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Barrie Kosky: “Crises Always Bring Out The Best And Worst Of People”

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus

What do you do when all the energy you’ve put into careful planning over many years is suddenly threatened? Barrie Kosky decided to wipe the board clean and start again. The new autumn programme at Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic means, for the busy Intendant, a tangle of what he calls “scheduling nightmares” but also opens the door to new possibilities, for artists and audiences alike. It’s a purposeful step into the unknown, something the self-described “gay, Jewish kangaroo” is well used to doing after three-plus decades of working in theatre.

As head of the Komische Oper Berlin since 2012, Kosky (who has been called “Europe’s hottest director“) has made it a mission to regularly stage early 20th century operettas, Baroque opera, musicals, Mozart, and 20th century works. The pervasive idea of opera being an art form designated entirely for certain classes is one that niggles Kosky; he told The Telegraph in 2019 that “it fits a cultural agenda to say it’s elitist, but it is bullshit.” The idea that a work of art is challenging, entertaining, and enlightening at once is, in Kosky’s world, good, and entirely normal; just how much the bulbs for any or all of the elements in this trinity are dimmed or brightened depends, of course, on the material, but just as equally, the context. Berlin’s history, and indeed, that of Germany, have been constant sources of inspiration and exploration, and have often provided a meaty subtext to Kosky’s stagings, notably in his 2017 Fiddler on the Roof, here called Anatevka, with its unmissable, and purposefully uncomfortable, recalling both distant and recent pasts. His 2015 staging of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron featured imagery which disturbingly recalled the Holocaust. This bold combination of vision, politics, and thoughtful imagination (and in many cases, reimagination) is what has largely fuelled the incredible success KOB has enjoyed over the course of Kosky’s tenure, which is set to end in 2022. Before then, the company’s re-envisioned autumn program is a concentrated symbol of all Kosky has, and hopes to still, accomplish, both within and outside of Berlin proper. The new slate of programming is ambitious: there will be minimalist stagings of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Offenbach’s opéra bouffe The Countess of Gerolstein, Gluck’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, Schumann’s Mondnacht, and the operetta Die Blume von Hawaii by Paul Abraham; concert performances of works by Schubert (the song cycle Winterreise will be performed by ensemble baritone Günter Papendell) and Kurt Weill (with singer/actor Katherine Mehrling); a three-concert series devoted to the works of Igor Stravinsky (led by Music Director Ainārs Rubiķis); a series of salon talks combining science, creativity, and social issues; dance presentations (including choreographer Emanuel Gat’s SUNNY by Staatsballett Berlin); and a video project by Gob Squad (a British-German collective specializing in video/performance collaborations) which will use Berlin as a backdrop tot explore perceptions around the comfortably familiar.

That sense of comfort is not, as a concept, something Kosky has ever spent time or energy presenting or encouraging. In a conversation with James Clutton (Opera Holland Park’s Director of Opera) earlier this year, he compared the overall position of KOB to Berlin’s other two opera houses, noting that “Deutsche Oper is Moby Dick, Staatsoper (Unter den Linden) is Jaws, and… we’re Flipper.” It’s Kosky’s smart, sassy,  singular way of illustrating the vivid approach of the house and its sparky Intendant to the material they program and the artists (both ensemble and guests) they engage. The longtime director’s style – if he could be said to have one – busily combines color, movement, and drama in a vivid theatrical aesthetic, colorfully aided by the work of longtime collaborators, including choreographer Otto Pichler, set designer Rufus Didwiszus, costume designer Klaus Bruns, set and lighting designer Klaus Grünberg, and designer Katrin Lea Tag. Embracing strong imagery and dramatically rich theatricality, Kosky is unafraid of upsetting the apple cart of operatic expectation; in fact, it’s something of a specialty of his, to purposefully turn it over, kick the wheels, collect the apples, and go off to make something considered delicious by some and unpalatable by others. Not everything he does is easily digestible, but then, it isn’t supposed to be; Kosky’s oeuvre as an artist is to question perceptions and long-held beliefs, which sounds simple enough but is no small thing in an industry constantly pressured to hew to so-called “safe” programming and presentation. While expanding the possibilities of live presentational experience, great attention is given to small details within a larger overall narrative framework. His 2017 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, for instance, contextualized the very place in which it was presented – Bayreuth – in order to question notions of identity and creativity; utilizing puppetry and a backdrop of the Nürnberg trials, Kosky put the opera’s composer on trial. As Martin Kettle noted in The Guardian “(a)t the heart of this Meistersinger is an imaginative, subtle and serious staging of a simple question: how far does Wagner’s antisemitism invalidate his artistic achievement? In the end, Kosky proves to be a fair judge of a question that is still necessarily debated.”

Creative probing into the nature of creation, ideas of artistry, and the role(s) of context within all of them reveal pursuits at once serious (Schoenberg’s unfinished 1932 opera Moses und Aron) and gloriously silly (Oscar Straus’ frothy 1923 operetta Die Perlen von Cleopatra), with a particular penchant for combining surreal dreamscape visions with unapologetic disruptions to socio-religious (and operatic) norms. His 2016 production of The Nose by Dmitri Shostakovich for the Royal Opera Covent Garden famously featured a line of tap-dancing title characters, while the 2015 staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel for Bayerische Staatsoper revealed (nay, revelled in) an even more surreal, grotesque world where the personal and political intersect. The production, which was to have been presented at the Metropolitan Opera this December (cancelled because of COVID19), features a sparring, obsessive couple, and delves into the subconscious of each to reveal a parade of decadent, deprived fantasies that strip away the eroto-goth, pseudo-romance of Valery Bryusov’s breathless 1907 novel. Fierce, ferocious, and at times suitably unfathomable, the memorable production was not only notable for its comically nightmarish vignettes (one of which featured a very sarcastically-presented penis being roasted and consumed) but for the genuine interest Kosky took in the depiction of the opera’s female character, Renata, an interest which applies more broadly to the many pivotal female characters within the works he’s helmed. Paul Abraham’s 1932 operetta Ball im Savoy, staged at KOB in 2013, featured the inimitable Dagmar Manzel (a company mainstay) as Madeleine de Faublas, who clings desperately to an elegant dignity while trying to keep her marriage afloat; Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe Die schöne Helena (known more for its French title La belle Hélène, and staged at KOB in 2014) offered a fascinating depiction of its title character, one touching on vampy, vapid, scary, silly, and girlish. Monteverdi’s Die Krönung der Poppea (in its original Italian, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with the Komische using a richly reimagined score by composer Elena Kats-Chernin) portrayed the title character’s ruthless and naked (sometimes literally) ambitions with zealous, bloody clarity. Franz Schreker’s 1918 work Die Gezeichneten (staged in 2018 at Oper Zürich) Kosky presented Carlotta through the disturbed, damaged perceptions of the male character obsessed with her, creating a twisted parable that hinged, like much of his work (notably his Pelleas et Melisande staging in 2017), around the dialectics of male desire, female identity, power, subservience, and beauty.

Nowhere, perhaps, were these angular explorations made more clear than in Kosky’s highly divisive staging of Carmen, first presented at Oper Frankfurt and subsequently at the Royal Opera in 2018. Kosky purposely stripped away the opera’s historical visual cliches (farewell fans and flamenco!) while mocking the audience’s expectations of them. Instead of the cliched-sexy, wide-eyed, wink-wink-nudge-nudge choreography so often (almost constantly) deployed as a central part of the character – as embodied in the famous habanera – Kosky’s Carmen was a kind of toreador herself, and during the aria itself she wasn’t swaying hips but peeling off a gorilla costume – gimmicky perhaps, but a deliberate nod at Marlene Dietrich’s similar revelation in Blonde Venus, with its balance of power, desire, and subversion of expectation, and a smirking (if highly confrontational) shove at long-held, seemingly immobile notions of what constitutes “sexy” in female operatic depiction. The moment – indeed the entire production – underlined Kosky’s love-it-or-leave-it approach. 2021 will see the Australian director helm a highly-anticipated new production of Der Rosenkavalier for Bayerische Staatsoper together with his regular team, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, with whom he has previously worked several times, including, most recently, at Komische Oper Berlin last autumn, for a visceral staging of Henze’s 1965 work The Bassarids. There is no small amount of anticipation for next year’s Rosenkavalier; it follows Otto Schenk’s widely-adored, Rococo-style production, first presented at the house in 1972. The production will also mark Jurowski’s first staging at the house since being named the company’s General Music Director Designate (formally starting in autumn 2021); soprano Marlis Petersen is set to sing the role of the Marschallin. The production is set to open in mid-March of 2021.

Before that, however, is the re-envisioned autumn season in Berlin, a brave step into what is a largely unknown world still grappling with the effects of pandemic; how much audiences will respond is anyone’s guess, though the combination of a faithful live audience, and a growing digital one (thanks to a partnership with Opera Vision) means the company will continue to grow its presence in both local and global respects. When we spoke recently, Kosky had just returned to Berlin from finalizing lighting plans for a future production at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. (“Who would say ‘no’ to a week in the South of France?” Well, especially right now… “Hello!”) This was my second conversation with Kosky, the first having been in early 2018 when we chatted about the central role of operetta in his programming. Funny, warm, blunt, and chatty, Kosky is a lively conversationalist with none of the I’m-A-Famous-Artiste characteristics that might trail from a figure of his stature. Authenticity is a theme which has emerged through the many conversations I’ve been privileged to share with various classical figures, and I can think of no better figure to embody such a quality than Kosky; he is real, earthy, wholly himself, wholly authentic, with a like-it-or-lump-it boldness that will either engage or repel. It’s not difficult to figure out which camp many opera fans sit in, myself included. Here the director shares his thoughts on the whys and wherefores of changing programming, what the pandemic hath wrought in terms of acceptance and humility, the logistics of funding, upcoming projects (including Rosenkavalier in Munich), and just how his dedication on an April episode of Hope@Home came to be.

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

Why did you redo the schedule from September through to the end of the year?

We decided we just couldn’t mess around. Some of my colleagues are all hoping by October we’ll all be back to normal, but I think they’re living in la-la land – it’s impossible. We have a luxurious thing you don’t have in North America or Britain: the subsidized ensemble system. It enables us to be able to do things so we don’t have to spend a cent, and we don’t have to employ people – they’re all here.

I read somewhere you’d said how artists who are complaining in Germany have no idea about how bad things really are elsewhere…

Oh… yes, it’s my pet thing at the moment! It’s like, I just find that this German word, “jammern”, it’s like this, well, more than complaint, this … <whining noise>… and you know, I understand any freelance artist can do that if they’ve lost jobs. I have no problem if friends of mine, freelance friends, do it – they can complain twenty-four hours a day if they have no money. But for people within the system who are getting their full monthly payment and doing no work – like the orchestra, like the chorus, like the soloists, like the technicians – you know, shut the fuck up. Really. I don’t even want to hear about your difficulties – you have none, you’re being paid and not working. And then they say, “We miss performing!” And I say, “Go stand in front of an old folks’ home and play your violin like so many other people are doing!” When I speak to all my friends in America, Canada, Australia, Britain, they’ve just lost six months of work! Some of them fall between the funding slots so they can’t apply for financial help! So… really.

Comparatively speaking , I think many classical artists outside of Germany look in with envy because of the system being much more well- funded.

Well it is. The system is stronger, and the financial packages are bigger – Merkel announced €1 billion for the arts, but that’s on top of hundreds of millions the city gave, and on top of the billions they give to the arts anyway.

Is it true you don’t like the term “reduced” opera? That seems to be what many organizations are doing, or thinking of doing, right now.

I mean, I don’t think if something is small that it’s “reduced.” Certainly if you have a reduced Ring Cycle, like the one by Jonathan Dove, it’s a reduced orchestration, but what we’ve deliberately done is not that, even though we may be using smaller forces. Some of the best pieces of music ever written are small, and quite frankly, if we have to have a six-month pause from Mahler, well, there’s too much Mahler being played anyway – it’s lost its specialness being done so much. But more Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Bach wouldn’t hurt anybody! Not everything has to be monolithic – but “reduced” is a word that implies things that I don’t want to imply. We all know what the situation is, and I feel it’s better to say, “We’re doing a version of The Countess Of Gerolstein” and not “We’re doing a reduced version” – I don’t like that word “reduced.” I’ve tried to ban it.

The needed move into these smaller versions of things highlights an intimacy within the overall experience which audiences may have been craving – this idea that opera and classical must always be so grand and monolithic, as you say, is being dismantled.

Indeed. Let me give you an example. We started rehearsals recently for a planned production of Pierrot Lunaire with Dagmar Manzel; she’s been wanting to do this for the last twenty years. We paired it with those two fabulous Beckett monologues, Not I and Rockaby. This was planned two years ago, but the idea we begin a season with that talking mouth, I mean… it couldn’t be better, that you actually begin the first season after the whole corona thing with not music but Beckett’s (style of) music and this insane talking mouth! And just to be in the room and to work on that Pierrot Lunaire score – it’s an important work written in Berlin in 1912, just before Schoenberg started to meddle in 12-tone music – but you forget what an astonishing piece of music it is. Stravinsky said Pierrot Lunaire was like the solar plexus of 20th-century music. You hear so much in these tiny twenty-one poems – they’re not even sung, there are about ten notes the speaker has to sing, but with five instruments. And it’s just as extraordinary as Tristan und Isolde, it’s just as extraordinary as Wozzeck, and it’s just as extraordinary as the chromatic worlds of Mahler 6 and 7, so you suddenly think, well, maybe forget the epic, forget the grand, forget the huge statement – there’s plenty of repertoire to use.

But I do tend to feel a bit wary of giving large philosophical or existential answers about what is art, what is culture, what is opera, what will it be, what should it be, when we’re still in the middle of a health crisis. We can have this discussion maybe next year when we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, because that’s going to hit. I feel my job now is to try and discover what wonderful pieces of music theatre we can perform with the resources we have available and within the constraints which are in place. It’s very pragmatic; I think the existential things can come later.

Speaking of pragmatism, KOB has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Opera Vision; the broadcasts have had a central role in shaping ideas relating to culture within the digital realm. Those working in music and theatre have said numerous times over the past four months that video can never replace the real thing, that the live experience is entirely singular and of course that’s true – but digital isn’t supposed to replace anything; it’s ancillary, complementary, an add-on, and it’s also very helpful for those who can’t make it to the actual location. You have a digital component to this new fall season, which implies an embrace of technology as part and parcel of this new way to experience culture in the so-called “new normal.” Why?

