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Lecturing, Improvising, And Russian Piano Music: A Chat With Marina Frolova-Walker

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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.

Marina Frolova-Walker, Professor, Gresham College, lecture, musicology, portrait, Russian

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…

It is!

… 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.

I do.

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.

Peter Donohue, pianist, performer, artist, music, classical

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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Jurowski: “What Would Good Old Richard Strauss Have Said To All This?”

Bayerische Staatsoper, Bavarian State Opera, Nationaltheater, opera, music, architecture, exterior, pillars, columns, Munich, Muenchen

Nationaltheater, Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Sitting at the piano as a child, staring out the window, my mother’s gentle entreaties would crescendo into curt demands: “Stop daydreaming and start practising.” Scales and warm-ups complete, with a few forays into tentative improvisation – the call from the kitchen, “stop noodling around!” inevitable – fugues, bourrées, preludes, canons, studies, and sonatas (by Handel, Bach, Haydn, Czerny, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Kabalevsky) would slowly unfold. Among my favorite things to play were reductions of beloved orchestral works, a version of Eine kleine Nachtmusik among them. Attempts at replicating recorded expression came first; imitation is commonly the first step of a young person short on knowledge and lived experience, but at the time all I knew was that my piano should sound like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien. The timbre of a piano is of course not at all analogous to the sound of a stringed ensemble, and though I lacked the proper musical language to describe my efforts, I had at my fingertips the gift of that much-maligned noodling. Plunking out some form of interpretation, the spirit of curiosity intact, nicely showed off the specific timbre of my own medium while still (I desperately hoped) do a shred of justice to Mozart. The confidence born from such exploits was brief and tenuous at best; I always felt like a doe trying to navigate her way through a field of the finest glass, not sure where to step, how, when. What I did know (or thought I did) was the original version, and it was that knowing, however crude, which bade curiosity to put one hoof out, and then another, gingerly; of course it was sometimes easier to simply stomp through the field, but being loud is always an easy escape route for being smart. Those original recordings, the actual scores behind them, were asking for the latter, and whispering over my shoulder, every time I would return to the piano bench: pay attention to those low sounds; try to shape your phrases more delicately; what about those bouncy percussive sounds with just the piano keys? Listen; just listen.

What a strange albeit educational trip down memory lane these past twelve months, to hear so many reduced orchestrations, programmed and performed by various organizations as a result of coronavirus restrictions. The days of many-bodied orchestras (and pits) are, for now, nowhere in sight alas, but such times have made large opportunities for the small. Reorchestrations are not new, of course; history is filled with examples of composers reorchestrating their own work and that of others. Mahler, Mozart, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg all reworked (or, in fashionable parlance, reimagined) their own compositions and the works of other composers, contemporary and not, as need (social, financial; sometimes both) dictated and creative curiosity allowed; one very famous is Mozart’s reorchestration of Handel’s Messiah (1741), completed in 1789. Such reworkings reshape one’s listening, in small and large ways, and can sometimes shake up the foundations of our consciously (or largely unconsciously) held perceptions associated with a particular sound and the sound world associated with the person who wrote it. Of note recently were reactions to conductor/director Eberhard Kloke’s reorchestration of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at Bayeriche Staatsoper, a new production helmed by Barrie Kosky and led by Music Director Designate Vladimir Jurowski. The opera, and its composer, are deeply intertwined with Munich and its cultural history, with many opera-goers holding specific memories of related work by conductor Carlos Kleiber and director Otto Schenk. Appreciating a new version of something old means prying off the determined octopus which has wrapped itself around the object of musical worship; usually the tentacles spell out things like “comfort” and “nostalgia” and even, dare I say, “expectation” and (gasp) “ego.” Analyzing the whys and wherefores of one’s listening habits, as such, is not always pleasant, but is necessary. As Jurowski notes in our exchange below, being exposed to an old favorite in new clothes means risking having our emotional reactions altered, our fragile inner security (usually reinforced by the appearance – or sound – of an ordered outside world) overturned. But as I wrote recently, a spirit of openness amidst the uncertainty of our era feels like the only true way forwards, at least insofar as culture and humanity are concerned. As E. E. Cummings wrote,

when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living–
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
–it’s spring(all our night becomes day)o,it’s spring!
(XAIPE, 1950, Liveright)

The connection between poetry and music isn’t new but takes on added significance here, for, as you will read, Jurowski, (who, along with being the next MD at Bayerische Staatsoper, is Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, or RSB) draws keen parallels between the act of reorchestration and translating poetry between languages; something will always be lost, but something might also be gained. To quote the Marschallin, “in dem “Wie” da liegt der ganze Untershied.” Thus has curiosity over Kloke’s reduction only grown since the opera’s livestream presentation on March 21st. (It is available for viewing until mid-April 2021.) Despite having studied this very reduction of Strauss’s score (published at Scott Music) myself, the experience of actually hearing it was, and remains, deeply poignant; if reduction and translation are analogous, then so too must be the act of reading to one’s self versus the full sensory experience of hearing the words aloud in all their syllabic, rhythmical glory. Frissons of shock and sincere wonder raced through veins during Sunday’s presentation, with Strauss’s grand cotillion on dewy grass becoming a deliciously barefoot belly-dance across an ornately-patterned rug. Taste is personal, but so are hang-ups; I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether or not Kloke’s Rosenkavalier belongs in either category, or if it makes a new one all its own in harmony with the director’s decidedly un-Schenk-like staging, one that lacks for nothing in its emotional power and authenticity.

The following conversation with Vladimir Jurowski, which took in the early part of 2021, was significantly whittled down and used as part of a broader magazine feature at Opera Canada (probably my final one as a formal journalist) about the corona-connected move toward opera reductions, which also featured the reflections and experiences of tenor John Daszak and Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus. What with another strict lockdown looming in many parts of Europe right now (including Germany), reductions may well become more prominent yet, not merely avenues to a comfortable normalcy but wide creative fields in and of themselves, where we might wander afresh, finding new life forms along the way. Perception is not static, and neither is art; listen, just listen.

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor, Jurowski, Russian, maestro, Music Director, Bayerische Staatsoper, lead, music, classical, artist, musician

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

You’ve done a few reductions, haven’t you?

Officially I did one which was aired on Deutschlandfunk Kultur (radio) – I did it during the first lockdown (spring 2020). It was a longtime dream of mine to do a version of a piece which I’ve loved for years and which for some strange reason never become really popular, although other works by the same composer have made it into all possible charts – I’m speaking of Prokofiev here, and the piece which I have created of is The Ugly Duckling, which is a fairytale after Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a piece Prokofiev rewrote several times himself; he wrote the first version of it in 1914 for voice and piano, and then he came back a few years later and did a version still for voice and piano but a different voice, a higher voice, so he started by amending the vocal lines and ended up amending the whole structure. He moved the keys, not all but some, so it became singable for a soprano; I think it had to do with the fact that his first wife, Lina Prokofieva, was a soprano, and he reworked it for her. Then he came back again much later, about 20 years after the piece was finished (in 1932) and created an orchestral version.

I always found it fascinating composers creating orchestral versions of their own piano pieces. In the case of Prokofiev there are two famous examples, one is The Ugly Duckling, and the other one is his Fourth Piano Sonata (1917); the slow movement of this sonata, the Andante, he later made into a self-standing piece of orchestral music, the Andante Op. 29, and that is a firework of compositional craft, comparable with the best orchestrations of Ravel. Now obviously Ravel was orchestrating music by other people too, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition; in the same vein, Rachmaninoff did a very interesting arrangement of his Vocalise, originally written for voice and piano, which he later reworked into an orchestral piece, first with solo soprano, and then a version where all first violins of the Philadelphia Orchestra would play the tune and a small orchestra would accompany.

So for me the idea was that Prokofiev wrote The Ugly Duckling having a certain type of voice in mind, and then he came back and orchestrated it, but in such a way that made it literally impossible for a light voice to perform, simply because the orchestration was too heavy – and I wanted to bring the piece back to where it belonged, in the realm of chamber music. So I chose to do a version of it for 15 players, which is the normal size of a contemporary music ensemble; it all springs from Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony #1, which was scored for 15 players. I realized very soon that it was impossible to simply reduce the missing instruments; for that size of group you have to re-balance the score, and very often I found myself in need to address the original piano score.

So I was moving along the confines of Prokofiev’s orchestral score, but eventually what I wrote was much closer to the original piano score, and that made me realize again how huge is the gap between what composers set for piano, two-hand piano, and the same music being reimagined for large orchestra – it becomes a different piece. It’s a different weight, there’s a different sound world, there are different colors in it, and obviously it produces different kinds of emotions in us listeners. If you take a Beethoven string quartet and simply double each voice, so play it with 40 people rather than with four, it won’t automatically be 40 times stronger – it will be louder, for sure, but not necessarily as balanced, because it’s like alchemy; you multiply the numbers, but different numbers in the same mathematical relationship calls for completely different sound effects. For instance, one violin, obviously, is a solo instrument; if you have two violins playing the same tune, acoustically, it would create a clash. Even if they were playing ideally in tune, you would still hear two violins. Take three violins, and make them play the same tune again, and it will sound much more unified. At four, it will sound again heterogenic. Five is better than four, and three is better than two. At six you would still hear a small ensemble, and somewhere between seven and eight you will start hearing a section. When hearing a section playing a single note or a melodic line, it gives this melodic line or this note a completely different weight, and not necessarily a bigger weight, than when played by one person.

“Weight” is a good word when applied within the context of what is lost or gained. How do you approach weight in orchestration when you are reducing?

You have to shift it. It’s like in tai chi, shifting the weight of your body from the centre to the left foot and then the right foot again, and so on. So you’ve got to decide exactly how many instruments you leave on the melodic voice and how many instruments you would leave with the harmony, how many instruments you’ll give to the bass…  it’s not always mathematically, I mean, obviously you could calculate everything, but not all of these calculations will be obvious. So for me the scores of Richard Strauss or Rimsky-Korsakov, to give you two very different examples, or late Wagner, are such examples of perfect calculation. When it comes to others, well, some don’t understand how to go about composing for the weight of a symphony or orchestra; they might treat the orchestra like a large piano, and that is, with permission, wrong. An orchestra is a different instrument. Bruckner treats the orchestra like a huge organ, and that’s sometimes very strange – it seems much less plausible than treating the orchestra like a piano, but it calls, interestingly, for better results.

But composers who write specifically for the stage, for singers: that is a whole different beast.

It is! And that is where the problems start. So Strauss was among the first composers who not only sanctioned reduction of his scores, because Wagner did too, Wagner sanctioned the reduction of several of his operas, most famously Tristan, but Strauss was among the very first composers who started doing the job of reduction himself. And that is where you can see the difference between an artisan, a very secure craftsman being at at work, and a real artist being at work, because Strauss’s own reductions of Salome and Elektra, and the few fragments from Die Frau Ohne Schatten which he reduced, they are masterpieces, and near-ideal examples, entirely didactic examples, of how one should go about reorchestration. Another example of such reorchestration in the sense of adding weight is Mahler. When Mahler revised his symphonies, especially such symphonies as #4 and #5, the amount of weight loss these scores have undergone in Mahler’s hands is mind-blowing – yet they never lost their essence.

So I think, essentially, it’s like this: the composer always knows best. They always know how his or her works should sound with different, let’s say, smaller, forces. But what you need to do as an arranger is to get into the mind of the composer and crack the DNA code of the piece. You basically need to put yourself in the state of composing the piece within *you* – not with your own mind, but the mind of the composer. Once you’ve done that, you’re able to do any type of technical operations with a piece without damaging its essence, because one thing is simply reducing a score, and another thing is reducing a score in such a way that it would still sound its very recognizable self in this new attire, in these new clothes. For instance, Schoenberg’s own reorchestration of Gurrelieder was originally scored for a huge orchestra, and he created his own reduction for a chamber orchestra; I think it is an ideal example of how a composer reinvents the same piece with much more discreet means and yet it appears to you in all its glory.

And yet I’ve done, during the pandemic, several reduced versions of symphonic pieces of opera. While in Moscow (in November 2020) I did a concert with a reduced orchestration of Götterdämmerung. I didn’t do the complete piece but selected fragments and that was a well-recognized, you could say, classical reduction by Alfons Abbas (1854-1924), published by Schott, and obviously going back to the composer himself, and yet I have to say, having done it, I… never felt at ease with it, because I always felt the piece was being betrayed.

Why?

Because by the time Wagner came to composing Götterdämmerung, he really knew why he used such a huge monstrous orchestra. In the first pieces, in Rheingold or Walküre or even in parts of Siegfried you would argue, he was going for more sound, for more volume – by doubling, by adding up stuff – but by the time he came to composing Götterdämmerung and even more so in Parsifal, he had a perfect command of those full-voiced chords, distributed among the four voice groups, meaning each wind group had four players, and when you started redistributing them, between the groups – because obviously a normal orchestra would have only maximally three players per section – then you get into all sorts of trouble, and then I thought, it would have actually been better, more honest, and certainly more productive, reducing it further, from quadruple not to triple but to double, so you exactly half the size of the players – just as Kloke did in his reduction of Wozzeck – because (in) leaving three original instruments and adding one on top, there’s always this torturous moment of choosing the right instrument: what do you add to three flutes, an oboe? Do you add a clarinet? Do you add a muted trumpet? Whatever you add won’t sound right.

And so, I’m coming to the conclusion that orchestration and reorchestration is a very special art which resembles the art of poetry translation. We know poetry is untranslatable – essentially untranslatable – and that there are very rare cases where you find a translation which is completely idiomatic; most of the time you just get the very dry account of the events of the poem’s plot, or you get one very neat rhyme, if the original poem was rhymed – which makes a new composition, which might be a very interesting work in its own right but has little to do with the original poem. It is the same with the art of reorchestration. It depends also on what your aim is as the orchestrator; is your aim really to give the piece a new birth in these new circumstances but still keep its essence? Or are you after some very bizarre effect of deconstruction? One needs to be careful when dealing with these orchestrations, and reorchestrations, in that one can, in trying to translate the composer’s thoughts, become a traitor of the composer. For instance, Stravinsky used to say to the performers that any kind of interpretation is mostly an act of betrayal toward the original’s composition. That’s why Stravinsky demanded strict following of the original text and no personality of the performer. At the same time Stravinsky himself, when re-orchestrating his own works, redid them every time, but in such a way that they became new pieces. Look at the three versions of The Firebird, the 1910, 1919, and 1945 versions: there are three different versions, there are three different birds. It’s not the same bird in a new dress; it’s a *different bird*. It’s the bird which sings the same song but the song gets a completely different meaning. The same happened with Petrouchka (1911), the same happened with Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920); when they got revisited in later years – Stravinsky often did it for financial reasons because he wanted to renew his copyright and get maximum revenue from performance of the pieces – he couldn’t help updating them to the new stage of compositional career he was at, at the time.

How does this apply to Kloke’s reduction of Der Rosenkavalier?

Kloke has created something unique, first as a conductor, then as a programmer, and eventually as a reinventor of these old great pieces. His role is comparable with the role of a modern opera director who is revisiting the old pieces and sometimes deconstructing them, but there is always a thought, there is always a good reason. You might disagree with his solutions and ideas, but they are always done with an artistic purpose. That isn’t always the case. I personally have no problem in waiting for another four or five years until a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony becomes possible in its original Gestalt, to do it the way Mahler conceived it with a large orchestra, than in doing it now in one of these multiple available reduced forms. I’ve looked at all of them and the only symphony which I have done in reduced orchestration and I found absolutely plausible was #4, because it is in itself a piece of chamber music; there were moments where it was missing a big orchestra but they were a few. And, I haven’t done it yet, but I would like to do Schoenberg’s orchestration of Das Lied (Von Der Erde), simply because Schoenberg knew Mahler, so it is the pupil revisiting the work of the great teacher – but no other symphonies. Likewise I would have absolutely no interest in performing a reduced version of The Rite Of Spring.

So this time has changed the way you program?

Yes… yes. My whole philosophy during the time of the pandemic was to keep as much as possible the names of the composers in that co-relationship in which they were programmed. For instance if I had, let’s just imagine the names of Mozart and Strauss on the program, then I would try and keep Mozart and Strauss, but a work by Mozart can be kept anyway without any amendments, you just reduce the amount of strings and you can still play it, but in the case of Richard Strauss, if the piece was the Alpine Symphony or Zarathustra, I would never even *begin* to think of performing a reduced Zarathustra or Alpine Symphony, I think it’s a complete waste of time.

Does that extend to opera as well?

Yes, for me, the Ring is such a piece which, as a tetralogy – there are certain pieces like Rheingold, I know there is a version by Jonathan Dove which the Deutsche Oper presented in the carpark last year, that he reworked all four for Birmingham Opera originally – but for me, having done this little bit of Götterdämmerung with my Russian orchestra I felt I had to keep it because it was just an important symbol of hope to give to people: “You see we are still performing, we can still do it.” But artistically I remain deeply unsatisfied with the whole experience; it had nothing to do with the orchestra or the wonderful singer (soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva) who learned Brünnhilde for us, it was just not the sound of Wagner as I knew it and as I would expect it; all the beauty of Wagner’s wonder machine, this symphonic orchestra he invented, was gone. It was simply a very crafty piece of orchestration, but nothing else. There was no magic in it at all.

At the same time, I found when we had to go back to smaller sizes – the string orchestra in performances of let’s say early Beethoven symphonies or something like Symphony Classique by Prokofiev – the pieces gained from it, hugely, so there was a loss but there was also a gain, and the gain was in clarity and virtuosity, in transparency and all that. The question is, do you want more transparency in pieces like… Tristan?

I was just going to mention that precise opera… 

I mean, is that what you *want*?

.. in relation to transparency; you took the words out of my mouth.

Schmutzer, portrait, sketch, composer, Strauss, German, classical, music

By Tucker Collection – New York Public Library Archives, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16243459

Right? So I would choose my pieces these days very carefully. Specifically in relation to what I’m preparing now, Der Rosenkavalier has this neo-classical aspect which got later developed by Strauss and Hofmannsthal and found its most perfect resolution in Ariadne auf Naxos, especially the second version with the prologue, composed in 1916. Revisiting Rosenkavalier from the backward-looking perspective of Ariadne I find very interesting. I am not saying that this is an absolute revelation and this is how I want to hear my Rosenkavalier from now on – I would be lying! I want to go back to Rosenkavalier as we knew it before! – but I bet you there will be discoveries through this smaller version which will help us when working on the piece again in the larger orchestration, to work on the finesse and bring out the theatricality of the libretto. Actually the main difference between the small version and the big version is, the big version, however transparent you do it, you still first hear the orchestra and then the voices; with the smaller version you can almost perform it as a play, with background music. And I am sure Hofmannsthal would have been thrilled because he thought of the piece as mainly his composition, with music by Strauss; we tend to think of it as a great opera by Strauss with text by Hofmannsthal. So there are two ways of looking at it.

But when it comes to something like Parsifal or Tristan or Götterdämmerung, I think the pieces are sort of perfect the way they were conceived. So I personally, with all due respect to the people who reworked these operas now for smaller forces and those people who perform them, I personally don’t think it’s the right thing to do; I would keep my fingers away from it. As I would keep my fingers away from Shostakovich Symphonies, apart from #14 which was composed for chamber orchestra, and I would wait as long as is necessary until performing them again. I would not touch on any Prokofiev symphonies or big Stravinsky ballets or Mahler, Bruckner, symphonies, what you will; I simply think there is a limit beyond which the reduction changes the pieces beyond the level of recognizability – and then I much prefer to sit in my armchair and look at the score and imagine how the piece would sound, or listen to a good old recording. I mean, it’s everybody’s right to decide what’s best for them, and there is no right and wrong here. Besides it’s always better to have some music in whatever form than no music at all, but my feeling is also there’s been so much music composed over the last 2000 years, well, even take the last 500 years or so, you could fill hundreds of lifetimes with programs, never repeating the same pieces; why do we always have to come back to the same pieces over and over again?

Because they’re crowd pleasers, they sell tickets, they put bums in seats…

Yes, and because they give us this sense of safety, because we come back to something familiar, we can cling on to that, etc etc, again anybody has the right to do what they think is best for them – but I had absolutely no hesitation in cancelling all these big pieces and replacing them with other pieces by the same composers or in the case of Mahler, there is actually nothing which can replace Mahler 9, nothing at all, so I would say, if we can’t play Mahler 9 now, we play a different piece by a different composer, we just leave it at that; there are some things which are irreplaceable.

There’s also the aspect of perception and expectation; perhaps this era will inspire audiences not to perceive reductions as a crappy compromise but as a new way of appreciating an old favorite.

Yes, and you know, I’m always asking myself – again, this is me being a grandson of a composer – I’m always asking, “What would have good old Richard Strauss said to all this?” Because knowing Strauss and his ways from the many letters and diaries he left, and the bon mots he pronounced in conversations with other people, I think he would have still preferred hearing his work in a strongly reduced version, than not hearing it at all. So I think when it comes to Strauss, he of all people would have been actually rather happy hearing his Rosenkavalier even if what we are going to present in Munich will be very, very far removed from the sound world of the Rosenkavalier he thought of when he composed it.

