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Krisztina Szabó: Singing Is “A Lifelong Process”

szabo mezzo

Photo: Bo Huang

Krisztina Szabó is a busy lady.

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

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

coc szabo addis monteverdi feldman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of his scores also feature a cimbalom.

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

What does that add?

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

Benjamin Lloyd

Photo: Matthew Lloyd

What is Benjamin like to work with?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Photo: © Manu Agah)

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

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

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

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

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

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

szabo mezzo

Photo: Bo Huang

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

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

Sir George Benjamin Wows With the Berlin Philharmonic

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

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

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner PhilharmonikerGeorges Benjamin

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

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

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

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

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker Georges Benjamin

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

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

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

A Rich Meal With The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

royal concertgebouw orchestra

Photo: © Anne Doctor

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

soprano Fritsch

Soprano Anett Fritsch (Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann)

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

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

honeck conductor

Conductor Manfred Honeck. (Photo: © Felix Broede)

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

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

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

semperoper dresden

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

semperoper interior

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

forza dresden

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

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

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

marcelo puente dresden

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

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

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

Kirill Petrenko Exceeds Expectations With The Berlin Philharmonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anna Shternshis (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

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

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

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

Psoy Korolenko performing live. (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

How were the pieces on Yiddish Glory chosen? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why these particular pieces? Do you have any favourites?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vladimir Jurowski: “I Can Surprise People And Also Be Surprised Myself”

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Photo: (c) Simon Pauly

This year, so far, has been a busy one for Vladimir Jurowski. Since I interviewed the Moscow-born conductor about composer Claude Vivier in February, it seems he’s been on a non-stop train of events, announcements, and awards. He was in the middle of a very hectic spring tour with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra when news came that he’d won the Conductor of the Year at the 2018 International Opera Awards. On May 9th, he won the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) Music Awards for Conductor. The Awards, described as “the Oscars, the BAFTAs and the Grammys all in one” for classical music, were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 recently.

Currently in Paris preparing a new production of Mussorgsky’s historical drama Boris Godunov with Belgian director Ivo van Hove, the conductor — conversational, curious, always artistically adventurous and extremely articulate — is on the cusp of entering something of a new world. It March it was announced that he’ll become the next General Music Director of the prestigious Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera), alongside Serge Dorny (currently Director of the Opéra National de Lyon), as Intendant, from the 2021-2022 season. He’ll also lead a new production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, directed by Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barry Kosky, opening at the famed Munich house in 2020.

I write “something of a new world” because, of course, Jurowski has been around this world his entire life. Raised in Moscow, the son of a conductor and hailing from a long line of artists and musicians, Jurowski and his family moved to Germany as a teenager; not long after, he made his Royal Opera House debut, with Verdi’s Nabucco, in 1996. From there, Jurowski developed something of a “wunderkind” reputation, but proved, with great flair and a creative confidence that have come to be his signatures, that he was far more than a youthful flash-in-the-pan. Among many appointments, he was, from 2001 to 2013, Music Director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, a celebrated summer event known for its theatrical and musical adventurousness. Last year he returned there to conduct the world premiere of Hamlet — based on the famous Shakespeare work —by Australian composer Brett Dean. (I liked this.) He’s made celebrated recordings and led performances of both opera and symphonic repertoire at a variety of famous houses, including numerous appearances at the Metropolitan Opera.

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Lights at the Metropolitan Opera House. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

In 2013, his reading of Die frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without A Shadow) was hailed (rightly) by critics, and remains, one of my most cherished musical experiences — one that, in fact, opened the door to my hearing and feeling Strauss in a way I, being raised on a diet of melodious opera chestnuts by a Verdi-obsessed mother, hadn’t dreamed could ever be possible. The opera is lengthy, but time flew by that particular evening, and I remember the mix of feelings I experienced at its end (joy, sadness, contemplation) — but mainly, I remember the wordless…  ecstasy.

