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Dominik Köninger: “You Grow With Every Challenge”

dominik koninger

Photo: Tom Schweigert

Baritone Dominik Köninger has been busy since our last conversation. That isn’t surprising, considering he’s a member of the Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) ensemble, where he’s sung a variety of roles, from a myriad of eras —Baroque, classical, bel canto, operetta, modern — since starting there in 2012.

Any artist who’s experienced the ensemble system is aware of the need to balance wildly different material in very short amounts of time. Scheduling and repertoire means a careful adherence to vocal sensitivities and recuperative demands, to say nothing of the challenges that can be presented in working with a sometimes revolving set of artistic personnel. During my chat with Wilhelm Schwinghammer this past January, the German bass baritone spoke of his own time as a member of the Staatsoper Hamburg ensemble, estimating he performed over seventy roles during his decade-plus time there. Ensemble work can also be an incredibly important and useful experience in developing skills, getting to know repertoire (well) and cultivating specific and sometimes entirely unknown talents. One might enter into one with the belief of being suited to doing x type of repertoire, only to learn (through time, experience, and exposure) that in fact, y type of repertoire is probably a better match vocally (and that z repertoire, which had never before been even vaguely considered, is suddenly looking interesting too). Ensembles have their ups and downs, but for some, they give needed grounding, requisite exposure (to audiences, repertoire, directors, conductors, and potential future houses), oh-so-vital  flexibility (vocally and otherwise), and a  broadening of perspective — all of which are so important to a burgeoning career.

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As Pelléas in the Komische Oper Berlin production of ‘Pelléas et Melisande’ in October 2017. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

And so Köninger has done much since we last spoke close to two years ago. As well as making a much-awaited role debut as Pelléas in a brilliant and bold, brilliant production of Pelléas et Melisande directed by KOB Intendant Barrie Kosky, he reprised his role as Silvius in the frothy Oscar Straus operetta Die Perlen der Cleopatra (The Pearls of Cleopatra), appeared as Agamemnon in a colorful production of Offenbach’s Die schöne Helena (The Beautiful Helena), sang Papageno (something of a signature role) in the much-vaunted KOB/1927 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and gave a recital (one I found very moving) full of dark works by Mahler, Grieg, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. Along with more Silvius and Papageno performances this season, he’s also singing (/has sung) Maximilian in Bernstein’s Candide (with KOB), and Pantalone in Prokofiev’s Die Liebe zu drei Orangen (The Love for Three Oranges). A well-received recital of Schubert’s celebrated Winterreise closed out 2018.  This spring Köninger will be on a mini-tour with RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, in a presentation of Bach’s St. John Passion. For those of you assuming you may have to travel to Europe to hear him live, fear not: Köninger is set to make his North American debut next spring with Opera de Montreal, as Papageno, in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which he lovingly refers to as “my baby,” a nod to his history with the presentation.

This coming Saturday sees another first for the baritone: he’ll be making his debut in the title role of Handel’s rarely-staged opera Poro, Re dell’Indie (Porus, King of India), called simply Poro here (Poros auf Deutsch), which made my Things To See 2019 list. The story revolves around Alexander the Great’s time in India, and the love triangle which arises between him, King Porus, and Cleofide (aka Cleophis), Queen of a neighbouring realm. Handel’s opera is based Alessandro nell’Indie by celebrated Italian poet and librettist Metastasio, a work that inspired more than sixty other operas throughout the 18th century. The Komische Oper Berlin production opening this coming Saturday (March 16th) is led by conductor and early music specialist Jörg Halubek, but is may not strictly Baroque in that frilly-cuffed, big-wigged way; its celebrated director, Harry Kupfer (who was trained by KOB founder Walter Felsenstein), has, as you will read, made a few updates. The leap from Pelléas to Poros for Köninger isn’t as wide as you may think; his intense focus comes from a place of commitment and utter humility. So no matter the variety of plant, the ground beneath it is rich and sure, and is being continually cultivated with the utmost care and consideration; you can hear it in his voice with every performance, at the Komische and not. Köninger, quite simply, is one to watch.

The role of Poro was originally written for the famed castrato Senesino and is usually cast with a counter-tenor; in this production, it’s a baritone (you!) — what’s that like?