Really!

Well simply because … you know that Strauss in his time as President of the Reichsmusikkammer, the Ministry of Music in Nazi Germany – for a few years he held this post until he fell out with Goebbels – he insisted on ruling out the possibility of performances of some operas by Wagner by smaller theatres because he thought performing these works with orchestras less than such-and-such number of strings were an offense to the composer, so he was quite… in his time he was quite radical with his views. People at that time were much less purist than they are now, they just wanted to hear their Lohengrin, and they’d gladly hear it with six first violins. Just as recently in Munich before everything closed down completely (in late 2020) and they were playing in front of 50 people, when (before that) they were playing in front of 500 people, they were playing Tosca with six first violins, and Swan Lake with six first violins, and you know, that was the only possibility. That’s why, when I came to Wozzeck, I thought, “This is a *good* one, this piece was sort of the cradle of modernism and we will find a good version of the piece, reinvented” – and we did find that version, in Kloke. There is an even drastic version for 21 musicians…

The reduction by John Rea?

Yes! I was prepared to play it as well. I said, “If the restrictions will go that far, then we’ll play this version for 21 musicians.” It was almost an act of defiance back then, but now, when these things become normality, when we see that the next few months, maybe the next six months, maybe the next year, will be all reductions, I think one needs to choose carefully.

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor, Jurowski, Russian, maestro, Music Director, Bayerische Staatsoper, lead, music, classical, artist, musician

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

So for instance, I completely reprogrammed the season in Berlin; I remember when we published the program of the RSB in, it was right at the beginning of the lockdown March-April last year, there were some journalists in Berlin who said, we were lunatics, we were completely out of touch with reality that we were presenting this program which was completely impossible, and I said then, “I’d rather present something which is impossible but which represents my dream, a certain way of thinking about the music, and then I will bring it in cohesion with reality.” I’d rather do that, than simply leaving all the dreams behind, and presenting some completely randomly-made program simply because we know, “Oh there is a pandemic coming and we can’t play this and that.” I’d rather say, “This is what we thought of; this is what I would have *ideally* liked to have played. And now we see we can’t, we still try and weave our program along the pre-made lines of this concept.” So we had all the Stravinsky Russian ballets and many other works, and of course none of them will happen now, it’s clear, but I would still have a Stravinsky festival in Berlin, and we will already start, we have already had a few pieces by Stravinsky and we will keep that line, the same will apply to Schnittke or Denisov or almost any composer, the only ones we left out completely without replacing them were the really big ones such as Mahler 9 or Shostakovich 8, there is no replacement for them.

But I’m quite hopefully because you know if you see how composers themselves developed – take Stravinsky for instance, he started composing for these monstrous-sized orchestras and eventually lost interest in them, later in his life the more chamber musical or unusual he got the combinations of instruments got more and more unusual and the compositions didn’t lose any of their qualities, they simply became something else. So if we take composers development as our guiding line, then we certainly won’t get completely off-road.

But how much will stagings match that whilst complement the overall spirit of the current era?

Well our Rosenkavalier will also be different to the one originally envisioned by Barrie Kosky; it will be a corona-conforming production. And I’m sure when we come back to revisiting it in the post-corona times, obviously, as every new production will be revived hopefully multiple times, we’ll change it once more. But again, I’m thinking of Mahler, who would change the orchestration of his symphonies every time he would conduct them in a different hall with a different orchestra – it was never the same process. It was Mahler who said, “Hail the conductor who will have the courage to change my pieces further after my death.”

… which, in my mind, underlines the flexibility of audiences’ listening then; it’s interesting how  auditory intransigence – ie, “x opera has to sound exactly like this, the end” – doesn’t match composers’ visions…

… because for the composers their pieces were part of a living process, a *live* process of genesis, it was part of their life and they were still alive and as they were alive they were changing things along the way…

… but that’s music.

That is music! Mozart would compose extra arias for his operas and take some arias out in the next edition and he would also have very different orchestra sizes depending on the places where he would perform them. Our problem is that we have this… this is a completely different subject matter and it would take a whole separate conversion… but, we got fixated. It’s like an obsession with the music of the famous dead composers. So that we found ourselves in this museum where everywhere there is in a line saying “Don’t touch this; don’t come close!”

It’s not a separate conversation though, it’s part of the reason some organizations have closed  instead of trying to find a way to present reductions, things they assume audiences will be afraid of or dislike.

I agree with you, absolutely. But it’s a different thing when we are scared of reductions: we might injure the essence of the composer’s work or we might simply injure our little feelings provoked by certain compositions, so basically we’re not interested most of the time – we’re not interested in the music; we’re interested in the emotions this music provokes in us, and we want to have a push-button repetition of the same emotions over and over again.

“I want to feel THIS during Aida; THAT during Rosenkavalier… ”

Precisely.

… but I think this is an opportunity for examining those preconceptions, and asking asking what our vision of “normal” even means now.

What *does* “the normal” mean in the post corona times, yes – because anything will feel completely abnormal, everything will feel huge and new and very exciting, and playing Beethoven’s 9th again or Mahler 5 will feel like a real revelation. People will get heart attacks, hopefully positive heart attacks, from being in touch with this music again – certainly us musicians will.

Some of us audience members are also musicians.

So you can get a heart attack, then – hopefully in a good way.

Marlis Petersen, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance, Marschallin

Marlis Petersen as the Marschallin in Barrie Kosky’s staging of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

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Der Rosenkavalier in Munich: “We Can Be Alive And Find Ourselves in These Roles”

Bayerische Staatsoper, Bavarian State Opera, auditorium, Nationaltheater, opera, music, stage, seating, Munich, Muenchen

Nationaltheater, Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Anticipation, excitement, and anxiety tend to be usual feelings in relation to new productions, for artists and audiences alike. When the opera being staged is a favored work, those feelings become distinctly pronounced, and call into question the whole nature of fascination with the piece, the composer, the librettist, and the art form overall. As a pseudo-knowledgeable, ever-studying, non-singing, over-wordsy, wide-eared opera person, you may become conscious of your love, others’ love, your expectations, others’ expectations, your preconceptions, others’ preconceptions, your reactions, others’ reactions – and you may find yourself exhausted by the conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious levels of identification, non-identification, meditations, musings, and various analyses you perform, repeatedly, over the course of weeks, months, years. You may hear bits of arias and orchestration at unexpected moments, and tap your foot or teeth or waggle eyebrows or fingertips along, an internalized melodo-sensual-rhythmical complement at all hours of the day or night: in the bath, out on the street; looking out the window at a white dog, looking up in wonder at a purple-pink orchid; frowning in a mirror, forking in cold spaghetti, falling asleep in front of the telly. You may wonder and worry about those new costumes and sets and what form of fancy choreography might complement some favored passages, to say nothing of all the secret, conversational places between. You also ponder why any of this should actually matter amidst a year-long worldwide pandemic. Yet it does, and very much; art takes on new and precious significance amidst pandemic, more so when there is the willpower to see it realized in a live form. Anticipation, excitement, anxiety; soap, rinse, repeat.

And so it is with a new production of Der Rosenkavalier set to make its debut in Munich this coming Sunday. Premiered in 1911 in Dresden, the opera is associated with a distinctly Rococo visual, helped along by celebrated recordings and fusty album covers as well as the famous Otto Schenk production, first presented in 1972 and led by Carlos Kleiber. The wigs, the dresses, the buttons, the buckle shoes – the glitter, the gilding, the glamour: these are the elements co-related (however consciously or not) with Der Rosenkavalier. There was more than a hint of public mournfulness when the Schenk production was retired in 2018. New visions of old favorites tend to create waves, sometimes (/ often) brushing against the sandcastles of expectation lining the shores of creative consciousness. It’s difficult to gauge how any new production will be ultimately received,  but in an environment so heavily re-shaped by pandemic, it’s little wonder that a new staging will court reaction, for after all, certainties within the artistic sphere are nice (or perceived to be so) in an age where there is naught but uncertainty everywhere else. “Give me my buckle shoes,” goes the thinking, “they hurt to walk in but they’re comforting nonetheless.” Such clinging can, of course, lead to needless suffering; bunions are not marks of virtue, after all. Sometimes a good dose of curiosity is the best (and only) thing to provide a proper shoehorn. Yes, it’s frightening to stay open at a point in history when it feels so dangerous on all fronts – but in the current cultural climate, that openness seems more vital than ever.

Certainly good leadership can help to encourage the needed spirit. The determination of the Munich team behind the new Der Rosenkavalier, together with actionable choices which manifest such determination, have provided much inspiration and hope. Directed by Barrie Kosky, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, and designed by Rufus Didwiszus, the new production was birthed in an environment characterized by rules and restrictions which would have seemed like a form of creative straitjacket only 14 months ago; now that straightjacket is a parachute, the very thing which allows for any sort of a view. Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote, in Buch der Freunde (Book of Friends), his 1922 collection of aphorisms, itself a kind of postmodern conversation with artists of the past (the title is lifted from Goethe’s own West-östlicher Divan), “(t)here is more freedom within the narrowest limits, within the most specialized task, than in the limitless vacuum which the modern mind imagines to be the playground for it.” (trans. Tania and James Stern; The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Princeton University Press, 2008) Like every event currently unfolding (or planned) at various houses operating at various levels in Europe, this Rosenkavalier conforms to current Bavarian health regulations, ones which (as you’ll read) entail a strict system of interaction for artists.

Samantha Hankey, mezzo, Marlis Petersen, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance, jump, joy, Marschallin, Octavian

Marlis Petersen (L) as the Marschallin and Samantha Hankey as Octavian in a scene from Barrie Kosky’s staging of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Such a conformation also means that Strauss’s original, immense score isn’t going to be presented (at least this time), but a reduced version of it, by conductor/re-orchestrator Eberhard Kloke, will; with its dramaturgical approach, Kloke’s reorchestration utilizes the sound palette of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (which premiered the year after Rosenkavalier, in 1912) and, notably, makes no deletions to the original, as has been the case with past presentations and recordings. Hofmannsthal’s libretto, filled with a delicious syllabism, mixes intimate poetry and epic theatricality (including broad farce) within a dialectical framework involving the Marschallin, her young lover Octavian, her obnoxious cousin Baron Ochs, his intended bride, Sophie (who falls for Octavian, and vice-versa), her status-obsessed father Faninal, and, I would argue, the immense if unseen character of the work, the Marschallin’s husband. The opera’s final scene features one of the most famous trios in all of opera, but each part could (does) stand as its own form of soliloquy, a moment whereby Octavian, Sophie, and the Marschallin are enacting a hoary old romantic cliché (the love triangle) whilst forming something new, as, from word to word and note to note, they individually express and refine their sense(s) of freedom, circumstance, choice, and actual, felt consequence. “Es sind die mehreren Dinge auf der Welt, so dass sie ein’s nicht glauben tät’, wenn man sie möcht’ erzählen hör’n. Alleinig wer’s erlebt, der glaubt daran und weiss nicht wie,” sighs the Marschallin. (“There are so many things in the world that one would not believe them if one heard them told. Only those who experience them believe in them, and do not know how.”)  Every time I hear this, no matter the recording, I want to run across a dark beach barefoot, leaving wig, corset, and buckle shoes behind, kicking the sandcastles as I go.

Sunday’s presentation in Munich is new in not only the approach to staging but in its casting, with many here making important role debuts. Marlis Petersen, celebrated for her interpretations of Lulu and Salome, debuts as the Marschallin; mezzo soprano Samantha Hankey sings Octavian, the “cavalier” of the title, while soprano Katharina Konradi is Sophie, the recipient of the cavalier’s “Rose.” It was a true a privilege to speak with the latter two singers the day after their first general rehearsal, with the artists carrying an ebullient energy from the experience, their first in front of an audience (however limited) after a long period of deprivation. Both artists have extensive experience across celebrated opera stages, and with singing the music of Strauss. Soprano Konradi is currently a BBC New Generation Artist (2018-2021), and has made numerous recordings for BBC Radio 3. From 2015 to 2018 she was a member of the ensemble of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, and joined the ensemble of Staatsoper Hamburg at the start of the 2018-2019 season, during which time she also performed as Zdenka (in Strauss’s Arabella) at the Semperoper in Dresden. She has enjoyed concert engagements with Orchestre de Paris, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, to name a few, and worked with a range of conductors including Daniel Harding, Manfred Honeck, Kent Nagano, and Paavo Järvi. Along with performances at Wigmore Hall last year, Konradi has a new CD of lieder out now, Liebende (or Lovers, Avi Music), featuring the music of Strauss, Mozart, and Schubert. This summer, restrictions allowing, she’ll be performing in Tobias Kratzer’s staging of Tannhäuser. Mezzo soprano Hankey is a member of the ensemble of Bayerische Staatsoper, where she made her role and house debut as Hänsel in Hänsel and Gretel in late 2019. A former member of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program, she has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Opernhaus Zürich, Den Norske Opera, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Birgit Nilsson Prize (part of Operalia) for her interpretation of the music of Strauss. She’s worked with numerous conductors, Philippe Jordan, Gianandrea Noseda, Nicola Luisotti, and Carlo Rizzi among them, and this summer performs in Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging of Das Rheingold as part of the Münchner Opernfestspiele, the annual summer festival via Bayerische Staatsoper. The event, as with Bayreuth, and so many cultural events, depends entirely on which restrictions may (or may not) be in place as the result of coronavirus infection rates.

Der Rosenkavalier streams live from Munich on Sunday, March 21st, at 3.30pm CET.

Katharina Konradi, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, bed, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance

Katharina Konradi (foreground) in a scene from Barrie Kosky’s staging of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Does everyone working at the Staatsoper receive regular testing?

SH Yes, the opera has a whole bunch of safety procedures in place in addition to regular testing and mask-wearing; everyone in the house is sectioned off into groups. Performers are at a specific level of risk, the red group it’s called; your group determines the level of interaction you are allowed to have with other people.

Samantha’s recent Bayerische Staatsoper Instagram takeover showed a bit of this testing process but also featured Katharina on her trampoline at intermission.

KK Oh, I take it everywhere! Whenever I have performances, concerts, projects like this, I make a recording, whatever, I take it with me, and I relax before performing with it. I don’t know how to quite express it, but my body is like waves, so I’m so happy to have it.

It’s a good way to keep your energy up – literally.

KK Yes it is! It’s fun to do before a performance.

SH You also have a balancing circle, what’s it called?

KK Ah yes, a balance board…

SH I always want to come into your room for it, it moves in all these different ways – very cool!

Working in the current environment must be quite different from what you are used to.

SH We haven’t performed in so long. I think Barrie saw we’re young, fit people and we like to move, and so…

KK I think the big difference is that we don’t have an audience. Yesterday we had a general rehearsal and we had fifty or sixty people watch, and it was completely another scene, because you know there are people sitting there, and you can send the energy to them and you also take a small part of this energy to you on the stage. It was a great experience after this long time without an audience.

SH Hearing applause at the end was so unexpected, we were like, “Wow, this is … incredible, this is people’s way of saying “Thank you for doing this.” It was very emotional. I didn’t anticipate hearing applause.

I’m reading John Mauceri’s Maestros And Their Music (Vintage, 2018) and one of the things he writes about is how audiences and artists are in partnership; how has that idea played into your experiences? 

SH In rehearsal there would be some laughs from the artistic personnel, and yesterday I was thinking, “Will (the audience) laugh here? Am I not hearing laughs because of the masks? Is this working? Are you enjoying this?” That’s the difference between having fifty to sixty people and having absolutely no one. I think of it as this double-sided coin, though, because you can also do so much without an audience – you feel safe to explore and play and make the most of it, even though it’s being streamed to the world. Digital isn’t a replacement for live performance but it’s the best option we have right now.

What’s it been like working on this with Barrie Kosky?

Katharina Konradi, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, artist, performer

Katharina Konradi (Photo Simon Pauly)

KK For me it was a surprise – Barrie gives us the ability to be free on the stage, and to find things, by ourselves. For me it was the first time for this kind of experience, I was like, “What should I do?” And he said, “You can do whatever you want and I will say if you are right in your character, in your body, and in what Sophie is like.” It was, for me, the first time the stage director doesn’t say something before to the effect of, “Sophie is like this and like that, and so you must be like this.” I felt really free to build my character. He just put in small corrections, like, “You can be younger and laugh and be excited” but it was not like a set frame, with no possibility to take my own experiences into this role. And that’s been fantastic. I think this cast is full of personality and full of people who are so different and we are not all alike, we all have imaginations. Barrie never dictated how we should be, so we are allowed to use that difference. Every time in rehearsal we are trying to find some new aspects to take into our characters. I don’t know how it was for Sam, because she’s on the stage all the time. Maybe it’s different again…

SH I think, like what Katharina said, it’s been completely liberating working with Barrie. We’re doing such major roles that have such incredible history; you know, so many great singers have done these roles, and they’ve been in these iconic productions that we’ve all seen…

… may I add here, it is Christa Ludwig’s birthday today…

Samantha Hankey, mezzo soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, artist, performer

Samantha Hankey (Photo © Famous)

SH Oh, what timing! So yes, there’s so much weight in terms of that whole history, and, I don’t want to say fear, but it’s a huge amount of responsibility in doing these roles, and seeing all the traditional productions you think, “Okay, they follow the exact Hofmannsthal style and directions” and “This singer did it *this* way” and “Well this is how it’s always been done” – and Barrie said, “We want to do something different here.” So that means we get to do our own versions of these characters. In a piece like Der Rosenkavalier there aren’t a lot of variations in terms of interpretations of the piece – there’s a set type of Sophie, there’s a set type of Octavian. And now I really feel we’re creating something new that still honors this libretto. It’s very real.

In that vein, you are singing a reduction of Strauss’s score by Eberhard Kloke right now; some have expressed doubts about the sound world of Strauss undergoing such a transformation…

SH … well we can either not have art during the pandemic or we can have music in a reduced form and stream it, or we can all stay home. What’s preferable?

KK In this orchestral form, you can hear different things – for instance, a piano playing through our conversation. It’s better to perform like this, than to stay at home.

… and this Kloke version seems like a theatre piece in its own right, with a dramaturgical approach, and the sound palette of Ariadne auf Naxos. What’s it like to sing in such an expansive space?

KK For me and for Sam, it’s the first time we perform these roles. I don’t have experience with a full orchestra in this piece, I know only a bit and I know recordings from the past, but I think it’s a great experience to start with this orchestration, this not-so-big sound… but now the sound *is* really big because the orchestra is not in the pit but on the regular level. It’s a special experience, to take this sound, in a reduced form right now – like a child, we start with the small and then grow, and the role will be growing also, and in the next year hopefully it will be with the full orchestra.

SH I think it’s a great warm-up for when we do it with a full orchestra in the pit. Right now in an empty house the orchestra, already with its 36 to 40 instruments, is huge, because they’re placed on the orchestra level, so maestro and the team have come with ways to deaden the sound a bit, especially under the woodwinds and brass section, but with no one in house to absorb that sound and with our very boomy set, the sound is crazy. The Staatsoper is meant for bodies, for people to be there to absorb that sound and for the orchestra to be in the pit. But it’s a good compromise and a good way for us to warm up to these Strauss roles.

This being your first time doing these roles, how have your perceptions of them changed through rehearsals?

SH These are real people – the fact we’ve taken them out of this traditional Rococo style and thrown so much life and color into the characters, I think, means they’re very relatable and, I don’t want to say modernized, but a lot of the stuffiness is just gone, at least for Octavian.

KK For me it’s also really been freeing. I tried to find my own character in the (depiction of) Sophie. So in the normal life I am not like a “lady” – I can also be like a child, so I took this part of life onto the stage. In the old recordings, everything is really formal – “you must be like this” and you have rules (for the character’s portrayal) – we threw it all over and we can do, actually, everything. So we can be alive and and find ourselves in these roles.

Samantha Hankey, mezzo, Marlis Petersen, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance, Marschallin, Octavian, Mariandel, gender, curiosity, Christof Fischesser, bass

(L-R) Marlis Petersen as the Marschallin, Christof Fischesser as Baron Ochs, and Samantha Hankey as Octavian/Mariandel in the new Bayerische Staatsoper production of Der Rosenkavalier. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

That points ups something said in the recent video interview, that even with a fantasy element present, the emotions are nonetheless authentic. How do you find that in a role like Octavian?

SH There’s so much curiosity in the character. For instance, you’ll see in our production we do a very different Mariandel than what anyone’s prepared for, I think, and it’s really so much fun. Octavian is so in control, and he is so not afraid; he’s young, and very curious. I take a lot of inspiration (in characterization) from what’s going on in the current world, in terms of him being slightly androgynous, perhaps gender curious – there’s so much room within these roles to explore what’s in the libretto.

Samantha, you’ve sung Cherubino (from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro), which is also a famous trouser role. Do you see a connection?

