Throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, the month of September heralds the idea of return: to schools and universities; to work projects; to extracurricular events and some form of cultural life in locales where summer festivals are scant if even extant. There is a hunger for routine, perhaps now more than ever, given the added impetus that the notion of “return” carries with it an end to the disruption wrought by years of pandemic. The urgency toward a “return to normal”, however one defines it, feels more tenuous than ever, given a tightening of budgets, of strikes, of continued sacrifice for some, of a winter that threatens cold and expense. Amidst all of this: whither music? Is it now firmly slotted as an extra? As temperatures drop and bills rise, priorities, especially for those on limited incomes, would seem to become plain. How, then, ought live classical culture to respond? How should it be encountered, engaged with, and supported?
Perhaps there is an answer in simple things – things like singing, and most especially singing with others. If the notion of ‘return’ engenders a thirst for community, what better way to slake it? Singing may be off the plate for most, but it need not be; there is no reason to feel daunted by any perceived lack of talent. Choral life in many parts of Europe and the UK is active, evidenced not only in a huge variety of live offerings but in audience response; attending performances of various Passions, it was lovely to note the extent to which respective audiences knew the words of various sections (and sang or hummed along, or mouthed the texts). There are many active choral communities across North America as well (Canada’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale is but one example), some secular, some not. Choral singing is, as practitioners might say, made up of far more than the annual Xmas ritual of Handel’s Messiah. The act of singing together within a confined space was one of the first things unfortunately lost in the pandemic lockdowns of early 2020; it was also one of the things fought hardest over in some places, with certain groups utilizing distancing techniques to try and continue their activities. Togetherness matters; making sounds together, certainly matters, as much an individual as a collective good.
The Merton College Choir is embarking on an American tour next week, one that seems as much about showcasing the talents of its members as serving to remind audiences of the centrality of communal cultural experience. The tour is a good reminder that singing need not be as formal as what the talented troupe present, but can be an act of recognition, of support, of active imagination and empathy. Made up of a rotating group of 30 members taken from Oxford University’s student body (via annual auditions), the choir (who has its own Youtube channel) is dedicated mainly to liturgical works, but also has (as their upcoming tour attests) a history of commissioning and presenting the work of living composers. Merton’s Choral Foundation was established in 2008, and since then, has acquired an international reputation for stellar performances and recordings. Awarded Best Choral Album at the 2020 BBC Music Magazine Awards for their 2019 recording of The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (Delphian) by Bermuda-born composer Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) (a work Gramophone writer Alexandra Coghlan hailed for both its textural as well as meditative qualities) the troupe has also enjoyed collaborations with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Elgar’s The Apostles, 2018), Instruments of Time and Truth (Bach’s St Matthew Passion, 2017) and Oxford Baroque (Bach’s Mass in B minor, 2018). Previous tours include visits to Hong Kong and Singapore, France, Italy, Sweden, and the United States. The upcoming tour to the latter is the first the choir has undertaken since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
With dates in Cambridge, New Haven, New York, and Princeton, the programme is an inspiring mix of new and old works by a range of celebrated composers, including William Byrd (1543-1623), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), Lionel Rogg (1936), Judith Weir (1954), and Nico Muhly (1981), among others. I spoke with Director of Music Benjamin Nicholas recently, and we discussed some timely topics: the choice of touring repertoire; what audiences might glean from the experiences of seeing, and being in, a choir; and what singing means in a post-(or whatever this is)-coronavirus world.
Photo (c) John Cairns
Your American tour is an interesting balance of contemporary and traditional works; why these works, and why include them on a tour?
Well, I think what we’re doing on tour is pretty typical of what we do most of the time. I do try and think about the concert programmes – the art of putting together a programme is a really exciting thing to do. It’s tough to get it right, and I’m aware we’re going to be singing in places that have great choral music already, and so I think it was a question of bringing something with us that might be unique in the sense that one piece is written specifically for us, other contemporary pieces are perhaps not performance so often – so I’m quite keen to put together a programme that contrasts the old with the new, which as I say is pretty typical of our repertoire.
During the university term we sing three services a week in the chapel at Merton and I would say that we include a lot of Renaissance music, obviously some romantic music, and 20th-21st century music, and so the tour programme is an extension of what we do in those services.
Do you program with themes in mind, or is it more instinctual, i.e. “I like how this sounds with that” ?
It’s a bit of both if I’m honest. I have gone for some contrasts, where we put two pieces next to each other. One of those pairings is the Byrd Motet “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth” running straight into Judith Weir’s “Ave Regina caelorum” – one connection is simply that they are in the same key, so it makes for a very neat segue way, but also I think that it’s interesting that William Byrd wrote for Elizabeth I – he was indeed part of the Royal household – and Judith Weir is the current Master of the Queen’s Music, and obviously writes for the greater state occasions in the UK. So that was one thing, to put them together. The Judith Weir piece is also a bit of a personal piece, because it was written for us – it is particularly special. And then there’s the Purcell piece (“Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei”) moving directly into David Lang (“again”) – there’s no great link there, apart from the fact that I felt the contrast after the Purcell would be, hopefully, really arresting for the audience.
The act of communal singing, of this programme in particular, seems especially pregnant with symbolism. Singing was the first thing we lost in the pandemic.
What has the return been like for you and your members?
The very obvious practical change, when we came back to the university after the first lockdown, related to the basic guidance: yes we could sing, but only at a certain distance from one another. Merton Chapel is a good size and we were able to resume singing straight away, but all distanced. There’s no doubt that distancing honed everyone’s listening skills; everyone was so much more attuned, and they knew they had to have amazing antennae – the ears of an elephant – to hear everyone else, to make the performance whole. We did record a CD under those circumstances; it seems mad on one hand, but on the other I think all the work paid off. The choir has moved back together now, and are standing at a normal distance, but their listening skills have been enhanced by the distancing over the course of the pandemic. But whilst the pandemic is fresh in everyone’s minds and people missed being in university and missed touring and did miss singing three times a week in the chapel, I think people have got used to (the old routine) again very quickly; we’re basically back to normal and have been for about a year.
Now it’s been quite a striking difference at the BBC Proms concerts – what I found really staggering as an attendee is to hear all the great choral works in the Royal Albert Hall with hundreds of performers, because that didn’t come back last summer; it has taken much longer for that kind of music-making to resume. For all of us who’ve been at the Proms or heard things on the radio in the last couple weeks, things like Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony or The Dream Of Gerontius and so on, I think that’s been a very powerful reminder of what we lost. But I think when it comes to chamber music – and Merton Choir is, I suppose, the size of a chamber choir – I think we’ve now gotten used to being back together, and one of the great things of working with students is aht they move on pretty quickly. I think as far as they’re concerned we’ve been back to normal for some time, and normal is what they expect now. From my point of view I’ve used it as an opportunity to think about our repertoire a little bit. I hope it’s increasingly diverse, that it’s more interesting; I dropped some pieces which were not that great but which we did because they were in repertoire, so (this pandemic time) has been a chance to rebuild.
The pandemic time has many in classical thinking about that word “rebuild” – why organizations and artists do it ; how they do it; just who they are doing it for. This relates, I think, to the growing awareness around the need for diversity. What’s your feeling?
I completely agree. The interesting thing is that in terms of who we perform for back in the UK, our work is largely about enhancing the liturgy in medieval chapel, so that’s quite different from just being a concert-giving outfit. There are already these parameters in what we’re doing; the liturgy of the day dictates a lot of the music. So that means that there are certain texts that need to be sung and so on. Now, you then have a vast library of music from the last 500 years with the settings of those texts and so on and of course, a lot of the time we’re singing that music, however, we’ve always tried to commission new music at Merton, because it’s a choir of students, and part of the educational process is to introduce them to new music, some written by them or their peers, but other music is written by a cross-section of composers from all over the world. I’ve commissioned Nico Muhly in the US; Dobrinka Tabakova (1980), born in Bulgaria although she’s in London at the moment; Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977), who is Latvian; Kerry Andrew (b. 1978) and Hannah Kendall (b. 1984); and obviously Judith Weir and James Macmillan (1959), both Scottish. The composers come from all over, because I want our repertoire to be as broad as it possibly can. Each of these composers brings a unique musical language and that enhances what we do in the chapel.
In terms of the membership of our choir, we want it to be as representative of the UK as possible, and, in terms of who we are singing for, I want audiences to come along, hear an English choir, and I just want them to experience something of what we do. So (on this tour) I’ve included two American composers, and that was because over the last few years we’ve explored a lot of contemporary composers – Libby Larsen (1950); Stephen Paulus (1949-2014) before he died; Glass (1937), Lang (1957), and Muhly. We recorded an album of American music just before the pandemic which we never had a chance to take to concerts. In a way this is a snapshot of the repertoire we sing, and you know, we hope audiences enjoy such varied kinds of music.
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Photo: Hugh Warwick
A choir seems like a symbol of community, reciprocity, support – things that went missing during the pandemic, and continue to be largely absent. What role do you see for choir membership in a post (or whatever this is) covid world?
The first thing to say is that the act of being in a choir brings people together. That whole thing whereby people have been separated – well, a choir immediately offers a reason for people to come together. Then there is the fact they have come together to make music; the active breathing in sync, the fact they’ve got to respond to one another in terms of pitch within an ensemble, these things make the connections between people all the stronger. So for the people who sing, getting back into a choir is a really important thing.
In this country we’ve found it’s been slow-going – yes, we’re lucky that at the university we’ve not been hugely impacted by that, but I’m aware a lot of the large choruses are down in numbers and it’s taken time for all these things to build back up. I do recognize it hasn’t just gone back straight away, and that people need to be reminded, particularly now, of the benefits of being in a choir and making music together.
It’s like the difference between playing team sports versuss things like skiing, tennis, or swimming; I was a pianist and sometime-band/orchestra member, but the experience of singing St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 2018 was very much a thing apart from any individual experience. Singing is intimate, and singing with others, even more so.
It is exactly that. In terms of musical education I can understand there was a time when one of the conservatoires, the Royal College Of Music, insisted that first-year students be part of a chorus, and the students at the time didn’t understand why they had to do this, but it was, simply, all the skills one can take for granted are so enhanced and developed by being in a choir: pitch, rhythm, placing one’s voice, text, languages…
… awareness of others.
Yes, absolutely – the skills you might learn in general musicianship, you might do them in a class, but go into a choir and you are putting the repertoire study into real practice. So I can only think it’s a really good thing for all musicians to sing in a choir for a bit, and I would say in Merton College Choir we’re essentially a choir of 30 students, some of whom read music as their degree but many are scientists and lawyers and historians…
I love that kind of professional variety in your membership.
I love that too, and I love the fact plenty of people who will not be professional singers have wonderful musical skills regardless of their formal study routes. So we have good pianists, and good horn players singing with us, and as far as I’m concerned, as a director, you need all these ingredients. Yes, you need stellar voices, but you also need a lot of very good musicians, people who just want to enhance those musical skills they happen to have. You need those different elements to make a choir.
Top Photo: The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Photo: Hugh Warwick
Every day comes the email reminder: It’s time for your German lesson! Daily practice is key to learning a new language! During the worst of the pandemic lockdown I took formal lessons with a real, live teacher via Zoom; the experience was a useful and stimulating way to integrate education and interaction. Those months were indeed fruitful but pricey, and proved ultimately too dear for my limited budget, and so I am now left with basic, self-directed gadgets and services, and to my own analogue study, pursuits which demand other forms of payment (namely energy and attention) that I am not always able to give. It pangs me to consider the extent to which my language skills have slipped away, what with memories falling like raindrops lately – of winning fancy language prizes during elementary school days; of the praise garnered by my mother for pronunciation and swiftness of comprehension; of casually shrugging it away the way teenagers so often do when other interests enter and academic responsibilities loom. Playing linguistic catch-up (otherwise known as jumping in the deep end) as a middle-aged freelancer is daunting, exhausting, often disheartening, but passion for culture renders it necessary, and if I am being honest, uniquely rewarding.
And while knowledge of languages isn’t obligatory to opera appreciation, especially with the introduction of surtitles in 1983, such knowledge deepens the experience considerably. I always felt I was being left out of something, anything, everything, in not knowing opera’s prime languages (Italian-French-German) as well as I ought. That knowledge is slowly expanding, but so too, is my appreciation of the art of translation itself. Companies dedicated to presenting works in their geographically-specific local language (like the English National Opera, and once, if less so now, Komische Oper Berlin) would (do) rely on translations that aim to capture the nuances of both text and its relationship to and with orchestration and scoring, and (in some cases) to the contexts in which the work was first created and presented (and/or contemporaneously produced). Many composers have actively participated in translations of their works and/or collaborated with their respective text-based counterparts; among opera’s most famous librettists/translators are Alfred Kalisch (1863-1933), Edward J. Dent (1876-1957), Andrew Porter (1928-2015), Amanda Holden (1948-2021; her work will be the subject of a future feature here), and the famous team of W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). Auden-Kallman wrote, along with collaborative translation on works by Mozart, Weill, and Dittersdorf, original libretti for living composers, including Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress, 1951) and Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961; The Bassarids, 1966). More recently, to take just one of many examples, English National Opera’s production of Die Walkure – or The Valkyrie – in autumn 2021 was presented in a singing translation by musician/scholar John Deathridge, whose own meant-for-reading translation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book points up a vital aspect of the industry that has faced new challenges in the digital era, most particularly with the rise of streaming services amidst pandemic.
Any opera lover will know, probably too well, that hitting “translate” on a video lacking formal subtitling invites a world of frustration; the result is mostly comical, and stems from a longstanding caption problem on Youtube. Even with the insertion of formal subtitled translations,the nuances of expression are often lost, drowned out in weird mishmash mixes of intended accuracy and grammatical gibberish. One can’t help but notice the many inadequacies in watching various introductions, talks, interviews, and previews released by opera houses, orchestras, and other classical-related organizations, when it comes to translation options; the varied socio-cultural / political / historical contexts are often binned in the name of (one supposes) expediency, digestibility, an ever-present pressure to get a post up quickly with the least amount of fuss and satisfying ever-shrinking arts budgets while hoping to garner the ever-desired sexy clicks. Is the arts world really so ready to throw something as important as translation to the side? Isn’t it a foundational part of attracting new audiences (and keeping old ones) to cultivate meaningful comprehension (and thus engagement)? At such moments the digital world seems woefully ill-equipped for the demands of translation, yet the internet would seem to be the very spot to offer more fulsome possibilities for the sort of nuanced appreciation that best serves the repertoire – thus arguably increasing its overall appeal. Someone, surely, must be able to build something(s) better, a system organizations at any level can access that goes beyond Google translate (or deepl.com) limitations – but then, someone, something, surely, must fund all of it, and aye, there’s the rub. But how much meaning is being lost in the meantime? How many potential audiences? How many potential ears, minds, hearts?
Of course there is no substitute for direct sensory experience when it comes to the marriage of music and words, but the key, as ever, is finding the time. One of my favourite if too-rarely enjoyed activities is spending a day (a week, a month) studying an opera libretto and related score, large pot of fresh tea at hand. Noting the rhythm of language, the shifting colours of sounds, the ways in which the dynamism of vowels and consonants shapes and informs musical lines and orchestration; pondering interactions, phrasings, silences; these are gifts to be enjoyed and explored, over and over. The act of reading a libretto (especially aloud) gives one a simultaneously broader and more intimate relationship with words, with sounds, with flow, intonations, and emphases, the way they all feel in the mouth, carry-float-sink-shoot in or through the air – such a reading allows a greater comprehension of the world of words, of the work’s creators, and all those who’ve presented it since. Thus does the world become larger and more detailed, all at once. Deathridge did the world a great service indeed with his Ring book, but his efforts rile my writer’s heart for giving a sharp reminder of the fact that so few other opera-text ventures exist in the 21st century. There is clearly a long history of writer-composer relations – Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig worked with Richard Strauss, for example, and the texts of Friedrich Rückert and Clemens Brentano (among many others) were used by Gustav Mahler. English translations of these writers and others do indeed exist, though the output when it comes to their musical manifestations is spotty; those which are extant in scores, such as those which appear in the Dover editions of Mahler lieder, are far less than ideal (and don’t list translator names for the most part, pity). Indeed they may be intended for phonetic starting points, and as the bases of introductory study for musicians, but they are decidedly not a comprehensive whole. The ever-expanding Lieder.net is a good resource for song translations (and recognizes the translators, natch) even if it makes one long for a more comprehensive whole within the classical industry. Good English translations exist, but to reiterate, are spotty, not always easy to find, and are sometimes couched within more comprehensive volumes.
The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press, 2008), edited by poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy, contains a highly readable, immensely poetic translation of the first act of Die Rosenkavalier by dramatist Christopher Holme, done in 1963. Years before, in 1912, Strauss’s popular opera was its first full English translation by English critic and librettist Alfred Kalisch, who championed the composer’s work and translated other operas into English as well, Salome and Elektra among them. Kalisch himself noted in “The Tribulations of a Translator”, a 1915 presentation for the Royal Musical Association (published by Taylor & Francis; Source: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 1914-1915, 41st Sess. 1914-1915), pp. 145-161) the varied difficulties of translating opera, pinpointing the issue of whether it is the translator’s duty “to produce a readable translation or singable words.” This gets to the heart of the matter for current purposes, for while the latter is a topic for another day, the former – having something readable – is worth investigating, particularly in light of evolving technologies, audience engagement, cultural discussion, and to further perceptions around various forms of identity. Smart translations matter, and readable, easily accessible ones are a net good, in the world of literature as much as in the world of music and specifically classical culture. Most creators would, one assumes, like for their works to be understood in their full range of expression, for audiences of all locales and backgrounds to be given access to those intrinsic cultural nuances which are not always part of the concomitant scoring alone.
Thus it can be said that the act of translation demands respect for place, process, history, and humanism, qualities classical (as much the art form as its artists and ambassadors) aims to embrace and promulgate. In November 1959 writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) presented a lecture at the University of Texas in which he outlined, with fascinating precision, the ways in which the act of translation (as applied here to poetry) changes according to various contexts and received understandings. Using Sappho’s “Orchard” as his first example, Rexroth offers up eight different translations (including his own) to illustrate the vagaries and subtle ways in which language, and the societies from which understandings and experiences of the world springs, informs translation choices. He goes on to observe that translation “can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level.” Translation can do much more, as he notes:
It is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human life outside of one’s own. Making that leap requires imagination, but also compassion.