The whole thing is a bit of an adaption. It is Kupfer’s wish to have baritone in the lead role. In the 1950s, he was an assistant director in Halle, which was then East Germany, and they did this opera, but in German, with a baritone in the lead role — that was his intention. So putting it on now, it’s kind of the circle closes. He wanted the opera to be in German now as well, so we got a German translation — it’s more like an adaptation than a translation. Our production is set in British colonial India, a very specific and political time and context.

So Mayamaha in this production was originally Cleofide?

Yes! These are Indian names in the production: Gandaharta (Philipp Meierhöfer), Mahamaya (Ruzan Mantashyan), Poro’s sister Nimbavati (Idunnu Münch). That’s what Kupfer intended. Also, the role of Alexander, which was originally a tenor, is now a counter-tenor (Eric Jurenas). It’s all been adapted, but it all makes sense.

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As Poro in Komische Oper Berlin’s ‘Poro’ (Photo: Monika Rittershaus), opening on March 16th, 2019.

What’s it like to sing? Poro seems quite different to Handel’s other operas musically.

This opera is not so full of the fast coloratura arias and the demands of being perfect stylistically, but the challenge this time is that it brings much more out emotionally. Handel wrote these arias in a different way; he didn’t write them with fireworks, although there are some like that (like with the counter-tenor). Kupfer is keen on having us not doing too much when musical things change, but to have it more clear, more simple. It’s like, he doesn’t like a singer to show off. He wants real feelings, and to hear not what they can do with their voice, but to bring out the emotional colors of the voice, with the text and body, and the heart.

Is this your first time working with Harry Kupfer?

No, actually not, we did a production of  The Merry Widow in Hamburg years ago. I was just starting out then, and it’s different now. I’m much more experienced. The match is really nice. We had a good long rehearsal period and Kupfer was really detailed and really precise with what he wanted. First he broke down — and that’s what I like about his detailed approach — he broke down every recitative to its core, at the very beginning of rehearsals. If you would’ve heard this, you would’ve thought, “How will this all work?!” All the recits were so long and there were so many pauses, and it went so slow, because he wanted us to have the thoughts first and then sing the lines, or use the pauses while showing that we are thinking about something else and we go in a different direction, so it would make sense. That’s what I really liked about this project; this is a totally different style of theatre, and very different if you compare it to Candide or Cleopatra, but this is the fun part for me, doing various things.

dominik koninger kob presse

Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

Like St. John Passion… 

Yes, of course. It’s a small tour: one day in Italy, then Munich, then the third day we’re in Berlin. I’m only singing Jesus, so for me it’s just a few recits, but it’s a good way to connect back with the RIAS Kammerchor and with the Akademie für Alte Musik. My schedule is a mixture of heaven and hell, black and white, yin and yang.

Is that good for you as a singer? 

Yes, it keeps me really flexible, and I like that. Working on the Handel, I think I have six or seven arias in total but two are quite fast, so it’s really nice. Keeps me flexible — in the head, in the voice.

What repertoire would you still like to do?

If you talk about the next five years, it’s just the usual suspects like Giovanni or Marcello, but if we talk ten or fifteen years, there’s Onegin to discover, maybe there’s a little bit of Wagner, but I’m not sure about it because I have to see how the voice develops. The French stuff has of course a lot to discover — like Hamlet from Thomas, which would be great, but houses rarely do this sort of repertoire.

And there’s the Lieder works as well.

Of course yes, there are plans for making a CD, but you need time and preparation so I’m not sure when that will happen, but we’ll see. It is a difficult business; you’re always touring around, you have so many appointments and there isn’t always time to give everything to this one concert. There is a lot of responsibility every time you do a recital. People come to hear you and you need to be prepared, and learn the music by heart — that’s the very basic work, yes? Then you have to dive deeper into this new world, and it’s a responsibility, every time. And sometimes it’s hard to fulfill. It’s why I’m careful; I still have my opera engagements and my contract here in Berlin. Having recitals scheduled between, for instance, a Candide here and a Poros there and few days later a Pelléas… you know, it has to be well-chosen. Mentally, strength-wise, everything; it’s hard. I’ve been constantly working now since September — I just went from one thing to another. But I’ve really enjoyed focusing only on the Handel for the last six weeks. Once this is done I’ll prepare for my next recitals. When it gets calmer, it gets easier to let everything sink in.