SH No, I have to say; I think Octavian is very different to Cherubino.

People think of Mozart as a massage for the voice; I’m curious how Strauss has been for your voices through this era.

SH I spent the entire pandemic doing work personally – for myself, and in preparing to sing Octavian. That’s really all I did. Sometimes I see these questions put out there online – “What would you have done differently if you could go back to March 2020?” I’d do the exact same thing; I really prepared physically to get in shape for the stamina I knew I’d need for this, and put my heart and soul into the role and toward knowing everything I could about the music. I don’t feel like vocally it hasn’t gone well. But I kept hoping we’d get to the point of rehearsing this and put it onstage, and we’ve been very lucky to do that.

KK It’s a strange thing, when people in this pandemic era don’t use their time to develop the voice, to try something, to practise. So I work every time through this period, and I can say the same thing as Sam: I feel really fit, and I worked for this role. And I’ve done this CD recording (Liebende); I tried to do as much as possible, because in normal times I didn’t have so much time for other projects. Now I can practise every day when I want, with calm, and I can take a lot of time with things. And Rosenkavalier, it’s like a cherry on top of the cake, to be able to do this, to present our ideas and our voices in this production.

SH Of course there are times when the inspiration hasn’t been there, it would go on and off. Some days you don’t feel like singing, sometimes because of a gig that got cancelled, but really, for me, it was holding on to hope we’d get to February 1st and start rehearsing. I said to everyone in the room that very first day, “I’m just happy we’re here today.” With all the lockdowns and restrictions, you never know, so every day has been a gift we can go to work. The whole process of working with Barrie and Vladimir and the entire cast has been really inspiring, and creatively very restorative in the sense of wanting to work on other projects once this wraps up.

I would imagine being around each other has also been very good; as arts people it’s important to have the energy of others in a sensual, not solely virtual, way, and to have the knowledge you’re doing something new as well.

SH To be together and to create something so beautiful as this production has been special. As Barrie has said, art needs to be a reflection of the times – he also said something like, “I don’t want my productions shown after ten years” so as an artist, getting to create something new, it takes so much of the pressure off, because we can be ourselves, and be entirely present. We just take it one day at a time. As an American working in Germany I feel really fortunate, but for the majority of the pandemic I felt I shouldn’t’ be going in the opera house at all, that I’m really not an essential worker, but through rehearsing this piece, I felt like, “This feels important, this feels like it has meaning.”

Samantha Hankey, mezzo, Katharina Konradi, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, bed, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance

Katharina Konradi (L) and Samantha Hankey (R) in a scene from Barrie Kosky’s staging of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

I’d say you are an essential worker, at least to some of us. Lucas Debargue said recently how culture has suffered through the pandemic, but art and artists have (or will) become better.

SH I’d agree with that, but I also don’t think the arts were ever prepared for anything like this. You always think, “This is going to happen, it’s in the diary” and then for your whole world to be shattered… you don’t know if things are going to happen in the future at all. So again, I feel lucky working in Germany.

Helmut Deutsch and I discussed how perhaps the quality of listening has improved, how that’s a very valuable thing to have emerged from this era. 

KK For us, because of this situation… yes, but also, when just one listener is in the house, as a performer you’re so happy. In normal times, when the auditorium was full of people, it was just another normal performance for us, but now, with just one person, you are *so* happy to see him or her, and you have another sense entirely of what you are doing, and for whom you are doing it.

SH And audiences have been silenced as well.

Yes, but not all people have the quilt of culture woven into their lives in the same way…

SH That’s why opera becoming digital is important. Not everyone has the luxury, once this pandemic is over, to travel to see performances. I do think this time has provided a big step forward for the industry to get with the times and have more digital content.

KK I think there is another side of this digital thing. I’ve done a lot of concerts in this pandemic time, and every concert, or almost every one, was recorded, and sometimes you don’t feel like, “I’m a singer of the world” and sometimes you also don’t do a very great performance, and in this time all the performances are recorded, so it’s like, “Okay, I must concentrate / I must be here and now / I must do it perfectly”…

How much do you think that expectation of perfection and the related pressure highlights the nature of digital then?

SH It is a bit stressful going into the livestream knowing that there will be imperfections, because art is imperfect…

KK I will say, I am a bit nervous about the presentation of the rose scene and how it will be filmed…

SH Oh, I don’t think they’ll do an extreme close-up then… and really, you sing it so beautifully, Katharina. I do think the atmosphere we create in the theatre might not transfer to the filming; the sound we make in the theatre might not be beautiful in recorded form, even though it was or is good in the house it’s designed for. But again, I still think it’s a better alternative than nothing. And I think listeners also understand that and can try and see past it. That’s my hope.

Katharina Konradi, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, artist, performer, trampoline, jump, energy

Photo: Katharina Konradi

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Christian Immler: “Maybe This Is The Time For The Smaller Things To Become More Known”

Christian Immer, stage, opera, music, classical, performance

Christian Immler in Der Freischütz, 2019. Photo: Julien Benhamou

One of the many unexpected if oddly welcome  blossoms from the current lockdown era has been an increase in the quality of listening. The teenaged neighbours’ shouts at a bleepy-bloop video game, the burrrrrr of a truck engine outside the window, the whirl of a fan; all tangle with the sounds emanating through my speakers at various times throughout the day. Sometimes it’s a distraction, and sometimes such noises are mere counterpoint; my quality of listening has, in any case, deepened in a way I couldn’t have foreseen twelve months ago. I want to think I will keep this heightened listening as a new normal unfolds, but I am scared of what such a gift (is it that?) might entail; the thought of returning to a live forum is both exhilarating and frightening. It’s strange to contemplate such a transformation, since I am already what could be called a close listener, and as a result, I don’t – can’t – usually play “background music” in performing most tasks, because whatever is intended to act as “background” tends to become foreground very quickly. I’ve lost count of the knife wounds to fingers and hands as a result of listening while making dinner, for instance; cooking and classical is not always a wise mix. I was a musician long before I was a writer, after all, and my love of words and music only intensified through the direct experience of being onstage in both musical and theatrical capacities.

Such elements doubtlessly have fuelled my love of lieder, an art form which demands close listening, and one I’ve written about in the past. Made famous by Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and especially Schubert, the art of song asks something quite specific of its listeners: an understanding of the text, combined with an imagination recalling theatre, and an appreciation of the role of sound. Scansion becomes (arguably is a key part of) comprehension as much as actual dictionary definitions; the feel of words in the mouth and tonal resonance of sound in the chest render an inner truth in which the sensual and the spiritual might blend. It is impossible to simply “churn it out” with such an art form. Lieder is not about immediate thrill or satisfaction, thrilling though some of it can be; rather, it is a slow burn, a stew of words, sounds, rhythms, and resonances, delivered via the simple bowl of voice and (usually) piano. There is nowhere to hide with the art form; soloists are utterly exposed, and, I would argue, so are listeners. Such vulnerability is part of lieder’s appeal. Schubert’s famous song cycle Winterreise (1828) has enthralled (and frightened) many a soloist, and is considered by many as a “Mount Everest” of the art form. The work has enjoyed multiple recordings and inspired various iterations; a “composed interpretation” by Hans Zender (1936-2019) from 1993, for instance, has been complemented with a creative choreographed version by Christian Spuck at Ballet Zürich. Lieder can be elastic, but its requirement – close listening – is still very much extant. Tenor Ian Bostridge has written in relation to Zender’s recomposed Winterreise, which could well be applied to the entire art form, that it is “a work that offers us a conversation – and sometimes a confrontation – between the past and the present.”

Hans Gál, composer, music, classical, 20th century

Hans Gál. Photo: Berthold Bing, http://www.fotorevers.eu/de/ort/Wien/1502/ – Israel National Library, Schwadron collection, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17737088

That’s a notion wholly applicable to the work of Hans Gál (1890-1987), whose works are enjoying a deserved revival, with Hidden Treasure: Hans Gál’s unpublished Lieder (BIS Records) being part of this renewal. The album is a collection of 26 songs released this past January and featuring bass baritone Christian Immler and pianist Helmut Deutsch. Gál’s songwriting is itself a conversant with time and its passing, with touches of the past (Schumann and Brahms), the composer’s contemporary present (Zemlinsky, Strauss), and possible future (Stravinsky’s neoclassical compositions). Gál enjoyed great success as a composer in his native Austria and was awarded the Austrian Art Prize in 1915. His opera Die heilige Ente: ein Spiel mit Göttern und Menschen (The Sacred Duck: A Play With Gods And Men) was written in 1920-21 and premiered in Düsseldorf in 1923 under the baton of George Szell; it went on to enjoy productions in numerous German-language houses across Europe, and a special status as the first contemporary opera to be broadcast by Österreichischer Rundfunk (the Austrian broadcasting corporation). He became director of the Mainz Music Academy in 1929 on recommendations of both Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss. With the Nazi rise to power, however, Gál, as a Jewish artist, faced censure. Die beiden Klaas (Rich Claus, Poor Claus), his fourth opera, was to have been staged as a double premiere (in Hamburg and Dresden) in 1933, but the piece, like many others, was cancelled. (It was only performed in 1990, in an English translation by York Opera.) Gál fled Europe in 1938, travelling to the UK; in 1940 he was interned as an “enemy alien.” He later went on to teach at the University of Edinburgh, (1945-1965) and became a respected member of the Edinburgh music community. His output was considerable: two large cantatas with orchestra, four operas, four symphonies, four string quartets, numerous piano works, and an array of orchestral and vocal works. A chamber version of Die heilige Ente was presented by Oper Köln in 2007, and a full revival at Sophiensæle Berlin in 2012.

Various listenings of Gál’s works, symphonic and vocal, have been undertaken with a far greater degree of focus and concentration than could have been imaginable in February 2020. There is a far deeper appreciation of the interplay between words and sounds, an integration I suspect was purposeful on the composer’s part. As Christian Immler remarked to me recently, Gál had “first-rate taste” in his texts. The poems Gál set to music are both timely and timeless, and contain thematic elements which hold a dualistic tension between the desire for solitude and the need for community, between the pain of isolation and the pain of congregation. In a recent article for Gramophone, Immler outlined Gál’s connection with text and describes the feeling of learning music which hasn’t been heard for over a century as “a powerful combination of curiosity, pioneer spirit and obligation. One is indeed living history!” Immler is himself a highly accomplished singer and soloist, known for his Baroque work as much as for his explorations of early 20th century repertoire. A member of the famed Tölzer Knabenchor (boys choir) in youth, Immler has worked in an array of classical idioms, including oratorio, opera, and lieder, singing the work of Monteverdi, Handel, Rameau, Steffani, Graupner, Weber, Mozart, Zemlinsky, and most especially Bach (the Passions are something of a specialty). He has worked with an array of conductors as well, including René Jacobs, William Christie, Raphaël Pichon, Marc Minkowski, Ivor Bolton, Masaaki Suzuki, Philippe Herreweghe, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the latter of whom he speaks about in glowing terms as part of our exchange, below.

In 2003 Immler was part of Continental Britons: The Émigré Composers (Nimbus Records), a collection of works from Jewish composers forced to flee Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. With pianist and Professor Erik Levi, Immler performed Hans Gál’s Fünf Melodien (Five Songs) for middle voice and piano, 1917-1921), Op.33, a collection which, at the time, was believed to be the composer’s only known lieder work. The cycle was recorded again for the 2011 album Modern Times (Cavi Music), featuring Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Similar to Émigré, Modern Times features the work of composers labelled “entartete” (“degenerate”) by the Nazis. It was this album which first caught my attention roughly a year ago, for its breadth of inspiring content as much as the palpable chemistry between its performers. The music (of Korngold, Eisler, Grosz, Goldschmidt, Schreker, Zemlinsky, and Gál’s collection of five songs) is performed with deep sensitivity and that unique feeling for text joined with sound; it’s as if Immler and Deutsch are reading one another’s thoughts – not “breathing together,” mind you, but with distinct visions and voices, in an energetic comprehension at once imaginative and intellectual.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Helmut Deutsch and Christian Immler. Photo: Marcus Boman

(That “breathing as one” phrase is one, by the way, Deutsch himself writes about in his lately-released memoirs, published in English through Kahn & Averill; my interview with Helmut, about his memoirs, about Gál and working with Immler, and about much else, is coming soon. Stay tuned.)

Hidden Treasure came about through a meeting with Eva Fox-Gál, the composer’s daughter, after a live concert years ago, at which time Immler and Deutsch were made aware of the existence of the collection. Immler recalls her hesitancy to grant permission for the recording of the unpublished songs, the feeling being that her father never intended for them to be heard in public. The singer, together with Deutsch, made a recording in the pianist’s own living room of a selection of the unpublished works and sent them to her. This initiative, combined with the composer’s rising prominence in other recordings and media (including those by conductor Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra and Royal Northern Sinfonia; Gál was also BBC Radio 3’s Composer Of The Week in 2014) convinced the family that, as Immler put it, the Lieder would be properly contextualized within the composer’s larger compositional oeuvre. The 26 songs featured on Hidden Treasure were written between 1910 and 1921, with the album including the Op.33 song cycle. The poetry of Heinrich Heine, Herman Hesse, Christian Morgenstern, Rabindranath Tagore, Richard Dehmel, Hans Bethge, Walther von der Vogelweide is given shining prominence here; already possessing a thoughtful musicality, Immler’s textual and vocal flexibility highlights his own deep listening, to both the music enveloping those words and to Deutsch’s virtuosic playing. The artists have worked to create a beautiful album, one to be slowly savoured over repeated instances, aided by the heightened listening skills the pandemic era has mysteriously (or not) endowed.

My chat with Christian Immler began by discussing writing and discovery,  and moved on to possibilities for our very own “modern times”, and if he feels like an ambassador for the music of Hans Gál.

score, Hans Gál, original, music, lieder, song, handwriting

A portion of the original score of “Lady Rosa” by Hans Gál. Photo courtesy of Christian Immler, private collection.

The lockdown seems to have provided a perfect listening opportunity for Gál’s work, and for the work on the album more specifically.

People have more time now, and I think they finally said, “Okay I have to sort my stamp collection, I have this to do and that, now I really have to sit down and understand what the opening theme in this Beethoven means” – and if not now, then when? People start to listen in new ways. My wife is also a musician and pianist, she’s’ very much into storytelling, and there are a lot of evenings she’ll just listen to various broadcasts– my mother would do and grandmother as well; they would sit and just listen.

That form of deep listening is certainly required for this collection. Is it true this album grew out of your live experience?

 My very first experience of Gál’s music was of his Opus 33 collection; I did them with Erik Levi, who is kind of the authority – he is a dear friend, extremely knowledgeable, he’s also Visiting Professor in Music at Royal Holloway College. That performance was at Wigmore Hall (in 2002). The one with Helmut Deutsch was at King’s Place (in 2010), a beautiful hall in London, and then after that, we put part of the Gál songs onto Modern Times. But Helmut and I met Eva Fox-Gál, the daughter of Hans Gál; we went to her house in York and looked through a lot of manuscripts and had a visit – there’s a beautiful garden, I remember that well. Gál’s original piano isn’t there, it is with his grandson Simon, who recorded (Hidden Treasure), but there, in the collection, are songs which might be more for a woman, it’s difficult to say, not because it talks about a woman, but in terms of style. And what was a bit difficult was finding enough variety, because also they’re quite slow songs, darkish songs, slightly melancholic songs. We were happy to find things which moved along to lighten the mood. I had a certain order in mind as I do this with all my recitals.

That’s what you did here? Ordered them as you would a recital?

That’s what we did here, but I wanted “Lady Rosa” as the opener. First of all I *love* the name, it’s just wonderful,”Lady Rosa” – you want to just say it out loud! – and this song, it sounds so simple but it has… you, the singer, must keep in this very specific way, and with the piano in rhythmic proportion; the (vocal line and instrumental line) are not *quite* coming together. It’s a wonderful song and that had to be the first one, I insisted, but other than that, we played around. We left the huge stuff to the very end, which in some recording sessions is risky.

Christian Immler, opera, singer, performer, artist, vocal, classical

Christian Immler
Photo: Marco Borggreve

That choice implies a clear narrative line. The selection of poetry is notable – for instance, the Morgenstern works are a nice microcosm of the album’s themes of dark and light. And you have a style which elucidates the text really well.

Gál had a first-rate taste in texts! That is unlike some very well known composers, I’d say, who had a very mixed success rate in doing so – just think of Brahms. I love some of his work, but some of the texts are a bit… hmmmm…. ! But with Gál, his daughter told me a few things, like for instance he helped with editing some Schubert and Brahms works with his friend and mentor, Eusebius Mandyczewski (1857-1929), who himself was a friend of Brahms. (Mandyczewski and Gál co-edited Brahms’ complete works in the early part of the 20th century.)

Now, if you transcribe stuff in front of you and you can read music, then that music is absorbed by the system of the body, and at such a young age when everything goes in like a sponge… well. I was astonished the manuscripts are super-neatly written. Remember a lot of these songs were written during war-time, so 1917 or so, and he had bursts of energy like Hugo Wolf or Robert Schumann, where he would write five songs in five days – which doesn’t sound like much, but he was a soldier then, and I find such an activity within this context highly fascinating. Those manuscripts are super-neatly written; he must’ve been a very disciplined person, and had huge integrity as a writer. I put the question to Eva, if he was ever interested in the risqué poems, like those by Richard Dehmel written twelve years earlier, which Schoenberg had set to music (Verklärte Nacht) which talks about premarital sex and two people walking alone in the night. Eva said her father was never interested in second-guessing; his audience should always know how to receive something. He didn’t want to create ambiguity…

… which is unique, considering how many of his fellow contemporary composers were. He really went against the grain. 

Well according to his contemporaries. he was very disciplined, he was a really hard worker, he had a kind of ironic sense of humour which might’ve endeared him to (the work of) Heinrich Heine, but he was quite a serious person, and could play anything by heart. You can see it in the photos; his is not a face who is up for a lot of extramarital craziness, for instance, but is very dedicated to his work – and so I think this direct writing style was enough for him. He wanted to stay true to himself and I don’t think he was… you know, there were people who were constantly on the lookout in terms of, “How can I make this more lush? Or make this even more tonally modern modern?” Gál  never went into twelve-tone music, for instance…

… which is also notable.

Yes. And with some songs (by other composers), you think, “Well, what shall I do here? Do I need to do a bit of magic here if I don’t want to put the pedal down?” And that’s not the case here (on Hidden Treasure) at all. It’s direct.

Gál’s’s music is direct and creative at once.

Yes! The harmonic changes for example, in “Vöglein Schwermut”, whoah! We performed it several times onstage and you can hear a pin drop at the end. In the concert hall there is just silence at this moment! (Gál’s writing) goes up in the piano, and when Helmut plays it, you hold your breath, literally! I’m so, so grateful for this collaboration – Helmut and I are good friends, and when I asked him first if he was interested in doing a recital I expected, you know, “Let me get back to you” but he said, “Sure, why not?” He deals with what’s in front of him and is an excellent sight-reader – I have so many scores of music here at home which at one point when I can travel again, we‘ll look through in Vienna. Luckily he’s very interested in Gál’s music – he loves doing it, and of course he loves Winterreise, but if you’ve played it five hundred, or I don’t know, a thousand times now like he has – it’s like for me and St. Matthew Passion: I love it, but if anything else comes along, that’s where my energy would go at this moment.

I wonder if the things Bach gives a singer might help with performing early 20th century music; do you think your Baroque experience helped you with Gál?

Yes and no. What certainly helped me which I will always be grateful for, is the discipline you learn in a boys’ choir – I was in the Tölzer Knabenchor, and it was there I got to know (Nikolaus) Harnoncourt, when I was nearly eleven years old. You have to get used to traveling at a very very early age and just to deliver something in the evening, nobody’s interested in your personal little worries or whatever; you learn the trade if you do it early, and by simply being there, you absorb a lot. I think that experience was helpful to learning Gál. Now, if you are in the vicinity of someone like Harnoncourt, who had this total dedication to what’s in front of him, even better. I did a St. Matthew Passion with him years later as an adult; this was a few years before he passed away. So it went full circle! I couldn’t sleep for two days afterwards, I had so much adrenaline – we did it in the Musikverein where we rehearsed. Sometimes I had to pinch myself it was really happening.

But the discipline one learns was useful, and without wanting to sound kind of arrogant… well, it’s very difficult to teach how to phrase, or how to conduct a phrase. You can show it to somebody but ultimately it has to be felt, and understood, and conceptualized, but *not* on an intellectual level. And for instance, Harnoncourt combined this enormously intellectual approach – he knew everything and would discuss everything with everybody, not a big deal – with such a level of understanding. Onstage he was 100% a musician. He knew about that sort of Baroque phrasing, where you go somewhere and come away, I think, with this sort of sensuality for phrasing, so for any vocal repertoire, especially that of Gál, it really struck me (in recording the album) that I never had to help the vocal line; it has a natural flow. It *can* be challenging in that it leads you up and you think, “Oh, I need to work!” but it always makes sense. And having Helmut is like having a carpet under you anyway. He and I didn’t actually talk about interpreting when we rehearsed these songs – we don’t really talk about it anyway, but *especially* for this. There was just one song where we had totally different tempos in mind, but that was the only thing, the only time. Gál, certainly, had the experience (in vocal writing), he had good training with a cappella ensembles wherever he was, in Vienna and in the UK; he was looking for an older idiom and he found it. In things he wrote in 1917 you can totally hear, in some of the songs, the actual piano part becoming an extended orchestral section, and when you hear this, as a singer, you know you really need to go for it then.