Thus I would posit that translation is (as I have written in the past) more than sympathy, but a true act of empathy, for translation engages the imagination just as empathy requires, and both require active, directed integrations of intellect and creativity to achieve meaningful effect. Someone who understands this integration thoroughly is poet and translator Boris Dralyuk. Born in Odesa and later relocating to America, Dralyuk is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the LA Review of Books, and is married to acclaimed fellow translator Jenny Croft. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature, though he also taught at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Awarded first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition, he went on, together with Russian-American poet/essayist Irina Mashinski, to win first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 Dralyuk received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly. His work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Review Of Books. His book Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 (Brill) was published in 2012; three years later, he co-edited, together with Mashinski and British poet/translator Robert Chandler, the immense Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), containing a wide swath of poets and writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Dralyuk also served as editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). His translation of Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press) by Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was published in 2018. Dralyuk has also translated the works of Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940), with Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). The writings of Babel, a fellow Odesa native, were described by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard in 2016 as “(f)ractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour […] they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will.” With bold strokes and wild energy, Babel vividly explores the lives of an assortment of colourful sorts drawn from real life, and Dralyuk’s own poetic attention to tone, colour, and pacing shine through the words, not to mention the meticulous, carefully considered rests between those words; rhythm, as it turns out, is just as important as exactitude. In addition to translating the work of Babel, Dralyuk has a close association with noted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (b. 1961), whose equally timely and often harrowing books The Bickford Fuse (Maclehose Press, 2016), and Grey Bees (Maclehose Press, 2020) have been translated to much acclaim, with Kurkov’s own recent fame in the West fuelling a rising awareness of the centrality of good translation and all the moving parts therein.
After much planning and re-planning, Dralyuk and I finally were able to chat – about translation as it applies to various corners of culture, about so-called identity politics, the choices he’s made as editor of the LA Review Of Books, his debut collection of poetry, My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books, 2022), and about the role technology can (should) play in advancing the awareness and appreciation of languages. We also discussed current notions around expression of cultural identity; related moral panics; the value (if any) of retaining romanticized notions in art and music and the related role of context in breaking apart habitual webs of intransigence. Just what does Dralyuk think of the current (and perhaps lasting) labelling of identities? Certainly such labels matter in translation? In an essay from March, The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross noted that “(a)cknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in fact, serve as a check on the oppressive allure of nationalist mythologies.” At a time when privilege, didacticism, and binary conclusions dominate large swaths of cultural discourse, examining the complex connections between familial (and social, economic, cultural) origins and creative output is vital, translators play a crucial role in helping to facilitate (and in some cases, promote) awareness and expansion of those connections, and of fostering curiosity, comprehension, and compassion to those identities.
And, a quick if vital note: I don’t speak or read the languages Dralyuk translates (yet), but I do strongly feel that his work, especially at this point in time, is of tremendous importance. Dralyuk possesses a musician’s approach to the elements, skillfully balancing, conjuring, and highlighting tone, colour, dynamism, texture, tempo, rhythm, silence, as pace and structure dictate. He understands the complexities of technique, the labyrinthe of contexts, the connections between head and heart, and he wants to let us, the reader, into that world. Emotion is, as you’ll read, a key part of what he does. Dralyuk is a maestro of translation, but he is also (and this was confirmed in our chat), humble, funny, kind, and involved. I remain grateful for his time and energy.
Note: The following interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022.
You’ve translated authors whose works are now more widely known, and you’ve taken part in panels on Ukraine; do you think the attention on the country and its authors will lead to an overall greater curiosity and knowledge?
I think the attention is a good thing if it’s a lasting awareness.None of this is certain yet, whether this period of newfound fascination will outlive the conflict or whether it will even, frankly, be sustained throughout this war, which shows no sign of ending. I can only rely on my personal impressions and on the things I hear from my friends, but I think the worry is that social media and the news cycle bring up new scandals and new conflict and new conflagrations every day, and they have a lifespan of their own, and it would be wonderful if the people who are advocating for and spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture, if they’re able to leverage this attention that’s been drawn to the country – for the wrong reasons – for good.
Leverage the attention in a meaningful way that technology allows for?
That’s my hope.
Very often, I see – and I’m sure you do too – these updates and opinions go by, and I always wonder how it is that we don’t have a better technological framework that would accommodate the translations you and Jenny do.
I think Jenny is more of an optimist than I’ve tended to be. I’m pretty pessimistic myself, nowadays, but let’s put it this way: let’s say you have some degree of earned respect in the world, you’ve done a few things people like, and therefore you speak with some degree of authority. If that’s the case, what you put out there, regardless of the technological channels, will reach people. Social media is powerful in that regard; these things, even poems, if well-timed – and I don’t make a study of when to post or that kind of thing, though I know some do – but if well-timed in the general sense, if they hit on something people are thinking about, and you are one of the people to whom others tend to listen on these very subjects, the thing you’re putting out there will reach someone, a good number of people. Even if you reach two or three people when you could’ve reached five, you’ve still reached two to three people. I’m not really complaining about the channels available to us, I know there are people like yourself who actively work and think about new platforms and new ways to present the cultural items we care about most in a way that might gain traction.
These new ways of presenting culture tend to bump up against the perceived legitimacy of legacy brands, but the tools at hand, which everyone uses, make changing perceptions a challenge. Being independent means you gain certain things but lose others.
I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t intervene too heavily in the things we publish at the LA Review of Books. I edit what we accept, if not myself, then others do, but it’s a broadly-based organization and always has been. The editing is not a reflection of my personal vision – I’m not Draconian, I don’t rule like a tyrant – but where I do rule like a tyrant is at my own blog or on my social media platforms, and I regard those as a rather pure form of expression. I have a very different sense of what a successful post on my own blog means to what a successful post on LARB means. Not infrequently a poem or translation published on my blog will reach more people than it might have at the LARB website itself – and that’s because people who believe that I do something well enough to listen to me go to the place where I do it; they’re not the readers of the LA Review of Books, necessarily – they’re the readers of my translations. And over time that number of people has grown, largely thanks to my use of WordPress and Twitter.
You are your own brand in that sense.
Yes, that’s right – because I’m not thinking of how to elevate my position there. I don’t get paid for my blog posts or the translations I post there. lf I really wanted prestige I’d try to get them into the major journals and would submit widely every 6 months, and face rejection letters and do it again and again – but that’s not what matters to me. I want those translations and those poems to reach the largest possible number of readers. And so they go on my blog.
And that’s to me a crucial point about the act of translation: you want to reach people. Reaching isn’t the same as engagement...
That’s very true…
… but through reaching people you can engage with what you translate in a new and important way. When I spoke with Elena Dubinets she said she found it hard to fathom how soldiers who’d read Dostoyevsky could engage in such horrendous acts of violence – which made me ponder the ways in which culture is received and perceived according to various factors.
I think if there is a net-positive outcome here, it is a change in how we perceive Russian culture. Some people do have a starry-eyed view of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I myself do not – but I don’t think it’s a crime to think that way. I do think it can become pernicious when we associate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and their art, with a kind of purity of soul, and a purity of vision, and then assume that anyone speaking Russian must surely possess those innate qualities. That’s not a good thing. We have to be realistic, difficult though it may be. We can’t always hold ourselves to this, but we have to be realistic when we make judgments about cultures and the bearers of those cultures, whatever the culture we come from. We may love the US but hate our neighbour because our neighbour has this to say, and our mother has that to say, and the guy down the street says something else – we’re all very different, yet there are things that tie us together. The same goes for people living in Russia and living in Ukraine. At some moments those common features become the most important things in our lives – as in moments of crisis, moments like these – but in general we are all different people and all have different capacities for insight and capacities for love and capacities for hatred. Russian culture, being such a powerful force in the world, has convinced many people, too many people, that Russians are a bunch of soulful Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Pushkins, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin were themselves complicated figures, not pure of soul at all times. I think this war can make us more realistic, bring greater nuance to our understanding of the people we read and admire, of the cultures in which we’re interested.
The “nuance” aspect largely goes against the algorithms that power the platforms we use…
… but now especially, do you feel a particular weight or responsibility to not just present new things but old things with that same nuance? And how much do you see others carrying it forwards?
I think anyone working in Ukrainian and Russian right now feels a heightened sense of responsibility. I know I certainly was much more likely to do things before this war because I was interested in them without thinking about their effect in the world. I was kind of an “art for art’s sake” purist… I mean, I have ethics, but I’ve always been interested in presenting the most … challenging, the most delightful, the most complicated, the most unusual work, in translation, regardless of the life of the man or woman who wrote it, regardless of their political affinities. It’s basically been my sense that if the work is well made, it deserves to be read, and people can make up their own minds about how terrible the person was or how terrible the things expressed in it are. I still think that’s largely where I land, but I feel I now have to be more selective, not because anyone asked me. The people I translated tend to be people who are, I think, generally, somewhat responsible – not always. But I do think that it behooves us to be careful, now, in how we present work that may be interesting but perhaps can be too easily misread or misused at the same time.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
I’m curious how you think this relates to the music world. It’s difficult to find good translations, even with companies dedicated to performing in English; there is this sense of “well just learn” whatever language – “just” carrying a number of unfair assumptions, not least access to resources. So how to most effectively move past these attitudes? And how do we approach translating things like libretti, which, by their very nature, resist any form of translation?
I think the technology is very much the answer. Google has taught people that translation is no easy thing, and Google Translate, yes, people knock it, but there are two things about it worth considering: one, it’s getting better every day, because of the input – every time someone asks it to translate something, it learns – and the other thing is that it reminds people every day of the need for a human touch. I think ultimately it’s a great educational tool, not only for getting the bare thing across, so some people can move about their business day, but also, if you plug in Tolstoy whole, you’ll get rubbish that’s useless unless a human being gets involved. The technology leads people to realize how important translation is. Over the last ten years or so there’s been a greater appreciation of the work of translators and that appreciation has inspired many young people – I see this every day, more and more people are asking me about my career and how I got into this. So there’s more interest in learning and mastering and communicating across languages, and the number of younger translators is growing by leaps and bounds, and that speaks to a broader interest in foreign languages.
That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the quality of translation will improve, because what you need in order to be a great translator is the ability to read very closely and very carefully, and with a lot of emotion. You have to respond emotionally to a text, and not just intellectually. You also have to have deep intellectual understanding, but you need a real love for expression – a real love for the target language. You have to revel in it and relish it. You have to find the task of writing immensely rewarding, find a lot of joy in it. People who translate simply because they love the original and are just going through the motions of putting it into English will probably not come out with as pungent or flavourful a product as those who both love the original and love the target language.
That brings to mind a common line of thinking on English: “oh it’s so limited…”
I hate that…
I really do, I hate it when people say, “Oh, well, English is a poorer language, because it doesn’t have a-b-c” – no, every language lacks something, an a, b, or c, but it makes up for that in other ways, by what it brings to the table. So you have to be in awe of the possibilities of English when you embark upon a translation – that’s how you get the best text. You don’t get it by saying, “Oh no, I’m going to lose this and that because English can’t possibly do it” – yes it can! English can do anything you want it to! That’s the attitude you’ve got to take.
By the same way of thinking, how would one translate the works of writers like Joyce or E.E. Cummings into Russian?
People have – you do it by writing Ulysses, by being a genius at your work. Those translators did a good job. That’s how Alice In Wonderland was translated into Russian – you have to have the same level of imagination and sense of possibility as Lewis Carroll had.
I love the Irish sense of playing with the language of their British colonizers – it’s a big reason I fell in love with Irish literature years ago, and underlines what Rexroth says when he explores Sappho, and gives examples of how each culture translated the same poem differently…
The Irish thing is a good example of what Ukrainians have attempted to do with the Russian language, from Gogol on – a good parallel –Isaac Babel would count, by dint of two circumstances, as a colonial subject –he’s Jewish and he’s from Ukraine. He’s a good analogy for Joyce, for speakers of Irish extraction. That’s one of the things I love most about translating the Russian language of Ukrainian speakers, which is a kind of endangered species now: they approach it from the side, as insider-outsiders, and it makes for very rich texts. I’ve spent a good deal of time on that aspect.
The insider/outsider thing is especially interesting – how much do you identify with that, as someone not born in America but raised there?
I think of myself largely as an American. So many of us weren’t born in America, and it’s a unique culture in that regard; nativism is present but isn’t the defining feature of the culture. Most of the people who have contributed mightily to the formation of American letters and culture, from the colonial period on,, were immigrants to the United States…
Yes, exactly! I feel I’m a pretty good run-of-the-mill American – but yes, of course, you are also right that there is an outsider component to it. This happens to be a nation of immigrants, but that doesn’t make me anything other than an immigrant: I am still an immigrant to the United States. The story of immigration is central to the story of America, writ large.
That inclusivity stands in stark contrast to a world that quickly ostracizes those who don’t speak the language…
It happens, but I think that’s wrong – and to my mind, very dated.
It brings to mind what Rexroth noted, that translation is an act of sympathy, or to my mind, empathy.
Yes, and it’s amazing to me that that observation had to wait until 1959 to be made – I mean, it probably didn’t, I’m sure others said something similar – but it seems so natural to me that those who enjoy translation the most, the people who are the most successful at creating readable and moving texts based on texts in other languages, are using their capacity for empathy. They really do feel deeply connected to the texts they’re reading and to the people behind them. And if you don’t feel that connection, if you just sit there mechanically translating, then you may produce a more accurate version than Google Translate, but it won’t necessarily be a fuller version – or a more appealing one.
Your work has made me ask ‘who’s the translator?” through many book purchases the last little while.
That’s so lovely – that’s as it should be! I think Jenny probably did more to accomplish that than I did, but it’s important to pay attention to the translators. There are certain translators, long dead, whose work may not be perfect, but who I feel have as much of an oeuvre as that of any author, so I will read everything they’ve done, simply because I love their artistry.
That’s similar to following the work of soloists or conductors: one may not like a particular piece or opera, but one might really love the artistry of the person doing it.
That’s a perfect analogy! The soloist or conductor is an interpreter, just like the translator.
Speaking of translations and artistry: do you have a favourite translation of Bulgakov’s famous The Master and Margarita?
That’s a tough question. I think the Michael Glenny translation of 1967 is overall the more flexible and colourful, but there are glaring errors that have yet to be corrected. If somebody were to sit down, somebody who really understands the text, and use it as the start, building it out, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands.
Because you haven’t done it yet…
I would love to edit that Glenny text, but process-wise, one way I check – it isn’t a perfect thermometer, but it works – how good a translation is, is by the impact it has on the target culture. For instance, it was the Glenny translation that gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the later translations would’ve had that influence – they’re not quite as readable as the Glenny.
I keep being told that there has yet to appear a translation which captures the humour, the rhythm…
I think that’s generally true. We’ve made a start, but we need someone to go in there and finish. Frequently I’m drawn to older translations not because they’re the most accurate in every sense, not because they capture all the tones of the original, but because the world in which those earlier translators lived is more or less the world in which the authors lived – they were contemporaries, so when the authors described something they could see with their own eyes, those translators of long ago saw those things with their own eyes too. When they were translating a description, they knew exactly what was being described. That creates a sharper image in English, a clearer sense of what it is Tolstoy is talking about, or Dostoyevsky is talking about. I would urge people not to toss out the old versions completely; you can continue to translate and refine the texts but I think those old versions have something to offer us too.
Like literary Ur-Text?
There is the urge now to make plain cultural labels – ie, “this is Ukrainian; that is Russian” and to draw pat conclusions based on them.
I don’t think people will hold on to that; I think it’ll go away. Right now there’s controversy about renaming streets in Ukraine. But renaming a street from Tolstoy Street has nothing to do with saying that “Tolstoy is a bad writer.” What it’s about – and this is spelled out clearly in a LARB piece – is saying: look, there’s every reason to keep reading Tolstoy; go ahead and read Tolstoy, no one’s stopping you. But there’s a reason this street was named after Tolstoy in the first place: this country was subjugated by Russia. The reason that we have so many streets named after Russian writers and none at all named after Portuguese writers is that we were not subjects of Portuguese colonization – we were subjects of Russian colonization. So by renaming these streets in honour of Ukrainian authors and cultural figures, all we’re saying is: these are our streets. If you want to sit on the street and read Tolstoy, that’s fine. It may not be a comfortable thing for those who love Tolstoy to witness, but it’s the choice of the people who live on that street. I really don’t think this hysteria about Russian culture being cancelled will be proven to have been justified. There are a lot of reasons why we should worry about all the things happening now; the fact Russian literature will lose a few more readers in the short term is not one of them.
A couple people have written to me to say, “It’s not the time for Russian voices,” and I myself have shown preferential treatment for those writing from Ukraine – it’s more important right now. People will make that kind of editorial judgment call. Yet I can’t imagine any person, no matter how patriotic they are who will say, “I will never again read anything from a Russian, ever” –even those who are militant say, “It may take five years, or ten years; it may take twenty years,” – but at some point, I think Ukrainians will be reading Russian literature, and Russians will be reading Ukrainian literature. Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to listen to Ukrainians who are under active attack rather than to most Russians. That said, I still translate Russian authors myself; I just did a translation of a piece by Maxim Osipov (“Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia“, The Atlantic, May 16, 2022). But, to be blunt, I don’t think Russians are paying that big a price, comparatively – that’s my sense of things.
Elena Dubinets also noted in our chat how the language around how we discuss these cultures must be decolonized – a word that’s been used more and more often in this context.
Yes, and decolonization is not necessarily cancellation. Again, all we’re talking about is adding nuance to our understanding of how Russian culture functions, and has functioned, and been allowed to function, in the world. Tolstoy himself is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy is another. A monument to Tolstoy on his estate is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy in a place he never visited, simply because Russia owned it, is another.
But this questioning has led to a big moral panic in some circles – certain corners of the classical world have made quite a lot of noise about how identity politics is detracting from art and music. For instance, Prokofiev was born in Eastern Ukraine; Tchaikovsky’s paternal family were Ukrainian. What do you make of the current debate around identity politics as it relates to Russian and Ukrainian artists?
I don’t think this is identity politics – I think this is the acknowledgement of the complicated histories of this region and of the people who called and still call it home. To say that Gogol is strictly a Russian writer or strictly a Ukrainian writer would be silly – he’s obviously a Russian writer and a Ukrainian writer, and that’s a consequence of the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. I think we as lovers of culture can arrive there – many of us are already there. Right now tempers are heated, and for good reason: cultural monuments are being destroyed by bombs. The head of Shevchenko has a bullet in it.Those things are not acceptable; those things are not going to bring about truth and reconciliation. But I do feel we’ll get through this. Both of these cultures are too strong to be eradicated, and no matter how powerful the Russian military is, it will not squash Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. which was banned over several centuries yet lives on, and is one of the most productive literary cultures in Europe right now. I don’t think anyone who aims to kill the culture as part of this conflict will succeed, and once they’ve failed decisively, we can go about creating a better, more representative picture of this region’s history, and its art.
Note: This interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022.
Throughout my series of essays over the past three months examining various cultural, musical , and media-related aspects concerning the war in Ukraine, the one thing that seemed just out of reach was a direct view on the act of departure – or the act of remaining – from or in one’s place of birth. Recent events, most notably those around so-called “Victory Day” in Russia, have served to underline the changing realities around leaving and staying, in both tangible and intangible ways.