I’ve always said technology isn’t here to replace the live experience; it’s to operate through it in some way. It is a great marketing tool – we hardly print anything anymore – and it’s also a way, as you said, to share. Not everyone, outside of a few German opera critics, can jump on an airplane and come see work all the time, so what’s the choice, you can’t see this show because we don’t want to present it digitally, or we give you the opportunity to see it and… ? I think after the crisis finishes there’s a big discussion to be had about rights and royalties; people should be paid something, the time of all free-free-free should be over. I’m also not sure in future we’d have everything free online; we’d have to look at that. So I think if we do charge for viewings, the money would go toward the artists’ royalties in some way. I think it’s very important. But yes, when it comes to digital, people jump to the polarized position: when opera has a livestream, it’s “oh this is the end of the magic of opera!” and you go, “No.” I don’t make the jump from ‘making it accessible and available in another form’ to ‘it’s the end of opera’ – I don’t make that jump.

I do feel differently with the cinema stuff; I think there’s a big difference. You can sit at home and watch Moses und Aron in your house, which I like the idea of, but I’m not so wild about you going to your local cinema and buying a ticket to see that work live on the big screen. For some reason I think that competes then, it takes away from your local house, and makes it into a cinematic experience…

… which it wasn’t meant to be in the first place.

Right. But I like the idea of streaming things at home – that sort of accessibility I like a lot. Digital is there as another way of exploring how we can make interesting work available to more people. We did Moses und Aron for only six performances, so only 7000 people saw it live – we sold out the run – but now already 15,000 or even more have seen it in the last few weeks. So more people  saw it digitally than they did originally. I’m not going to complain about that.

Moses und Aron, staging, Kosky, Komische Oper Berlin, Schoenberg, opera

Robert Hayward as Moses in Moses und Aron, Komische Oper Berlin, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The style of filming was very specific to online streaming; it wasn’t trying to be cinematic but did provide a different perspective than if one had been sitting in the back row on the top tier of the house. 

Every theatre experience is different if you watch it live or filmed, and we were very lucky when we decided during my time at KOB that we would do livestreams and we would record them. I think the other big house that has a library for livestreams is Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper), in terms of being able to just release productions during the last few months, but my job is to try and entice people to Berlin eventually, so if thousands of people have seen these productions in the last few months, maybe some are thinking, “Oooh I want to go to Berlin, what are they doing right now?” It’s all connected.

I shared the link for Die Perlen der Cleopatra to a friend who is writing a musical and although he doesn’t know the KOB’s work he loved it and was curious to see more. 

That’s great! I think for non-Germans, in terms of seeing operetta or musicals done on that scale, you just don’t see it anywhere else quite like that.

We’ve spoken about operetta in the past, and it’s nice to see it as part of your autumn programming.

We do need laughter right now. What I’ve found amazing the last few months is, at the beginning, when the shock of the lockdown was dissipating – we had our lockdown so early – various things came online and people started to play, and it was terribly lamento, this self-indulgent thing of “it’s the end! I’m playing the saddest most depressing music I could imagine to share with you across the world!” And I’m thinking, you know, it’s not a requiem we’re dealing with. I think we can still assume, when we weren’t playing, and then when we do play, we want to present a spectrum of music theatre experiences, so to balance the Schoenberg and Iphigenie, (KOB) had to do an operetta with the ensemble, because by the time we get to October we’ll have to have some laughs along the line. That’s not to make any light of any situation or of the hundreds of thousands of deaths, but we’re going to have to not just sit here and think it’s the end. Because it isn’t the end.

It’s felt that way for many – there’s been a lot of despair because of the pandemic situation.

Yes but I think we’re also got to realize it’s all about perspective. The Western idea of despair is not on the scale of despair on other continents. Historical despair…  you know, a lot of the sort of, German cultural scene at the moment is railing against the idea of wearing masks and think it’s hysterics and whatever, the whole discussion is about, “are my freedoms and rights being taken away by being told to wear a mask in shops and on public transport” and I think, if your definition of the loss of freedom and rights is about wearing a mask to maybe not infect someone else in society, then you need to go and live in a country when freedom and rights are really under threat. That to me is another issue of this whole thing.

I said to my house as part of an internal video that I think it’s very important we have a perspective about this, and that it’s very easy to sink into a negativity – you can sink into a frustration, but as I said at the beginning, you know, outside the Western European cultural system, it’s terrible – orchestras, dance companies, institutions that have been developing for decades are under existential threat, and I think sometimes it’s better if you’re lucky to either help people or to shut the fuck up.

… or whinge on the internet?

The internet is the great whinge forum of all time! I don’t mind people being frustrated, I can understand it, and also understand I speak from a privileged position, and I’m very careful about that. I think crises always bring out the best and worst of people. It’s interesting to run a house when you’re successful, it’s also interesting to see how stable the ship is if you’re in a storm. That’s also interesting.

You’re hoping to leave something of a stable ship at KOB in the near future, then?

I leave in two years, but I sort of don’t leave, because I’m still staying on to do my work and as an advisor. I’ll be looking after the whole renovation project for two years, my team I’ve been working with are taking over the house so there’s continuity there but it’s a chapter finishing, and the last thing I want to do is hand over an institution that isn’t strong and creative.

I feel like this whole lockdown experience has been such an exercise in humility for many.

It still is, and everyone’s in the same boat. Salzburg, it’ll be interesting this summer to see what happens there in the laboratory of Salzburg, but that’s also not quite the reality, because Salzburg is a summer festival. At the Felsenreitschule where they’re presenting Elektra, there is no pit, it’s a huge, open area, so they don’t have to deal with musicians and big orchestras in pits and big choruses and hundreds of people backstage – they don’t have to deal with any of this. So I’m skeptical of it being used as a template of how the future will be. I wish them well, but it has nothing to do with what we’re doing or the challenges we face.

… or the audiences you have.

The average age in Salzburg is 345; we are considerably younger than that.

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

And your Der Rosenkavalier is still in the books next year in Munich. 

We won’t be changing it. If we have to do social distancing, it’ll be postponed. I can’t do with it what I’m doing with Boris Godounov in Zürich – the chorus and the orchestra will be beamed into the opera house live, and the singers and extras will be doing a strange, dreamlike production live, but I can do that with Boris Godounov because it’s fragmented anyway, it’s about history and how we remember history, so conceptually, fine – that’s not how I conceived it, but it’s fine.

But with Rosenkavalier, no! The opera itself is impossible to do with any form of social distancing, and it’s impossible to play in a smaller orchestral ensemble. They’re building the sets so it’s not as if it won’t happen. But as I said, I refuse to get into a situation where it’s, “Oh no my precious Rosenkavalier, it simply must be done!” – yes, I’d be devastated if it didn’t happen, but if it doesn’t happen in February-March, well, they’ll have to do it at some time; they’ve invested so much in costumes and sets already. I really want to do it next year, but it’s impossible to know what’ll happen, and they know that. Some of these productions we’re planning are impossible to do with restrictions, but I’m not even thinking about next year. January the 1st is not on my radar.

So it’s an exercise in non-attachment then?

It is. And the good thing about Rosenkavalier is that the work had all been done before corona – we’ve been working for three years on it, three-and-half years in fact. And it was all sort of finished in terms of the large concept – that was finished, but now it’s how it’s to be done, working it out in rehearsals, as you know. So it’s Strauss, and Rosenkavalier, and it’s Kosky’s Rosenkavalier, and in Munich: throw everything and the kitchen sink into it! And yes, there’ll be a lot of surprises in that one.

But first some surprises in the autumn in Berlin… 

I think what’s happened in the German-speaking world is there are two thoughts: one thought is to bury your head in the sand and say, “It’ll all be fine and we’ll deal with it after summer; just wait and see” and…  I don’t think that’s the way to do it. Some of the larger houses are doing that. But the other thought is to ask: how far ahead do we want to imagine this will have an impact on us? The Met cancelled my Fiery Angel I was meant to come for a month to New York to do – which I am sad about. I was going to go to Tel Aviv to do Magic Flute also, and it got cancelled.

So when the lockdown first happened, I thought, “I’m in Berlin, and that’s good; it’s good to be with my house” and I said, “I think we have to just scrap everything.” So we postponed the three premiers that were to happen this season: Katya Kabanova, the children’s opera Tom Sawyer, and (Rise and Fall of the City of) Mahagonny, which are going into 2021-22. We cancelled four revivals as well. For me it’s more interesting not to adapt or reduce – that terrible word – existing repertoire, but to start from scratch, to invent things, do new things, all with social distancing. The biggest thing is smaller audiences –okay, that’s one thing, but the social distancing with an orchestra and ensemble, that’s the tricky thing. I said, “Let’s see what we can do; do I want to do this in a year’s time? Or for a few months’ time next season? I’ll have to do it.” And the only way we can do this and have the luxury to do it, is because I have 105 orchestra musicians, 60 chorus members, and 24 singers, all on salary. And I said “okay, we won’t have any sets; we’ll have a bare stage but we’ll invest in lights and costumes” and I’ll be in the rehearsal room with my company creating things. The alternative is to say, “We can’t possibly present anything” and that’s not an option if you’re being paid millions and millions of Euros in taxpayer money. It’s not an option.

It’s a sharp contrast to the North American system. 

It costs money, that’s the thing. We have a 90% subsidized system here and we also have ensembles, which don’t exist in North America, They can’t do anything. And they actually save money by not investing money – of course they could put on this and that but it’ll cost money, and as you know, it’s all box office, box office, box office, so it doesn’t make sense to have a few hundred people in the theatre…

Or outdoors.

Right, it still costs. I know from discussions with my colleagues in North America, yes, as you said before, they look over here with extreme jealousy. We know where the biggest costs in opera go – they go to salaries of orchestra, chorus, and singers; it’s a very different discussion being had in North America and Britain, and as I said, within the subsidized system we are even more lucky because we are a repertoire-based ensemble house; we are not having to pay a lot of guest singers.

When I spoke with (KOB Kapellmeister) Jordan de Souza near the start of the lockdown (for Opera Canada’s summer 2020 edition) he explained how rescheduling singers and guests is a tremendous jigsaw because cancellations mean constant changes.

It’s not a jigsaw; it’s a domino set, and it’s always falling! Jordan is absolutely right though, you deal with cancellations and the new plan, and then of course the longer it goes on the more problems it creates because someone is suddenly not available, they’re meant to be here, or they’ve been postponed, or “oh that’s still happening, we’re changing the version, are you free then?” It’s been a nightmare of coordination. A nightmare! And that’s why I did what I did: by sweeping everything off and concentrating on one thing, it instantly creates a new situation.

The difficulties are with next year; the more there are postponements and cancellations, the more it gets really complicated. In Berlin we decided to keep the workshops open; they’re building all the sets for all the new productions as per normal because if we don’t do that we get into a situation where you can’t just switch on a machine and build a set in two weeks. Secondly, there’s a few hundred people not working and they need to, as a purely psychological exercise in saying, “These sets have to be built.”

So you don’t really have a proper summer…

I’m rehearsing Pierrot, but I do have two weeks’ holiday in Greece. In quarantine I had seven weeks off, which is the longest I’ve had off in thirty years.

It was nice to see you accompanying various KOB ensemble members on the piano over the course of the lockdown.

That was an easy thing to do, they’re great people. It started with Katherine Mehrling doing the Kurt Weill songs, there was something like 15,000 people who saw it. We saw that number and went, “oh! Let’s do it every two weeks then, and feature people associated with the house!” I didn’t want it to be… I mean, you look at other houses, and their livestream musical presentations with no audience are treated like a funeral. That’s why we called ours celebrations, like, “here’s a little taste of something and we hope you enjoy it” – I wasn’t making any great statement about the times we live in, I just wanted to show people we’re still there and we’re thinking of them. They were fantastically successful, but after five we said “that’s enough, we have to get back to working” but also, I play the piano very rarely in public, and so I get such enjoyment out of doing it, particularly when accompanying. I’m not interested in playing solo, I just like playing with great people. I feel happy and secure when they’re in front and I’m playing away behind them – but also it’s a middle finger, to show people around the world who assume directors aren’t musical or that directors don’t know or care about music. All of that is nonsense. Sometimes it’s good to remind people of that.

You read the work of Joseph Roth as part of an early episode in Daniel Hope’s ARTE series at the start of the lockdown; that reading began with your dedication to people who were enduring the lockdown alone. I must confess when I heard you say that, I stood in my kitchen and wept with gratitude – it was very special to feel seen during that time.

I have a number of friends who are between partners, or don’t have partners or families or whatever, and were doing it alone, particularly the first part of it, and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, a few days and nights fine, but for weeks and weeks and weeks, that’s quite tough” – especially in some countries that had very severe lockdowns. So I really felt for a number of my friends. And I thought about the time when I didn’t have a partner or whatever, and I have a dog too, which helps – the dog has to get out and have a pee – but I thought about those who were alone, I mean…  oh, that’s quite hard. We all love being alone at various times; I love being alone in my apartment or walking my dog, but weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks of it… my God.

So it just came to me, I mean, I so love Joseph Roth, and I love everything about his writing and everything about him; he was this sort of solitary journeyman going on trains through Europe and staying in hotels. Actually a few minutes before we went on, I said to Daniel, “Can I say something?: and he said, “Whatever you like!” He was playing something beautiful and melancholic just before, so it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I’m glad I did it.

Daniel Hope: “I’ve Always Tried To Tell Stories”

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Photo © Nicolas Zonvi

Whatever good resulted from the experience of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, one thing is certain: the gaping holes of arts broadcasting have been revealed. Violinist Daniel Hope, together with French-German broadcaster ARTE, have stepped up to try and fill these gaps. Taking as its model the European-style salon, Hope@Home has provided a modicum of the concert-going experience while consciously avoiding any attempted replication of pre-COVID (or so-called normal) formats.

I wrote about the program at the end of April, which began its life earlier that month in the South Africa-born violinist’s living room in Berlin. Equal parts fun, thoughtful, familiar, and surprising, each episode (roughly 30 to 45 minutes) features a mix of performance and poetry through creative chamber combinations. This is a show that is simultaneously aware of both its old(ish) roots in music and its modern presentation in medium, and it is clear-eyed in its mission to provide an ancillary form of classical experience which simultaneously educates, enlightens, and entertains. Guests have included conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Donald Runnicles, and Vladimir Jurowski, pianists Kirill Gerstein, Tamara Stefanovich, and Sebastian Knauer, opera singers Thomas Hampson, Mattias Goerne, Magdalena Kožená, and Evelina Dobračeva, and actors Ulrich Tukur, Iris Berben, Katharina Thalbach, and Daniel Brühl, many of whom performed in Hope’s own parlor. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that such an eclectic bevy of artists would pass through my Berlin salon, nor that we would resurrect the age-old art of the house concert,” Hope wrote in The Guardian in early May. With over sixty episodes now, Hope@Home attracts an international, ever-expanding viewership, and has thus far enjoyed over five million views. Blending old-world charm with a 21st century sensibility is no small thing, and in so doing, Hope has, if I might add a personal note, provided some wonderful moments of comfort and company over many sad months of enforced isolation.