Whether it’s Sleeping Beauty or Petrushka, Stravinsky or Prokofiev, Brahms or Bruckner, Jurowski is an artist who sees no lines between the thinking and the feeling aspects of music-making, and indeed, music experiencing. Heaven and earth, Emotion and intellect, heart and mind, flesh and spirit; these things are not separate to or within Jurowski’s artistry or approach. It makes his work exciting to experience, and sometimes, even life-changing.

As such, it logically follows that he’s busy. Titles include being Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), Principal Artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), Artistic Director of both the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (Evgeny Svetlanov), and Artistic Director of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania. As of last fall, he is also Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), who announced their new (and very creative) season just days after we spoke in Berlin earlier this year.

Once I flipped through the immense program (which came bound by a plantable peppermint seed wrapper), I wanted to chat with him again, about the new season and its clear underpinnings in social consciousness – as well as about the LPO, and most especially the Munich appointment. Opera people like to talk (and/or argue) about the relative merits of updating works, the need to attract new audiences, and what role (or not) tradition might play. If you asked a classical music person what needs to happen in opera, you’d get a predictably wide array of opinions. I wanted to ask Jurowski the implications of bringing a forward-looking ethos to Munich, one of the most famous of houses, and discuss the expectations being brought to an art form that has, at various points and locales, been the antithesis of innovation.

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Vladimir Jurowski leading the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in September 2017 as part of Musikfest Berlin. Photo: (c) Kai Bienert

There’s a real thread of social conscience in the new RSB season — the theme of “humans and their habitats” features strong ideas around nature and responsibility, both in the music and in the extracurricular programming choices. Why this theme, now?

Well, I do not believe that music can alleviate societal ills. I don’t believe classical music can cure anything in society or change people We know about so many terrible human beings who were classical music fans, including Hitler, Goebbels and Stalin; they loved their classical music and it didn’t make them better people in terms of their behaviour. We also know Nazi doctors had classical music playing while executing their terrible experiments. My personal feeling is that we should make classical music again become an important, ideally an indispensable, part of our communal life. Obviously we cannot quite reach the status of classical music in the 19th century, where it was the central social event, but we can at least refer back to not-so-distant past. For instance, back in 1989, when the uprising started in Eastern Germany and there was a real fear of the Eastern German government employing military force against people on the street, it was Kurt Masur who made the Gewandhaus the place of peaceful discussions — he agreed with the government and authorities that there would be no weapons used. So music can become the “territory of peace” even at times of war. The main ability of music is to establish a non-verbal communication between people and make them forget, for a while, their day-to-day existence in favour of higher realms of beauty and truth which music is able to communicate.

My main aim is to show to people that (classical musicians) can be an important part of this society, but we cannot expect people to come to us, we have to go out. That’s the difference today. We have to compete on so many levels, with social media and various types of mechanical reproduction of music; musicians who create live music have to make their — our — concerts indispensable events, and one of the ways to attract audiences is pulling their attention at certain aspects of our life and society, which are not directly related to music but have a universal impact on the entire life. One of those aspects is nature; the idea to make a whole season dedicated to nature is because it is something that concerns us all, none of all can exist in this world without nature intact and functioning. Because there is so much music inspired by nature, why not try and inspire more people to be more conscious and more active in protecting the environment through the classical form?

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Photo: (c) Roman Gontcharov

Your new partner in Munich, Serge Dorny, said in an interview recently that “we cannot simply experience the Arts as goods to be consumed. The Arts should oblige people to think and ask questions and maybe fundamentally change people’s perceptions. It doesn’t mean we give answers but I hope the way you emerge from a performance has made a difference to your life and that it has changed your perception.”  To my mind, that complements something Graham Vick said at the International Opera Forum in Madrid, that perceptions have to be actualized in practises, productions, and operations.