Did you ever feel Helmut were sonically competing at points? There are times when things don’t resolve the way we’re expecting as listeners, and it’s almost like vocals and piano are at tension.

I can confirm onstage, in the recitals I did with Helmut, there’s always an edge to him and he always makes noise when he plays – you can hear it on the recording too, he kind of does this “mmmnnnmmm” – like, “Helmut, shhh!!” But onstage, he is really negotiating and renegotiating the percussive element of the piano. He is a master in that and I simply do not want to play with pianists anymore who play works just as-is. The piano is a percussive instrument through which you can only create the illusion of line, and Helmut knows this; he sings all the time, he has this kind of forward approach, for which I’m grateful. We did Korngold (works) together, and (those of) Zemlinsky also, and if you start to become free floating in space, and take rubati whenever you want… no, it needs to come to a time from which you steal, rubato, you steal it *from* something, which is an orderly arrangement. But if you create something which is a space-floating thing, no rhythm or tempo at all, you lose out, and Helmut is breathing with this understanding; he doesn’t pull the entire structure apart. You *know* where to breathe. But it’s challenge to be onstage with him! I will not deny, he will never play against you – he always has a big ear and can adjust if you run out of breath – but he won’t make life easy. He keeps ploughing forwards, and so do I, and of course that’s when the energy comes.

Hans Gál, music, classical, lieder, album, Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, voice, piano, 20th centuryThat’s what this music demands – and the light/dark dualism of these songs has a corollary in the isolation/community themes which seem particularly meaningful right now.

It’s very much of its time 100 years ago. I’m not big into the “Oh, this was written as an omen!” way of thinking, but I do think often about that time and what it means for our days. We had a good time until this tragic Covid hit; things were working, although it was a bit *too* fast, the pace, for me. I’m a workaholic also, and of course now that tendency totally crashed and… you know, you have to rearrange yourself, and then you think, “How can I be of use? For my family? For what?!”

“How can I be of service?”

In a way… yes. I find this time super super-interesting, and in fact I’ve never before had enough time to pursue it but now, I’m writing my Doctorate about the the song landscape between the two Wars, the interbellum times. There is so much repertoire which Helmut and I have discovered and will play through, but right now I can do a lot from home, and it keeps me busy. Maybe this is the time for the smaller things to become more known.

I recently wrote a formal feature about reductions and am considering doing something more about how this time might or might not change the nature of listening and live experience. Small is not ideal of course but it isn’t necessarily bad either!

You should do it! I mean, I find Schoenberg’s rearrangements of the Song Cycles of Mahler to be somewhat more interesting, and more to the point – they are just fantastic. I’m working with another pianist as well, and we are thinking about doing Korngold and Zemlinsky songs for a small ensemble – I have no idea why nobody’s done it. For some of these songs it can take up to two minutes before you as a singer even open your mouth, they are *that* orchestral – and yes, you can do it in this reduced way.

But that means audiences have to readjust expectations, too, and organization need to be open to taking that risk in their programming.

It doesn’t take long to re-train the ears but it takes a few times (of doing experimental things) to get people in. And there’s a limit to doing reductions, in my opinion; some things make sense, others maybe not. But the time right now is ripe for experimenting; Schubert songs, of course, have been orchestrated by the best, but for a smaller ensemble there is something still, I think, to be done, and to bring it onstage in a more thematic way. I’m just dreaming here…

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

… and now is the time to do that, is it not? I feel like there’s a place for Gál’s music amidst all of this. Do you and Helmut feel like ambassadors?

We are! And we didn’t become ambassadors because we had nothing else to do! It happens to be the case that both of us are interested in it but we don’t have to record things which have mediocre quality which makes it much easier. Helmut and I have a little rating system which, independently, we use when we go through things; you have to be a bit careful as sometimes you miss the essence of a song the first time round. A lot of Gál’s stuff is in Vienna, at the exil.arte Centre For Banned Music – things are literally just sitting in boxes there. Helmut is already in Vienna, so one day he and I went and looked through the archive of Gál’s music. I know he’s not so keen about going into twelve-tone music, but there’s great stuff, and what I want to say is, with this experimentation, I want to do more CDs in this direction, first to take one slight step back and do things by Theodor Streicher (1874-1940; awarded the Großer Österreichischer Staatspreis in 1936) – who is a little bit like Hugo Wolf gone a bit crazy! – and then the work of Gál, which we did already, but then go one step further as well, into more tonally daring composers like Ernst Toch (1887-1964; awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1956 and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1958). The list of composers yet to explore is endless.

So you’re an ambassador, not only for Gál but for the many composers like him.

I would think so! Helmut also has time, but we’re not allowed to travel right now, but when we are, we will hopefully plan for this – and more.

“There Are A Lot Of Wagners”: A Chat With Authors Mark Berry And Nicholas Vazsonyi

Arthur Rackham, art, illustration, Das Rheingold, Ring, Wagner, opera, drama, music

Illustration for a scene from Das Rheingold, the first opera of Der Ring des Nibelung. Art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from “Siegfried And The Twilight Of The Gods”, trans. Margaret Armour (William Heinemann, 1911)

As the first anniversary of the coronavirus lockdown draws nearer, thoughts turn to sounds, people, and performance, to that which has yet to be seen, yet to be saved to memory, yet to be savoured (one hopes) and shared with others. It’s interesting if somewhat frustrating to also consider, in light of varying restrictions across countries and continents, what stagings are, in fact, happening, which ones might still happen, when, where, and to consider how they might be presented, in both theatrical and sonic ways. What is “familiar” anymore? In light of the huge amount of streaming happening at the moment, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how reception and consumption of the live experience, within both virtual and live realms, will have changed as theatres slowly reopen and we are allowed to be together once more. How might one’s relationship with certain pieces of music, and their related performance(s), have transformed through these past months (/ year)? How much have perceptions of music both familiar and not changed? What elements of scoring, vocal writing, instrumentation, interpretation will come to the fore, and which ones might have faded? Will our critical faculties have sharpened, or will they be silenced in a tidal wave of gratitude? Will the wave be quite so big if the sound is slightly (or noticeably) smaller, rearranged, or (that hackneyed word) reimagined? A written feature on reduction and rearrangement which I wrote recently for a magazine broadened the scope of such meditations and opened doors to deeper ones (i.e. the ways in which we receive and experience sound in various spaces; expectations and planned versus planned ecstasies; the way cultural experience is irrevocably altered amidst the breathing, spluttering reality of presences). The possibilities for exploration are tremendous, and very timely – so, more on that in future posts, hopefully.

Wagner, composer, German, opera

Richard Wagner, (1871, photo etching by Franz Hanfstaengl)

Suffice to say few creative and compositional outputs better capture such considerations than those of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), whose dense orchestrations and innovations, combined with a philosophical-musical ethos and notion of Gestamtkunstwerk force such questions. Such are the contradictions of Wagner’s works, life, and character, that these philosophical meanderings tend to produce more questions than they answer, and tend to awkwardly if accurately mirror back the contradictory nature of our own times. There is, unsurprisingly, a cosmos of literature on Wagner, and everything relating to him. The work and the person who wrote them can be fiendishly, ferociously inseparable; artist, man, and music have been analyzed, explored, discussed, debated, framed, reframed, deconstructed, recontextualized, and reconsidered. The contradictions and controversies of his character, combined with the dense layers within his creative output, which mingle with the philosophies of Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Bakunin, Nietzsche, and Buddhism, have haunted generations of musicians and scholars. Alex Ross, music writer at The New Yorker, wrote in his latest book, Wagnerism (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2020), that Wagner’s work was, for the Nazi regime, “the chief cultural ornament of the most destructive political regime in history” – an inarguable fact. Yet Giuseppe Verdi, born the same year as Wagner, said of Tristan und Isolde (composed 1857-59; premiered 1865) said he stood in “wonder and terror” before it, that he could never quite grasp the fact that it had been created by a mere human being – this from a composer who was not a fan of either the man or his music – and yet… and yet. Within such contradictions sits an ever-shifting portrait, one that will never be finished, never be suitable for framing, and never hang quite perfectly. Those who love the work of Wagner love it, and the same can be said of those who don’t; their vehemence is equally strong. It’s difficult to be neutral, just as it is difficult to be unconflicted; how can the man who wrote such beautiful things (like Tristan) have also written such hateful things (the hideous essay Das Judenthum in der Musik, or Jewishness in Music, published in 1850)? There is, perhaps, no real solution, and we are left with ever-shifting thoughts and ideas on the music, which shifts and alters, like waves of the Rhine, according to experience, education, exposure, and individual explorations within and outside of culture.

Arthur Rackham, illustration, Wagner, Brünnhilde, Grane, horse, flames, opera, Ring, music, drama, art, Götterdämmerung

Brünnhilde rides Grane into the funeral pyre at the close of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in Der Ring des Nibelungs. Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from “Siegfried And The Twilight Of The Gods”, trans. Margaret Armour (William Heinemann, 1911)

Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, or The Ring), written between 1848 and 1874, is, specifically, a cycle of four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung) but more broadly of  course, is one of the most famous pieces in the opera world, requiring large forces to explore epic and intimate (if ever-applicable) themes of greed, power, love, betrayal, family, forgiveness, transformation, and much, more more. Record producer John Culshaw, who was behind the very first full recording of The Ring (in 1958, for Decca) wrote in Reflections on Wagner’s Ring (Secker and Warburg, 1976) that its enduring popularity and central position within the opera world (to say nothing of the position it holds within the hearts of many opera fans) is that “it is about each one of us, and all of us. It is about humanity, and that is why it is important.” That line comes off like a bit of ad copy in our cynical age, and yet the sheer volume of material inspired by the work, the energy expended by countless artists, scholars, educators, thinkers, fans, detractors, hints at the great river of human experience with which Wagner himself so vividly paints in sounds, one which still carries so very many. Numerous planned versions of the famed tetralogy set for 2021 had to be shelved, among them an in-concert version (two complete cycles) by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring a stellar cast (which would have included Matthew Rose and Brindley Sherratt), and a highly anticipated production by director Valentin Schwartz for the Bayreuth Festival, which, this summer, is planning a scaled-back version of its usual giant self, like so many other festivals and institutions. In the meantime, there are streams, and there are words, and though they are not, in any way, substitutes, they do provide a modicum of relief to the thirsty Wagnerians keen to drink from the sonic swell. Various facets of The Ring (musical, theatrical, theoretical, mythological, mystical, etc) are explored through thousands of different works and scholarship. Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus made a very prescient observation in his famous 1971 work, Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas (Cambridge, trans. Mary Whittall):

Over and all around the simplicity of the myth, and the vigour and sometimes violence of the stage action, there lies a musical commentary, a texture woven from many motives, the most outstanding characteristic of which is precisely that complexity of thought and reflection […] The listener needs to be able to distinguish the musical motives, the ’emotional signposts along the drama’s way’, as Wagner called them, to recognize them when they recur, and to keep track of them as their relationships and functions change, if the music is not to roll on as the ‘torrent’ that the classicists among its denigrators have called it. It is only after reflection, and the suspension of reflection, that an emotion arises together with a power of musical observation that is more than aural gawping.

That “aural gawping” is such a deliciously tempting activity to engage in amidst the drudgery of lockdown; what’s wrong with a gawp now and again, really? Nothing I suppose, but if that’s all your after, you might be missing a thing or two, and that’s a pity; one’s experience of something as wide-reaching as The Ring might be most rewarding when it is just that – wide-reaching – and shot through with the kind of exploratory spirit with which the composer himself applied to its creation.

book, Wagner, opera, The Ring, Cambridge, Mark Berry, Nicholas VazsonyiThe Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (Cambridge University Press, 2020), released late last year, is an insightful, highly readable collection of essays edited by Mark Berry and Nicholas Vazsonyi, two distinguished Wagner scholars and dedicated Wagner fans, which explores the tetralogy from a variety of illuminating and diverse angles. With related printed music sections, the book is divided into smart sections (Myth, Aesthetics, Interpretations, Impact) which offer solid musicological analyses which integrate composer anecdotes and quotes, cultural reference points, and contextual history. Its editors also provide thoughtful explorations and an array of viewpoints. Co-editor Mark Berry is Reader in Music History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has authored a number of books on music, including After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from “Parsifal” to Nono (Boydell Press, 2014) and a biography of Arnold Schoenberg (Reaktion, 2019); he is the Recipient of two music prizes (the Prince Consort and the Seeley Medal, for his work on Wagner) and keeps an excellent, music-focused website. Nicholas is Dean of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, and Professor of German at Clemson University in South Carolina. He has authored works on Goethe and Wagner, and acted as editor of Wagner’s Meistersinger (University of Rochester Press, 2003) and The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (Cambridge University Press, 2013). On a recent wintery day, with Mark in the United Kingdom and Nicholas in South Carolina, we discussed both the book (and its creation), as well as just a few of the great many issues in and around Wagner, and just how and where his music and the challenges of our Covid era might intersect. We began by discussing how work is used as a kind of “escape” route from family, which led to ideaas on escapism particularly applied to the works of Richard Wagner.

The notion of escapism keeps popping up in various recent exchanges; people are desperate for it in some form. That notion is especially active in online opera groups, with some input revealing some clear continental divisions of the “role” opera should have right now. In your book, Anthony Arblaster writes in his essay (“The Ring as a Political and Philosophical Drama”) that Wagner “never intended that his music dramas should be mere entertainment”– how much can the idea of escapism be applied, or should it?

Mark: I suppose, quite apart from any normative end to it, I agree with Wagner on that – it’s a peculiar choice of what you want to sustain. People can escape into anything if they so wish, but it would seem there would be better choices! I can’t quite see what one would be escaping from, some ghastly Lord Of The Rings style perhaps. I know lots of people like it but I can’t stand it, it’s something that doesn’t seem to have any real association with anything in and of itself. Perhaps they like watching people wear strange helmets and such, but it really doesn’t seem to be what Wagner is about. And I’m sure there is some element of geographical distinction in that respect. I don’t think it’s so crude as saying, “One side of the Atlantic thinks this; the other side thinks that” and presumably this country (the UK) is floating in the middle, but I guess there are differences in theatrical understanding, certainly with German theatre, in not just musical theatre but in an operatic sense. More generally, I’m not convinced that I’m capable of going to the theatre and just relaxing, and doing it in a noncritical way. Obviously I’m not going to the theatre at all at the moment…

Nicholas: I think it’s great how Mark and I work so well together and yet we see the world differently, yet it all works somehow. What I would say is, and this is not disagreeing with him at all, but to approach it differently, is to say there are so many layers to Wagner. It’s layer on layer on layer, and one of the things – it’s Wagner’s fault, he did have guys there in helmets and breastplates – is that on a surface level you really can just approach Wagner that way, if that’s what you are looking for. One of the classical examples of Lohengrin is set in an historical period; generations of Wagner scholars have nothing better to talk about than the MIddle Ages and Christianity and that, and Wagner clearly says, Lohengrin is about the modern artist, it’s about the journey for the artist! Peel away a couple layers of the opera, and that’s what he’s talking about: the displacement of the artists in modern society. It doesn’t look like that at all if you read the text as-is, but it also requires a certain kind of approach and a certain kind of work, to not just accept that surface layer. I think that’s what stage directors have been doing for twenty, thirty years now, not accept that level, and try to present to us different ways of approaching the incredible depth of these stage dramas he has created.

Barry MIllington’s essay  (“Notable Productions”) is really helpful in this respect, having been raised to the Otto Schenk vision of Wagner but not being a great fan of it. Learning about different presentations highlights the layers you mention, Nicholas, but also points up the heightened reality of Wagner’s writing, which seems spiritual in nature. It’s one that feels quite relevant to now…

Nicholas: The Ring is always for now…

… but most especially right now, at this time in history…

Nicholas: Well, what I would say – I don’t want to completely get rid of Otto Schenk, though Mark will now disown the friendship! – but I came to opera when I was ten, eleven, twelve years of age, I didn’t see a staging until I was twelve, and I’m not sure I would’ve been ready to see Chereau’s staging then, as a twelve-year-old. One of the problems in the opera world is that the audiences are getting older and older, and certainly I don’t want Schenk now but actually, it’s the Schenkian approach to staging I think I probably needed in my early teens in order to have that gateway into the works, and it kept me coming back for more. I needed and wanted more and when I was ready I got it. I remember the shock of seeing The Magic Flute with Ruth Berghaus’s staging (Oper Frankfurt, 1980), and it was not all the Flute I imagined! I was ready for it – by that time I was in my late teens and I’d spent almost ten years with opera thinking about it – so I was ready for that, it was unbelievable to me, the turning-on-its-head of the Flute I thought I knew, and that wasn’t the most extreme I’ve seen subsequently. It’s another opera that has all these layers which, if you dig, are there for unpacking – but there’s that escapist layer that is perfectly okay for many, many people.

Mark: I suppose one thing I’d say, and I think that’s all fair enough as I do with whatever Nicholas says, is… I’m not entirely convinced that Wagner is really for children in the first place. Not that I wish to ban them from going, but maybe there are some things in The Ring, or Lohengrin, or… I mean, I can’t see much for children in Tannhäuser either, but then again, I don’t know, maybe they like it! And there’s nothing wrong all that but I do think there’s a danger in that something like Schenk or whatever, might be presented as somehow without interpretation, as though it is somehow actually a sort of literal working to a recipe that Wagner presents, when it is actually a transformation of something into something else, a Disneyfication, and that is *not* neutral.

It’s not the “neutral” or somehow “pure Wagner” presentation some may perceive it to be.

Mark: One might say, “Well lots of children like to watch Disney, therefore it’s a good idea” – I don’t know, but I’m not convinced. I came to these things through listening to them, following the libretto in translation, either with the CD or with a score, and I knew the things I heard and read produced images in my head which were pretty much literally according to what I saw in the stage directions. I was a teenager then, and I suppose different people come in different ways; people will come from a theatre background who will be perfectly conversant with contemporary theatre, and may have a tendency to actually see the absurdity of a “traditional” production or whatever one wants to call it. If opera is just people sitting around in helmets shouting at each other, it may or may not be for people who are coming at it from elsewhere.

… and that notion of “elsewhere” matters! Every year I play my students bits of classical music; one of those pieces is Peter And The Wolf. In the seven years I’ve been teaching this course, three students had heard of it – that’s three out of hundreds. Many like them will be “coming from elsewhere” to The Ring and it’s nice to read your acknowledgements about feeling daunted  as a newcomer, but to also “try and see it performed. Even bad productions and performances will contribute to your understanding of the work.”

Mark: That (live) experience is important, but of course it’s quite at odds with how I came to it! I guess it’s only how I would do it now. I’ve changed partly because I’ve had the chance now, which I didn’t have when I was younger, to go to a lot of theatre and concerts. I started out at home listening to something.

Nicholas: That’s also how I came to opera, at home, listening and following the score, but I speak for both Mark and myself when I say that that is not normal…

Mark: No, it isn’t!

Nicholas: the other thing is, access –  we say, “go see if you can” but it’s easier said than done. Unless you are sitting in a major world capital or living in Bayreuth or nearby, it’s a challenge, to get to The Ring in any case, and opera in general is not cheap; unless you’re in a metropolis there’s very little opera to see.

Mark: … but in Germany, in general, to be fair, you don’t have to be (to see live presentations).

The essays in your book are organized in a very good way, for both newcomers and experienced fans; how did you decide on the chapters and why?

Mark: Well really, you don’t want to know how a sausage is made!

Yes I do!

Nicholas: It felt like a very organic process, what we were doing; we’d been relegated to Zoom and Skype because we were only rarely in the same place at same time, but we developed it. I would be hard-pressed to recall whose idea was what.

Mark: I think probably to be fair, Nicholas actually came up with more of the initial suggestions than I did, and we discussed them, but I think Nicholas had some conception of an overall plan which we then worked on. There were things we might’ve loved to include, things which, in the end, didn’t quite work out for whatever reason; there’s always going to be that element, particularly in something such as this. Frankly we could’ve made twice the length if we’ve been able to, it wouldn’t have been difficult to come up with twice as many chapters – but looking back it seems quite an organic thing.

Nicholas: The other issue of course is that although we have a concept of how each chapter would be, that’s not necessarily what was delivered. That was a tough thing for us: do we just let the authors have their way, so to speak, even if it’s taking the book in a slightly different direction? Or do we want to exercise our editorial power to interfere with that process? Or do we want to mould the article for the chapter? We had examples of all of these, and the authors responded in kind to our interventions. Not all of it was clean and fun – some of it was a little bit messy – but I’m very glad you like the results.