The program has, in parallel with the easing of European lockdown restrictions, moved to a weekends-only format, and out of Hope’s house. Now called Hope@Home On Tour!, various unique and historical locales (indoor and outdoor) across central Europe have become its sets. The July 4th broadcast featured Hope’s very own Zürcher Kammerorchester (Zürich Chamber Orchestra), of which he has been Music Director since 2016, performing in a very evocative factory setting. As well as his duties with Zürich, Hope is also President of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, Artistic Director of the Frauenkirche Dresden, and Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco. One senses the chamber set-up is where Hope feels most keenly at home in literal and figurative senses; the inherent intimacy of the arrangement provides a route through which the violinist clearly underlines its importance within the creative experience, together with the not-inconsiderable significance of a very human presentation. This is a program that directly addresses any lingering accusations about classical music being distant, heady, or cold; Hope@Home is none of those, and while it does wear its heart firmly on sleeve at times, it does so in elegant and thoughtful ways, immeasurably aided by the creative variety it has offered up over its three-and-a-half-month lifespan. Thus is Zürcher Kammerorchester’s early July appearance at the very tip of an ever-expanding sonic iceberg, pieces of which continue to be unearthed and examined each weekend. The sounds of jazz, swing, and folk are placed beside that of Baroque, classical, and modern, with poetry and theatre hovering close by; never has such a combination felt more right or indeed suited to the nature of the times, as notions of past and present crash and collide to provide an entirely new ways forwards. 

Such variety is reflective of Hope’s own interests and oeuvre. His repertoire features the work of Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Mendelsohn, Tippett, Hindemith, Berg, Foulds, Poulenc, Messiaen, Bartok, Ravel, and Ravi Shankar (to name a few), and he has performed at many celebrated venues including Carnegie Hall, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Wigmore Hall, Alte Oper Frankfurt, and the Concertgebouw. Creative collaborators and partners have included Menahem Pressler, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sebastian Knauer, and Maxim Shostakovich, conductors Kurt Masur, Christian Thielemann, Ivan Fischer, Kent Nagano, Sir Andrew Davis, Sakari Oramo, Sir Roger Norrington, Thomas Hengelbrock, Jiří Bělohlávek , and organizations The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Konzerthaus Kammerorchester, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Beaux Arts Trio (of which he was a member from 2002 to 2008), Camerata Salzburg, and his very own Zürcher Kammerorchester. He recorded his latest, wide-ranging album, Belle Époque (Deutsche Grammophon, 2020), with the latter, and it reveals a fascinatingly wide selection of early 20th century sounds, all of which drive a certain narrative around navigating an immense precipice of change as much musical as social. The album skillfully blends the work of Schönberg, Massenet, Zemlinsky, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Fauré, and renowned violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler, whose work Hope has frequently presented throughout Hope@Home, into a gripping and very evocative 150-minute listen. 

Along with Kreisler, another violinist  to whom Hope regularly pays tribute is Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999). The New York-born soloist had formidable influence throughout Hope’s childhood, an accidental if highly fortunate connection thanks to his mother, who was Menuhin’s secretary for over two decades. Hope stated in an article for The Strad in 2016 (the centenary of Menuhin’s birth) that “Menuhin was the reason I became a violinist” and shared details relating to the spontaneous nature of their performance-instruction connection; it’s this precise quality, this flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants see-if-it-sticks spirit of adventure which gave early Hope@Home episodes such unique electricity, but which, alternately, made Hope himself a calm eye in the middle of a veritable storm, a steady presence who just as easily (even now) shares stories of his days with Menuhin (and others) as he does move between works by Miklós Rózsa and Manuel de Falla, beloved tunes like “Amazing Grace”, and riffing on the folk-balladry of Berlin-based Kiwi singer Teresa Bergmann, the timbres of Hope’s violin and Bergmann’s voice twisting and turning in beautiful, hypnotizing spirals of green-gold aural splendor. Throughout its short life, Hope has also championed the works of less mainstream composers, among them Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) and Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). Partly pointing up the show’s blend of education and entertainment, such emphasis also reflects Hope’s discography, as well as his family history, one intimately connected with Berlin and his Jewish roots, a past he openly shares as part and parcel of his hosting duties. There is also, vitally, humour; in one episode from late April, Hope recalled knocking on Alfred Schnittke’s door and introducing himself as a keen teenager; therein developed a friendship which lasted until Schnittke’s passing in the late 1990s.

Such combinations, of personal and broad, intimate and epic, casual boldness and the yearning for inclusion, found direct contemporary expression in Hope’s decision to include homemade musical contributions  by musician-viewers in early episodes of Hope@Home. Such easy integrations equally aid in the salon ambiance of live readings, initially done in an adjoining room in Hope’s house and sometimes set to live music. Robert Wilson (whose appearance on the program was, as you’ll read, a nifty bit of luck) read his own poem about the lockdown experience set to a performance of Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”; director and Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barrie Kosky read a passage (unaccompanied) from Joseph Roth’s The Hotel Years. Before embarking on wide-ranging locales, Hope kept his touring sites in Berlin, from whence occasional broadcasts still unfold.  A visit in early June to the former residence of Hope’s grandmother (where she and her family lived until 1935) featured a 1920s-style swing presentation and was enjoyed by the small crowd who had gathered in the leafy Berlin suburb. More grand if no less intimate was a more recent broadcast from at the Strauss-Villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen featuring baritone Thomas Hampson, who noted of the experience singing in Strauss’s home that “it’s an incredible honor… and I’m terrified.” 

 

Despite its immense popularity, the focus remains on the original intimacy. The show’s visual style is kept purposely consistent, and Hope’s conversational performance style translates seamlessly into his sincere, unaffected deliver. Such naturalism could be owing to past broadcasting projects (including a radio show), but it’s also innately connected with his actively communicative musicality. During a concert with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin honoring Yehudi Menuhin in 2016, Hope and conductor Iván Fischer share a seamless, intense exchange throughout an electrifying performance of Elgar’s Concerto for violin and orchestra in A Minor, Op. 61. Hope’s artistry is one innately connected to communication with his musical partners, whether they’re a pianist, speaker, swing band, or chamber orchestra; this need for communication, and its inherent sincerity, translates palpably to Hope@Home, no small thing in an era that has come to rely more and more on digital broadcast. Hope and I had the opportunity to speak recently, just after he had completed two long-awaited post-lockdown concerts with Zürcher Kammerorchester.

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Photo © Nicolas Zonvi

How did Hope@Home happen?

I had a conversation with Wolfgang Bergmann who is the German head of ARTE. (Bergmann’s official title is Managing Director, ARTE Deutschland and ARTE Coordinator of the ZDF.) I’ve known him for many years and we’ve been in touch regularly with various ideas, and  we had a meeting at the beginning of March in Berlin about something else, just as things were starting to move very fast in terms of the lockdown. Once the meeting was over he said, “What will you do if a lockdown happens, if it gets serious?” I said, “I don’t know, I might turn my living room into a TV studio!” – I said it, just like that – and after about two weeks he called me up and said, “Were you serious about what you said?” I said, “I’m not sure, I might’ve been!” He said, “Let’s do it.”

And so my first question to him was: what about the sound? I’d been watching some of the (music) streams and thought, as great as they were at the beginning, they were missing really good sound quality on classical music. And he said, “How do you want to play it?” I said, “Let me speak to someone who knows about production of classical sound and we’ll see if it’s doable.” I got an engineer  to come and check out if we could do it, then called Wolfgang back to let him know it was possible, but I didn’t expect him to say, “Can we start tomorrow?” That was really insane! And we threw everything together and went straight in. There was no prep, no script, no person checking – usually with these things you have a team of people writing up ideas and vetting artists and repertoire. There was nobody; there was just me. In that sense I did initiate everything, but of course with the help and the slightly mad suggestion of Mr. Bergman.

How much did that spirit of spontaneity directly influence your selections in terms of guests and repertoire? 

I think partly, that very intense time was the reason behind what happened, but there were also some really wonderfully strange coincidences. I was walking with my kids around the block and bumped into Robert Wilson on the street, and was like, “What are you doing here?!” He said, “I’m in lockdown and I can’t get back to the States… and by the way, I’ve been watching your show; can I come on it?” It was just amazing! I suggested he do a reading of something, and racked my brains for things to send him. He showed up at the house an hour before the show with his own script. With Simon Rattle, I’d never met him before but got his number and texted him, and within half an hour he rang back and said, “Pick a day.” Those kinds of things would never ever have happened had there not been this severe lockdown. I would’ve never been able to reach these people and they wouldn’t have spontaneously said, “Let’s do this” – that (availability) was the key behind everything else.

And the freedom from the channel was incredible. They never said, “You can’t put a Simon and Garfunkel song next to a reading of Stefan Zweig and then play Schnittke – that’s just not possible!” I think in my mad attempt to get a show together that made sense, I thought about what kind of music I would like to hear, and then went about to see if I could draw a theme together.

The ease of movement between genres and media is refreshing; you’ve shown, however accidentally, that there is a big thirst for this kind of variety in a cultural presentation.

For a long time I read and researched a lot about the Berlin salons of the 19th century, or the French ones that hosted people like Marcel Proust, this idea, even going back to Schubert’s time, where he’d have these soirees and friends would come by and did something, anything –if they read, played, recited, danced, whatever – it was a getting-together of artistic minds and seeing what happens; that was in the back of my mind. I was sure after a couple of episodes we’d get complaints about something or the other, but because of the shutdown the structures usually in place in terms of regulating TV content were not there, so they let me run with it. One of the biggest victories was doing the whole thing in English, because it’s a German-French channel, so it would’ve normally been in German or French or both; I literally broke with all protocol and went in English, and after the first slightly irate comments from some people at the chanel, they figured out, “Oh wait, everybody speaks English…” And we went with it, because I feel most comfortable speaking English anyway. That was a big part of the success of (Hope@Home): it’s global. People can respond to it.

Noteworthy you spoke in German during your first performances with an audience at the Frauenkirche Dresden.

When we started to go outside of the house and into concert halls and started to have audiences, that was when the next big challenge came; I had an audience in front of me and the audience at home, and I think we were all a little bit anxious to see if it could work somehow, because either the people at home will feel out, or the people in the hall will feel left out, so I was juggling between them. That show in Dresden was the largest audience we’ve had to date (for Hope@Home), it was three or four hundred people, so it was important to address them in German as if it was a concert, but at the same time not to forget about the global audience at home. 

What was that like to play for a live audience after so long – was it emotional?

It was very emotional, yes. Just a couple of nights ago we played in Zürich as well, two concerts with around 450 people, approximately. It’s an extraordinary feeling, having been cut off for months, and to go to back into the hall; even if people aren’t seated next to each other and there are distances, it’s still a very different feeling when you’re communicating directly in that moment and you see and hear applause, you’re watching peoples’ faces, and you’re making music together with colleagues. Playing that chamber music repertoire was unbelievably emotional for all of us.

The experience of hearing applause from a live audience in Dresden hit me quite hard…

I bet!

… though it’s been heartening to note your being such a public champion of the work of Alfred Schnittke. I love that your program features stories like, ‘One night I just knocked on Schnittke’s door’ followed by performances of his works. You blend the personal with the so-called “high-art” of classical in a very engaging way.

Thank you for picking up on all of that. Schnittke is a huge, huge influence on me and I’ve always adored his music. After an absence of a few years I’ve really gotten back into him again. I try to tell stories; I’ve always tried to tell stories. The music is the most important story in all of that, but it’s not the only story. By connecting the dots and trying to at least illuminate the history of the pieces or the people behind them, or the dedicatees, or the messages, I think it enhances the experience. It certainly enhances my enjoyment of the music!

So it’s a gut decision really, of how much information do I want to spell out, without wishing to preach and without wishing to be sanctimonious, but trying to do a little more than, “And now I’ll play the Second Sonata in E-flat Major” – I think there’s more to it. If one knows the story of Erwin Schulhoff, for instance, I think you experience it differently; his Foxtrott, if you know this was written under a pseudonym, by a man who was close to deportation, and was forced to give up one of the greatest careers of his time – you listen differently. And listening differently, and intently, and deeper – that’s really about what we do. And that’s one of the many things I learned from Menahem Pressler in the Beaux Arts Trio, it was, dig as deep as you possibly can into the material; that musical digging is the most important, but the forensic, for me personally, is almost as interesting.

Contextualizing is so important to appreciate any sort of music, but it’s so often watered down, or presently poorly, or left off entirely.

In doing Hope@Home it was my great hope was we were not just going for classical music aficionados but would try to reach people who were locked down and who were maybe looking for culture. To get somebody to listen to an Alfred Schnittke piece who knows nothing about classical music is a challenge, and I think by telling stories and showing why we’re doing this, I wasn’t just going through a bunch of pieces or composers from A to Z, but there was a reason behind it all. A guest would come in and say, “I want this piece” or “I’ll read this text” or try to find something suited. For Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (read by actor Iris Berben), we put Manuel De Falla’s Andalusian folk songs underneath; for a Stefan Zweig reading (performed by Katja Riemann), we did Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. I tried to find connections that would enhance the experience and make it accessible without wishing to, in any shape or form, take something away from the music, knowing at the end of the day we only had thirty or forty minutes to present this experience which I was hoping would reach and touch people.

I grew up with the work of Menuhin, and that was his great gift, to contextualize these large histories in very approachable, highly enlightening ways. 

Absolutely. I don’t know if you know the book he wrote, The Music Of Man

My mother had it in her library.

Yes! It was a CBC production back in the late 1970s in which he looked at the influence of music over 500 years, which went from the Renaissance to Oscar Peterson and the people who inspired him. That kind of musical time travel is something I’ve always loved, and  certainly, Menuhin’s eagerness to share that history was a great inspiration to me. I was lucky to grow up very, very close to him and to the collaborations in which he was involved. Even as a very small child, listening to him play with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, the sound of those tablas and the spectacle of that giant virtuoso playing, stayed with me – but the same I can say of Carl Sagan, with whom Menuhin met in order to do this book The Music Of Man; Sagan was the man who told me about the music of the spheres when I was a kid, and that led, thirty years later, to a Spheres album (Deutsche Grammophon, 2013). So there are seeds that somehow get planted and often I come back to them, and at other times there are things, triggers – I’ll hear a radio program or an artist, or read a bit of text or a book which will start me thinking, or get me on a different journey, and sometimes those journeys can last for years before they become a project, and sometimes they happen really fast. 

The interesting thing with this show is that I was thrown together with many different with artists, some of whom I’d admired for a long time but never met, and it gave me new impulses. I’d discover new pieces – I’d be feverishly looking overnight for a piece to play on the program the next day, and if it didn’t have the arrangement I needed, then I’d be getting somebody to arrange it in time. That was a creativity in overdrive, I would say.

