, the mood in Berlin, if you know Europe during the winter, is grey and bleak, so it’s nice to have those few hours of sunlight inside and you don’t feel like you’re missing out, and also then you can find your own space within that environment. It’s a beautiful hall, a rectangular room with high ceilings, and it’s rather ornate, not excessively so, but has some ornate elements, and feels nice to be in, the piano in one corner, the microphone in another area; it felt very natural.
It seemed like an environment where you weren’t completely in a bubble, cut off from everything, but just separated enough to be with your thoughts.
Exactly, and I’d had enough experiences of concert halls with no audience during the pandemic; it was nice to have not have yet-another-empty-concert-hall, but a studio with a piano, it almost felt like you were in your own studio practising for yourself, or working just for yourself.
That’s how it sounds.
Yes, and another sort of relevant fact, in terms of the sound, is that the booth where the recording engineer was sitting is quite a distance away from the (room with the piano), it’s down two flights of stairs and then across a hall, so it takes a fair bit of time to get from the room to the booth, and as a result, first of all, you’re more focused on doing something, it was a complete thought whenever you did sit down, and second of all, you have that crazy walk back and forth to get you out and into the mood accordingly.
And nobody behind a pane of glass staring at you and evaluating.
Now, recording in a space in these times, there is something unique about doing these extremely well-known works, and in this particular pandemic environment; how much were you able to pull down the blinds, or did you not want to? Was the act of recording amidst a worldwide pandemic an essential part of the creative process, or did you block it out?
It was definitely part of my process,and that’s part of the reason that I was able to record during the pandemic. I’d been thinking or dreaming about recording the nocturnes for a long time; it was a long-term project, not something that just came up, it was something which was a very conscious thought for years, and so it involved years of preparation, and those years of preparation are connected to wanting to experience (the works) in a concert hall – they are very personal as you said, but you run the risk while playing them of going too far in that direction, of going too far into your comfort zone, which is not where it feels the best when you are onstage, when you feel you’re losing the audience’s attention, when you can feel their attention wandering away. I can hear when that happens.
So to play and program 21 nocturnes onstage took many many many years, it’s something that I was preparing for, and happened to reach a culmination point this past year, and at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, Deutsche Grammophon said, “Oh, you’ll have fewer concerts, so let’s record this in August!” and as it got closer, I saw that things were very uncertain and people were antsy still, and I was supposed to have a few concerts but they were much more stressful than usual because there were so many external layers involved. I didn’t know how they’d look and be, and I would not have been in the right frame of mind at all. And then from March to October I did have things to do, I had things beyond music I was enjoying, and had the opportunity to do – like work in the garden or go camping with my dad, or not do anything for a whole day, which was very nice – but I could also work on the nocturnes in a much more relaxed sphere of mind, it wasn’t forced like I had a fixed deadline to prepare for and get to a certain point with. I could prepare and think through each one of them. That time right before the recording, to be honest, I was quite busy, I had something like ten concerts with Manfred Honeck and I was playing the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto in Dresden, it wasn’t like, “Oh sigh, I’m at home!” but some of the (moments leading to recording) felt calm, everything was calm, and I had to make peace with the pandemic and with the uncertainty it brought. Because of that, I could simply focus on what I was doing.
Living day-by-day has always been my motto; I’ve always lived in the present, but the pandemic has really heightened that. I like looking forward, I like to think “Well, I’m playing this concerto two years down the road” and “In two weeks I have to prepare this piece” – but all that went out the window. So it was, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What can I enjoy right now?” In this case, what with recording, it allowed me to focus, and to enjoy the moment.
That’s palpable in the recording, and I hear something different every time. Listening to the left hand can really bring something alive that one thought one knew well.
If the music is only a sum of its parts, if you don’t pay a close enough attention, then you can risk the music becoming too comfortable, and being too happy with the gorgeous melodies; you just completely tune out everything else because it’s easy, it’s just, “Oh, the left hand, sure, whatever, put it away!” and the right hand, “Yes, let’s enjoy that, it’s so lovely!” But it doesn’t work musically. That (balance) has always been something important to me in playing Chopin. Of course there’s a principal theme and an idea and the harmonizing in the left hand, but sometimes the interplay between right and left creates completely new concepts and I do like finding those.
To me you can hear it in other things of his, or things written around the same time, but I find it takes the right interpretation to find those connections.
Obviously you know the other recordings; did any stick in your mind as you prepared?
I tend not to listen to other interpreters when I’m actively playing something unless it’s a concerto and I want to hear the orchestra, which of course includes a pianist, but in the case of the nocturnes I didn’t hear any interpretations for at least a year before recording them. Perhaps it wasn’t conscious – it was not a forced effort – but I just had no need to, because I’m living and experiencing these pieces on my own, and that’s a huge privilege. I know the audience listening to these works who come to the concert hall don’t have that same privilege for the most part, to simply play something for themselves, so they have a different appreciation of what it means to listen. When I’m listening to a recording, I find it very hard to get into the right mood to enjoy it as opposed to analyze it, so I tend not to, especially with regards to pieces which I’m actively playing.
Of course, that being said, I do respect other interpretations, and the ones that accompanied me through my childhood and longer, into my life, are those by (Anton) Rubinstein. He recorded all of the nocturnes, and there’s a sophistication about his playing; it’s always so elegant, so poised, it’s hard to find any fault with them… it’s just beautifully done.
Yes, I have that set! I wanted to ask you with relation to others and individual identity, some have said, “Oh it’s a Polish pianist playing Polish music!” I’m not sure if that kind of a reduction is good or bad for art, but I wonder what you make of such an assumed connection.
I think Poland, of course, likes to claim Chopin as their own, and they have a complete right to do that, but he lived most of his life beyond Poland, his composing and adult life, so undeniably that (experience of living abroad) did shape his writing, and likewise, while I was born in Canada, I do have Polish roots, and without a doubt they must also shape how I approach Chopin, although I never had a Polish teacher and I never really liked the so-called “Polish sound” in playing Chopin, which has a lot of rubato, it’s very rich, quite swingy, and not at all my taste. Now, this is a sort of stereotypical description, and there are exceptions – I love how Zimerman plays Chopin, for instance – and so that’s a rather unfair stereotype perhaps, but it’s an easy thing just as much to say or assume, “Oh you have special affinity for him then, being Polish yourself?” It’s hard for me to say, because I am who I am, and I don’t know how I’d be if I wasn’t – if I was born in Poland, or if I didn’t have those roots, but I appreciate his music as a person and an artist. I just like it , and I feel very comfortable playing his music. I can sit in front of a score I’ve never seen before and feel, “Ah yes!” – I have a vague understanding of what I want to do, and how I will play it, which cannot be said for every composer. I will get to a point, eventually, that isn’t that straight-forward, but (the inherent understanding) speaks to how he wrote for the piano; his musical language is very familiar to me, and he wrote so beautifully for the instrument. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m ever struggling to find a way to solve any problem (within the work).
Do you find you approach other musical things differently now, having had this time with Chopin and especially, this time with Chopin during a pandemic?
Again, sort of like the Polish question, I don’t know how it would’ve been if I didn’t record during this time, but I do feel everything has an impact and shapes the way one approaches music broadly. I think the sort of calmness that has pervaded, or became constant during the pandemic… for me, I will certainly take it with me into the future, though I can see and am hopeful of course it all turns out, and that life is getting back to normal in the some parts of the musical world. Some countries are getting back to normal, so the natural thing is to feel like, “Oh I’m going to get back to my old self now – at last!”… but it’s not quite like that. The pandemic has changed our values and understanding, in the same way it’s changed the approach to the nocturnes, and I’m glad I had that chance of recording them amidst all of this.
What’s it been like for you to go back to live performance then?
There have been many stages, because last summer I played one of the first concerts live, if not the first in Germany, in June 2020. So if you think of the situation in Canada then, like… wow, just nothing… and it was the same in some parts of Europe in many regards, except where they were starting to experiment, and those experiments kept going and going, and there was a palpable excitement with each one. And after each lockdown this excitement kept building in the performing arts world – I experienced it so many times, and everyone had different concepts of how long they’d be locked down, so even though I had been playing live a while, everybody was so excited, and asking me “How does it feel to be back?” And I’d say, “Well last week I was playing a live concert in Spain!”
I was always happy to play live, but the difference for me is, I’m not a fan, at all, of streams. I prefer not to play if I have to do a stream, for the most part. It doesn’t have any aspect of what I cherish in music. Live art is live, and it should stay with those who are there, those who have shared that experience and felt its power. Recording is high quality: you prepare, you put a lot of thought into it; you have the best environment; you have the studio, the piano, the technician, the sound engineer. But streaming is somewhere in-between these things; it’s not live for an audience, it’s not the same high-quality sound you expect – in fact, it’s usually poor-quality sound. It was interesting to see orchestras doing streams, and it was good to see that musicians were playing, that they had the chance to play – but just me playing solo, no way, no – I’m not doing that, at all.
So you need the feedback?
Yes. And you know, people say with these streams, “Well of course live art will die now” – no it won’t. Many people will be happy to go back to the concert hall the moment they can. But until then, to be honest, we have such a rich array of performances, both live recordings from pre-pandemic times and things recorded in a studio, and we haven’t had time to listen to those during normal our lives – why don’t we go back to those amazingly high-quality things and listen to them? Instead of choosing to watch something live, just because…? Others will disagree but I’m happy to argue with them.
There’s a tremendous drive on the part of marketing departments everywhere to get people of your generation interested in classical music through streaming…
… but that’s not the strength of our genre. The strength of our genre is in the concert hall. It’s about this extraordinary experience you will sometimes have… sometimes. I play hundreds of concerts a year and not every single one will be magical, either it’s me or the piano, it’s something in the hall, or the day, or the circumstances outside – whatever. You will have those extraordinary experiences a small percentage of the time, and everybody remembers them. Many who’ve never been to a hall happen to chance on those magical concerts and they’re suddenly a huge fan of classical because they had that experience of intimacy which provided a foray into the musical world of live performance.
And you think that epic and imitate combo only happens in a live environment?
One of the more engaging works I’ve read this summer concerns a seemingly-crusty topic, albeit with a very soft core: the music of the GDR (or German Democratic Republic), specifically mourning music, and the ways in which that music and its composers are remembered – or not. Founded in 1949 and dissolved in 1990, East Germany is, at least in the some quarters, very often associated with cartoonish images, frequently manifest in the form of glowering villains in grey suits and/or leather coats, breezily presented in Western popular media throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even into the 1990s. At the other end of the spectrum, the rising tide of ostalgie has made it equally hard to gain a proper picture, with the GDR’s more unsavoury elements glossed over in the name of sentimentality. Having an interest in GDR-born composers myself (Georg Katzer (1935-2019) and Paul Dessau (1894-1979) among them), it seemed like some form of fate to come across Martha Sprigge’s Socialist Laments; Musical Mourning in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford University Press, 2021) earlier this summer. Surveying various aspects of musical expression in post-WWII Germany (theoretical, practical, political, social, historical) and their intersections, Sprigge, who is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, presents a fascinating portrait of specific creative expression, and its performative manifestations, amidst the time before, during, and after (however briefly) the time of the Berlin Wall. It paints a multilayered portrait of a time, place, and people that is at once difficult and diffuse, but just as equally heart-rending and human. Also, rather refreshingly, the book comes with its very own playlist, complete with performance suggestions, in its opening pages.
Organized not solely via strict historical chronology (the end of the Second World War and onwards through the socialist era), Socialist Laments is driven by memory – its perceptions, presentations, manifestations, and, by the actual act of remembering itself: the meaning, in micro and macro ways, in post-war, post-communist, and ever-creative senses. The idea of ruin, literal as much as figurative, casts a defining shadow throughout the book, past its opening explorations of the bombing of Dresden and related figures whose works had resonance in post-war times (among them choral conductor/composer Rudolf Mauersberger and his Dresdner Requiem from 1961), concentration camp memorials (including Tilo Medek’s controversial Kindermesse zum Gedenken der im Dritten Reich ermordeten Kinder / In Memory of of the Children Murdered in the Third Reich, 1974), Soviet influence (the apparent appropriation of the Russian funerary hymn “Immortal Victims” being but one example), the role and continuing function of the Kreuzchor in religious and cultural life, as well as anti-fascist expressions of the 1960s and 1970s, with reference made to the works of Dessau and Katzer among others – many of whom, as Sprigge notes, “often had memories of the wartime years that presented direct conflicts with the country’s official narratives.”
Sprigge opens the book with a remembrance of her visit with the widow of composer Reiner Bredemeyer (1929-1995), who had the names of her husband’s compositions carved into his gravestone, which is situated at Pankow III along with a number of celebrated German cultural figures, singer/actor Ernst Busch (1900–1980) and conductor Kurt Sanderling (19192-2011) among them. Understanding the place of Bredemeyer, and his GDR colleagues, in the wider spectrum of the GDR’s music world is less about convenient placement of puzzle pieces that might fit current post-reunification narratives, and far more about experimentation with new ingredients in a varied stew; you may not entirely recognize the end result, but you will understand, nay appreciate, the level of creativity and labour that went into its creation. Thus is the Freudian conception of Trauerarbeit (or work of mourning) manifest in ways that move beyond simple sentimental and/or melancholy definitions, and into a more varied, thought-provoking, and nuanced take on German cultural history and its contemporary echoes, or a distinct lack thereof. How often do we hear the works of Dessau, Bredemeyer, Biermann, Dessau, Katzer, after all? With incredible attention to detail, a scholarly approach to analyses, and a clear love of the composers and their respective works across 300+ pages, Socialist Laments underlines the importance of an ever-evolving history that deserves to be – quite literally – heard and experienced. Is it a kind of advocacy? Perhaps, and perhaps that’s overdue. The book, published in mid-2021, joins a growing body of literature which looks at the work of a multifaceted era, and its people, in ways that bust out the old, Western-influenced clichés of humorless, grey grimness and show the ways in which meaning, mourning, and moving on, helped shape not only late 20th century Germany but modern Europe. It’s worth keeping in mind as the music world slowly reopens amidst coronavirus restrictions, and, to use a hoary old term, “reimagines” itself; the composers of the GDR understood this act very well, and the classical music world now, and its fans, would do well to remember such expressions and perhaps ask more from organizations, programmers, and most especially, themselves.