It’s incredibly illuminating and I really appreciate, as someone whose music studies are ever-evolving, the clarity and variety of both voices and subject matter here.

Nicholas: It was very important, in the process of development, that certain things be covered one way or the other, but first of all to have things written in such a way that it would not be excluding a possible audience. I think that’s a problem with a lot of academic writing, people can be exclusionary, and very elitist, in the worst possible way.

Yes, some music writing I’ve come across has felt highly exclusionary! I don’t find the writing of Alex Ross to be so, but it can be dense; Wagnerism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) was released at roughly the same time as your book, and I found it challenging to engage with certain sections which felt steeped in the specificity of American culture and American cultural figures – that’s not a criticism so much as a reflection of my ignorance, probably.

Nicholas: I think Alex Ross had a very different vision from our book, and it’s encyclopaedic in its own way; it has all the strengths and weaknesses of an encyclopaedia. It is a great book, though.

It is! I found it tough-going though educational.

Mark: Exactly – I learned a great deal from it too, not only in connection to Wagner, but to figures I didn’t know of at all. Alex is doing a different thing and he writes from a different standpoint, which for me and Nicholas, as we were saying, well… everybody is coming at this from different ways. The Rest Is Noise (Picador, 2008), for instance, is a history of 20th-century music which I think is written from very much an American standpoint, and this side of the Atlantic one notices that more than if one were on the other side, yes. But I’m sure the same could be said of what I’m doing or anybody else, none of us is without a past, none of us is Parsifal or some hero coming out of nowhere.

Wagner, composer, German, opera

Richard Wagner in Paris, 1867.

That whole sense of writing from nowhere doesn’t really exist, and most especially not with someone like Wagner; I appreciate you tackling that from the outset. Was it intentional?

Nicholas: I think, in my section in the introduction, that comes from personal experience, in talking to educated people who know nothing about Wagner but think they do know something – these conversations with educated people who thought Wagner was alive during the time of the Third Reich, for instance, were shocked to learn that he was not alive in the 20th century, and so that’s why I just wanted to list all these things right at the beginning and tackle them head-on, not that you can really deal with them – and especially the antisemitism issue, with any degree of resolution.

Mark: I think the only problem I have with that sort of thing is when, if the antisemitism – like racism more generally, on these sort of critical studies – if one isn’t careful, it becomes a way of closing things off rather than opening things up. Clearly these are issues that want to be discussed and demand to be discussed, in particular moments; in the wake of the Third Reich how can one not actually want to look at what has opened up here? But the problem is, there’s a sort of childishness at the moment, i.e., one sees something programmed and then says, “That’s racist, take that off!” – well, that doesn’t seem a remotely helpful thing to do. I mean, what isn’t racist in a racist society, ultimately?

That is a pertinent issue to many festivals right now; I saw something an exchange online about Glyndebourne recently in this vein… 

Nicholas: I’ve been there once, and it’s unbelievable to see the remnants of the British Empire on full display, the picnics and the way they dress…

Mark: I think it’s a bit more the local golf club thinking they are fancy, though; I think these people are not what they think they are, necessarily!

Is that not sentimentality though? That sentimentality for a highly edited version of the past to make oneself more comfortable in one’s present time, country, situation? My issue as it relates to Wagner is that such sentimentality really works against his the actual nature of his output. 

Nicholas: I agree but… the potential to read nationalism into Wagner is not a complicated step to take. Even if that’s not “my” Wagner…  but you know, there is also lots of peoples’ Wagners, I think that’s the point Alex Ross is trying to make – in a lot of words! – and one which is very true, is that there are a lot of Wagners, and have always been, since the time of Wagner himself. He turns up in the most unlikely places, and functions, or represents, something for people very different ways, depending on where they are coming from. At the beginning of this chat with relation to escapism vs genuine interaction with Wagner, I’m not sure there is any such thing. To go back to me as a twelve-year-old, when I heard the First Act of Walküre on a recording I had no idea what I was hearing, I didn’t know the story, didn’t know about incest or any of it, all I can tell you is, I said to myself, “What is this music?! I can’t get enough of it!” I was just swept away by this flow. It was an uninterrupted hour of unprecedented – that’s the word of the year isn’t it? – an unprecedented hour of music and drama.

Castorf, Ring, Wagner, opera, staging, theatre, music, drama

Iain Paterson as Wotan and Nadine Weissmann as Erda in Frank Castorf’s 2014 production of Das Rheingold at Bayreuth. Photo: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele

Mark: This compartmentalization, not just of Wagner but of cultural life in general, is undesirable. A lot of directors are bound up with how a lot of people receive culture, and now, everything now is on the internet – people go search for whatever on Youtube, they don’t necessarily buy a CD with surprising things on it they can listen to and be surprised by. I think to a certain extent we all tend to go to things we think we’ll get something out of; we may like to challenge ourselves, and certainly, we like to *talk* about challenging ourselves, we like to *think* we’re good critical listeners, and to some extent we are. But if I’m given the choice of going into two productions of The Ring, which one I think I’m going to get more out of, whatever that may mean, then I’m going to choose that – but one *can* be surprised, and I think the ability to experience things, and to think about them, and to rethink them in a way one might not initially have chosen to do, so insofar as one can do that, is extremely important.

For an example, the first time I saw Frank Castorf’s production of The Ring at Bayreuth (in 2014), there were things I greatly admired, but there were things I utterly loathed and really didn’t understand. I thought I would never want to see that again, although I liked the Rheingold and parts of Götterdämmerung, but what came in-between, much less so; I was utterly shocked when I decided against my initial judgement to give it another go years later (2016) and I was utterly bowled over, often precisely by the things that I initially had loathed. I came to see a different sort of theatre being applied to Wagner than I had ever done before. I suppose it was what one broadly could call postmodern or post-Brechtian theatre – but these are such large umbrella terms; Castorf is Castorf, not just postmodern. And, it was clear (in re-seeing it) the cast had grown into it also – they were less shocked by what they were having to do. I came to understand what was going on, and so I say that of any production I’ve ever seen of The Ring, at least it’s the one that has most made me rethink the whole work; it transformed my understanding of a work I thought I knew very well, in a way unlike any other.

Nicholas: But Mark, your journey to the second viewing, think about that. Your journey is a forty-year journey, it’s one that got you to this moment, and got you ready. You needed two viewings to be ready for it: think of what that means, and what type of conversation we’re having now. It’s not that we shouldn’t have it – you shouldn’t have that experience! – but what about everybody else? Who do we need to be brought into at least a version of this conversation in order for the genre to continue to exist and be supported the way it needs to be?

That’s something I covered most recently in my last essay, where I quoted my interview with Barbara Hannigan and essentially asked (as I keep asking myself now): who are we doing this for?

Nicholas: Again, there are many levels, and there has to be a level that’s at the absolute pinnacle. My daughter is studying theoretical physics; I didn’t understand what she was talking about at thirteen, now she’s twenty, and I asked her what she’s studying and I’m stuck in the third word of her first sentence. There has to be that level (of understanding) – that’s what gets us forward, but the danger is, when it’s so rarified, it’s exclusively rarified, how do we mediate what’s important to a large group of people in order for this whole thing to be sustainable? With physicists what they are able to figure out is able to filter down, and manages to be your GPS – without Einstein and his essays at the beginning of the 20th century, we wouldn’t have GPS technology. I don’t know how this translates to the art world, but it’s a problem if only three of your students, Catherine, over six years so far, heard of Peter And The Wolf –  and that’s children’s music, that’s not even Wagner.

To me that underlines basic education, or lack thereof; when school funding is cut, what’s the first thing to get the chop? I make a point to play students the music of Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Wagner’s “The Ride of the Walküre” – things they know already but don’t know the context of and haven’t been asked to think about in imaginative ways. It personalizes the music for them, but also gives them a background.

Nicholas: “Ride” was in an AXE commercial and maybe that’s where they know it from. And they probably also know the Bridal March of Lohengrin too, I bet; those works are part of popular culture.

Mark I suppose we shouldn’t assume that everyone would be coming to that Castorf production of The Ring as I did. Maybe it was more difficult for me, coming with all the baggage I have, knowing it as I do and its performance tradition. It’s like difficulties people might have with contemporary music. I think children, in many ways, or people with less actual classical, less exposure in classical romantic grounding, find it far less of a challenge to dispense with tonality than those spending most parts of everyday practising their scales, for instance. It’s not necessarily one way.

Mark Berry, writer, author, music, classical

Mark Berry

And that “not necessarily one way” especially applies to whatever baggage one brings to The Ring, or how it’s thought of and written about. How did you choose the authors for the book?

Nicholas: We wanted a very broad array of voices, and I think to a certain extent we also wanted the usual suspects, but some people who’ve not had a chance to participate in the conversation a chance to do so. It was very important to have a broad range of nationalities as well, because that also colors the way one approaches the issue of Wagner.

Mark: I think that says it all, really.

Nicholas: We did want it to be relevant to today; we wanted authors who were aware of the full length and breadth of the conversation, but also brought a current perspective. And some of the issues are current, like environmentalism and the Ring. That’s a relatively new way of approaching The Ring, because … well, it’s not that new actually, but applied in this way, it’s relatively new and applied to Wagner, and it’s not really been part of the conversation.

But it’s smart – and speaking of currency then, which Wagner work then would you like to see live right now and why?

(long silence)

Mark: Having given it a few seconds’ thought, my instant reaction is I want to see the whole Ring, because it just seems to be feeding into so much of everything that is going on at the moment, and might just help me make sense of it all. Also, perhaps this is coming back to the escapism aspect -– I’ve missed it. That communal element that is so a part of theatre, that is to musical life and art in general, I think is never stronger, at least in my experience, than when you go to a performance of The Ring. Often, for example, you end up sitting with the same people for all four events and you share that experience, even physically, talk to them a bit or not at all, but at the end of Götterdämmerung, when it’s all over, it does feel like the end of a school year; you’re leaving the immediate surroundings, you’re leaving the people you’ve been going through it with, and there’s nothing quite like that in my experience.

Nicholas: Everything Mark said, and I would add to that, unfortunately that kind of confirms the escapist concept: Wagner does create a whole world, and if you go to The Ring the way he imagined it in Bayreuth, you are really sucked into that world. It’s quite a phenomenon, the coherence of that world he creates, it’s all-encompassing. There is no equivalent experience in our culture, or even has been.

Nicholas Vazsonyi, Clemson, writer, author, music

Nicholas Vazsonyi (Photo: Craig Mahaffey, Clemson University)

I love this concept of community created in real and meta ways through the direct, lived experience of The Ring. The engagement of the senses in an environment like Bayreuth seems very purposeful.

Nicholas: Absolutely, it’s why he wanted Bayreuth itself to be in the middle of nowhere, so you are drawn out from your everyday surroundings and put into this especially structured world; that’s the Disneyworld aspect of it. Even though I know Mark shudders at the comparison, it is a unified, holistic world that is there in Bayreuth; you see those people were sitting next to, see them at 2pm in one of the very few places you can eat in Bayreuth, you run into them and they are recognizable, your eyes meet, and there’s a kind of a greeting there, and you go your separate ways; it’s a feeling of community both in and outside the theatre.

Mark: That’s a festival in a very religious sense, and (Wagner) intended it to be so. Maybe he changed his mind somewhat about what it entailed, but it’s part of this form he so strenuously disassociated from the day-to-day, opera-as-entertainment aspect –  it’s *not* supposed to be something you approach having had a hard day at work, going across the city on public transport, being exhausted by the time you get there, with your mind elsewhere. So yes, you could say that is escapism, you could say it’s transformative, you could say it’s aesthetic – I suppose it’s all of these things. We shouldn’t probably get too hung up on that. I’m contradicting myself from what I said earlier – which is what Wagner makes you do!

Nicholas: It’s the exact opposite of our Covid world right now, with the total absence of physical distancing. That’s the other reason of course I share Mark’s yearning for The Ring: it’s about getting as close as possible to each other.

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Personal Essay: Absence, Presence, Performance

branches, tree, sky, nature

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The idea of vision over visibility is a good one in theory but is challenging in practise, as many in the classical world are realizing. Not having pushback from a team of colleagues and peers has meant longer wait times for the vaccine of varied perspectives. The recordings of Schnittke, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich (my COVID trio, I call them), together with the online lectures and live streams only go so far in providing alternatives. Maybe it is as P. D. Ouspensky suggested in In Search of the Miraculous, that “(t)here are a great many chemical processes that can take place only in the absence of light.” Perhaps there is value in sitting in the dark, but can be so painful, so lonely. We (I use the royal classical “we” here) are pondering our role(s) within the greater social milieu of life, loss, survival, and resilience, even as we try to survive and keep visible to someone, anyone. The notions of presence and absence are stark amidst the current socio-cultural atmosphere; more than one observer noted, for instance, the lack of classical artistry at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. At a time filled with calls for social justice (notably via the Black Lives Matter movement) and greater opportunity, what can we, as a classical community, actually do? Just who and what we are serving?

Even as there is removal, there is renewal, and that, surely, must be some form of grace. Barbara Hannigan was one of the many people I interviewed in autumn 2020, as a recipient of a 2020 Opera Canada Award., We spoke shortly after the launch of Momentum, an initiative pairing established figures in the classical world with young artists; the need for such a project is, of course, greater than ever. Hannigan decided to launch the project because as she explained, much as young artists were grateful for the guidance provided via her other initiative (Equilibrium) early on in the pandemic, what they really wanted were live opportunities to practise their craft. She said something during our nearly hour-long exchange which I find hauntingly profound:

My desire in life is to be of service, and I found the best way I could be of service is through music. I would be perfectly happy if I was really good at teaching, or really good at preaching, or whatever the case might be – I would be happy to do those things as well. I just like being of service, and it just so happens that music is my medium, but at the core of it is vocation; I have to have that. I think that’s why I was so into contemporary music, it was, or is, a vocation for me. I knew when I started out that it needed someone to be its voice, someone to advocate for it, or for them – for the composers and modern music in general – and I knew that I had this gift for modern music, that I was smart with this kind of stuff, and I thought, “Okay, that’s my calling; I have to do that. I’m good at it and not many are good, and not many like it, but I like it… I really like it!” It wouldn’t be of service for me to go sing Traviata or Bohéme and to have developed my instrument to just do those things, or Queen Of The Night; there’s enough people doing that. So looking back, I understand how my path took the curves it took.

This autumn I began a new position teaching first-year university students in a Media and Communications program; that ended in December, with a real sadness at bidding farewell to the many I felt I’d grown to know over the months, ones who emailed words of gratitude in the days that followed. I welcomed another group of students earlier this month when my seventh consecutive year teaching radio documentaries began. Though the overall tenor of this group is very different (final-term radio students tend to be boisterous than their first-term writer-colleagues), both experiences have called to mind Hannigan’s idea of service in this, the annus horribilis, and it might be said, the annus digitalis. Faces on screens, or not even that but disembodied voices, are now a norm, not an exception. My experience teaching piano, which I did for close to a decade, was carried out one-on-one, during a far more analogue era that necessitated physical presence for actual instruction. The experiential performance is missing, and one comes away feeling more alone than ever.

sculpture, art, Europe, wall, still life

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That idea – performance – is, or can be, a loaded concept. To say someone is being “theatrical” (or “performative”) is a form of insult in the English language, as if the theatre is a vehicle for deception, a heightened reality that is not real in and of itself. Yet the sort of performance inherent to (good) teaching, for instance, is authentic, because it is a true presentation of self which threads together entertainment as much as enlightenment into a unique (and hopefully inspiring) blanket. In a very good interview with The Atlantic, Teller, who is the silent half of the magician duo Penn & Teller and a former high school Latin teacher, tells writer Jessica Lahey that “no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds […] That’s what affects students.” True, though some of us educators are affected as well, especially adjuncts whose teaching pursuits are but one piece of a very broad and varied mosaic. Many classical artists teach, and many feel there is no chasm between self and subject matter; one simply is – what one not only teaches, but what one performs, listens to, sings, plays, reads… hears, sees, smells, touches, tastes; to borrow from Hamlet, the awareness is all.

In that same Atlantic feature, Teller echoes my (long-held) feeling that Shakespeare’s works should be seen before they’re read, echoing Tolstoy words in What is Art?, that “one cannot judge the works of Wagner without having seen them staged.” (More on Wagner in a future post.) This immediacy of the experience of art is a crucial step on the path to  service because it requires a real presence – but that presence has to be tempered in order to function at optimal capacity. Teller alludes to Francis Fergusson’s important 1949 work,  The Idea of a Theater: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective:

In the art that lasts, there’s always a balance: purpose that is action, passion that is feelings, and perception that is intellectual content. In Shakespeare, for example, there is always a level that is just action, showbiz. There is always a level that’s strongly passionate, and there’s always a level that’s got intellectual content.

Thus immediacy only happens through a balance of elements: passion and intellect, showbiz and high art, yin and yang, dark and light (rock and roll, though perhaps “roll and rock” is more appropriate; the “roll” part seems to have gone sadly missing of late). Such balance brings the most memorable and challenging (and sometimes important) art to life. Balance brings subject matter alive for students; Peter & The Wolf is followed by the music of Sigue Sigue Sputnik in my classes, and that’s precisely how it should be.

What is so frustrating, again, is the lack of live human engagement. I can’t see anyone, therefore this cannot be the performance I intended. This cannot have the effect I would wish it to have. I don’t know how much I am affecting you (or not). It’s hard to feel I am being of service right now. Why am I doing this, beyond the money, really? Humanity, for all its droplet-spewing imperfection, comes in many different shapes, forcing many different questions, prodding at our self-worth and asking us to up our game in the stakes of artistic endeavour. This COVID time has forced contemplations within the classical community which point at absence (absence of money, absence of opportunity, absence of others)  – but also a new, delicate presence composed of a heretofore unseen, unheard, unrealized capacity for creativity and curiosity. Aldous Huxley writes in The Divine Within that “(t)he Order of Things is such that no one has ever got anything for nothing. All progress has to be paid for.” Along with physical work, some of that payment involves (to paraphrase Ouspensky) sitting for lengthy periods in the absence of light, and allowing all those potent chemical processes to occur the way they need to. The past ten months have revealed, personally, a path littered with notions of worth and validation, strewn with perceptions of authority and power; a great many have been slotted in to the position my mother held up to her passing in 2015, of providing (or more frequently withholding) approval, validation, acceptance. It has only been through mandated isolation  that such a realization has come, that a clearer view of patterns, like Socrates’ shadows on the wall, have been seen. I’ve given myself permission to walk, carefully masked, outside at last.

sculpture silence finger mouth face no words secret meditation Preault figure human

Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, date unknown. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Perhaps this is where the classical community, need to go – outside. We can’t be of service if we stay inside, fretting on a return to “normal” that is months, possibly even years, away, or may never indeed return at all. Our listening has changed, our experience of music has changed; we have changed – I hope we have. Questions need asking, and require real work to cultivate, if not answer entirely: where have we failed? What can we do better? How can we be of service? COVID has taken (and continues to take) so very much; if there is something it gives us in return, let it be a new presence, forged, like a new and better Ring, in the fires of an old world that needed to be released. We are here to give a performance in which we must get our hands dirty. Time to roll up our sleeves; the readiness is all.

Jessica Duchen on Beethoven: “He’s Very Difficult To Capture”

Beethoven, classical, composer, music, German, portrait, Stieler

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

Beethoven was one of the first composers whose works I was determined to play on the piano. His works were  butterflies I aimed to net, stare at, make my own, and release anew, knowing they were never wholly mine to keep. He asked all of me as a young player. When I felt I couldn’t give anymore, he kept asking, nay, barking, anyway, for more, ever more, to push past my perceptions of limitation. Some days I felt defeated, other days, prodded, needled, poked, as if this long-dead, stern-looking German man was wielding a little stick aimed straight at my pride, those two opening notes of his Third Symphony like sharp jabs at the ribs urging, “Weiter gehen!” (“Go further!”). It was a sentiment voiced loudly by my mother, who didn’t take kindly to sighing silences or creative keyboard noodling.

“Back to Beethoven,” she would say, as another moan of desperation rose from the Baldwin grand. “Back to your work.”

“I can’t do it!”

“You can so; work it out. Do it. You’re not finished.”

I sit at a different kind of keyboard now, still alternating between silence and silliness. The act of pushing against perceived limitations is a feature of any creative life, the act of “return” rendered a million different ways; such recognition, and the change borne from it, matters as much as the act itself. Get back to Beethoven; you’re not finished. And so I did return, investing in a Bärenreiter edition of Beethoven’s symphony scores last year, edited by Jonathan Del Mar. The music of Beethoven has been with me for so long (one of the first orchestral performances I remember attending was his Sixth Symphony), so owning them seemed like a logical step. However, the act of going through them initially kicked open doors to questions which heretofore hadn’t been so stark, so bug-eyed, so snitty and snotty and snide: what could I, sans music degree, sans formal Conservatory education, sans musicological knowledge or direct orchestra-playing experience, possibly have to say, write, or contribute? What was I hoping to prove?