Russia’s list of émigré composers is lengthy; the reasons for their departure (and in some cases, return) relating to socio-cultural, financial, and political circumstances and opportunities. Perhaps the most notable Russian non-Russian, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) could only explore his culture through being away from it, not unlike his literary counterpart, the Ireland-born, Europe-living James Joyce (1882-1941). Stravinsky’s relentless curiosity and his willingness to experiment with elements of the Russia he’d left behind in various ways – milking, mocking, embracing, tossing aside those sonic elements, and surgically excising the clichés even as he sentimentally held on to their other, more personal aspects – feels, in retrospect, like a quilted instruction manual of artistic fortitude and spiritual survival. He is one of the composers examined in Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (The Boydell Press, 2012), authors Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker. The authors incisively feature a quote used by Soviet musicologist Yuri Keldysh (1907-1995), who is himself quoting critic/pianist/composer V. G. Karatygin (1875-1925), with relation to speculations on the roots of Stravinsky’s work: “The artist, while his art reflects a soul that has been splintered and corroded by neurasthenic impression, is fatigued at the same time by all this nervous tension and seeks out an antidote in the knowing return to simplicity.” Social relations, posit the authors, relate to this tension: “The less the facts of public life pointed towards hopeful outcomes, the more these demands were placed on art. Some strong and vivid external impulses were needed for this.” Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, premiered in 1911 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, reflects a dualism which became more varied if concentrated in its expression once Stravinsky embraced his émigré status. Keldysh’s observations on the work’s symbolism hold modern echoes:
By way of contrast to the noisy, notley crowd, there is Petrushka, with his sufferings and his broken heart, expressed through his convulsive rhythms and angular melodies. A wooden doll, a mere puppet, turns out to have feelings too. We have an opposition here: on the one hand, an apparently lifeless puppet jerking mechanically on his strings but capable of refined and complex feelings, and on the other hand we have the living but soulless crowd; this opposition bore a social meaning that responded perfectly to the mood of the intelligentsia during the period of reaction following 1905. A complete withdrawal from active social struggle, a forlorn subjectivism, a dissatisfaction with reality – all these were expressed through the passivity of a moribund psyche, embodied by the image of the suffering Harlequin. The bright colours of Petrushka’s folk scenes, is thus only a superficial element that throws the inner psychological content into relief.” (p. 244-245)
The bright colours seen in recent news reports, as well as across the social media pages of various Moscow-living musical figures, might be viewed thusly, with the realities of those who have left the country making for a far more grim, far less click-friendly presentation. Writer Masha Gessen captured the contemporary experience of departure thusly: “The old Russian émigrés were moving toward a vision of a better life; the new ones were running from a crushing darkness. […] As hard as it is to talk about guilt and responsibility, it’s harder to figure out what the people who used to make up Russia’s civil society should do now that they are no longer in Russia.” (“The Russians Fleeing Putin’s Wartime Crackdown”, The New Yorker, March 20, 2022) It must be noted, of course, that there are varying levels of the experience of tragedy, and that no equivalency can or should exist between Russian émigrés and those fleeing Ukraine. In an exchange with Ilya Venyavkin, who is a historian of the Stalin era, Gessen makes this point explicit: “Now that this parallel society was gone, Venyavkin could think only of the future, which had become strangely clearer. “I refuse to look at this as some kind of personal disaster,” he said. “Disaster is what’s happening in Ukraine.” (The New Yorker, March 20, 2022).
These readings, combined with observations of the numerous concerts, benefits, and tours recently, have been powerful reminders of the ways in which people respond to trauma, particularly those within the creative sphere. Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka wrote about such trauma in his 2000 paper The Ambivalence of Social Change: Triumph or Trauma? (Polish Sociological Review , 2000, No. 131 (2000), pp. 275-290). He expertly examines the coping mechanisms through which various traumatic situations and events might turn into what he terms a “mobilizing force for human agency” and catalyze “creative social becoming.” Aside from the fascinating examinations of the rise of moral panics (more on that in a future essay), Sztompka quotes American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) in his four adaptations to anomie, a term with particular currency. Merton had postulated possible consequences to social strain, elements which could be experienced via the misalignment of individual or collective ambitions, and the circumstances in realizing them. These elements formed the basis of his famous strain theory, published in 1938 in the American Sociological Review. Piotr Sztompka (b.1944, Warsaw) adapted Merton’s ideas to cultural trauma thusly as innovation; rebellion; ritualism; retreatism, elements which he discusses at length in excellent paper, written a scant decade into post-Soviet life. I fully credit Marina Frolova-Walker for the introduction to Sztompka’s work; in an online lecture last month, she provided a wonderful introduction to these concepts within the context of her own post-Soviet musical analyses. It is the innovation aspect to which I am the most interested presently, one I suspect possesses the greatest resonance within the post-pandemic realities of the classical sphere. Certainly innovation (or its lack) is a concept relevant to the many new season announcements by orchestras and opera houses of late; just how those “reimaginings” will manifest, in light of pandemic and war, remains to be seen.
Thus it was that Sztompka’s ideas, together with the currently cautious cultural climate, that I was inspired to reread Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned (Indiana University Press, 2021), by Elena Dubinets, with a fresh, curious view. As well as being an author, Dubinets is the Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), a position she began in September 2021. A self-described Jew from Moscow with a Ukrainian spouse, Dubinets has a length and very impressive CV. She worked as Vice President of Artist Planning and Creative Projects at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for 16 years, where she also played a central role in producing and co-founding the orchestra’s in-house label. The trained musicologist was also a Chair of the City of Seattle Music Commission (appointed by the Seattle City Council), a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Washington’s School of Music, and was Chief Artistic Officer at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra before accepting her position with the LPO. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Dubinets has taught in her native Russia, as well as in Costa Rica and the United States, the country where she and her family moved in 1996. Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned examines the movement of both Soviet and post-Soviet composers within the greater paradigm of socio-political identities, ones which shifted and morphed, or not, according to geography and circumstance. Connections in and around these inner and outer realities are ones Dubinets takes particular care with; such investigations have pointed resonance to the current, perilous displacements and journeys being made by so very many. Utilizing a myriad of references and quotations from a variety of sources (including composers Boris Filanovsky, Anton Batagov, Serge Newski and Dmitri Kourliandski) Dubinets examines the 20th and 21st-century diasporic musical landscapes through wonderfully contextualized lenses of history, culture, finance, socio-religious beliefs and practises, and old and current politics, as well as the ways in which identity can and does change according to a combination of these factors.
In a Chapter titled “The “Social” Perspective”, Dubinets features an exchange she shared with composer Mark Kopytman (b. 1929-2011), outlining the cultural explorations and varied journeys which were seminal to his creative identity. Born in Ukraine, Kopytman graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and went on to work at conservatories in then-Soviet Moldova and Kazakhstan. Kopytman emigrated to Israel in 1972, where his ascent at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance (Jerusalem), from Professor, to Dean, then to Deputy Head, gave him a unique perspective on his past experiences and then-current path. He told Dubinets that his understanding of his own Jewish roots stemmed from his study of Yemenite folklore, which led directly to various compositions integrating various histories and traditions. “Would Kopytman have developed his Jewish identity had he stayed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Moldova? Most certainly not.” (p. 139) Dubinets also examines the important if often overlooked act of return. Given the current circumstances and the related antagonisms connected to speaking out against the war or not, these observations hold particular poignancy:
There is a heightened sensitivity among Russian returnees about the resentment they perceive to be directed toward them, and some clearly remember the antagonism and even discrimination they experienced when they came back […] Having studied the emigration-related consequences of the Balkan conflict, Anders Stefansson observed that relationships between emigrants and those who stayed behind often provoked the strongest outbursts of frustration and anger, even more than their memories of violence or the stigma of refugee life. The notion of Otherness and nonbelonging developed in these situations in relation to one’s territorial kin and the sense of former national unity did not guarantee welcome, tolerance, or even basic acceptance. Emigrants – many of whom later tried to return – fell from favor in the homeland and were treated as both social and cultural foreigners and national defectors. (p. 290-291)
The notion of “Russian”-ness needs to be re-examined, Dubinets posits, as she skillfully untangles the fraught web of Soviet and post-Soviet musical identities, and the twisting social connections therein. Her thoroughness and conversational writing style lend a cohesiveness that illuminates Eastern creative landscapes as well as those further afield; Dubinets puts her business acumen to good use in examining aspects of marketing, criticism, and “value” as ascribed to musicians across varying social fields, and related locales. This is a book of nuance, not of binaries, a timely work that moves past the noise of reductionism. Dubinets provides meaningful investigation into the realities of creative life amidst the current sea of both manufactured and real outrage, of profitable obfuscation and polemical thought, creating a myriad of vital understandings and illuminations of musical life, insights which are especially valuable in a time of war.
We spoke at the end of April (2022), about war, identity, and much else.
How do you see musical Russian musical identity now, especially within the wider umbrellas of socio-political and cultural shifts?
I think the definition needs to change – it needs to be decolonized, yes. How we do it is a different story. It will take many generations, I’m afraid, to bring it to something different, because the definition is so established in our minds due to the fact that the idea of Russia as a whole has been perpetuated in the hands of successive governments, not just the current one but prior ones. They made that cultural identity a soft weapon for the country, and the Russian world, so to speak. I’m not sure if you speak Russian, but there’s a term that’s been widely used by Putin’s government, “Russkiy mir“, in order to include any Russian-speaking person on the planet. This was striking for me to realize when I was beginning to do my research about the music of émigré composers: wherever they’d go they’d do Russian music based only on their language. They could be from Georgia, Estonia, from Ukraine of course, or from Russia, but wherever they were placed on the globe, the perception is that they were Russians.
I have a similar story myself: back in Russia when I was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, I did a dissertation on American music, and when I moved to the U.S. and people realized I was speaking Russian and a musicologist, everybody who got in contact with me assumed I was a specialist in Russian music itself – and I was not. I had to slightly go with the flow, but it was an assumption that was quite often put on people and they became labeled with it. Typically this is what the current Russian government wants, and what they organized way before the war, in the late 1990s; Putin then strengthened it, but they organized these meetings of Russians abroad, so to speak, and created certain organizations for supporting the development of Russian culture and Russian music abroad. These associations were especially strong in the UK and they were run by Russian state organizations, so it was an intentional effort to broaden the scope of the government, and to put us all under the same umbrella, regardless of our differences. And it didn’t work, this idea of Russian culture.
… and now it’s biting many people back. Various forms of identity are part of the public discourse now, and identity politics, traditionally seen as being the purview of the West, are being applied in the very place that would resist them most. I wonder what you think about that, particularly within the broader scope of what is being programmed for future seasons? Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kyiv), for instance, specifically identifies as a Ukrainian composer.
Well, there are ethnic identities, some want to change them, stick to them, become something else, not all want to be presented as Russian or Ukrainian. Silvestrov specifically wants to be considered a Ukrainian composer because this is his passion, this is what he dedicated his life to. Others will tell you, “I am a composer. I am not a Russian composer.” The same goes for women composers: “I am not a woman-composer; I am a composer.” And so… I’m in favour of people somehow identifying what they do themselves, rather than us putting them in a corner, and trying to label them with certain things that sometimes even we don’t understand. What is indeed “Russian”? It’s really hard to explain to those who are far removed from that state and culture, and for some of us, even the word “Russian” can be understood differently, because there are different words for it. One word can be translated to mean it’s a state-related identity, like Russia as a country-state – “We are Russians because we belong to the state in one way or another” – but another word can be translated as a cultural identity, a language-related identity, which would have nothing to do with the state. In my book I have discussed this concept, and the idea of cultural affiliation – it might be a useful concept to consider instead, to replace the other, much more questionable forms of national identification. What I mean by that is some people simply can’t or don’t want to be singularly associated with the state, or another state, not just Russian; it’s an idea which is applicable to all countries. You might have seen the names in my book, composers like Tszo Chen Guan (b. 1945, Shanghai), who is from China, or Lantuat Nguen (Nguyễn Lân Tuất; b. 1935, Hanoi), who is from Vietnam – they learned Russian, it’s not their first or even their second language but they moved into Russia, and became Russian citizens. And for that reason they had to be affiliated with that specific culture and learn how to accommodate its main stipulations. They started writing Russian overtures and Russian symphonies, and went on to other cultural affiliations. So there is a way to be attached to a country even if you are not really born there.
What I’m trying to conceptualize is that the binary concepts of inclusion vs exclusion, belonging vs otherness, acceptance vs intolerance – these concepts are becoming outdated because the world has changed so much. We are on the move; we are learning new cultures. And we want to be considered as individuals rather than attached to any identity politics.
Context moves against those binary notions, although the nature of contemporary publishing is such that context is thrown off in favor of binary thinking, because it means more clicks, more views, immediate reaction; outrage. I was thinking about this when I read Kevin Platt’s op-ed in The New York Times, which made me consider composer Elena Langer (b. 1974, Moscow), whose work you write about and have programmed as part of the LPO’s 2022-2023 season. How much do you think the idea of redefinition matters? Redefinition moves against binary reductiveness, but it requires flexibility to implement. How do you cultivate that?
I think after the pandemic we have received this very unusual level of flexibility – because we had to change everything for two seasons and we had to do it on the fly, according to each situation. This season we had at least five weeks in a row when we had to make considerable changes in our programming for multiple reasons, not only covid-related but we had a storm – there were all kinds of things, and one of them was the war. For me this ability to change programming and to change, to react to the surrounding world, is absolutely necessary. I have always been troubled by the inertia of arts organizations, and particularly opera houses and symphony orchestras; we have to plan very early, at least two to three years out, and with the opera houses, it’s even more, it’s up to five years out they plan, and that’s in order to ensure availability of composers, singers, directors, conductors – everybody possible – but covid changed all of it. All the plans got shifted. Organizations are still rescheduling and will be accommodating those whose performances got cancelled during covid, for a while, but priorities are also changing, so now I’m asking myself: what should I prioritize? A piece by a Ukrainian composer or one that was cancelled during covid? I’m enjoying the flexibility this time gives us because the audiences expect that kind of flexibility; they got trained by cancellations, which is a strange thing to say. We’d print our brochures and send them out in the “before times”, and we’d stick to what was in those brochures for the rest of the year; this is what people expected from us and we were proud we could satisfy their expectations. But it all went astray, and now if I ask somebody, “What concert are you coming to here next week?” they often get confused – the programmes have been so regularly changed. And that’s the beauty of the situation, this is terrific actually, because we can swiftly implement something that hadn’t been in the plans but can be responsive to the moment.
I wonder if that relates to the first facet of cultural trauma as outlined by Piotr Sztompka, innovation, a concept that feels especially important now. Your choice of quotes from critics in both North America and the UK in your book made me wonder how much innovation does or doesn’t travel across the ocean, particularly post-pandemic.
It’s coming, slowly! It’s much much slower than what we are used to in North America, and I’m still struggling with the fact that sometimes I have to explain very simple things to my colleagues in London. They didn’t live through BLM (Black Lives Matter), or, they didn’t have a similar experience of it; that time was a very, very different thing for them. It was mostly distant; music people here heard about it but didn’t internalize it. In the States it’s impossible not to think about it, but in the U.K., it’s largely, at least in the cultural sector, “Oh right, that.” It is slow to get it into the fabric of our thinking about classical music, and you know, we need a number of pioneers who will lead the way, like for example, my orchestra has been working closely with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) – they are definitely leading the way, they know about BLM and what they should be doing, but you know, they need to continue convincing the constituents. There are other organizations the LPO works with who are educators, they are groups who are very passionate – they don’t do programming themselves but work with the institutions who do. So I think the more of this work there is, the better it will be. The consensus exists that change has to come but they haven’t gone through things yet.
The UK is much more attuned with the concept of sustainability, however. People use public transportation here more than in North America. There, my team was trying to consider what could be done in terms of greener orchestra attendance, and because everybody uses cars it’s just not possible, but really, it’s one of those things we have to think about. It’s what we do, after all, it’s a life form – people have to physically attend – and In the U.S, to do so they have to drive, whereas in the UK it’s much more about trains, even when we’re on tour. We work with venues on certain aspects of that much more so than counterparts in the U.S. do.
One thing I appreciate your acknowledging during the recent LPO season preview recently is the overall insularity of the classical music world – “our small and somewhat isolated classical community” as you put it – but do you think that bubble is breaking up now, however slightly?
We’ve been observing a pretty interesting process here, but sadly we still can’t qualify it. What we’ve noticed this season, when we came back with the first season of live performance after the pandemic, was that many people got used to watching us online, because we had organized a major series of concerts. We streamed 35 concerts online, the same number we’d normally perform live at the Royal Festival Hall. People were receiving it in the comfort of their homes and they got used to it. Many say it’s a very different experience than when they come for live concerts, that they get something else, they get a different type of engagement – but not all of them decided to come back (live). Some of them are still worried about their health; some live too far away; there is a constituency that hasn’t returned.
However, there is a completely new group of people and it’s mostly younger people who show up randomly at our concerts. We always understand how many are coming, it used to be so subscription-based that we’d know a year out how many would come, but it’s not the case anymore; people really don’t buy until the last minute now, but they do come and they are extremely enthusiastic A recent concert with Renée Fleming is a good example. Of course she’s a star, but it felt like a rock concert! People were screaming, they were young people too – it was stunning for me to see. I’ve worked with her before, in many orchestras, but it was a totally different planet, this concert. So I’m constantly asking myself if this is what we are getting because of the covid and the streaming, if this is why people are so much more embracing of programming changes and of new music and of things they’ve not heard before – I hope this is the case. I do hope we have obtained new audiences somehow after the pandemic, but we still don’t have any statistical data.
I had a conversation with classical marketing consultant David Taylor recently and we discussed how low prices do not inspire younger audience attendance – it could be free but they wouldn’t go – it’s the experience itself, of offering something that can’t be had online.
I totally agree, and I know things we’ve learned about, that we understand what may or may not bring them in that regard. We had an Artist-In-Residence this year, Julia Fischer, who did all five Mozart violin concerti, and we had half-houses for all these concerts. Now if you asked our marketing department three years ago about this they would have said, “That’s a definitive sellout, continue doing only this stuff and then we’ll be all set with our budgets” – but people didn’t show up this time. They showed up for some random and obscure performances we hadn’t budgeted for accordingly, so yes, they come unexpectedly. It’s hard to understand at this point, as I said.
That’s part of the innovation aspect with relation to the cultural responses to trauma, seeking new experiences after two years of watching behind a monitor, although there are many who still choose to do so, whether because of economics or health, or a combination of both. It behoves many cultural organizations not to take those audiences – or how we choose to enjoy concerts – for granted.