Professor Sprigge and I spoke in early July 2021.
Why did you focus on mourning and the music associated with it? You outline some academic motivations in the book but I’m curious about personal instincts.
This is a great question that I love answering! As you mention, I give a more academic explanation in the intro to the book, but there are a few more experiential reasons for choosing the lens of mourning to approach East German music culture. Musically, I’ve had a slightly morbid fascination with mourning music for a while, possibly longer than I realized. When I first started working on this project I was chatting with an old friend from high school, who reminded me of the number of requiems and choral mourning works we sang in the choir we were both in growing up – she joked that I must have really taken those experiences to heart! I suspect my personal experience of singing and playing mourning music might not be all that unique; memorial customs are everywhere in Western art music customs, though we might not always consciously be paying attention to the relationship between a generic title – for example, Requiem, Epitaph, Elegy, or a dedication, (like Schumann’s piano piece “Remembrance,” which was written the day Mendelssohn died) and the mourning rituals that lie behind them when we listen to or play these pieces. But sometimes we are (consciously paying attention), and I wanted to explore these customs and their continued use in more depth, especially in 20th century Europe, or after WWI and WWII specifically), when both the musical languages and the subjects of mourning were dramatically transformed.
In terms of the historical time period, I was struck by the disconnect I felt when I first read/heard about the GDR in (admittedly Western) texts, compared to the emotional impact that many of the sites of the former GDR had when I first visited them (and in the time since). The texts seemed to present East Germany as incredibly restrictive, especially in terms of emotional expression, while the sites I visited were sites of so many insurmountable losses, from wartime monuments to former concentration camps, that would seem to prompt an emotional response. I thought that looking at music would be a way in to exploring the various tensions surrounding expression in East Germany, not least because commemorative practices – and music – were so central to the cultural life of the GDR.
So how did this project actually begin?
Around 2005-2006, you could take a history class about the 20th century, and you’d learn all this political stuff; then you’d take a music class about the 20th century, and you’d learn about these seemingly very detached things – but I realized, in taking them in university, that they are closer together than one might’ve thought they’d be. These elements of history are not just political, or apolicial, not strictly one thing, or another; there’s messiness there. And I like messiness.
How do you go about capturing aspects of that messiness, or did you feel you had to clean some of it up yourself?
I guess, I got into this topic through the music and related places, and so in that way, it comes through in my organization of the book, it’s like, places and music are interlinked, very much. I had started from that perspective of, “This music is interesting; these places are interesting” – they reveal all these multiple histories if you sit and pay attention, or walk and pay attention – and as I read more, I realized that there was something more to that than just me liking going on walks and listening to music; there’s something one can do if one takes a very site-specific approach to an historical topic that kind of mirrors a piece-specific approach to an individual work. I broadened it out from there.
Did you intend for the introduction to feature Bredemeyer’s widow, or did the idea come later?
That was after I met her. She is such a generous woman; we sat and talked for long periods of time. I was a grad student at the time, and I mean… who does that?! Who invites you into her home and lets you converse about this time period in such a way? I’m not even German! But that level of generosity stuck with me. And as I worked through this book and thought about what to do next, it occurred to me that this is a central part of the story; these women – it’s usually women – have spent years collecting their husbands’ works and figuring out what to do with them, they’re telling these specific histories in how they archive. So yes, I remember, I left that conversation and I did not actually know about Bredemeyer’s grave until I spent that time with her, after that, I went and found the grave the next day. In the first draft of everything ,which was my dissertation, this meeting with her was at the end, but as soon as I reworked the material into a book, I thought, “This meeting needs to go at the beginning, and it can broaden out from there.”
Such generosity points to a humanity that I think is very often ignored or taken for granted in the history of the GDR in terms of how the West thinks of it…
That’s very true.
… and that notion-busting extends to gender also. I love the observation you make about how gender parity under communism was every bit as performative as elements of commemoration; I wonder if there’s a companion book to be written on that topic.
Funnily enough, that’s what I’m hoping to do next!
Yes! There’s something about it though – and, the longer you stay in this particular world, the more ideas you get to write about. I think the music… the longer I stay in this field, the more I feel there’s a lot more that can be said, not just about composers who identify as women and how they navigated it all, but the much broader set of activities that took place to make the musical world work for them, and their partners, under that system.
That’s part of the nuance which is so palpable, along with the references to the Soviet Union. How challenging was it to navigate that element? I ask this as someone who interviewed Marina Frolova-Walker, whose work you also reference in your book.
That’s a good question – funnily enough, I read your interview with Marina this morning! Well, the Russian thing… I think especially now, Shostakovich is getting programmed significantly more often than most other Russian composers, especially the next generation – I mean, nobody’s running to tell you about Edison Denisov…
Sure, but there is a common frame of reference that a lot of Western audiences and musicological audiences have, and in some ways I could rely on the fact that the audience probably already know a fair amount, or have a fair amount of ideas, about the music of the Soviet Union, so I figured, with good footnotes and recognition, I could imply the realization that, “Yes, I know you want to know about Shostakovich right now, so here you go; here’s the formal reference” – but the other, thornier question, in terms of thinking about the field of musicology, or how people thought about artistic practise in the Cold War, for far too long… it was so very Soviet Union-focused. So some of what I was doing was building on the work of other scholars who have taken this very interesting era and explored how yes, the Soviet Union was hugely influential on East Germany, but the musical life there looked, and sounded, different. And that is significant.
Photo: Eric Isaacs
How much do you think the current interest is fuelled by “ostalgie”?
Oh for sure, a good chunk of it, there’s no question. I got into this field right around the time of the 20th to 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You’d go to these conferences (2010-2015) and there would be a certain generation of people saying, “Well I went to East Germany and it felt like this” and “I remember life was like that.” You know, this past week I came across a list of movies that were meant to help you understand the GDR but none of them were actually by East German film artists… so, I mean, people are intrigued by this era and place, because they have this idea of what East Germany was.
One that has been largely shaped by Western ideas, as you noted.
Yes, that’s right.
But the sense of nostalgia within Eastern cultural expression is also significant; the interplay between nostalgia and reality, sentimentality and authentic expression, seems especially relevant to contemporary programming. Why do you think the work of East German composers isn’t programmed more often? There was a production of Dessau’s opera Lanzelot (1969) in Erfurt and Weimar) in 2019, but that seemed unique.
I think the reasons might’ve shifted – it was always multifaceted, why they were or weren’t heard. In the 1990s, there is ample evidence to indicate that yes, Western intellectuals took over former East German institutions for reasons which were based on completely discrediting Marxist thought; for a peek into that kind of world, Anna Saunders and Debbie Pinfold have this great book (Remembering And Rethinking the GDR, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013) demonstrating this sort of effect in various areas of the arts and culture and in universities, with some of the essays (“Reflective Nostalgia and Diasporic Memory: Composing East Germany After 1989“, Elaine Kelly) exploring the cultural atmosphere of the early 1990s in that vein. Bredemeyer himself commented on this issue as well; he said he felt like his works were being shaken off, that the perspectives this generation of composers had grown up with had suddenly been discredited. And, I think there’s this other dimension, which is more connected to new music writ large, and that is… it’s hard to get programmed. A lot of composers are continually and justifiably complaining about this or, if not complaining, aware that it is a system where only a few people get programmed again and again and again, and there is this broader movement which is not necessarily linked to the collapse of communism. Also, yes, the new music world is modelled on a world that is almost a century older now.
That makes generational divides all the more stark, and also brings up some very timely ideas around funding, especially in the post-Covid cultural landscape, or whatever we’re in now…
How much did those elements – intergenerational, financial – come into play as you were researching and writing?
One of the things I realized I had to do at some point in this project, for my own sanity, and also to do justice to that messiness I referenced without making it a free-for-all, is that I had to focus on a certain generation that had come of age, or a couple of generations, that came of age during WWII and then came into the GDR as fully grown adults, versus those born during the war, and then those born in the GDR and after – I just don’t know enough about the more contemporary ones to comment. I’ve been tangentially following this third-generation group who were children when the GDR collapsed, or are first-generation and born in reunified Germany, but may well have parents from the East, and they’re adults now, doing various creative things – I just haven’t followed them as much. I think there is that dimension of how much people are holding onto stuff from the past, compared to how much those elements they think of with so much nostalgia have, in fact, morphed into totally different things. Like the element you mentioned about levels of state support – that’s also been fused into this whole idea of, ‘where do you go to get your works performed?’ – which I think is very valid right now. Europe seems to support musicians more than the U.S., for sure.
Indeed, and North Americans never get to hear the work of people like Bredemeyer or Dessau performed live as a result, because programming them is perceived as too risky. Do you think in our current pandemic era we might start to appreciate these artists, people who wrote through their own difficult times?
Possibly. I finished this book right as Covid started, which I wrote about in the intro, and I was thinking, “What on earth is going on? I have to finish this book!” So that opening chapter is colored by that whole initial experience, but throughout the book some of the examples I was working with made me think about motivation in multiple ways, and in slightly different ways – there’s this kind of potential therapeutic element of, “This is my response to this situation; this is what I do. I’m a musician: if something happens, I’m going to respond through music” – so I think it is possible that composers and audiences may turn back to, and look for, these moments of mourning in sound. There was this article at the beginning of the whole thing I saw, about music during the plague, the Renaissance, about it being repurposed and in thinking about that today, it’s possible that would happen now, but I can also imagine… I don’t know what format it would take, whether it would be a composer turning back to previous examples and pondering how that would help them work through things. Speaking for myself, I love work that changes the way I listen to and comprehend other music. To give you an example, I’m struck by Mauersberger’s turn to Schutz; at first my reaction was, “Well of course, it’s Dresden!” – I studied Schutz as an undergrad with a scholar of his work, but then I thought, “Hold on a second, Schutz and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); Schutz and all the religion issues” – there were lots of potential layers.
So yes, it would be really interesting and intriguing if audiences did turn back to music, maybe GDR music, and, this sounds twee, but to music that fully represents this current time of need. I can also see that taking different forms; for instance, Courtney Bryan recently had the premiere of her Requiem in Chicago, which was postponed from before this whole thing, but the work takes on a new meaning now. The form is still there, but musicians are adapting and making such works fit to the present, which seems very similar to what the composers I studied were doing.
Some may look at your askance for not being European and doing this; how much do you think being a kind of cultural outsider helped or hindered your writing and understanding?
I think there’s been so much attention and work and really rich stuff written about East Germany, and the arts in East Germany, over the past decade or so, so it’s not just one book everybody’s turning back to anymore, or one person; it’s not like, ‘if you read German then you definitely read this person; if you read English, you definitely read this person’ – no, it’s a bunch of people. There’s this rich, very engaging dialogue taking place now. So I don’t think I’d feel comfortable writing this if I wasn’t in dialogue with that larger community. We need both perspectives, from insiders and outsiders; it’s the only way to form something approaching a complete picture.
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What do you do when all the energy you’ve put into careful planning over many years is suddenly threatened? Barrie Kosky decided to wipe the board clean and start again. The new autumn programme at Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic means, for the busy Intendant, a tangle of what he calls “scheduling nightmares” but also opens the door to new possibilities, for artists and audiences alike. It’s a purposeful step into the unknown, something the self-described “gay, Jewish kangaroo” is well used to doing after three-plus decades of working in theatre.
As head of the Komische Oper Berlin since 2012, Kosky (who has been called “Europe’s hottest director“) has made it a mission to regularly stage early 20th century operettas, Baroque opera, musicals, Mozart, and 20th century works. The pervasive idea of opera being an art form designated entirely for certain classes is one that niggles Kosky; he told The Telegraph in 2019 that “it fits a cultural agenda to say it’s elitist, but it is bullshit.” The idea that a work of art is challenging, entertaining, and enlightening at once is, in Kosky’s world, good, and entirely normal; just how much the bulbs for any or all of the elements in this trinity are dimmed or brightened depends, of course, on the material, but just as equally, the context. Berlin’s history, and indeed, that of Germany, have been constant sources of inspiration and exploration, and have often provided a meaty subtext to Kosky’s stagings, notably in his 2017 Fiddler on the Roof, here called Anatevka, with its unmissable, and purposefully uncomfortable, recalling both distant and recent pasts. His 2015 staging of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron featured imagery which disturbingly recalled the Holocaust. This bold combination of vision, politics, and thoughtful imagination (and in many cases, reimagination) is what has largely fuelled the incredible success KOB has enjoyed over the course of Kosky’s tenure, which is set to end in 2022. Before then, the company’s re-envisioned autumn program is a concentrated symbol of all Kosky has, and hopes to still, accomplish, both within and outside of Berlin proper. The new slate of programming is ambitious: there will be minimalist stagings of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Offenbach’s opéra bouffe The Countess of Gerolstein, Gluck’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, Schumann’s Mondnacht, and the operetta Die Blume von Hawaii by Paul Abraham; concert performances of works by Schubert (the song cycle Winterreise will be performed by ensemble baritone Günter Papendell) and Kurt Weill (with singer/actor Katherine Mehrling); a three-concert series devoted to the works of Igor Stravinsky (led by Music Director Ainārs Rubiķis); a series of salon talks combining science, creativity, and social issues; dance presentations (including choreographer Emanuel Gat’s SUNNY by Staatsballett Berlin); and a video project by Gob Squad (a British-German collective specializing in video/performance collaborations) which will use Berlin as a backdrop tot explore perceptions around the comfortably familiar.