Vienna, Beethoven, history, classical, music, museum, Pasqualtihaus, Austria

The plaque outside Pasqualatihaus in Vienna marking it as one of Beethoven’s residences. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Yes, I’ve been to the Pasqualatihaus, and yes, I know so many works by heart, as it turns out; they are not monoliths to me but shards of someone’s soul – questioning, conflicted, difficult, a flickering wall of stained glass, some of it cracked – but what do I know? What value does my voice have, if any? Whose validation am I seeking, and why? Was (Is) my mother’s energy making itself felt across the decades? Studying Beethoven’s symphonies has meant wrestling with demons; like sitting at the piano years ago, some days are better than others, and some days the voices are louder, or softer, depending on just how much I choose to dampen that pedal, open that door, stick to the task at hand. Consistency has been a good way to exercise curiosity, to push against the limitations I feel so often hampered by and judged over. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the softer voice at that cracked stained-glass window whispering that even without knowing the technical names for certain aspects, I can still intuit the larger things they hope to express – and there is value in that. The language may be lacking, but the components that both anchor and surpass that language (curiosity, commitment, compassion) are not.

Vienna, Beethoven, history, classical, music, museum, Pasqualtihaus, Austria

Pasqualatihaus. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Months of studying scores has also highlighted, however inadvertently, the extent to which Beethoven is largely misunderstood and misrepresented in popular culture. One’s perceptions of any artist will understandably alter throughout time, experience, maturation; I once thought of the composer as a true and admirable revolutionary (indeed a youthful projection), whereas I think of him lately as largely shaped and informed by a deeply religious  and conservative faith, an aspect composer James MacMillan explored in a chat for The Spectator. This specific spiritual side of the composer isn’t as widely explored as perhaps it ought to be, which is a pity; it goes against the rebel-image of course, but understanding the immense role of religion greatly expands one’s appreciation – of Fidelio, some symphonies, and various choral works like Missa Solemnis, to say nothing of the many subsequent works inspired by them, MacMillan’s oeuvre included. Again, the religious Beethoven doesn’t gel with (and perhaps isn’t as easy a sell as) the Frowning Rebel Genius, which is of course so tied to the trend of ‘cancelling’ him. The clichéd version of Beethoven which tends to live in the popular imagination is one based not on knowing scores or history, but on programmatic oversaturation tied to the realities of contemporary box office sales, a reality which so rarely (if sadly) actualizes any real responsibility to intelligently and challengingly link needed contextualization with performance and modern repertoire in any enlightening way. There’s something frightening to many contemporary programmers about intelligence, about asking audiences to read, learn, grow, to be surprised and yes, to be challenged and forced to contemplate, as if such activities are a collective form of elitism; rather interestingly, that is one thing not evident (at least to this student) in Beethoven’s actual output. What with Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations largely called off because of COVID in 2020, perhaps his 251st will be marked by brighter pathways to more adventurous programming tying context, music, and history more closely together in a spirit of creativity, curiosity, and pushing those limitations. One can hope.

Writer Jessica Duchen is very skilled at linking such things, and doing so in ways that beguile and delight. Her latest novel, Immortal (Unbound), uses the famous “Immortal Beloved” story involving Beethoven as a jump-off to more fully explore the man, his times, his loves, and his music. Released in late 2020, the novel treats aspects of the (highly romantic) story, the world it unfolded, and Beethoven himself, with utmost care and respect, and features illuminating details as well as a sharp ear for dialogue. Jessica is known  for her novels which blend music, history, character, and gripping narrative so seamlessly; her 2008 novel Hungarian Dances (Hodder & Stoughton) is one I find particularly affecting, wonderfully connecting the visceral experience of violin-playing across the ages with the search for identity, family, home, culture, contentment, love. Jessica is also a highly accomplished journalist and was classical music correspondent for The Independent from 2004 to 2016; her work has been published at The Observer, The Guardian, BBC Music Magazine, as well as The Sunday Times. In addition to five works of music-history fiction, she has authored biographies of composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Phaidon, 1996) and Gabriel Fauré (Phaidon, 2000). She has also worked with composer Roxanna Panufnik on libretti for choral works and operas, including Silver Birch, a work commissioned by Garsington Opera and, in 2018,  shortlisted for an International Opera Award. Garsington’s Youth Company also commissioned two Oscar Wilde-related works from Jessica: The Happy Princess in 2019, with composer Paul Fincham; and The Selfish Giant with John Barber; it has been postponed to 2021.

Jessica and I spoke late last month, about the pangs of editing, the joys of crowdfunding, the beauty of simplicity, and just what her beloved “Luigi” might think about our COVID era.

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

2020 was supposed to have been the Beethoven year.

It was!

It still was, wasn’t it? His work is so much about compassion, or its absence.

Exactly, and if we had to have a big composer anniversary I’m glad it was him; he gives so much in his music.

You reflect much of that intensity of feeling through your work. How did this particular book come about?

It felt different partly because I was writing in the first person, it’s something I’ve not managed to do successfully before; I’ve tried with other novels those are the ones sitting at the bottom of the cupboard with no hope of completion, this is the first time it’s worked, which has made a difference. As for the research, the wonderful thing is that so many have done so much research already – there is an awful lot to read! And you can find something about whatever aspect of his life and world you want to know about; you don’t need to sift through and decipher every handwritten letter, it’s all been done.

The “Immortal Beloved” story is fairly well-known in classical circles; how daunting was it to tackle as the subject of a whole novel?

It really is a case of, hold your nose and jump, and from a great height! It was about seven years or so ago I was asked to do a talk about Beethoven and women, and I didn’t know that much about it all then, and I started reading and researching, and thought, bloody hell, amazing stuff; it gets under your skin, and I can see how people get obsessed with these stories and with different theories. I started following some of the trails where some of this stuff came from, and why certain things have been pushed and others hampered, for one reason or another, and I discovered it’s not to do with the stories but the people who have been pushing them or otherwise, in many cases; the fact that the Beethoven-Haus Bonn is very much behind the Josephine scenario made me think they probably knew something, because if anyone knows, they do! It was a Canadian musicologist, Rita Steblin, whose work was the most useful; she’d written articles about this, getting other sides to the story. Tragically she died last year; I’d been trying to find and write to her, to get in touch and ask her some things, and I couldn’t find her anywhere, then I met the director of the Beethoven Haus in January in London, and he told me she had died a few months prior. I was horrified. Anyway she’s an absolute heroine, and she was Canadian. She wrote a ton of articles about Beethoven and Schubert and lived in Vienna.

Integrating research, without it being too granular, with storytelling, is must have entailed some tough creative choices.

Any historical novelist or biographer will tell you that you use about 10% of the actual work, the groundwork, that you’ve done, and the thing is to not get so bogged down in detail that you close the thread of the narrative. I had to cut a huge amount out of the book, and it’s more than 400 pages still – it would’ve been more than 500 without those cuts. Sometimes there will be an editor who will say, “Right, get rid of this” and other times you have to be absolutely ruthless, I had one chapter, a digression about the birth of romanticism and all sorts of literary and slightly tangential things that were going on that touched on Beethoven, and Tom (my husband) read it and said “That’s great, I love this!” – and my editor went, whoosh, out with the red pen, and I thought, “Oh nooooo!!” But I can see she had a point; it was bogging down the narrative. If you go on too long (in such tangents), you’ll lose people.

… as well as the momentum of the narrative.

Yes. I’ve had comments saying, “This is a long book but it has a pace of its own.” I tried to pick up the pace as it goes along, so you squelch yourself into that world with a lot of detail and character near the beginning, and then the plot starts, but if you think about it, most really serious books about Beethoven are over 1000 pages long, and there is reason for that: he needs that much. He’s very difficult to capture.

Studying the scores underlined, for me, the role of changeability in Beethoven’s creative endeavors and life overall; what did you find as you wrote this?

Absolutely – to me the heart of Beethoven is his passion for variation, and in a way, he’s always writing variations – nothing stays the same, everything is in motion, every time a theme comes back, it’s a little bit different. Yet there is this motif which is very attached and some people think that has something to do Josephine – it may or may not be the case – but his motifs are not exactly the same. They are always a little bit different when they come back.

I’m curious what you make of the Beethoven you encountered in your research and writing, and the criticism of his work and seeming dominance of the classical music canon. 

The first thing that really comes to mind is that I am all for performing a wider range of repertoire; I think it’s absolutely essential that we diversify the music being played and recognized. We have to hear more women composers, particularly because there is still this attitude that they somehow aren’t as good – we have to hear more music by them, and composers of color; I’d much rather go to a concert of music that I don’t know than music that I do know, because it’s more interesting. When you’ve been going to concerts as long as I have and sometimes reviewing them too, you get really tired of some of the stuff out there, especially the big Late Romantic symphonies. You think, “Come on, something else now!”

On the other hand, I don’t see why hearing more music by other composers means we have to kick out, wholesale, the great figures of the past. I mean, there is this attitude in some quarters of, “Clara Schumann is great and Robert Schumann is crap” – no he wasn’t, he was incredible, but they are two different artists doing two different things, who are important for two different reasons. Both need recognition, and I don’t see what’s the matter with that.

I think Beethoven would whole-heartily support contemporary composers being programmed alongside with his work, and he very much understood the pressures of market forces and money woes.

Oh, I think he was quite canny.

I think he had to be…

This is very true.

Might we , when we come out of COVID, have a more contextualized Beethoven? Or do you see a move toward entrenchment of The Hits?

I really don’t know. I have very little sense of how things will unravel or ravel-up again, and I don’t know how long this whole thing is going to take to pass, I don’t know what will happen politically. In the UK we crashed out of the EU, and the entire music scene will be badly affected; the realities of many simply haven’t been taken into account. I really have no idea; we have fantastic musical life, and we have people who are throwing it out the window, so when things get thrown out the window it tends to be the case you get an entrenchment of the surefire sellers because people are anxious and they’re desperate, and they are scared of taking risks – that’s when there’s a pulling back of the boundaries rather than a pushing out of them. So … I don’t know. I think Beethoven’s been picked on because it was his anniversary so he was the highest-profile composer around, thus he’s an easy target.

I recently watched an old performance of the Leonore overture, and I wondered if such criticisms aren’t as much related to pedestrian performance practises as to decontextualized programming… 

I had to listen to a recent CD recording of Beethoven 5, related to something I was involved in weeks ago, and I could not bear this one particular recording; I thought it was brutal. Honestly, I found it unlistenable. And I was quite shocked, because there are many others who think it’s wonderful.

Do you think there’s value in having that intense a reaction and that extent of divergent thought, though? I wonder if that’s the point.

It could be, but it’s a pity it’s necessary. Here’s where we come back to the need to diversify repertoire: if we heard Beethoven 5 slightly less often there would be no need for people to tear it to pieces and trample it underfoot to make a point. I don’t think trampling Beethoven 5 underfoot has anything to do with what it’s about.

That goes back to programming. We haven’t been able to attend many things and a lot has been forcibly reprogrammed as a result; what stage were you at with the book?

I was in the middle of editing when COVID struck, in March 2020.

Did that experience change your process?

I don’t think it changed it but it made it more meaningful. It was my way of escape. It means when it was locked down it was fine, I don’t have to phone people up and say, “Sorry, I can’t make it; I have to work” – I could just… work. There were a few bits where I accentuated and honed in on certain things and did them slightly differently, for instance there’s a  bit where Therese is going to stay in Vienna to hear Fidelio although Napoleon’s army is marching in; she’s pig-headed and she is not leaving town until she’s heard Fidelio! There are some descriptions of the atmosphere around Vienna at that time, about how she felt in the face of this tremendous change, when everyone else is leaving town and the place is empty and she’s on her own and doesn’t know what’s going on. There were bits like that that got in at a late stage because of what happened through 2020.

The crowdsourcing for this novel seems like a smart way to go about a creative project; do you think it points the way to a future for creative output, especially for writers? Doing it in normal times is one thing but doing it now is quite another.

It’s tricky to say. It’s the third book I’ve done with Unbound, the other two that I did first were finished before I took it to them; Ghost Variations (2016) was with them, for instance. I’d hit a rocky patch because after the financial crash in 2008, a lot of authors, if they weren’t Dan Brown or Salman Rushdie, found themselves turfed on their tails; there were a lot of us writing pretty good books but we were in the middle ranks, and we got kicked out (of publishers). I’d been taking around Ghost Variations and I was very fed up with the sort of responses I was getting to it; I knew it was a good story and I knew it was topical. Eventually I found Unbound – I filled in a form on their website and they came back and said, “We’d like to have this as one of the founding books on our list” and that was my first go on crowdsourcing; I got the money together in 12 days. I surprised everyone! I love the people, the design, the editorial standards, everything is really good; Unbound is a traditional publisher but it crowdfunds.

The Beethoven book was a little bit different, as I hadn’t written it yet, and I knew I would have to do it damn fast to get it out in time for the Beethoven anniversary. I had a drink with the guy who was my editor at the time and said, “I’ve got this amazing story, I really want to write it” and he said, “Well if you can do it by about this time next year then we can probably.” He told me what they needed, and I thought it was just about doable; I’d done all the research, I just hadn’t sat down and put anything together, I hadn’t really had the guts to take the plunge on writing a book. I thought I could do with some talks and didn’t see myself doing a whole novel, but I thought, “It’s the anniversary year and I’m going to kick myself if I don’t do this, it’s now or never” so I jumped. The crowdfunding was quick, it all came together in three months – quite fast. For something else it might take a few years.

book, novel, Beethoven, history, music, fiction, Unbound, Jessica Duchen, immortal beloved, classical So how much do you see crowdfunding being a model for creative endeavours in 2021 and beyond then?

I know quite a number of really interesting music projects being funded this way, so I think in a way it’s books who are the ones late to the party; musicians have been doing this for a while! I think it’s a little bit difficult – that’s probably an understatement because of the pandemic situation. There’s an awful lot of people who have no work and their finances are very stretched; people are extremely worried and won’t know if they’ll get their work back, and there are others who get government support or don’t get government support, here it’s a very capricious system and it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have full-time jobs, they are professional people who’ve been furloughed and are still getting paid and they have nothing to spend money on; they can’t go abroad, they can’t go on holiday, they can’t go to the theatre or concerts, there’s no point going shopping since we’re all living in our jogging pants and are getting far fewer haircuts. That means people will have some cash sitting around and might have time to support books and music… so if you can target the right market, there might be something to be had through crowdfunding I don’t think of crowdfunding as ideal, and I don’t think it would become the way to do things – but it’s an alternative, and it’s quite fun. You are building a whole community around your project as you are creating it, which is something I really enjoy.

Building community is very tied to the equalizing effect of the internet; some roll their eyes at the digital world but others (like me) wouldn’t have a career without it, and the related efforts of building and engaging a virtual community… 

Absolutely – and it is real work.

… although as you mentioned, it’s difficult to know what to say about online performances because they are not visceral…

It’s not the same as being there. It can’t be.

… and I am not sure of the value of doing fancy filming of performances for online broadcasts. I like the Wigmore Hall concerts because they’re simple; I can focus on the sound itself.

They are elegant and so simple, the way those are done! I suppose it’s easy to do in the Wigmore though.

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

There’s something to be said for simplicity in 2020 going into 2021! What do you think he would make of our current times?

That’s a very good question, because if you think about the world he lived in, the life expectancy was something like 45, and he did well to get to 56. Loss and death were a huge part of everyday life for people in the 19th century in a way they are not today, when everything tends to be very sanitized, so (hygienic practise) would be something he would be surprised to see. Also he had the Napoleonic Wars to deal with; that was a really eye-opening side of the research I did, because for some reason, my history studies at school and university in music courses, did not touch on Napoleon at all – somehow we studied Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven (at Cambridge) but not what was going on at the time. And millions of people died because of Napoleon.

And that’s such an important thing to know when approaching Beethoven’s work…

It really is! Quite honestly, if I think about it, Beethoven in our times would say, “Get over yourselves! Do the sensible thing! Wear a mask! Do the hands-face-space thing, and be glad you have these hygienic and technical things to keep you alive and connected – you’ve got so many advantages!” And he’d say “Come on, make the most of what you can; you’ve got all of this stuff now that I didn’t have… pull yourselves together! Get on with it and be productive!” That’s what I think he’d say, but I could be wrong.

Personal Essay: Puccini & A Red Satin Dress For Christmas

snow, bridge, winter, scene

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

There is something within that always hesitates at publishing personal pieces. A Facebook post is one thing, a public post quite another. Courting judgment, creating low opinions, sacrificing credibility, reinforcing impressions of overwrought drama: 2020 is a year for many things indeed, but I am unsure which of these I dare encourage. The following piece did start out as a Facebook post, and so great was the response, so immense the encouragement, that I have decided to share it here, with revisions. It has opera (easily found on this website), it has my mother (also easily found). It has personal history, something I wince at sharing openly but which, in light of this awful year drawing to a close, feels somehow important, an act of acknowledgment and healing: Here Is A Bit Of My Self; Do As You Will.

Currently I am in the midst of editing another essay exploring the idea of being of service, inspired by a remark conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan made during our lengthy conversation back in October. Barbara essentially said she is driven to do what she does out of a need to be of service, that if she had chosen to take a more conventional opera-singer route (Verdi and not Vivier, for example), such a need would have gone unfulfilled. Other exchanges with artists I admire have led me to wonder if my writing is, in fact, just this, a way of exercising that very need – to be of service – whilst integrating, in a more fulsome way, a desire to move my work into a more creative realm, away from the world of journalism. In any case, here are some thoughts, shared Christmas Eve, and lightly edited. Happy New Year.

~

Looking at the window at the heavily falling snow, inhaling the aroma of a baking tourtière, watching the flicker of candles and feeling the acid sting of cranberry on tongue, I remember a remark my mother made to me the year before she died: “I love how you just pile your hair up and put on your strapless dress and high heels and don’t give a sh*t what anyone thinks of you.” Considering she wasn’t one to offer compliments on my appearance, it was notable, and I often wonder if her words were meant to extend past the opera-going context in which they were given, specifically to the parties we would attend every Christmas Eve.

“You’re taking too long!” she’d scream as 8pm, then 9pm passed, and we weren’t yet out the door. “Why do you always have to make things so bloody difficult?!” This year, with naught but the company of the telly and a seemingly endless line of headlights out the window, I think back to those nights, how they always started with tremendous arguments, how they always ended in relative peace, with late-night cognacs and music and sweets, my mother and I smartly dressed and perched on puffy, cream-color loveseats facing one another. The sounds of La bohème floated across the dimly-lit, luxuriously appointed room. “Only one thing,” she would instruct, taking a gold-foil-wrapped package into her lap, clinking glasses and smiling at the clang of fine crystal as a myriad of Xmas tree lights swirled around the ornate, boozy orbs. “Maybe a chocolate too… “ as the Godiva box lid was popped off. “But you must turn this up…” as the voice of Pavarotti rang like a silver bell across the bronzen warmth of the room… “it’s just so… so...!” … An inevitable headshake of red curls. A sip of cognac. A broad, happy sigh.

We had no family, but we had traditions entirely our own. Every Xmas morning she would don her velvet Santa hat and buzz around with a fine china teacup in one hand and portable phone in the other, her laughing voice and “Hellloooooo soandso!” and “Merry Christmas!” cadences like little motifs through the tinsel-laden score of the morning. Her own beloved father had died on Xmas Eve when she was a girl; thus the occasion was, for her, just that, something to mark, to make merry for, to fuss over, and always, to give and give. December was a month when no one was forgotten: bank tellers, postmen, delivery people, cashiers, clients, old work colleagues, friends new and not, close and not. Her whole being, even without Xmas, revolved around giving. Indeed, her generosity was doled out in such quantities she would sometimes chide herself, realizing (as I had tried to point out in past moments) that her good nature had been taken advantage of. “I’m too generous, I’m too soft-hearted… I’m a naive bloody chump.”

xmas, Christmas, tree, tannenbaum, decor, ritual, tradition, Weihnachten

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

How different Christmas is now, and not only because of COVID19. I remember a glass-shelved console would be filled, from mid-November onwards, with a myriad of cards from around the world; some years they numbered in the hundreds. To quote Rilke’s “Requiem For A Friend”, “Oh, how we need customs. Oh, how we suffer from the lack of customs” – and this card-collection was but one of my mother’s. I look up at my four Christmas cards and acknowledge, of course, that such customs simply aren’t done anymore, but oh, how I miss some of the sensual ones that come with Xmas. I find myself wanting such things but largely blocked from their actualization; I can neither recreate in her fashion, nor create anew in my own. Not having a family means not having certain rituals to adhere to. And yet, this was the first time since 2017 that I have had a Christmas tree; I gave away the one I’d had with her years ago and most (not all) of the ornaments. Putting one up this year seemed like an act of love and defiance; I don’t have kids and the whole thing cost a small fortune, but oh, how fulfilling. I needed the exercise of such a custom more than I realized. “One of the only times you seem calm and happy is when you paint,” my mother used to say, “that and decorating the Christmas tree.”