That’s true – it’s why our goal with programming has been and will remain in balancing our repertory and offerings; we know that younger people are predisposed to new things and older people mostly prefer their blockbusters, and we’re also going back to the habit of explaining musical experiences – that is, our conductors speak from the stage. I want to say that for almost a decade such a thing was considered a no-go: “Music should speak for itself,” many would say. But now people seem to have the desire to learn more, and how do you learn if you have all possible restrictions? I’m always annoyed the lights go down during performances to such an extent it’s impossible to read the program books – you just can’t see them – and also the small type is very unfriendly. On the other hand younger people can open cell phones and read the notes online but it is too bright in the auditorium to do that, and we make a point to tell them they can’t use their devices during performances. It is an unfriendly art form in many ways when it comes to educating people about music and educating them about the experiences they have paid money to hear, so we are now beginning to talk more openly about doing pre-concert lectures and doing quick introductions from the stage right before the music. Of course we’ll be using digital means going forward as well, that’s important, we really want people to come back! They vote with their feet, and if they don’t like something, they don’t come back.
But you are also filling in the holes for an education system that has been continually underfunded over many decades. I am not sure all classical organizations themselves think of their mission this way; I recently read about a festival featuring the music of Rachmaninoff and the language consisted largely of clichéd notions of “Russian” music. Is this, I thought, how we should talk about him (or any Russian composer) anymore? It seems so outdated.
We played Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony on the third day of the war – that concert was called “From Russia With Love” and consisted entirely of Russian music: Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Second. I actually had to go onstage and say something because it was unimaginable to do the concert without any framing of it, without putting it within the current situation, whereby it could have been just cancelled outright. We could have done just that, but people bought tickets; they wanted to hear this music. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) has never associated himself with Putin, and I thought, “Why would we cancel it? We just have to position it properly.”
So we played the Ukrainian national anthem to open, after I said a few words, and really, this is what it means to be relevant as an industry: it means engaging with people’s emotions and thoughts in a particular moment. We played the anthem at a time before everyone else was doing it. I explained how Prokofiev (1891-1953), even though he is considered Russian, was born in Ukraine, specifically in the territory being bombed at the moment; as to Rachmaninoff, he left Russia because he never agreed with the regime change or its policies. Putting the music in context makes a huge difference in people’s minds…
Context, the magic word!
Yes! And we had a standing ovation after the anthem, and it wasn’t a standing ovation for only how well they played this music or how beautiful it was or is; it was a standing ovation for the fact we decided to open a concert with, let’s use this word, a “dangerous” program this way, by explaining what it means to us and why we are doing it.
I asked Axel Brüggemann about this recently and he agreed but added that such contextual information can sometimes disturb people’s closely-held perceptions of beauty in art…
So maybe he’s thinking of Dostoyevsky’s idea that beauty will save the world… and we know it will not!
It’s interesting you mention Dostoyevsky because there have been numerous discussions pondering if he should still he be held up as “the great Russian writer” considering his anti-semitism. Rather than knee-jerk reaction, my instinct as a teacher is to examine his work with full contextual awareness, which might lead, as your book also suggests, to a rethinking of greatness, of Russian-ness, and how we use the word “genius” going forwards.
Yes, and what I tried to always state and intimate, when I can, is that Russians are very different, Russian music is a part of the Russian image, the government has used it to its own narrative, but we must never conflate all Russians, and especially Russian composers and musicians – and artists in general – into something unified. It would be anachronistic and inaccurate. In that op-ed you mentioned, Kevin Platt was trying to do this, and I don’t think it came off right, especially since he placed Gergiev and Netrebko in a strange context – but he did say Ukrainians who write in the Russian language, they certainly self-identify as Ukrainians, but they still use the Russian language, the same way as Gogol (1809-1852) did in the 19th century or Shevchenko (1814-1861) as well. They did it because Russian was the language of the empire, it was a colonizing language, and actually moving to Saint Petersburg was because of the opportunities that existed there, ones that didn’t exist for their art in Kyiv or in Ukraine in general.
We can never forget about the social element and infrastructures of how the arts are done when we examine any art form, especially music, because it is an extensive art form; you sometimes have to hire hundreds to perform your piece, and how can it be supported if the state or major donors don’t invest in the art form? We can’t forget about that reality. Some Ukrainian writers simply had opportunities in Russia, and when Russian had become a terribly universal language for all citizens of the former Soviet empire, they simply continued using this language – but that doesn’t mean they’re Russians; we can’t conflate them all into the same plot . For this reason we can’t cancel it all; we should perform it. People like Gergiev… no, that’s different. It’s clear to everyone on the planet I believe, that he specifically benefited from this government and specifically supported its war efforts; many others have not, they protested, it should also matter and it should count.
Having said that, I have experienced opinions from other folks, for example Ukrainian musicians, who think that while the war is ongoing, Russian and Ukrainian music shouldn’t be on the same platform or the same programme, and while I don’t quite agree with it, I do see the rationale for that, and I understand their position. Ultimately what they’re saying is music is their weapon as well, the same way it is and has been soft power, and a soft weapon for the Russian government, so Ukrainians are also saying, “We have this meaningful tool and we want to use it appropriately.” But there is also another element bothering me recently as a scholar of Russian music and culture: I agonize over the fact that right now is not an ideal time to advocate for Russian music, but it is impossible to reconcile the unimaginable atrocities that have been committed by Russian soldiers with the fact they were educated in school studying Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. They were part of the system and even if they didn’t internalize it, it was there, it existed. I know myself, I studied and taught there, and know how it’s done right now. So it’s hard to understand how people who had at least some cultural background and education in school, do what they’ve been doing…
Quiteafewreports have explored the connection between military service and poverty, and President Zelensky has noted this also, which makes me think that for all culture they were shown in school, it doesn’t mean the same thing for them as it would for others in different areas. What is culture if you have nothing in the fridge and no job prospects outside the door? This makes me ponder our role(s) as artists / thinkers / writers / producers / programmers of culture, and of how to create or support a system that reaches past our bubble – which goes back to your points. The classical community needs to start thinking about all of this…
… we do have to, yes, but unfortunately right now the domination of the Russian government there, in those places, is remaking the ways in which school kids, those in elementary schools, will be studying history and culture, and also unfortunately, that history and culture will now become even less based on facts and even more based on ideology. This is the reform they’re initiating right now as we speak. So who will grow up within that system, between ten to fifteen years from now, is scary to imagine. And that’s not talking only about rural areas but cities as well, because they all have the same agenda, to glorify what the army is doing right now.
The language for that glory creates and shapes a reality which is not, in fact, reality – but surely this is why we have to talk about culture, and characterize decisions in culture, very carefully ourselves, and make sure when we make these decisions public or engage in exchanges that such language is very precise and not reactionary…?
Yes, and we should do that. In Russia that sense has been killed; what exists is public television which is a very determined agenda. And going back to what you asked me about what we learned as a result of the pandemic and how Europe is different from North America: Russia is an entirely different planet. They’ve never heard of some of the concepts we are trying to implement, or they are totally against them. They are not even trying to understand or accept the realities of the current time. If you are talking about diversifying the art form, they’re never considered this. I’m worried this feeds into the overall line of the “exceptionality” of the Russian culture in general, and that idea applies to Russian musicians in particular. They don’t want to accept that there are other cultures, other important elements in our world that they need to consider.
You know it’s always interesting to consider how decolonization should happen, and quite an obvious way would be for those formerly colonized cultures to be considered independent of their colonizers. This is what I am observing right now: I think the deconstructing of Russian imperial identity is happening in such a way. Ukraine has always been positioned in comparison to Russia, and Ukrainian artists are often compared to Russian artists. I’ve heard here, on my job with the LPO even, on multiple occasions, that we don’t know Ukrainian music because “Oh, it’s not as good as Russian” – and this is silly. People don’t know Ukrainian music, period, because it was purposely colonized that way, it was undermined by the occupier, by the empire, by its ambitions for their counterparts who would willingly point it out to everybody, that what they do is better than what other people in the provinces do, and Russians just don’t want to hear this piece of history, we completely ignore this societal argument. So when decolonizing these cultures, say, Belarusian or Ukrainian, I think they should be able to stand on their own rather than being constantly compared with Russians – and right now the public discourse is such that it’s just not happening. Maybe a few more months have to pass. Right now our goal is to perform as much Ukrainian music as possible and convince everybody it does stand on its own, and that it does have this individuality which it was not granted in the past.
So it starts with those programming choices and the flexibility you mentioned and saying, “Yes, we are going to have this composer and that composer in our programme tonight, it isn’t announced, but here it is” – just that spontaneous?
It’s just that. We performed a piece for violin and orchestra, “Thornbush”, by Victoria Polevá (b. 1962, Ktiv) at the fundraiser for Ukraine in Glyndebourne in early April; it was not really announced but we spoke about it from the stage, and then we decided to commission a new piece from her for next season.
Our entire 2022-2023 season will be dedicated to music by composers who had to leave their own countries as refugees to displaced composers – so we’ll talk about issues of home, what is home, what is displacement, how the composers experience exile, homelessness, despair, when and why they had to drop everything and leave – and what does it mean to “belong:, in a much broader sense? Is the idea of “home” just an emotional environment they wanted to create for themselves? Or is it a certain geographic location? Is it a time and place? There are so many possible descriptors of what “home” is, and this is what we hope to explore through music next season. The idea of this season came up when I was just hired to become the Artistic Director, about a year ago, and we thought we were implementing it pretty well, we incorporated composers who had left Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany but also Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria, and you’ll hear music from all these composers although few know their names. We had to make some choices in favour of these composers instead of programming Beethoven, let’s say, who could sell us many more tickets – but we used this new season to represent our general mission. And unfortunately the idea became – I say “unfortunately” because I wish this war never happened – very relevant when the war was starting, so we commissioned Victoria Polevá, who was on the way from Kyiv to Poland to escape the bombs at the time we asked – and so she will write for us next season. This is how I understand the mission of our art form at this terrible moment: decolonizing the preconceptions about classical music.
Chasms in the classical music world are becoming increasingly obvious as a result of the war in Ukraine. The pressures recently placed on artists to make a clear public statement, pressures which are being applied by various cultural organizations, have fomented resentments and created a whirlwind of controversy around the exercise of private and public opinions in relation to art and culture. There has been a heated reignition of the long-standing debate of how far one might (or should) separate the art from the artist. Things are not quite so clear-cut as some involved in the debate would believe, however; the institutional motivations behind applying that pressure, and the decision to cancel Russian artists and music in some instances, are enmeshed within a tight knot of funding, education, location, history, access, and the effects of two years of pandemic on the arts landscape overall. Audiences are proving slow in their return in many markets; the optics of doing the perceived “right thing” to convince them of the value of return has never been more pronounced.
This essay began life as a series of observations on the current state of music, politics, intercontinental preconceptions, funding models, education cuts, algorithms, public relations, and evolving notions of collective responsibility. Since starting on 3 March, the piece has become longer and broader than what was initially intended, and is now an ever-evolving, super-fussy Hydra. Just when I think one section is complete, along comes… more: another piece of learning; a dire bit of news; the reading of a comment thread; a conversation; the sound of violins playing a folk song. At those times I become curious, and am forced to rethink. In the interests of organization and finitude, I will be publishing this piece in four parts, likely not wholly consecutive but interspersed with artist conversations, this website’s initial raison d’être at its launch in 2017. It has been suggested this current essayistic pursuit is more suited to book form – perhaps? The great paradox of digital publishing is its essential changeability and permanence; everyone remembers when you screw up; everyone knows when you edit. I have no problem standing thusly naked before readers – I just want to make sure I can control the temperature of the water before dropping my robe.
It feels reductive to state “war is hell.” It is that, of course, because it makes everything and everyone around it hell, one rife with twisting corridors and uneven floors, crumbling staircases leading to ever more dimly-lit labyrinthine levels. The invasion of Ukraine has uncovered an increasingly rigid cultural exceptionalism across continents, one fast becoming the elephant in the auditorium. It is an element which is proving unhelpful for artists and audiences alike, because its existence is so patently antithetical to the notion that music is a unifying force, this concept which many artists state with urgent sincerity. How can this great oneness have any validity in the real world if a newcomer is constantly made to feel intellectually and creatively small by those holding more formal knowledge and training? The reactionary engineering of social media fosters such hostilities (and related reactivity) whilst simultaneously obscuring the practises of public relations, thus perpetuating a broad ignorance around the roles of finance and education. Such comprehension is not something governments or organizations would wish to be known, but that does not erase the validity of such investigation. One cannot simply shout “They are cancelling Russian artists!” without understanding the true mechanisms which have largely driven such cancellations; I would wager that they are less driven by xenophobia than by economics, and as much related to maintaining public relations as to pleasing donor bases. There is also, importantly, a deep aversion to risk after two years of pandemic; anything that gives off so much as a whiff of risk is duly launched off the boat, with all the expected words and righteous noises – sensitivity; community; solidarity. Bravo… ish.
Thus the recent claims of there occurring a giant wave of Russophobia within the classical realm (a victim narrative the Putin regime fosters, incidentally) are not completely accurate; no doubt that does exist, but one must keep context in firm focus. New York’s Metropolitan Opera, for instance, has roughly ten Russian singers, as well as Ukrainian basses Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Dmitri Belosselskiy, on board for this season and next. Such a detail holds significance; to ignore it is to ignore the necessary context which lays the groundwork for meaningful discussion. If we mean what we say, as music lovers and seeming ambassadors, we must be willing to get our hands dirty with various realities, including our own unconsciously-held beliefs and attitudes, as much as negotiating with those held by others. While classical culture prides itself on humanism, growth, and the ever-vital curiosity, I have witnessed few of these qualities in action of late from so many directly and indirectly involved parties; what I have seen is judgement, obfuscation, anger, showboating – reaction. Is there hope for sincerity? The jury is still out. As bass baritone Paul Carey Jones pondered in a recent post, “is the classical music industry all of a sudden truly serious about its desire for politically engaged artists, after a generation of hammering them into monochrome moulds of glossy PR-friendly “Living The Dream” bullshit?” In an attempt to explore pertinent issues within and around the intersections of culture, technology, politics, PR, and presentation, it seems wise to continually turn attention back, and forwards – to read, study, think, repeat, and to keep asking such questions, and expanding on them at every turn.
Such is the privilege of my own situation that I am able to pursue study, in a relatively healthy environment, with food in the refrigerator and heat buzzing on at predictable intervals. It is worth acknowledging this – the thing I ask for more of (education) and the things required to carry that out (time, money, environment) are not necessarily things everyone has access to, or easy access at that. Between hoovering, hay fever, student marking, sighing, cooking and clearing up, my days have filled up with reading, writing, note-taking, chasing people, ideas, and some cogent line of discourse, interspersed with glances at the telly every now and again. Context, as my many media and broadcasting students through the years will attest, is something of an obsession, but it takes continuous amounts of time, energy, money, and a calm atmosphere to grasp and cultivate an appreciation of context – not everyone has those things, or can so easily parcel them out; I acknowledge this (and shake angry fists at the utter failure of education systems, school boards, and arts departments here, but that’s a future essay). Context is often the very quality most often missing in contemporary discourse, and especially in times of war. Its absence, and the overall lack of commitment to its fostering on the part of artists, writers, organizations, educational departments, teachers, writers, publishers (most everyone in or around the system) has created a crater of non-awareness; that crater existed far before the start of war on February 24th but is growing exponentially, caving in on itself – and classical culture is fast becoming its most damaged casualty.
Along with an obsession of context is, as my students well know, a heavy dislike of false equivalency. Its rise not only within media presentation but the seemingly-innocuous realms of quotidian exchange is immensely frustrating for both its intellectual laziness and whataboutism, that debate-stopping, brain-melting tendency with a rather timely history. It is exhausting to wave arms against things which, over the last three weeks, have become so common, and so often go unquestioned. False equivalency hinges on giving equal weight to that which is not at all equal, but it also underscores a galling lack of empathy for which music is (again) meant to (magically, romantically) cure. Over the past week there have been numerous posts from musicians expressing concern at losing opportunities over what seems to be little more than their nationality – but (to be a bit of a broken record here) I’m not convinced that’s the actual reason for the cancellation. We all know perceptions are not reality, but oh, they certainly feel that way, and nowhere more sharply than in times of war. The wording isn’t always the same with these expressions, written in a mix of despair and outrage, but the subtext is shared: fear. Who should speak out? Is it a good idea? How much specificity is expected? As violinist Alexey Igudesman recently posited:
You are a Russian artist who lives in Moscow with a family and a child, or who has family in Russia.
If you give statements against the government, the danger of something happening to you or your family in a regime like Russia is very real.
No-one should be forced to become a martyr and put their family and livelihood in danger. If one does, that has to be the individual’s own choice.
As human rights project OVD Info outlines, such exercise of choice is not done lightly. It begs the question: is it a choice when it isn’t really a choice? Artists living in the West who have spoken out are to be lauded, but such statements are not comparable with those made by others living in the country, or with family living in such an environment. In acknowledging such a reality there is also the need to acknowledge another: “How can one feel bad for Russians when Ukrainians are being bombed?” – there is no answer to this. There can’t be; there shouldn’t be.
Grappling with suffering means gently if consciously engaging the imagination; even (or especially) if that suffering is not ours. This is which is a key component in making the engine of empathy run. Such exercise sometimes opens the door to understanding – but more often, in this age of quick reactions and retweets, leads to un-feeling, to closing doors, to shutting down engines and kicking them down several sets of stairs. Invariably come the comparisons (of suffering; of victimization), neither side bearing equal weight to the other. (If you don’t think Putin and his gang delight in fomenting such divisions, kindly reconsider; he is arguably the author of the mud-slinging event at contemporary edition of The Suffering Olympics. Such an event merits no winners, and should not attract so many willing recruits, and yet.) Why do people engage in this? False equivalency isn’t related to “seeing all sides” – such valuation robs us of humanity, and robs us of the ability to exercise the empathy that clearly expresses that humanity.
Alas, such reductions are the currency with which wars are waged and fought; bending too far back is dangerous, but bowing too far forwards is apologism. That doesn’t mean suffering should not be acknowledged, and it doesn’t mean such an acknowledgement negates the need for figures within the classical community to speak with clarity at a moment when it ought to be least effortful; compassion is either present or it is not. If it is effortful, well, so the person is clearly revealed. Politics, as ever, presents a challenge. The classical community was largely silent over many things, seemingly floating above it all: James Levine, Me Too, BLM, casting couches, COVID19 – the list of issues which classical has faced are lengthy, perceived as inconvenient, viewed as overheated reaction from an over-anxious, social-media fuelled public. It’s a witch hunt! they shout, and alas, the algorithm of social media clicks along; fans obediently seal-clap, defend their heroes, slut-shame accusers, publish breathless articles filled with puffy questions that mysteriously divorce art from life. Such conversations are handy bits of propaganda and certainly make the classical ecosystem (along with non-paying publishers and ad tech) very happy. So what? The fact that war is possibly the classical world’s tipping point for meaningful change is telling; something has to give, but whether something will is a whole other matter. In a recent exchange at Tablet, celebrated refusenik Natan Sharansky offers his thoughts on the war, and remembers his own experiences of being a Jew growing up in Ukraine:
Donetsk was a very international city, it had many nations. It was an industrial center, so for 100 years people had been coming there to look for work from different parts of the Russian empire. There were Ukrainians and Russians in Donetsk, of course, but also Kazakhs and Armenians and Georgians and Tatars. So none of that really mattered. What really mattered was: Are you Jewish or not? […] Jews were the only people who were really discriminated against. There were jokes about every nation, but the real prejudices and the official discrimination were against Jews. Now, I studied in a Russian school where the second language was Ukrainian, and there were many Ukrainian schools where the second language was Russian. As a Jew, I tried to be the best in everything, so I tried to also be the best in Ukrainian literature.
