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Vasily Petrenko: “You Have To Be Very Brave”

vasily petrenko conductor

Photo: Svetlana Tarlova

“Life is full — I’m not complaining!”

Vasily Petrenko was between sessions when we spoke recently, juggling recording all the Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Boris Giltburg (for future release on Naxos Records), with new season announcements, an upcoming London performance, and recent news of his Met Opera debut this autumn.

The chatty Saint Petersburg native is indeed busy. He has many titles: Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Chief Conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra; Principal Guest Conductor of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia. In 2020 he steps down as music director of the Oslo orchestra (a position to which he was appointed in 2013-14); a year later, he leaves his position with Liverpool as well, though his long-standing relationship with the RLPO (he will have been with then fifteen years by then) will continue with Petrenko becoming Conductor Laureate. All of this movement is very much done with purpose: at the start of the 2021-2022 season, Petrenko becomes Music Director of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He’s set to lead his first concert with them since the announcement was made of his appointment last July; a highly-anticipated program featuring the music of Brahms and Strauss unfolds next month at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

With numerous accolades, awards, and a sizeable array of acclaimed recordings and appearances, Petrenko is, and has been, a man on the move since his early days in Russia, studying at the St Petersburg Conservatoire and participating in masterclasses with conductors Mariss Jansons and Yuri Temirkanov. The winner of numerous international conducting competitions (including First Prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition in 1997), Petrenko received the prestigious Young Artist of the Year Award from Gramophone in 2007; a full decade later he was awarded their Artist of the Year (voted on by the public). He won the Male Artist of the Year at the Classical Brit Awards in 2010, and has appeared with a range of prestigious orchestras (including the Gewandhaus Leipzig, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, NHK Symphony Tokyo, to name just a few), and festivals, including the BBC Proms, Edinburgh, Aspen, and Ravinia. Tomorrow and Sunday evenings (May 16 / 19), he leads his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) in a series of concerts with cellist Alban Gerhardt featuring Russian repertoire (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Kabalevsky), before jetting off to Norway for concerts with soprano Veronique Gens and the Oslo Philharmonic featuring the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, and Respighi.

vasily petrenko conductor

Photo: Svetlana Tarlova

Lest you think Petrenko’s output is limited to symphonic work, think again. He has over thirty operas in his repertoire; in 2010, he appeared at both Glyndebourne (Verdi’s Macbeth) and Opéra National de Paris (Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), but more recently conducted staged productions of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Bayerische Staatsoper (2016) and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Opernhaus Zürich (2016-17). Concert performances have also been plentiful — of Verdi’s Falstaff with the RLPO (in conjunction with the European Opera Centre) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel (with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; both 2017). In November, Petrenko will make his Metropolitan opera debut conducting Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, with a stellar cast which includes soprano (and 2015 Operalia winner) Lise Davidsen, with whom Petrenko has previously worked.

The maestro’s warmth and dynamism are palpable whether onstage, in recordings, or indeed, in conversation. His reading of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018 glowed with bold strings and ripe, round phrasing that warmly captured the work’s dancelike underpinnings; likewise his appearance last October at Cadogan Hall with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (“Evgeny Svetlanov”), where he led energetic if densely-woven performances of works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the latter’s Symphony No. 2 being, as Bachtrack’s Mark Pullinger rightly notes, “as brooding, as melancholic, as passionate an account as you’d wish to hear.” Elgar’s Chanson de matin was the encore that evening, which was perfectly fitting, considering Petrenko’s recordings of the English composer with the RLPO (in 2015, 2017, and 2019; Onyx) are genuinely excellent. Petrenko’s reading of Elgar works gave me a whole new insight into a sound world I had always felt closed off from; there was something about the composer’s output that always seemed cold, distant, impenetrable. How wrong I was, and how deeply grateful I am for Petrenko’s readings; they brim a lively, warm energy, a keen forward momentum, effervescent textures and poetic nuance, underlining the joy, drama and humanity so central to Elgar’s canon.

vasily petrenko elgar onyx rlpo

Photo: Onyx

Released in March of this year, Petrenko and the RLPO’s recording of the Serenade For String Orchestra, Op. 20 (together with the famous Enigma Variations) boasts gorgeous modulations, with an intriguing emphasis on the lyricism of the sparky cello and bass lines in the first movement (Allegro piacevole); the interplays and contrasts with a silken violin section that swells with operatic grandeur in the piece’s Larghetto, delicately swirling and swooping around a songlike cello section. It’s all so conversational and engaging, so dynamic and thoughtful, so casual and  smart, all at once… rather like the conductor himself.

Between recording Beethoven Concertos, Petrenko recently offered a waterfall of insights on everything from the new seasons in both Oslo and Liverpool and the importance of new works within orchestral programming, to growing up in Saint Petersburg and thoughts on his Met debut later this year.

The 2019-2020 seasons for both the Oslo Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic certainly offer a lot to chew on.

We do have a lot — in Oslo it’s the orchestra’s centenary year, so we have a lot of projects related to the anniversary, including outdoor concerts for 20,000 people and tours to mainland Europe and other places. We also have concerts which reflect the past, so there will be one exactly mirroring the orchestra’s first concert – we’ll perform what was performed in 1919. And there’s plenty there with Liverpool too, like with the Mahler cycle starting from January 2020. So that’s a lot of symphonies!

Oslo Philharmonic CEO Ingrid Røynesdal said the the centenary season had been built around the theme of “Yesterday / Today / Tomorrow” and will feature fifteen new commissions; what role do you see new works playing within future programming?

I think for audiences it’s a matter of trust for conductor and orchestra, that even if the public does not know the name of the composer on the poster, they are still coming because they trust it’ll be great music. Here in Liverpool when I started to perform Hindemith for the very first time, people didn’t know the composer and didn’t turn out. Some asked, “Who or what is a Hindemith — is it a skin disease?” Later I was insisting he be performed — I really admire his works, and think he deserves much wider recognition. It isn’t contemporary music but it’s music of the 20th century. And later the audiences started to pack the house, even for contemporary works, including his pieces. We did a few different things — chamber works, choral works. It’s a matter of trust. I tried to put other names back on the map, and did so, quite successfully.

vasily petrenko conductor

Photo: Mark McNulty

It is, for a conductor and an orchestra, a duty; it’s a must. I feel really obliged to perform as much contemporary music as I can, especially contemporary music of the local place where the orchestra is based, so in Liverpool English composers, and in Oslo, regional composers of Scandinavia; if we won’t give them a chance, who will? If the piece is not performed, nobody knows if it’s good or bad, it stays virtual — but time and the public will tell which will be a masterpiece, which will be neglected or forgotten. I think the vox populi will decide over the years which pieces of music become masterpieces, but to give them a chance to decide, we have to perform them, so I’m always up to do new commissions and also to perform a piece a second or third time. Contemporary music is so often performed once and under-rehearsed at that — and then of course it’s not given a second chance, a second look; it can just go to the trash bin, which is not what it deserves. So for me I’m trying to find a way where you’re not performing a new piece for 200 people who think they’re gurus of contemporary music, but for a full house. To program that you have to be very careful; it’s just one item of programming which will also include a famous work, so the main and general public will come and then they can discover something new and be moved.