What’s been the most surprising thing so far?

This Handel opera is much easier than the past ones I’ve done! I did Giulio Cesare in Egitto a few years ago; it had much more in terms of coloratura and furioso arias. I was younger. You grow with every challenge and every single thing you have to deal with. Maybe if I hadn’t had that experience four years ago, Poros would be that sort of thing now, and I would be a little bit struggling and lost and more fighting — but this time, it’s good, I’m super-relaxed, even though we open soon. When I’m relaxed I’m more on top of my game than when I’m closing in on myself and wanting something. If you really want something specific, it’s the wrong approach. That’s the surprising thing I discovered doing this. And of course the relaxed and productive way of working with Kupfer and Halubek, and Ruzan and Eric — it’s been a really nice, really positive experience.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

Review: ‘Wozzeck’ at Deutsche Oper Berlin Misses The Mark

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Which came first, the concept or the opera?

This is the question I kept asking myself through Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of Wozzeck at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Having been frequently presented in Berlin over the past few years, this presentation is, admittedly, up against some stiff competition, but not having seen any of those stagings myself, I was going in fresh, curious if I might finally experience a production I liked. Alas.

Keeping in mind what I’d written about Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and how Regie can and frequently does divide opinion, Wozzeck is one of those works that is divisive by its very nature. It invites abstract production because of its entirely abstract nature — the work itself, through its score and story and frequent use of Sprechgesang, resists the idea of tradition, purposely poking, prodding, and sometimes happily eviscerating the entire concept. Creative choices can sometimes thrive in and around such works, and yet, I have yet to see a live performance of Wozzeck that completely satisfies; alas, last evening’s experience at Deutsche Oper  Berlin did nothing in altering this stymied state of music affairs.

Berg’s opera is based on the play Woyzeck, and though it was left incomplete by author Georg Büchner (who died in 1837), it remains a highly influential work, particularly within the German theatre world. So too Berg’s Wozzeck within a classical music corollary; even now, a century after its composition, the work remains revolutionary for its whole-hearted embrace of atonality. Solidly resisting all the predictable sounds and techniques which had dominated Western classical music (along with standard operatic forms) up to that point, the opera, written between 1914 and 1922 and premiered in Berlin, went on to enjoy immense success across Europe before it was labelled “degenerate art” by the Nazis in 1933. It is, as Britannica tidily puts it, “a dark story of madness and murder,” its titular character a soldier stationed in a town near to a military barracks in the early 19th century; an unfaithful wife, an illegitimate child, medical experiments, and murder are all part of the narrative which unfolds over 15 scenes, spread across three acts. It is, in a word, haunting; within Wozzeck‘s score can be heard the oncoming horror of the First World War, the breaking point of the social divides within late 19th century/early 20th century Europe, the desperation of people in an unforgiving place — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually. It is a deeply affecting portrait of alienation, a trait various productions have attempted to underline, amplify, and explore, with varying results, since its first production in 1925.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Tandberg places the action in the early/mid 20th century, in, as the program notes, the interior of a coffee house near the Oslo Royal Castle, on or around National Day in Norway, May 17th. The work opens with Wozzeck (Johan Reuter) and the Captain (Burkhard Ulrich) debating morality, though viewers will clearly note the line of soldiers with their pants down as Wozzeck tends to (ostensibly shaves) them; he later bends over for an examination himself. The carefully sterile set design, by Erlend Birkeland, reveals a precise geometry of repression, with square school-style tables in a canteen-like space framed by more boxes: a long bar, imposing doors and windows, where things are seen but remotely revealed, not even when soldiers can be seen frolicking and stripping naked. The scientific specimens the Doktor (Seth Carico) looks at through his microscope are projected via a tidy white circle upstage, which later drips with color, a display of fragility and cruelty at once. These are striking images, to be sure, but feel oddly distant to the work and its concerns. Those twin concepts — fragility and cruelty — and the way they interact, are vital to knowing and appreciating the life (inner and outer) of the central character, yet they are never explored. Wozzeck and the other characters are so smartly attired, it’s as if the subtext of destitution (so closely connected to that fragile-cruel dance) doesn’t exist at all. Surreal free-flows of ideas are fine, but the ones here have been placed not in service of the drama, but before it, which short-changes both the characters and our sense of them.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