The pressure on a minority group to be the very best has gone from being a shared reality among many young musicians into an uncomfortable requirement. Expectations are high; competition is rampant. Be the best at performing, and now, be the best at performing the mechanics of virtue; such is the pressure now. Any chance for meaningful change is choked in the race to apply the right level of knowledge at the right time, in front of (or with) the right people. Ever has it been thus.
It’s easy to point at these cancellations and scream witch hunt! (Putin would want you to) but far more difficult to examine the position of each, their board members, their audience demographics, the position of unions in some of them, and the ever-significant role of funding, which matters in providing wider music knowledge and related (needed) rehearsals of new material. Perhaps the work of Serge Bortkiewicz, Yevhen Stankovych, and Myroslav Skoryk will be programmed for more than benefits alone; perhaps these works will become, like so many others, part and parcel of regular season programming. Perhaps audiences will want to hear them, and more.
Serious consideration of such possibilities hint at the acknowledgement of a needed structural change and an overdue embrace of its smart application. The grounds must exist for dialogue which is free from angry exceptionalism but open to uncomfortable realities, including anger and disappointment, sometimes with words, sometimes in the form of returned tickets. That’s the reality; some outlets will be skittish in broaching this. Two years of pandemic has meant a wholly risk-averse landscape (the effects of which can clearly be seen in cancellations now), but such initiatives – such bravery – is required. It is in the exercise of these qualities that classical culture will, perhaps, find the kind of 21st century significance many argue it sorely needs. Alongside angrily returned tickets might come, one hopes, something else: curiosity. It is a quality which lays the seeds for… I won’t call it hope (which sounds precious) but… an opening. There needs to exist curiosity – for discussion, education, expansion, uncomfortable ideas, new avenues. “Just look,” says curiosity, “at least look…”
One might stomp off across the concrete, back to the labyrinthine bunker, ignoring the green shoots pushing through that soil, seeing only craters, mud, debris; one might walk away carefully, observing tiny buds, remembering it is spring, after all; one might be grateful to see such possibility. Setting fire to the field is not the answer. It is time to breathe, and to replant, carefully.
Photo: The curtain of the Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Amidst the many classical features published over the past year, the word “relatable” has popped up, an insistent neon sign in a landscape of bucolic rural scenes and insistently grinning portraits. Art, and especially, opera, should be relatable in some way, apparently – relatable as in connecting directly to the viewer’s life, habits, predilections, and peccadillos in obvious and recognizable ways. If Figaro is presented on the stage, we should immediately recognize him, if not as someone else, but precisely as one’s own self: “Hey, that’s me! That’s what I do, that’s how I react, that’s just how I think!” So too for Carmen, the Marschallin, Aida, Papageno, Rigoletto, Lulu, Brünnhilde, Hansel and Gretel, Boris Godounov, the Cunning Little Vixen, the Miserly Knight, Lady Macbeth(s), Eurydice, Rodelinda, Poppea. This desire (more of a demand in some places) to see our immediate and recognizable selves on a stage (on a screen, in a book) is not new. In 2014 American public radio personality Ira Glass dismissed a production of King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, his tweet stating he found “no stakes, unrelatable”, then subsequently referencing 2013 productions of Shakespeare in New York with another pithy tweet: “(F)antastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”
Rebecca Mead’s 2014 piece for The New Yorker, The Scourge Of “Relatability”, contextualizes the history of the word in relation to its rise on early-aughties American daytime television and its subsequent rise across various media sources and literary review websites, along with an indicative listicle from a clickbait-heavy site – surely a bullseye example to contemporary eyes, inundated consciously and not with the mechanics of ad tech, whose role here is not inconsiderable. Mead notes the concept has roots in Freud’s mechanism of identification – that is, cultivation of self through imitation and idealization of a parental and/or authority figures. (“Children are inclined to behave like the significant adult models in their environment, Freud postulated. These identifications give identity and individuality to the maturing child,” as Britannica helpfully notes.) The challenge to cultural expression, as Mead rightly identifies, is that the demand for relatability becomes conflated with expectation, that “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” This has immense implications for opera, with its widely-regarded, unconsciously-held expectations of ecstasy, ones which are all the more subsumed within a culture which grapples with outmoded perceptions and clichés around elitism. Why shouldn’t one want to see one’s self, precisely, live before them, especially when one enters the auditorium having paid good money, made the effort to dress up, obtained the now-required documentation for entry? Mead continues:
The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”
The demand on directors, and by association, singers, to be relatable, to have familiar elements of daily life and the 21st century living of it, grows more and more present. “Reimagined” is the buzzword of the Covid era, with presentations of many works overhauled, rebranded, and largely decontextualized for consumption by a supposedly hungry online audience; offering up new/old works with the intention to relay some form of the relatable (be it in gender, gender fluidity, race, sexuality, social strata) before the truly theatrical, is less a fad than a lived reality in many corners of the cultural landscape. The hearty use of digital technologies, while initially heartening 21 months ago, more than often this year points to confusion between the accessible and the relatable; the assumption that we’re all on our computers because of pandemic isn’t wrong but it’s lazy, and takes the onus off the human urge toward imagination, and the exercise of it. We want to imagine ourselves fully dressed, out and about, in pre-corona land, but that’s not going to happen, and so, we’re presented with endless forms of what is perceived by marketing departments to be entirely relatable, and we, of course, are meant to applaud.
Inside the Teatro Regio di Parma. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Some figures, like Faust, are already familiar, or should be, by the sheer dint of previous literary/socio-cultural history. Don’t we all make a deal with the devil, whether it’s posting open-moistly-mouthed photos in order to get the notice of powerful casting agents, going maskless backstage, posting over-edited (in modern parlance, “curated”) performance snippets on Tik Tok, or even (especially) getting on an airplane at Xmas/New Year’s amidst pandemic? Ah, but that magic word “choice” is a captivating sirin in modern life, eyes glinting with perceived power and colored talons wrapped around an invisible pen, waving the papers for an imaginary divorce from hard, real circumstance – that messy, multi-layered stuff which makes us. It’s pleasant and convenient, (some will righteously label it “immense”, a handy form of ego-combing empowerment), to feel that everything in life is entirely within one’s control, that everything boils down to the woo of personal responsibility and individual energetic direction. I can choose to be agreeable about this exploitative situation; I can be h-o-t as defined by the narrow parameters I myself entrench; I choose to see myself in Carmen; I choose to see Sarastro as a closet sub in search of a dom. I can choose, lalala! If we do not see our very selves precisely presented on the stage, so the thinking goes, then where? Should we (can we) “choose” otherwise? Shall our complicated and messy 21st century world not be part of (nay, constitute the entirety of) theatrical presentation now, in the midst of pandemic? Is it not awfully elitist to ignore such realities given such a forum? Can we choose something else – really? In an industry so bifurcated by geography, funding models, educational models, and quotidian culture, the concept of “relatable” as connected to stagings differs widely, and takes on various forms, some of which are shared, many of which are not. One can choose to applaud or be angry, but one must always be loud in 2021, and probably 2022 also; awareness, contemplation, nuance, quiet – time-consuming, seemingly effortful, unfashionable. The recent hand-wringing in Berlin over The Nutcracker (given intelligent dissection recently in Süddeutsche Zeitung) makes clear the onerous challenges of a lacking historical awareness, the disinterest in engaging with its sharper corners, and the unsexy nature of nuance, a quality which works against the acrid reactivity which makes the machinery of ad tech turn so merrily, which has hoisted the cult of the relatable to godlike status. Everyone takes sides; everyone is supposed to. We signed the papers, after all.
This is not to dismiss diverse representation, a powerful and wholly overdue thing. Such representation offers an encouragement to young artists (read: non-white, non-straight, non-gendered, non-moneyed) who might otherwise not see themselves, literally, figuratively, or otherwise, as having any role or value in the industry, or indeed, elsewhere in the wider world. I have imagined myself, at various points, a mother, a partner, a socialite, a popular and promiscuous girl; I have imagined myself tall and elegant and reed-thin; I have imagined myself tiny-breasted and long-legged and saucer-eyed; I have imagined myself part of a wide and active social group, with a large and rambling line of loud, boisterous relatives; I have imagined myself a successful writer and artist, living in various places, each with its own beautiful view. Don’t dream it, be it; there’s that invisible pen at work again. I don’t have to imagine myself as a lawyer, a doctor, teacher, accountant, engineer; I’ve never been interested enough in those things to exercise such energies, and I know I have the advantage of class, colour, and nationality to take seeing myself in them entirely for granted; others do not. There is no leap of imagination required for seeing and experiencing people like me in those roles. For those who don’t look and sound like me, that leap is required, constantly, outside the theatre just as often as inside of it. That the best and most effective solution might be at the elementary education level is what many nod at with seriousness and understanding, but is the very thing few seem willing to actually do. It isn’t sexy, tangling with education departments and ministries who aren’t interested in you or your world, and such long-haul commitments are made more difficult (and difficult to justify) amidst the economic ruin of pandemic, to wave arms and shout until hoarse, Spend more on school instruments! Stop cutting music classes in your budgets! The issue isn’t as simple as online arm-waves anyway, but oh, the work involved, the sheer level of energy (to petition, to raise awareness, to do the continual footwork, to educate and re-educate one’s self and others) – fighting against decades of lacklustre government policy is not a job for the weak of heart, it bears no public plaudits or shares or retweets, and more often than not of late, no real fruit either. Such work is not favoured by algorithms, ergo, such work does not, within the digital sphere of the 21st century, exist; most arts educators already know this.
Detail, The Age of Bronze (L’Age d’airain), Auguste Rodin, bronze; 1906. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
One thinks back to innumerable noisy recorder lessons in small, windowless rooms, sitting on scratchy orange carpet, one’s fingers moving along the narrow round body, the tips growing moist from all that joyful, effortful breathing producing squeaky versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the recognizable theme from Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I could play both, in far fancier (if still simplified) versions on the piano, but then, I came from an odd household, privileged in the sense that culture, including classical music, was an integrated part of quotidian life. I didn’t relate to most of elementary (or high) school, but for the music and cultural/literary elements. For those who keep and cultivate these things, for those whom music is in fact a central facet of daily life, it becomes all too easy to forget about those outside the bubble of such privilege – and it is that, something we inside of it often conveniently forget. Being an educator at post-secondary institutions these last seven years has served to underline, in some rather bold and striking ways, the parameters of such a bubble, and all the concomitant implications of such a world view. Most of my students through the years have never heard of Peter And The Wolf, let alone Prokofiev; many of them think of opera only as a formal if dull event adhering to the #fancy clichés pushed by the very organizations who wish to court them, and those online only too happy to entrench such cliches for the sake of some high-school-competition win. The music-minded note the growing gaps in arts education, sigh heavily, write tweets with predictable words (ie Philistines, barbarism) and carry on listening to the latest BBC3 podcast on the work of a composer many (most?) of the students silently nodded at (but never seen) in such exchanges have never heard of, or probably experience live. Them vs. us; us vs. them; make the arts great (again), or something; RT this; pageviews that. Ad (tech) infinitum.
The polarities encouraged by the mechanics of the internet, and which characterise much online discourse now, have had an obvious and unmissable effect on the discourse around opera. Burn it all down on one side; I want camels in Aida dammit! on the other. Cliques exist, foment, gather choristers accordingly. Polarity, as history has shown, is profitable for the few and bad for the many, and any step outside the boundaries cause for ostracising (or worse yet, in the digital realm, being – gasp – ignored), but such a vast and inflamed auditorium has given rise to a frustrating conflation between relatability and revisionism, with no sense of the influence or role of funding according to geography. When marketing has to somehow make up for a lack of proper funding, well, what then? Somehow the appeals to “relatable” art (and antecedent calls for more diverse representation within it) become louder, with nary a contemplation given to the nuanced ecosystems of creation, imagination, context, history, and plain, messy, debt-ridden, ill, heartbroken people. Everything begins, and ends, with money, and as with educational reform, arts funding is an area rife with predictable name-calling (the poor old Philistines) and salty intransigence. People want to see people like them presented onstage, with all their preferences and problems and concerns, and those with deep pockets will pay for that – but only that. As Mead wrote, “In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities.” Such capacities, like nuance, do not translate through the narcissistic lens of the digital realm, and, in the mid-pandemic landscape of opera, are largely not welcome.
Graham Vick’s interactive production of Stiffelio at Teatro Farnese, Parma, 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Thus the desire (demand) to see ourselves presented, just so, on a stage continues – but so too, I hope, does the desire to see something that demands a leap of faith, and imagination, not unlike church (but with better costumes, unless you are Orthodox). Some of my favorite contemporary directors (Graham Vick, Barrie Kosky, Andrea Breth, Kirill Serebrennikov, Claus Guth, Calixto Bieito, Katharina Thalbach, and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) take the leap of faith and imagination so integral to theatre, and to the presentation of opera, now more than ever; words bandied about with disdain (modernized, Eurotrash, and my favorite, unrelatable) discount the vital roles of each, and further entrench the polarities which have proven so damaging, and so very profitable. Representation becomes less about literalism and more concerned with staring us opera fans in the face in challenging our culpability for its longtime lack. My favourite operatic presentations tend to ask something I’m not always prepared to give; sometimes there is discomfort, confusion, anger… and hours, weeks, sometimes months later, I am glad for the experience, and grateful. It is with no small awareness that I attend opera not wanting to see me on the stage; I have the luxury of taking for granted the musicians, performers, director, designers, and much of the audience, already does. In no way does such awareness diminish the power of individual imagination within the parameters of creative presentation in that particular auditorium, on that particular day, at that particular hour, in that particular locale, with my own particular knowledge of director / work / singers / conductor / orchestra / house / personnel / history. I attend theatre, and opera, wanting to see another’s life and experiences, wanting another’s thoughts and emotions, hungry for another’s ideas and observations, all of which are conveyed through the lens of just such a chosen group, and thusly judge, evaluate, contemplate, and imagine for myself, whether or not the parts fit, how, and why, or why not. Knowing the history inherent to stage works, like The Nutcracker is vital; I cannot possibly relate to the Sugar Plum Fairy or Drosselmeyer, but I can at least understand, or gain some sense, of the context in which it was created and presented, and engage in an exercise of imagination with relation to Tchaikovsky (and Dumas, and Hoffmann too), to the first (and subsequent) audiences of the work, to evolving senses of lives and world views. Imagination is not the same thing as empathy, and shouldn’t be confused as such; such an conflation is analogous to that of representation and revisionism, and says more about our world now, with its digital cliques and keyboard warriors, its comfortable bubbles and reductive phrases (ie “cancel culture”) borne of the polarities encouraged by algorithms. Anything “guaranteed to offend” yields as many yawns as something “guaranteed to wow”; hype is the ever-bleeding wound collected by the Holy Grail of clicks, one best to exercise conscientious choice in ignoring. Sometimes, that invisible pen comes in rather handy.
The basic elements around which narratives turn are familiar tropes to all, no matter the background or exposure, the education or the privilege, or lack thereof. This past autumn I played my media students Peter And The Wolf (none of them – 61 in all – had ever heard of the work) to encourage a creative cultivation in their perceptions of the building blocks of narrative. For all the bewildered looks I courted at the time (bewildered eyes, that is, times being what they are) the quality of writing thereafter noticeably improved. Whether this is down to Prokofiev, Karloff, my mad live note-taking, or some combination therein, I cannot say, but a thought was reinforced: introduction, enthusiasm, and contextualization matter, and they affect how one thinks of and approaches those other, popular building blocks. None of them could relate to the specific elements; nearly all of them could relate to the work’s themes of growing up and moving away from childhood through frightening, direct experience with a clear and present danger. Romance, with its inherent silliness often presented as Actual Real Love across large swaths of culture, is a common theme carrying its own unique roads to imagination and winding paths to memory; more often than not the two combine in such an element, and produce frequent misunderstandings, if simultaneously checking the box of expected ecstasy. Sentimental swoons at the close of La bohème ignore the basics: there is fighting; there is suffering; there is terrible poverty. There is death, remorse, inevitably harsh growing up. Do we really need some romanticized version of poverty, loss, death? To use the common parlance, fuck that noise. Fighting with the person you love isn’t romantic; it’s awful. Watching the person you love die isn’t pastel-adorned, beautied sentimentality; it’s cold, steely, horrific. There’s no call for a director to make things “relatable” – such a quality already exists within the work itself, as much as its characters. Romanticized clichés – the ones sometimes expected and often friendly to donors (who wish nothing more than to have at the theatre, a manageable, tidy vision of the world that reflects their own desires and/or worldview) – have a tendency to diminish, not enhance, boxing in that which shouldn’t be (really can’t be) tidily wrapped. The work itself is so painfully real in places, the characters themselves could be depicted on the moon (in fact, they were, in Claus Guth’s staging at Opéra de Paris a few seasons ago) – Puccini’s music, his vocal writing, his orchestration, reveals something deeper, more real, more human. Some things are relatable, and some things are not; where there are elements missing, imagination is charged, and re-charged, with every note, every pause, every breath.
This holds true as much for Mimi and Rodolfo as it does for Tosca, for Don Giovanni, for the Marshalline, for Boris Godounov, the fox, the knight, Carmen, and Lulu too. There are smidges of the sacred, the profane, the hellish, the divine, the undeniably human, conveyed not only with words (of course not), but through music, that thing so often (too often) bizarrely, somehow, forgotten in the Race To Relatability. Motifs, orchestration, phrasing, pauses, individual performance choices as much as scored ones, melodies, harmonies, tones (semitones, quarter tones): these choices, made by creators, together with their backgrounds, the worlds from which they sprung, the people who paid them and the people who booed – all are worth examining, staring in the face, knowing, learning, with or without any sense of familiarity, but with nuance, consideration, curiosity. There is no such thing as attending a cultural event with a blank inner slate; there is, however, a role for curiosity, and intimately related to that, a role for imagination, and they are things capable of, and for, everyone. Live creative expression carries the weight of whatever context is brought by artists who might allow for such trust to be built within a space dedicated to imagination and the conscious and delicious exercise of it. Here the invisible pen vanishes, there is no fairytale, nothing is relatable, and everything is understood, or not; here there is only sound, silence, sighs, and one hopes, magic.