I agree in principal with Serge, and I have always been saying the same thing. I’m against the consumption of the art; I’m for the active co-involvement of the audience, because obviously that’s how I’ve been raised myself. When listening to a concert, I participate actively via listening, feeling, and thinking. And I like Graham Vick’s work a lot – I’ve done a lot of opera with him, and I completely share his political and social views on these things. I think there’s a lot we can do if we stop seeing only the entertainment side of art. Of course there has to be the entertainment there somewhere, and there has to be a lot of beauty in what with do, but if it’s only about beauty, and nothing about the truth of life, then I think there is no real way forwards.

You said in an interview last year that you hope to inspire people to think for themselves, outside of a herd mentality,away from a knee-jerk reaction. That feels as if it’s reflected in your programming at both at the RSB and the LPO.

I think it’s always two sides: one thing is thinking for yourself, the other is feeling for yourself. That means not coming to a concert with an programmed expectation of an ecstasy at the end. You don’t know what it is — let yourself be surprised, and maybe even shocked! I think there is a real deficit of real emotion nowadays. We are dealing with so much surrogate emotion, and surrogate feeling in day-to-day life, and particularly in the mass media; it’s highly important to provoke real feelings. I was speaking earlier today with Dmitri Tcherniakov, and he said, “You know, it’s an exhilarating feeling when I bring to a whole audience of 2000 people an opera score they haven’t heard before.” He was referring to Rimsky-Korsakov’s La Fille de neige which he did recently in Paris, and is still an unknown piece in France and many other countries. That’s what I am hoping I can continue so long as I am actively involved in musical life, be it in concerts now in Berlin, London, or Moscow  — or future opera in Munich: I can surprise people and also be surprised myself.

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The exterior of the Bavarian State Opera, Munich. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

There was so much hand-wringing over the retirement of the Schenk production of Die Rosenkavalier in Munich. It’s as if people have already made their minds up about the version you’ll be doing with Barry Kosky in 2020.

Yes, but it’s always been like this. It’s still like this with the classical ballet, in fact it’s much worse in the blogs. I know that because my daughter always tells me how frustrating she finds reading those classical ballet blogs; people don’t want any innovation at all, they don’t want any new reading of Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake because it would insult the gods somehow.

“I want elephants in my Aida!”

Yes! But to be fair, I also have been through this myself, because as a kid, I used to go into the Stanislavsky Theatre where my dad was conducting, and since the age of six would watch the Eugene Onegin production by Konstantin Stanislavsky from, believe it or not, 1922. So the year I was born, this production had celebrated its 50th birthday already; by the time I came to watching the production it was already approaching 60… I loved that production. It was also the only one I knew of Onegin. I watched it again on DVD (as an adult), a filming of this same later performance from the 1990s, and I couldn’t watch without a smile, even where a smile was not very appropriate, simply because it suddenly felt so dated. I think it is the nature of theatre: the innovation becomes tradition and then gets old-fashioned. If we were to look at the great theatre productions of, say, Vsevolod Meyerhold or Max Reinhardt, or Giorgio Strehler or Luca Ronconi — great revolutionaries of their time — most probably we would find their productions hopelessly dated today because they were very much products of their time. It’s a natural process and one has to endure a certain amount of moaning and criticism from people who don’t want to see anything else; eventually they get used to it.

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A scene from the Lev Dodin production of Pique Dame. (Photo: @Elisa Haberer, Opéra national de Paris, 2011-2012 season)

I remember when I conducted a staging of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame by (director) Lev Dodin in Paris in 1999, and we were booed every night, every single night, at the Bastille. Two years later, we revived it, and there was no booing… and then this production became a fashion. Now people will be moaning if they decide to stop the production.

New theatre has to offend, insult and shock, then the audience — and critics — gets used to it and eventually becomes so dependent that would not want to see anything else — that’s how it usually happens. So letting go of old theatre productions is more or less like accepting the sad truth that your older relatives, however much you love them, will age and die one day because it’s a universal law. One grows to accept those things.

But I think it’s hard for new and younger audiences. I asked my students what they think of when I play opera documentaries, and it’s always, “Wigs! Corsets! Big dresses!” That’s the automatic association with opera. 