That sense of comfort is not, as a concept, something Kosky has ever spent time or energy presenting or encouraging. In a conversation with James Clutton (Opera Holland Park’s Director of Opera) earlier this year, he compared the overall position of KOB to Berlin’s other two opera houses, noting that “Deutsche Oper is Moby Dick, Staatsoper (Unter den Linden) is Jaws, and… we’re Flipper.” It’s Kosky’s smart, sassy, singular way of illustrating the vivid approach of the house and its sparky Intendant to the material they program and the artists (both ensemble and guests) they engage. The longtime director’s style – if he could be said to have one – busily combines color, movement, and drama in a vivid theatrical aesthetic, colorfully aided by the work of longtime collaborators, including choreographer Otto Pichler, set designer Rufus Didwiszus, costume designer Klaus Bruns, set and lighting designer Klaus Grünberg, and designer Katrin Lea Tag. Embracing strong imagery and dramatically rich theatricality, Kosky is unafraid of upsetting the apple cart of operatic expectation; in fact, it’s something of a specialty of his, to purposefully turn it over, kick the wheels, collect the apples, and go off to make something considered delicious by some and unpalatable by others. Not everything he does is easily digestible, but then, it isn’t supposed to be; Kosky’s oeuvre as an artist is to question perceptions and long-held beliefs, which sounds simple enough but is no small thing in an industry constantly pressured to hew to so-called “safe” programming and presentation. While expanding the possibilities of live presentational experience, great attention is given to small details within a larger overall narrative framework. His 2017 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, for instance, contextualized the very place in which it was presented – Bayreuth – in order to question notions of identity and creativity; utilizing puppetry and a backdrop of the Nürnberg trials, Kosky put the opera’s composer on trial. As Martin Kettle noted in The Guardian “(a)t the heart of this Meistersinger is an imaginative, subtle and serious staging of a simple question: how far does Wagner’s antisemitism invalidate his artistic achievement? In the end, Kosky proves to be a fair judge of a question that is still necessarily debated.”
Creative probing into the nature of creation, ideas of artistry, and the role(s) of context within all of them reveal pursuits at once serious (Schoenberg’s unfinished 1932 opera Moses und Aron) and gloriously silly (Oscar Straus’ frothy 1923 operetta Die Perlen von Cleopatra), with a particular penchant for combining surreal dreamscape visions with unapologetic disruptions to socio-religious (and operatic) norms. His 2016 production of The Nose by Dmitri Shostakovich for the Royal Opera Covent Garden famously featured a line of tap-dancing title characters, while the 2015 staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel for Bayerische Staatsoper revealed (nay, revelled in) an even more surreal, grotesque world where the personal and political intersect. The production, which was to have been presented at the Metropolitan Opera this December (cancelled because of COVID19), features a sparring, obsessive couple, and delves into the subconscious of each to reveal a parade of decadent, deprived fantasies that strip away the eroto-goth, pseudo-romance of Valery Bryusov’s breathless 1907 novel. Fierce, ferocious, and at times suitably unfathomable, the memorable production was not only notable for its comically nightmarish vignettes (one of which featured a very sarcastically-presented penis being roasted and consumed) but for the genuine interest Kosky took in the depiction of the opera’s female character, Renata, an interest which applies more broadly to the many pivotal female characters within the works he’s helmed. Paul Abraham’s 1932 operetta Ball im Savoy, staged at KOB in 2013, featured the inimitable Dagmar Manzel (a company mainstay) as Madeleine de Faublas, who clings desperately to an elegant dignity while trying to keep her marriage afloat; Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe Die schöne Helena (known more for its French title La belle Hélène, and staged at KOB in 2014) offered a fascinating depiction of its title character, one touching on vampy, vapid, scary, silly, and girlish. Monteverdi’s Die Krönung der Poppea (in its original Italian, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with the Komische using a richly reimagined score by composer Elena Kats-Chernin) portrayed the title character’s ruthless and naked (sometimes literally) ambitions with zealous, bloody clarity. Franz Schreker’s 1918 work Die Gezeichneten (staged in 2018 at Oper Zürich) Kosky presented Carlotta through the disturbed, damaged perceptions of the male character obsessed with her, creating a twisted parable that hinged, like much of his work (notably his Pelleas et Melisande staging in 2017), around the dialectics of male desire, female identity, power, subservience, and beauty.
Nowhere, perhaps, were these angular explorations made more clear than in Kosky’s highly divisive staging of Carmen, first presented at Oper Frankfurt and subsequently at the Royal Opera in 2018. Kosky purposely stripped away the opera’s historical visual cliches (farewell fans and flamenco!) while mocking the audience’s expectations of them. Instead of the cliched-sexy, wide-eyed, wink-wink-nudge-nudge choreography so often (almost constantly) deployed as a central part of the character – as embodied in the famous habanera – Kosky’s Carmen was a kind of toreador herself, and during the aria itself she wasn’t swaying hips but peeling off a gorilla costume – gimmicky perhaps, but a deliberate nod at Marlene Dietrich’s similar revelation in Blonde Venus, with its balance of power, desire, and subversion of expectation, and a smirking (if highly confrontational) shove at long-held, seemingly immobile notions of what constitutes “sexy” in female operatic depiction. The moment – indeed the entire production – underlined Kosky’s love-it-or-leave-it approach. 2021 will see the Australian director helm a highly-anticipated new production of Der Rosenkavalier for Bayerische Staatsoper together with his regular team, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, with whom he has previously worked several times, including, most recently, at Komische Oper Berlin last autumn, for a visceral staging of Henze’s 1965 work The Bassarids. There is no small amount of anticipation for next year’s Rosenkavalier; it follows Otto Schenk’s widely-adored, Rococo-style production, first presented at the house in 1972. The production will also mark Jurowski’s first staging at the house since being named the company’s General Music Director Designate (formally starting in autumn 2021); soprano Marlis Petersen is set to sing the role of the Marschallin. The production is set to open in mid-March of 2021.
Before that, however, is the re-envisioned autumn season in Berlin, a brave step into what is a largely unknown world still grappling with the effects of pandemic; how much audiences will respond is anyone’s guess, though the combination of a faithful live audience, and a growing digital one (thanks to a partnership with Opera Vision) means the company will continue to grow its presence in both local and global respects. When we spoke recently, Kosky had just returned to Berlin from finalizing lighting plans for a future production at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. (“Who would say ‘no’ to a week in the South of France?” Well, especially right now… “Hello!”) This was my second conversation with Kosky, the first having been in early 2018 when we chatted about the central role of operetta in his programming. Funny, warm, blunt, and chatty, Kosky is a lively conversationalist with none of the I’m-A-Famous-Artiste characteristics that might trail from a figure of his stature. Authenticity is a theme which has emerged through the many conversations I’ve been privileged to share with various classical figures, and I can think of no better figure to embody such a quality than Kosky; he is real, earthy, wholly himself, wholly authentic, with a like-it-or-lump-it boldness that will either engage or repel. It’s not difficult to figure out which camp many opera fans sit in, myself included. Here the director shares his thoughts on the whys and wherefores of changing programming, what the pandemic hath wrought in terms of acceptance and humility, the logistics of funding, upcoming projects (including Rosenkavalier in Munich), and just how his dedication on an April episode of Hope@Home came to be.
Photo: Jan Windszus Photography
Why did you redo the schedule from September through to the end of the year?
We decided we just couldn’t mess around. Some of my colleagues are all hoping by October we’ll all be back to normal, but I think they’re living in la-la land – it’s impossible. We have a luxurious thing you don’t have in North America or Britain: the subsidized ensemble system. It enables us to be able to do things so we don’t have to spend a cent, and we don’t have to employ people – they’re all here.
I read somewhere you’d said how artists who are complaining in Germany have no idea about how bad things really are elsewhere…
Oh… yes, it’s my pet thing at the moment! It’s like, I just find that this German word, “jammern”, it’s like this, well, more than complaint, this … <whining noise>… and you know, I understand any freelance artist can do that if they’ve lost jobs. I have no problem if friends of mine, freelance friends, do it – they can complain twenty-four hours a day if they have no money. But for people within the system who are getting their full monthly payment and doing no work – like the orchestra, like the chorus, like the soloists, like the technicians – you know, shut the fuck up. Really. I don’t even want to hear about your difficulties – you have none, you’re being paid and not working. And then they say, “We miss performing!” And I say, “Go stand in front of an old folks’ home and play your violin like so many other people are doing!” When I speak to all my friends in America, Canada, Australia, Britain, they’ve just lost six months of work! Some of them fall between the funding slots so they can’t apply for financial help! So… really.
Comparatively speaking , I think many classical artists outside of Germany look in with envy because of the system being much more well- funded.
Well it is. The system is stronger, and the financial packages are bigger – Merkel announced €1 billion for the arts, but that’s on top of hundreds of millions the city gave, and on top of the billions they give to the arts anyway.
Is it true you don’t like the term “reduced” opera? That seems to be what many organizations are doing, or thinking of doing, right now.
I mean, I don’t think if something is small that it’s “reduced.” Certainly if you have a reduced Ring Cycle, like the one by Jonathan Dove, it’s a reduced orchestration, but what we’ve deliberately done is not that, even though we may be using smaller forces. Some of the best pieces of music ever written are small, and quite frankly, if we have to have a six-month pause from Mahler, well, there’s too much Mahler being played anyway – it’s lost its specialness being done so much. But more Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Bach wouldn’t hurt anybody! Not everything has to be monolithic – but “reduced” is a word that implies things that I don’t want to imply. We all know what the situation is, and I feel it’s better to say, “We’re doing a version of The Countess Of Gerolstein” and not “We’re doing a reduced version” – I don’t like that word “reduced.” I’ve tried to ban it.
The needed move into these smaller versions of things highlights an intimacy within the overall experience which audiences may have been craving – this idea that opera and classical must always be so grand and monolithic, as you say, is being dismantled.
Indeed. Let me give you an example. We started rehearsals recently for a planned production of Pierrot Lunaire with Dagmar Manzel; she’s been wanting to do this for the last twenty years. We paired it with those two fabulous Beckett monologues, Not I and Rockaby. This was planned two years ago, but the idea we begin a season with that talking mouth, I mean… it couldn’t be better, that you actually begin the first season after the whole corona thing with not music but Beckett’s (style of) music and this insane talking mouth! And just to be in the room and to work on that Pierrot Lunaire score – it’s an important work written in Berlin in 1912, just before Schoenberg started to meddle in 12-tone music – but you forget what an astonishing piece of music it is. Stravinsky said Pierrot Lunaire was like the solar plexus of 20th-century music. You hear so much in these tiny twenty-one poems – they’re not even sung, there are about ten notes the speaker has to sing, but with five instruments. And it’s just as extraordinary as Tristan und Isolde, it’s just as extraordinary as Wozzeck, and it’s just as extraordinary as the chromatic worlds of Mahler 6 and 7, so you suddenly think, well, maybe forget the epic, forget the grand, forget the huge statement – there’s plenty of repertoire to use.
But I do tend to feel a bit wary of giving large philosophical or existential answers about what is art, what is culture, what is opera, what will it be, what should it be, when we’re still in the middle of a health crisis. We can have this discussion maybe next year when we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, because that’s going to hit. I feel my job now is to try and discover what wonderful pieces of music theatre we can perform with the resources we have available and within the constraints which are in place. It’s very pragmatic; I think the existential things can come later.
Speaking of pragmatism, KOB has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Opera Vision; the broadcasts have had a central role in shaping ideas relating to culture within the digital realm. Those working in music and theatre have said numerous times over the past four months that video can never replace the real thing, that the live experience is entirely singular and of course that’s true – but digital isn’t supposed to replace anything; it’s ancillary, complementary, an add-on, and it’s also very helpful for those who can’t make it to the actual location. You have a digital component to this new fall season, which implies an embrace of technology as part and parcel of this new way to experience culture in the so-called “new normal.” Why?
I’ve always said technology isn’t here to replace the live experience; it’s to operate through it in some way. It is a great marketing tool – we hardly print anything anymore – and it’s also a way, as you said, to share. Not everyone, outside of a few German opera critics, can jump on an airplane and come see work all the time, so what’s the choice, you can’t see this show because we don’t want to present it digitally, or we give you the opportunity to see it and… ? I think after the crisis finishes there’s a big discussion to be had about rights and royalties; people should be paid something, the time of all free-free-free should be over. I’m also not sure in future we’d have everything free online; we’d have to look at that. So I think if we do charge for viewings, the money would go toward the artists’ royalties in some way. I think it’s very important. But yes, when it comes to digital, people jump to the polarized position: when opera has a livestream, it’s “oh this is the end of the magic of opera!” and you go, “No.” I don’t make the jump from ‘making it accessible and available in another form’ to ‘it’s the end of opera’ – I don’t make that jump.
I do feel differently with the cinema stuff; I think there’s a big difference. You can sit at home and watch Moses und Aron in your house, which I like the idea of, but I’m not so wild about you going to your local cinema and buying a ticket to see that work live on the big screen. For some reason I think that competes then, it takes away from your local house, and makes it into a cinematic experience…
… which it wasn’t meant to be in the first place.
Right. But I like the idea of streaming things at home – that sort of accessibility I like a lot. Digital is there as another way of exploring how we can make interesting work available to more people. We did Moses und Aron for only six performances, so only 7000 people saw it live – we sold out the run – but now already 15,000 or even more have seen it in the last few weeks. So more people saw it digitally than they did originally. I’m not going to complain about that.