This is not even in the very contemporary vein, but this past January I did Sibelius Four, which is one of the less performed symphonies by him. It’s very dark and very profound and much more difficult to absorb rather than the First, the Second, or the Fifth; it was the main piece, and we were expecting that it would not be full, but a lot of people came, and they said it was the best concert of the season! So you have to be very brave, and believe in contemporary music, and in yourself, and do it as much as you can.

That echoes something Johannes Moser said to me recently, that very often the public’s exposure to contemporary works is linked to a mediocre performance, so they assume that’s how all of it sounds.

If you look into the history of many pieces which are now considered as masterpieces, their first (presentations) were not big successes. It’s only after the second or third run, when the orchestra is more familiar with a new piece, and it feels more musical and less technical for them, that they can they recognize it as good. I should confess to the marketing department that I’d like to perform a contemporary piece twice in same concert: once at the beginning; then whatever music in the middle; then again at the very end. That may give quite a different perspective for the public. It’s challenging because of the general strategy but maybe that’s how you can program (contemporary music) better than how it is done now.

cadogan hall

Cadogan Hall. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That brings to mind something you’d said to The Scotsman last year in relation to your new role with the Royal Philharmonic about using various London venues for various types of repertoire; that seems important within the broader context of shaping public perceptions of certain works.

With the Royal Philharmonic, we will be quite lucky, performing quite extensively at Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, and Cadogan Hall. London does not have an ideal, let’s say, concert hall, but those three venues, they can cover different pieces. Royal Albert Hall, of course, is perfect for big symphonies — Strauss and the Don Juans, big Bruckner works, Elgar, Mahler, oratorios, and various potentially semi-staged operas — it’s a coliseum, it’s made for that. Then Royal Festival Hall is probably for the main romantic and post-romantic things, like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten, that kind of thing can be done there. And then Cadogan Hall is for pieces written earlier, like the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, ideally, or after, like neo-classical, contemporary music, with relatively small orchestras — that can work there very well also. So I think the variety of different pieces of music is related to the size and abilities of each hall.

And performing at a variety of venues is good for community-building, something you’ve been incredibly committed to throughout your time in both Oslo and Liverpool. For the RLPO, you told The Guardian in 2015 that you wanted to see the kids in the youth program become full-fledged members of the RLPO.  

Yes in five or ten years — ideally, yes. I think for any orchestra to go into the society of the place they’re based and to be part of that community is very, very important. It’s a thing I’ve done here in Liverpool and I’ve done it in Oslo too — the orchestra and I are coming much more frequently into universities and such, sometimes I’ve done things like lectures, which they appreciate, and also I do all the pre-concert talks there before every single concert, either offstage or onstage, which brings people an understanding.  It’s something which we always need to remember with any orchestra: we are there for the public; the public is not there for us.

vasily petrenko

Photo: Mark McNulty

Where did that come from, that urge to connect with community? Was it your background in Russia, and the way culture seems to be so woven into everyday life there?

I guess part of it came from Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad, which, in the 1980s and 1990s, growing up there was this sense of living in a very big village. It’s a huge city, five million inhabitants, it’s a city where every citizen used to know at least, how to get to a certain street, they knew the city extremely well and were ready to help each other, and literally were ready to talk to each other on the streets or wherever else, and that was also reflected in Philharmonic programs and at the Mariinsky and Kirov Ballet programs. Culture is a big part of Russian and Soviet society, and I’m quite glad that nowadays it’s sort of returned back, slowly, to the level of how it was in Soviet times.

vasily petrenko svetlanov cadogan douglas

With the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia and pianist Barry Douglas at Cadogan Hall in October 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

You know, you can say a lot of bad things about the Communists, but the attention they directed toward culture was huge — in a good and in a bad way — but the profession of musician in the Soviet Union was one of the most prestigious professions of all, for many reasons — huge competitions, relatively good salaries by Soviet standards; it was highly prestigious. People were respecting a lot of the artists, the singers and the musicians; all the people of art. That had been neglected (after the fall of Communism) partly because it was much more business-oriented, but now it seems to me this way is being brought back slowly, so the Moscow Philharmonic, as an umbrella of organizations, they sell an incredible amount of tickets, something like 500,000 subscriptions or something. Those in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are very active in culture; it is a part of the common life to go to the theatre or the Philharmonic Hall and to other concert halls, to the opera — literally almost every citizen tries to go at least every other week, and it is a very knowledgeable public, a public who understands the values and the essence (of art), and I’m really glad that it’s continued.

So yes, probably, (the awareness of community) came from that point, the understanding that culture itself can improve the quality of life of everyone, of every individual — there’s a message that we are there to improve your quality of life, mentally, emotionally, physically, all sorts of things.

I’m not sure opera is perceived that way in some places, though. You’re in NYC in the fall, making your Met Opera debut with Pique Dame (The Queen Of Spades) — what ideas or approaches do you bring with you from Oslo, Liverpool, Petersburg…? 

People quite often ask me, “What’s the difference between conducting an opera and conducting a conducting symphonic orchestra?” and I say: when you conduct an orchestra, you’re driving a car; when you conduct an opera, you’re driving a truck. You have to think about the size and your responsibility when you’re conducting opera, and how it’s different. Your ability is obviously different when you have just a small car; the maneuverability is bigger, of course you can turn and twist immediately. With a big truck, you have to think about where it will move, and you also have to think about others; however, with a big truck you can bring more goods. And so of course the difference is that you are in charge, probably, if not indirectly in opera, of many other people — not just singers, not just dancers, but for instance light engineers, curtain makers, you have to acknowledge and know many more things than just the music. It’s also about physics — where the choir is, how they’re moving — everything can affect the performance. On the other hand, with the music plus the visual aspects, you can have a huge emotional impact on the public, all of the visual details are much more direct than just the sounds, to your mind and to the minds of the listeners, or the viewers.

met opera chandeliers

Inside the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

The Met is a very big house too.

It is a big house, and I’ve heard from many people — and this is what I’m saying to singers and to orchestras in other places which are big —that even if the house is big, quite naturally you start to play or sing louder, which is not necessary, because it leads to too-loud performances. So for me I want to find the balance and delicacy of the score, and in Pique Dame there are many delicate, quiet moments; probably the main climaxes happen in the quiet moments rather than the loud moments  — the psychological climaxes — and so, we’ll work on those moments. If there is coherence between what’s going on visually onstage and what it says in the music, that can make an incredible effect.