So how has this overdrive changed you creatively then? You don’t seem to be the same artist you were back in March.

It’s a great question. I definitely feel a big change, I have to say. Those six weeks at home were some of the most intense and creative – I was literally on fire the whole time. Going from show to show, and sometimes we didn’t even know if the person was going to come, and if they did what they would do – it was fraught in that sense, but also very positive. And so I think the biggest challenge was going back to the schedule, or what’s left of it, let’s say, and trying to think, ‘Okay, there’s an inquiry to play a Mozart Concerto in four years’ time on this day; is this something you want to do?’ And I did find myself asking myself… I’m not sure if I want to do that. Because one of the greatest things about this show was and is that I’m calling up people and saying, “Can you come in two  days and play?” and because they’re free they can do this – and that’s how classical music worked for centuries. If you look at the great artists at the beginning of the 20th century, the Horowitzs or Rubinsteins or even Menuhins, they’d arrive in  a town, a concert would be scheduled, they’d play and wait to see the reaction, then if people liked it, they’d have another, or say, “Let’s do it again next week” – that happened with Thomas Hampson recently. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we got him to do something?’ and I rang him up and said, “Can you come in two days’ time?” I think everything being planned three years in advance…  as classical musicians we may have to lose that structure, and even security, if we’re going to survive.

The other thing is, this constant traveling, this constant being on-the-road, I think, again, there’s been a sort of reexamination of that. The fact one can actually stay at home and produce high-quality music and share it with a worldwide audience was quite a revelation to me, I have to say.

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Photo ©Harald_Hoffmann

And you understood the importance of sound quality, and the value of an event in and of itself.

At the very beginning I loved the online stuff because I felt there was this giant worldwide hug – all musicians were trying to hug each other. I thought it was very uplifting. But very soon I found myself saying, ‘Well, this sounded good but this didn’t’ – and then it bothered me. Also (online streaming) became so spontaneous and so … kind of last-minute, and it lost some of the special factor of going to a concert – even just putting on a suit, you go and actually make an occasion of it. As you know we were all at home, all unable to cut our hair and able to wear what we wanted to wear – we were all forced to readjust, but for the program, I made a conscious decision. Tobias Lehmann said, “I can make the sound I know you want” and I said to Christoph (Israel), “Listen, we’re going to play concerts now; we’re not going to stream and sit there and take requests. We are making an occasion of this, and we are going to dress up because it is a concert, and we’ll see what happens.” I don’t regret that. It gave a kind of an element of escapism, which is what people were looking for, but at the same time the respect to the art form we’ve been practicing all our lives.

That’s why it was nice to see people dressed up, and it still is. And you are very natural as a host as well, there’s none of the “Daniel-is-in-his-hosting-suit-with-his-hosting-voice” routine.

I appreciate that. A lot of it was learning by doing and seeing how it would work, and trying things out, but trying to be myself, trying to be authentic. We were lucky to have the sound of Tobias, and the guests we’ve had, and lucky to have the guys on the cameras who created that look and to take the look with us when we go on the road – we take the lamps, we take the paintings. We try to give people that sense of, ‘Here we are again!’

How long will it continue?

At the moment we are pretty much sure we’re going on until the middle of August, but we’re not sure after that. At some point I will need to take a holiday, a break! It’s hard to imagine ARTE would keep this going forever, but the response has been so strong and we’re over 5 million streams. So, given the very precarious state of the world right now, as I always say, if we’re allowed to keep going, we will keep going; circumstances may change, and everybody’s talking about a second wave. Whether it will come or not, it’s in the stars right now, but if I had one wish, it would be to come to North America and do the show from there…  but if it’ll happen, we just don’t know right now. I hope we will be allowed to come in at some point.

Personal Essay: Pondering Community, Technology, Nostalgia, And “Normal”

curtain, stage, culture, performance, opera, operetta, Komische Oper Berlin, red, Berlin

The curtain of the Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

I feel bad about not doing more writing lately. There’s been a terrible, nagging sense of letting people down, although, truth be told, there has also been a realization of my desire for privacy, together with an innate need to sit and steep, regularly – not only literally in the tub most nights, but figuratively, in words, sounds, images, ideas, inspirations, and observations, for days and weeks. It has been no easy thing, as a generally impatient person with a fiery workaholic streak, to will myself to sit quietly, attempting to comprehend and synthesize macro and micro experiences – the strange, the silly, the scintillating – within a truly historic time frame, a whole new era, wholly unexpected, wholly unwelcome, and wholly undeniable in its impact and reach. Why and how might I rush anything, and to what end? For clicks, views, eyeballs and hype? Why should I put my thoughts into the public sphere in relation to the cultural issues of the current times? How can I possibly reconcile the monumentous with the mundane? What can I possibly contribute?

Pianist Igor Levit pondered similar questions in a recent Q&A with German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel in which he asked, “Was ist Kultur nach Corona? Sind wir Entertainment oder sind wir wichtig, im Sinne von: Erfahre ich Relevanz und haben wir Relevantes beizutragen?” (“What is culture after Corona? Are we entertainment or are we important, in the sense of: Do I experience relevance and do we have relevant things to contribute?”) What indeed is culture? Where do I fit in? Does what I and who I am do hold any merit? I haven’t felt qualified to tackle these questions, in writing or otherwise, and, with no desire to put myself in the public eye simply for the sake of it, I have kept purposely, purposefully quiet, tending to what little paid work there is, engaging in predictable domestic responsibilities, and attempting the odd bit of creative endeavor in paint and ink and pastel. In between, I have listened, relistened, watched, painted, cooked, cleaned, ordered, reordered, organized, reorganized, reached out, shut down, kept a routine, broken a routine, smiled, cried, raged, and pondered – and amidst all of this, I have read voraciously: articles, poetry, maps, interviews, comments on social media platforms; in the morning, through the afternoon, into many evenings and over many meals. A computer is not a good brunch or dinner companion, it must be noted.

Recently I poured over various bits of news tearing into the remains of a roast chicken, one delivered by kind neighbours, bought during one of their regular outings. Grocery shopping, like so many activities, feels like something from a distant past, and yet it was only a few short months ago I, like so many, felt it to be the most normal of activities. Being a freelancer meant (means) carefully watching a budget and it was earlier this year that I had noted, with some pride, that I’d been able to bring the cost of my weekly grocery bill down. Seeing the refreshingly low price of that chicken last week, having noted the painful inflation of grocery prices over the past two months, was a strange reminder of those (so-called) normal times, a time when I’d walk into a supermarket as casually as I’d walk into a concert hall. Being immune-compromised has meant not venturing into a supermarket, hardware store, restaurant, or indeed, concert hall, theatre, or opera house since early March. There is an understandable sense of longing for things once taken for granted, and a simultaneous anxiety over what those very things (privileges now, if we are honest) might actually cost in the long run in terms of safety, stability, and, if you’re lost people during this pandemic (as I have), visceral mortality.

Berlin, cathedral, dome, view, perspective, city, Germany, Berliner Dom

The dome of Berlin Cathedral. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Such concerns loom amidst the recent news that German culture minister Monika Grütters, together with the culture ministers of Germany’s states, have agreed on an idea for resumption of cultural activities at the end of May. This news runs parallel with stringent outlines for those reopenings, plus the recent news that Berlin has recorded its lowest level of COVID-19 patients in eight weeks. Reopenings are bound to happen, but there is a question of how recognizably “normal” they may or may not be. Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden has been the first house in Germany to reopen, with a live presentation series which kicked off this past Monday (18 May) with baritone Günther Groissböck. The series, which includes theatre works along with opera, runs through early June and is happening at both the large and small Wiesbaden stages, with reduced orchestra, or sometimes (as was the case with Groissböck’s concert) solo piano. Upcoming highlights include excerpts from Tristan und Isolde presented twice (21 and 31 May), with tenor Andreas Schager and soprano Catherine Foster, and Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, performed by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt next week (29 May). An audience of 200 are permitted for the performances in the large house (instead of the usual 1,000) and masks are required for all attendees, with no bar service and only one person at a time allowed to use bathroom facilities. One expects other organizations will shortly follow suit in adherence with the same guidelines, finding further ways to facilitate live performance.

Only some of this matches what once constituted “normal” in the classical world, of course, and it will be interesting to note, over the coming months, how various houses and orchestras will be adjusting programming and presentations accordingly. “Normal” is has become an experience which is entirely changeable, linked to an unpredictability attached to both the new nature of the virus and the old station of human behaviour. Therein, of course, lies its terror. Music writer Olivia Giovetti recently wrote about the connections between music and context using performances of Beethoven’s Ninth as a potent example and asking “(w)hat matters more in a performance: the art or the context?” The era of corona has joined the two in ways no one could have ever anticipated at the start of 2020, and yet the entire classical world is bound to that fusion (and the energy it is creating, and has yet to create) in both professional and personal spheres. For as much as there is true cause for joy in the classical industry at resumption of activity, there is also immense worry. I have stopped asking when I might next attend a live event and have begun to ask if. Will it be possible? Will I feel safe? Will I be able to afford a ticket? Just as much do I worry over the role independent writers (especially those of us intentionally off the media path) might play; do we have a place, particularly in a landscape that is rapidly relying on digital transmission and engagement? I want to believe there’s possibilities within the ever-changing classical ecosystem, but I also wonder if corona (and its repercussions) has reinforced the very walls that ask (need) to be torn down. There is a human tendency toward finding comfort in the familiar, one which calcifies into intransigence, and it affects artists as much as audiences, resulting in a creativity that is controlled, controllable, and despite all the big talk of embracing exploration, as comfy-normal as ever. Will that continue?

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, dome, architecture, Germany

Looking up at the Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Such notions are useful reminders of just how intertwined art and context really are. The classical culture table seems to be expanding and contracting simultaneously, and one holds out a tiny sliver of hope for creative, intelligent integration between various artistic disciplines, one that moves beyond replication and talking heads (enjoyable as a very select few of them are). Such replication, particularly within the realm of the spate of Instagram Live videos on offer at any moment, brings to mind Susan Sontag’s notion that “needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” Those who enjoy online streams and broadcasts (notably The Met’s Live In HD series) were motivated, during pre-corona times, by a number of factors, among them health, economics, proximity, curiosity, simple company. (I know; I was sometimes among them.) Some may tune in in order to watch a favorite performer, others to have their views about a specific work (or indeed, an entire art form) affirmed and validated (or not, if frequent use of the word “Eurotrash” in comment threads is reliable evidence of such non-affirmations). Lately I suspect the desire (or “addiction” to use Sontag’s not-wrong phrase) to watch is linked to the desire to partake in a ritualized form of socio-musical nostalgia. The “remember when”ism of the live experience, always an extant factor within digital culture, has been magnified one-thousand fold over the past two months. It feels normal to watch these things; we, as an audience feel normal – even though “normal” is entirely, at this point in history and within the context of corona, a construct, a memory, another bit of nostalgia. 

What is on offer now by various arts organizations might be intended as a temporary replacement, but of course nothing can (or will, or does) replace a live experience in the theatre, nor should it. There has been a lot (a lot) of hand-wringing online, across various platforms, about the live-vs-digital experience; this seems like a false narrative of competition, and a reductive way of framing culture. (I will be writing about this and the culture of “free” that goes with it in greater detail soon, I promise.) Digital is not a replacement for live, it is merely, if right now, vitally, a complement. The live, lived experience, of being (truly being) in an auditorium with hundreds or sometimes thousands of other living beings, collectively intaking breath at certain moments, expressing surprise or shock or grief or relief at others, the resonance of voice and sound and applause moving through layers of velvet, wool, silk, cashmere, flesh, bone, nail, eyelash; the light of eyes, the cock of necks, the bow of heads, the ripple of fingertips; the sheer magic of being in a room with others, listening to and watching and experiencing everything in a sensual symphony of sound, movement, light, and shadow — this is singular, special, worth protecting, supporting, meditating on, and dreaming about. I am, however, unsure such an experience conforms tidily into a preset idea of “normal”, nor has it ever; it is extra-ordinary. The times I’ve had to miss performances out of consideration for my own delicate health are memories stained with an aching tone of regret. Independent freelance life (and the sacrifice inherent within it), a frustratingly sensitive constitution, plus an overall quotidian solitude add up to a weight given to live events which is rarely if ever afforded to other experiences. In addition to the sensuous, they offer a rare (for me) sense of living community within a highly confined and intensely concentrated space and time. The sharpness of experiential contrasts – from no people to lots of people, from empty spaces to filled spaces, from silence that is chosen (mostly) to silence ritualized, timed, imposed, manoeuvred – is, or was, my own form of normal. (Certain parts of this have stayed blessedly intact; I have written most of this in a lovely silence punctuated by the odd drips of a humidifier, the self-propelled squeaks of an antique maple chair, and the regular rumbles of a tea kettle. One might safely add the maraca-like clatter of ice-cubes in a cocktail jigger after this is posted.) Dipping in and out of communal experiences is its own sort of privilege, and it can be difficult to navigate the visceral tidal waves that come with those arrivals and departures, but the grey, windless days are worse and I’ve found certain online broadcasts to be colorful buoys to latch onto amidst the seemingly-endless grey days of late.

music, performance, classical, venue, architecture, design, lights, Berlin, Philharmonie

Looking up at the Berlin Philharmonie. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Tuning into an online event means not coming with any of the same ideas or expectations of ecstasy (not that I attend live events with such expectations either), but in full awareness of the value of community, however virtual it may (must) be right now. There’s something satisfying about watching the numbers on the side of a live chat; never has pressing the “Like” button and watching it sail across the screen been more connected to some form, however tangential, of validating social cohesion. Nothing about it is normal, and yet… isn’t it? What is normal anymore Live events, whether conversations or concerts, offer the necessary frisson of excitement missing from the lives of those used to attending live events, and the contrasts they provide which form, for some of us, some vision of normalcy; sometimes they even offer rewarding illumination and revelatory insights. Professor Marina Frolova-Walker’s excellent series of lectures on the Ballet Russes (via Gresham College) underlines fascinating connections between dance, design, and music at a very creatively fertile time in history (maybe that should be “histories”), while conductor Alan Gilbert’s weekly exchanges with fellow conductors (his last one featured Sir Antonio Pappano, Marin Alsop, and Esa-Pekka Salonen) have revealed inspiring ideas on not only the current circumstances but experiences, observations, and confessions in relation to specific scores and composers. As Alsop noted last Friday, the exchange probably wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances, and certainly not in public. Violinist Daniel Hope has found success by placing intimate live performance firmly within a digital idiom; he has recently re-started his Hope@Home series with broadcaster Arte, performing from various German venues, including, this past Sunday, from the incredible heights of the Berliner Fernsehturm, with music by The Kinks and an appearance by actress Sophie Rois. What is normal (“normal”) now?