Baroque music might be the classical form that comes with greatest number of clichés. It is arch, it is highly formal, it possesses a tight structure which erases any notion or expression of emotion; it is repetitive, it is fussy; once you have heard a bit, you have most certainly heard all – these are the bit of baggage I carried myself whenever I would sit down at the piano and play the works of Bach, Telemann, and Handel. I knew the notes well enough, and I didn’t care; I understood the repetitions, but they were dull. Along with grey hair and wrinkles, adulthood brings maturity (one hopes), patience (sometimes), and a deeper appreciation of form and content, and the connections therein. So arrives a greater energy put toward understanding the myriad of emotional expression wrought by artful engineering; through time da capo comes to mean something more than the snazzy hat from youth now gathering dust in the hall closet. Those olives that were once so acrid are now heavenly; those anchovies once so bossy on the palate now meltingly luscious – those repetitions once so dull are now so… real, so immediate, so achingly, recognizably human – messy, even, just the way humanity, and all manner of human relating, happens to be.
That immediacy, so inextricably and intimately linked with baroque itself, is something conductor Harry Bicket knows well, as his recording and performance history so thoroughly demonstrate. Bicket started out as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, and went on to be an organist at Westminster Abbey, from there going on to play freelance harpsichord through the 1980s with Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner – and Trevor Pinnock, who, significantly, co-founded The English Concert in the early 1970s. In 1990 Bicket led Handel’s Ariodante at English National Opera – it was his was his first outing conducting an opera – and it was the success of that production (by David Alden) which led to an invitation to lead Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne with director Peter Sellars. From there, productions with Bayerische Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera soon followed, opening the doors to something of a baroque opera revival. Maestro has appeared at The Royal Opera Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company, to name just a few, and has also led concerts as guest conductor with The Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and led masterclasses at The Juilliard School. Numerous appearances with Santa Fe Opera (starting with his first, Agripina, in 2004) led to his being named the company’s Chief Conductor in 2013, and in 2018, the Music Director. He led two of the company’s 2021 productions (The Marriage of Figaro and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and is set to lead a new production of Carmen for Santa Fe’s 2022 season.
Bicket became Artistic Director of The English Concert in 2007, and has left an indelible mark on what is considered by many to be one of the finest baroque chamber orchestras in the world. The group, who play on period instruments, have conducted lauded international tours and played numerous concerts at their London base, in an assortment of venues, including Wigmore and Cadogan Halls and the Southbank Centre. The group’s recording of Handel’s Rodelinda, released earlier this year (Linn Records), is miraculous in every respect. Its stellar cast includes piercingly beautiful performances by soprano Lucy Crowe in the title role and countertenor Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. Handel’s opera, premiered in London in 1725, is one of his most popular, if also deeply touching, with its themes that explore ideas of power, loss, grief, and the nature of fidelity. The production was originally scheduled for presentation at Carnegie Hall, but pandemic realities rendered that plan impossible; instead, a recording was done at St John’s Smith Square, London in September 2020, with musicians and singers observing formal distancing protocols. Despite, or perhaps owing to such mandated distancing, the work has a rich aural cohesion of instruments and voices, a quality one might associate more with late-nineteenth-century German opera than with baroque opera, although the distancing contributes what Fiona Maddocks noted (in her review at The Guardian) as “a sense of risk to music already, in its energy and complexity, on the edge.”
Bicket knows that edge very well, and his attention to detail is palpable; he led a hailed production of the opera at The Met in 2004 (the opera’s first-ever production of the work in the history of the company), and returned for a revival in 2012. In March 2022 he returns to the pit at The Met once more, leading Elza van den Heezer and Iestyn Davies. He told San Francisco Classical Voice‘s Michael Zwiebach in early November that his work with the chamber-sized The English Concert, which he leads from the harpsichord, forces such attention to detail:
[…] all this music, obviously, is based on text, and the music exists because of the amazing libretto and also the characteristics of the Italian language. You know, every double consonant, every diphthong, every open vowel, every closed vowel: How do we find a color in the orchestra to match that. Because if we don’t do that, we are the equivalent of a singer that goes on stage and sings “lalalalala.” So I say to the orchestra, “look this word begins with a hard ‘S’ not a soft ‘S’ so our bowstroke has to be a sibilant ‘S’.” Now we have a common language so we can do that quite easily.
Earlier this month Bicket and The English Concert went on a much-awaited mini-tour of California, presenting a series of in-concert performances of another Handel opera, Alcina, with stops in Los Angeles and Berkeley; the stellar cast included Karina Gauvin, Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth DeShong, Paula Murrihy, Alek Shrader, and Wojtek Gierlach. Bicket and I spoke between those performances, about that needed detail, travel realities amidst pandemic, the recently-announced 2022 season at Santa Fe Opera and why he loves its house, how atmosphere informs experience, and why he feels it’s vital to fight for the continuance of live performance in an atmosphere of digital streaming.
Photo: Richard Haughton
How is California treating you?
Good! We had our first performance two nights ago when we were very jet-lagged; it was an effort to get through the third act of the programme – it was 5am for us! – but we did well.
Is this your first time being on the continent since the pandemic?
Yes, we only got in, really by the skin of our teeth. Any other organization might’ve not bothered going it, but we were determined to make it work. All the orchestra had to get visas, these NIEs they’re called, National Interest Exceptions, which are notoriously hard to get; you have to go to the (American) embassy, be interviewed, each member has to be able to prove they can come, then they take your passport away and don’t tell you if you’ve got your visa or not.
Is that paperwork only because of the pandemic?
Yes, although starting next week you can get on a flight to the United States without any of this paperwork – I mean, as a musician, you always need a visa, but at the moment, because (the border) is still technically shut down and they are not allowing Europeans in, and if you do come in you have to prove your work is essential, which is quite hard to do and very labour intensive. We’d already booked flights and hotels and everything, so we’d have taken a huge hit had we not made it, but it worked.
So traveling to the U.S. was a real leap of faith then…
It was! This was the third time we’ve tried to do this in Los Angeles, it’s been three years in a row trying now, the first two years were cancelled because of both lockdowns and we thought, “We can’t not do it now!”
What’s the atmosphere been like?
We had a very joyful time the other night, but obviously ticket sales are down and they’re not going to come back immediately. I mean with Santa Fe this summer, people were crazy ordering, but that is more of an outdoor space, so perhaps people feel more comfortable going there, but it’s depressing to think if people don’t want to come back to live theatre and music overall.
Have you found this pandemic has revealed an intercontinental chasm in terms of those audiences?
I think in Europe it varies from country to country in terms of the strictness (of safety protocols and related enforcement) – L.A. is pretty hardcore on those rules; you can’t go to restaurants without proving you’re double vaccinated. We’re being tested the whole time we’re here. People wear masks walking down the street – and in L.A. the streets are the size of five blocks anywhere else, but people wandering around here, not near anyone else, are doing it with masks. You see it. It’s mandated. And so it feels very locked down, in a way. The audience has to show proof of vaccination also, but I think it’s too early to tell, to be honest, how long things may last, and how people will react once things are just open. I mean, my sense in Europe is that we’re over it. I think now that the majority of people are vaccinated, and I think everyone accepts masks are here to stay and for certain rules and distancing, to a certain extent, to keep going, but it’s more a question there of, “how do we live with it?” rather than, “when will it be over?” – because it won’t really be over.
In your line of work you must hear of the attitude to baroque music – that it is emotionless, clinical, cold – but I don’t feel that listening to your Rodelinda at all.
I understand what you’re saying about those attitudes, though!
A lot of those clichés get perpetuated – in media of various forms, and even by some musicians!
I wasn’t an early music person years back; I was a pianist. I listened to Rachmaninoff and a lot of contemporary music. It was only by chance I got into earlier stuff partly because I started playing harpsichord for groups in the 1980s and yes, I don’t know why I ever thought baroque was boring but I thought of it as rather crystalline, this sort of perfect thing, and then I started working with certain theatre directors who were staging Handel operas particularly, and that was such an eye-opener, the depth of passion and also how very human that work is. We’re so used to opera being very telescoped, like Mimi and Rudolfo meet and three minutes later they’re singing a love duet and we accept that: “That’s opera, isn’t it?” But I always sat there and thought, “Oh come now, that’s absurd, really!”
In a Handel opera, for all the convoluted plots – well, it’s not really about those plots at all. After every recit you’re hearing someone for ten minutes, exposing their inner life, their inner thoughts, in real time, with two sentences – which is actually a very human thing. I spend a lot longer than ten minutes if there’s a grief in my life of an issue, so it does require a certain amount of recalibration in terms of the way we listen to something. Great are the artists who can really invest the repetition of these words in a way that makes clear the same words but constantly gives them a new meaning – like a person holding up a prism; it’s the same prism, but your turning it to the right, then the left, the light moves through it in a slightly different way. It’s a prism, it’s the way we use words. You can say ‘I love you’ as words, but how many different ways can we say those three syllables? That’s what Handel, for me, really explores. And this apparent simplicity, and some would say rigidity, of form becomes something really powerful.
Structurally it reveals so much, but often it feels like some people can get hung up on those repetitions; my mum used to say, “The music is all the same from this point on” – but it isn’t…
.. and that applies just as much to non-opera music! I’ve had discussions with orchestra members performing Mozart and Haydn symphonies and they’ll say, “Oh God, do we have to do the repeat? It’s just the same music…!” but you look at later repertoire where the composer writes out the repeats, and they don’t have a problem with that. You put a double bar there and they go, “Oh, let’s just go on, why are we doing it at all?”
And for opera especially, there is that theatrically rich territory related to that element…
… so it’s a prism as you say, but sometimes one requiring strength training for arms and shoulders to hold it up, and especially to hold it up in a way that allows the seeing of new things. How much do you think working those arms and shoulders is necessary when coming to something new? There is a debate now about preparing for classical events beforehand – what’s your take?
In terms of telling the story, I don’t… well, I mean, sometimes I don’t think a lot of these pieces are about the actual stories, they’re stories which were well known in the 18th century, it’s not like people came to Alcina going, “Hmm, I wonder what happens?” Everyone knew the story of Orlando Furioso; what the composer was doing was taking a snapshot of the middle of that book and exploring these characters, so to me it’s all about character, I mean plot is really secondary.
In terms of doing the homework before you go, of being a good listener, and/or getting the most out of enjoying a performance, I mean, different people have different ways of approaching it; a lot of people say, “Oh we always listen, we start couple weeks before going to this or that, it’s how, so we know what we’re coming to and understand it all” – and I think that’s fine. But equally, personally, I love going to pieces that I’ve never seen or heard before and not really doing that sort of study – not because I’m lazy, but I’d rather do it afterwards, so if I see something, if it can’t interest me on a surface level, more often than not I’m intrigued and maybe I’ll go back and see it again, or not.
Santa Fe Opera with the Jemez Mountains in the background. Photo: Robert Godwin
Looking into it later depends on the circumstances in which one experiences it in the first place, though. In Santa Fe the venue is outdoors; how does that affect music-making?
In acoustical terms it’s a very good – it doesn’t feel like an open-air theatre. It’s really a remarkable pit and stage area which allows the sound to be as good as any indoor theatre. I think the audience knows what this mysterious alchemy is if they’ve been before. And I think if you go there and you sit under the stars and watch the sunset go down behind the mountains – and often directors have the back of the set open during the sunset so you look through the set so the mountains become part of the set –I think then, if you hear some profound, beautiful music in amidst all that, it’s like you just drank three bottles of wine. It’s so rich and so powerful. And I would say it’s more powerful for some than going to a city centre opera house, battling the traffic and all that. Working (in Santa Fe) is the same thing; every morning, you drive up the hill with yet another beautiful cloudless sky, and you see these incredible gardens and rehearsal spaces, which are outdoors as well. I find that people’s spirits are so open because there’s something about that landscape and way of working that makes people happy. Musicians, by and large, have difficult working conditions, I mean for some places, not all – not everybody has what’s (in Santa Fe), which is very much a place of hard work as well. It’s not summer camp; it’s an Eden where people expect you to work very hard and the level is extremely high, so it’s not a pool party.
But how much of those expectations have changed now because of the pandemic? I would imagine there’s an extra layer of pressure.
I was very bullish when we were talking about reopening there, and about how exactly we can reopen. There were many questions: can we have a chorus onstage? Will we all have to wear masks and be distanced? A lot of decisions had to be made in February-March even though we didn’t rehearse until June. The thinking was, “In June it might be better, or “In June it might be worse!” We had to make a lot of those decisions, but I was very keen to quash this thinking of, “Oh look, it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the chorus onstage, the audience is so grateful we have a season at all!” I said, “No, no, no, that’s not part of this story! We have to be good, I’ll not have people making allowances.” “Oh, but we could be creative! We could use the restrictions in a creative way!” – this attitude to just sort of cop out and say, “Let’s work with those rules, everyone will be fine with them” – well I wouldn’t be fine. I would not be fine.
But that move toward allowances, of relegating everything to digital without any demonstration of willpower with regard to live presentation’s return, has become been a frustratingly common norm for certain companies. It makes me question whether the people working there really understand the nature of what they supposedly want to produce.
Well, this magic of the live experience is not just a thing in Santa Fe, which is particularly a unique experience – you don’t get that everywhere! – because it’s not something strictly related to landscape or setting .. it’s this thing of listening to music, together, with fellow human beings who you don’t know, who maybe you don’t even say hi to, maybe you sit there on your own, but you are all there, communing, for the evening, and you then disperse to all parts of the world. And you were all just at a totally unique performance, an experience you will never be able to replicate. When you watch a stream or edited concert, you know when you press ‘play’ what it’s going to sound like, every time, guaranteed, absolutely – it will be the same. But there is no danger, there is no excitement.
The whole point of live theatre is that we, as human beings, can communicate with each other – artists, performers, musicians, and audiences do that too, just by being there, together: loving it, hating, being indifferent to it. It is really important as a society that we do this.
So if you don’t get that, well, then anything I say will not make a difference anyway, but it will for the people who do come and experience it and get something out of it, or not – not everyone does! But then, not everyone who goes to a restaurant likes the food either; what’s important is that we go and eat, and that we can still do it, together.
It’s the act itself that counts.
Now with your live tour now, you have an amazing cast…
Yes we sure do! In a way one of the nice things… well, if you can say that about pandemic, but the fact is, when things like this are done at such a high level in these conditions, a lot of people are saying, “I want to be a part of that!” So a lot of singers through this period have looked at their lives, having had almost two years off now, and said, “I want to do the work that I really want to do; I’m just not going to take every single thing and be crawling up that ladder the whole way through my career, but pick the things I’ll get some personal satisfaction from as well.”
But that satisfaction, those projects existing at all, is, in some places, rather miraculous. Alexander Neef said in our conversation last year that he thinks classical companies should be embracing risk more than ever right now, so to your point, perhaps musicians are picking and choosing, but there has to be the will to make those projects a reality in the first place.
I think we have to be more aggressive with that. At The English Concert, we have a fantastic manager who is also our principal viola – I think having a musician there in that position is a good thing, at least from my point of view. He knows the value of an orchestra of working, and of being part of an orchestra; it’s a group of people, together. And if that group is sitting at home, not working, well, you’re not really an orchestra, are you? It’s not like being a resting actor; an orchestra, by definition, plays together, and it’s really important we are working, together. For instance, this tour was meant to be bigger, we were meant to go to Bogota for ten days, then go back to the U.K. via New York; Bogota got cancelled, it was put on the red list until a few days ago. We took the choice to cancel that, and our manager said, “That’s fine, we’ll do a week of recording in New York then” and I thought, “Oh really?” because I knew this tour would be busy – but actually, I also thought, “Good, yes, let’s keep working, let’s keep doing this.” So let’s keep knocking on doors, sometimes kicking those doors down – and let’s keep doing it.
London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of fresh ones for English National Opera (ENO)’s The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production of the Wagner Ring work, set to grace the stage of The Met in 2025.
There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. Those tales tend to follow a predictable path, and indeed Spence’s tale falls into this mould: all-night buses and anxious auditions and moving from hard-scrabble Dumfries youth to London music school, and onwards, of helping relatives and settling into a house with partner and dog when success did arrive. It’s the stuff of cliché, but sometimes the cliché is simply too correct to dismiss, and besides, the brand of success Spence is now enjoying was hard-won, because it wasn’t the sort that initially came knocking. In 2004, during his final year of school at Guildhall School of Music And Drama, Spence accepted a five-record contract with Universal Classics (Decca). He went on to make his first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award (as Young British Classical Performer Of The Year). During this time Universal/Decca had promoted him as “The Scottish Tenor”; Spence was in his early 20s at the time. When it came time to record his second album, Spence declined; back to Guildhall he went, for more intensive study of his craft. In 2009 Spence won a place at the National Opera Studio, and a year later joined ENO, as one of their inaugural Harewood Artists, where he did an equal mix of so-called “classic” opera (David in Die Meistersinger, The Novice in Billy Budd, Steva in Jenůfa) and contemporary: Spence created the role of Brian in Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera about the tragic intertwining of technology and passion based on a true story, which was subsequently staged at The Met.
Spence clearly wants to be a star, but that drive is in no way at odds with his keen musicality and theatrical instincts. An awareness of timing, texture, and technique, both vocally and physically, is evident, but Spence is smart enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (read: theatrical) reason. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence is still young, not quite 40; he’s performed on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu, Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few. He returns to working with Martyn Brabbins on The Valkyrie at ENO later this year; it seemed clear from our conversation he was both daunted and thrilled by the chance to tackle Siegmund, a role that mixes dark and light, shade and nuance, in vocal writing as much as theatrical expression. So, to simply state that the tenor specializes in “darker” repertoire is to rather miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (sometimes dirty, ugly) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t diminish the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven (whose works can be every bit as chewy – Spence has performed them also), much less the work of contemporary composers, which Spence has admitted he would like to perform more often. Taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the infusion of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), George Steiner ponders this equation of rare and special matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:
Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.
I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.
There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the Songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.
Complementing the hectic scheduling of an opera world that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) is Spence’s bubbly style. In his conversation with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently, he says, “I found this gift, I guess, it was like a superpower, really.” No longer The Scottish Tenor; now, perhaps, Super-Siegmund-Tenor, Spence’s past life filters into his present one: the pauses as much as the tones, the phrasing choices, the dynamic choices; the smell of hay, grass, and sea; the fumes of black cabs, the perennial buzzing of St. Martin’s Lane; everything informs Spence’s sound. Such authenticity makes his performances special, and memorable, events.
Photo: Ryan Buchanan
How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?
Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!
What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?
It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.
I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.
They’re both outsiders.
Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.
… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?
I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.
His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?
I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.
So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?
The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…
What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?
I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…
… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?
Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.
Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.
You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.
For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I ledmasterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.
Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.
Well it’s important to be real.
Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…
There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.
In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epic nature of Wagner’s writing…
… yes it is…
… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?
Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling – they are epic tales! – The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day, and that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.
What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?
I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.
That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?
Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and,La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.
Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.
Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”
So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?
It’s a perfect balance.