Johannes Moser: “True Timelessness Is An Incomparable Feeling”

johannes moser cello

Photo: Manfred Essler – Haenssler Classic

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 paraphrase Gramophone 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.

moser dutilleux lutoslawski pentatoneJohannes 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.

les fleurs du mal bantam her hair

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.

moser standing wijzenbeek

Photo © Sarah Wijzenbeek

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.

It’s interesting how that idea of stopping time keeps coming up — Thomas Hampson said something similar to me recently — but it takes a lot of work to get there.

Yes!

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.

moser cello wijzenbeek

Photo © Sarah Wijzenbeek

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.

moser live cello

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…

something Adorno expressed in his famous essay.

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.

You can’t be neutral playing in the middle of Tempelhofer Field!

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.

moser cello live

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!

Szymanowski At The TSO: Shimmering & Sighing

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Christian Tetzlaff performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, April 2019. (Photo: Jag Gundu)

There was an air of impatience in the air at Roy Thomson Hall Friday evening, as if concertgoers couldn’t quite settle in when the lights went down. I was reminded of the people who sit at Stonehenge every summer solstice, vibrating with anxiety at the first hints of yellow-orange beams making a path among the stones. Music is perhaps similar to light in some respects, but its path should perhaps not be so predictable. The impatience was owing largely to one thing: the monolithic presence of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (the so-called “Eroica”) in the program’s second half. The Toronto Symphony were on the second of a three-night series of music from the 19th and 20th centuries. Debussy’s symphony poem Prélude à l’aprèsmidi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) opened the program, and was followed by Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1 (Op. 35). Both are in no way unusual repertoire choices — but the disquietude was palpable. People wanted their Ludwig, and they were prepared to fidget, sigh loudly, and shift around frequently until they got it. What hooked them (and this was delightful to note) were the twin forces of soloist Christian Tetzlaff’s sheer passion for the concerto, and conductor Hasan’s finely finessed coloration.

Furthermore, what made the evening so interesting on a personal level was that the date of the concert coincided with what would have been my mother’s birthday; I couldn’t help but think, sitting in the hall, that she certainly would have been among the impatient Beethoven majority. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but since deepening both the width and breadth of my own musical scope over the past few years, I find the so-called hits just aren’t enough, and I’m not alone in that sentiment. Recently there was more than a little griping online with the focus of the works of Beethoven in various new season announcements; it feels like not that long ago that I would have been horrified by this reaction, but now, I tend to sit in hearty if hesitant agreement. This isn’t of course to imply Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (or any of his other work) isn’t a great and important piece of art — but when’s the last time you’ve heard Creatures of Prometheus or Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II or King Stephen Overture? (The London Philharmonic is doing the latter two next April and did the first last autumn, natch.) Financial realities largely dictate the programming for orchestras and organizations not involved in a broader, government-connected funding model, and even then, there are numerous stakeholders (investors, CEOs, sponsors) who fully expect to see BIS (Bums In Seats) as part of their ROI. That means programming the hits, with some not-so-knowns at the start for good measure.

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Conductor Kerem Hasan leads the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, April 2019. (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Yet the Debussy piece performed by the TSO last evening (as well as tonight) is not in the slightest bit unknown, though it is firmly modern in content and style. Premiered in 1894 and based on the work of symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé from 1876, it’s arguably one of the best-known works within French classical music. An evocative musing from a mythical satyr, the work reflects, as noted in the program, “Mallarmé’s hazy, dream-like ideas with effortless tonal magic.” British conductor Kerem Hasan, newly appointed Chief Conductor of the Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck and a frequent guest of numerous European orchestras (he’s led the Concertgebouw, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien as part of the Salzburg Festival), makes his Canadian debut with these concerts, filling in for an indisposed Louis Langrée. Hasan underlined the contrasting temperatures and textures within each winding passage: hot-cool; soft-hard; smooth-rough. One could positively see the works of Franz Von Stuck come to life here. Hasan’s opera background (he’s led performances with the Welsh National Opera, the Meininger Staatstheater, and the Tiroler Landestheater) was especially apparent in drawing out sectional relationships, at once lyrical and theatrical. With simple, fluid gestures, the young maestro conjured long, languorous phrases, only to dip, dive, and reshape them anew — round, then triangular; square, then octogonal, then back again, the interplay between strings and woodwinds smiling, serious, sensuous, all at once.

This sensuality transmuted into a considerably more intense and mystical form with Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The piece’s first bars, like fine black eyelashes fluttering to wakefulness, give little indication of the piece’s extraordinary and vigorously passionate progression. Written between 1916 and 1917, the Ukrainian composer once described the work as “a rather lonely song, joyous and free, of a nightingale singing spontaneously in the fragrant Polish May night.”  Written with his friend, the celebrated violinist Pawel Kochanski (also the dedicatee of the piece), Szymanowski sought “a new style, a new mode of expression for the violin, something in this respect completely epoch-making.” Indeed, the work not only heralds a new (and very gripping) sonic experience, even now — it slinks, shimmers, shrieks, and sighs, undulating through its varied five sections (or ‘spans’) innately linked through the violin’s nightingale song.

It would have been easy to sit in astonishment at the virtuosity required of the violinist here — indeed, many patrons around me, previously sighing for Beethoven, were captivated (rightly) by Tetzlaff’s mastery. From my perspective, technique was precisely what led to transcendence; it wasn’t there purely for its own sake. Tetzlaff made this journey clear with a clear economy of elegant expressivity. I’d not seen the violinist since his performance of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto (Op. 36) with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin in 2017, and while there are clear lines between the works, Tetzlaff’s attention to granular detail and appreciation of sweeping grandeur allowed for a range of sonorous textures to shine in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of lustrous atmospheres. Von Stuck’s satyrs were now dancing with Klimt’s water nymphs and Redon’s Buddhas in a grand garden of green-blue delight. This was music-making which was, by turns, fluid, jagged, poetic, pointillist, starkly sexy and richly impassioned.

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Franz Von Stucke, “Faun und Nixe” (Satyr and Mermaid), 1918; Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Tetzlaff’s performance was marked by meticulous attention to detail and a gorgeous variance in colour. Hasan’s quietly authoritative leadership granted the orchestra a responsiveness that opened the door to a seamless sonic partnership which, more than once, conjured the ghosts of Strauss, Schreker, Zemlinsky, Ravel, and indeed, Debussy. The program note also mentions the work of Scriabin in its reference to the “non-Western sounds that colored the impressionistic music” for the latter two composers, naming Scriabin as well, and I couldn’t help but feel by the close that the swirling, sensuous atmosphere of the evening would’ve been better served by featuring one of his works in place of good old Ludwig. I confess I left early, happily swimming in Szymanowski’s electric, glittering lines, not daring to put on any music once in the car and headed home. Sometimes, souls need to swim; Tetzlaff, Hasan, and the TSO offered a good reminder that plunging into the sea by moonlight is a good thing; one need not wait for the sunrise to gain one’s bearings, but to simply trust the currents. One never knows what might one see, let alone who or what might just take us by the hand and lead us into ever-deeper waters.