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Original sketch. Art & photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Despite or perhaps because of the immense supply of digital material, uncertainty has become its own form of community, one filled with billions of sighs, billions of gasps, billions of yawns, all peering at the glow of large or tiny screens, together and apart. Everyone, amidst the bells of instant messages or the yawning quiet without them, exhales heavily and wonders what life will look like a month, a year, a decade from now. I wonder at the premiere live event that I’ll be attending in a post-lockdown world, and again, not when but if… and if so, will I wear a mask (yes) and will I mind (no) and how far others may have travelled to be in the same spot, what sacrifices they may have made and what risks they may be taking in making the effort for something they love. What will the artists be thinking and feeling, I wonder, performing for what may well be a select audience, and what sense of community might they might grasp? How might that experience of community complement or contrast with mine?  Will it compare at all to past events? Should it? Will I feel relief, calm, ecstasy, sadness, guilt, joy, beauty, confusion, a sense of overwhelm… perhaps all or perhaps none? Will it matter? More than anything: I want to leave a blank inner canvas for undefinable things that have yet to be understood. Call it whatever you want; it won’t – can’t  – be normal. Not anymore.

Personal Essay: “Flowers, Meadows, Hills”… And Walls

painting writer poet portrait Goethe German

Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786) by Tischbein

Walls have been on my mind over the last few weeks and throughout the year. Their physical forms have made the news, in past and present iterations, with invisible counterparts revealing divisions within the worlds of culture, politics, and self. There is an odd, illusory comfort to them, the notions of order, permanence, stability they imply allowing for realizations of often staunchly-defended functionalities so delicate they may crack at the slightest hint of perceived disorder. One hates to admit wanting certain forms of them.

This winter I have naught to look at in my minuscule back garden but a high fence, erected at my request this summer. I’m still tossing around the merits of planting things around its wooden edges come springtime; I love (and painfully miss) the feel of soil on my hands and running through my fingers. Looking at a blank fence now brings memories of the cute, strange, unexpected buds that would poke through the old one that ran the perimeter of the immense garden behind the tiny house where I grew up. I remember looking out the kitchen window and being awed and perplexed by the unsymmetrical lattice patterns their insistent tendrils would make in the late afternoon sun, the greens, reds, and rust browns dancing in the shifting light. It made the fence oddly pretty, made spring seem somehow less distant.

plant sunflower closeup detail garden fence bud beauty

Bud against a fence. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Walls and their winding, decorative counterparts have always existed in the world of classical culture. Division and debate have occurred (and continue) on the stage, in the pit, in the boardroom, on the bus and the metro — in bars, parks, galleries, galleys, bedrooms. Though there is the strong (and not incorrect) belief that art is the ultimate dissolver of walls, such a divine theory often fails when put into human practise, our foibles making such manifestation a challenge, even in ideal circumstances. We, and the connections we form, are a dynamic part of creation: human thoughts, words, and actions place slats, tear them down, replace them, tear them down. The energy created from that creation-destruction cycle sharpens the intermeshing wires of existence (class, wealth, race, gender, geography, health, age), and colour the way we experience concerts, operas, each other. The dissolution of walls demands true openness, curiosity, risk… a hunger for authenticity, something one may speak about at length but which can only find true manifestation in life. In short: talk is cheap. In my conversation with Lera Auerbach at the Enescu Festival earlier this year, she underlined the importance of this quality and its relationship to art — as an experiential rite of passage, and broader life journey — more than once, making me think harder still about all the walls and fences both in and outside of music, and writing. What if authentic connection is the ultimate “wall” to be crossed? Is it possible, in art and in life?

painting writer poet portrait Goethe German

Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler

Famed German writer Goethe, whose work I referenced this past summer in relation to German composer George Katzer and his “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), tackled various types of walls throughout his wide range of poetry and novels. His works teem with characters who seek some way to live with authenticity – in spirit, in self, in practise. “Szene” takes this theme and goes further, using Goethe’s words to question, prod, and mock the then-contemporary East German regime under which it was created, satirizing its bureaucratic control of artistic exploration and expression. The chamber group ensemble unitedberlin, who performed “Szene” at the Konzerthaus Berlin in June as part of a larger program, was founded when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was a richly resonant and very timely choice to feature Katzer’s work as part of the group’s thirtieth anniversary concert, not only because of Katzer’s own history, but because of the rising political and social tensions within Germany itself. They are wars in which Schubert would have, I suspect, recognized and understood.

Schubert music composer lied lieder German

Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827)

I’ve been thinking a lot about his lieder lately, not least because of thinking back to a concert of Schubert lieder by soprano Golda Schultz in Berlin this past summer, as well as a recent conversation with baritone Gerald Finley in relation to a recent (gorgeous) recording he made of the composer’s Schwanengesang with Julius Drake. (That feature will be posting soon.) To say the composer loved the work of Goethe is putting things mildly; Schubert set no less than eighty of Goethe’s poems to music, with at least a third of them written when he was still a teenager, between 1814 and 1815. As music writer Kenneth S. Whitton noted in his book Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond (Amadeus Press, 1999), “The musicality of Goethe’s words unlocked Schubert’s unique voice, and continued to inspire Schubert for the rest of his life…”. The composer died in 1828, having never met his literary hero, but before that, he composed a song for a scene from Faust, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the spinning wheel”), written when Schubert was seventeen. One of the most famous and beloved of Schubert’s lied, the work deals with some very real societal walls. The tale of the heroine’s seduction and subsequent abandonment by the titular anti-hero, followed by her trial and execution for the murder of her child, had a terrible resonance; stories of infanticide by desperate, socially-outcast unwed mothers (who dealt with very real walls of their own in the times in which they lived) were not uncommon in the poet and the composer’s day.

Setting such subject matter to song gave Goethe’s words — and its horrific reality — an especially disturbing resonance, one more fully realized in “Gretchen im Zwinger” (also known as “Gretchen’s Plea”). Music is not merely an echo of text here but experience, one that transcends the limitations — the walls, if you will — imposed by the verbal. This transcendence has real-life roots, however, giving these works an earthiness that roots them to lived human experience and suffering. One does feel the soil of the earth in his compositions, and rightly so.

Equally human are his Suleika works. Johannes Brahms once said of the first of its two parts (written in 1821) that it was “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The lied are based on Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (West–Eastern Divan), written between 1814 and 1819 (an expanded version appeared in 1827), with the Book Of Suleika being one of its twelve sections, and one of its lengthiest. Inspired by the work of Persian poet Hafez and greatly aided by translations of said work by historian Joseph von Hammer, West-östlicher Divan was the final major cycle of poetry Goethe wrote before his passing in 1832. Along with Schubert, other composers, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg, set verses from Suleika to music; there’s a musicality to the words that beg for sonic expression:

How your wings in gentle movement-
In my breast awaken longings —
Flowers, meadows, hills and forests —
Stand beneath teardrops of your soft breath.

Yet your mild and balmy blowing
Cools my eyelids’ painful aching —
Oh, for sorrow I would die —
When I could not hope to see his face.

Hurry, now to my beloved —
Speaking softly to his heart, (oh,)
Careful never to distress him —
Hiding from him all my torment.

As it turns out, The Book Of Suleika (which means “seductress” in Arabic) may have not been written by Goethe at all, so much as edited; there is suspicion (however contentious) that the actual writer could have been Austrian dancer and actress Marianne von Willemer. Married and thirty-five years the poet’s junior, von Willemer and Goethe engaged in a passionate correspondence when the poet was at his height of his fame, despite being married to Christiane Vulpius, regarded as his social and intellectual inferior – a woman with whom he knocked down walls himself, living scandalously unwed for eighteen years before marrying and having five children with her (only one survived). Vulpius suffered a series of serious health challenges (including a stroke) before her passing in 1816. We don’t know what she made of the predictably large galaxy of worshipful fangirls who threw themselves at her husband; it would seem Goethe himself was always “in love” (in a clichéd fashion) and cycled through numerous affairs (physicalized and not) before, during, and after his marriage, his writing ever expanding in incredible breadth and scope. As writer Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker in 2016, “(f)or Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!””

The dividing lines between artist and behaviour can sometimes be very hazy indeed, let alone its connection to the actual art being produced amidst such circumstances, but Suleika offers a meta-narrative (however inadvertent) in the form of a small if captivating bud poking through some rather tall fences, ones with slats labelled “genius,” “worship,” “art”, even up to our own time. It’s in such unexpected invasions one can find the truest sort of authenticity, or so I’d like to believe. In the notes for Hyperion’s immense Schubert: The Complete Songs box set, pianist and song specialist Graham Johnson writes:

Schubert had written nothing as openly impassioned as this for woman’s voice since the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’; that work had been shot through with the anguish of betrayal, but here we hear only the rapture of reciprocation. True enough, it is the rapture of Marianne’s and Goethe’s fantasy of union, but who was better placed than Schubert to fantasize alongside them about the love which he could never enjoy in reality? […] Schubert has allowed the two lovers to conjoin where the disparity between their ages as well as geographical distance defeated them in real life.

After attending Schultz’s concert earlier this year, I remember looking down to see various markers on the Berlin sidewalks, plaques indicating where the Berlin Wall once stood. I’ve walked across and on them innumerable times, but something about that night — the sight of them, with the sound of Schubert still buzzing in ears and vibrating in heart, combined with my walled view now — renders them more poignant. Physical walls fall, others become more fortified.

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In Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Maybe it’s good to look back – and while we’re at it, around, up, and down – at the ground, the pavement, the plastic, at the base of the posts we’ve so keenly laid slat after slat  across. Is it a chaos we’re afraid of, or our own perceptions – us– being changed? Perhaps it’s time, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, to find the cracks that let the green through, and time to be unafraid of feeling our hands in the warm soil once more. Nothing real grows otherwise. 

Yuja Wang: “I Respond To Something On The Spot”

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

What could possibly be said of Yuja Wang that hasn’t already been said?

Yes, she’s glamorous, yes, she gets a lot of attention, and yes, she’s one of the world’s most celebrated pianists. But she is also warm and funny, and a very thoughtful conversationalist, strong in her opinions, it’s true, but also entirely unapologetic in her individualism. It could well be that such innate authenticity, and never feeling the need to apologize for it, has been, and continues to be, part of what draws audiences around the world to her – that, and of course, her being one of the true greats of the piano.

Born into a musical family in Beijing (her mother is a dancer; her father, a percussionist), Wang began piano as a child, and went on to study as a teenager at the famed Curtis Institute of Music. In 2002, she won the concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival, and a year later, made her European debut with the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich led by conductor David Zinman, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Wang debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival in 2006, and toured with the orchestra and conductor Lorin Maazel their very next season. Wang’s big international breakthrough came in 2007, when she replaced Martha Argerich as soloist in a concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

In 2011, Wang made a lauded debut at Carnegie Hall, in a program featuring the works of Scriabin, Liszt, and Prokofiev, and has since gone on to work with some of the classical world’s most noted figures, including fondly remembered conductors Sir Neville Marriner, Claudio Abbado, and Kurt Masur, as well as Zubin Mehta, Michael Tilson Thomas, Paavo Järvi, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and has worked with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the London Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, NHK Symphony (Tokyo), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the Royal Concertgebouw orchestras. In reviewing a 2012 concert appearance in San Francisco, Joshua Kosman wrote that Wang is “quite simply, the most dazzlingly, uncannily gifted pianist in the concert world today, and there’s nothing left to do but sit back, listen and marvel at her artistry.”

Yuja Wang classical music piano artist Chinese creative

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Wang is almost always on hectic rounds of touring, and moves regularly between continents and concert halls. 2019 has been a particularly rich time; along with her tour with Capuçon, Wang gave a hugely well-received performance at the Enescu Festival in September (as part of a tour with the Dresden Staatskapelle and conductor Myung-Whun Chung), and also performed at the inaugural edition of the Tsinandali Festival in Georgia. Last month, she gave the first London performance of  John Adams’ “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”, a work commissioned by the LA Phil and written especially for Wang; music writer Jari Kallio called the performance “a ravishing experience.”

January sees further tour dates with Capuçon as well an extensive solo recital tour and concert performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (led by Andris Nelsons), the Toronto Symphony, (led by incoming TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno) the San Francisco Symphony (led by Michael Tilson Thomas) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Chances are she may collect a few more awards along the way; she’s already been the recipient of several, including being named Musical America’s Artist of the Year in 2017. A four-time Grammy Award nominee, The Berlin Recital (Deutsche Grammophone), released in November 2018, is a live recording done at the Philharmonie Berlin; in October it won the prestigious 2019 Gramophone Classical Music Awards in the instrumental category.

The recording evocatively captures Wang’s ferociously individualistic voice, her unapologetic musicality filling space – sonic, but also intellectual and emotional. These are qualities Wang balances so skillfully in her readings of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti, and Prokofiev. Gramophone’s David Fanning noted in her performances of both Rachmaninoff’s B minor Prelude as well as Scriabin’s Sonata No 10 that “she moves smoothly between feathery, evocative touches and maximum eruptive volatility.” The recording is a firm personal favorite of mine for a number of reasons, chief among them its beautifully therapeutic qualities. Speaking as a simple listener, it feels as if Wang has a special talent for poking holes in the many clouds of depression that have descended with such force, weight, and consistency over the past year. The way she shapes the trills of Scriabin’s Sonata, her twisty rubato of Prokofiev’s Sonata No 8 , her fierce, eff-you-haters phrasing of Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in G Minor (which opens the album) – these sounds, and the feisty spirit behind them, have been instrumental in envisioning a path through some desperately sad, cloudy times.

And so it is with Chopin-Franck (Warner Classics), released today. As I wrote in my feature on the French cellist earlier this week, the album offers truly enlightening approaches with composers whose works you may think you know well, with two works by Chopin (Sonata in A Major and Polonaise brillante in C Major), the famous Sonata in A Major  by Cesar Franck (in a transcription for cello by Jules Delsart), along with an encore of Piazzolla’s  beloved “Grand Tango”. Recorded at Toronto’s Koerner Hall at the end of a whirlwind tour that included stops in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York’s Carnegie Hall, the work brings inspiration both intellectual and emotional, and is a luscious sonic intertwining of two highly complementary artistic sensibilities, with Wang’s performance (blazingly sparky one moment, whisperingly delicate the next) matching Capuçon’s note for note, and, as you’ll read, breath for breath. The pianist told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that for her, “playing music is about transporting to another way of life, another way of being” and this album is a very good display of such sonic transcendence.

Wang took time over the recent Thanksgiving holiday to chat about the nature of performance and the unique joys of collaborative musical partnerships.

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Gautier said he felt the creative chemistry with you immediately; did you have a similar experience?

