Tag: experience

Personal Essay: Exposure, Exchange & Freebie Culture

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At the Berlin Philharmonie. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Every morning amidst sips of strong coffee and self-exhortations related to baking (because a piece of good white bread, toasted, is suddenly so much work), I examine a raft of newly-arrived emails, skimming this one and that to distinguish the urgent from the not. Some of the messages contain links to videos, some feature video and audio material embedded within; some link to longer features at a formal website, some hold lengthy features within the boxy confines of the message itself, ribbons of rich text snaking down like bits of untidy morning hair scattered around shoulders, glinting in the morning sun. Some contain good news; most don’t. Another sip or two of coffee, a sigh, a look out the window, past the brick wall of a tiny garden to tree tops poking proudly up in the distance; the sight is a vital reminder to try and see a better, broader picture amidst the far more limiting and depressing immediate one. At certain times perspective is indeed the most vital thing – but sometimes it’s just as true that a bad view is simply a bad view, a bad location is a bad location, and that certain changes are quietly if firmly asking to be set in motion.

A favored activity of late is watching panels featuring  figures who are speaking outside of their immediate and respective comfort zones. One recent such event featured violinist Nicola Benedetti hosting classicist Mary Beard, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, and psychiatrist Raj Persaud; it was refreshing to experience such varied points of view about music and its effects; hearing Beard discuss Plato and his notions of music was a wonderfully bright bit of non-musicologist counterpoint. Another recent conversation featured conductor Alan Gilbert chatting with fellow maestro Herbert Blomstedt, a figure one might assume is not wholly used to speaking about music on Zoom. His jovial (and sometimes lengthy) hums of portions of Beethoven’s Third Symphony inspired, at the time of their delivery, a grab at the score off the shelf, and a mental note to devote energy to further examination – but oh, the humming was charming, a warm expression of humanity behind brilliance. I am presently looking forward to listening to Opera Holland Park’s Director of Opera, James Clutton, exchange views and insights with Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barrie Kosky. Such offerings, together with concerts broadcast on various international radio channels, have been effective at not only filling in various knowledge gaps, but in allowing a needed experience of community amidst the continued quarantine isolation resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s a great worth in to such activities, one which needs to be recognized, for the pseudo-normalcy such material provides is at once comforting and enlivening, even as concerts in certain locales, under strict conditions, continue to resume. The sound of applause in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche following Daniel Hope’s recent broadcast from the historical locale was gut-wrenching to hear through computer speakers, a happy if equally awful reminder of separation, communion, presence and absence, of a circle slowly being closed but revealing a yawning hole at its core, one that asks a nagging question: who’s being paid?

It’s a question being asked with more persistence as horrific economic realities settle in. Recently I took part in a Zoom conference which connected neurological reaction with online classical presentation, organized by the University of Oxford in collaboration with HEC Montréal (the graduate business school of the Université de Montréal). Numerous participants eagerly discuss their unique experiences (virtual and not) before discussion invariably turned to money: funding models, proper remuneration, the psychology inherent within the act of paying. One user subsequently commented that “I’ve found that I can really find any (event) online and for free, pre-recorded. However, I am much more likely to fully participate if I’ve had to pay a fee and strangely feel as if it’s of higher quality (untrue!). So that investment and ‘live’ element are crucial to me as a value indicator.” Observing the tide of rising doubt around online freebie culture has been interesting if somewhat painful, because it underlines the ugly and (for so long) taken-for-granted reality that writers, especially those with an arts beat, have faced for so long. My mother used to excoriate me for taking free work, when, still in my toddler-scribe stage, I would busily contribute to numerous large (and occasionally well-known) sites. “You’re giving away your talent,” she would say with exasperation, “to people who could well afford to pay you something. Just because they don’t know how to do business, you shouldn’t be the one helping them for nothing.” I would outwardly agree but feel inwardly trapped; was I really getting nothing? The choice between providing free work (which I wanted to believe opened a myriad of professional doors) or struggling in relative obscurity seems like a false one… and yet. The glittering of the promise of the internet, for a budding writer, depends so much on how willing one is to wade through a deep, dank swamp, for a very long time.

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Water Spout Depicting Pan Or a Satyr, 2nd-3rd century AD, limestone; Altes Museum Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That swamp became so deep through the immense devaluing of professional arts writing decades ago via the rise of digital and the related media/ad-tech/management decisions accompanying that ascent, decisions which still resonate and seem frustratingly entrenched within the media industry. As a writer, it’s terrible to feel consistently undervalued; it’s equally disheartening to continually donate your talent to large, faceless organizations without any form of reciprocal remuneration or recognition. I suspect, this is one reason why there are so many independent arts blogs in existence: people want an avenue for their passions, a place to share and sharpen and connect. The blogging world’s role and wider value within the classical ecosystem is a post for another day, but suffice to state here it is a world which bears contemplation, nay scrutiny, in direct relation to the concerns artists now express around the fairness (or not) of freebie culture. Awareness of individual value means retaining some measure of control over public offerings, which therefore necessitates the wilful exercise of choice in the implementation of remunerative properties. According to Buddhist belief, money is a form of energy, and as artists, it seems more important than ever to, as a 1996 article in Tricycle notes, “learn to ride this powerful energy, instead of being ridden by it.” I started this website in 2017 as a labour of love; its material, produced solely by yours truly, remains free for readers because it feels right to do so, as befits certain perceptions of me as an ambassador for music and the classical arts, which I am truly flattered by, but also take seriously. (Hopefully I don’t sound unbearably pretentious stating this.) I would far prefer to keep the unique value of that independence, in its myriad of forms, to myself, and carry my wonderfully faithful readership in that spirit, than give any bit of it (and me, and them) away.