Robert Hayward as Moses in Moses und Aron, Komische Oper Berlin, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
The style of filming was very specific to online streaming; it wasn’t trying to be cinematic but did provide a different perspective than if one had been sitting in the back row on the top tier of the house.
Every theatre experience is different if you watch it live or filmed, and we were very lucky when we decided during my time at KOB that we would do livestreams and we would record them. I think the other big house that has a library for livestreams is Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper), in terms of being able to just release productions during the last few months, but my job is to try and entice people to Berlin eventually, so if thousands of people have seen these productions in the last few months, maybe some are thinking, “Oooh I want to go to Berlin, what are they doing right now?” It’s all connected.
I shared the link for Die Perlen der Cleopatra to a friend who is writing a musical and although he doesn’t know the KOB’s work he loved it and was curious to see more.
That’s great! I think for non-Germans, in terms of seeing operetta or musicals done on that scale, you just don’t see it anywhere else quite like that.
We’ve spoken about operetta in the past, and it’s nice to see it as part of your autumn programming.
We do need laughter right now. What I’ve found amazing the last few months is, at the beginning, when the shock of the lockdown was dissipating – we had our lockdown so early – various things came online and people started to play, and it was terribly lamento, this self-indulgent thing of “it’s the end! I’m playing the saddest most depressing music I could imagine to share with you across the world!” And I’m thinking, you know, it’s not a requiem we’re dealing with. I think we can still assume, when we weren’t playing, and then when we do play, we want to present a spectrum of music theatre experiences, so to balance the Schoenberg and Iphigenie, (KOB) had to do an operetta with the ensemble, because by the time we get to October we’ll have to have some laughs along the line. That’s not to make any light of any situation or of the hundreds of thousands of deaths, but we’re going to have to not just sit here and think it’s the end. Because it isn’t the end.
It’s felt that way for many – there’s been a lot of despair because of the pandemic situation.
Yes but I think we’re also got to realize it’s all about perspective. The Western idea of despair is not on the scale of despair on other continents. Historical despair… you know, a lot of the sort of, German cultural scene at the moment is railing against the idea of wearing masks and think it’s hysterics and whatever, the whole discussion is about, “are my freedoms and rights being taken away by being told to wear a mask in shops and on public transport” and I think, if your definition of the loss of freedom and rights is about wearing a mask to maybe not infect someone else in society, then you need to go and live in a country when freedom and rights are really under threat. That to me is another issue of this whole thing.
I said to my house as part of an internal video that I think it’s very important we have a perspective about this, and that it’s very easy to sink into a negativity – you can sink into a frustration, but as I said at the beginning, you know, outside the Western European cultural system, it’s terrible – orchestras, dance companies, institutions that have been developing for decades are under existential threat, and I think sometimes it’s better if you’re lucky to either help people or to shut the fuck up.
… or whinge on the internet?
The internet is the great whinge forum of all time! I don’t mind people being frustrated, I can understand it, and also understand I speak from a privileged position, and I’m very careful about that. I think crises always bring out the best and worst of people. It’s interesting to run a house when you’re successful, it’s also interesting to see how stable the ship is if you’re in a storm. That’s also interesting.
You’re hoping to leave something of a stable ship at KOB in the near future, then?
I leave in two years, but I sort of don’t leave, because I’m still staying on to do my work and as an advisor. I’ll be looking after the whole renovation project for two years, my team I’ve been working with are taking over the house so there’s continuity there but it’s a chapter finishing, and the last thing I want to do is hand over an institution that isn’t strong and creative.
I feel like this whole lockdown experience has been such an exercise in humility for many.
It still is, and everyone’s in the same boat. Salzburg, it’ll be interesting this summer to see what happens there in the laboratory of Salzburg, but that’s also not quite the reality, because Salzburg is a summer festival. At the Felsenreitschule where they’re presenting Elektra, there is no pit, it’s a huge, open area, so they don’t have to deal with musicians and big orchestras in pits and big choruses and hundreds of people backstage – they don’t have to deal with any of this. So I’m skeptical of it being used as a template of how the future will be. I wish them well, but it has nothing to do with what we’re doing or the challenges we face.
… or the audiences you have.
The average age in Salzburg is 345; we are considerably younger than that.
Photo: Jan Windszus Photography
And your Der Rosenkavalier is still in the books next year in Munich.
We won’t be changing it. If we have to do social distancing, it’ll be postponed. I can’t do with it what I’m doing with Boris Godounov in Zürich – the chorus and the orchestra will be beamed into the opera house live, and the singers and extras will be doing a strange, dreamlike production live, but I can do that with Boris Godounov because it’s fragmented anyway, it’s about history and how we remember history, so conceptually, fine – that’s not how I conceived it, but it’s fine.
But with Rosenkavalier, no! The opera itself is impossible to do with any form of social distancing, and it’s impossible to play in a smaller orchestral ensemble. They’re building the sets so it’s not as if it won’t happen. But as I said, I refuse to get into a situation where it’s, “Oh no my precious Rosenkavalier, it simply must be done!” – yes, I’d be devastated if it didn’t happen, but if it doesn’t happen in February-March, well, they’ll have to do it at some time; they’ve invested so much in costumes and sets already. I really want to do it next year, but it’s impossible to know what’ll happen, and they know that. Some of these productions we’re planning are impossible to do with restrictions, but I’m not even thinking about next year. January the 1st is not on my radar.
So it’s an exercise in non-attachment then?
It is. And the good thing about Rosenkavalier is that the work had all been done before corona – we’ve been working for three years on it, three-and-half years in fact. And it was all sort of finished in terms of the large concept – that was finished, but now it’s how it’s to be done, working it out in rehearsals, as you know. So it’s Strauss, and Rosenkavalier, and it’s Kosky’s Rosenkavalier, and in Munich: throw everything and the kitchen sink into it! And yes, there’ll be a lot of surprises in that one.
But first some surprises in the autumn in Berlin…
I think what’s happened in the German-speaking world is there are two thoughts: one thought is to bury your head in the sand and say, “It’ll all be fine and we’ll deal with it after summer; just wait and see” and… I don’t think that’s the way to do it. Some of the larger houses are doing that. But the other thought is to ask: how far ahead do we want to imagine this will have an impact on us? The Met cancelled my Fiery Angel I was meant to come for a month to New York to do – which I am sad about. I was going to go to Tel Aviv to do Magic Flute also, and it got cancelled.
So when the lockdown first happened, I thought, “I’m in Berlin, and that’s good; it’s good to be with my house” and I said, “I think we have to just scrap everything.” So we postponed the three premiers that were to happen this season: Katya Kabanova, the children’s opera Tom Sawyer, and (Rise and Fall of the City of) Mahagonny, which are going into 2021-22. We cancelled four revivals as well. For me it’s more interesting not to adapt or reduce – that terrible word – existing repertoire, but to start from scratch, to invent things, do new things, all with social distancing. The biggest thing is smaller audiences –okay, that’s one thing, but the social distancing with an orchestra and ensemble, that’s the tricky thing. I said, “Let’s see what we can do; do I want to do this in a year’s time? Or for a few months’ time next season? I’ll have to do it.” And the only way we can do this and have the luxury to do it, is because I have 105 orchestra musicians, 60 chorus members, and 24 singers, all on salary. And I said “okay, we won’t have any sets; we’ll have a bare stage but we’ll invest in lights and costumes” and I’ll be in the rehearsal room with my company creating things. The alternative is to say, “We can’t possibly present anything” and that’s not an option if you’re being paid millions and millions of Euros in taxpayer money. It’s not an option.
It’s a sharp contrast to the North American system.
It costs money, that’s the thing. We have a 90% subsidized system here and we also have ensembles, which don’t exist in North America, They can’t do anything. And they actually save money by not investing money – of course they could put on this and that but it’ll cost money, and as you know, it’s all box office, box office, box office, so it doesn’t make sense to have a few hundred people in the theatre…
Right, it still costs. I know from discussions with my colleagues in North America, yes, as you said before, they look over here with extreme jealousy. We know where the biggest costs in opera go – they go to salaries of orchestra, chorus, and singers; it’s a very different discussion being had in North America and Britain, and as I said, within the subsidized system we are even more lucky because we are a repertoire-based ensemble house; we are not having to pay a lot of guest singers.
When I spoke with (KOB Kapellmeister) Jordan de Souza near the start of the lockdown (for Opera Canada’s summer 2020 edition) he explained how rescheduling singers and guests is a tremendous jigsaw because cancellations mean constant changes.
It’s not a jigsaw; it’s a domino set, and it’s always falling! Jordan is absolutely right though, you deal with cancellations and the new plan, and then of course the longer it goes on the more problems it creates because someone is suddenly not available, they’re meant to be here, or they’ve been postponed, or “oh that’s still happening, we’re changing the version, are you free then?” It’s been a nightmare of coordination. A nightmare! And that’s why I did what I did: by sweeping everything off and concentrating on one thing, it instantly creates a new situation.
The difficulties are with next year; the more there are postponements and cancellations, the more it gets really complicated. In Berlin we decided to keep the workshops open; they’re building all the sets for all the new productions as per normal because if we don’t do that we get into a situation where you can’t just switch on a machine and build a set in two weeks. Secondly, there’s a few hundred people not working and they need to, as a purely psychological exercise in saying, “These sets have to be built.”
So you don’t really have a proper summer…
I’m rehearsing Pierrot, but I do have two weeks’ holiday in Greece. In quarantine I had seven weeks off, which is the longest I’ve had off in thirty years.
It was nice to see you accompanying various KOB ensemble members on the piano over the course of the lockdown.
That was an easy thing to do, they’re great people. It started with Katherine Mehrling doing the Kurt Weill songs, there was something like 15,000 people who saw it. We saw that number and went, “oh! Let’s do it every two weeks then, and feature people associated with the house!” I didn’t want it to be… I mean, you look at other houses, and their livestream musical presentations with no audience are treated like a funeral. That’s why we called ours celebrations, like, “here’s a little taste of something and we hope you enjoy it” – I wasn’t making any great statement about the times we live in, I just wanted to show people we’re still there and we’re thinking of them. They were fantastically successful, but after five we said “that’s enough, we have to get back to working” but also, I play the piano very rarely in public, and so I get such enjoyment out of doing it, particularly when accompanying. I’m not interested in playing solo, I just like playing with great people. I feel happy and secure when they’re in front and I’m playing away behind them – but also it’s a middle finger, to show people around the world who assume directors aren’t musical or that directors don’t know or care about music. All of that is nonsense. Sometimes it’s good to remind people of that.
You read the work of Joseph Roth as part of an early episode in Daniel Hope’s ARTE series at the start of the lockdown; that reading began with your dedication to people who were enduring the lockdown alone. I must confess when I heard you say that, I stood in my kitchen and wept with gratitude – it was very special to feel seen during that time.
I have a number of friends who are between partners, or don’t have partners or families or whatever, and were doing it alone, particularly the first part of it, and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, a few days and nights fine, but for weeks and weeks and weeks, that’s quite tough” – especially in some countries that had very severe lockdowns. So I really felt for a number of my friends. And I thought about the time when I didn’t have a partner or whatever, and I have a dog too, which helps – the dog has to get out and have a pee – but I thought about those who were alone, I mean… oh, that’s quite hard. We all love being alone at various times; I love being alone in my apartment or walking my dog, but weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks of it… my God.
So it just came to me, I mean, I so love Joseph Roth, and I love everything about his writing and everything about him; he was this sort of solitary journeyman going on trains through Europe and staying in hotels. Actually a few minutes before we went on, I said to Daniel, “Can I say something?: and he said, “Whatever you like!” He was playing something beautiful and melancholic just before, so it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I’m glad I did it.
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There’s really no such thing as a side-project for those who work in the arts; there are only many different aspects of one’s creative self that manifest in various ways, creating an ever-evolving tapestry of expression and experience.
This seems especially true for Philharmonix, a collective made up of members of the Berlin Philharmonic (violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley and cellist Stephan Koncz), the Vienna Philharmonic (bassist Ödön Rácz, clarinetist Daniel Ottensamer, violist Thilo Fechner), pianist Christoph Traxler (who’s performed with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the Staatskapelle Halle), and violinist/vocalist Sebastian Gürtler (first Concertmaster of the Wiener Volksoper from 1997 to 2008).One could easily label their efforts “gateway” – but I’m not sure classical music, when done well and presented with so much class and intelligence, requires any real “gateways.” If one is curious, open, broad-minded, and leaves preconceptions at the door, the wonders of the classical world tend to unfurl on their own, no gateways needed. There’s no denying a satisfying integration of entertainment, education, creativity, and chemistry greatly helps, and it’s here that Philharmonix excels. Their 2018 album, The Vienna Berlin Music Club Volume 1 (Deutsche Grammophon), is an eclectic mix of Central and Eastern European sounds, and happily raises a glass to the past while dancing firmly into the future, encouraging audiences to do the same. By turns playful, smart, and brimming with curiosity, it’s a musical fusion for dreaming, and dancing, for cooking, for cleaning, for primping and plying, for smiling, for silence, for living: “l’chaim,” “willkommen,” “rock on,” and “excelsior,” it seems to say, in so many tones and textures and tempi.