This emphasis is most clearly expressed in the use of video. Tandberg, who previously directed Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Bizet’s Carmen at the Deutsche Oper, presents each of the fifteen scenes that make up Wozzeck as pseudo-vignettes, tenuously (and tediously) divided by the closing and reopening of a black curtain, onto which is projected an immense, black-and-white close-up video of the face of its title character, blinking and silent. Rather than being an insightful and excitingly confrontational choice, the technique, in its insistent repetition, draws attention to itself and becomes a frustrating distraction that kills the much-needed integration of drama, characters, and music; Berg’s score becomes a backdrop to an aesthetic, or series of aesthetics, that creates a disconnect between score, story, and an integrated experience of each.

It doesn’t help that musically this Wozzeck seemed over-dynamic and yet frustratingly gutless. Musical motifs for the Doktor, Captain, Drum Major (Thomas Blondelle), and Marie (Elena Zhidkova), while prominent, were not clear in delineating characterizations within Deutsche Oper General Music Director Donald Runnicles’s grey reading, which had an unfortunate and consistent tendency toward limpid tempos and lack of coloration. Wozzeck’s motifs were jaggedly unfocused and suffered further by being diffused against Tandberg’s over-enthusiastic use of curtain/video. Any sense of vocal nuance baritone Reuter might have attempted to bring to form a more satisfying and complete characterization was washed out by the sheer volume coming from the pit, though baritone Carico, as a demented Doktor, and Zhidkova, with her plummy mezzo tones, fared better. The surreal tone of the production, while brave, added little if any value to the experience and understanding of the opera. Alas, all was also washed out to sea, drowning in more than the blood that flowed, mercilessly, in the final scene.

Golda Schultz: “There Are No Places To Hide With Mozart”

golda schultz

Photo: Gregor Rohrig

The music of Mozart was part of my regular musical diet as a child His work, when I first heard it, had all things my young mind could grab hold of: melody, momentum, drama. One of the first operas I thoroughly enjoyed was Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a deceptively simple opera often programmed by companies program as an audience-pleaser. Many productions emphasize its seemingly whimsical nature, with fantastical representations of various realms of reality, and of course, rich comic aspects (the latter being an aspect I genuinely enjoyed about the acclaimed silent-movie style Kosky/Komische Oper Berlin production). Die Zauberflöte is a profound examination of what is l0st and gained on the path to adulthood and features a myriad of interesting characters who are almost, without fail, portrayed as cliches; the heroic prince, the funny birdman, the wicked Queen. The character of Pamina, in particular, is rarely given any color or vibrancy. That changed when I heard Golda Schultz in the role last year. It’s one she sees as far from thankless. 

The soprano, born in South Africa but based in Germany since 2011, made her Metropolitan Opera debut singing Pamina last season. In a 2017 interview with the Times of Israel, she said she found the character “surprisingly strong. She is the one who saves herself.” Vocally beguiling, Schultz demonstrated a wonderfully flexible tone with a hearty and at times rich sound; note for note she matched the immense Met Orchestra in tone, confidence, sheer presence. A graduate of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, Schultz became a member of the Bayerische Staatsoper Opernstudio in 2011 in Munich, which exposed the young artist to a range of roles and performances; in 2012 she made her formal Bayerische Staatsoper debut in a principal role she’s since performed many times, that of the hapless Contessa Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Schultz also spent a season with Stadttheater Klagenfurt in Austria, where she was acclaimed in new productions of both Der Rosenkavalier and Giulio Cesare. In 2015, she made a splash in her debut with Staatsoper Hamburg in the world premiere of Beat Furrer’s La bianca notte. She’s also performed at Glyndebourne, the Salzburger Festspiele, Teatro Alla Scala, and, most recently, at the 2018 BBC Proms. Opera writer Fred Plotkin recently named her one of the “40 Under 40” singers to watch. More Mozart awaits this autumn, with performances of Nozze at both the Vienna State Opera and Opera Zurich.

ZDF Stars von Morgen

At the Stars of Tomorrow Concert, March 2017. Photo: Claudius Pflug.