Every process of innovation takes time, but for me it’s highly important that new audiences come to opera not just because they want to see elephants and camels in Aida, or the Kremlin, cossacks and the boyars’ dresses in Boris Godunov but in order to witness the human drama of two people falling in love in the middle of a war and thus becoming traitors of their people, or the struggle of a man at a peak of his power against his own conscience. (Boris Godunov) is about our times as well as about 1604, as it was about Pushkin’s time when he was writing it 1825, or Mussorgsky when he was writing the opera in 1869. Times change, but peoples’ characters don’t change. Do people come to Shakespeare only to see the Elizabethan costumes? I hope not.

How does locale influence this kind of approach? I would think Moscow-Berlin-London have really left their mark on you as an artist.

I am highly adaptable to various cultural habitats. Obviously the fact that I left my native country at 18 has contributed partly to this adaptability and the chosen profession and all the travelling which came with it made me even more of a cosmopolitan. I enjoy learning new languages and studying people and their cultural traditions in the countries where I have lived and worked today I could survive in almost any culture. I never prepare myself specifically for a new working situation; the only thing I study before I go to a new place is a little bit of the language and a little bit of the history. Then I simply wait for my first impressions of the place, of the new situation before I decide how to act further.

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Photo: (c) Simon Pauly

It’s very similar to performing in a new hall or theatre: you play a note or a musical phrase, and then you wait for the return of the sound, for the resonance and then you react accordingly… what I can offer to any new place is my artistic vision, which is roughly always the same, but many paths can lead to Rome as they say, so I am prepared to amend my path if I see there is a short cut. Munich will be different to Berlin, London and Moscow, and yet, you know, we’re all humans and we all love music and theatre — there is something we all have in common and we share.

Review: Schubert & Strauss From A Ballsy Berlin Phil

Berlin Phil

Baritone Gerald Finley and the Berlin Phliharmonic led by conductor Daniel Harding, March 1, 2018. (Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold)

Musical works which take the concept of nature as a theme are deceptive. There’s a perception they’re somehow full of soft and lovely, full of peace and tranquil sounds. Ludwig van Beethoven reminded listeners, however, of the terrible force of nature in his Sixth Symphony (nicknamed”the Pastoral”), with its dramatic, stormy scenes  in the Fourth Movement holding particularly memorable power. Titled “Gewitter, Sturm” (Thunder, Storm) it serves as a useful counterbalance.

Something very similar exists with Strauss’s Eine Alepnsinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64; its musical splendor allows for an abundance of sonic intensity  in which the orchestra can reveal a darker side of the nature it simultaneously worships. This doesn’t necessarily always translate into minor key transitions but it does, through the inventive (and expensive) integration of percussion, brass, and woodwinds, paint vivid pictures in the minds of its listeners. So while Strauss’ work is not at all musically incongruent, the work, fifty minutes in total and requiring an immense number of musicians (125 at least), is a study in contrasts, and in knowing how to use such intensity on a very large scale.

Gerald Finley Berlin Phil

Baritone Gerald Finley takes bows following his performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, led by guest conductor Daniel Harding.(Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold)

The Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of guest conductor Daniel Harding, explored these ideas in a the program featuring the songs of Franz Schubert for its first half. Baritone Gerald Finley, coming off a busy schedule of firsts (I interviewed him for Opera Canada magazine), was in vocally splendid form, delivering Schubert’s  works (in arrangements by Reger, Berlioz, and Brahms) with gorgeous delicacy and steely force. His “Erlkönig” (based on a very creepy Goethe poem about a child assailed by the supernatural “Erl King”) was particularly striking for the character-rich modulations Finley exercised, demonstrating unforced flexibility and a deep sensitivity to the material, from his beautiful and thoughtful rendering of “Memnon” to his exquisite performance of “Du bist die Ruh’, D.776, in an orchestration by Anton Webern, as an encore. Finley never lingered too long in a phrase or indulged in vocal flights of fancy, but kept a nice balance between crisp, character-driven diction, a ringing top end, a secure, oaken mid-range, and incredibly smart phrasing; the integration of these traits, combined with a clear love of the material, made for a very splendid and deeply satisfying musical experience. As the program notes of Berlioz’ orchestration (for “Erlkönig”), “(e)very instrument seems to be deployed according to its colouristic and dramatic potential.” No kidding; it’s a phrase that could well be applied to the entirety of the program.