Mental workouts are sewn into the colorful quilts of their creative arrangements; one hears so many, many different sounds from moment to moment. Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” merges playfully with his theme from Peter Gunn; a classy, creative take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has snatches of “Ava Maria”; their thoughtful “Russian Overture” moves from stately seriousness (with vocals) to a Klezmer-like explosion of energy that references portions of The Nutcracker and Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. A charming rendition of “Felix Navidad”, with pizzicato strings, breezy piano, and buzzy percussion offers a lovely respite in an album of intense energy and verve; “Englishman in New York” blends Klezmer, scat, and classical chamber sounds. Then there’s the gorgeous (and for me, wildly familiar) sounds of gypsy in “Gnossienne” and “Balkan Party” – this is the music of my own childhood and cultural background, and I admit to being slightly greedy in the sonic sense of wanting more of it; perhaps their next album (The Vienna Berlin Music Club Volume 2, releasing September 27th through Deutsche Grammophon) will serve that fix, along with a panoply of other delicious sounds.
What makes Philharmonix special is that they provide not only a valuable perspective to what each member does in their respective day jobs (and it’s worth looking into those, because it changes how you perceive their work in important ways) but a very smart way to listen to past and present; you hear classical works differently after spending time really listening to what they do. This is one side project that doesn’t really feel like (much less sound like) a side project at all; its members sound as if they’ve known one another for decades, playing in one another’s living rooms, at one another’s graduations and weddings and bar mitzvahs, in bars and cars and trains and planes. Their curiosity feels much larger than a concert hall, but at the same time their musical understanding is more intimate than the coziest parlour.
That ease and familiarity was underlined in my conversation this past summer with two Philharmonix members. Noah Bendix-Balgley, First Concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2014, and Stephan Koncz, Cello with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2010, when they were between Philharnonix gigs in rural Austria. While lively and conversational, the pair were were equally blunt in sharing their thoughts on the role this project has playing in influencing the work they do with the Berlin Phil, and vice-versa. The band plays the Wiener Konzerthaus the end of this month, with performances in Dresden, Luxembourg and the U.K. in December.
(L-R) Noah Bendix Balgley, Christoph Traxler, Sebastian Gürtler, Thilo Fechner, Ödön Rácz, Stephan Koncz, and Daniel Ottensamer. Philharmonix live at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in May 2018. (via)
What’s it been like to play for audiences in rural European locations?
SK It’s been quite an experience to play on top of the mountains. As you can imagine, the altitude means the weather is quite spontaneous, so winds came up yesterday just before our outdoor concert, and the clouds were looking quite menacing, so we decided to go inside, to a brewery.
NBB It was also at the top of the mountain, but we had room for a good 400 or 500 people.
SK It was very packed and intimate atmosphere.
… which suits the music you’re doing.
SK It does. It felt wonderful in fact, to be near the audience, and they felt close to us,
That intimacy seems especially important to what you do in Philharmonix. How did you choose the repertoire? I hear a lot of the Hungarian music that was part of my childhood.
SK We are seven people — two half-Hungarians, myself and Daniel Ottensamer the clarinettist, and bass player Ödön Rácz, he’s fully Hungarian. So it’s like automatism — we want to play Hungarian folk and gypsy music. Actually, that was our first big influence at the beginning. We came together in order to play the music we can’t usually play in the high and mighty concert halls with our orchestras.
NBB We were just driving from our last concert to our stop today in Austria, it was a couple hours of driving, and we had Ödön putting on various CDs, it was this huge mix — that’s the epitome of what we’re about — and we were saying, “Oh, we can use that sound for a new track!” or, “We can take this riff!” or “We should use that bass line!” We’re always looking for some sort of musical spark that gets us excited about playing something together and that’s the nice thing: we get to decide what we’re playing and how we’ll play it, because it’s our own arrangements.
SK We spend time with fantastic works by great composers yes, but obviously those composers were inspired by all the folk sounds and other contemporary works surrounding themselves back then. As with us, now we live in the times when we are surrounded by music; never in history has there been such access to music! So if there’s work being written and performed, and we’re inspired by it, we can’t just sit and play only our symphonic repertoire, or chamber or solos. The field of sounds is large, and we need to explore everywhere…
NBB … and not only as listeners, but as performers. We want to try our hand at a lot of different styles, even if we don’t know a lot about them. We try to dig in and make it as authentic as possible. If we’re playing a piece in the swing style or something that has more of a pop grove, things like that, we want to find the essence of what makes this music tick, and how we can get that across to an audience. It’s what we enjoy doing and what we do when we get together.
It feels as if because of this intimacy and immediacy, you have a lot more free reign for experimentation. How much improvisation you allow yourselves within this framework?
SK Quite a lot.
NBB At first when we’re starting with these, a lot of what we do is typical development: we’re working on a new program or new pieces to add to a program. Stefan and Sebastian will come to rehearsal with a new piece — or the skeleton of a new piece — and we start rehearsing, to see what happens. People throw in ideas or other references to other pieces, so that’s part of the process to come up with our end product, but it’s never really an “end product,” because in the concert we still want to surprise each other, and throw in different things. The best part is how audiences react to that, because if somebody tries something interesting we‘ll enjoy that, and that joy comes across to the audience. It’s really spontaneous, and happening the moment.
SK And that mood affects the programming. We’ll play two sets and sometimes it’s just made up onstage, depending on how the audience reacts to certain thing we do. We’ll see the audience needs certain tunes or a piece to wake up with or whatever, so we adjust accordingly. The program is not so written in stone. Of course since we are trained musicians we expect a certain level nevertheless, but it’s a relaxed thing, it’s hard to describe. It’s far more exhausting to play a Philharmonix concert than normal, but, I never feel more relaxed onstage than with these guys as well.
NBB We feel audiences can really tell the difference in whatever style. If we have a program and (musicians) are tired and going through the motions, in many cases, whether it’s classical or something a little more broad, an audience responds to that — they know if that sound is really together or not. And we feel it too. So it’s important we can always try to deliver energy from our end.
Noah Bendix-Balgley performs with Philharmonix in Beijing in 2018. (via)
Whose idea was it to start this project?
SK I mean it’s a mixture of friends from the sandbox, We’ve all know each other for a long time now; Daniel and I go back to playing together as kids. In the beginning I think one of the first ideas came from Ödön — he wanted to play his Hungarian folk music and couldn’t – he’s with the Vienna Phil. Like, what can you do about that folk music there? Well, you need an ensemble. so we went from that point. And now, for almost three years, we are doing this set-up, and it’s a wonderful voyage.
The international mix of members you have, and style you play in, harkens back to another era in some ways, It’s modern but it’s so old-school. How conscious were of that as you formalized this collective?
NBB We’re very conscious about trying to get the atmosphere and the sound of the particular style. So we have a piece on the first album, “Rose Room”, inspired by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and that sound, the bass and everything, is us trying to get to the essence of, “What was that sound?” We try to find that. Or with Hungarian gypsy things, like the Brahms Hungarian Dance arrangements, we usually defer to Ödön for that; he has very specific knowledge about to play the rhythm and approach notes and timing, all those things to make it authentic. So maybe that’s what you’re hearing, that sense of an old sound, going back to the roots and core of the style in that piece. For other pieces, ones with more of a pop influence, we go for something more modern and mechanical sometimes. We think about that and really do work on that when we rehearse. We do the same thing when we’re playing the core classical rep too, you try to play a different sound for Mozart than you do for Beethoven, than you do for Shostakovich. With the rep we do as Philharmonix, we can go much further and try out some really crazy things with our instruments.
SK And the performances with Philharmonix have largely, speaking only for myself, really influenced my core classical repertoire.
Rehearsing before a performance at Wiener Konzerthaus in 2018. (via)
I was just going to ask you how this this project has influenced how you do your day job.
SK Both show us how to perform onstage, because we feel that once we do our research, so to speak, on the roots of folk for instance, once we’ve done this for Philharmonix purposes, then this knowledge translates to most classical core performances, because classical composers made references to the pop music of their time, much more so than we allow ourselves to acknowledge now. It’s good and much freer because somehow if you have done the research, you can base your freedom on knowledge; you feel free because you have figured out what the base is for all of this.
You’ve given yourself permission to explore the creative things that aren’t always encouraged within some realms of the classical world.
SK It gives more confidence onstage. Beethoven himself was one of the most famous improvisers of his time, the way he composed sometimes was free improvisations, so as a performer if you hear, “Okay, he improvised this bit, and the root of it is that” then you more comfortable onstage.
NBB For performers and for audiences it’s in that moment, rather than being exactly prescribed how you take that timing, vibrato, things like that — it’s in that moment you can be more free.
SK The holy grail for performing classical is really to make it sound as if it’s been written in the moment. That’s the grail as a performer. We’re not the composers but we need to represent it as though it was just now composed to the audience. So people see it and feel it immediately, As a performer of classical music and for Philharmonix that’s what we do there: we try to create on the spot. This is the daily bread of every jazz musician, but for us, it’s a new stick in the game.
SK Today as we did our field research on our car ride, we listened to various types of folk, and the cimbalom is one of the heroes of Hungarian music, honestly.
NB We try to recreate other instruments with what we have, so for example Sebastian likes to imitate muted trumpet, and sometimes we do a thing where you hit a string with the wood of the bow to imitate a dulcimer, or imitate the pan flute sound. All these things broaden what our instruments can actually do.
SK I’m still thinking about the cimbalom and how we get that, though; to me, the sound is extremely unique…
It has that very identifiable ping. There’s nothing quite like it.
SK Totally! With the new album where our instruments imitate pan flutes, we tried to get the colour right, but it’s kind of old-Europe sounds with that cimbalom, and there isn’t the intention for this old Europe. It happens like this in Hungarian music, because the gypsies nowadays, they still play this romantic Brahms sound, in a way, but it’s just one of our styles that we like to be active in.
What do your Berlin Philharmonic colleagues think about this exploration?
NBB They might be a little jealous, I don’t know! One of the nice things about being in the Berlin Philharmonic, in addition to being an incredible orchestra and having this really urgent and vibrant approach, is that we have time to pursue other projects, Stephan and I are doing a lot of concerts in Philharnonix and other projects as well, but our colleagues are also doing things, like playing Baroque music in their free time, or tango, or jazz, or conducting and composing, so there’s a very open attitude to people going out individually to pursue creative activities themselves, with the thought that, “Okay, you go on a tour with your Baroque tour for two weeks; when you come back to the orchestra it will be invigorating, you’ll be refreshed and inspired.” What you do within the orchestra after that will be positively influenced by that activity. It’s very good the whole orchestra has this. A lot of musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic are very serious about other musical projects outside of the orchestra that nicely complement what we do in it.
SK The funny thing about the Berlin Philharmonic is that, whatever colleagues do on the side, they do it intensely. People do everything in an extreme way, and I think it makes the music better in the end.
Lately I’ve found myself re-evaluating the past with all the complicated and sometimes ugly details of the present. It’s been an important and sometimes painful journey, for a variety of reasons both personal (disposing of photo albums, many of which were my mother’s) and professional (my slow if sure transition away from journalism). Through travels, research, readings, and various creative ruminations, I’ve come to appreciate just how deeply recontextualizing materials of the past can help us understand and appreciate new ways of being fully and completely present, however uncomfortable that may sometimes be; evolution is not, after all, supposed to be a comfortable process.
I suspect this is something Georg Katzer understood. The award-winning German composer, born in what is now Poland in 1935, was a pioneer of electronic new music in the German Democratic Republic. He founded the Studio for Electroacoustic Music in the 1980s, and made a career of redefining past to understand present, setting the stakes high for future modes of expression. The weight and influence of Europe’s shifting history through the decades lent him a ravenous curiosity for exploration of the past mixed with an enthusiasm for for redefining the present; he did so much with a twinkle in his eye as well rather than the furrowed brow of a serious artiste, which gives his work a discernible humanism, even amidst the plaintive bleeps and sighing bloops of works like “Steinelied I” (1984) and “Steinelied II” (2010). Listen to his wide-ranging oeuvre, which moves easily between lyrical brutality and brutal lyricism, and you’ll hear Bartok, Stravinsky, Lutowslawski and Zimmerman, as well as bits of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubauten. Sounds brush, bump, groan, and grind against each other in ways that are, even many decades after their creation, gripping, contemporary, and theatrical.
Georg Katzer (from ensemble unitedberlin program)
That theatricality is readily apparent in “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), premiered in Leipzig in 1975. A smart work that embraces various meta aspects of music-making, Szene was, at its inception, a meditation (and, it must be said, a sarcastic commentary) on the bureaucratic nature of the GDR and its uneasy relationship to cultural life and artistic expression. The work, first performed in 1994, was presented by German chamber group ensemble unitedberlin last month at the Konzerthaus Berlin for their 30th anniversary concert. As the program notes state, the piece is “one of the representatives of “Scenic Chamber Music” or “Instrumental Theatre,” in which performative aspects of music production and linguistic elements came to the fore.”
I’ve written about ensemble unitedberlin in the past (specifically in relation to composer Claude Vivier), and this concert was special in terms of its being a symbol of remembrance as well as anticipation; never did the word “present” feel so apt. Katzer has taken lines from Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe and placed them directly within the piece. Delivered by the conductor to the audience, the lines relate specifically to the nature of new composition, and concern a new piece written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn. As recorded by Eckermann:
Conversation from Sunday evening, January 14 1827:
I found a musical evening entertainment with Goethe, which was granted to him by the Eberwein family together with some members of the orchestra. Among the few listeners were: General Superintendent Röhr, Hofrat Vogel and some ladies. Goethe had wished to hear the quartet of a famous young composer, which was first performed. The twelve-year-old Karl Eberwein played the grand piano to Goethe’s great satisfaction, and indeed excellently, so that the quartet passed in every respect well executed.
“It is strange,” said Goethe, “where the most highly enhanced technique and mechanics lead the newest composers; their works are no longer music, they go beyond the level of human feelings, and one can no longer infer such things from one’s own mind and heart. How do you feel? It all sticks in my ears.” I said that I am not better in this case. “But the Allegro,” Goethe continued, “had character. This eternal whirling and turning showed me the witch dances of the Blockberg, and I found a view, which I could suppose to the strange music.”