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The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon, Egyptian, 1388-1351 BC, wood & serpentinite; Neues Museum Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That means any residual anger at the boss is worked out in front of a mirror, and whatever exposure (that infamous word) I gain is that which I am able to fully control, measure, and reinvest in and around pursuits and goals related firmly to gaining a broader perspective, for me, for the artists who interest and inspire, and for readers. I realize this isn’t sexy to advertisers, much less large swathes of music lovers, very much less the intelligentsia-musicology crowd I confess to sometimes feeling I need validation from. (Newsflash: writers are insecure.) But if there is to be any momentum in the classical ecosystem now, it behoves all of us, at all levels, to start thinking more carefully about ideas around exposure, exchange, and innovation. The notion of “giving” exposure to artists who produce cultural material for wide consumption across digital platforms in lieu of payment, by large (or even not-so-large) organizations needs to be more broadly and boldly questioned, for it calls into consideration the whole idea of how we, individually and collectively, think of culture and its role in our lives. A powerful recent editorial in The Guardian and today’s dire (if not unexpected) announcement from The Met force issues of cultural value to the fore. Should we care about culture in a time of pandemic and murder and social unrest? How much? Is culture (and its related written coverage) perceived as a leisure pursuit? An escapist activity? A pleasant diversion from Real Life? Should artists be giving songs, shows, concerts, ballets, paintings, plays, and poetry (writing) out of the sheer goodness of their hearts?

Amidst the sudden closures and cancellations that took place in March there was an intense whirlwind of sudden online activity and free offerings from classical artists, a panicked logic that shrieked the understandably obvious. Large outlets with paid models (The Met, the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper) were suddenly giving work away, standing, rather bizarrely, toe-to-toe with choirs and freelance musicians who were willingly performing from balconies, living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen tables, suddenly grappling with cameras, microphones, angles, lighting, and the interminable joys of uploading, trying to balance self-promotion with communal experience and needed connection while ensuring their presence in a piece of unprecedented history. There was a wonderful and refreshing underlining of personality in some quarters. Lisette Oropesa’s warm exchanges, and the vivacious work done by Chen Reiss (for online interview series Check The Gate), for instance, revealed them both to be the plain-speaking, earthy sopranos I conversed with in respective past chats. I suspect many classical artists enjoyed (or are still enjoying) the experience of a quite literally captive audience, a heady and unusual mix of accidental and intentional, and why not? In those early quarantine days, keeping access free was not only a nice gesture but vital for business.

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Wigmore Hall. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Nevertheless, with the current resumption of concerts in some places and continued quarantine in others, the virtual is becoming tied to the real, the fantasy of a past normalcy tied to current financial reality. Desperate times call for stark if/then mathematics: if you want this album, then pay for it. If you want that performance, then pay for it. Artists are realizing it can be difficult if not impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube once a precedent for free content has been established, with related expectations for its continuance. I strongly suspect certain events are about to have paid models applied to them, in various forms. Zoom conferences, like the HEC one I participated in recently, will, sooner than later, become paid events. Would I pay to watch/listen to a panel featuring Benedetti, Cargill, and Beard, or Maestros Gilbert and Blomstedt, or Clutton/Kosky? Yes. Wigmore Hall has just resumed weekday performances, with broadcasts (online, radio) in collaboration with BBC Radio 3, but one wonders what will happen after the end of June; will there be a paid model? The Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall has returned to its own subscription-based service, while many opera houses are currently offering limited-run broadcasts of past productions. One wonders about all the discussions taking place around offering new models that might allow greater user flexibility and personalization of (especially live) experience. Crow’s Theatre in Toronto recently offered a (delivered) gourmet dinner from a local restaurant with a live presentation of their theatricalized staging of Master And The Margarita, all for a set price; Tafelmusik has paired with a local gelateria for their at-home listening experiences. Conductor Vasily Petrenko, in the most recent edition of his (excellent) Lockdown Talks series, flat-out asks Jonathan Raggett (Managing Director of the Red Carnation Hotels chain) if he thinks a future partnership between orchestras and hotels might be possible in terms of chamber presentations in conference/ballrooms. Everyone is madly examining the possibilities of alternative revenue streams with this, the new normal of cultural presentation and experience, even as we try to absorb what feels, many days, like a never-ending stream of shock and sadness.

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At the Berlin Philharmonie. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The ugly reality is, after all, that many outlets and individuals are facing bankruptcy. Nimbleness, while lovely as a concept, is not something easily, quickly enacted or adaptable to many lives, and exposure, or even its promise, does not (as so many writers know) pay bills/rent/mortgage, much less provide the stones that could line the pathways leading to such dreamed-of stability – but the promise of exposure is a terribly tempting, a solid-looking thing to hop on (equally so the “tip jar”) that is proving itself to be naught but a rusty anchor with one clear direction. The question remains: what are we willing to pay for? How does spending relate to the (vital, right now) notion of scarcity? What value do we place on the experience of community? It behoves artists to stop being squeamish about openly discussing proper remuneration, just as much as it behoves us to start considering the broader ecosystem that allows this form of energy to fully flow – an ecosystem that surely includes the written word as much as the sung note, as much as the open string, as much as the pressed valve and held tone. Certainly it can be intoxicating at seeing one’s work enjoyed and shared by many, in revelling in attention and praise; digital culture exacerbates this attachment, and indeed it is sometimes an energetic black hole of a swamp one might choose to never leave. But it is vital to know when one is able to walk on stilts, and to trot away proudly, not looking back.

Lately I have experienced tremendous doubts about this website’s continued existence, ones specifically tied to my overall worth as a writer. If I’m not getting paid by a big mainstream outlet, do I have any real worth? How can I possibly compete with intellectual types who have the backing of far larger organizations and fanbases? Do I have anything remotely worthy to contribute through my writing or other creative efforts? Would that feeling be altered were I to receive remuneration, or what might, in Buddhist terms, be called reciprocal energy? Should I cease public writing entirely? I keep looking  up to the treetops, trying to imagine a clearer, better view. Notions of worth, value, and self-doubt are things everyone in the classical world grapples with at the best of times. Perhaps more thinking, more coffee, and a higher pair of stilts are required. Perhaps it’s time to find a better view.

Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone And Together

Bayerische Staatsoper corona virus Igor Levit classical music performance series empty hall

Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

Berlin Philharmonic concert empty hall Philharmonie performance classical conductor orchestra music live

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

Bayerische Staatsoper corona virus Nagy Muller opera classical music performance series empty hall

Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

sea shore rocks sky blue scene clouds

Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

bread baking homemade kitchen aroma warm bake oven

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

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

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Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786) by Tischbein

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

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

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

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

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Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler

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

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hui He: Building Connection Through The Voice

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Met opera Butterfly Minghella stage performance classical singing culture

Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

Hui he has a voice one can’t help but notice, a big, juicy, Italianate sound, the sort of sound I grew up with, the sort of sound my Italian-opera-loving mother loved so much. If there’s a nostalgia in enjoying He’s voice so much, so be it; hers is a voice that very much puts the “grand” in grand opera.

He started out her studies in China at the Xi’an Conservatory of Music, and made her debut as Aida (yes, really) in a 1998 production marking the opening of Shanghai Grand Theater. In 2000 she won second place at the prestigious Operalia competition, and a year later, first prize at the Concorso Internazionale Voci Verdiane in Verdi’s hometown of Busseto. Since then, she’s become a mainstay on European stages and has appeared at a number of prestigious houses, including Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala di Milano, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra de Paris, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Semperoper Dresden, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Oper Zürich; last season she made her debut at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels) as the title role in a new production of La Gioconda. He made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2010, as the title character in Aida, a signature role she has recorded twice on DVD, in 2011 with Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and conductor Zubin Mehta, and again in 2012, at the immense Arena di Verona under conductor Daniel Oren. What with 2013 marking the 200th year of Verdi’s birth, He returned to Aida (at La Scala Milan), and also took part in a performance of the composer’s Requiem in Verona, where she is based.

It’s probably fair to state that the soprano is something of a specialist when it comes to performing the Italian composer’s music; she’s appeared in productions of Un ballo in maschera, Il trovatore, La forza del destino, Ernani, and Stiffelio, as well as the famous Aida. She’s also known for her passionate approach to verismo roles, and has appeared in productions of Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, and Tosca (the latter being a role that greatly aided in her breakthrough in Europe, starting with her performance at Teatro Regio di Parma in 2002). He ably demonstrates her immense vocal gifts (not wrongly described as “wine dark“) on her 2007 album of Verdi and Puccini arias (Oehms Classics), which is filled with a myriad of well-known gems from both composers, including heartfelt renditions of beloved arias from Aida, Butterfly, and Tosca, and imbuing each note with pungent, visceral drama. A personal favorite is her deeply expressive performance of “Liberamente or piangi” from Attila, lovingly phrased, with rich intonation and watchful dynamic control; it’s a showcase of beautiful vocal artistry. At her Lyric Opera debut in 2012 (in Aida), the Chicago Tribune noted He “possesses a healthy, flexible, warmly beautiful spinto voice backed by solid technique and fine musical intelligence. Her big voice opened up easily in the big climaxes […] and brought out the melting lyricism in Aida’s many tender phrases.”

“Melting lyricism” is a good way to describe her approach to the album’s two tracks from Turandot, performances which, over a decade ago now, offered a preview of a role she debuted earlier this year at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. She explained her slowness in taking on the part of Turandot in an interview during rehearsals for the production, noting that, outside of her vocal technique not being ready until this year, she “didn’t want to play this character so early, especially because being Chinese, I would risk that companies would only want me for this role.” (He will be performing it again at the Shanghai Opera House this December.) Another role debut earlier this year was Mimi in La bohème at the Festival Puccini Torre del Lago. The new year brings yet another role debut, as the title character in early Verdi opera Alzira at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège.

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Met opera Butterfly Minghella stage performance classical singing culture

Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

He is currently performing the role of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly at the Met through the end of November. It’s a role she’s frequently performed in Europe (Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Den Norske Opera Oslo, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro Real de Madrid, and Gran Teatre del Liceu, to name a few), at Los Angeles Opera, and in New York too; her appearance in the current Anthony Minghella production marks her third time singing the role with the house. He and I recently had the chance to chat on a quiet Sunday afternoon, even as the sounds of ever-busy Manhattan buzzed in the background.

How old when you first heard opera?

When I was 18 years old I heard La bohème for the first time. the first time I listened I didn’t understand Italian or anything, but I fell in love with the voices and the music. I decided to be a singer very late — I like singing very much but I didn’t have a musical family. The  first opera I saw live was Turandot, in 1996, in Beijing. I didn’t understand it very well —or really understand what opera would come to mean for me — but really, seeing it was this amazing world. I never thought I’d be a professional opera singer at that time, but seeing Turandot… I still remember the beautiful staging.

At that time, China would only present opera a few times a year, not like now! Now it’s a completely different thing; in a very short time China grew to have a lot of theatre. But at that time, China only had classical opera, I mean, Western opera, about once or twice a year. You could see it in Beijing or Shanghai — I’m from Xi’An, the ancient capital of China. It’s a very beautiful city, and very old. I got my start singing the music of Verdi very young.  

How has your understanding of Verdi’s music changed? You’ve been  singing it for a long time now.

Starting out in China I had a very good feeling with my voice for Aida, that my voice was very suited to it. Of course the first time I sang it was different than it is now; my voice, my body, everything changed. My experience changed, especially when I went to Italy — now I speak very good Italian! — but it’s very different, singing it now from twenty years ago. Everything became more mature. It’s a very natural and logical progression.

Do you notice differences in audiences? That the ones in the U.S. are different to the ones in Austria and Germany and England and China?

For me audience difference is not a problem, because I think what i need to do is, just do my best for every stage, in every city. I should show what is my best, give good quality, a maximum possibility for every performance. I think the music, the language, is a very special language, it’s connects with some very special part of life. The language of music through the voice can connect people, even those who have very far-apart cultures. In twenty-one years of career, I’ve seen many different cities and countries, in the West and the East. My main stages are in Europe and America. I think the most important thing is when I am onstage, I must show the best of what I feel that day. Yes, every audience is a different feeling, but if I do my best, and if I’m enjoying the show, then the audience will enjoy the show also.

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Met opera Butterfly Minghella stage performance classical singing culture

Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

It’s been observed that Italy is very concerned with voice, and that in England and Europe there’s more focus on the theatrical aspect. What have you found?