Colour and drama were certainly a big part of the evening’s second half, which featured Eine Alepnsinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64. Partly inspired by a youthful Alpine adventure Strauss enjoyed, along with his later love of the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the work is less of a typical “symphony” in that it forgoes the traditional structure of movements, and instead features twenty-two sections which trace the experiences of a climber, from daybreak to dusk, scaling an Alpine summit. It received a mixed reception at its premiere here in Berlin 1915 (with Strauss himself conducting the Dresden Hofkapelle), with some sneering that it was “cinema music” — but it’s precisely these grandly cinematic qualities which, when brought out properly, with the right amount of love, care, commitment and respect, create such powerful sonic experiences. In all the times I’ve seen the orchestra live, I’ve rarely heard them sound better than last evening, when each element (and Harding squarely treated them as such, related to climate, nature, atmosphere) worked to create a journey as much for spirit as for imagination.

Harding Berlin Phil

Conductor Daniel Harding leads the Berlin Philharmonic in “An Alpine Symphony” by Richard Strauss, March 1, 2018. (Photo; (c) Stephan Rabold)

Right from the pensive opening (“Nacht” or Night), through the glinting “Am Wasserfall” (At the Waterfall) to the careful “Stille vor dem Sturm” (Calm Before the Storm), and then, of course, onto “Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg” (Thunder and Tempest, Descent) and back to “Nacht” to close, the orchestra didn’t just lead listeners along the primrose path, but dropped them into the middle of a high, rough, rocky ledge, forming walls of enveloping sounds that underlined the dualistic nature of the work, the relationship (nay, need) for darkness and light between and around one another. Horn players Stefan Dohr and Sarah Willis led their sections with aplomb, shaping their phrases and long musical lines ever so intuitively around woodwinds, harps, and strings, while Harding ensured the busy percussion section wasn’t merely an accessory but a living, breathing organism, colored in shape and expression, the “heartbeat” of the piece.  This was far less a pretty excursion into the mountains than a fearsome journey into a ferocious darkness, one that in no way wiped out the capacity for the experience of beauty or majesty, or, in fact, community; more than once various orchestra members could be seen smiling instinctively at one another as phrases approached and receded. There is joy in the darkness, of course; it just sometimes takes bravery (and a few connected spirits) to stand and face it.

And face it, they did; this was the Berlin Philharmonic at its magisterial, ballsy best. I’ve spent many nights in many different symphony halls, listening carefully to many different orchestras, but very, very rare is the moment I will lean my head back, mouth open, and simply… sigh. It happened more than once lastnight. And it was simply beautiful.

Review: Pichon & the DSO Reveal The Steel in Berlin

DSO Berlin

The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin with conductor Raphaël Pichon, February 28, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

French Baroque music is a thing apart for many, whether or not they’re in the classical space. Just the phrase itself conjures up images of high wigs, corsets, buckle shoes, a coterie of nobility sitting by candlelight, heavily festooned and occasionally nodding off.

Raphaël Pichon stripped that image away, gently, with careful detail, in his concert with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin (DSO) last night. The native Frenchman, who is also an established countertenor and the founder of the Ensemble Pygmalion (a group specializing in historical performance) brought a sinuous approach to the material, which retained a delicate quality that nevertheless became more and more fulsome as the evening progressed. Admire this lovely fine glass, Pichon seemed to whisper, but remember it’s as strong as steel.