It’s interesting to note that Mendelssohn and Goethe enjoyed a great friendship thereafter.
Katzer noted in the program notes for a 2016 presentation with the Dresden Sinfonietta that his inclusion of Goethe within “Szene” should “not be interpreted as malice towards the genius. Lack of understanding of new music is a widespread phenomenon and, as we see, not a new one.” His essential point is clear, driven home by the work’s closing scene: the musicians gathered around a spinning top, silently observing. Our perception of change and its inevitable nature is coloured by a near-unconscious wiring of a past we don’t want to remember, yet cannot forget, much less look away from.
Katzer passed away earlier this year — on May 7th, to be precise, which is the date Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made its world premiere, in 1824. The two composers shared a program last December thanks to the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, when Katzer’s “discorso” for orchestra was given its world premiere just prior to the orchestra’s annual New Year’s presentation ofBeethoven’s famous symphony. I thought about this strange confluence experiencing “Szene”, and of Beethoven’s reported meeting with the very man Katzer quotes. The composer created incidental music for Goethe’s 1788 drama Egmont, as well as lieder incorporating his texts. The two came from utterly different worlds — Goethe being Privy Counsellor at the Weimar court, Beethoven, decidedly revolutionary — but despite such vastly different experiences and worldviews, the composer was effusive in his praise of the writer, and Goethe may have enjoyed the new sounds Beethoven created, however much he would complain about his sticky ears to Eckermann just four years later. According to an account in Romain Rolland’s famous bookGoethe and Beethoven (1931):
On October 27th (1823) a Beethoven trio was played at Goethe’s house. On November 4th, in the great concert given at the Stadthaus in honour of Szymanowska, Beethoven figures twice on the program. The concert opened with the Fourth Symphony in B Flat, and after the interval his quintet, op. 16 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, was played. Thus Beethoven had the lion’s share, and without mentioning his name, Goethe confessed to Knebel that he was again “completely carried away by the whirlwind of sounds (da bin ich nun wieder in den Strudel der Tone hineingerissen).” Thus there had been opened to him a new world, the world of modern music which he had hitherto refused to accept — “durch Vermittelung eines Wesens, das Geniisse, die man immer ahndet und immer entbehrt, zu verwirklichen geschaffen ist (through the medium of one who has the gift of endowing with life those delights which we resent and of which we deprive ourselves).”
Classical music lovers tend to enjoy —nay, expect —the so-called canon to never change, let alone the ways it’s presented (something Washington Post classical writer Anne Midgette addresses in a recent piece). However, contemporary composers have mostly embraced change and risk, frequently at the cost of widespread popularity and acceptance; they, and the artists who perform and program them, stand at the vanguard of creative evolution, come hell or highwater, fully present of time, place, space, and relationships. The ensemble unitedberlin was formed at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989; like many German cultural institutions, it’s using 2019 to mark the changes wrought over three decades — how past merges with present, in sculpting possibilities for the future. As the program states, the group’s aim has been to explore “areas of tension, between the past and the future,” presenting works that incorporate and inspire a “joy of musical discovery.” Experiencing many works live that I’d not been given an opportunity to hear live before was not only a discovery, but a revelation; it’s been akin to squeezing out a tube of a color never seen before and then experimenting with its application on different surfaces. There are certain works I’m happy to take a (lengthy) break from, but contemporary works I heartily want to explore; I have ensemble unitedberlin, in part, to thank for stoking that long-suppressed curiosity.
Hans Jürgen Wenzel is one of those composers whose work I hope to know better. Along with “Szene”, his intriguing “Eröffnungsmusik” (opening music, 1978) was performed as part of their birthday celebrations; the program charmingly describes the composer (who passed away in 2009) as the “the initiator of the formation of the ensemble.” Wenzel was dedicated to introducing young people to contemporary music, and many of his students went on to become composers in their own right. It was a perfect opening to the evening, and enjoyed a perfect follow-up: the world premiere of young composer Stefan Beyer’s “зaukalt und windig” (cold and windy). Katzer’s “Szene” was followed by Vinko Globokar’s “Les Soliloques décortiqués”, premiered in 2016 by Ensemble Musikfabrik. The France-born Globokar, whose creative process involves writing music based around stories he’s written first, told The Globe & Mail in 2011:
“I was part of a group of friends, an avant-garde that was based on risk. The idea, collectively, was to find something new. But even if you didn’t find this end result, it was still okay, because you were exploring ideas. That kind of collective thinking we did has disappeared.”
Based on cultural experiences over the past few years, I’m not so sure that spirit has entirely disappeared — it’s just become more of an effort to find and subsequently commit to. It was a decidedly stirring experience, to observe Katzer’s widow interacting with Globokar (elegant in a suit), the young Beyer, and ensemble co-founder Andreas Brautigam casually interacting post-concert — generations of past and present, all moving into the future, in their own ways and methods. Here’s to the unbound joys of new discoveries, sonic and otherwise; may we never deprive ourselves of them, but welcome them, with open arms, clear ears, and brave hearts.
Sometimes the best moments happen when art overrides intellect — or at least, whispers in its ear to simply shut up and enjoy.
That isn’t to say Johannes Moser and the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), under the baton of Thomas Søndergård, haven’t made a deeply intellectual album. Released on Pentatone last autumn, the work feature two giants of twentieth-century cello repertoire, Lutoslawski’s celebrated cello concerto and Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… (“A whole distant world”). Both works were premiered (at different events) in 1970 by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Amidst numerous performances and recordings in the intervening years, there’s something about the Moser/Søndergård/RSB release that completely caught me when I first heard it in Zurich last autumn — there is a shimmering, colorful, and occasionally quite sensuous interplay between orchestra and soloist, qualities which nicely integrate contrasting textures to produce a deeply rewarding listening experience.
To paraphraseGramophone writer Michael McManus, Witold Lutoslawski’s work was written during his “most avant-garde period” yet simultaneously does not fully belong to it. Taut yet oddly sensuous, the work (which runs roughly twenty-four minutes), with its large orchestration and episodic yet unbroken structure, alternates between the confrontational and conversational, a battle of sorts unfolding between individual (soloist) and state (orchestra). Many have seen this as a strong symbol of the Polish composer’s own highly political history and relationship with authority; his father and uncle were executed in the wake of the Russian revolution, and his brother died in a Siberian labor camp. The composer, who went on to be awarded the UNESCO prize (1959, 1968), himself escaped capture by German soldiers in the Second World War, and later found his work shunned by Soviet authorities for his strong opposition to the artistic ideas connected to Socialist realism. There are battles brewing in this work — between soloist and orchestra, individual and group, energy and dark matter — but they are brightly, fiercely characterized by alternating flashes of aggression, antagonism, acceptance, and the blackest sort of humour.
Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… is dark as well, but in an entirely different way. Based on Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, Dutilleux wrote the piece between 1967 and 1970, and it’s a symbol of the fierce individualism that characterizes much of his hypnotizing sound world. It was with the outbreak of the Second World War, when a residency in Rome abruptly ended, that the composer began to question his place within the wider tradition of French composition; his influences until then had included Ravel and Fauré. Immersion in the music of the Second Viennese School meant creative liberation from rigid French conservatory training, one that never mentioned serialism (much less German composers) — but that isn’t to say Dutilleux was imitative; rather the contrary, in that he set about carving a uniquely singular path for his work, one that still cannot be easily categorized. His cello work reflects the composer’s fastidious approach but also symbolizes his mystical fascinations. In its rich textural orchestrations and lush passages, the cello sings, spins, twists, and turns with and around other instruments, large and small. He told BBC 3 Radio presenter Rob Cowan that Tout un monde lointain… was a favourite among of all his compositions.
Johannes Moser and the RSB capture this intertwining with warmth and vitality, the German-Canadian cellist giving riveting and idiosyncratic readings of each work. His Lutoslawski gleams with moody energy, his tone moving between acid, anxious, angry in his spindly orchestral interactions. Søndergård keeps the prickly texture in check with prancing strings and smartly blanketing brass. The ratcheting tension of the second movement (“Four Episodes”) slides skilfully between a skittish restlessness to a solemn eeriness, with Søndergård keeping watchful control over ominously droning woodwinds as Moser’s cello rises like a call from the wild. Vivid images are presented in the third movement (“Cantilena”), with Moser’s performance conjuring the wild despair of Munsch and his famous, silent scream, Schiele’s spindly, twisting bodies, and Malevitch’s stark shapes, moving in precise, angry formations. This painterly approach is continued with poetic acuity in his reading of Dutilleux’s cello concerto, sumptuously evoking Baudelaire’s dreamlike poetry through its five interconnected movements. The first movement “Enigme” is restless, breathy, the interplay between Moser’s plucked strings and the orchestra’s percussion and woodwind section playful and conversational, while “Houles” (“Surges”), the third movement, swells with strings, brass, and woodwinds, lusciously conjuring lines from the very sensuous poem on which it is based (and from which the entire work gets its title), while simultaneously providing an incredible showcase of Moser’s virtuosity.
A selection from “La Chevelure” (“Her Hair”), from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (Bantam Books, 1963, Wallace Fowlie, editor/translator). Photo: mine.
Currently the Artist In Focus with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester (he’s already performed Walton’s cello concerto with the orchestra this season), Moser has also enjoyed residencies with both the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra this season. Tonight he’s in Berlin, performing with the orchestra’s cellists at the historic (and decidedly non-traditional) Kühlhaus Berlin. At the end of this month, Moser leads a cello flashmob at the historic Templehof Field, with cellists of all levels invited to join in. This kind of casual engagement seems par for the course for Moser, an artist with a great taste for a variety of artistic expression and exploration.
Hailing from a musical family (his family includes singers and professional musicians), Moser has played with top orchestras including the Berliner Philharmoniker, the London Symphony Orchestra, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Tokyo NHK Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name just a few. He’s recorded works by Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Lalo, and has also recorded the cello/piano works of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev with pianist Andrej Korobeinikov (released on Pentatone in 2016). Known as much for his Dvořák (most recently performed with Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic, as well as the Toronto Symphony last year) as for his forays into the work of contemporary composers, Moser has also made education a cornerstone of his creative endeavors, and frequently leads masterclasses in various locales. His commitment to teaching seems inextricably linked to his art, and one comes away from his recordings feeling somehow smarter, less daunted, more inspired — an effect the best artists tend to have.
I wanted to chat with Moser about his teaching, as well as his approach to the instrument, and was keen to explore how he feels about mixing the old and new, working with living composers, and why a so-called “cello swarm” is a good thing for classical music. As you’ll see, Moser is warm, honest, very smart and very approachable — precisely what one experiences in his performances, in other words.
What do you think accounts for the cello’s enduring appeal? Those new to classical sometimes start their explorations of instruments with either piano or cello concertos.
I think it’s partly the charm of the instrument and its versatility. And we have had very colorful protagonists over the years; the superstar of course is Yo-yo Ma, who totally transcends the instrument, becoming an ambassador of music and culture, basically. He was so smart in his career to pair the classical repertoire together with the film music and do projects with artists like Bobby McFerrin in the 1990s, to make the instrument accessible, to make it an instrument for everybody. Of course in 20th century more broadly, Rostropovich and du Pré were the people that not only expanded the repertoire, but had moving stories to tell through their (respective) lives, ones which never detached from the cello. I think that helped the popularity of the cello immensely.
There’s also the fact it requires intense physicality to play, one which translates into a very visceral listening experience on the Lutoslawski & Dutilleux Cello Concertos album. How has the experience of those works changed the way you perceive other more so-called “mainstream” cello works?
Every piece of music that you play is giving information on the pieces you are about to play or that you’ve played for years; you get a different perspective. With the Lutoslawski, I‘d say it has taught me very much about the relationship of the cello with the orchestra in terms of not always being amicable partners, but also it is interesting there is drama on stage, that combative element. I think that’s something Lutoslawski, through the narrative of his concerto and through how he wrote for the instrument, mastered it like no one else.
For the Dutilleux, I think it is the closest that a cello concerto comes to very spatial music. Of course it has a structure, but music is also a timeless kind of sound, and if you allow this timelessness to happen on stage, it is quite an experience. Being onstage, your heartbeat is up, your adrenaline is going, your mind is racing 150 miles an hour — but to experience a moment of stillness, of true timelessness, within that rush, is an incomparable feeling. I think these concerti taught me a lot musically but taught me a lot about what it can mean to be onstage; they give you a completely different tool-set of expression, and that expansion of expression is not something you can learn or teach, but something you have to live and experience.
Some of that work involves teaching — what does it give you as an artist?
The thing is, I always thought touring was energy-consuming, but a day of teaching, my goodness, I’m done, I’m spent! You always have to bring awareness and awakeness and also creativity to the table, because every student is different and I don’t want to have a cookie-cutter approach and I don’t to give everybody the same thing. What it gives me artistically, that’s a fascinating question… because the thing that I felt, and I’m sure you feel the same, is that whenever I walk away from a day of teaching, I feel like I’ve learned so much just by addressing certain topics and certain issues.
And, I feel like by having a shared interest in the cello, I learn as much about music with my students, because we share a common ground; I see them as partners in a development and understanding of music, not necessarily me going into the lesson and having answers. I’m interested in exploring together. Of course, in a masterclass, you have to give a certain amount of information — you can’t just let the student explore and hope they find something meaningful — but I do find with my long-term students, which I have at the University Of Cologne, I can really go on a journey and find unexpected things.