Yes, definitely that feeling is mutual. On tour we’d sometimes joke, “Oh, we don’t have to rehearse!” We have the same ideas of phrasing and how a piece should go. It’s very flexible in terms of what we’re deciding on the spot. And with this (album), all the pieces are so centered on piano, like the Chopin Sonata – I told him, “This is harder than the solo stuff!” It was fun; it never felt like there was a dull moment, and if we play something beautiful for encores which he’s known for – like “The Swan” (Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” from his Le Carnaval des animeaux) or “Meditation” (from Massenet’s Thais)– he just melts every person in the concert. I enjoy that as well.

How did you decide on touring and recording these pieces specifically?

We did the tour and decided on Chopin, since I am always a big fan of Chopin. Even talking about repertoire is very easy, we never have to explain – it was just, “Okay, let’s do that!” And I always loved the Franck sonata. Violinists will hate me, but I love how it sounds on the cello more than the violin version,. We did Rachmaninoff when we played Carnegie Hall – he did record it in 2001, but I think it’s time to do another version.

How does the energy of your partnership affect other things you do?

I have a few fixed partnerships, and he is definitely one of them, the other is Leonidas (Kavakos). Gautier and I did that recording in April and now we are preparing to go out for another three weeks in January – it is a big chunk of your life, to travel together and play together. I always look forward to that because, as a pianist, you always usually travel by yourself, and this way it’s like having a partner around musically. I mean, as a woman and musician, this sort of work seeps into your psyche. It’s not like playing a concerto where you are soloist and there’s an orchestra. The hardest is the solo recitals, where you’re traveling by yourself and busy onstage for ninety minutes. But with Gautier or Leonidas, I’m onstage with another person, making music together – in a way it’s more relaxed, very relaxed – which I love.

That’s the biggest difference, but you know, you count on the other person as well, you give and take onstage, it’s not just you with full responsibility. And, of course, there’s the usual cliche, “we learn a lot from each other” – and of course we do – but in a way it feels like a musical family to be around. You can count on someone, and be very comfortable with them.

It feels protecting?

Yes, protecting, yes! That’s the word. And, because (Kavakos and Capuçon) are such amazing musicians, if I’m having an off day, if I’m tired, they are there to support and to be there. The recording session (in Toronto) was at the end of a two-week tour, and there was a photo session, and an intense recording session; it was a lot, but because Gautier was there I agreed to do it. He is very different from Leonidas – I don’t want to compare! – but with Gautier, we just breathe the music together and it’s there, super-spontaneous.

It’s a musical intimacy that feels rare for its authenticity.

It’s true, and we try to protect that as much as can onstage. It’s very delicate, very vulnerable, that kind of intimacy, and it’s really about intensely listening and just being there for each other, breathing together. It sounds so strange, but because of that, it’s why it feels so spontaneous – because there’s this other way of making chamber music, which is very calculated and planned. And that’s never my way of doing things, but the contrast of doing that also sometimes brings very good results. I think the only other musician like that was Claudio Abbado. He never said anything – he used his gestures and his musicians knew what to do. Gautier is a bit like that; his bowing and his breathing, his whole body is so involved in music. So artistically speaking, it was love at first sight!

Yuja Wang classical music piano artist Chinese creative

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Has this partnership changed your relationship with the piano? I would imagine when you experience such creative closeness, you return to your own instrument with a slightly different perspective… ?

I wouldn’t say I play very differently actually, I feel like the repertoire we chose is so piano-oriented so sometimes I feel as if I’m playing solo. But you learn how they use the bow, how they sing, what colours you can bring, and how they see music. That’s the thing with Gautier: we see it very similarly. When I play concerts, I always have been the same way – I’m very reactive; I respond to something on the spot. I see what others are doing and I respond like that.

I guess that’s why I love playing this music and my partners are happy with it too – it’s all about listening, which I learned from Curtis: that’s how you should play music. I’m not so much, I think, trying to be like the leader or like, “Do this! You follow me!” – I’m never like that in any kind of way, and I have the same principles doing concertos or chamber music. But solo is a very different thing, because it’s like being a conductor: you decide what pieces you’re going to play, what they mean to you, and you have to take full responsibility for everything. So that’s a totally different way of operating. 

But I would imagine you think of Chopin and Franck in new ways now.

The Chopin cello sonata is very enigmatic for me. I never played any Franck in any real sense! We did Rachmaninoff together – I’m doing Rachmaninoff 4 this week in Cleveland, it’s a language I know very well, so I would say it’s in my comfort zone – but the Chopin was a puzzle for me. The Polonaise, okay, that was very fun to play, but especially after we did the Sonata, it was so intricate, and so much voice, the cello… he just had one line and had to go in and out, but between all of my five lines, and the harmony is so forward-looking. It’s not just, “Oh, what a nice melody by Chopin!” except the third movement, which is so meditative and beautiful – especially the way Gautier played it! But the rest is a Mazurka, and it’s the Chopin we know, but not; he didn’t finish it, and it’s a late work and … it makes you think, where would he go if he didn’t die at 39? The harmony… it’s fun, but it’s really hard. There’s one passage in the first movement, these chords are almost like in Petrushka –but then you have to think about the balance with the cello and the melody.

I think, in a way, I do think more about orchestrating when I go back to my solo music: how to balance the sound, each voice in harmony. Those are the things that become more obvious as a result of doing chamber music-making.

Gautier called the Polonaise “pianistic.”

I think maybe he is conscious of choosing this repertoire because he’s aware that I am in my comfort zone doing all this stuff, rather than sometimes, you know… I mean, I don’t want to just be playing accompaniment…  

… but it seems like this is very much both of you doing equal give-and-take, like a tennis match.

Yes, totally! 

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Warner Classics

And I would imagine things will expand now? Gautier mentioned you’re in planning stages for future projects.

Exactly. I just love the chamber music by Rachmaninoff, and why not the cello sonata? There’s so much other repertoire, I was telling him yesterday, that I want to do: “Let’s do Brahms! Let’s do Rachmaninoff!” He already recorded that, but it’s very special when we do it. We can choose to stay with Russians: Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev… I mean, he makes the cello sing but he can also make it such a beast; I just take care of voicing. And it’s fun, I don’t have to always worry about, “Oh, I’m covering the cello now” because he has such a big presence.

So do you!

We little people have big presence! 

ensemble unitedberlin: Between Past And Future

goethe schiller

The Goethe-Schiller-Denkmal (Monument) by Ernst Rietschel in Weimar. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Lately I’ve found myself re-evaluating the past within the context of the present. It’s been an important and sometimes painful journey, for a variety of reasons both personal (disposing of photo albums, many of which were my mother’s) and professional (my slow if sure transition away from journalism). Through travels, research, readings, and various creative ruminations, I’ve come to appreciate just how deeply recontextualizing materials of the past can help us understand and appreciate new ways of being fully and completely present, however uncomfortable that may sometimes be; evolution is not, after all, supposed to be a comfortable process.

I suspect this is something Georg Katzer understood. The award-winning German composer, born in what is now Poland in 1935, was a pioneer of electronic new music in the German Democratic Republic. He founded the Studio for Electroacoustic Music in the 1980s, and made a career of redefining past to understand present, setting the stakes high for future modes of expression. The weight and influence of Europe’s shifting history through the decades lent him a ravenous curiosity for exploration of the past mixed with an enthusiasm for for redefining the present; he did so much with a twinkle in his eye as well rather than the furrowed brow of a serious artiste, which gives his work a discernible humanism, even amidst the plaintive bleeps and sighing bloops of works like “Steinelied I” (1984) and “Steinelied II” (2010). Listen to his wide-ranging oeuvre, which moves easily between lyrical brutality and brutal lyricism, and you’ll hear Bartok, Stravinsky, Lutowslawski and Zimmerman, as well as bits of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubauten. Sounds brush, bump, groan, and grind against each other in ways that are, even many decades after their creation, gripping, contemporary, and theatrical.

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Georg Katzer (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

That theatricality is readily apparent in “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), premiered in Leipzig in 1975. A smart work that embraces various meta aspects of music-making, Szene was, at its inception, a meditation (and, it must be said, a sarcastic commentary) on the bureaucratic nature of the GDR and its uneasy relationship to cultural life and artistic expression. The work was presented by German chamber group ensemble unitedberlin last month at the Konzerthaus Berlin for their 30th anniversary concert; the group first performed it in 1994, on the premiere appearance of conductor (and eub Artistic Advisor) Vladimir Jurowski leading. As the program notes state, the piece is “one of the representatives of “Scenic Chamber Music” or “Instrumental Theatre,” in which performative aspects of music production and linguistic elements came to the fore.” 

I’ve written about ensemble unitedberlin in the past (specifically in relation to composer Claude Vivier), and this concert was special in terms of its being a symbol of remembrance as well as anticipation; never did the word “present” feel so apt. Katzer has taken lines from Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe and placed them directly within the piece. Delivered by the conductor to the audience, the lines relate specifically to the nature of new composition, and concern a new piece written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn. As recorded by Eckermann:

Conversation from Sunday evening, January 14 1827:

I found a musical evening entertainment with Goethe, which was granted to him by the Eberwein family together with some members of the orchestra. Among the few listeners were: General Superintendent Röhr, Hofrat Vogel and some ladies. Goethe had wished to hear the quartet of a famous young composer, which was first performed. The twelve-year-old Karl Eberwein played the grand piano to Goethe’s great satisfaction, and indeed excellently, so that the quartet passed in every respect well executed.

“It is strange,” said Goethe, “where the most highly enhanced technique and mechanics lead the newest composers; their works are no longer music, they go beyond the level of human feelings, and one can no longer infer such things from one’s own mind and heart. How do you feel? It all sticks in my ears.” I said that I am not better in this case. “But the Allegro,” Goethe continued, “had character. This eternal whirling and turning showed me the witch dances of the Blockberg, and I found a view, which I could suppose to the strange music.”

It’s interesting to note that Mendelssohn and Goethe enjoyed a great friendship thereafter.

Katzer noted in the program notes for a 2016 presentation with the Dresden Sinfonietta that his inclusion of Goethe within “Szene” should “not be interpreted as malice towards the genius. Lack of understanding of new music is a widespread phenomenon and, as we see, not a new one.” His essential point is clear, driven home by the work’s closing scene: the musicians gathered around a spinning top, silently observing. Our perception of change and its inevitable nature is coloured by a near-unconscious wiring of a past we don’t want to remember, yet cannot forget, much less look away from.

Katzer passed away earlier this year — on May 7th, to be precise, which is the date Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made its world premiere, in 1824. The two composers shared a program last December thanks to the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, when Katzer’s “discorso” for orchestra was given its world premiere just prior to the orchestra’s annual New Year’s presentation of Beethoven’s famous symphony (led by RSB Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Jurowski). I thought about this strange confluence experiencing “Szene”, and of Beethoven’s reported meeting with the very man Katzer quotes. The composer created incidental music for Goethe’s 1788 drama Egmont, as well as lieder incorporating his texts. The two came from utterly different worlds — Goethe being Privy Counsellor at the Weimar court, Beethoven, decidedly revolutionary — but despite such vastly different experiences and worldviews, the composer was effusive in his praise of the writer, and Goethe may have enjoyed the new sounds Beethoven created, however much he would complain about his sticky ears to Eckermann just four years later. According to an account in Romain Rolland’s famous book Goethe and Beethoven (1931):

On October 27th (1823) a Beethoven trio was played at Goethe’s house. On November 4th, in the great concert given at the Stadthaus in honour of Szymanowska, Beethoven figures twice on the program. The concert opened with the Fourth Symphony in B Flat, and after the interval his quintet, op. 16 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, was played. Thus Beethoven had the lion’s share, and without mentioning his name, Goethe confessed to Knebel that he was again “completely carried away by the whirlwind of sounds (da bin ich nun wieder in den Strudel der Tone hineingerissen).” Thus there had been opened to him a new world, the world of modern music which he had hitherto refused to accept — “durch Vermittelung eines Wesens, das Geniisse, die man immer ahndet und immer entbehrt, zu verwirklichen geschaffen ist (through the medium of one who has the gift of endowing with life those delights which we resent and of which we deprive ourselves).”

Classical music lovers tend to enjoy —nay, expect —the so-called canon to never change, let alone the ways it’s presented (something Washington Post classical writer Anne Midgette addresses in a recent piece).  However, contemporary composers have mostly embraced change and risk, frequently at the cost of widespread popularity and acceptance; they, and the artists who perform and program them, stand at the vanguard of creative evolution, come hell or highwater, fully present of time, place, space, and relationships. The ensemble unitedberlin was formed at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989; like many German cultural institutions, it’s using 2019 to mark the changes wrought over three decades — how past merges with present, in sculpting possibilities for the future. As the program states, the group’s aim has been to explore “areas of tension, between the past and the future,” presenting works that incorporate and inspire a “joy of musical discovery.” Experiencing many works live that I’d not been given an opportunity to hear live before was not only a discovery, but a revelation; it’s been akin to squeezing out a tube of a color never seen before and then experimenting with its application on different surfaces. There are certain works I’m happy to take a (lengthy) break from, but contemporary works I heartily want to explore; I have ensemble unitedberlin, in part, to thank for stoking that long-suppressed curiosity.

Wenzel ensemble unitedberlin

Hans-Jürgen Wenzel (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

Hans Jürgen Wenzel is one of those composers whose work I hope to know better. Along with “Szene”, his intriguing “Eröffnungsmusik” (opening music, 1978) was performed as part of their birthday celebrations; the program charmingly describes the composer (who passed away in 2009) as the “the initiator of the formation of the ensemble.” Wenzel was dedicated to introducing young people to contemporary music, and many of his students went on to become composers in their own right. It was a perfect opening to the evening, and enjoyed a perfect follow-up: the world premiere of young composer Stefan Beyer’s “зaukalt und windig” (cold and windy). Katzer’s “Szene” was followed by Vinko Globokar’s “Les Soliloques décortiqués”, premiered in 2016 by Ensemble Musikfabrik. The France-born Globokar, whose creative process involves writing music based around stories he’s written first, told The Globe & Mail in 2011:

“I was part of a group of friends, an avant-garde that was based on risk. The idea, collectively, was to find something new. But even if you didn’t find this end result, it was still okay, because you were exploring ideas. That kind of collective thinking we did has disappeared.”

Based on cultural experiences over the past few years, I’m not so sure that spirit has entirely disappeared — it’s just become more of an effort to find and subsequently commit to. It was a decidedly stirring experience, to observe Katzer’s widow interacting with Globokar (elegant in a suit), the young Beyer, Jurowski, and ensemble co-founder Andreas Brautigam casually interacting post-concert — generations of past and present, all moving into the future, in their own ways and methods. Here’s to the unbound joys of new discoveries, sonic and otherwise; may we never deprive ourselves of them, but welcome them, with open arms, clear ears, and brave hearts.