I think this is a special thing, because Italy, yes — if you don’t have a voice, even if you’re a great actor, it won’t work — but also in Germany and England and some other places, there’s more concentration on drama. But I think as an opera singer, there are two important things: one is music, and one is acting. The audience can hear you and they can see you. You can’t say, “I’m very good vocal person and I’m a very bad actor —  but I can still give a maximum performance” — no. It is always together.

You have to be a good actor, and have a beautiful voice, and have very good musicians. It’s many things together. I sing a lot of Puccini, and Puccini roles demand good acting — of course the voice is important, because if you don’t have the voice you can’t finish the opera. If you don’t have the technical basis, you can’t finish the opera. Also I’m a Verdi soprano, and when I sing Verdi, the most important thing is having good technique to sing every note musically — but acting is important too. If both things work, then you get success; if it’s only one thing, there’s no success.

Has that idea evolved in relation to the growth of Live in HD broadcasts?

I think it’s important as an actor to be aware of the theatrical aspect, but the singing is still very important. Singing well needs a lot of things: your vocal technique, your intonation, your musicality, your ability and balance, everything. This is the way we work and study every day, to be a good singer. I think for HD it’s important to be a good actor, but if the audience doesn’t hear a good sound from the voice, if there’s a problem with intonation or whatever musical problem, then they can’t accept it, even in the cinema.

The drama is very much written into the music — with Tosca and Butterfly, for instance, the drama is so palpably within the notes.

That’s true!

Often it takes the right conductor to bring it out in just the right way.

The conductor is really very important for the opera because the conductor, if they can understand singers and their sense of approach, and learn about the drama and the music during the drama, how to bridge it between singer and orchestra — yes, that’s helpful! I’ve met many great conductors, like Pier Giorgio Morandi — he’s a great conductor and he is very understanding of singers. Not many always understand the singer’s challenges. Sometimes everything has a different musical feeling or make different demands on the breath, so the conductor should be very understanding and comprehend those demands, and that leads to chemistry, being able to work together. That’s very important, because if the conductor can sing with the singer inside, and has the feeling of the music the same way, then it will be a great overall result and you will feel the chemistry in the performance. When we are together, the audience can feel that. When the conductor is not with the singer…

You feel that also!

… yes, there are problems! I have to say, there are a lot of conductors who don’t understand singers. I think really good opera conductors help singers — they should first, be a great musician, secondly, have the sensibility of the singer, and third, a person who has a big enough heart to understand and deal with a lot of different situations with everybody — good at forming and cultivating relationships.

You will be doing a role debut of Alzira next year. What’s that like to prepare? It’s expanding your repertoire.

I’m very excited to do Alzira, and now I’ve been preparing at the Met with a pianist while doing Butterfly. I feel like it’s a new world. Alzira is like an exam of technique. Earlier Verdi music is really very difficult, it’s a bel canto type thing, there’s a lot of coloratura — it’s not like singing Puccini or verismo, it’s a really technical situation — so I’m very glad my studies are going well. I’ve never sung this kind of music, or anything in a bel canto style; in italy, I immediately started with Aida, Butterfly, Tosca, Trovatore, and a little bit of later Verdi repertoire, but now I can do earlier Verdi. I’ve done Attila and Stiffelio but Alzira is really a very good opera for me right now, to help me for technique. I remember my coach told me, “Singing Verdi is like a medicine for singers, because Verdi extends the technique.” So if you’re singing Verdi well you can improve your technical situation. Butterfly is a little bit heavy, but it’s also a long role; it has a lot of various demands on the voice. I don’t want it to be low, so this is why during Butterfly I’m learning Alzira —it helps my Butterfly, it helps keep my voice in a high position, which is good.

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Den Norske Oslo Opera stage performance classical singing culture

Photo ©️Erik Berg/Den Norske Opera

Does this mean you’ll be doing more bel canto? I’m curious what other roles might be in your future.

I haven’t done French repertoire, but I think my voice is more for Italian repertoire. I hope to debut Don Carlo, Elisabetta, and I hope I can, in the future, sing Norma, Frau Angelica, a lot of roles that would fit me. I already did Manon Lescaut — I love it very much, it’s one of my favourites — and I did Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, but I hope one day to sing Wagner. I think my voice is good for Tannhauser, Die Fliegende Hollander, and Tristan und Isolde. I hope I can enlarge my repertoire a little bit to sing different roles. I love to learn new roles, and I love learning new opera.

It makes you a better artist, to keep learning.

Of course — I like to work on different things at the same time. It’s why during this period I’m doing Butterfly but I’m learning Alzira, and I’m preparing a concert too. I’m enjoying it all!

Lera Auerbach: “It Only Matters If The Connection Happens”

composer conductor artist poet Auerbach Russian

Photo: N. Feller

Lera Auerbach is inspiring, and at first glance, more than a little intimidating.

A multi-talented artist, the Russian-born, US-based artist has a range of creative talents: she paints, she writes poetry, she conducts, she is a pianist and a composer. Auerbach’s relentless creative expression is epic in its scope but equally intimate in its manifestation. Gramophone’s Stephen Mudge has rightly observed that “(h)er texts have a universal dimension, rejecting religious dogma in favour of global spirituality” and though written in relation to Auerbach’s awesome, overwhelming Requiem (Dresden: An Ode to Peace), premiered in February 2012 (on the occasion of remembrance of Dresden’s destruction on February 13, 1945), it’s a feeling well applicable to large swaths of her oeuvre. Her works feel incredibly personal, as if one is peaking into a diary, and yet call to mind a very cosmic, broad sense of universal human experience. Her output includes chamber music, symphonies, requiems, concertos, solo piano work, and operas, and she’s worked with a range of gifted artists, including violinists Leonidas Kavakos, Hilary Hahn, Daniel Hope, Julian Rachlin, cellists Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, choreographer John Neumeier (with whom she has created three ballets), and organizations like Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Staatsoper Hamburg, Lincoln Center, Nuremberg State Theater, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, the Netherlands Dance Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada.