Another thing I do with them that helps me a lot personally is connected to learning a new piece. Right now I’m learning the Enescu Symphonie Concertante, and I’ve given that to two students to learn as well. We learn it together! Obviously it’s great music but they’re also getting very much a hands-on approach on how to learn a new piece of music — I see them as equals and partners, rather than me going in there and spreading neutral wisdom, so to speak.
One of the things you emphasize in your teaching is the importance of breathing with the music. How much is that influenced by having singers in your family?
I think that’s where it really all comes from. And, I have to confess I am a terrible singer! My mother, for her 50th bday, asked if she could give me a five-minute lesson because I was refusing so much (to sing) — but we had to stop after three minutes. She was laughing so hard! It was not great — there goes my singing career, out the window!
But, I think the fundamental idea of music before music — of breathing in before you speak or breathing in before you play — is something that is often grossly overlooked. I learned from singers and also wind players when I’ve played with them; what I also take, especially from singers, is the connection of words and sound. We come back to the human voice and the art of expression, of exchanging information and emotion, and I think the best education you can get is listening to a lot of singers if you don’t have gold in your throat. It’s really the best. After an afternoon of listening to every from Pavarotti to Thomas Hampson to …
… Elisabeth Schwarzkopf!
Yes, exactly! You get the biggest variety of color mixed with the biggest variety in use of text. It’s a masterclass, and also a joy.
And you can apply it to your work, and also to people you work with. “Music before music” made me think of your work with Jonathan Leshnoff. What’s it like to work with a living composer? Does it change your approach?
Yes and no. I have a mixed feeling about this. First of all, because it came from their mind and their understanding, nobody can tell you better than composers about the bone structure of a piece, and it is often, especially with a melodic instrument like the cello, it is often too easy to play your part, rather than see the bigger picture of architecture.
The downside of working with living composers is that composers are not necessarily the best performers, and are not necessarily the people who understand the art of performance best. My earliest memory of that was when, in 2005 I did my debut with the Chicago Symphony with Boulez; we played the Bernard Rands cello concerto. Before first rehearsal, I worked extensively with Bernard on the piece and he made a lot of adjustment; he toned a lot of the sounds down, he changed a lot of the markings (like from mezzo-forte to piano), and I said, okay! I went onstage at rehearsal, and did exactly as instructed. Halfway through he came running up to the front of the stage and said, “Ignore everything I said! Please perform as you had envisioned this.” It just turned out that he didn’t factor in the hall, he didn’t factor in the orchestra, and he didn’t factor in cancellation of sound. For example, if I play in tandem with a clarinet, it will eat my overtones; the cello, by itself, may sound loud but as soon as you have other instruments in the mix, suddenly your sound can be gone just by the nature of physics. There’s something to be said for experienced performers and bringing that to the table.
Photo: Daniel Vass
But it is fascinating to me when you see composers play or conduct their own works — we have amazing works of Elgar conducting his own work, we have Shostakovich playing his own music, and Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff. When I talk to composers who also conduct, most of them say “We have to completely relearn our own pieces!” You would think if you give birth to a piece of music you know it inside out, but they have to relearn it as performers, so they themselves also have to make that connection. It’s a fascinating process for many reasons. I do enjoy working with composers a lot, but I also invite them to trust me as a performer, shall we say.
Part of that trust has also been on the part of audiences who’ve followed you through various sounds and styles; when I listen to your work, there are no lines between Dvořák and Dutilleux. How much do you see yourself as an ambassador for non-standard repertoire?
You need to work up a reputation, and then have people follow you in these adventures. The interesting thing is, once people are in the seats, they mainly love the new stuff, if it’s performed passionately; it’s something that tickles the ear and can bring a lot of unexpected joy. (However) when people see it in the season brochure or outside the hall — for instance, “the complete works of Anton Webern,” of course, that is not going to be a big magnet, because they’re scared, and because maybe they had a lot of bad or mediocre experiences with new music. I would say it’s the first time in history when new music has a crisis, because in the 1960s-1970s-1980s, composers chose to alienate people. I think that stems from our history — I think the post-war generation played a huge role: “After genocide and camps, how can you compose in C major?!” That was the thinking at the time…
Yes exactly, and that resonated a lot with the Darmstadt crowd and the people around Boulez, including Stockhausen, so it’s up to composers and performers to regain the trust. There are a lot of fascinating composers from North America and Scandinavia — I think there’s a lot of great music coming from Central Europe too, but those composers from Central Europe need to be aware they cannot completely detach themselves from the listeners, and that is something that I take into account when I chose a composer to work with; I want to know if they’ll be hammering the audience over the head, or taking into account it should be an emotional experience that might be, I wouldn’t say it has to be “enjoyable,” but it definitely something that is sort of touching and moving and grabs you. If you are neutral after an experience, then that’s the biggest failure you can have.
Ha, that’s so true! When planned this residency, since I’ve lived so long in Berlin, I thought it would be great to bring as many cellists together as possible, and the orchestra was game. With residencies it’s interesting, because not every kind of project will work in every city; I also just completed one in Glasgow, and it’s absolutely unthinkable to do outdoor events there because it rains so much. Also I don’t know the amateur scene there as well as I know it in Berlin, and I know there’s a huge crowd in Berlin of amateur cellists — the Berlin Phil, very early on, made a lot of cello ensemble concerts and that inspired a lot of people here — so the idea of getting together and playing in large cello ensembles is an idea not uncommon for a Berliner. I’m very excited we’re making this part of the residency.
A few of years back I did a similar thing in Frankfurt; we had a flashmob in front of the opera, and a lot of people showed up and we played together. Just by the reactions I got, I mean musically we can debate if it’s so satisfying, but the fact that music is such a factor in bringing people together and is such a social event, if it goes well… it’s something that I think, well, you can maybe attain that with sports events, but then of course you have the notion of two adversarial parties coming together and there may be alcohol, but a peaceful gathering of making music together is something I absolutely adore.
It’s interesting that the RSB are performing a work like “Les Espaces Acoustiques” by Gerard Grisey, and then eleven days later are holding a cello swarm featuring Bach and Casals and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” in the middle of a field; it seems like creative programming.
Photo: Daniel Vass
Cultural institutions need to be aware we are not just artistic institutions anymore, but also social institutions; we provide a forum for people to collectively enjoy music. Although there is a lot of debate if classical culture is antiquated or not, I still think one of the biggest miracles of humanity is that 2000 or 3000 people can sit together in silence and listen to sound — that is absolutely mind-blowing and incredible! If we understand this not only as a cultural but also a sociological phenomenon, and a sociological success story, then we cannot just stop at making music but also we need to be all-inclusive, and that’s where these community events come in. Hopefully we’ll have sunshine!
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Baritone Dominik Köninger has been busy since our last conversation. That isn’t surprising, considering he’s a member of the Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) ensemble, where he’s sung a variety of roles, from a myriad of eras —Baroque, classical, bel canto, operetta, modern — since starting there in 2012.
Any artist who’s experienced the ensemble system is aware of the need to balance wildly different material in very short amounts of time. Scheduling and repertoire means a careful adherence to vocal sensitivities and recuperative demands, to say nothing of the challenges that can be presented in working with a sometimes revolving set of artistic personnel. During my chat with Wilhelm Schwinghammer this past January, the German bass baritone spoke of his own time as a member of the Staatsoper Hamburg ensemble, estimating he performed over seventy roles during his decade-plus time there. Ensemble work can also be an incredibly important and useful experience in developing skills, getting to know repertoire (well) and cultivating specific and sometimes entirely unknown talents. One might enter into one with the belief of being suited to doing x type of repertoire, only to learn (through time, experience, and exposure) that in fact, y type of repertoire is probably a better match vocally (and that z repertoire, which had never before been even vaguely considered, is suddenly looking interesting too). Ensembles have their ups and downs, but for some, they give needed grounding, requisite exposure (to audiences, repertoire, directors, conductors, and potential future houses), oh-so-vital flexibility (vocally and otherwise), and a broadening of perspective — all of which are so important to a burgeoning career.
As Pelléas in the Komische Oper Berlin production of ‘Pelléas et Melisande’ in October 2017. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
And so Köninger has done much since we last spoke close to two years ago. As well as making a much-awaited role debut as Pelléas in a brilliant and bold, brilliant production of Pelléas et Melisande directed by KOB Intendant Barrie Kosky, he reprised his role as Silvius in the frothy Oscar Straus operetta Die PerlenderCleopatra (The Pearls of Cleopatra), appeared as Agamemnon in a colorful production of Offenbach’s Die schöne Helena (The Beautiful Helena), sang Papageno (something of a signature role) in the much-vaunted KOB/1927 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and gave a recital (one I found very moving) full of dark works by Mahler, Grieg, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. Along with more Silvius and Papageno performances this season, he’s also singing (/has sung) Maximilian in Bernstein’s Candide (with KOB), and Pantalone in Prokofiev’s Die Liebe zu drei Orangen (The Love for Three Oranges). A well-received recital of Schubert’s celebrated Winterreise closed out 2018. This spring Köninger will be on a mini-tour with RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, in a presentation of Bach’s St. John Passion. For those of you assuming you may have to travel to Europe to hear him live, fear not: Köninger is set to make his North American debut next spring with Opera de Montreal, as Papageno, in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which he lovingly refers to as “my baby,” a nod to his history with the presentation.
This coming Saturday sees another first for the baritone: he’ll be making his debut in the title role of Handel’s rarely-staged opera Poro, Re dell’Indie (Porus, King of India), called simply Poro here (Poros auf Deutsch), which made my Things To See 2019 list. The story revolves around Alexander the Great’s time in India, and the love triangle which arises between him, King Porus, and Cleofide (aka Cleophis), Queen of a neighbouring realm. Handel’s opera is based Alessandro nell’Indie by celebrated Italian poet and librettist Metastasio, a work that inspired more than sixty other operas throughout the 18th century. The Komische Oper Berlin production opening this coming Saturday (March 16th) is led by conductor and early music specialist Jörg Halubek, but is may not strictly Baroque in that frilly-cuffed, big-wigged way; its celebrated director, Harry Kupfer (who was trained by KOB founder Walter Felsenstein), has, as you will read, made a few updates. The leap from Pelléas to Poros for Köninger isn’t as wide as you may think; his intense focus comes from a place of commitment and utter humility. So no matter the variety of plant, the ground beneath it is rich and sure, and is being continually cultivated with the utmost care and consideration; you can hear it in his voice with every performance, at the Komische and not. Köninger, quite simply, is one to watch.
The role of Poro was originally written for the famed castrato Senesino and is usually cast with a counter-tenor; in this production, it’s a baritone (you!) — what’s that like?
The whole thing is a bit of an adaption. It is Kupfer’s wish to have baritone in the lead role. In the 1950s, he was an assistant director in Halle, which was then East Germany, and they did this opera, but in German, with a baritone in the lead role — that was his intention. So putting it on now, it’s kind of the circle closes. He wanted the opera to be in German now as well, so we got a German translation — it’s more like an adaptation than a translation. Our production is set in British colonial India, a very specific and political time and context.
So Mayamaha in this production was originally Cleofide?
Yes! These are Indian names in the production: Gandaharta (Philipp Meierhöfer), Mahamaya (Ruzan Mantashyan), Poro’s sister Nimbavati (Idunnu Münch). That’s what Kupfer intended. Also, the role of Alexander, which was originally a tenor, is now a counter-tenor (Eric Jurenas). It’s all been adapted, but it all makes sense.
As Poro in Komische Oper Berlin’s ‘Poro’ (Photo: Monika Rittershaus), opening on March 16th, 2019.
What’s it like to sing? Poro seems quite different to Handel’s other operas musically.
This opera is not so full of the fast coloratura arias and the demands of being perfect stylistically, but the challenge this time is that it brings much more out emotionally. Handel wrote these arias in a different way; he didn’t write them with fireworks, although there are some like that (like with the counter-tenor). Kupfer is keen on having us not doing too much when musical things change, but to have it more clear, more simple. It’s like, he doesn’t like a singer to show off. He wants real feelings, and to hear not what they can do with their voice, but to bring out the emotional colors of the voice, with the text and body, and the heart.
Is this your first time working with Harry Kupfer?
No, actually not, we did a production of The Merry Widow in Hamburg years ago. I was just starting out then, and it’s different now. I’m much more experienced. The match is really nice. We had a good long rehearsal period and Kupfer was really detailed and really precise with what he wanted. First he broke down — and that’s what I like about his detailed approach — he broke down every recitative to its core, at the very beginning of rehearsals. If you would’ve heard this, you would’ve thought, “How will this all work?!” All the recits were so long and there were so many pauses, and it went so slow, because he wanted us to have the thoughts first and then sing the lines, or use the pauses while showing that we are thinking about something else and we go in a different direction, so it would make sense. That’s what I really liked about this project; this is a totally different style of theatre, and very different if you compare it to Candide or Cleopatra, but this is the fun part for me, doing various things.
Photo: Jan Windszus Photography
Like St. John Passion…
Yes, of course. It’s a small tour: one day in Italy, then Munich, then the third day we’re in Berlin. I’m only singing Jesus, so for me it’s just a few recits, but it’s a good way to connect back with the RIAS Kammerchor and with the Akademie für Alte Musik. My schedule is a mixture of heaven and hell, black and white, yin and yang.
Is that good for you as a singer?
Yes, it keeps me really flexible, and I like that. Working on the Handel, I think I have six or seven arias in total but two are quite fast, so it’s really nice. Keeps me flexible — in the head, in the voice.
What repertoire would you still like to do?
If you talk about the next five years, it’s just the usual suspects like Giovanni or Marcello, but if we talk ten or fifteen years, there’s Onegin to discover, maybe there’s a little bit of Wagner, but I’m not sure about it because I have to see how the voice develops. The French stuff has of course a lot to discover — like Hamlet from Thomas, which would be great, but houses rarely do this sort of repertoire.