Johannes Moser: “True Timelessness Is An Incomparable Feeling”

johannes moser cello

Photo: Manfred Essler – Haenssler Classic

Sometimes the best moments happen when art overrides intellect — or at least, whispers in its ear to simply shut up and enjoy.

That isn’t to say Johannes Moser and the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), under the baton of Thomas Søndergård, haven’t made a deeply intellectual album. Released on Pentatone last autumn, the work feature two giants of twentieth-century cello repertoire, Lutoslawski’s celebrated cello concerto and Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… (“A whole distant world”). Both works were premiered (at different events) in 1970 by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Amidst numerous performances and recordings in the intervening years, there’s something about the Moser/Søndergård/RSB release that completely caught me when I first heard it in Zurich last autumn — there is a shimmering, colorful, and occasionally quite sensuous interplay between orchestra and soloist, qualities which nicely integrate contrasting textures to produce a deeply rewarding listening experience.

To paraphrase Gramophone writer Michael McManus, Witold Lutoslawski’s work was written during his “most avant-garde period” yet simultaneously does not fully belong to it. Taut yet oddly sensuous, the work (which runs roughly twenty-four minutes), with its large orchestration and episodic yet unbroken structure, alternates between the confrontational and conversational, a battle of sorts unfolding between individual (soloist) and state (orchestra). Many have seen this as a strong symbol of the Polish composer’s own highly political history and relationship with authority; his father and uncle were executed in the wake of the Russian revolution, and his brother died in a Siberian labor camp. The composer, who went on to be awarded the UNESCO prize (1959, 1968), himself escaped capture by German soldiers in the Second World War, and later found his work shunned by Soviet authorities for his strong opposition to the artistic ideas connected to Socialist realism. There are battles brewing in this work — between soloist and orchestra, individual and group, energy and dark matter — but they are brightly, fiercely characterized by alternating flashes of aggression, antagonism, acceptance, and the blackest sort of humour.

Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… is dark as well, but in an entirely different way. Based on Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, Dutilleux wrote the piece between 1967 and 1970, and it’s a symbol of the fierce individualism that  characterizes much of his hypnotizing sound world. It was with the outbreak of the Second World War, when a residency in Rome abruptly ended, that the composer began to question his place within the wider tradition of French composition; his influences until then had included Ravel and Fauré. Immersion in the music of the Second Viennese School meant creative liberation from rigid French conservatory training, one that never mentioned serialism (much less German composers) — but that isn’t to say Dutilleux was imitative; rather the contrary, in that he set about carving a uniquely singular path for his work, one that still cannot be easily categorized. His cello work reflects the composer’s fastidious approach but also symbolizes his mystical fascinations. In its rich textural orchestrations and lush passages, the cello sings, spins, twists, and turns with and around other instruments, large and small. He told BBC 3 Radio presenter Rob Cowan that Tout un monde lointain… was a favourite among of all his compositions.

moser dutilleux lutoslawski pentatoneJohannes Moser and the RSB capture this intertwining with warmth and vitality, the German-Canadian cellist giving riveting and idiosyncratic readings of each work. His Lutoslawski gleams with moody energy, his tone moving between acid, anxious, angry in his spindly orchestral interactions. Søndergård keeps the prickly texture in check with prancing strings and smartly blanketing brass. The ratcheting tension of the second movement (“Four Episodes”) slides skilfully between a skittish restlessness to a solemn eeriness, with Søndergård keeping watchful control over ominously droning woodwinds as Moser’s cello rises like a call from the wild. Vivid images are presented in the third movement (“Cantilena”), with Moser’s performance conjuring the wild despair of Munsch and his famous, silent scream, Schiele’s spindly, twisting bodies, and Malevitch’s stark shapes, moving in precise, angry formations. This painterly approach is continued with poetic acuity in his reading of Dutilleux’s cello concerto, sumptuously evoking Baudelaire’s dreamlike poetry through its five interconnected movements. The first movement “Enigme” is restless, breathy, the interplay between Moser’s plucked strings and the orchestra’s percussion and woodwind section playful and conversational, while “Houles” (“Surges”), the third movement, swells with strings, brass, and woodwinds, lusciously conjuring lines from the very sensuous poem on which it is based (and from which the entire work gets its title), while simultaneously providing an incredible showcase of Moser’s virtuosity.

les fleurs du mal bantam her hair

A selection from “La Chevelure” (“Her Hair”), from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (Bantam Books, 1963, Wallace Fowlie, editor/translator). Photo: mine.

Currently the Artist In Focus with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester (he’s already performed Walton’s cello concerto with the orchestra this season), Moser has also enjoyed residencies with both the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra this season. Tonight he’s in Berlin, performing with the orchestra’s cellists at the historic (and decidedly non-traditional) Kühlhaus Berlin. At the end of this month, Moser leads a cello flashmob at the historic Templehof Field, with cellists of all levels invited to join in. This kind of casual engagement seems par for the course for Moser, an artist with a great taste for a variety of artistic expression and exploration.

Hailing from a musical family (his family includes singers and professional musicians), Moser has played with top orchestras including the Berliner Philharmoniker, the London Symphony Orchestra, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Tokyo NHK Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name just a few. He’s recorded works by Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Lalo, and has also recorded the cello/piano works of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev with pianist Andrej Korobeinikov (released on Pentatone in 2016). Known as much for his Dvořák (most recently performed with Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic, as well as the Toronto Symphony last year) as for his forays into the work of contemporary composers, Moser has also made education a cornerstone of his creative endeavors, and frequently leads masterclasses in various locales.  His commitment to teaching seems inextricably linked to his art, and one comes away from his recordings feeling somehow smarter, less daunted, more inspired — an effect the best artists tend to have.

I wanted to chat with Moser about his teaching, as well as his approach to the instrument, and was keen to explore how he feels about mixing the old and new, working with living composers, and why a so-called “cello swarm” is a good thing for classical music. As you’ll see, Moser is warm, honest, very smart and very approachable — precisely what one experiences in his performances, in other words.

moser standing wijzenbeek

Photo © Sarah Wijzenbeek

What do you think accounts for the cello’s enduring appeal? Those new to classical sometimes start their explorations of instruments with either piano or cello concertos.

I think it’s partly the charm of the instrument and its versatility. And we have had very colorful protagonists over the years; the superstar of course is Yo-yo Ma, who totally transcends the instrument, becoming an ambassador of music and culture, basically. He was so smart in his career to pair the classical repertoire together with the film music and do projects with artists like Bobby McFerrin in the 1990s, to make the instrument accessible, to make it an instrument for everybody. Of course in 20th century more broadly, Rostropovich and du Pré were the people that not only expanded the repertoire, but had moving stories to tell through their (respective) lives, ones which never detached from the cello. I think that helped the popularity of the cello immensely.

There’s also the fact it requires intense physicality to play, one which translates into a very visceral listening experience on the Lutoslawski & Dutilleux Cello Concertos album. How has the experience of those works changed the way you perceive other more so-called “mainstream” cello works?

Every piece of music that you play is giving information on the pieces you are about to play or that you’ve played for years; you get a different perspective. With the Lutoslawski, I‘d say it has taught me very much about the relationship of the cello with the orchestra in terms of not always being amicable partners, but also it is interesting there is drama on stage, that combative element. I think that’s something Lutoslawski, through the narrative of his concerto and through how he wrote for the instrument, mastered it like no one else.

For the Dutilleux, I think it is the closest that a cello concerto comes to very spatial music. Of course it has a structure, but music is also a timeless kind of sound, and if you allow this timelessness to happen on stage, it is quite an experience. Being onstage, your heartbeat is up, your adrenaline is going, your mind is racing 150 miles an hour — but to experience a moment of stillness, of true timelessness, within that rush, is an incomparable feeling. I think these concerti taught me a lot musically but taught me a lot about what it can mean to be onstage; they give you a completely different tool-set of expression, and that expansion of expression is not something you can learn or teach, but something you have to live and experience.

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

Yes!

Some of that work involves teaching — what does it give you as an artist?

The thing is, I always thought touring was energy-consuming, but a day of teaching, my goodness, I’m done, I’m spent! You always have to bring awareness and awakeness and also creativity to the table, because every student is different and I don’t want to have a cookie-cutter approach and I don’t to give everybody the same thing. What it gives me artistically, that’s a fascinating question…  because the thing that I felt, and I’m sure you feel the same, is that whenever I walk away from a day of teaching, I feel like I’ve learned so much just by addressing certain topics and certain issues.

And, I feel like by having a shared interest in the cello, I learn as much about music with my students, because we share a common ground; I see them as partners in a development and understanding of music, not necessarily me going into the lesson and having answers. I’m interested in exploring together. Of course, in a masterclass, you have to give a certain amount of information — you can’t just let the student explore and hope they find something meaningful — but I do find with my long-term students, which I have at the University Of Cologne, I can really go on a journey and find unexpected things.

Another thing I do with them that helps me a lot personally is connected to learning a new piece. Right now I’m learning the Enescu Symphonie Concertante, and I’ve given that to two students to learn as well. We learn it together! Obviously it’s great music but they’re also getting very much a hands-on approach on how to learn a new piece of music — I see them as equals and partners, rather than me going in there and spreading neutral wisdom, so to speak.

moser cello wijzenbeek

Photo © Sarah Wijzenbeek

One of the things you emphasize in your teaching is the importance of breathing with the music. How much is that influenced by having singers in your family?

I think that’s where it really all comes from. And, I have to confess I am a terrible singer! My mother, for her 50th bday, asked if she could give me a five-minute lesson because I was refusing so much (to sing) — but we had to stop after three minutes. She was laughing so hard! It was not great — there goes my singing career, out the window!

But, I think the fundamental idea of music before music — of breathing in before you speak or breathing in before you play — is something that is often grossly overlooked. I learned from singers and also wind players when I’ve played with them; what I also take, especially from singers, is the connection of words and sound. We come back to the human voice and the art of expression, of exchanging information and emotion, and I think the best education you can get is listening to a lot of singers if you don’t have gold in your throat. It’s really the best. After an afternoon of listening to every from Pavarotti to Thomas Hampson to …

… Elisabeth Schwarzkopf!

Yes, exactly! You get the biggest variety of color mixed with the biggest variety in use of text. It’s a masterclass, and also a joy.

And you can apply it to your work, and also to people you work with. “Music before music” made me think of your work with Jonathan Leshnoff. What’s it like to work with a living composer? Does it change your approach?

Yes and no. I have a mixed feeling about this. First of all, because it came from their mind and their understanding, nobody can tell you better than composers about the bone structure of a piece, and it is often, especially with a melodic instrument like the cello, it is often too easy to play your part, rather than see the bigger picture of architecture.

The downside of working with living composers is that composers are not necessarily the best performers, and are not necessarily the people who understand the art of performance best. My earliest memory of that was when, in 2005 I did my debut with the Chicago Symphony with Boulez; we played the Bernard Rands cello concerto. Before first rehearsal, I worked extensively with Bernard on the piece and he made a lot of adjustment; he toned a lot of the sounds down, he changed a lot of the markings (like from mezzo-forte to piano), and I said, okay! I went onstage at rehearsal, and did exactly as instructed. Halfway through he came running up to the front of the stage and said, “Ignore everything I said! Please perform as you had envisioned this.” It just turned out that he didn’t factor in the hall, he didn’t factor in the orchestra, and he didn’t factor in cancellation of sound. For example, if I play in tandem with a clarinet, it will eat my overtones; the cello, by itself, may sound loud but as soon as you have other instruments in the mix, suddenly your sound can be gone just by the nature of physics. There’s something to be said for experienced performers and bringing that to the table.

moser live cello

Photo: Daniel Vass

But it is fascinating to me when you see composers play or conduct their own works — we have amazing works of Elgar conducting his own work, we have Shostakovich playing his own music, and Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff. When I talk to composers who also conduct, most of them say “We have to completely relearn our own pieces!” You would think if you give birth to a piece of music you know it inside out, but they have to relearn it as performers, so they themselves also have to make that connection. It’s a fascinating process for many reasons. I do enjoy working with composers a lot, but I also invite them to trust me as a performer, shall we say.

Part of that trust has also been on the part of audiences who’ve followed you through various sounds and styles; when I listen to your work, there are no lines between Dvořák and Dutilleux. How much do you see yourself as an ambassador for non-standard repertoire?

You need to work up a reputation, and then have people follow you in these adventures. The interesting thing is, once people are in the seats, they mainly love the new stuff, if it’s performed passionately; it’s something that tickles the ear and can bring a lot of unexpected joy. (However) when people see it in the season brochure or outside the hall — for instance, “the complete works of Anton Webern,” of course, that is not going to be a big magnet, because they’re scared, and because maybe they had a lot of bad or mediocre experiences with new music. I would say it’s the first time in history when new music has a crisis, because in the 1960s-1970s-1980s, composers chose to alienate people. I think that stems from our history — I think the post-war generation played a huge role: “After genocide and camps, how can you compose in C major?!” That was the thinking at the time…

something Adorno expressed in his famous essay.

Yes exactly, and that resonated a lot with the Darmstadt crowd and the people around Boulez, including Stockhausen, so it’s up to composers and performers to regain the trust. There are a lot of fascinating composers from North America and Scandinavia — I think there’s a lot of great music coming from Central Europe too, but those composers from Central Europe need to be aware they cannot completely detach themselves from the listeners, and that is something that I take into account when I chose a composer to work with; I want to know if they’ll be hammering the audience over the head, or taking into account it should be an emotional experience that might be, I wouldn’t say it has to be “enjoyable,” but it definitely something that is sort of touching and moving and grabs you. If you are neutral after an experience, then that’s the biggest failure you can have.

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

Ha, that’s so true! When planned this residency, since I’ve lived so long in Berlin, I thought it would be great to bring as many cellists together as possible, and the orchestra was game. With residencies it’s interesting, because not every kind of project will work in every city; I also just completed one in Glasgow, and it’s absolutely unthinkable to do outdoor events there because it rains so much. Also I don’t know the amateur scene there as well as I know it in Berlin, and I know there’s a huge crowd in Berlin of amateur cellists — the Berlin Phil, very early on, made a lot of cello ensemble concerts and that inspired a lot of people here — so the idea of getting together and playing in large cello ensembles is an idea not uncommon for a Berliner. I’m very excited we’re making this part of the residency.

A few of years back I did a similar thing in Frankfurt; we had a flashmob in front of the opera, and a lot of people showed up and we played together. Just by the reactions I got, I mean musically we can debate if it’s so satisfying, but the fact that music is such a factor in bringing people together and is such a social event, if it goes well… it’s something that I think, well, you can maybe attain that with sports events, but then of course you have the notion of two adversarial parties coming together and there may be alcohol, but a peaceful gathering of making music together is something I absolutely adore.