The aforementioned Ode to Peace, written when she was composer-in-residence with the Staatskapelle Dresden, incorporates forty language and integrates elements of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Its final movement is based on the famous “Dresden Amen” (a sequence of six notes sung by choirs during religious services in  since the early 1800s), a pattern used by Bruckner and Wagner as well, which the composer herself sets in six prayers within the framework of a large fugue. She told Opera News in 2014 that “when you face the abyss, that’s when your true self emerges.” Along with Dresden, Auerbach has been composer-in-residence with São Paulo Symphony, Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra, MusikFest Bremen, and Norway’s Trondheim Chamber Music Festival, which, as you’ll read, hosted a deeply memorable experience of her acapella opera, The Blind. Written in 1994 when Auerbach was a student at the Aspen Music Festival, it received its premiere in 2011 in Berlin, and was subsequently staged in New York in 2013 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck (the man behind Pelléas et Mélisande), Auerbach’s opera necessitates its audience members being blindfolded for its one-hour duration. The work is a good example of the kind of fearlessness with which Auerbach approaches her work, and the fearlessness she hopes audiences bring, or at least, a quality she, as a creator, hopes to inspire.

The all-piano album Preludes And Dreams (2006, BIS Records) is equally fearless in terms of scope, virtuosity and emotional weight, and is a particular favorite of mine. With its haunting blend of classical (snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth are clearly discernible in some passages), Russian (Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, and Shostakovich), and early 20th century sounds (notably Kurt Weill as well as Schoenberg), it is at once melodic, dissonant, lyrical, and jarring, Auerbach writes (and performs) gripping combinations of eerie chords and sweeping, symphonic runs. The album is a good example of her approach: take her or leave her, but you cannot forget the forcefulness of her expressivity. As has been rightly noted, she “isn’t trying to do a backflip in order to please an audience.”

Exploring the sheer volume of her work the last few months left me feeling a little daunted at the prospect of meeting her at this year’s edition of the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, where she led a concert of her works with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra. As it turns out, I had little to fear. In person, Auerbach is engaging, charming, and very intense conversationally; she looks right into one’s eyes as she comfortably offers waterfalls of personal insights and thoughtful observations. With strong opinions on audiences, expectations, and engagement, Auerbach’s combination of committed artistry and earthy personality mean she’s constantly in demand: she’s currently in the U.S. with stops in California, Iowa, and New York, returns to Europe mid-month for performances in Germany and Belgium, then returns again to the US, and then again back to Europe. It was a blessing to catch her between gigs in her busy, buzzy creative life, and certainly offered a whole new way into the art of an immensely fascinating figure in contemporary music and art. Confident, yes; intimidating, no. Excelsior, Lera.

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Lera Auerbach leads the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestrat at the 2019 George Enescu Festival. Photo: Andrada Pavel

What’s been your experience working with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time?

We have had a great time together. I really enjoy this orchestra – they’re very serious, committed musicians, very creative. It’s been good music-making, with a good attitude. I really enjoyed it.  And it’s special for me, because normally when I come to conduct, it’s usually standard repertoire – sometimes, depending on the program and presenter – but at the Enescu Festival it’s an entire concert of only my music, which is very special.

What does that feel like? Are you overwhelmed, excited, nervous?

It depends on the particular circumstance. Here, when you meet musicians who are focused and serious and want to do their best, it makes everything very easy, actually. I get up on the podium and I feel at home, even though I’ve only just met them. You can tell from the first rehearsal, the attitude, the quality. In some ways, it’s weird to say it’s been easy, because making music is always complicated and challenging in many ways, but as long as life doesn’t get in the way – things that are not musical don’t get in the way – then it’s good, and that’s the case here. In the first half of the program there are soloists from the Boulanger Trio, which is also wonderful, and in the symphony there’s a part for the solo theremin with Carolina Eyck, one of the greatest theremin players in the world. It’s been a very fruitful time, but yes, it’s been intense – we only had a few days to prepare the program, but it felt creative and immediately with the right chemistry.

That’s a blessing, especially when the timing is pressed.

And it’s usually pressed, it’s a question of how it’s passed.

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Lera Auerbach leads the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2019 George Enescu Festival. Photo: Andrada Pavel

But so often chemistry is something you can’t totally create – either it’s there or it’s not.

Yes and no. There are times when you walk in front of an orchestra and the moment you walk in you see people looking at you like… you are the last person they want to conduct. And there is still a lot of prejudice against women conductors and composers, and against contemporary music. They’d rather do a Beethoven symphony for the zillionth time and couldn’t care less about doing anything creative. But, what I believe is, in every musician, there is always some inner magic which led this person to become a musician in the first place. Orchestral jobs can be frustrating; sometimes it becomes a routine for some people unfortunately, but you can always connect to this magical place which led this person into creativity and being in music. You can break the walls. So when they realize that you’re there not for some ego boost, you’re not there to tell them what to do or how to play their instruments, you’re there actually for music, and that your only wish is to create the best performance together – they connect to this. You can overcome the most skeptical players, you can really unite them into and bring music-making together and forwards.

The experience of music also – the way it’s experienced – is something you directly examine in many of your works. You force people to rethink things they take for granted, like how they experience sound.

Yes and why we do, and the reason for going to concerts.

auerbach composer conductor artist Russian

Photo: N. Feller

You really seem to understand and appreciate the role of theatre. Is that consciously something you’re thinking about when you create, or does it naturally seep in?

I think any performance, whether it’s purely concert music, abstract, or actual theatre work, any act of performing has a certain quality of being a ritual. There is a certain theatricality. The moment you walk onstage, we can say, “Oh this is pure music… ” but the moment you’re onstage, it’s theatre. And by “theatre” I mean, it’s a reality that can transport the audience somewhere else. The moment you’re onstage, you’re communicating something to the audience, whether it’s a concrete message or an abstract idea, but you need to tell a story –even though the story may not be in normal sentences. It’s a story of emotion, of connection, of memories, it’s something that goes into the subconsciousness. Any type of art is a form of storytelling; one way or another, we cannot escape it. So even the most abstract forms of art, such as music ,are forms of storytelling, because they need associations and audience members. There is no way to avoid it, but there is a way to increase it. And I think that’s what going to concerts is about: connecting to something within yourself, your own story you still don’t know or remember or need to discover, and this is why it can bring tears or joy or whatever. If you think about it, it’s somewhat absurd: you go to the hall and hear these vibrations in the air which is music. All it is is vibrations in the air! And all of sudden you start crying or you’re so moved, or maybe you’re disturbed, or questioning reality, but it’s all happening because of this connection.