Raphaël Pichon

Raphaël Pichon. (Photo: (c) Jean-Baptiste Millot)

With a program modelled on Baroque music theatre and featuring period-specific pasticcio (or pastiche), the evening was a lovely treat which featured some stellar and, occasionally very robust playing from the DSO. Pichon moved the orchestra beyond the merely ornamental, drawing phrases and sounds out that clearly anticipated the future opera sounds of composers like Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi.  This was not a concert about bold sounds and choices; it was, rather, a fascinating exploration of the pasticcio format highlighting the connective nature of inspiration, in both creation and presentation. Composers, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, freely used, absorbed, and interpolated the work of each other into their own, mixing portions of both original and non-original composition freely; Handel, Gluck, and Johann Christian Bach used this technique in various operas, as did Mozart in his first four piano concertos. What we might think of as “stealing” today was merely artistic reinvention then. Add a layer of Baroque opéra-ballet theatre, with its format of prologue, three entrées, and epilogue, and you have the makings of a very satisfying evening.

While it may seem structurally daunting, nay even deadening, Pichon and the buoyant DSO ensured the evening was clear, involving, and musically concise. The program, which consisted of works by two French 17th-18th century French composers, Rameau in the first half, and Gluck in the second (with a Rameau piece to close), was dramatic and fiercely engaging. The orchestra brought a loving energy to the tambourine-tinged prologue to Rameau’s 1739/1744 opera Dardanus, extending that sense of careful control to Gluck’s “Danse des furies” (“The dance of the furies”) from his 1774 opera Orphée et Eurydice. Never one to luxuriate over phrases or lean too far into one section, Pichon teased out the undulating brass and woodwinds sections, perpetually in a dance; this suited the many ballet (/ ballet-influenced) works on the program, but it was also sonically satisfying to note the interplay between instruments, people, and conductor. This program wasn’t “pretty music” simply for the sake of it, but conveyed character, mood, and drama, without hitting its listener over the head or lulling them into passive listening.

DSO Fuchs Janiczek

The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin with guest Concertmaster Alexander Janiczek and soprano Julie Fuchs. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

The clean lines of the strings section were especially refreshing and were led with charismatic aplomb by guest Concertmaster (and Baroque music specialist) Alexander Janiczek, who shared a special, convivial chemistry with guest soloist, soprano Julie Fuchs, a very last-minute replacement for the ailing Sabine Devielhe. Fuchs, making her DSO debut, soared in her delivery, but smartly paced herself with the material; opening with the prologue “Feuillages verts, naissez” (“Green leaves are born”), Fuchs worked gently around the softly luxurious flute work of Gergely Bodoky, wrapping phrases and gorgeously shaped vowels into sounds that introduced the evening with quiet grace. Her performance of “Viens, hymen” from Rameau’s 1735 opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (The Amorous Indies) was shot through with both a suitably palpable sadness (which suits the character) as well as a steely clarity. By the evening’s close, Fuchs was in high-flying spirits, bringing a range of vivid colors to “Aux langueurs D’Apollon” (“The languor of Apollo”), from Rameau’s 1745 opera Platée, an innovation for its time in that it was a comic work. Fuchs playfully danced around both conductor Pichon (replacing him at one point on the podium) and Janiczek, modulating texture and bending vowels to create a memorable, comic, deeply felt performance that inspired smiles both on and off the stage. Merci and Vielen Dank, Raphaël, Julie, Alexander, and DSO!

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Moore: “His Songs Are Timeless”

Moore Ireland portrait

Portrait of Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852), Irish poet, singer and songwriter, by Martin Archer Shee (National Gallery of Ireland)

When it’s discovered I lived in Dublin, I am always asked, since I have no Irish ancestry or family, why I chose to live there.

Romantic as it sounds (and romantic as it was at times), it’s because so many of the artists I admired in my youth were from Ireland; some chose to stay, some chose to leave, but I felt, as a young woman hungry for art, adventure, and love (and some magical combination therein), that it was important to be in the place of my artistic heroes and heroines, as if by some magical osmosis their genius might seep into my own work. I was fortunate to have spent good amounts of time working with and around artists of all kinds during my time there, and though it wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting, to quote Danish photographer Krass Clement (who himself spent a good deal of time in Dublin in the 90s), “I was a bit scared, but also drawn to the atmosphere.” Amen.