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Jan Lisiecki has had a busy summer. Performances at a number of celebrated summer festivals, including Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival (SHMF), the Rheingau Musik Festival, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and Musikfest Kreuth left the pianist little time to prepare for his release of a long-planned project, Frederic Chopin: Complete Nocturnes (Deutsche Grammophon) but in speaking recently from his home base in Calgary, Lisiecki is chatty and energetic, a keen conversationalist who clearly revels in the reciprocal exchange of artistic ideas.
It’s an approach that colors his latest release, one which, as he explains, had been in his mind to do for many years. Hardly his first foray into playing or recording the much-loved music of the Polish composer (he’s released recordings in 2013 and 2017, respectively), his approach to the nocturnes conveys a delicate musical sensibility and a keen artistic maturity which belie Lisiecki’s own relative youth (he is not yet 30 years of age) and, even amidst pandemic, kept him in a creatively aware state which greatly aided in the realized recording. Lisiecki’s fame as a sort of wunderkind of the keyboard through the last decade-plus served to intensify such fastidiousness. At the age of 18, he became the youngest ever recipient of both the Leonard Bernstein Award (established by SHMF and named after one of the festival’s founders) and Gramophone‘s prestigious Young Artist Award (other recipients include countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and soprano Natalya Romaniw). Having worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Claudio Abbado, Daniel Harding, Antonio Pappano, among many others) and orchestras (Staatskapelle Dresden, Bavarian Radio Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, to name a few), his playing has been described as “pristine, lyrical and intelligent” by The New York Times. This month sees him playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Marin Alsop and DR Symfoni Orkestret in Denmark, before a series of dates in the U.S., both solo recitals and appearances with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. In November Lisiecki tours Europe, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic under its new Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner.
Amidst his busy live calendar (which, like many artists, extends years into the future) Lisiecki had long planned for a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes. Recorded in Berlin in October 2020 and released in August 2021, the work shows a distinctively thoughtful approach to the famous, widely beloved pieces. Chopin wrote the series of works between 1827 and 1846, expanding on a form developed by Irish composer John Field (1782-1837). Unlike other piano forms (sonatas, for instance), nocturnes do not possess a sort of programmatic narrative or formal structure, but mainly utilize a ternary form (ABA) which emphasizes a main theme and its related contrasts and embellishments. With a song-like right hand melody and the use of rhythmic, broken chords in the left hand, Chopin, in writing his own set, also utilized pedal effects and counterpoint in his composition to underline sonic tension and drama. There are a number of scholarly papers and debates around the tempos and role of rubato in the nocturnes, and the influence of such choices in relation to interpretative fidelity and style. In her 1988 book Performance Practises in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Applications (Indiana University Press, 1988), Sandra P. Rosenblum writes that “choice of tempo is a fundamental yet elusive aspect of performance practice. Tempo affects virtually every other aspect of interpretation: dynamics, touch, articulation, pedalling, realization of ornaments” and also observes that a pianist’s choice of tempo will certainly affect “what the listener perceives, hence it bears directly on the effectiveness of the interpretation.” Lisiecki has notably chosen to take a much slower tempo in his recording than many of his famous forebears, an aspect which has been questioned by some since the album’s release. If I may inject a personal view here, Lisiecki’s choice of tempi allow, to my own (admittedly non-conservatory-attending/music-degree-holding) self, a very thoughtful and lovely listening experience, one that skillfully combines intellect and imagination in ways that highlight the rhythmic nature of the writing (for both hands, equally) and the thought-to-word-like manifestation of clear creative articulation; such willful (nay, conscious) turning of the gears well reflect the sort of late-night contemplations to which the nocturnes directly refer. Don’t we all muse thusly in the middle of the night? This may not a so-called “traditional” reading, but, it doesn’t have to be – not for whatever perceived musical validity is deemed important by the classical world, let alone for one’s personal enjoyment. As musicologist Richard Taruskin argues in Text and Act: Essays in Music and Performance (Oxford University Press, 1995), traditions “modify what they transmit” via what he terms as “active intervention of the critical faculty, but also by what we might call interference.” Such traditions, he writes ( and most particularly within “a musical culture as variegated as the Western fine art of music has become”) are open to what he views as “outside influence.” It is this act, of combining inner critical faculty with various forms of external influence, combined with understandings of tonality, structure, and dynamics, that lends Lisiecki’s interpretations such innate power. Taking this course with such well-known works only serves to underline the pianist’s powerful blend of intellectual and musical instincts, and only makes one more keen to hear how he might re-adjust them for a live and considerably larger setting.
Despite, or more accurately owing to, the realities of the current pandemic era, Lisiecki was provided the an atmosphere conducive to the personal. The combination of simplicity (a room with a piano), proximity (or lack thereof, in relation to engineers), and the natural light in which Lisiecki recorded at Meistersaal (in Berlin) last autumn was, as he noted recently, good for encouraging a sort of natural approach, one which is so easily perceived on this, his eighth release with Deutsche Grammophon.
What struck me about your album is how you personalize everything, but without sitting and steeping in a so-called sentimental sound. Your tempo choices, for instance, are well considered.
Well, I might not agree in ten years about them, but at the moment I did them it felt right, because, to be honest with you, those tempos choices were completely natural in the sense that I had no knowledge of them being that much slower. I’ve played the nocturnes a lot, in concerts and otherwise, and I know how I feel about them, some in the studio just ended up being like that. Listening in the booth and going back and forth, it never felt unnatural. I’m happy with it; I think it’s a good reflection of how I connected with (Chopin’s) music.
You didn’t consciously say, “I want this one to be this specific tempo” or do any sort of preplanning then?
No, definitely there was no, ‘Everybody’s playing these too fast; I’ll be much slower!” – I was recording the material at the tempo in, I guess, the way it felt right.
To me it makes them seem almost like speech if that makes sense…
… it very much has the sound of somebody musing in the middle of the night on something; as a writer I like that.
Aw thank you Cate, I appreciate it.
But you recorded this in Berlin, in a space with natural light, during the day; did that make a difference energetically?
Let’s say, first of all I’m an artist and musician who plays concerts in the evening but I like working in the day; I’m not an evening practiser. I finish my work day of practise by 2 or 3pm, if I can, so to me recording during the day is when I feel most comfortable. What I like about natural light is feeling I’m connected to the day and not in a studio, especially since it was late October. During the day, the mood in Berlin, if you know Europe during the winter, is grey and bleak, so it’s nice to have those few hours of sunlight inside and you don’t feel like you’re missing out, and also then you can find your own space within that environment. It’s a beautiful hall, a rectangular room with high ceilings, and it’s rather ornate, not excessively so, but has some ornate elements, and feels nice to be in, the piano in one corner, the microphone in another area; it felt very natural.
It seemed like an environment where you weren’t completely in a bubble, cut off from everything, but just separated enough to be with your thoughts.
Exactly, and I’d had enough experiences of concert halls with no audience during the pandemic; it was nice to have not have yet-another-empty-concert-hall, but a studio with a piano, it almost felt like you were in your own studio practising for yourself, or working just for yourself.
That’s how it sounds.
Yes, and another sort of relevant fact, in terms of the sound, is that the booth where the recording engineer was sitting is quite a distance away from the (room with the piano), it’s down two flights of stairs and then across a hall, so it takes a fair bit of time to get from the room to the booth, and as a result, first of all, you’re more focused on doing something, it was a complete thought whenever you did sit down, and second of all, you have that crazy walk back and forth to get you out and into the mood accordingly.
And nobody behind a pane of glass staring at you and evaluating.
Now, recording in a space in these times, there is something unique about doing these extremely well-known works, and in this particular pandemic environment; how much were you able to pull down the blinds, or did you not want to? Was the act of recording amidst a worldwide pandemic an essential part of the creative process, or did you block it out?
It was definitely part of my process,and that’s part of the reason that I was able to record during the pandemic. I’d been thinking or dreaming about recording the nocturnes for a long time; it was a long-term project, not something that just came up, it was something which was a very conscious thought for years, and so it involved years of preparation, and those years of preparation are connected to wanting to experience (the works) in a concert hall – they are very personal as you said, but you run the risk while playing them of going too far in that direction, of going too far into your comfort zone, which is not where it feels the best when you are onstage, when you feel you’re losing the audience’s attention, when you can feel their attention wandering away. I can hear when that happens.
So to play and program 21 nocturnes onstage took many many many years, it’s something that I was preparing for, and happened to reach a culmination point this past year, and at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, Deutsche Grammophon said, “Oh, you’ll have fewer concerts, so let’s record this in August!” and as it got closer, I saw that things were very uncertain and people were antsy still, and I was supposed to have a few concerts but they were much more stressful than usual because there were so many external layers involved. I didn’t know how they’d look and be, and I would not have been in the right frame of mind at all. And then from March to October I did have things to do, I had things beyond music I was enjoying, and had the opportunity to do – like work in the garden or go camping with my dad, or not do anything for a whole day, which was very nice – but I could also work on the nocturnes in a much more relaxed sphere of mind, it wasn’t forced like I had a fixed deadline to prepare for and get to a certain point with. I could prepare and think through each one of them. That time right before the recording, to be honest, I was quite busy, I had something like ten concerts with Manfred Honeck and I was playing the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto in Dresden, it wasn’t like, “Oh sigh, I’m at home!” but some of the (moments leading to recording) felt calm, everything was calm, and I had to make peace with the pandemic and with the uncertainty it brought. Because of that, I could simply focus on what I was doing.
Living day-by-day has always been my motto; I’ve always lived in the present, but the pandemic has really heightened that. I like looking forward, I like to think “Well, I’m playing this concerto two years down the road” and “In two weeks I have to prepare this piece” – but all that went out the window. So it was, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What can I enjoy right now?” In this case, what with recording, it allowed me to focus, and to enjoy the moment.
That’s palpable in the recording, and I hear something different every time. Listening to the left hand can really bring something alive that one thought one knew well.
If the music is only a sum of its parts, if you don’t pay a close enough attention, then you can risk the music becoming too comfortable, and being too happy with the gorgeous melodies; you just completely tune out everything else because it’s easy, it’s just, “Oh, the left hand, sure, whatever, put it away!” and the right hand, “Yes, let’s enjoy that, it’s so lovely!” But it doesn’t work musically. That (balance) has always been something important to me in playing Chopin. Of course there’s a principal theme and an idea and the harmonizing in the left hand, but sometimes the interplay between right and left creates completely new concepts and I do like finding those.
To me you can hear it in other things of his, or things written around the same time, but I find it takes the right interpretation to find those connections.
Obviously you know the other recordings; did any stick in your mind as you prepared?
I tend not to listen to other interpreters when I’m actively playing something unless it’s a concerto and I want to hear the orchestra, which of course includes a pianist, but in the case of the nocturnes I didn’t hear any interpretations for at least a year before recording them. Perhaps it wasn’t conscious – it was not a forced effort – but I just had no need to, because I’m living and experiencing these pieces on my own, and that’s a huge privilege. I know the audience listening to these works who come to the concert hall don’t have that same privilege for the most part, to simply play something for themselves, so they have a different appreciation of what it means to listen. When I’m listening to a recording, I find it very hard to get into the right mood to enjoy it as opposed to analyze it, so I tend not to, especially with regards to pieces which I’m actively playing.
Of course, that being said, I do respect other interpretations, and the ones that accompanied me through my childhood and longer, into my life, are those by (Anton) Rubinstein. He recorded all of the nocturnes, and there’s a sophistication about his playing; it’s always so elegant, so poised, it’s hard to find any fault with them… it’s just beautifully done.
Yes, I have that set! I wanted to ask you with relation to others and individual identity, some have said, “Oh it’s a Polish pianist playing Polish music!” I’m not sure if that kind of a reduction is good or bad for art, but I wonder what you make of such an assumed connection.
I think Poland, of course, likes to claim Chopin as their own, and they have a complete right to do that, but he lived most of his life beyond Poland, his composing and adult life, so undeniably that (experience of living abroad) did shape his writing, and likewise, while I was born in Canada, I do have Polish roots, and without a doubt they must also shape how I approach Chopin, although I never had a Polish teacher and I never really liked the so-called “Polish sound” in playing Chopin, which has a lot of rubato, it’s very rich, quite swingy, and not at all my taste. Now, this is a sort of stereotypical description, and there are exceptions – I love how Zimerman plays Chopin, for instance – and so that’s a rather unfair stereotype perhaps, but it’s an easy thing just as much to say or assume, “Oh you have special affinity for him then, being Polish yourself?” It’s hard for me to say, because I am who I am, and I don’t know how I’d be if I wasn’t – if I was born in Poland, or if I didn’t have those roots, but I appreciate his music as a person and an artist. I just like it , and I feel very comfortable playing his music. I can sit in front of a score I’ve never seen before and feel, “Ah yes!” – I have a vague understanding of what I want to do, and how I will play it, which cannot be said for every composer. I will get to a point, eventually, that isn’t that straight-forward, but (the inherent understanding) speaks to how he wrote for the piano; his musical language is very familiar to me, and he wrote so beautifully for the instrument. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m ever struggling to find a way to solve any problem (within the work).
Do you find you approach other musical things differently now, having had this time with Chopin and especially, this time with Chopin during a pandemic?
Again, sort of like the Polish question, I don’t know how it would’ve been if I didn’t record during this time, but I do feel everything has an impact and shapes the way one approaches music broadly. I think the sort of calmness that has pervaded, or became constant during the pandemic… for me, I will certainly take it with me into the future, though I can see and am hopeful of course it all turns out, and that life is getting back to normal in the some parts of the musical world. Some countries are getting back to normal, so the natural thing is to feel like, “Oh I’m going to get back to my old self now – at last!”… but it’s not quite like that. The pandemic has changed our values and understanding, in the same way it’s changed the approach to the nocturnes, and I’m glad I had that chance of recording them amidst all of this.
What’s it been like for you to go back to live performance then?
There have been many stages, because last summer I played one of the first concerts live, if not the first in Germany, in June 2020. So if you think of the situation in Canada then, like… wow, just nothing… and it was the same in some parts of Europe in many regards, except where they were starting to experiment, and those experiments kept going and going, and there was a palpable excitement with each one. And after each lockdown this excitement kept building in the performing arts world – I experienced it so many times, and everyone had different concepts of how long they’d be locked down, so even though I had been playing live a while, everybody was so excited, and asking me “How does it feel to be back?” And I’d say, “Well last week I was playing a live concert in Spain!”
I was always happy to play live, but the difference for me is, I’m not a fan, at all, of streams. I prefer not to play if I have to do a stream, for the most part. It doesn’t have any aspect of what I cherish in music. Live art is live, and it should stay with those who are there, those who have shared that experience and felt its power. Recording is high quality: you prepare, you put a lot of thought into it; you have the best environment; you have the studio, the piano, the technician, the sound engineer. But streaming is somewhere in-between these things; it’s not live for an audience, it’s not the same high-quality sound you expect – in fact, it’s usually poor-quality sound. It was interesting to see orchestras doing streams, and it was good to see that musicians were playing, that they had the chance to play – but just me playing solo, no way, no – I’m not doing that, at all.
So you need the feedback?
Yes. And you know, people say with these streams, “Well of course live art will die now” – no it won’t. Many people will be happy to go back to the concert hall the moment they can. But until then, to be honest, we have such a rich array of performances, both live recordings from pre-pandemic times and things recorded in a studio, and we haven’t had time to listen to those during normal our lives – why don’t we go back to those amazingly high-quality things and listen to them? Instead of choosing to watch something live, just because…? Others will disagree but I’m happy to argue with them.
There’s a tremendous drive on the part of marketing departments everywhere to get people of your generation interested in classical music through streaming…
… but that’s not the strength of our genre. The strength of our genre is in the concert hall. It’s about this extraordinary experience you will sometimes have… sometimes. I play hundreds of concerts a year and not every single one will be magical, either it’s me or the piano, it’s something in the hall, or the day, or the circumstances outside – whatever. You will have those extraordinary experiences a small percentage of the time, and everybody remembers them. Many who’ve never been to a hall happen to chance on those magical concerts and they’re suddenly a huge fan of classical because they had that experience of intimacy which provided a foray into the musical world of live performance.
And you think that epic and imitate combo only happens in a live environment?
“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, so says Hamlet, in Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s famous play, and indeed, the phrase holds several painful truths for our times. The sad news of the passing of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig at the weekend was met with a chorus of loving tributes and tender memories. That such an event occured amidst the hodge-podge of COVID-forced closures and reopenings inspired numerous listenings of her past work and moments of melancholy if vital contemplation.
Music, and the will toward its live presentation, has taken on a potent symbolism amidst pandemic; that will never really went away in certain places, while in others it has vanished entirely. Marketing buzzwords (“pivot” and “experience” and “reimagine) seem to be clothing a nifty, selfie-snapping holographic Emperor I’m not sure I’m ready to applaud. As digital producer Jon Jacob highlights in a recent blog post, the way certain forms of music – and more broadly, culture – are perceived has heavily colored large swaths of its current presentation and much-awaited in-person iteration. The past year-plus has forced a much closer connection to sounds and sights, solidifying and simultaneously blurring the relationships to entertainment, escapism, imagination, and immersion. Thus has music – sound as much as visual counterpart – become far more immediate and simultaneously distant, heightening the consciousness of directed attention, specifically in relation to one’s perceptions of time. Neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann explores this issue in Felt Time: The Science Of How We Experience Time (The MIT Press, 2017; translation Erik Butler):
Where full attention is lacking, intensive experience is impossible. […] Presence is not simply a matter of mental focus; it also concerns the corporeality of the moment. The experience of presence occurs when body and mind, space and time, constitute a unity: here and now.”
(Chapter 3, In the Moment: Three Seconds of Presence)
Somewhat ironically, I have yet to see Wiener Staatsoper’s new production of Parsifal directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, and featuring Jonas Kaufmann and Elina Garanca; Wagner himself decreed that his final opera should, as Bachtrack‘s Mark Valencia succinctly put it, “be reserved exclusively for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in order to avoid the “Entweihung” (sacrilege) of merely entertaining opera-goers.” Those of us who thrive on the experience of the live in all its sensual glory have been (continue to be) forced to gawk at a glassy, glowing image ready-made for entertaining diversion. The immediacy which live experience so thrives on is now mediated through headphones, screens, speakers. Occasionally there is the unwelcome noise pollution of traffic and neighbours seeping through thin, uninsulated walls and ventilation shafts. Pressing hands against speakers does not, in any way, fade ugly circumstances out and bring something better back in, but oh, the intention is good, and surely that must count for something.