Bruno Ganz, A French Novel, And Grappling With Loss

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Detail from the top of the Opera Garnier, Paris. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

This morning I sat in my light-strewn living room, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, impatiently waiting for the espresso to gurgle itself to sharp, acid life, when I learned of the passing of Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. Known for his roles as the angel Damiel in Das Himmel uber Berlin and Hitler in Downfall, Ganz was active mainly in Europe, and was known for stage, screen, and symphonic appearances. He was friends with Claudio Abbado, and among many readings, offered the work of German poet Hölderlin at a tribute concert to the late conductor in 2014. I recall seeing Ganz’s name through the years listed in various orchestral program guides in Germany and thinking how special it would be to see him perform live. Alas.

In looking through various reports (including one from a recent project in which Ganz is bearded, and to my eyes, resembles some kind of magical Teutonic Zeus) I was reminded of my introduction to Ganz’s work as a teenager, which was (as I suspect was true for many artsy, angsty teens growing up in 1980s North America), through Der Himmel über Berlin, known to the English-speaking world as Wings of DesireWim Wenders’ poetic meditation on history, spirituality, and human vulnerability left an indelible impression, with Ganz’ expressive face and haunting voice creating a spell that never quite lifted. As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw observed about his performance, “Ganz’s face is delicate and boyish, with an ascetic sensitivity. The poetical presence of his beautifully modulated speaking voice is also what makes the role so memorable.” In seeing the movie again last summer, I found myself weeping at the delivery of certain lines, the framing of a certain shot, the look in the eyes of both Damiel and Marion (Solveig Dommartin) in the club where the roars of Nick Cave create a hypnotizing background din. I’ve not been able to watch it since; emotions come brimming to the surface like uncontrollable hot lava, a reaction I could have never anticipated as a wide-eyed, enchanted teen.

engel ganz wenders

Still from “Der Himmel über Berlin” (“Wings of Desire”,) 1987.

Such sensitivity has, I realize, become something of a hallmark, one I’ve grappled with to varying degrees of success. Oftentimes that sensitivity and wonder are tied up together in strange configurations and manifest within the cultural realm. The older I get, the more I am amazed at the mechanisms behind how one offsets the other; the way a singer will lean into a note, the resonance of percussion across the vast expanse of a hall, the wet ambiance of strings — things that I find myself invariably and sometimes wordlessly moved by. Writing about such things is no easy task, and it will surprise no one to learn I have taken a step back from such duties. Enthralled, enraptured, enlightened, enraged… enchanted; all these things, and more, live within and can be icily uncomfortable to narrow into the mean parameters defined by the precise and rather severe geometry of language. 

legs book reading

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Enchantment was borne in my younger days through the encouragement of figures who would place challenging things in front of me, things (be they movies, books, TV shows, composer works) they had full faith I would somehow understand and appreciate. I was raised in what might be termed a firmly anti-intellectual household, with newspapers being the only regular reading source (and no, not the fancy, so-called “paper of record,” either); attempting to reach beyond that atmosphere, despite my mother’s (primal if passionate) opera love, was not at all encouraged and was, in fact, basis for fierce and unyielding criticism. But discoveries were always possible; one of those things was Wings of Desire, introduced by a piano teacher (now a dear friend); another was Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love, loaned to me by an arts-loving teacher my final year of high school. (Where or how she got hold of an English translation I cannot say; the work only got a proper one a few short years ago.). Her dog-eared copy, with pencil underlinings from her own younger days (I presumed), brought a world of intrigue and yes, enchantment, setting my Faust-loving imagination aflame. “The devil takes many pleasing shapes” is its premise, with a Borgian-style layers-within-layers narrative, an intentional blurring and integration of the surreal, the Gothic, and the fantastical, and free floating questions of the nature of desire, morality, and abundance, reflecting the spirit of the age in which it was written (1772) and offering a timely-timeless devilishly dialectical dance that you can still shake your ass to in 2019.

Cazotte devil illustration

Illustration from the first edition of “The Devil in Love” by Jacques Cazotte. (Photo via the Stanislavsky Theatre).

Alongside updates and tributes to Bruno Ganz on my newsfeed were tidbits about the novel’s operatic translation which recently opened at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, in Moscow. Russian composer Alexander Vustin created the work over several years, finishing it in 1989; the work lay dormant until the theatre decided to feature it to mark their 100th birthday. This work made my list of intriguing things for 2019, and if photos and quick news clips are anything to go on, it’s a production I hope to someday experience live; I remain open to whether the element of enchantment will be as present as it was upon my first reading as a teenager. My acute sensitivities lean in a direction which oppose nostalgia, but embrace reshaping; this quality has inserted itself into areas tangible and not. I have embraced much of what my mother left me as my very own, without (at last) the drama of recrimination or any burden of guilt. It has come as something of a pleasant surprise that the things my mother greatly valued are the things I have allowed myself to reshape and redefine, sometimes with purposeful intent, other times with an unthinking authority that is, I suppose, the natural result of being an only child. Emboldened by a new sort of freedom which arose out of my mother’s passing (a domineering presence rendered into initially shocking absence) meant being allowed to remake her still and finite passions into my wide-ranging passionate pursuits.  Inheritance has become a less a winding lane of the past than an avenue for the future.

Still, the loss of a precious cache of items which had belonged to her has been hard to overcome, not only for the fact they were pregnant with her long ago and far-away memories, but because they were so wrapped up in mine — new, fresh, raw. Without divulging every painful detail, I will only write: in the morning I moved into my current place of residence, I had a box of jewelry and a satchel of pearls; things were delivered and arranged; once that was finished, I passed out in exhaustion, and realized with horror, shortly thereafter, that the box and satchel were nowhere to be found. What did I do, I keep asking myself, to deserve this? Why wasn’t I smarter? Why did this have to happen? My mother’s understanding of (and approach to) the world was built on merit-based effort and behaviour: be a good person, and good things happen; be the opposite, and you deserve what you get. It’s a notion that has tipped the broader world into extreme chaos, and, within my micro one, radiated burning slabs of blame, shame, and a horrible, near-paralyzing sadness. I have kept this information to myself and shared it with only a few (including yes, proper authorities), but those items, I realize with much pain, are not going to magically appear before me, the way Damiel suddenly manifests before Marion, the way Biondetta appears before Alvaro — no angel, no devil, there is only the wide, yawning chasm of loss.

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Hans Brüggemann, Angel Playing the Lute; 1520; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.

The revelation here of my sharp vicissitudes of providence means enduring the inevitable smirks and Schadenfreude of some. I accept this. Various details of my life are, apparently, points of envy — something I find utterly baffling to comprehend. (I envy the presence of their partners, paramours, children, extended relatives, and wide and active social circles, particularly during the lonely holiday periods, but at regular weekends as well.) I have chosen to reveal this personal history in order to embody a dictum I voiced within the past year, one relating to the importance of embracing vulnerability. There are things to be silent about, and things to shout about, and still yet things that straddle between; the point is acknowledging the tender spot within, where vulnerability meets and makes peace with the existential zero of silence. Pema Chödrön might remind me this is precisely where I need to be, in the middle, fully present. It’s hard, and it’s lonely. The symphony of sighs fades in and out; today it was interrupted by the whispering wonder of enchantment. I’m glad I was sensitive enough to listen. Maybe in the spring it will become a song. 