The live experience is so intimate that way – I find I sometimes literally feel those vibrations from the floor, the seat, all around me. There is something transcendent about that, but at the same time, very personal.

That’s true.

It’s interesting what you said about storytelling too. I teach radio documentaries every winter, and I always remind my students to tell a story in sound, don’t just use talking to do it. Some audiences just want a straight oratorio, opera, to be told how they should feel and when. 

I think audiences are audiences; they’re a group of humans who come for different reasons. Some come because maybe they want to be seen in the theater. Some come because they love music. Some come because they’re curious or because somebody gave them tickets. The reasons that bring them can be very different, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because you can create this transcendental experience or maybe something that opens doors, I would say, because ultimately it’s up to the person who’s experiencing it, what sort of a journey it will become. Maybe somebody who isn’t prepared but has curiosity and has done some research can appreciate certain qualities on a different level, but again, it almost doesn’t matter; it only matters if the connection happens or not. If it’s a boring concert or maybe not the most generous performance, if it is not really connecting the audience, then it can maybe do more harm than good. It’s individual.

I hate to say this audience is better than audience. First of all, one never knows  who is in the audience. Secondly, I had an experience with The Blind – we had an experience in Norway, it was done during the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival; there were different dates for different audiences, and one concert was specifically for teenagers. It was high school students, regular high school, and the stage director, he kept saying, “It’s going to be a total disaster! How do you make room full of tenagers not to peek through a blindfold for one whole hour?” Because the moment you remove it you lose the experience of it, but I tell you, they were the best audience of all! Not only did they keep the blindfold on, they didn’t want to leave afterwards. They stayed for another hour after it ended; they had so many questions about the production. They were so excited, and they were regular teenagers – not music students, not artsy – just normal, and they were the best they were completely quiet, mesmerized. I think it’s an act of arrogance to look down at any audience; it’s up to us to transport them into this realm.

When I interviewed Vladimir Jurowski last year, he had this smart phrase, “expectation of ecstasy.”

One of the most memorable premieres in my life was one he conducted, which was of my requiem, “Ode To Peace” in Dresden. After this performance, at the Semperoper, there was no applause. It was absolutely… it was so magical. You had this complete auditorium, silent. Everyone stood up and held a minute of silence – it was the entire audience. They felt it and did it, and it was really incredible. And I think, really, applause would just destroy this magic. I had goosebumps when it happened.

For certain works and artists – including your work – I want to sit with it and contemplate; I think it’s important to not be reactive, even in for things that are joyous.

With The Blind, everything happens around you; you don’t really know if it’s ended, there is no visual cue, of course. It ends in silence. When we started (the premiere was at Lincoln Center), we measured the length of time between the piece ending and the audience taking their blindfolds off and applauding, and I think the shortest was a minute-and-a-half, which is already a long time; the longest were the teens in Norway. That was seven minutes. Actually the person who broke the silence then was the stage director – he got nervous, because when you take the blindfold off, you’re in the fog with the dry ice, and they were running out of the dry ice! So he started applauding to cue them, but again, it was this moment of incredibly powerful silence after the performance. 

Sometimes that powerful silence defies description, though it’s interesting the New York Times characterized your work’s themes as largely revolving around loneliness and isolation.

I think it’s what this particular opera was facing, it addressed the themes of loneliness and isolation in our modern times; on one hand, we are more connected than ever. With our gadgets we are always busy; there is a sense of being constantly surrounded by noise and communication and technology, but at the same time we are lonelier than ever and we struggle with understanding each other on a personal level, face to face, where people actually have a conversation, not through gadgets but with real people, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling and connecting with one another. That’s what this opera was addressing. We’re not blind in a physical sense but blind emotionally; we have trouble connecting and understanding each other. I mean, loneliness is one of eternal humanity’s questions, and of course, how the outside decorations are influencing things, whether it’s technology or whatever –if it changes this, or if it’s helping, hurting – it’s all questionable.

A Gorgeous Grisey With Ensemble intercontemporain

Ensemble intercontemporain Musikfest

Ensemble intercontemporain, conductor Matthias Pintscher, and mezzo soprano Salomé Haller perform at the Boulez Hall as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

In a previous post, I wrote about how a recent concert attempted to (and was largely successful at) making its listeners examine their relationship with time, space, and sound. Despite some complimentary words, I still don’t feel I did a very adequate job in explaining just how Sir George Benjamin and the Berlin Philharmonic achieved such a mighty thing. Try as I might (many hours were spent frowning and sighing), I simply could not put into words the uniquely special effect this past weekend’s concert had within such a specific context. My more recent experience Monday evening with the Ensemble intercontemporain at Berlin Musikfest underlined this futility of language to describe the aurally sublime, while also providing clues about getting thoughts to page and expressing that unique and sometimes-elusive how. Masterful, powerfully moving performances of works by Berg, Boulez, and most especially Grisey, showed me the way.

Maybe it’s more precise to say that Ensemble intercontemporain showed me the way; the French group brought a special flair and intense focus that only musicians in a full-time group dedicated to modern works can bring. Formed in 1976 by Pierre Boulez (with the support of then-Minister of Culture Michel Guy), the group, which employs 31 soloists full-time, is dedicated to the exploration of instrumental techniques and the developments of interdisciplinary projects, blending theater, film, dance, visual art, video, and music. As their official bio reminds us, new pieces are commissioned and performed on a regular basis, and they also have a strong commitment to music education. Resident of the Philharmonie de Paris, they take part in various worldwide festivals and have consistently won acclaim for their meaty, fascinating programming.

ensemble intercontemporain

Photo: © Christophe Urbain

The ensemble’s palpable blend of exploration, experimentation, and education was melded with a deep poetry at the Boulez Hall in Berlin on Monday night, with the ten musicians (plus mezzo soprano Salomé Haller) in perfect alignment with conductor Matthias Pintscher. The first piece featured pianist Dimitri Vassilakis and clarinetist Martin Adámek in a wonderfully sensuous reading of Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano op. 5. Composed in 1913 , the work is notable for its brevity (it’s only about nine minutes in total), one which music writer Paul Griffiths’s excellent program notes remind us is “more characteristic of Webern”, another Schoenberg pupil known for composing expressive miniatures. The clear chemistry between the soloists here added to the inherent drama of the harmonies; while Vassilakis placed special emphasis on shaping lyrical piano lines, Adámek’s clarinet produced full, rounded tones, giving the piece a dreamy feel. It was a poetic performance packed with narrative intent, and a perfect introduction to the heart-and-head, forty-plus-minute opus of Gérard Grisey’s Vortex temporum I-III for Piano and five instruments, composed between 1994 and 1996.