And there’s the Lieder works as well.
Of course yes, there are plans for making a CD, but you need time and preparation so I’m not sure when that will happen, but we’ll see. It is a difficult business; you’re always touring around, you have so many appointments and there isn’t always time to give everything to this one concert. There is a lot of responsibility every time you do a recital. People come to hear you and you need to be prepared, and learn the music by heart — that’s the very basic work, yes? Then you have to dive deeper into this new world, and it’s a responsibility, every time. And sometimes it’s hard to fulfill. It’s why I’m careful; I still have my opera engagements and my contract here in Berlin. Having recitals scheduled between, for instance, a Candide here and a Poros there and few days later a Pelléas… you know, it has to be well-chosen. Mentally, strength-wise, everything; it’s hard. I’ve been constantly working now since September — I just went from one thing to another. But I’ve really enjoyed focusing only on the Handel for the last six weeks. Once this is done I’ll prepare for my next recitals. When it gets calmer, it gets easier to let everything sink in.
What’s been the most surprising thing so far?
This Handel opera is much easier than the past ones I’ve done! I did Giulio Cesarein Egittoa few years ago; it had much more in terms of coloratura and furioso arias. I was younger. You grow with every challenge and every single thing you have to deal with. Maybe if I hadn’t had that experience four years ago, Poros would be that sort of thing now, and I would be a little bit struggling and lost and more fighting — but this time, it’s good, I’m super-relaxed, even though we open soon. When I’m relaxed I’m more on top of my game than when I’m closing in on myself and wanting something. If you really want something specific, it’s the wrong approach. That’s the surprising thing I discovered doing this. And of course the relaxed and productive way of working with Kupfer and Halubek, and Ruzan and Eric — it’s been a really nice, really positive experience.
This is the question I kept asking myself through Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of Wozzeck at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Having been frequently presented in Berlin over the past few years, this presentation is, admittedly, up against some stiff competition, but not having seen any of those stagings myself, I was going in fresh, curious if I might finally experience a production I liked. Alas.
Keeping in mind what I’d written about Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and how Regie can and frequently does divide opinion, Wozzeck is one of those works that is divisive by its very nature. It invites abstract production because of its entirely abstract nature — the work itself, through its score and story and frequent use of Sprechgesang, resists the idea of tradition, purposely poking, prodding, and sometimes happily eviscerating the entire concept. Creative choices can sometimes thrive in and around such works, and yet, I have yet to see a live performance of Wozzeck that completely satisfies; alas, last evening’s experience at Deutsche Oper Berlin did nothing in altering this stymied state of music affairs.
Berg’s opera is based on the play Woyzeck, and though it was left incomplete by author Georg Büchner (who died in 1837), it remains a highly influential work, particularly within the German theatre world. So too Berg’s Wozzeck within a classical music corollary;even now, a century after its composition, the work remains revolutionary for its whole-hearted embrace of atonality. Solidly resisting all the predictable sounds and techniques which had dominated Western classical music (along with standard operatic forms) up to that point, the opera, written between 1914 and 1922 and premiered in Berlin, went on to enjoy immense success across Europe before it was labelled “degenerate art” by the Nazis in 1933. It is, as Britannica tidily puts it, “a dark story of madness and murder,” its titular character a soldier stationed in a town near to a military barracks in the early 19th century; an unfaithful wife, an illegitimate child, medical experiments, and murder are all part of the narrative which unfolds over 15 scenes, spread across three acts. It is, in a word, haunting; within Wozzeck‘s score can be heard the oncoming horror of the First World War, the breaking point of the social divides within late 19th century/early 20th century Europe, the desperation of people in an unforgiving place — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually. It is a deeply affecting portrait of alienation, a trait various productions have attempted to underline, amplify, and explore, with varying results, since its first production in 1925.
Tandberg places the action in the early/mid 20th century, in, as the program notes, the interior of a coffee house near the Oslo Royal Castle, on or around National Day in Norway, May 17th. The work opens with Wozzeck (Johan Reuter) and the Captain (Burkhard Ulrich) debating morality, though viewers will clearly note the line of soldiers with their pants down as Wozzeck tends to (ostensibly shaves) them; he later bends over for an examination himself. The carefully sterile set design, by Erlend Birkeland, reveals a precise geometry of repression, with square school-style tables in a canteen-like space framed by more boxes: a long bar, imposing doors and windows, where things are seen but remotely revealed, not even when soldiers can be seen frolicking and stripping naked. The scientific specimens the Doktor (Seth Carico) looks at through his microscope are projected via a tidy white circle upstage, which later drips with color, a display of fragility and cruelty at once. These are striking images, to be sure, but feel oddly distant to the work and its concerns. Those twin concepts — fragility and cruelty — and the way they interact, are vital to knowing and appreciating the life (inner and outer) of the central character, yet they are never explored. Wozzeck and the other characters are so smartly attired, it’s as if the subtext of destitution (so closely connected to that fragile-cruel dance) doesn’t exist at all. Surreal free-flows of ideas are fine, but the ones here have been placed not in service of the drama, but before it, which short-changes both the characters and our sense of them.
This emphasis is most clearly expressed in the use of video. Tandberg, who previously directed Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Bizet’s Carmen at the Deutsche Oper, presents each of the fifteen scenes that make up Wozzeck as pseudo-vignettes, tenuously (and tediously) divided by the closing and reopening of a black curtain, onto which is projected an immense, black-and-white close-up video of the face of its title character, blinking and silent. Rather than being an insightful and excitingly confrontational choice in tandem with the nature of the writing itself (since the work is, in fact, composed entirely of just such a series of vignettes), the technique becomes a frustrating and emotionally distancing distraction that kills the much-needed empathy for its titular character. The aesthetic of Tandberg’s Regie-heavy approach to Berg’s sensitive, sweeping score creates a paralyzing disconnect between score, story, character, and experience, destroying any hope for an integrated and satisfying theatrical experience.
It doesn’t help that musically this Wozzeck seemed over-dynamic and yet frustratingly gutless. Musical motifs for the Doktor, Captain, Drum Major (Thomas Blondelle), and Marie (Elena Zhidkova), while prominent, were not clear in delineating characterizations within Deutsche Oper General Music Director Donald Runnicles’s grey reading, which had an unfortunate and consistent tendency toward limpid tempos and lack of coloration. Wozzeck’s insistent motifs were jaggedly unfocused and suffered further by being diffused against a muffled orchestral acoustic. Any sense of vocal nuance baritone Reuter might have brought to form a more satisfying and complete characterization was washed out by the sheer volume coming from the pit, though baritone Carico, as a demented Doktor, and Zhidkova, with her plummy mezzo tones, fared better. The firmly Regie tone of the production, while brave, added little if any value to the experience of the themes of Berg’s opera. Alas, all was also washed out to sea, drowning in more than the blood that flowed, mercilessly, in the final scene.
Sarah Grether (Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Inner questions ran rampant during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) at Staatsoper Berlin this past Sunday. There was only one gazelle depicted onstage, but a veritable herd presented themselves with every moment, each one leaping with questions: what do the unborn children represent? Why do they matter? Should they symbolize something else, and if so, what?
These are the questions at the heart of this opera, and in German director Claus Guth’s production, the questions became meditations. Strauss’s 1919 opera, with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a symbolic tale of two worlds haunted by absence – namely of that ultimate symbol of family, children, but also, it must be noted, of mothers; the “woman” of the title, the ethereal Empress (whose mother is entirely absent), seeks her “shadow” (symbolizing children) in the world of humans, specifically via a Dyer, Barak, and his Wife, otherwise her husband (The Emperor) will be turned to stone. Guth stages the piece as the dream of The Empress, a vision that awakens into the consciousness of a need for her own inner revolution —and evolution. In many ways the production is an operatic Rorschach test of sorts (with ink blots in the program too), tied to themes of culture, family, experience, lived circumstance and accumulated moments. What do we carry from our families into our adult lives? How do we reconcile being the “shadow” of another, and casting our own? What responsibility do we bear to one another, and, just as importantly, to ourselves and the expression of our needs?
Iréne Theorin (Barak’s wife), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Wolfgang Koch (Barak). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
A co-production with Teatro Alla Scala di Milano (where it was presented in 2012) and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (staged in 2014), the award-winning presentation, first presented in Berlin in April 2017, features fantastical elements and beautiful, Expressionist-style designs by Christian Schmidt. Instead of merely presenting pretty pictures, Guth wisely uses the assorted imagery to underline Frau‘s thematic resonance, allowing one to more clearly recognize and accept human fallibility, especially within the delicate arena of relationship. The dynamics inherent those relationships is squarely the focus, with very little romanticizing despite Strauss’s rich score; it is a world fraught with miscommunication, dysfunction, and deeply repressed fury. The length of the work (roughly four hours, with two intermissions), combined with a very intense musicality and highly allegorical narrative, means it can be a somewhat daunting work for newcomers, but the rewards, musically and otherwise, are immense. My premiere experience seeing Die Frau ohne Schatten live at the Met in 2013 marked a major turning point — creatively, emotionally, spiritually. It started what, in retrospect, I might term my own inner revolution (and evolution), still unfolding in leaps and bounds, and will always occupy a deeply personal place where art and life meet, though five years on, I still find myself swimming in the oceans of questions it inspires.
The role of offspring, the meaning of a missing “shadow,” the length and intensity of questing for one, and, as ever, the role family plays in that quest — these questions are all very much underlined in Guth’s smart and surprisingly resonant production. I write “surprisingly” because, while I enjoy much of the so-called “Regie” style of direction, it doesn’t always move me emotionally, though I recognize emotions don’t always have to come into play in order to have a good night at the opera. His production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Salzburg in 2006) had some interesting ideas to be sure, but left me cold, something I felt strange about considering the warmth of Mozart’s score. Barrie Kosky’s very unique take on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (premiered at Bayreuth last year) was hailed by many for its inventiveness, yet others vowed after seeing it that they would never again return to the annual Wagner festival. So while some deeply love Regie and think it is vital in moving opera forwards, others are convinced it is destroying the sense of wonder and fantasy that is part and parcel of opera.
Paul Lorenger (Black Gazelle/Keikobad) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Die Frau ohne Schatten as realized here challenges the latter view entirely; it is very full of wonder, very much inspired by fairytales, and very beautiful to look at. But as I wrote earlier, that opulence is not for its own hollow sake; it isn’t simply pleasing costumes and sets. The design here serves a wider purpose, and in the world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, it is to underline the deep divides between the archetypal figures of men and women, and the healing, regenerative power of love, a love that may or may not manifest itself (in the form of physical offspring) but is experienced within one’s self, and through another second, separate self. Recognizing and accepting the division of a second self, and working toward unity (and it is work, as the opera emphasizes) is a worthy endeavor, though it comes with great risk. Our hearts might freeze in the process (or turn to stone); we might use these roads of discovery for nefarious and selfish ends; we may never be entirely free of the shaping our parents gave us. As Guth notes in the program, Keikobad (the Empress’s father) “clings to his only child — through a prison of determination — and the child does not manage to look behind the mask of power or tear it down to recognize her own emotions.”
Sarah Grether (White Gazelle), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Michaela Schuster (The Nurse). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Equally, the role of the Nurse here is given extra prominence, opening up experiences, to paraphrase Guth’s notes, which the Empress could never reach alone, and “in this way, the nurse gives her her shadow. (She) is a catalyst, a primal form of dynamic energy, beyond all moral standards.” Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s vivacious performance as The Nurse was a highly charismatic portrait of ever-tightening control; while the character is certainly fascinating (and is, in my view, given rather the short end of the stick in the end), her portrayal here doesn’t attempt to gloss over the questionable power dynamics between her and the opera’s other two principle female players. Guth frequently places her standing over, above, or at the edges of a scene, arms folded, chin up, hovering, a silent dance of control and manipulation; not for nothing does she sport black wings to match the coterie of similarly-winged, top-hat-wearing gents who wield power in mysterious if highly felt ways.
Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (The Emperor). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Schuster’s Nurse, Camilla Nylund’s Empress, and Elena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife, created a powerful holy trinity that was implied via creative direction and design choices, noticeably through the contrasting use of textures: rock, glass, wood; bone, fur, skin. There are many seen and unseen forces within the realm of human relating, as Guth points out, and many of them involve an experience of the sensual which is central to an experiencing the spiritual (and vice-versa). The two here go hand-in-hand, as they should, something clearly reflected in Strauss’s luscious score, with luxurious writing for strings, percussion, and what I call low-b(l)ow sounds (basses, horns). Baritone Michael Volle, as Barak, and tenor Simon O’Neill, as the Emperor, both represent flip sides of a similar spirit (and a similar physicality certainly helps drive this point home), an archetypal male presence torn in two, silent yet mute, inert yet active. Again, Guth’s staging emphasized the multifaceted layers of intimate relations, and the quest to find, form, and notably evolve an identity within a traditional framework that frequently demands the subsuming of individual needs. The curved set housing Barak and his Wife in separate pseudo-cells at one point was a simple, powerful image, deeply symbolic and highly memorable, like so many of the moments in this multilayered production. Toward the end of the opera, the Empress proclaims that “the love is in me, and it is enough,” before being surrounded by tiny gazelles, symbols of her own self as realized in the way in which she and her husband first met: she was the delicate creature he hunted, but who became trapped himself in a web of spindly uxoriousness, a web whose holes grew bigger with the absence of a perceived symbol of love (perhaps the ultimate symbol), children.
Guth’s placing the opera within the realm of dreams (and thus the subconscious) forces one to consider not only not only the holes in own lives but the shadows that occupy them. Might we turn to stone without recognizing, nay, embracing them? The questions are in us, as Guth reminds in this production, and they are enough.