2019: Looking Forward

Andreas Schlüter kopf einer gottin

Andreas Schlüter, Kopf einer Göttin (Head of a Goddess); Bode Museum Berlin, 1704. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

A new year is a good time for assessments and remembrances, for reflecting on moments good, bad, and otherwise. As well as a desire to keep more cultural experiences within the personal realm, I’d prefer look ahead, to things that spark my imagination and inspire expansion, challenge, and evolution.

Earlier this year a friend observed that my tastes have become (his words) “more adventurous” over the past eighteen months or so. Flattering as this is, it’s also a reminder of the extent to which I have layered over my past, one largely spent wandering through the vast, lusciously dark forests of curiosity and wonder. Decades of weighty responsibility cut that forest down and gave me a deep trunk, into which all the unfinished canvases of a fragrant, lush wonder were stored; I came to believe, somehow, such a trunk had no place in the busy crowded living room I’d been busily filling with the safe, acceptable predictability of other peoples’ stuff. My mother’s passing in 2015 initially created a worship of ornate things from her trunk — perhaps my attempt to raise her with a chorus of sounds, as if I was Orpheus, an instinct based more in the exercise of sentiment than in the embrace and extension of soul.

Contending with a tremendous purge of items from the near and distant past has created a personal distaste for the insistent grasping and romanticizing of history (though I do allow myself to enjoy some of its recorded splendor, and its visual arts, as the photos on this feature attest). Such romanticizing utterly defines various segments of the opera world, resulting in various factions marking themselves gatekeepers of a supposedly fabled legacy which, by its nature, is meant to shape-shift, twist, curl, open, and change. It’s fun to swim in the warm, frothy seas of nostalgia every now and again, but mistaking those waves for (or much less preferring them to) the clear, sharp coldness of fresh water seems a bit absurd to me. À chacun son goût, perhaps. 

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František Kupka, Plans par couleurs, grand nu; 1909-1910, on loan to Grande Palais Paris; permanent collection, Guggenheim NYC. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Rediscovering the contents of my own trunk, pulling each item out, examining it in the sunlight, looking at what it means now (if anything) and deciding whether to keep or bin, has been a slow if meaningful process; it has been a homecoming to myself, one groaning and gloriously stretching with every breath. Refreshingly, such a process has not been defined by the rather narrow tastes of a somewhat culturally dictatorial mother, but by things I like, things I miss, things have no need to feel validated for liking.

“You’re so serious,” I was once told, “serious and critical and intellectual.”

I don’t know if any of these things are (or were) true, but making a point of experiencing the work of artists who reveal and inspire (and challenge and move) has become the single-biggest motivating factor in my life. “Adventurous” is less a new fascinator than an old (and beloved) hat. Here’s to taking it out of the trunk, and wearing it often and well in 2019. 

Verdi, Messa da Requiem; Staatsoper Hamburg, January

The year opens with an old chestnut, reimagined by director Calixto Bieito into a new, bright bud. Bieito’s productions are always theatrical, divisive and deeply thought-provoking. Doing a formal staging Verdi’s famous requiem, instead of presenting it in traditional concert (/ park-and-bark) mode, feels like something of a coup. Paolo Arrivabeni conducts this production, which premiered in Hamburg last year, which features a stellar cast, including the sonorous bass of Gabor Bretz.

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Jean-Joseph Perraud, Le Désespoir; 1869, Paris; Musée d’Orsay. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Tchaikovsky/Bartok, Iolanta Bluebeard’s Castle, NYC, January

A double-bill exploring the various (and frequently darker) facets of human relating, this Marius Treliński production (from the 2014-2015 season) features soprano Sonya Yoncheva and tenor Matthew Polenzani in Tchaikovsky’s one-act work; baritone Gerald Finley and soprano Angela Denoke perform in Bartók’s dark tale of black secrets, last staged at the Met in early 2015. The orchestra could well be considered a third character in the work, so rich is it in coloration and textures.  No small feat to sing either, as music writer Andrew McGregor has noted that “the music is so closely tied to the rhythms and colours of the Hungarian language.” Henrik Nánási, former music director at Komische Oper Berlin, conducts.

Vivier, Kopernikus; Staatsoper Berlin, January

Spoiler: I am working on a feature (another one) about the Quebec-born composer’s influence and the recent rise in attention his work have enjoyed. Kopernikus (subtitle: Rituel de Mort) is an unusual work on a number of levels; composed of a series of tableaux, there’s no real narrative, but an integration of a number of mythological figures as well as real and imagined languages that match the tonal colors of the score.  This production (helmed by director Wouter van Looy, who is Artistic Co-Director of Flemish theatre company Muziektheater Transparant) comes prior ahead of a production the Canadian troupe Against the Grain (led by Joel Ivany) are doing in Toronto this coming April.

Vustin, The Devil in LoveStanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, February

It was while investigating the work of Russian composer and pianist Rodion Shchedrin that I learned about the work of contemporary composer Alexander Vustin — and became utterly smitten with it. A composer who previously worked in both broadcasting and publishing, Vustin’s opera is based on the 1772 Jacques Cazotte novel Le Diable amoureux, which revolves around a demon who falls in love with a human. Vustin wrote his opera between 1975 and 1989, but The Devil in Love will only now enjoy its world premiere, in a staging by Alexander Titel (Artistic Director of the Stanislavsky Opera) and with music direction/conducting by future Bayerische Staatsoper General Music Director Vladimir Jurowski.

zurich opera

Inside Opernhaus Zurich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre; Opernhaus Zurich, February

The Opernhaus Zurich website describes this work, which is based on a play by Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, as “one of the 20th century’s most potent works of musical theatre.” It is also one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen; anyone who’s experienced it comes away changed. Directed by Tatjana Gürbaca (who’s directed many times in Zurich now), the work is, by turns, coarse, shocking, cryptic, and deliciously absurd. General Music Director Fabio Luisi (who I am more used to seeing conduct Mozart and Verdi at the Met) was to lead what Ligeti himself has called an “anti-anti-opera”; he’s been forced to cancel for health reasons. Tito Ceccherini will be on the podium in his place.

Zemlinsky, Der Zwerg; Deutsche Oper Berlin, February

Another wonderfully disturbing work, this time by early 20th century composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, whose “Die Seejungfrau” (The Mermaid) fantasy for orchestra is an all-time favorite of mine. Der Zwerg, or The Dwarf, is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s disturbing short story “The Birthday of the Infanta” and is infused with the sounds of Strauss and Mahler, but with Zemlinsky’s own unique sonic richness. Donald Runnicles (General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper ) conducts, with powerhouse tenor David Butt Philip in the title role, in a staging by Tobias Kratzer, who makes his DO debut.