It’s worth noting here that I think any listener who comes to the work of Grisey will have a very strong reaction to it; you can’t hear his work and remain indifferent. I first heard the French composer’s music as a teenager, and though I loved it, I was strongly discouraged from further exploration by an Italian-opera-loving mother who dismissed modern composition as “irritating noise that goes nowhere.” Moving past that pronouncement had its own set of challenges, but also a rich mountain of rewards; through regular (if sometimes covert) exposure, I began to listen to things in a far deeper way, finding it was music that went everywhere, most especially places I didn’t think I was smart enough to enter. (I still struggle with this feeling of utter intellectual ineptitude.) Shortly after my Grisey discovery (and directly related to it), I came across the work of Claude Vivier, which I had the privilege of writing about professionally earlier this year. A live presentation of the work of either composer is, for me, a thing apart; I never leave as quite the same person after such performances, and without speaking for them, I can only wonder if Grisey and Vivier might take some sort of delight in this.

Grisey’s Vortex temporum has an opening like circles in water, referencing what Griffiths smartly describes as a “little flurry” taken from the dawn scene of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. Grisey was part of the spectral music movement (though he disliked the term), one which music writer Alex Ross describes in his monumental 2007 book The Rest Is Noise as “often just a step or two removed from the singing and shimmering textures of Debussy and Ravel.” The presentation on Monday night at the acoustically gorgeous Boulez Hall brought this relationship to the fore. String players were flanked, on either side, by woodwinds (flautist Sophie Cherrier and clarinetist Adámek), with piano behind them, affording those of us situated in a certain spot to catch tonal flurries as they underwent various progressions of renewal, reiteration, and revolution, each sound stretched and distended, a “rotary tuning par excellence,” to quote the composer himself. The experience of this “rotary” and its subsequent metamorphoses would be experienced differently for each member of the audience on Monday night; my own view allowed not only observation Vassilakis’s flying fingerwork, but to experience the sound of the strings — lilting, twisting, floating, stabbing — in unique and unusual ways. I kept wondering how people in the seats ringed above me were experiencing such ethereal sound; surely it had to be different and no less sublime?

Boulez Saal Berlin

Photo: © Volker Kreidler

Between the musicians’ seating arrangement and the hall’s architecture (a long oval, and not dissimilar to a basketball court), perceptions and direct experience with the sounds being produced were being gradually if very clearly altered and moulded, highlighting the paradoxical nature of performance: individual and communal, personal and shared, epic and intimate. Echoes of ritual were also underlined, a connection with a wordless divine shaped by the shared and yet highly personalized experience set within formal parameters at once predictable (people blow into instruments or put bow to strings and sound is produced) and unpredictable (how do they blow in those instruments or touch that bow to strings?). Technique was utilized not merely in the service of imitation (for instance, the sawing of strings recalling the sounds in nature) but as part of exploration and meditation, which become twins in Grisey’s rich and spectral sound garden. A ravishingly virtuosic piano section (using purposefully detuned notes) became part of a larger continuum  of time and space, where even the turning of pages was part and parcel of an insistent and entirely holy sonic exploration.

grisey musikfest sciarrino

Program photo: mine. Grisey photo: Salvator Sciarrino. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Thus the slow fade of a chord melted cinematically away into a windswept bassline, and the slow repetition of notes transformed into a plodding foreboding storyline in and of itself. Ensemble intercontemporain have an inbuilt sense of drama, whereby they imbue theatrical knowing into every tiny moment and microtone. The act of listening becomes far more than passive; you are being asked (nay, demanded) to thread tone with three tempo levels which, as Griffiths writes, “for the composer represented human time (the time-sale of speech and breathing), the dilated time of whales, and the effervescent time of birds and insects.”

With sound at points becoming pure building blocks, Grisey challenges us: how do we hear this sound right now? Are we all hearing it the same? What images do we associate with this tone, or this, or… this? Ensemble intercontemporain forced its audience to ask these questions even as Pintscher moved the work invariably forwards with thrilling momentum, and into the third section, with its reprise of spiralling introductory chords, a hypnotizing sound with intricate waves of sound — sweeping, careful, then broad. Pintscher emphasized the relationship between strings, which provided a clear counterpoint to lyrical piano lines, which led to a  grandiose pseudo-finale, musically anticipated, but magically transformed and then distilled, like mists of raindrops, into a breathing single note. 

Haller intercontemporain musikfest

Photo: © Adam Janisch

Thus the influence of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître  (The Hammer Without A Master), performed in the program’s second half, was made all the more clear, as Boulez, even in 1955 (when the piece was composed), was examining what Griffiths terms “the co-existence of spontaneity and system.” With Boulez, however, his work (scored for contralto and six instrumentalists, and  sets to the surrealist poetry of René Char) examines the relationships between psychological and technological, natural and mechanical, historical and inexplicable. This was the work that established the then-30-year-old composer’s international reputation, and, as my seatmate on Monday reminded me, shares unmistakable similarities (especially in its last movement) to John Cage’s Sixteen Dances, composed in 1950-51. Again, the spatial arrangement affected listener perceptions and experiences, though as the program notes, “Boulez’s logic was a logic in how the music was made, not in how it may be perceived: there his ideal was an opacity of scintillation and speed, an encounter with something too fluid and fast to be grasped.” Being behind the ensemble and close to the percussion section (with a vibraphone to my left and xylophone to my right) afforded an intimate experience with this opacity. 