My love of solitary activity was not something she always understood. My mother was Miss Popularity; she’d been a cheerleader in high school. That deep, warm generosity, a gaiety of spirit, a smiling lightness elegantly concealing a world of pain, her hands waving through the air to Musetta’s Waltz – people were drawn to her. It wasn’t magic; it was logic. And oh, she was the beauty queen, makeup in place, hair done just so, whether handing out sweets or pouring brandy into her tea Christmas morning, chatting gaily to faraway friends on the telephone, her fingers with their lacquered red nails moving between boxes of (homemade) whipped shortbreads and almond crescents and the infamous Godiva box. One year she decided to wear a red satin gown she’d initially bought for me;  I looked over the second-floor railing, bleary-eyed, and there she was, on the phone, waving up at me, her lipstick matching the fabric. Years before I emerged from a retail store changeroom wearing that dress; I still recall the swoosh-swoosh rustling across the spiky berber carpet. Its shiny redness a festive flag against the drabness of that little fluorescent-lit room.

“Ohhhhh,” was the immediate, cooing response. “that’s your birthday gift, then.”  Being broad-shouldered and tall it fit her like a glove, better than me, in fact; there was no pulling at the bust when she wore it (“You didn’t get those boobs from me; thank you father’s side of the family”) and thus it hung like it should, sans pooling around ankles, a puddle of satin where legs should be, and were, in spades, with her. I took a photo of her that morning, my beautiful, big-haired mother, in her sixties then, sitting with her signature movie-star-smile, on one of an immense pair of damask-patterned loveseats on Christmas morning. that dress in gorgeous contrast to the cream upholstery. She wanted to take a photo of me, as ever: “Come on,  smile, it’s easy… don’t be so grouchy!”

I gave those loveseats away this year, a donation to a charity — too old, too many memories, too much dust attraction. Living alone I have no need of such immense things, and having no family of my own it makes no sense — but I still have that photo of her somewhere, perched so perfectly that snowy morning, in that big house I sold two years ago. Amidst my giant downsize this year, I kept that photo, and more than a few related albums; at the time I hesitated, but in retrospect, it was the right thing. Putting the past into perspective doesn’t mean erasing it – or hiding it, being embarrassed by it, or feeling the need to apologize for it. My mother had a contentious relationship with her own troubled past; it’s something I don’t want to repeat. I gave away those loveseats – and the old Xmas tree, and some of the ornaments – because they were her things, not my things. 2020 was the year of My Things, tangible and not, good and (mostly) not. It has been a horrendous but tremendously important year; at times I have wept in ways I have not wept since her death in 2015. Loss comes in so many shapes; sadness has so many variations. The person I am now is not the person I was with her. I recall her saying I was too serious; too brooding, too critical and full of torment. Oh, if she could see me now. I’ve become a soft-hearted, over-trusting, over-generous chump. Apple, meet tree; chocolate, meet box; I inherited more than her slender figure.

woman, dress, nightgown, Christmas, Xmas, tree, festive, pretty, retro, vintage, December

This is not *the* dress (but clearly my mother loved red dresses). Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

So this Christmas Eve is for tourtière, tears, and tender memories. December asks for acceptance, and offers hope. May 2021 bear the sweet fruit sewn by immense sadness; we could, all of us, use a fresh start.

Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre er hinter
dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
daß, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.

Anticipate all parting, as if it were behind
you, like the winter that’s now passing.
For under winters is one winter so endless,
only in overwintering can your heart overcome.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets To Orpheus, II.13
(trans. Kinnell, Liebmann, 1999)

VOPERA: “It’s Always About Authentic Storytelling”

VOPERA, Ravel, poster, Virtual Opera Project, Rachael Hewer, Tamzin Aitken, L'enfant et les sortileges

Rachael Hewer is probably rather tired of the color green. The UK-based director and theatre artist is the founder of VOPERA, the Virtual Opera Project, which premieres its first production on Monday (November 16th), Ravel’s one-act opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Conductor Lee Reynolds (Associate Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain) leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a re-orchestration of the score for 27 players, and the cast comprises more than 80 performers, all of whom, throughout the course of this difficult year, participated in rehearsals via Zoom and subsequent audio recordings. Hewer constructed a homemade green-screen studio out of their garden shed, using the FX technique to overlay the recorded cast’s singing faces with captured movement in a unique and imaginative operatic form of body-doubling. As it turns out, she spent a lot of time in that shed and in-costume over the past few months. The theatre artist has, in the past, worked in various creative capacities, as a director, actor, and assistant director, at Devon Opera, Glyndebourne, Opera Holland Park, and the Royal College of Music, to name a few. Hewer was also a winner at the International Awards for Young Opera Directors, Moscow in 2019. VOPERA, which marks her first all-virtual production, features the work of British artist Mark Wallinger, show designer Leanne Vandenbussche and cinematographer and VFX Editor James Hall.

With help from her partner, Hewer provided the movement for the many roles within the opera, in a production chock-full of talent in vocal, design, and administrative areas. Producer Tamzin Aitken has extensive experience as an arts manager and creative consultant specializing in the classical music realm. In the past decade Aitken has worked with Glyndebourne, English National Opera, the Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre and its resident London Philharmonic Orchestra (including involvement in an imaginative semi-staging of The Rake’s Progress in late 2018); when the first lockdown struck in early 2020, she was getting set for work in Paris, on a new production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea for Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Hewer approached her at the beginning of the VOPERA journey in spring 2020 and, as you’ll read, the two women (who have yet to physically meet) enjoyed an immediate and very palpable chemistry. They were subsequently able to assemble a brilliant international cast and chorus spread across several countries and timezones. Mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds, who has appeared at Royal Opera House (ROH), Opera Philadelphia, and Opera Australia, sings the lead role (something she’s done previously on the stage of Komische Oper Berlin); soprano Karen Cargill, known for her work at The Met, the Edinburgh International Festival, Glyndebourne, the ROH, as well as the BBC Proms, sings the role of Maman; bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, who has performed with San Francisco Opera, Den Norse Opera (Oslo), Houston Grand Opera, and The Met, sings Un Arbre. The project is presented  in collaboration with the Concordia Foundation, which helps support young musicians and initiates educational programs for kids from under-privileged backgrounds, while creating musical projects and presenting concerts at various London venues.

Ravel, composer, French

Maurice Ravel, 1925. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Ravel’s 1925 opera, his second, was written between 1917 and 1925, and features a libretto (by Collette) filled with surreal elements; it concerns a naughty child who willfully destroys various objects (a clock, a china cup a teapot), throws a tantrum, and is, in turn, visited by said objects (and characters, and animals) and is redeemed by a small act of kindness shown to an injured squirrel. The opera deals with themes of claustrophobia, isolation, connection, engagement, sincerity, and benevolence, themes with intense relevance in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has underlined the need for collaboration, community, and open-hearted goodness at a time when barriers are being erected and widespread closures are happening in ever-increasing numbers, in literal and figurative senses. The opera’s timeliness felt central to both Hewer and producer Tamzin Aitkin as well; the idea for presenting it originated with Hewer herself, who experienced her own brand of restlessness amidst the first coronavirus-related lockdown of 2020.

A vital point in the project’s creation is the extent to which Hewer and Aitken were determined to ensure payment for all involved; VOPERA was not to be a ‘charity gig’ but a fully paid one for everyone involved. Giving temporary employment to over 135 people in total – performers, musicians, technicians, administrators alike – the project is, as its release notes, “ a platform for many to practise and perform in an innovative new way” , a way that includes proper payment. Writing as an artist freelancer for a moment here, I find it very heartening to see how VOPERA’s model (a smart combination of fundraising and sponsorship) is providing an important model of a possible way forwards, underlining with no great subtlety that the “exposure as payment” model so frustratingly common to so many websites and creative endeavors is, particularly in these coronavirus times, both deeply insulting and wholly diminishing – for art and artists alike. Bravo and thank you, VOPERA.

As well as payment, the subject of mental health has been central to the project from its inception. Returning to one’s art form is, as many are learning, not a simple matter in the age of pandemic. From the start, Hewer and Aitken ensured that qualified mental health practitioners were present throughout the entire production process. “Back to normal” isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when “normal” itself feels like such a distant, far-off thing, and it was refreshing (and more than a bit heartening) that, throughout the course of our lengthy conversation last month, all of us could share struggles, self-doubts, and deep-seated anxieties. One thinks of Albert Schweitzer’s quote here, that “(c)onstant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” It applies as much to the “l’enfant” of the title as it does to pandemic life itself; surely what the world needs is kindness, more than ever, and if that kindness is concomitant with creative expression, all the more the better.

VOPERA’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges makes its debut on Monday, November 16th at 8pm UK time on the LPO’s YouTube channel as well as online cultural broadcaster Marquee TV; it will be available to view for thirty days.

Lee Reynolds, conductor, LPO, recording session, VOPERA, Ravel, London Philharmonic

Conductor Lee Reynolds recording L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Where did the idea to produce Les Enfant online come from? 

TA It’s very much Rachael’s baby.

RH It started because I was totally miserable and felt completely lost at not being able to do what I’ve always done my whole life, and I thought, “I can’t be on my own, there must be loads of people who feel the same way as I do” and then, “What can I do about this? I’m not a spokesperson so I cannot lobby government ministers; I’m not qualified or capable of saving a building or organization…  but I can make a show, and bring the best out in people, and get a group of people together to make something.” So it’s about providing a creative focus for as many people as possible, to try and give them something to focus on artistically that will help them not feel as miserable as they were. That’s it. And then I listened to (L’Enfant) and I realized, “This piece is a narrative about what life is like at the moment; it’s a child being educated at home, who reacts to an unprecedented and uncontrollable situation” and… that’s the world.

It’s interesting you chose this, an existing piece, in a year that features numerous new works.

RH It is a masterpiece; Ravel is a genius. I don’t think it’s done enough.

TA The thing that excited me about it is that it takes an established part of the opera canon and totally reimagines how we can work with that canon. And you know, it’s not that it’s a modern production, it’s that the mechanics of how we are making opera have been completely transformed by how this project is working out. I think that has to sit alongside new work and new voices, telling current stories in the first person but this does that as well and speaks to how resilient opera is but also how adaptable it can be. And it was that area which was so exciting. For me personally, and this has been true for everyone engaged in the project, it’s the potency of being able to do your job again… in a curtailed and altered fashion, but it’s extraordinary, to be able to wake up each day and say, “I’m going to engage in making something creative and in telling a story” – which is what many of us had been doing, and then it got taken away from us. That’s what’s been part of the excitement for me.

How did you get involved?

TA Rachael reached out to me through a mutual contact; she’d approached me about something else, and Rachael wrote me a note in… July? I think?

RH I feel like I’ve  known you all my life!

TA We didn’t know each other before, and we haven’t yet met in-person!

RH There are so many people I’ve been working with closely on this project, and I haven’t actually met any of them! I was thinking about this the other day, how I wrote Tamzin a note, and she rang me and I thought, “Oh my goodness, what am I going to say?” being really nervous, because to me, Tamzin was and still is this big and important person who knows a lot about a lot of arts things I don’t know about, and I remember thinking in that call, “What should I say?” and putting the phone down and having this sense of, “Well, who knows what she’ll say about doing this project, but I really like her!”

It’s been interesting to note bubbles – the physical ones, the psychological ones; there’s a real sense this year of people only wanting to be or communicate only with their bubble. But the pandemic has simultaneously burst a lot of bubbles because it’s forced people to reach beyond them, especially in the arts world, which can be very cliquish indeed. I wonder how this might change how you work going forwards.

RH Oh it’s changed me completely. Before this I was really self-conscious, I had terrible self-esteem and I still do, at least to some extent, in my personal life, but I went through my professional life thinking, ‘nobody likes me, nobody wants to be my friend, everybody’s laughing at me’ – that’s what I used to wake up thinking…

This sounds familiar.

RH … right? I know I’m not on my own in this. We’re all ruled by all these irrational emotions. And now, because everybody’s experience of me (in this project) has just been who I am and what I believe in and how I choose to be around people, because I’m not working for an organization, I’m not being watched, I’m not being observed or under review or scrutiny to see if I’ll get the next job – it’s just me, and who I am and what I’m like. I have such amazing feedback from people about this whole thing, the whole process, and that’s really done me a lot of favours, and actually what happens now when I do venture out to the real world, which as only happened a few time so far, people I don’t know at all are saying, “You’re the one doing the opera film, it looks great! What an idea!” And these are people who never would’ve never said that to me before!

TA One of the other things to say about the project, and it speaks very much to Rachael’s leadership, is the exceptionally humane care that bleeds through every element of what’s going on in terms of the emotional support and the authenticity of every exchange that goes on. It feels like a very different way of working. I have worked with incredible people and incredibly supportive teams before, and projects where you feel you’re on your own and you’re asking people for help and it’s all very collaborative – but it feels like there’s a real shift to a way of working and creating art that puts peoples’ emotional well-being at the centre of the process as much as the artistic product and … I don’t think I ever want to go back to working in any way where that is not front-and-center of the agenda.

director, theatre, artist, Rachael Hewer, founder, VOPERA

VOPERA founder and director Rachael Hewer

RH I’m really worried that some people might think of this as a weakness, actually. I am a very emotional person; I have my heart on my sleeve, and I do not believe in this us-and-them thing, even working with my assistant directors. A lot of the time I’m the assistant director, and I know the director is very much like, “You can’t share everything with everybody!” And I don’t know why you wouldn’t, but I’m aware some think of it as a weakness, that you have no self-control or that you’re not a good leader – but I think it takes more strength, I think it takes more determination, and certainly a lot more time and effort to articulate my message in this way, because I have to be completely unafraid to be myself around people I know well, around people that I admire, around people I’ve never met before – like yourself! I just have to have the confidence and the faith and freedom in my own personality – whereas in the old world, you just get into a routine of trying to be like the person next to you, because the person next you is successful, and in order to be successful, you think, “I need to be like just this person because that’s who the people in charge like.”

How much has this project allowed you to embrace the idea(s) of strength through vulnerability, credibility through emotional honesty, with less emphasis on brilliance – which is fine, hurrah learning -– and more on humanity? I admire your mental health support as such a central part of this project.

RH I can’t stop myself from saying this: I think it’s really frighteningly short-sighted to think, “Stick performers on a stage and they will automatically get on with doing what they’ve been missing doing!” – this return to performing is a really sensitive and fragile procedure, and nobody is prepared for that, because everybody will react differently, because we are all different.

TA There was a really interesting piece I read, recently something Monica Lewinsky wrote about the state of mental health right now, and the f-words, fear and fragility, and, wouldn’t it have been astonishing if there was, as well as the daily briefings on health, briefings to talk to us all about how we were responding to the current situation mentally? My experience personally and professionally has been … well, the conversations you start with, “Oh hi, how are you?” – the answers to that question now are much more honest, and people are much more willing to go, “Actually you know what, I had a massive cry; I heard my first bit of live music in ages from someone busking down the street and it made me weep.” Rachael and I have had these honest conversations; we barely knew each other at the beginning of this process but we were incredibly frank about the state of our mental health, because it informs how you are able to work that particular day. To take it out from this into something bigger, I have noticed that across the conversations I’ve been having with people outside of this organization, I work with a charity (Play For Progress) that connects music with young refugees, and everyone I’ve been speaking to, this shift in approach has been really apparent. But it feels really exemplary in terms of the structure Rachael has set up here, and I think it would be a real shame to return to a situation where we’re not being sensitive to other peoples’ well-being in the way that we’re working.

That word “fragility”, even in the arts, is perceived as a weakness; I wonder how much that’s changing and how much work is a form of therapy right now.

RH I need to be accountable, I need to have people relying on me to provide something, I have to have a purpose, even if it’s to empty the bins and put the chairs out – I have to have a purpose. Knowing you were expecting me at a certain time today made me think about this, I had a bath last night and washed my hair. When all my singers were expecting an email or responding to a form or whatever, to have a purpose and be accountable for something means that what I can give artistically has a value, because somebody is waiting for it, somebody needs it and somebody appreciates it. That’s what it is for me.

Tamzin Aitken, producer, arts, classical, London, VOPERA

VOPERA Producer Tamzin Aitken

TA I think it’s interesting that as a culture, and in Western culture particularly, when we meet someone new the question is, “What do you do?” I desperately want to get away from that as a conversation opener, but it’s shorthand for “Who are you?”… I think so much of our sense of self and identity is tied up in our work and particularly where that work has a sense of vocation – and for a lot of creatives, it does, it goes beyond a societal-role thing, it’s identifying you as your work when you’re an artist, at least to some extent – but there are so many people who’ve lost their jobs or had contracts canceled or had no focus at all over these months, that their sense of self and identity has just been really damaged. So with this we’ve had a lot of feedback from singers who said what Rachael has said, that having a focus, something to prepare for, having music to learn and rehearsals in the schedule, having a diary, and also having a date to look forward to, when that work will be shared, has been really meaningful.

RH We had rehearsal schedules, a number of weeks that were packed with back-to-back rehearsals, whether it was French coaching on one laptop or music coaching on another laptop, and I had to generate those rehearsal schedules. And I’ve spoken to performers and they said, “It is not the curtain calls and the opening night’s applause that we miss – we miss getting the emails and the ‘Oh no, I’ve read the callsheet wrong!’ and the ‘Oh God I did that audition!’ and ‘I have to be here at such-and-such time’ – it’s all the stuff in-between. This operation is global, so we’re working with people all over the world, and we had about six weeks’ worth of rehearsal in one way or another, all spread out, and nobody was late. Never. Whatever timezone they were in, whatever problems they were having, not once was anybody late. And I think that shows how much people needed this.

And you were very clear from the beginning that people were to be paid for this. As a freelancer, that’s very meaningful! This attitude that creative work, especially online work, isn’t real wor and that “exposure is payment” are horribly diminishing, but they seem to have proliferated throughout the pandemic. Did you have a payment model from the beginning?

RH There was never any question about it. Because not paying people is wrong.

TA You’ve articulated it well, Catherine – it’s not a hobby; it’s peoples’ profession. And loving your work doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s work. I think… there have been people who’ve said to us, “Oh, don’t worry about paying me, it’s meant so much I’ve been able to do this!” and you adamantly say, “NO, that’s not acceptable.”

RH We chase those people like, “Really, you’ve earned this, you are valuable to us, we needed you!” And we spent a long time fundraising.

TA It speaks to the collaborative, ensemble nature of this project as well, that every single person gets paid and it’s a very equitable structure. I think we can be candid about this, that we have a series of budgets in terms of our fundraising structure; there was a bare minimum we knew we had to meet in terms of paying people, and singers, a lot of the people we’re working with, had their contracts cancelled for a whole year, so that’s 12 months’ worth of work down the drain. This in no way replaces that, but this feels important, that those people get paid first. It’s a very new way for me to work, and we’ve had incredible generosity from a couple individuals and foundations, and then loads of people in the community, those who’ve lost work or those who love the arts, they’ve all made small donations as we go. We’ve got this structure for each bit we fundraise so that everyone involved gets a fee increase, a percentage more as we go up. It’s been really important to say to people, “We know you’re getting hit” – and at a point in time when there’s so much uncertainty with so many people who, for whatever reason, have fallen through the cracks in terms of getting support, when there are artists outside the UK, in America and across Europe, who’ve had various levels of support or had none at all, it feels really important they are able to do professional paid work.

Is this something you could see continuing as a model? 

RH The thing is, it’s the piece, this piece is structured so that there is no more than one singer in one scene, there are a lot of scenes that only have one person in them, so it lends itself very well to how we’ve managed to put this together. If somebody asked me to do a Traviata or Carmen like this it would be very different, and it would be very difficult, but by no means impossible. I had somebody the other day ask whether this is the future of opera, and no, it’s not the future of opera, but, there is certainly a very important and valid place for projects like this in the future of opera. The audience we have – before, they were a theatre-going audience, they’d go to the opera, or concert halls or the National Theatre, that’s what they loved to do, those people now watch content online; we would never have been able to convince them before this happened to sit on the sofa and log onto Youtube. They’d have said “No way i’m not watching an opera on a bloody computer monitor or TV!” – but now they do, and they are very willing to experience art in that way. We’d never have got this audience and we cannot now just say, “Oh, let them go, they’re not our audience.”

TA Being really candid, I applaud all the efforts there have been to put content online, but I struggle with work that has been designed for a live context, that has just been filmed and transplanted onto a screen; I think it’s partly because the exchange of live theatre is so specific, and so personal, that sense of being an individual and a collective in that specific space is really unique to being in a live venue, and i struggle with an art form where i ought to be able to choose where my focus is, or where the artistry of what’s onstage directs my focus but it’s still within my power to look to the right of the stage; I struggle with something that’s been edited which dictates what my focus is or where it should be.

This is precisely the issue I have with so many online broadcasts, that dictation of attention.