Intention is what seems to be guiding so many of us these days, for good or bad, and the most seemingly simple acts are, paradoxically, sometimes the most heroic; such is oft-contradictory nature of the times. Entering a big-box store pharmacy to get my first vaccination last week, I longed to hear some kind of music that wasn’t the determinedly busy-buzzy rock-pop every store seems to now pipe through its gaggle of tinny speakers. (It seemed wistful to want for the days of Muzak, and yet.) As I tried not to be alarmed at the full parking lot and number of shoppers (how is this acceptable but attending – giving – a chamber concert, indoors or outdoors, is not?), a fashionably-attired mother-daughter team passed within inches of me, the younger member giving me a disdainful stare as I sat perched on the edge of a chair with a specially-marked area of tape around its perimeter. I stuck out my legs thereafter, feet touching tape, toes beating out a hurried, pseudo-tap “La donna è mobile”, comically sarcastic if self-soothing. It brought to mind memories of my own mother shopping at a certain supermarket because the owner would always put on opera at her visits; she would merrily bob her head along to that very aria as she picked up the week’s supplies. Not everyone has such (supposedly) fancy tastes, I realize, but then, my mother would say that classical music isn’t at all fancy. “That’s stupid,” she once said in relation to all this. “Just sit there and listen.”
It wasn’t Verdi but Mahler I had floating through the brain, or rather, heart, the day I received my first vaccination. The sounds of Das Lied von der Erde came floating in and out of the ears, its closing lines undulating like multicolor waves against the aisles of colorless boxes within view:
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde! Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig… ewig…
A picture of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig came into mind’s eye, not of her performing this work, but from her final concert in Vienna in 1994; the poise, confidence, and grace were buoys against those long, grey aisles, and the prick of a needle behind a closer door moments later. Just sit. Just listen.
I do not recall the first time I ever heard Ludwig’s voice, it was simply present, like oxygen – sensitive, feeling, alive. It was the famous 1964 Warner Classics recording of Das Lied von der Erde, featuring the mezzo soprano, together with Fritz Wunderlich and conductor Otto Klemperer, that led me back to a classical path I had strayed from for over a decade. In NPR’s tribute to Ludwig, music writer Anne Midgette notes that “If you want to sing German, you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling, but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory.” I think the warmth Midgette is referring to here (I think it’s that) extends to Ludwig’s performances of Mahler’s repertoire as much as to formal lieder. The phrasing, the pauses, the careful breaths, the coloring, the tremendous control and modulation – there is so much technique to be found and (rightly) marvelled at, whether in opera, art song, or orchestral work, but there is also a deeply felt humanity. Ludwig knew the lines well enough to know she could draw – really, really well – outside of them, and she trusted both her onstage colleagues and her audiences to follow her along on those journeys. To be confident about your choices as an artist is one thing; to be confident about showing such authenticity, as a woman and a public figure, is quite another.
In her wonderfully-titled memoir (“In My Own Voice”, Limelight, 2004), Ludwig wrote that “(c)ourage is needed to reveal one’s own feelings in interpretation and not tell the audience with raised forefinger: “The composer wanted it like this, and no other way.”” There must be room for that flow and confidence, but oh, what an uphill battle it can be for an aging woman to cultivate either (or both) of them within the confines of contemporary (and digital) culture. Courage, to paraphrase Ludwig, has indeed been needed. I stood at my easel this past weekend, for the first time in almost a year, and rather magically, I didn’t hear the mewls of insecurity which so often (and loudly) screamed; energy goes where attention goes, and the direction of it, like surgical incision, must be precise, flow allowed without judgement. Leaving doors open means allowing a spiritual kind of lüften; thus emanating from the carefully-placed speakers on Saturday was Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Strauss’s 1919 metaphysical opera about creation, connection, choice, and unique identity. Christa Ludwig sang in the very first Met presentation of this opera back in 1966, as the Dyer’s Wife, alongside then-husband Walter Berry as Barak. My first time seeing this opera live was in 2013, a conscious if rebellious (and ultimately life-changing) decision to skip a graduate school class.
The memory of that live experience still washes over me, a wet, warm, salty blanket of timbres and textures and tones, and instead of drowning, my fins make a happy, flapping return; I’ve been swimming upstream ever since, and over the past six years, negotiating an ocean of loss. Learning to live with less (people, opportunities, money, food, space, fun, conversation, closeness, trust, touch) has meant learning to be more careful in directing the sort of attention and presence to which Wittman alludes. I listen (read, watch, speak, and write, I hope) in very different ways, and relistening to Ludwig’s work recently, I was struck by the extent to which everything – the whirl of fans within, the din of traffic without – simply stopped. Her “ewig” is here, for us, for me, for this moment, and, somehow, feels hyper-concentrated: forever, right now, stay present, that voice entreats. And so, reapproach, recalibrate, reimagine: buzzwords for the era of coronavirus, advice for the will to return to culture, fortitude for colouring outside the lines. One has to trust one’s instincts; if others choose to follow, so much the better. Defy augury, that voice continues to whisper, the readiness is all.
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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Toward the end of her life my mother would chide me for what she perceived as prolonged screen time. “You are always at that damn computer,” she’d sigh, “but I suppose you have to think about your audience and what they’d like to read.” What with everyone spending longer and more concentrated time in front of screens amidst the current coronavirus crisis, the lines between education, entertainment, and enlightenment can be fraught indeed. As an educator and writer, I frequently have to balance my desire to share information with a deeply-held urge to entertain, and then be able to skillfully juggle the added ball of measured impact. Those of us whose work is largely based in or around the internet (i.e. writers, artists, musicians) are at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms; we want to have our work seen, but we want to keep our voices and ideas intact. Playing to the desired young audience many classical institutions now eagerly pursue should, I suppose, be a priority, but playing to such an audience is not easy when you are no longer young yourself, not comfortable changing the nature of your work (or its presentation), and have an innate awareness that it is not desirable (or very dignified) as an aging woman with highly specialist passions and specifically artsy tastes, to attempt to compete with young/cute/sexy/etc. And yet, to note one’s work being read, shared, engaged with, and sense it is having an impact – it is gratifying. To play to the algorithm, or not to play to the algorithm; this is the question.
This juggling act can become even more complex when it is one’s modus operandi to impart what you feel is vital information whilst providing a modicum of inspiration which might (possibly, hopefully) encourage independent exploration, on and off the screen. Gresham College has been able to do all of these things, with incredible style and success, specifically through its Russian Piano Masterpieces series, featuring Professor Frolova-Walker and pianist Peter Donohoe. Introduced in September 2020, the series consists of what can only be described as lecture-conversation-concerts – in-depth, one-hour explorations of the history, structure, harmonics, and socio-economic-creative contexts of composers and their respective (if oftentimes linked) outputs. Frolova-Walker specializes in Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has published, lectured and had her work broadcast on BBC Radio 3; along with being Professor of Music History and Director of Studies in Music at Clare College, Cambridge, she is a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2015, she was recognized for her work in musicology and awarded the Edward Dent Medal by the Royal Musical Association. Peter Donohoe, CBE, is a celebrated international pianist who, since his winning the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, has worked with a range of conductors, including Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gustavo Dudamel, and Sir Simon Rattle. He has appeared at the BBC Proms no less than twenty-two times, and is steeped in the music of the composers who are featured in the series, though he also has vast experience with the music of Tchaikovsky, whose music Frolova-Walker had also wanted to include as part of the series, as she explains below.
The wonderfully easy rapport between Frolova-Walker and Donohoe – their mix of playfulness, intelligence, insight, experience, and genuine love of the material – makes the series a special event amidst pandemic gloom, and their impressive viewing numbers seem to confirm this. Algorithm or not, the series has hit a nerve with numerous classical-loving, culturally starving viewers; newcomers and old hands alike have been tuning in faithfully these past six months and interacting with good-humoured ease, judging (if one dares) from the comments shared and exchanged during live broadcasts. Indeed Frolova-Walker and Donohue do have their sizeable and frequently overlapping fan bases, but it’s heartening to note the embrace with which those fans have greeted a virtual presentation, and just how welcoming the community has been to newcomers. It was something of a thrill to chat recently for thirty minutes with Professor Frolova-Walker, whose work and style I have long admired, and to discuss not only the series itself, but wider ideas about classical music’s youth appeal (or not), how and why fashion intersects with events (or not), and the steep digital learning curve experienced by educators and artists alike over the past twelve months. The next presentation in Russian Piano Masterpieces is scheduled for Thursday, March 25th (at 6pm GMT), and explores the music of Sergei Prokofiev; the following presentation (the final one in the series) is on May 20th, about Dmitri Shostakovich.
How and why did this series come about?
Good question! When I applied to Gresham College I secretly was hoping I could get Peter to collaborate with me. Gresham College has been so proactive in using a different venue they don’t usually use, because we needed a piano. About a year ago we found out they managed to secure it, and I was absolutely delighted because it’s such a wonderful venue, everything is there; of course we couldn’t imagine how it would turn out, because it was planned as a live event, always. It was *never* supposed to be online. I mean, the online presence of Gresham College lectures was always an afterthought – it’s not the main thing, so you shouldn’t imagine we planned it as an online series at all – but emotionally it started with this great feeling of despair that we could only get 15 people. The next time we couldn’t get anyone, and then we got used to it. Now we’re just grateful for the opportunity, even if it’s in an empty hall! Really, it’s been a learning curve.
I would imagine part of that curve has involved upping technological skills, as has been the case with so many in the classical world.
I’m not sure I can claim anything in that field, really! The big moment was when, a year ago exactly, I was told I would have to do my other course, my Diaghilev lecture series, online; that was really… I was in complete panic, because basically I’m a person who draws energy from the audience. About 50% of my energy comes from the audience, from improvising in front of an audience, and in seeing their reactions. And suddenly, to not have this energy… I thought, “I can’t do this; I can’t write out text and read it. That isn’t me. I can’t do it properly!” So that was I think the worst, the steepest learning curve. It was primitive what I used – I just recorded myself and it was edited by someone else, but I had to actually speak to the camera and still have it be lively.
Photo via Gresham College
I find you very engaging – knowledgeable, passionate, with a really good understanding of pace and structure; I wonder if that’s because you have an artist’s understanding of the role of audience already.
It’s just something that was given to me. I think it’s one of the few gifts that I *was* given. Really, it’s not a gift of speaking coherently at all! But there’s something about connecting with an audience, which I was able to do since I was 19. I did my first lecture at that age, at a college in Moscow, and there were these students completely bored; they were basically forced into this room, it was their cultural program, they had to be there, and I was talking about Bach, and something just clicked at a certain moment, and they seemed to be really enjoying it so it was an opening. And I realized, “I want to do this” – but I don’t know what I do or how. It is just something I suppose I am predisposed to doing. And I’m sure I could learn to do it better, but I wouldn’t know how.
There has been a learning curve for everyone; my own output has been transformed and I’ve had to learn to release the need to know the immediate impact of my work on others.
It has been difficult, doing a series of undergrad lectures in an empty room, and there’s no connection! The previous year I was doing them so much better because I had the power of the audience. But what can you do?
Nothing. But it’s so hard sometimes…
… but things like your series help. How did you choose these composers and which pieces of music to feature in each segment?
When I was choosing which six to feature, it was very difficult because I had at least seven I wanted, but because I knew I’d be working with Peter, I looked at what he’d recorded and would play or remember, to bring it back to mind. One that is missing is Tchaikovsky; I would’ve loved to have had the music of Tchaikovsky as well, because Peter has a wonderful recording of his Grand Sonata and it’s a very I think undervalued work – people think it’s very loud and goes on forever, and I think it’s wonderful! So yes, Tchaikovsky had to fall off, but generally you know, I had some ideas of stories I could tell about some particular works, but then very often Peter would say, “Well let’s do this instead” and though it’s not what I planned it works perfectly, because there is no audience, and it’s not a concert. So it makes more sense to break things up, I think, and show different pieces in different ways.
Part of that method involves you and Peter trading various moments; how do you and Peter decide on these trade-offs in speaking, or do you just wing it?
I think you can guess!
I want you to tell me.
I think he believes in improvisation as much as I do, and you do, probably.
Right. So there is a certain amount of preplanning, but I think the interesting thing about this, and my thought behind it was, I’ve always known the way musicologists talk about music is very different from the way performers talk about it; I discovered that very early on when I travelled with a quartet. I was supposed to give a lecture about Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and then they’d play it; on the train (with quartet members) I was telling them my ideas and they were like, “Wow, we would’ve never thought of it in this way!” and some of them I know, like other performers, find some of these things weird. So I’m kind of… I know that some of the things musicologists say about music are completely opaque, and possibly the other way around is true as well, so these are two different approaches, and my idea was to see whether they can go together and whether people in the audience can gain a third thing which might emerge. As to what is working or not, it is not for me to judge.
Photo via Gresham College
So musicologists, performers, and audience are in this interesting triangulation of musical reception and experience within the context of live experience specifically; where do you see the role of online presentation?
My idea, my vision for it, is that in principle (the series) can grab the attention of someone who is not into piano music, who is not into music at all, who doesn’t read notation or know many things about this, that they would get something out of it, maybe very different things from what what you could get out of it, or what my students would get out of it, or my colleagues would get out of it. Ideally I would like that *everyone* will get something out of it, and that’s why I think also, this series is so multilayered; those who, say, want to do a project on Shostakovich’s piano music, can watch it and stop and look at the slides, and get much more out of those slides than during the lecture itself, and download the transcript – which of course is not really the actual transcript, because I wrote it before the lecture, but it has references on things we cover. There is depth in it, and depth in varied slides. I don’t have time to address everything when we’re presenting it live, and especially when it’s an improvised performance, but I am secure the content is there, and if somebody wants to get at it in a deeper way, they’d be able to.
Do you imagine your potential audience and write to that, or… ?
You get a little bit of feedback on things, not ever, of course, as you would like, but you get a bit, and I know that some of my former students for example who work in schools, show it to their pupils, who are A-level music students. I know there are music lovers who tune in, but there are also people who are just into Gresham College lectures overall – because Gresham College lectures are amazing. I started getting into them as well, for instance, I listened to a lecture on bell-ringing and mathematical patterns, and about 25 minutes into it I was completely lost, the mathematics side stopped making sense, it was too complicated – but I could still enjoy what I got out of it. It’s still valuable as an experience. My attitude to everything, basically, is it’s better to have a part of something and not be a purist, instead of having the attitude of, “I don’t understand this at all; I won’t bother getting into it.” I think it’s the same with classical music. When you first listen to a Wagner opera you get about 5% of it, then after 30 listenings you get maybe 20% of it; I think this is very important for people who want to get into classical and feel it’s too forbidding. It’s a reminder not to be too hard on themselves.
Having things laid out clearly, with intelligence and confidence, and letting people use their imaginations as well, is a good way to introduce the classical idiom overall, I have found.
Yes, I think it’s good too – I mean, notation is such a hot topic right now, but it’s why I use it. I think even for people who’ve never seen it before, it’s like a diagram: you understand it when (the piece) goes up and when it goes down, and that’s all you need to know. The time goes like this, you have these two axes like that; just from those elements, you can get quite a lot. You can see how many notes there are, how fast it goes – roughly – so with this very basic knowledge you can get quite a lot of comprehension, just by looking at two bars of music, even if you don’t know what it sounds like.
That’s just it, and then having the immediate experience of hearing Peter play what might be shown too...
It’s amazing. I think the last lecture we did Peter sight-read a piece just straight off the screen – the whole piece! It was so funny!
When I spoke to John Daszak about singing reductions he mentioned working with Peter on the Das Lied Von Der Erde piano reduction and how he found it louder than the full orchestration, and Peter’s playing in particular to be very full-on.
People who would have been in the room to actually hear the sound… it’s *astounding*. What a loss not to hear him live. Our little group from Gresham College has been obviously privy to this, and myself, and you realize this kind of piano playing is completely on a different level; there’s nothing in common between how I play the piano and how Peter plays the piano, it’s just a different thing. First of all the range of sound, the range of pianissimo to fortissimo is six times bigger – he can be very loud but he can be very quiet too – and also the control is amazing, I don’t know to what extent… we are in the hands of the technical team, so many things can go wrong, but really, the live-ness can never be replaced.
I hear your lectures and all I want to do is hear these pieces live.
That’s nice to hear! Maybe we’ll have a CD sale at the last lecture. There’s a tiny bit of hope that by the 20th of May we’ll have an audience, but we’re not worried about this now, we’ve gotten used to it the way one gets used to chronic illness or chronic pain, but it’s not something you want to necessarily have permanently. When the restrictions are lifted I think, people will realize what they were missing.
Some, but it’s different for everybody.
I think you know this well, that what we need to realize is that there are different generations who have very different relationships with online. My son, for example, was born online and he lives online, and to him, it’s different, so I’m sure, he would enjoy things in the real world, so to speak. His attitude to online things is *very* different, and for that young audience I think the idea of a short video or something that is not actually a full-scale lecture but a short video, really well done and well presented, professionally done, expensively done, is the best possible teaching aid. And I think he would prefer those things to reading books, to having live lectures, I have a suspicion that young people think very differently about these things.
But then when you get them in the concert hall or opera house they are quite shocked at what they’re hearing –in a good way, but shocked nonetheless. “What do you mean it’s not amplified?!” etc…
Oh, it’s amazing, yes! But here we get into the ritualistic side of it, and also I found out by talking to him, for example, what would prevent him from coming into the Royal Opera – I would always demand he would put on some smart clothes. I was shocked by this. He wants to hear the music but feels there is something alienating and hostile about the audience, and you know, he feels he can’t really wear normal clothes. And that’s something we have to fight. It really was shocking for me to hear that.
I find the correlation between dressing up and elitism bizarre; I dress up because I enjoy it, but I haven’t done it every single time I’ve attended an event.
I dress up as well – because I’m Russian, we tend to dress up, it’s normal to go out of the house to the bakery dressed up, so it’s a different attitude. There’s a big long explanation for it, I am sure – Russia never had a hippie culture, for example – so the idea of casual clothing is, for us, still a bit alien. For my son, who is 18 right now, he doesn’t want to make that effort, and also I think, if I meet someone who knows me and say, “This is my son” – he hates that, so that’s another reason he won’t hear a Wagner opera. But I said to him, “You can wear what you like and be completely separate from me” – and that was the pact.
So did he go?
He‘s seen the whole Ring cycle, and he knows it’s amazing – he could feel the fire in Walküre because he was in the 2nd row! He said, “I could feel the heat… !” Really, he loved it.
If you can get young audiences exposed like that even once, they’ll get it.
Some of them will come back, I think… some. But we need this kind of thing, of just going at all; we used to have this sort of cultural exposure in Soviet Russia. We used to have concerts for children, and for teenagers, and you had to go to them with your school – you had to go to a symphony concert, it was not a choice. And for 80% it meant nothing, but there would be that 20% who’d get completely hooked.
So your series feels like the next logical step for people who are curious, young or not…
I think that’s probably why I can do this so easily with Peter – he thinks the same; he’s very open, he can talk to anyone about these things without trying to create a mystique about any of it. I mean obviously there is a sense at some point where we say, “The rest we can’t explain because it’s magic, it takes you over” – but there are lots of things you can explain in an ordinary way, with very simple language, and that’s what we try to do.
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