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Johann Christian Ludwig Lücke , Bust of a Grimacing Man with a Slouch Hat; 1740, Elfenbein; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Kurtág, Fin de Partie; Dutch National Opera, March

Among the many music happenings of late which could be called an event with a capital “e”, this one has to rank near the top. Ninety-one year-old composer György Kurtág has based his first opera on Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame. Premiering at Teatro Alla Scala in November, music writer Alex Ross noted that “(n)ot since Debussy’s  “Pelléas et Mélisande” has there been vocal writing of such radical transparency: every wounded word strikes home.” Director Pierre Audi and conductor Markus Stenz (chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra) bring Kurtág’s painfully-birthed opera to Amsterdam for three (nearly sold-out) dates.

Handel, Poros, Komische Oper Berlin, March

A new staging of a rarely-heard work by legendary opera director Harry Kupker, Handel’s 1731 opera based around Alexander the Great’s Indian campaign features the deep-hued soprano of Ruzan Mantashyan as Mahamaya and the gorgeously lush baritone of KOB ensemble member Dominik Köninger in the title role. Conductor Jörg Halubek, co-founder of the Stuttgart baroque orchestra Il Gusto Barocco (which specializes in forgotten works) makes his KOB debut. The combination of Kupfer, Handel, and Komische Oper is, to my mind, very exciting indeed.

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Southern Netherlands, Screaming Woman; late 16th century; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Opera National de Paris, April  

A new production of Shostakovich’s passionate, brutal, and darkly funny opera from innovative director Krzysztof Warlikowski, whose creative and thoughtful presentations have appeared on the stages of Bayerische Staatsoper, the Royal Opera, Teatro Real (Madrid), and La Monnaie (Brussels), to name a few. He also staged The Rake’s Progress in Berlin at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater. Here he’ll be directing soprano Ausrine Stundyte in the lead as the sexy, restless Lady, alongside tenor John Daszak as Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov (I really enjoyed his performance in this very role at the Royal Opera last year), bass (and Stanislavsky Opera regular) Dmitry Ulyanov as pushy father Boris, and tenor Pavel Černoch as the crafty Sergei. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher is on the podium.

Berlioz, La damnation de Faust; Glyndebourne, May

Glyndebourne Festival Music Director Robin Ticciati leads the London Philharmonic and tenor Allan Clayton (so impressive in Brett Dean’s Hamlet, which debuted at Glyndebourne in 2017) as the doomed title character, with baritone Christopher Purves as the deliciously diabolical Mephistopheles, and French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne as Marguerite. I love this score, a lot, and quite enjoyed a 2017 staging at Opéra Royal de Wallonie. Likewise the work of director Richard Jones, whose Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Royal Opera last year afforded some very creative choices and character insights; I’m very curious how he might approach Berlioz’s dreamy, surreal work, together with Ticciati’s signature lyrical approach.

hands neues museen

Pair of Hands from a group statue of Akhenaten and Nefertiti or two princesses; Neues Reich 18 Dynastie. At the Neues Museen, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Gluck, Alceste; Bayerische Staatsoper, May

A new production of Gluck’s opera about self-sacrificing love with a fascinating backstory: after its publishing in 1769, a preface was added to the score by Gluck and his librettist which outlined ideas for operatic reform. The list included things like making the overture more closely linked with the ensuing action, no improvisation, and less repetition within arias. Alceste came to be known as one of Gluck’s “reform” operas (after Orfeo ed Euridice). Two decades later, Mozart used the same chord progressions from a section of the opera for a scene in his Don Giovanni, which Berlioz called “heavily in-inspired or rather plagiarized.” The Bavarian State Opera production will feature a solid cast which includes tenor Charles Castronovo, soprano Dorothea Röschmann,  and baritone Michael Nagy, under the baton of Antonello Manacorda.

Handel, Belshazzar; The Grange Festival, June 

Described on The Grange’s website as “an early Aida,” this rare staging of the biblical oratorio sees a cast of baroque specialists (including tenor Robert Murray in the title role and luminous soprano Rosemary Joshua as his mother, Nitocris) tackling the epic work about the fall of Babylon, and the freeing of the of the Jewish nation. Musicologist Winton Dean has noted the work was composed during “the peak of Handel’s creative life.” Presented in collaboration with The Sixteen, a UK-based choir and period instrument orchestra, the work will be directed by Daniel Slater (known for his unique takes on well-known material) and will be led by The Sixteen founder Harry Christophers.

Festival Aix-en-Provence, July

The final collaboration between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (and the source of the famous “Alabama Song”), Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny will be presented in a new production featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Director Ivo van Hove (whose Boris Godounov at the Opera de Paris this past summer I was so shocked and moved by) helms the work; casting has yet to be announced. Music writer Rupert Christiansen has noted that it “remains very hard to perform […] with the right balance between its slick charm and its cutting edge.” Also noteworthy: the French premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s one-act chamber opera Jakob Lenz, based on Georg Büchner’s novella about the German poet. (Büchner is perhaps best-known for his unfinished play Woyzeck, later adapted by Alban Berg.) Presented by Ensemble Modern, the work will be helmed by award-winning director Andrea Breth and conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. This summer’s edition of the festival marks Pierre Audi’s first term as its new Director, and all five productions being staged are firsts for the fest as well.

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Sphinx of Shepenupet II, god’s wife of Amon; late period 25th Dynasty, around 660 B.C.; Altes Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Enescu,Œdipe; Salzburger Festspiele, August

The Romanian composer’s 1931 opera based on the mythological tale of Oedipus is presented in a new production at the Salzburg Festival and features a stellar cast which includes bass John Tomlinson as the prophet Tirésias, mezzo-soprano  as Jocasta, mezzo soprano Clémentine Margaine (known for her numerous turns as Bizet’s Carmen) as The Sphinx, baritone Boris Pinkhasovich as Thésée, and baritone Christopher Maltman in the title role. In writing about Enescu’s score, French music critic Emile Vuillermoz noted that “(t)he instruments speak here a strange language, direct, frank and grave, which does not owe anything to the traditional polyphonies.” Staging is by Achim Freyer (who helmed a whimsical production of Hänsel and Gretel at the Staatsoper Berlin), with Ingo Metzmacher on the podium.

Schoenberg, Moses und Aron; Enescu Festival, September

In April 1923, Schoenberg would write to Wassily Kandinsky: “I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me this year, and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but that I am a Jew.” The ugly incident that inspired this would result in his mid-1920s agitprop play Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way), from which Moses und Aron would ultimately spring. Essentially a mystical plunge into the connections between community, identity, and divinity, this sonically dense and very rewarding work will be presented at the biennial George Enescu Festival, in an in-concert presentation featuring Robert Hayward as Moses and tenor John Daszak as Aron (a repeat pairing from when they appeared in a 2015 Komische Oper Berlin production), with Lothar Zagrosek on the podium.