With a spritely opening and bouncy interplay of strings, flute, vibraphone and guitar, Pintscher emphasized the pulsating nature of the work, with both vibraphone and xylophone aggressive in their attacks. Haller’s luscious tone became a distant call, less intimate, more beckoning from afar, expressively swirling through Boulez’s syncopated lines. The lyrical woodwinds in the third movement were complemented and continued by jagged if bright percussion, which led directly into the prodding strings of the fourth movement. Overtones of Ravel’s gentle lyricism could be heard in the final section, though by then, heart and head were at bursting point. 

This was an immensely moving concert that answered the how in my music-listening explorations, even if it inevitably left the imprint of a million more whys. Perhaps there are some questions that defy answers, and maybe, just maybe, that is just where music comes in.

 

Capuçon’s Breathtaking Shostakovich in Dresden

capucon viotti gmjo dresden

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The music of Shostakovich is not thought of by many people as an easy listen. Frequently characterized as discordant, atonal, and difficult, the work of the twentieth century Russian composer is at once epic, intimate, explosive, emotional, and very frequently uncompromising. It’s also one of my absolute favorites; when done well, it is one of the most rewarding of musical experiences.

And so it was an easy decision to see it live in Dresden this past weekend, especially since this particular performance featured one of my favorite artists. French cellist Gautier Capuçon (who I interviewed earlier this year) was on tour with the acclaimed Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Youth Orchestra, or GMJO), and would be performing the Concerto No.1 for Cello and Orchestra in E-flat major, op.107 in Dresden, the day (make that morning) after the opera. The timing was ideal, though it was, admittedly, very jarring to go, a mere twelve hours or so, from the melodic sweep of Giuseppe Verdi and into the busy, cacophonous world of Dmitri Shostakovich, with a brief (if very lovingly performed) stop off with Anton Webern’s swirling tone poem,  Im Sommerwind (“In the Summer Wind”). The four-movement cello concerto, dedicated to and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959, moves, with equal parts grace and awkwardness, between bracingly modern and folkishly traditional. It’s this high-wire act, of desperately seeking a balance between the two, some pyrotechnics on the part of the soloist, and the composer’s frequent couching of his inner rebellious tendencies within a larger framework (fascinating on its own, and no less honest), that makes this work such a very rewarding listen, and one of my big favorites.

Understanding the work through the lens of history is useful. Shostakovich had already faced incredibly political pressure by authorities in Soviet-era Russia by the time of the concerto’s composition, most notably over his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. An editorial (the infamously titled “Muddle Instead of Music“) in 1936, two years after its premiere (notably after Stalin had seen the work), heralded a dramatic turning point in Shostakovich’s creative life, with the composer seeing commissions and income dwindle away in the aftermath. He became far more cautious in his output, understandably — though it must be noted that the subtexts of his subsequent works are frequently littered with a zesty, hardly-contained fury, a quality I think finds its best and most shattering expression in his monumental 11th Symphony from 1957, ostensibly about the past but so much rooted in the composer’s deep struggles, internal and external. While it’s true that the worldwide fame he went on to enjoy eased many of the earlier pressures, there is still a special bite to this particular concerto (composed during a particularly successful period), one which is notable and very satisfying.

So while the program notes for the GMJO tour (by Hartmut Krones) note that “(a)s compared to other compositions by Shostakovich, the character of (the cello concerto) is relatively cheerful” — I’ve always found the piece to be restless, biting, its “relative” cheerfulness a sort of papery ruse, a sarcastic smirk, an eyebrow-cocking question which repeatedly asks the soloist for definitions that fit them, and the music, and the passing moments in time, best. It’s a sort of Rorschach Test for its soloist, moreso than many other concerti I would argue, and Capuçon’s performance this past Saturday with the GMJO underlined his deep artistry while seamlessly capturing his conversationally rich relationship with orchestra and conductor Lorenzo Viotti.

gmjo dresden capucon viotti

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

So what did he bring, then? What did the “test” reveal? Some of that zesty, under-the-hood-yet-not anger, as well as a relentless and at times, fiersome questing for those ever-liquid definitions. Together with Viotti’s instinctual conducting (the two share a very palpable aural understanding that nicely brought to mind the friendship between Shostakovich and Rostropovich), this was a performance that probed the depths of musical definitions — it didn’t merely dance at its edges.  The initial motif of the first movement (Allegretto) was performed with a beguiling mix of angularity and sensuality, with instrumental juxtapositions and tempi, never settled on a staid set of sonic cliches, but with tones both clipped and rounded, and phrasing at once sour and sweet. This suitably unsettled energy continued through the second movement (Moderato), with its unmistakable lyricism — construction, destruction, reconstruction — reaching (racing at?) an apotheosis of sorts in the lengthy solo cadenza. Here Capuçon displayed a heady mix of  virtuosity and great warmth, confidently fusing Shostakovich’s arch geometric chromaticism with the luscious central themes at start and finish, resulting in something at once thrilling and thoughtful.

And it’s those twin qualities that make Capuçon exciting to watch; he is so fiercely, and rightly, communicative — with audience, instrument, fellow musicians, and most especially the music itself. It’s one thing to hear the recording, or watch a digital broadcast, but it is, of course, entirely another to experience such a work live.  When done well, this work, like so many within Shostakovich’s canon, is one whose sonic vibrations you feel within, in a real, tangible way; you don’t come out of a good performance the same way you went in. (And you shouldn’t.) Focusing on encores becomes something of a challenge in such cases — and so it went, that a loving performance of Pablo Casals “Song of the Birds”, done with the GMJO’s talented cello section, was initially difficult to fall into sonically, but again, Capuçon’s inherent communicativeness eased the transition. Of particular note was the way in which he aligned himself amongst the young cellists (not so surprising when one remembers he once played in the GMJO himself), allowing the spiralling, lilting sounds of Casals’ gentle lines to rise, then fall, then rise once more as one, allowing a long-awaited and necessary exhalation to properly conclude the unrelenting intensity heard earlier.

dresden dome

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

My recent visit to Dresden may have been far too brief, but it was filled with the sort of musical magic that reminded me that things discordant and difficult need not be daunting; when done so well, they lead to a wordless joy one feels resonating within, an embrace of authenticity, a homecoming.

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