TA It’s a challenge. So I think what’s exciting about this is that it’s been specifically designed to be online only; you are not getting a diluted version, it’s its very own product. In terms of doing something else like this, I think we might be in this (pandemic) for some time, it will go up and down as the virus takes its course, so I think this is a way of letting this sort of work continue. I have yet to see anything that’s been made the way this has been made. I’ve seen other things that have been created as a film but i’ve not seen anything like this, and that’s quite exciting.

Whose idea was the green screen process? 

RH it was the biggest idea I wish I’d never had! (laughs) The big reason is that when you perform in front of a green screen to a mobile phone, it is exhausting, far more than anything else I’ve ever done. It is so draining, your energy has to be so focused and so high. And yes, because we can only use our household bubble, my partner Mark, he’s in quite a few of the scenes, he got roped into it, but said yes straight away. He had to learn choreography and all kinds of stuff. It was rather brilliant. The last project I did in the old world was in a production of The Duchess Of Malfi – I was the Duchess. I’d just done this massive Jacobean tragedy onstage and film acting as well, so I thought (in doing this), “Being in front of a camera will be a walk in the park compared to all that” but let me tell you: twenty minutes of green screen work is just as hard as a three-and-a-half-hour Jacobean tragedy.

TA My favorite moment of each day is when Rachael sends me the raw, behind-the-scenes, unedited footage, with she and Mark in a bit of costume doing this incredibly detailed movement work. It’s brilliant, it makes my day!

RH It’s at the stage now where we’re editing it and if we see something that doesn’t work me and my editor go, “Oh no, I know what you’re going to say, go put the costume on, do it again!”

shed, studio, green screen, VOPERA, Rachael Hewer, performance, theatre, creationAnd your studio is a little shed?

RH It’s a tiny little shed! We got green paper from the stationers, stuck it with glue onto cardboard, and nailed the cardboard onto the inside of the shed. Me and Mark cannot stand side by side in there, it’s that small, but people who watch will not know any of this.

So who will watch, do you think?

RH This is always the challenge with directing an opera: you have an audience that has every recording and they’ve come for a specific aria or singer, and then you’ve got another audience who’s never been to an opera before and it all sounds like screaming in another language. It’s impossible to cater for that range of people; it is a universal sort of timeless problem and challenge.

TA It’s a conversation that comes up so often in houses and with any kind of performing company in any structure, and the answer, I think, is it’s always about authentic storytelling. I think the stories you choose to tell then become important, people need to see and hear their own stories being told in the first person but some of opera is so fantastical and weird that nobody’s story is being told, yet you can find narratives that work, which are universal. I do believe in investing in new opera for that reason, but any conversation requires you to speak authentically, and to speak transparently, and to bring yourself to the conversation. With this production, everyone was so emotionally open throughout the whole process, so it’s an emotionally open and honest work, and the production is not only a response to the opera itself, but to the situation we find ourselves in now; it will speak to whoever shows up to it. There’s a job to do in terms of making people feel empowered to show up and feeling they can participate without excluding anyone else who’s showing up. I think it’s about authenticity of communication.

Alexander Shelley: ” There’s Difficulty And Challenge Right Now But Also Opportunity”

Alexander Shelley, conductor, maestro, British, culture, music, NACO

Photo: Rémi Thériault

Alexander Shelley marked his birthday this year in the one spot he probably wants to be more than any other: in front of an orchestra. The Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra and Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is back rehearsing live, with musicians at Ottawa’s Southam Hall, in preparation for the first in a series of live-streamed concerts starting October 17th. Shelley traveled to Ottawa from his native UK in September, having endured the lockdown, like so many in the music world, worrying, wondering, and willing the return of the live music experience in whatever way possible. He is, like his music world colleagues, cautiously optimistic but also clearly anxious to make (and mark) a Canadian return, in Ottawa and then in Quebec, before conducting duties in Luxembourg later this month. November sees more concerts in Ottawa, as well as a date in Germany with baritone Thomas Hampson and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni in a concert with the Würth Philharmoniker and featuring the music of Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Richard Rodgers, and Irving Berlin.

This hopscotch of music and travel, while normal for many conductors and certainly noteworthy in the pandemic era, is also something of a strong symbol of Shelley’s wide-ranging, some might argue even daring, musical pursuits. He has led no less than 32 world premieres, a list which is ever-growing, and he is just as comfortable performing jazz and pop sounds as he is musical works firmly within the established classical canon. If anything, Shelley’s aim may well be to widen and expand that canon, and his NAC Orchestra programming for this autumn seems like a good underlining of that intent. The group’s first concert will feature works by Canadian and American composers, including Lyric for Strings by George Walker, the first Black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music; the orchestra’s second concert features works by contemporary composers including Marjan Mzetich, Hannah Kendall, and Jessie Montgomery together with Violet Archer’s 1968 work Sinfonietta and Henri Tomasi’s 1956 work Concerto for trombone (the soloist is Hillary Simms, co-founder of The Canadian Trombone Quartet, the country’s first professional all-female trombone quartet). The creative curiosity which marks so much of Shelley’s artistic output did not come about in a vacuum.  Hailing from a decidedly creative lineage (his father is pianist and conductor Howard Shelley; he was taught piano by his mum and cello by his grandmother), Shelley’s resume is one that is a living embodiment of The Daily Telegraph‘s assertion of him as “a natural communicator both on and off the podium.” In 2005 Shelley thought up the idea for the 440Hz project in Germany, a concert series aimed to attract younger audiences to classical music; the series included various famous figures from the worlds of German stage and screen, including electronic music duo Blank & Jones, pop acapella group Wise Guys, and soprano Marlis Petersen. That same year he took the top prize at the 2005 Leeds Conducting Competition, which formally launched him onto the international stage and led to his leading a number of orchestras including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. In 2009 Shelley was named Chief Conductor of the Nürnberger Symphoniker, a position he held until 2017, undertaking numerous tours and recorded live performances during his tenure. His operatic conducting includes leading works by Lehár and Gounod at Royal Danish Opera, Mozart works at Opera North and Opéra national de Montpellier, Puccini at Opera Lyra (Ottawa), and the 1967 Harry Somers opera Louis Riel at both the National Arts Centre and the Canadian Opera Company. In 2014 Shelley worked with violinist Daniel Hope as part of the album Escape To Paradise: The Hollywood Album (Deutsche Grammophon), together with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Quintet of the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin; the album is an eclectic mix of sounds celebrating composers known for their film scores, including Miklos Rozsa, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and Ennio Morricone, and also featured performances by pop star Sting and German crooner Max Raabe.

album, music, record, CD, Schumann, Brahms, Darlings of the muses, Analekta, Shelley, classical, NAC Orchestra, Canada, Germany, cover, art, design

Darlings Of The Muses was released in May 2020 by Canadian classical label Analekta.

Named Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) in Ottawa in 2015, Shelley’s highly creative programming has integrated the worlds of dance, history, and contemporary music in a fun and lively if equally educational mix. The orchestra’s 2019 tour to parts of Europe, Scandinavia, and the UK featured the work of numerous Canadian composers and artists, and also encompassed localized community events and learning initiatives along the way. In November 2018 the orchestra performed Britten’s War Requiem together with members of the Bundesjugendorchester (the Germany National Youth Orchestra, with whom he has toured) to mark the end of the First World War. Shelley’s award-winning discography with the NAC Orchestra and Canadian independent classical label Analekta features many works by living Canadian composers (including Jocelyn Morlock, John Estacio, Kevin Lau, and Ana Sokolović) alongside works by Dvořák, Ravel, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shelley and the NAC Orchestra’s latest album is Clara-Robert-Johannes: Darlings Of The Muses (Analekta), released earlier this year. It is the first of four planned albums which aim to explore the creative and intimate connections between Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. Along with Schumann’s and Brahms’s First Symphonies is Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, performed by pianist Gabriela Montero. Gramophone‘s Farach-Colton noted at its release that “there’s an improvisatory quality to Montero’s playing that highlights the music’s florid inventiveness“, which is noteworthy, as it’s a quality that flows through the whole of the album. Montero performs four related (and very beautiful indeed) improvisations based on and inspired by the work of Clara Schumann herself, and it’s these improvisations which cleverly if sensitively bridge the work of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, all three  towering figures about whom Shelley himself can speak at length and in great detail, about the smallest details in scoring to broader contemporaneous social concepts, all whilst betraying a clear delight in his subjects and their creative output.

This joyous communicativeness is something that makes Shelley such an engaging maestro and music educator; all the old-school ideas about conductors being cold and heady are swept aside in his friendly, engaging banter. Since the start of his tenure at the NAC he has hosted Shelley Notes, a regular series of engaging concert introductions which contextualize various works performed by the Orchestra. Over the course of the lockdown earlier this year he continued his hosting duties, albeit in altered form, with Musically Speaking, a chat series featuring a variety of figures in and around the classical world; his first guest was violinist James Ehnes, the incoming Artist In Residence with the NAC Orchestra. The conductor and I spoke last month about bringing live music back to a live setting and why that matters, particularly within a North American context, as well as about the wide range of programming the NACO is offering this autumn, and why he feels Gabriela Montero is precisely the right person to appear on the orchestra’s recent Schumann/Brahms album.

Alexander Shelley, conductor, maestro, British, culture, music, NACO, live, performance, orchestra

Photo: Dwayne Johnson

How have you noticed differences, traveling between the UK and Canada, in attitudes toward bringing classical music performance back to the stage?

Last season I did concerts on six continents, which was quite an extraordinary experience, and I got to see how different people think and relate to culture; in each country people have a sense that the way they do it is the norm, and I find the same is true during this pandemic. Reading news from Germany and speaking to friends there, and in Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, and North America, is that the way different countries are responding and thinking is very different, but everyone is doing the best thing and the most appropriate thing they feel is necessary. In mainland Europe, concertizing came back quite a few months ago. The only dates that remain in my diary apart from NAC Orchestra ones are in Luxembourg and Germany; the ones in Hong Kong and Australia and London are all gone for the fall, and no one can be sure whether they can get audiences in the hall. They’ve found a way in Germany – they have the (infection) numbers more under control – but other countries in the EU are all approaching it differently. Everybody works differently in responding to the numbers they’re seeing in different cities and towns. But in some places, yes, the performing arts are dying because there’s no performances – there’s no revenues, no turnover for audiences coming in. The Royal Philharmonic is seeping money, and the players don’t have any security or support. The things we take for granted, the great institutions we take for granted like The Royal Phil and other orchestras, may really not survive. There’s a fine line between lobbying for them and their continuance – and related to that, offering audiences that all-important catharsis and a conversation about what it means to live through art – and at the same time respecting the public health guidelines. I’m glad I don’t have to run a country and make these very, very hard choices, where you’re stuck between a wall and a hard place.

But that “hard place” seems to be very slowly softening in places; how much do you think your upcoming dates with the NAC Orchestra might be perceived as a broader symbol for the return of live classical culture in North America?

I think I feel like we have a responsibility as a national organization to be trying to serve our audiences. People need music – it is essential. People need the arts. They’re not some added extra once you have everything else sorted out. Humans have expressed the need for culture through millenia; they speak to needs that transcends language by definition, they reach those place words and even concrete thought can’t reach. It’s sometimes a pure sense of being, as all of us who are involved in the arts are well aware. So on the one hand we feel we have a responsibility to reach audiences and serve them, and at the same time, we are in a position to be able to carry on creating content. During the lockdown our musicians were at home but able to quickly pivot to putting stuff out there, and we had a team who worked with the website and social media. We had the #CanadaPerforms movement which was not just classical but featured all genres, and we had artists across the country with a platform there to perform. It was very important something was coming out, that people could hear and see music being performed live. We need to carry that forward now, and we have ambitious plans for the coming months, because we feel the National Arts Centre needs to be serving the nation in any way we can.

So primarily it’ll be streaming, at least initially, though when I say “primarily” our assumption is the largest number of people we’ll reach is through our streaming, but we will be getting the orchestra back together, we will be back rehearsing soon – we’ve made an important pivot with our work here digitally, but yes, the live experience is vital. I spoke to the Friends of NACO when I arrived back in Ottawa, on Zoom of course, and I pointed something out to them which I think every performing artists is very aware of, which is that our performance is different when there are people there, even if it’s 10 people: you perform differently, the experience is different, the sound is different, the actual product is transformed by the presence of people there, live. It is a communal experience in the deepest sense. And just as with any communal experience, the presence of people who partake in it and care about it changes the actual experience. I said flat-out that it’s not just about having people working back in the hall, which is of course nice and good in an economic sense, but it’s fundamentally important to us to not be performing to an empty space but to take music we perform to a direct and live audience and engage in live feedback from those listeners. And that is of course, one of several things that, even if we’re not aware of it, we miss in the digital realm, that immediate feedback, you can sense it even as a listener if you’re watching a concert on a TV screen or computer or cellphone, whatever, but you know you are not offering that actual feedback as part of a performance, so of course you miss it. And all people can do now is plan, but of course changing circumstances mean we may not, but our plan is to start with 50 guests in the hall and, as quickly as possible, ramp that up, so that over the coming months more and more patrons can join us in the hall, and then, fingers crossed, in the new year, we would hope to start getting back to full numbers, but let’s take it one step at a time.

How does that return to live performance blend with your work as the Music Director?

Ever since I’ve worked with this orchestra, I fell in love not only with the ensemble but this model of a national arts institution; it’s vital to keep asking one’s self not only how we can serve our community in Ottawa but to ask what role a such an organization can play in a national sort of way. You can’t have delusions of grandeur – there are so many other wonderful organizations already in Canada who also engage nationally and internationally – but I do think we can ask if there are gaps we can fill. Within the model of funding – the NAC Orchestra’s funding comes directly from the federal government – we ask, how does one respond to such a responsibility and privilege? In many ways I think of it like public broadcasters; you have, at the core of your responsibility, to do those things which are a harder sell commercially – that’s a privilege as well.

Your latest album is very ambitious – how was it conceived? Did you say, “Right, four albums, everything, all of this, off we go” or was it, “Let’s try this and see where it goes” ?

I think there are a few starting points that coalesced. There are lots of stories in music about composers, and you notice people who’ve watched Amadeus feel they have a connection to Mozart, they feel they know more about his music and life – but those of us in the industry are very aware of these stories, and how some stories are more myths than they are accurate. One particularly fascinating triumvirate for me has always been the relationship between Robert Schumann, his wife Clara, and Johannes Brahms. I think many who explored their music and their lives become fascinated by it. Without a doubt, Robert Schumann and Brahms are more household names now, and one could explore the reasoning for that over the centuries; I’m sure there’s an aspect of gender politics in there, but putting that aside for a second and looking at how they were viewed and thought of in their own lifetimes, Clara was, for the majority of the time in which all of them co-existed, the most famous of the three. She was renowned across Europe as one of the great pianists and one of great improvisers; she was known for her composition as well. So she was the artistic character in that triumvirate, the one the two men looked up to and respected, the one from whom they drew inspiration, and I think that’s a lovely story to remind oneself of. It means when you engage with Schumann or Brahms symphonies you are able to connect through to the woman who inspired them, and who also gave them very important feedback and guided them in many ways on their respective journeys. Now if you bear in mind she also had how many children, and ran the household, this was an extraordinary person, the spirit and the energy and talent it took to do all those things, together with the fact her husband was a brilliant man but he was troubled…

He was ill… 

Yes, very ill, and she managed that too, and then she met this other brilliant man, Brahms, who was taken under Robert’s wings, with whom she had a deep friendship. It’s one of the mysteries of music history, whether their platonic love for one another was ever consummated; for me it’s unimportant, because their friendship was rather transcendental – how they affected one another was transcendental. After Robert passed, Clara’s musical friendship with Brahms, and the influence she had on him creatively, was fundamental to the history of music and to classical music development, so that story is at the heart of why I wanted us to create this set of albums. On the one hand, the Schumann and Brahms symphonies are core repertoire for this orchestra, it’s work that fits our instrumentation like a glove; we’re a small symphony orchestra or a large chamber orchestra if you will, so the music fits with our precise instrumentation. These two sets of symphonies mirror each other nicely as well; written twenty years apart, they are intimately connected by the two men who played off one another, particularly Brahms playing off Schumann. Both were trying to solve a problem: after Beethoven symphonies, when you had artists like Liszt and Wagner going off in one direction, which was very programmatic, how do you continue in that abstract music vein of writing symphonies? They both offered up solutions over the course of these four symphonic works. Also, between Schumann completing his four symphonies and Brahms starting and completing his one four symphonies, the entire (Wagner) Ring Cycle was written; that’s something which is so interesting for setting the scene, particularly for Brahms’s symphonies, because it helps to explain criticism at the time, that they seemed like chamber music, which is an aspect I wanted us to grab and explore in these recordings.

It’s very palpable, that chamber quality– it’s one not always apparent within other performances. The music of Brahms is often presented in this muscular, macho way… 

Two of the reviews, picked up said opening is too fast in Brahms’s First – of course this was a very deliberate choice on my part, there is a tradition of hearing the opening of that symphony as this very heavy, epic, big timpani beat…

Clara Schumann, pianist, composer, musician, German, artist

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) in 1857. Photo: Franz Hanfstaengl / Wikimedia Commons

… which is rather macho  to my ears… 

… like a behemoth! And precisely my reason for setting it in the context of Schumann symphonies and also Clara’s music, which is infused as is Robert’s, with lightness and transparency and with that sonic element of chamber music, is to create context for that intro to the first symphony by Brahms. Yes, it is epic in a sense, because it’s setting the C Minor scene, and just like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony takes us from C Minor to C Major over the course of the symphony – so it’s a big journey. I was hoping listeners would understand the point that he, Brahms, was not coming from the music that was written after him, that great late Romantic music and epic statements; he was coming from Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann, he was coming from that chamber setting, from that sense of every line being equal, and of not wanting to over-egg the Romantic aspect at potentially the cost of the Classical architecture and line.

So I wrote in the notes about it, that it’s a very deliberate choice, and I hope there will be listeners who appreciate this perhaps different perspective. We have lots of recordings where it’s that big epic sound, but there’s also a take on it where it isn’t that – and, at the center of this cycle, is Clara herself. In this first album (of the series), I wanted us to present her biggest orchestral statement, which is also her Concerto statement. It’s the biggest work she wrote for orchestra; she wrote the last movement when she was thirteen years old, and in the years following she filled it out to a three-movement Concerto which she premiered with Mendelssohn conducting and the Leipzig Gewandhaus playing. The idea she was some “lost talent” isn’t true – she was highly respected in her time. Can you imagine a fifteen year-old girl performing, with Mendelsohn, her own Concerto?! That’s the level of appreciation we’re talking about in her time.

Why did you choose Gabriela Montero to play the music of Clara Schumann?

If I think of all the pianists on earth living now, who for me most embody who Clara Schumann was, it’s Gabriela Montero: she is a consummate improviser, she’ a composer, a virtuoso, a mother, she is all the things Clara was and is, and that she was able to join us and interpret this piece, is very special. This all connects back to when things were very different to what they are now in terms of concert performance – it would be completely normal when Clara performed a concert to perform a piece of her own and then do improvisations, and play a piece by Robert, and improvise, and then Mendelsohn, and so on. The same thing applied in big orchestral concerts, so I wanted us to get a sense of that philosophy. I asked Gabriela if she would improvise for us in the spirit of Clara as she feels her, and as you know, Gabriela is one of the great improvisers of our age, so she sat onstage in Southam Hall and improvised for an hour, and we selected a few of those to connect from the Concerto into Brahms’s First Symphony. It’s a proposition which, for many listeners, will be new and different, and is in keeping with the spirit of the age.

Alexander Shelley, conductor, maestro, British, culture, music, NACO

Photo: Rémi Thériault

Your contextualizing makes it approachable but still very intelligent. Speaking of contextualizing music, will you be doing more online artist chats?

Absolutely. We’ve put together what I believe is programming that speaks to the time we’re living through. I think we all watched not only COVID happening but concurrent to that, all the cultural conversations around identity and voice, and it would’ve felt very strange to us, to have come back and just done a Mozart or Beethoven concert without thinking about what responsibilities we have as a national organization. I wanted to program differently, and try to engage with audiences nationally and internationally, so each 90-minute concert will feature two next-generation Canadian artists; they’ve had hurdles put in their way and over the next season or two, it will certainly be more difficult to travel and be seen, and they need to be given opportunities to perform on a big stage and to grow, to be heard. I’ll be speaking with them, or a member of the orchestra may do, so there will be a platform to get to know them. We’re going to feature Canadian and American composers, living and not, with an emphasis on brilliant contemporary music, and still have so-called traditional names, like Mozart and Prokofiev and Chopin, but the focus will be on composers who are perhaps new names to some, but who are brilliant and deserve this platform. It’s been concerning all of us, can big cultural institutions respond to these conversations? And I don’t see why we can’t, or shouldn’t, especially right now. There’s difficulty and challenge right now but also opportunity – even those people who didn’t realize how much they needed live music now realize how important it is in life.

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