It’s interesting that the RSB are performing a work like “Les Espaces Acoustiques”  by Gerard Grisey, and then eleven days later are holding a cello swarm featuring Bach and Casals and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” in the middle of a field; it seems like creative programming.

moser cello live

Photo: Daniel Vass

Cultural institutions need to be aware we are not just artistic institutions anymore, but also social institutions; we provide a forum for people to collectively enjoy music. Although there is a lot of debate if classical culture is antiquated or not, I still think one of the biggest miracles of humanity is that 2000 or 3000 people can sit together in silence and listen to sound — that is absolutely mind-blowing and incredible! If we understand this not only as a cultural but also a sociological phenomenon, and a sociological success story, then we cannot just stop at making music but also we need to be all-inclusive, and that’s where these community events come in. Hopefully we’ll have sunshine!

Chen Reiss: “The Breath Carries The Soul”

chen reiss soprano

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

The first time I saw Chen Reiss was as Zerlina in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2018. Some readers know how fascinated I am by this opera; I’ve seen and heard it so many ways, by so many different people. But Reiss’s performance was something entirely apart; she was a million miles away from the numerous other presentations I’d experienced, vocally, dramatically, even, dare I say, spiritually.

Over the following weeks following that performance (one which marked her ROH debut), I absorbed everything I could, finding myself moved, inspired, and delighted by her work in everything from sacred to classical to operetta. Based in Vienna, the Israeli soprano has a wide range and deep appreciation of the role process plays in career. She’s performed with the Bayerische Staatsoper, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Teatro alla Scala, Semperoper Dresden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, and De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam (to name a few), and made concert appearances with the Vienna Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Berlin, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Tonhalle Düsseldorf, Laeiszhalle Hamburg, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, and Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre National de France, plus enjoyed appearances with an assortment of summer events including the London Proms, the Lucerne Festival, Schleswig Holstein, and the Enescu Festival. In 2014 she sang at the Vatican for the Pope (and a rather large worldwide audience) as part of a televised Christmas Mass,and her discography reveals a wide and adventurous musical curiosity.

Reiss has performed a myriad of roles with Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) over the past eight years, with an ever-expanding repertoire, notably the music of Richard Strauss; as you will hear, the German composer’s work matches her lusciously gleaming tone just beautifully. March 21st (2019) sees Wiener Staatsoper celebrating its 1,000th performance of his 1911 opera Die Rosenkavalier, with Reiss performing the pivotal role of Sophie in a much-loved Otto Schenk production led by conductor Adam Fischer. She’ll also be singing the role of Marzelline in Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, again under the baton of Fischer. From Vienna, she goes on to perform concert dates in Belgium, Austria, and Germany, and in the summer months tours Spain (plus a date in Munich) with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.

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As Ännchen in Weber’s Der Freischütz. (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)

Reiss and I first spoke last year when I was writing a story about the relationship between Instagram and opera. This time we chatted during the short break she had between gigs at her home base in Vienna, just after she’d put her two young daughters to bed. What’s so refreshing about Reiss is her authenticity; she is simply herself, whether onstage or off, with no predilections toward haughtiness, self-dramatizing, or cutesy artificiality. That doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of showmanship for the stage, however; witness her sparky Ännchen in Weber’s Die Freischütz, which oozes equal parts sass and smarts but escapes the cliched confines of both by embracing an essential humanity can sometimes go missing on the opera stage. Vocally Reiss exudes control, range, and innate lyricism, and theatrically she is a force of authentic expressivity. When harmoniously combined with easy elegance and graceful poise, a beguiling and very human artist emerges. As Reiss notes, that artistry is a work-in-progress, as it should be; she is fiercely dedicated to honing her craft. Committed to exercising her craft on the stage and in the concert hall, Reiss is also enthusiastic about passing down what she knows to the next generation, and keeping herself busy and inspired with projects, one of which involves embracing the vocal writing of a composer who is not entirely beloved by singers. A special jewel in the music world, she’s one of the most down-to-earth artists I’ve ever spoken with. Fingers crossed to see her live in 2019.

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

How have you enjoyed your time off ?

It’s been great — I’ve been focusing on my own projects, and I got so much writing done. So many ideas come to your head when you’re not just doing, when you take time off… but you’re a writer, you know that!

It’s true: if you don’t give yourself that breathing space as an artist, you are running on fumes. You have to shut the door on everything…  

… including the phone! That’s the most difficult thing. It’s amazing how much noise there is in the background, whether it’s WhatsApp or Instagram or Facebook or email.

And you’re a busy singer, so you have to be easily reachable.

The fall was busy – there were a lot of new roles and traveling, and it was really one thing after another, but it’s good. I’ve been in Vienna the past two months now, singing and rehearsing and also learning new roles, but being in one place is so much better than going around all the time.

All that travel is exhausting.

But you travel a lot too!

I did in the summer and autumn, yes. Ultimately I want to be in Europe permanently — it’s important to be able to hop on an airplane or a train and see people like you in places like Liège.

I’ve never been to Liège — I’m looking forward to it! I’ve sung very little in Belgium. The last time I sang there I was really young; it’s been a long time! I sing quite a lot in Amsterdam. And of course I’ll be in Germany in June.

Chorin has a long history of vocal performances. It’s a good spot for vocal music with the way it’s designed, visually and acoustically.

I’m looking forward! And The Seasons is one of my favorite pieces. For me Haydn is one of the underestimated vocal composers;  he wrote some incredible things. The Seasons is not done often but it’s a masterpiece, it’s so brilliant. I read that Haydn wrote The Creation for the angels and The Seasons for the people, and it’s true — it’s so down to earth and so moving, and it really should be done much more often.

What’s it like going between the works of Haydn and Strauss and Beethoven? How do you navigate those changes vocally and otherwise?

I started more in Haydn, Mozart, Handel, then the voice grew into the heavier stuff like Strauss and Humperdink; I consider Gretel really something I sing with my full voice, and Zdenka (from Strauss’s Arabella), where I feel I need my entire vocal power to do it. And actually, speaking about Beethoven, he’s a composer that I got into fairly late. I started when I was fourteen, with Baroque and Mozart, that music always felt very natural in the voice. I had very easy coloraturas, not just the high but in the middle voice. The runs were always easy for me when my voice was very light in my early twenties.  What I had to learn is to sing the long lines, and to use more of the voice. It’s a very big orchestra here in Vienna, and they’re sitting high up in the pit, so the volume is tremendous. Singing in Vienna taught me how to lean more into the body.

I still take voice lessons regularly. And when young singers write me, I always say: find a good teacher, and practise good habits. Once you find a teacher you trust, you really need to continue taking lessons. Athletes have their coach and they train with that coach, even those who win the World Cup — they still go for regular check-ups on their technique, and we have to do it as well. I think I am careful too; I was offered, years ago, roles that were heavier and required more middle voice and I didn’t do them. I really stayed within my fach. Of course it’s also important to be versatile; I don’t just sing opera — luckily I sing a lot of concert music too, which really keeps the voice in very good shape, because you can concentrate on staying in the body, on the music, on the vocal lines.

That’s the thing about performing concert repertoire: you aren’t necessarily worrying about blocking.

But in concert you can also be too static. Opera has the movement that releases you. So every discipline has its advantages and disadvantages.

I watched the Master Class you did through the Israel Philharmonic last year. What does teaching give you as an artist?

You learn a lot from the students! First of all, you learn how to listen. And, I think that there are certain, I don’t like the word “rules,” but guidelines that I strongly believe in. For instance, I believe 80% of the work sits in the breath. If you hear something which is maybe a sound that is not, I don’t like to say “ideal” but maybe not the ultimate sound, you can hear the singer can do better, then I think mostly there is some kind of blockage in either the posture, or the flow of air. That’s really almost always the case, and I know for me, it’s either the jaw or the tongue or solar plexus or lower back, so you just have to see where it is, or to give yourself the order to let go. And it’s really hard.

And frightening, I would imagine.

I find it’s much easier to do on your own than when you’re in front of other people. To me, singing in a way is a high level of meditation, in front of thousands of people.

That’s a good way of putting it!

Ha, yes! It’s easy to say and hard to do. It requires immense focus. It’s a balance. You also have to be very energized, and to find the balance.

ROH chen reiss soprano don giovanni

With Mariusz Kwiecien in the Royal Opera House production of Don Giovanni by Kasper Holten, 2018. (Photo: Royal Opera House / Bill Cooper)

“Poise” is the precise word that came to mind when I saw your Zerlina in the Royal Opera House production of Don Giovanni last year. It was so much more than the soubrette, which is an unfortunate norm with regards to performances of that role. I had to rethink parts of an opera I assumed I knew very well.

I don’t like the categories they put us in: “soubrette,” “dramatic soprano” and so on. This isn’t what the composer meant. You have to be true to the character. You have to be in the moment in every sense, because the breath is really… in Hebrew there is only one letter difference between the word for “breath” and the word for “soul,” and that letter is the word for God. So the difference between breath and soul is God, or the way I interpret it is, the breath carries the soul, and to me, this is singing. But this is the philosophical explanation — it takes years of physical training. We are using our bodies; our body is our  instrument. You can have great ideas in your head but if you don’t practise and develop muscle memory, a very exact muscle memory, then you not will be able to execute it onstage, because there’s so much going on, especially in opera.

… and in the rehearsals leading up to the actual presentation, too.

I love working with directors. If it’s a good director, they push your limits, to places you didn’t think you could go, to places you didn’t think you’d have the courage to go, and it’s amazing what comes out of it. I love rehearsing. It’s not just about the final product, it’s about trying new things, which is why, to me, it’s much more interesting to create something, a whole role, than to do a competition. I never found competitions very enjoyable in the sense of, I didn’t feel like I made a journey, like the character developed. I never felt that I achieved any musical or dramatic development.

As a pianist I was forced into competitions kicking and screaming. The entire process felt reductive — of music, of me as an individual player, and as a thinking, feeling person.

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As Zdenka in Strauss’s Arabella (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)

Yes! It’s not my character to compete. The reason I sing is not to be better than anybody else, and also not to prove myself to anybody. It’s because I love creating in the moment, and I never felt a competition was a creative environment. When you work on a production you’re in a creative environment, and you have time to develop things, and you learn things about yourself. And sometimes it goes great, and sometimes not, it depends on who your partners are, which is why it’s important to combine opera with other artforms, and important for me to do my own projects. It’s more interesting to me to create things like my Beethoven CD, from the beginning. I feel like I have much more control and artistic freedom.

You’re doing a Beethoven album?

I’m really gotten into his music. As I said, I discovered it quite late — late in the sense of, even after Strauss! I sang a lot of Strauss before I sang Beethoven! The first one I sang was Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), which is a fantastic aria for soprano, one of the best, and after I sang it I asked myself, why am I not singing more Beethoven? Everybody kept telling me, “He didn’t know how to write for voice! He’s difficult for singing!” I don’t understand why people think that. I really don’t think it’s the case.

That’s a common feeling among singers toward Beethoven’s music: it isn’t vocally friendly.

What made me say “I have to do a CD of Beethoven!” is that I got to sing Fidelio. The first one I did was in concert with Mehta in Israel, which was fantastic, then I had the big privilege to sing it in Vienna, in a gorgeous old production by Otto Schenk. I said to myself: this is really amazing music.And it didn’t feel difficult.  When I learned Zdenka, I found it much more difficult — the line in Strauss is up and down and… I don’t know, people say he was a fantastic composer for the voice. I love Strauss, and I sing a lot of Strauss, but I find I have to work technically more to get it to sound right than I do with Beethoven. I got interested in arias by him that aren’t done very often; everybody knows Ah! perfidoand Fidelio and the Ninth, and I agree, (the latter) doesn’t sit in the most common places for the voice, but it’s not also terrible! I got into these (lesser-known) arias and said to myself, “This is beautiful writing.” Of course you need a vocal plan and a dramatic plan but I think you need it for any concert aria, whether it’s Mozart or Haydn, and Beethoven is no different; there is beautiful dramatic development, lots of colors, it’s really a showcase for a singer. Of course it requires a lot of thinking also, which singers do not always like to do, because we are more doers.

And you’re emotive.

Yes, and we are very instinctive, and also, in a way, spontaneous too — there’s something spontaneous about singing. Of course you have to practise, but at the end of the day you have to let it go; you can’t think too much. So with Beethoven’s music, parts of it at sound a bit, not as natural, but I think they are just as valuable, and the same way he was an amazing composer for piano and chamber music and symphonies, he was also an amazing composer for the voice. There are relatively far fewer recordings of his vocal music in comparison with other composers of his time, so I feel those arias deserve to be heard more often. It was appealing to me. I said I’d do a CD and I’m sure it will be a interesting journey! I’m getting more familiar with his language and his style, and I think it will be easier for me once I feel more fluent in his language. But I have quite a lot of experience, having sung Egmont and Marzelline.

chen reiss soprano

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

Beyond Beethoven, what other works are you thinking about right now?

A role I’d love to do soon is the Contessa in The Marriage Of Figaro. For me it feels like a natural next step. The interesting thing is that i’ve just done Susanna in Vienna, and that’s not a role I’ve sung a lot. The first time I sung the entire role was now — I’ve sung a lot of Paminas and Zerlinas, as well as and Servilia and Blonde, but somehow Susanna just happened now, and it’s a great role. You sing a lot, and really a lot in the middle voice. It’s a great character, but I think the Contessa has the better music.

It’s more soulful.

Definitely! It talks to my soul. I feel closer to her than Susanna in who I am. So that’s definitely a role I’d love to do. And I’d love to do Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. I sung Liu in concert with Mehta but I’d love to do a production. Or Melisande, or Leila in The Pearl Fishers. It’s not done a lot, and I’ve not sung a lot in French, but I feel like my voice suits it, because you need this transparency. I also love religious music in French — Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, for instance — so I have those places I want to go.

Your current projects seem like the right assortment of contents to put in the luggage to take to that destination.

I hope so! I like to think about long-term planning, because I’ve done a lot and I’m in a position where I can choose what to do and what to concentrate on, which is a great place to be. And I’m still young and the voice is in a good place to try new things. The most important thing is the people around you: your managers, your PR people, your vocal coach, your web designer, your photographer. You have to make sure to surround yourself with the right advisors, and not let anyone push you or present you in a way that isn’t who you really are. A lot of people now are trying to imitate the career path of other singers. I think they need to remember that what feels natural and correct for one won’t work for someone else; each one of us is a different person and performer. It’s really important to stay true to yourself.

Dominik Köninger: “You Grow With Every Challenge”

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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.

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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.

Cazotte devil illustration

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

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

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

angel

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. 

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