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Post-opera strolling in Wexford. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Wexford Festival Opera, October

It’s hard to choose just one work when Wexford is really a broader integrative experience; my visit this past autumn underlined the intertwined relationship between onstage offerings and local charms. The operas being presented at the 2019 edition include Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet (which I saw, rather memorably, with Ferruccio Furlanetto in the lead), and the little-performed (and rather forgotten) Adina by Gioacchino Rossini, a co-production with Rossini Opera Festival. The latter will be paired with a new work, La Cucina, by Irish composer Andrew Synnott.

Strauss, Die ägyptische Helena; Teatro Alla Scala, November

A reimagining the myth of Helen of Troy (courtesy of Euripides) sees Paris seduce a phantom Helen created by the goddess Hera, while the real thing is held captive in Egypt until a long-awaited reunion with her husband Menelas. In a 2007 feature for the New York Times (published concurrent to a then-running production at the Met), music critic Anthony Tommasini characterized Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto as “verbose and philosophical,” and posed questions relating to Strauss’s score thusly: “Is a passage heroic or mock-heroic? Opulently lyrical or intentionally over the top?” I suspect those are precisely the questions the composer wanted to be raised; he questions not just the tough questions around intimate relating, but ones connected with audience and artist. The piece features some breathtaking vocal writing as well. Sven-Eric Bechtolf (whose Don Giovanni I so enjoyed at Salzburg in 2016) directs, and Franz Welser-Möst leads a powerhouse cast that includes tenor Andreas Schager, baritone Thomas Hampson, and soprano Ricarda Merbeth as the titular Helena. This production marks the first time Die ägyptische Helena has been presented at La Scala.

Oskar Kallis, Sous le soleil d’été; 1917, on loan to Musée d’Orsay; permanent collection, Eesti Kunstimuuseum, Tallinn.

Messager, FortunioOpéra-Comique, December

I freely admit to loving comédie lyrique; the genre is a lovely, poetic  cousin to operetta. Fortunio, which was premiered in 1907 by the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart in Paris, is based on the 1835 play Le Chandelier by Alfred de Musset and concerns a young clerk (the Fortunio of the title) caught in a web of deceit with the wife of an old notary, with whom he is enamored. Gabriel Fauré, who was in the opening night audience (along with fellow composers Claude Debussy and Gabriel Pierné) noted of André Messager (in a review for Le Figaro) that he possessed “the gifts of elegance and clarity, of wit, of playful grace, united to the most perfect knowledge of the technique of his art.” This production, from 2009, reunites original director Denis Podalydès with original conductor Louis Langrée. Paris en décembre? Peut-être!

herbin composition

Auguste Herbin, Composition; 1928, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This list may seem extensive, but there’s so much I’ve left out — festivals like Verbier and Les Chorégies d’Orangehouses like Wiener Staatsoper and Teatro Real, outlets in Scandinavia (Den Norske, Royal Swedish Opera, Savonlinna) and Italy (Pesaro, Parma) and the UK (Aldeburgh, Garsington, ENO, and of course the Royal Opera). It’s still too early for many organizations to be announcing their upcoming (September and beyond) seasons; I’m awaiting those releases, shivering, to quote Dr. Frank-n-furter, with antici…pation.

And, just in the interests of clarifying an obvious and quite intentional omission: symphonic events were not included in this compilation. The sheer scale, volume, and variance would’ve diffused my purposeful opera focus. I feel somewhat odd about this exclusion; attending symphonies does occupy a deeply central place for me on a number of levels, as it did throughout my teenaged years. Experiencing concerts live is really one of my most dear and supreme joys. I may address this in a future post, which, as with everything, won’t be limited by geography, genre, range or repertoire. In these days of tumbling definitions and liquid tastes , it feels right (and good) to mash organizations and sounds against one another, in words, sounds, and spirit.

For now, I raise a glass to 2019, embracing adventure — in music, in the theatre, in life, and beyond. So should you. Santé!

Matthew Rose: “We Have To Believe In Opera, And Do It In Brave Ways”

Matthew-Rose

Photo: Lena Kern

The opportunity to see the worlds of art and music joined live on a stage is always a treat, whether it’s with William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, or Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe at the Canadian Opera Company. Stimulating intellectually, such integrations offer the additional possibility of emotional contemplations and experiences that reach past the limits of language.

The history of  blending art and music is, of course, very long and encompasses total creations, notably Stravinsky’s 1951 work The Rake’s Progress, which was inspired by a series of eight drawings done by William Hogarth between 1732 and 1734; they chart the decline of innocent Tom Rakewell, who comes to London and is drawn into a world of debauchery, debt, and personal destruction. Stravinsky had seen the drawings as part of an exhibition in Chicago in 1947, and, together with poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, created a sonic landscape that vividly captures the vitality of Hogarth’s work while simultaneously exploring vice, loss, and vulnerability. The Rake’s Progress premiered at  Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1951, before productions in Paris and New York; it was also part of the premiere season of the Santa Fe Opera. The text, by Auden and Kallman, is arguably one of the richest in the repertoire, but like the music, it’s dense and requires deft listening. Those aren’t bad things, by the way; as you’ll read, perhaps should be more encouraged in our overloaded, insta-hype culture. 

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Topi Lehtipuu as Tom Rakewell and Matthew Rose as Nick Shadow in the 2010 production of “The Rake’s Progress” at Glyndebourne. Photo: Mike Hoban / Glyndebourne / ArenaPAL

This weekend the London Philharmonic Orchestra presents a live in-concert presentation of the work, featuring tenor Toby Spence as Tom, soprano Sophia Burgos as Anne Truelove, and bass Matthew Rose as Nick Shadow. They’ll be performing under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, who led the work in 2010 at the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera (where he was then-Music Director), in a storied production originally first presented in 1975, which featured Rose (as Shadow), Topi Lehtipuu as Tom, and Miah Persson as Anne. Designed by artist David Hockney and directed by John Cox, the production has toured extensively, and is a beloved part of Glyndebourne history. Smart, funny, and scary, this pretty production was my initial way in to its world; between it and a various recordings, I found this Stravinsky demanded great amounts of time, attention, patience, and care, much more so than many of his other works. Those qualities were heightened and found a natural (and dare I say, surprisingly comfortable) outlet when I was heard portions of it live at an LPO rehearsal earlier this week. The Rake’s Progress is, more than many operas, one that needs to be experienced live to be fully appreciated, providing a visceral experience that goes far past its decline-in-fortunes narrative. Tom’s loss, especially of his true love (pun intended), takes on a wholly real, and wholly passionate, sound. Equally striking is the unrepentant sensuality of the score, between the bronzen throb of basses and horns, the gossamer-like delicacy of violins and woodwinds, and ethereal (if utterly precise) vocal lines, The Rake’s Progress is as rough as it is poetic, as funny as it is sad, and as real as it is fable-like; it’s art and life joining, in a deeply satisfying integration of flesh and spirit.