Moore

Thomas Moore (Photo via)

I seriously contemplated a trip to Ireland on my way back from Berlin recently. The timing meshed beautifully with the last third of the Wexford Festival Opera, an fest I have long wanted to attend, and which holds particular fascination for its blend of Irish culture and rarely-done work by famous composers. One event, The Thomas Moore Songbook, especially caught my interested. I’ve loved the work of Moore for many decades; the 19th century writer was one of the figures firmly in mind when during my initial move to Dublin decades ago. As my exposure to the music, movies, literature, theater of Ireland expanded, I became especially fascinated by such a small country, with such a difficult and very painful history, producing so very many great artists of all stripes, some wildly divergent in terms of their thoughts and feelings around the notion of Irish identity. Moore was one of the very first widely-acclaimed Irish artists to examine this question in a way that was inspiring, enchanting, and important, all at once. His work seems more important than ever now, in light of current news around borders and Brexit.

As well as being an acclaimed singer, songwriter, poet and entertainer, Moore (born in 1779) led an incredibly interesting, accomplished, and occasionally tragic life; he was one of the first Catholics admitted to Trinity College Dublin, had a brief stint living in Bermuda, and outlived all five of his children. The Poetry Foundation (who publish Poetry magazine) describes him as “a born lyricist and a natural musician, a practiced satirist, and one of the first recognized champions of freedom of Ireland.” His best-known work is Irish Melodies (1808-1834), which came to span over ten volumes and cemented Moore’s reputation in the poetry/music worlds. Composers (including Berlioz) set nine of them to music, and the works were translated into several languages including Czech and Hungarian.

Moore Byron biography

Volume 2 of Moore’s biography of Lord Byron. (Book and photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Moore was also good friends with Lord Byron, who described various Moore works as his “matins and vespers.” The two had a long association, and Moore wrote a biography of his famous friend (who died in Greece in 1824), one Mary Shelley particularly admired. My intense love of the work of the so-called “dangerous-to-know” poet in my university days led me to Moore and made me a forever fan. This love expressed itself most clearly via loss; when a very close friend of the family’s, passed away in the late 1990s, my grieving mother asked me what should be carved on his gravestone. With nary a hesitation, I choose a few passages from a poem of Moore’s, words she loved. When my mother herself passed away in 2015, I couldn’t imagine the words of any other poet on her gravestone.

Wexford wasn’t in the cards this year, alas, but when I return to Ireland, it will be for a lengthy visit; there’s so much to see, to rediscover, to reconnect with and to explore anew. The Wexford Festival Opera is at the top of that list, and I am hoping there will be more of Moore’s work presented — that is a given if Una Hunt has anything to do with it. Hunt is an accomplished broadcaster, musician, coach, and scholar, and is a leading authority on Irish music history, particularly within the realm of forgotten composers. She has been at the forefront of the new Archive of Irish Composers at the National Library of Ireland and has taught at many of Ireland’s most prestigious music academies. She was Executive Producer of My Gentle Harp, a six-CD compilation (released in 2008) that is a complete recorded collection of all 124 songs from Moore’s Irish Melodies. In 2010, she presented the Melodies at Carnegie Hall  (to two standing ovations, no less) and a year repeated the concert in Russia as part of the unveiling of a sculpture honouring Moore at the University of St Petersburg. Along with extensive publishing and performance work, Una has also produced a number of documentaries for Irish broadcaster RTÉ, including a tribute to French composer tribute to Claude Debussy.

The Thomas Moore Songbook was a huge hit at this year’s Wexford Festival Opera; both of its presentations sold out, something Una wasn’t surprised by, but, as you’ll hear, led to more questions, and more opportunities. As you’ll hear, Una has very strong opinions about the role Moore has played in Irish culture as well as identity. Why should you care about Moore? What does his work say to us now? How can a country forget (and/or ignore) its classical composers entirely? Blame not the bard...

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