Performing in Berlin at the Konzerthaus this weekend, Schultz’s program includes works by Mozart and Beethoven under the baton of conductor Riccardo Minasi, who leads the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin in these, as well as symphonies by Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven’s dramatic concert aria “Ah! Perfido” as well as a pair of short Mozart arias, “Vado, ma dove?” and “Misera, dove son!” / “Ah! non son io che parlo” were delivered with a genuinely magnetic mix of sensitivity and steel on Saturday evening, with Schultz showing off an exceptionally liquid-golden tone, smart modulation, and exceptional dramatic instinct. Her latter Mozart performance in particular inspired many hearty bravos and cheers. Berliners will have to wait until June to see her live again; she’ll be appearing at the Boulez Hall for an all-Schubert recital with pianist Jonathan Ware.

Just before weekend performances, Schultz and I met to talk singing, learning languages, and the special appeal of Mozart to singers, not to mention the challenges of Beethoven. We also talked about her current work with acclaimed Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whom she’s working with as part of a tour with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. (She’s back with them next week for performances in Spain.) In-person, Schultz is every bit as passionate as she is when performing — you can feel her energy, a sparky, fierce glow that encompasses and encapsulates an artistry that is at once awesome and approachable. That makes for an exciting performer, and, perhaps, provides the right inspiration for many young artists and new audiences as well.

How long did it take you to learn German?

I’m still learning! I say one wrong word and they switch to English immediately. They go, “ We can speak English, it’s fine!” I’ve been here since 2011, but it took me two-and-a-half years to get up the guts to start speaking German and the only reason is that I lived in the south for a while, in Klagenfurt, where no one speaks English — it’s German or Italian only.

But I’d imagine having the language facility is hugely helpful as a singer.

It’s a tough thing, There’s the old school that says you have to learn the languages to sing in the languages, but then the IPA discovered ways for everyone to sing, which has been really helpful and opened up the industry to people who wouldn’t have access really unless you were part of the culture. So in those terms, phonetics has kind of democratized the culture of classical music — if you’re from Korea or South Africa you can sing in Italian even if you weren’t raised speaking it. But the more you stick with a piece the more the rhythm of the language filters into what you’re doing. In the beginning it’s difficult and it’s tedious, but there’s something quite profound and tactile about having to learn a language.

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As Cleopatra in “Guilio Cesare” at Stadttheater Klagenfurt, February 2014. (Photo: Karlheinz Fessl)

What was your first experience singing in a language you didn’t know?

That was in The Marriage Of Figaro in Klagenfurt. I don’t speak Italian — I mean, I can throw some phrases around but that’s it — so I had to do the phonetics. The diction teacher said to do the basic translation first, then the poetic translation, but you still need to know what every single words means and then deconstruct how you speak it; you need to know where the verb is, where the adjective is, and learn about stresses. I’ve discovered that sometimes even people who speak the language don’t necessarily know what they do, things like phrasal doubling; if you ask the average Italian, they don’t know what that is for the most part, they just know when they hear it and someone doesn’t do it, they’ll correct it. Only now, slowly, Italian coaches are learning to talk to you about something like phrasal doubling but if you don’t know to do it, the language doesn’t sound right.

Is this something that was emphasized when you were in the Bayerische Staatsoper ensemble?

Yes, in that ensemble you have to be a jack of all trades. I’ve done Wagner, Stravinsky, Dvorak, Puccini… sometimes you do it all in the same month! My first Wagner I sang a Valkyrie in 2012, when still in the Opera Studio. That was amazing. Initially I told the German coach who was helping me, “I can’t sing Wagner!” and he said, “Yes you can, you just have to know how to sing the consonants in German. If you can do that, Wagner will never go against your legato.” And if you really notice, Wagner writes quite cleverly! When there’s a lot of singing, he kind of silences the orchestra; if you look at the score, it’s very extreme but the minute people start singing, they’re holding atmosphere. That’s where so many twentieth century composers found the idea of atmosphere, in Wagner’s writing. The “Hojotoho!happens three or four times, but the score also has things like piano and pianissimo — he wants a scene to play. The music is so exciting and the drama is so intense.