This is something I sense Matthew Rose knows and appreciates about the opera. We spoke last year about his work with the Scuola di belcanto; since then, the English bass has been named Artistic Consultant to the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Met. He just wrapped up performing in two Puccini works in New York, La fanciulla del West (opposite tenor Jonas Kaufmann) and La bohème, and is scheduled to be in a Royal Opera House production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov next summer. Between then and now, Rose appears at Opera Philadelphia as Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (something of a signature role of his) and will also be performing with the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Rose is notable not only for his incredible vocal flexibility (his repertoire includes Baroque, belcanto, and contemporary works) but for his immediacy as a performer; there is a palpable sincerity to his work, a sense of urgency, and depth of true feeling. This applies every bit as much to the character of Nick Shadow (the actual devil in disguise) as it does to poor old Leporello (servant to Don Giovanni), the role I last saw him perform live onstage.  I was keen to get his thoughts on the work itself,as well as the ways it’s perceived, and how those perceptions have played into contemporary programming choices. His responses were passionate, thoughtful, and hugely informed by a balanced sense of keen artistry and quotidian approachability, with large splashes of humour. Rose may be singing a villain this weekend, but I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the good guys.

hogarth sir john soanes

The third of Hogarth’s paintings in “A Rake’s Progress” – The Orgy: The Descent Begins. (Photo: Sir John Soane’s Museum London)

What would you say to someone who’s new to The Rake’s Progress?

It’s very, very intelligent, and very intellectual. (The creators) put this thing together based on pictures by Hogarth, creating a whole story in a very intellectual way. It’s not Traviata — you have to really do your homework to understand what every sentence means. The Hockey production in Glyndebourne I’ve been lucky to do is so illustrative of what is happening — it is so accessible, which is why it’s been such a success.

Experiencing it live also makes it accessible, because one can clearly sense how immensely powerful and detailed the score is.

It’s the whole thing: seeing someone’s life go from one thing to another entirely, as this does. Tom’s this very happy, innocent young man who goes completely insane and dies in the end. It’s a very sad story, and Stravinsky’s music is so illustrative, and so appropriate for the time and to Hogarth. It’s brilliant he decide to do this.

The sensuality of the music can be surprising at points.

Yes! And every single bit is exactly what it needs to be — the music is so brilliantly descriptive, some bits are so beautiful, (like) the way he uses the two voices (of Tom and Anne). There are also bits with Tom and Nick Shadow, at the end of their card game, where they sing a duet, and it’s very hilarious — the way he uses angularity and harmony is so clever.

There’s so much dramatic momentum within the musical lines as well.

Completely, though somehow it’s not quite become the great ticket seller I guess we all think it should be, but we get to spend hundreds of hours preparing it, so if audiences are able to have the same understanding as they did for the Hockney one, that would be good indeed.

Jurowski LPO

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

John Cox has said this is “an English opera written by a Russian composer” — what do you make of that?

That’s exactly what it is. As Vladimir says, there’s bits where Stravinsky quotes Tchaikovsky and Russian folk music; it’s very influenced by the Russian thing and classical music thing, and Kallman, who was American, and Auden, who was English, were putting the text together with that, so it’s an amazing collection of people and ideas. Shadow is the person who makes this story happen: he takes Tom out of this innocent place, and puts him in this situation which is opposite to that, and his life becomes worse. It’s interesting… it’s evil defeated, but not completely defeated. 

He is Tom’s actual shadow… 

They talk about that, don’t they — it’s his alter-ego in a way.

… but the serious stuff is balanced by comedy.

It can be done funny or sinister; it’s this brilliant script you can play with in many different ways. I think Kallman took on persona of Anne, and Auden did all the other bits as they wrote this. You have to trust what they and Stravinsky have given you, and use your own imagination too.

Matthew-Rose

Photo: Lena Kern

How much do you think that sense of imagination applies to programming these days?

Who knows… people are being more and more conservative about what they’re doing, which I think is worrisome for our art form if this goes into the future. We have to believe in opera, and do it in brave ways. If you do very general, safe repertoire, in a very safe way, that won’t do anything for anyone. 

Administrators would argue that those programming choices are not being made now because auditoriums are having trouble filling seats.

Yes, and they think they’ll solve that problem by programming safe stuff that won’t challenge anyone, but this art form is challenging, it’s not easy and it shouldn’t be easy. That’s the great thing about it: you are given so much information at once, and you can take so many things out of it, and perceive and experience it so many different ways. You can take it as a film and just sit back and watch, or you can think about the music itself, or whatever — it’s a great thing.

Some past productions of The Rake’s Progress made it about pretty pictures and wigs and corsets and, I think, contributed to the way it is perceived in some quarters, as this costume-heavy, non-tuneful Anglo-Russian piece.

It’s none of those things though; it’s very dangerous and sexy and brilliant. We shouldn’t be scared of these things; audiences should know about them. Also the way things seem to be going in terms of marketing and selling, you now have to have the right star — and these are people who won’t be singing things like this, or Peter Grimes. Art galleries can get people to see art of all different kinds of art, but at the same time we’re scared about cutting people off opera with new ideas; one art form can somehow do it and yet… maybe we need to help people understand what this is.

… while not dumbing it down, I would suggest.

You don’t need to dumb it down. Music is being taken out of schools and out of the core curriculum of education, and it’s a shame for our industry. If people are educated to know about stuff, then they can appreciate it, and why shouldn’t they know and appreciate this kind of thing?

Krisztina Szabó: Singing Is “A Lifelong Process”

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Photo: Bo Huang

Krisztina Szabó is a busy lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of his scores also feature a cimbalom.

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

What does that add?

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

Benjamin Lloyd

Photo: Matthew Lloyd

What is Benjamin like to work with?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Photo: © Manu Agah)

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

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

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

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

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

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

szabo mezzo

Photo: Bo Huang

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

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

A Gorgeous Grisey With Ensemble intercontemporain

Ensemble intercontemporain Musikfest

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

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

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

ensemble intercontemporain

Photo: © Christophe Urbain

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

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

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

Boulez Saal Berlin

Photo: © Volker Kreidler

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

grisey musikfest sciarrino

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

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

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

Haller intercontemporain musikfest

Photo: © Adam Janisch

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

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

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

 

Sir George Benjamin Wows With the Berlin Philharmonic

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

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

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner PhilharmonikerGeorges Benjamin

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

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

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker Georges Benjamin

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

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

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

A Rich Meal With The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

rehearsal RCO musikfest

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

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

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

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

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

royal concertgebouw orchestra

Photo: © Anne Doctor

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

soprano Fritsch

Soprano Anett Fritsch (Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann)

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

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

honeck conductor

Conductor Manfred Honeck. (Photo: © Felix Broede)

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

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

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