But your voice has changed too; you’re touring Mahler 4 right now with Gustavo Dudamel and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

It’s not easy to do; you have to know what you are capable of and what you are not capable of. I like to study full scores — conducting scores — and, no joke, Mahler writes “Do not overpower the singer” in the fourth movement, so if you want to sing softly, the orchestra has to help you. It’s quite interesting he wrote that; Gustavo said during rehearsals, “I want her to sing as quietly as she wants to.”

golda schultz

Photo: Gregor Rohrig

Is this your first time working with Maestro Dudamel?

Yes. It’s indescribable. When you see pictures or you see videos of him talking about things, you get the sense he’s a larger-than-life character and full of personality; when you meet and work with him, that largeness of character comes from a very quiet place of passion and joy, and it’s just because it’s so concentrated and so intensely about the work and about bringing everything together. There’s something quite lovely and almost shy about it, really fine and small and delicate — he is genuinely one of the kindest people I’ve worked with. It’s really rare for anybody to be that grounded and lovely, especially someone who’s had so much success at such a young age. At the end of every concert, he refuses to bow himself, he likes to bow with everybody. He recognizes we all did it together and his job wouldn’t exist without everybody else doing their job — he has so much respect for each person. The bowing takes almost as long as the concert! He’s like Oprah: “You get a bow and you get a bow and you get a bow!” And people go nuts. The applause in Lisbon lasted ten minutes if not more.

What’s it like to experience that kind of energy from an audience?

I’m grateful, and I’m glad my job helped people have a good evening. It can be an emotional experience, the experience of live performance and the receiving of a live performance. It’s a real relationship that happens over a space of time, but to some extent, it’s one-sided: it’s me, the performer, giving you, the audience member, an emotional experience. What I really do appreciate is people who come after shows and go, “Thank you so much, it was so amazing” — it’s a genuine exchange. Someone came up to me after a show — I was dead tired, I wanted to go home and die somewhere in a corner; it also wasn’t my best performance, and someone came up and said, “I had a really rough day today, and this helped me make sense of my day, so thank you.” And I was like, “You and me both! You had a rough day, I had a rough day! This moment between us has helped me make sense of my day too, and we’re both leaving better than when we came!” That’s profound. I try to look for that kind of profound connection, even in the banal.

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As Contessa Almaviva in “Le nozze di Figaro” at the Glyndebourne Festival, July 2016. Photo: Robbie Jack.

The concert at Konzerthaus this weekend seems anything but that — it feels like a nice display of your Mozart talents. You’ve performed The Marriage of Figaro a lot, you’ve done Clemenza, and you made your Met debut in The Magic Flute; Mozart seems to be your guy.

He’s my homey! I love singing Mozart, it sits nicely within my voice though I really don’t think there’s a voice he hasn’t written for. When people say they can’t sing him, I say it’s because you haven’t tried! What I find it he does one of two things: he either shows you everything you’re doing right with your singing, or everything you’re doing wrong with your singing. There are no places to hide with Mozart. It’s also the same with Beethoven, like “Ah, perfido!” It’s difficult to hide. He didn’t have the facility of hearing, so sometimes things are very tricky, but because he had the experience of writing for virtuosic violinists and clarinet players, he has that sense of virtuosity for other instruments. But fingers can move in a different way than a human voice! You sense that he knows, but he’s like, “Figure it out yourself!” It’s been quite an education to sing Beethoven, but I love it.

Beethoven’s vocal writing is notoriously difficult, but I whenever I hear it I always get the sense he knew and didn’t care.

No, he doesn’t care! The idea of words being connected and together and taking breaths…  for him, the phrase matters more than the text sometimes, and that’s what makes it rewarding and ecstatic, especially when you do find a way. It’s not that he writes inhuman writing, it’s deeply human! But it’s on the border of almost too much in terms of what’s doable, and that’s the genius of Beethoven; through all of his music, he’s standing on the border, daring you to go to the edge of your abilities. You feel that pressure and … I like it, I really enjoy it.

Krisztina Szabó: Singing Is “A Lifelong Process”

szabo mezzo

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.

Kirill Petrenko Exceeds Expectations With The Berlin Philharmonic

petrenko Berlin Philharmonic

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

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

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

Petrenko Berlin Philharmonic

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

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

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

Petrenkp Berlin Philharmonic

Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold

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

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

Petrenko Berlin Philharmonic

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

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

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