More than any other, Sundays have always been reading days. As a child I would spread newspapers over the few stairs which led to the bedrooms in the tiny split-level where I grew up. The family cat would often come and plonk herself down in the very middle of those papers, glaring expectantly with her saucer-eyes, and I would gently scoop her up. Poogie (that was her actual name) would settle in the crook of my arm, happily purring, before I would be allowed to continue my study – of the arts section, yes, but the business, life, politics, and sports ones too.
Reading about a variety of topics is good; being curious about a variety of things is very good. Such curiosity is something I try to continually impress upon students, with varying degrees of success. “When preparing for an interview,” I found myself saying recently, “don’t just study the person; read absolutely everything you can about the whole world around them.” I could practically hear their groans. “Yes it’s work,” I continued, “but it’s also logic. And reading – learning – is good!” In retrospect I certainly sounded very PollyAnna Prissy, but the despair over unconscious predilection to remain in tidy boxes grows daily. There’s a big reason I love radio and cable television: the element of the random, and its related exercise of curiosity, is inescapable.
So until I get the newsletter I alluded to in my previous post up and running, these updates, of things read, watched, listened to, pondered over, will (I hope) continue. Right now these pursuits feel logical, stimulating, important, pleasurable, challenging – sometimes at once.
In light of this week’s terrible news about the end of the historic BBC Singers, bass Brindley Sherratt has written a thoughtful piece (published in The Guardian) reflecting on his time with the group. His words offer a vivid portrait of the realities of young operatic careers and highlight the varied repertoire of the group throughout its history. “In one week,” he writes, “we would sing a couple of hymns for Radio 4’s Daily Service (live, early and terrifying), rehearse and record the most complex score of Luciano Berio or Ligeti and then bang out There is Nothin’ like a Dame on Friday Night Is Music Night.” His writing highlights the importance of there existing good opportunities for young singers while giving lie to the idea that such groups aren’t populist in their appeal and therefore deserve no public funding. This is a depressingly common current of thought in much of North America (sigh). The axing of the BBC Singers makes one wonder if the broadcaster is aiming at a more NA-style (i.e. highly corporate, ROI-driven) system with relation to their classical groups and output. The direct experience of singers like Sherratt should be considered here, along with good models of arts education, funding for which has been woefully dwindling for decades.
Speaking of experience, I finally watched The Big Lebowski, on March 6th – the day of its original release in 1998 and the related “Day Of The Dude” created to recognize the slouchy central character played by Jeff Bridges. Birthed at a time when the (Western) optimism of the early 90s had been turned inside out (the death of Princess Diana, the scandals of the Clinton presidency, the rampant corruption within the former Eastern bloc) and the digital world still in infancy, it’s a very surreal ride into not-unfamiliar terrain. It is tough to say whether or not filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen could have seen Zerograd, a 1988 film by Karen Shakhnazarov (which details the visit of an engineer to a small town), or Mark Zakharov’s equally-surreal To Kill A Dragon (based on the play of Evgeny Schwartz about a man who sets out to kill a dictator), which is also from 1988 (a pivotal moment in Eastern European history) – but they share many elements, from their portrayals of social collapse and untrustworthy leadership, to a pervasive atmosphere of dread, not to mention central male figures who suddenly faced with responsibilities they don’t want. Also, it’s worth noting the Day Of The Dude falls directly after the death-day of Stalin (and composer Sergei Prokofiev), March 5th. (Add to this: the Dude’s favorite cocktail.) However unintentionally, Lebowski, Zerograd, and Dragon make for a thoughtful cinematic trinity in 2023.
Keeping in the film zone, the annual Academy Awards are tonight, and for the first time they feature a best animated feature category. Among the nominees is The Sea Beast by Chris Williams, who worked on number of famed animated films (Mulan and Frozen among them) pre-Beast. Voice work was done via Zoom amidst the worst of pandemic lockdowns, with its cast (Jared Harris, Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Marianne Jean-Baptiste) scattered across the globe. Along with touching voice performances, I enjoyed the film’s the subtext, which smacks at a common (if tiresome) element within current cultural discourse, that of “wokeism”‘s supposed cultural ruinousness. The Sea Beast, superficially a scary-monsters-of-the-deep tale, works in large part because of the ways it integrates diversity into a satisfying thematic whole. Its main female character, Maisie, is a Black British orphan; the crew of the ship she stows away on features diverse and gender-fluid members; the story (by Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin) uses various elements to convey the idea that historical narratives which elevate and glorify mindless violence are… well, bullshit. The fact this work comes from an outlet (Netflix) and a larger digital culture (streaming) that of course elevates such elements for profit gives the film a currency I’m not sure was intended, and yet.
Sea tales must have been in my algorithm because a Youtube suggestion for a documentary about the Mariana Trench popped up recently. This wonderful David Attenborough-hosted NHK work documents the efforts of various researchers to reach the very bottom of the earth; yes it’s exciting and informative at once, but it’s also, in this case, incredibly atmospheric. Watching it is akin to watching an edge-of-your-seat thriller; will they or won’t they see a sign of life? Will the equipment break? Will they see a… sea monster? An intense claustrophobia pervades many of the scenes, not only those captured (incredibly) in the trench itself but within the little floating rooms filled with anxious-looking researchers. I literally jumped off the sofa when one of the specially-built machines (made to withstand the immense oceanic pressure) hit the bottom with a loud THONK; I sighed heavily at the capture of a Mariana snail fish (yes it’s important for study, but my God, it’s so cute and graceful as it swims! Just look at it!). Another big part of my childhood, aside from reading Sunday papers, involved watching an assortment of nature documentaries, and this was a lovely reminder if also an incredible update on my nostalgia, blending cinematic sense with dramatic tension, and science folded within – in other words, one of the best things.
Another best thing is learning about forgotten (ignored, under-represented) writers. The philosophy of John Locke is well-known; that of Damaris Masham, less so. Yet the two are inextricably linked, as Regan Penaluna so ably shows in her moving Aeon essay published earlier this month. Shining a light on a late 17th century figure who explored women’s lives and experiences through two sole books, Penaluna also shares her own history with a contemporary (if unnamed) Locke-like figure who provided similar encouragement, someone “to whom I frequently looked for validation.” This is a common experience for women who enter largely male-dominated fields, and it’s refreshing to see a philosopher mixing the epic and intimate in ways Masham herself did in her writing. As well as examining ideas surrounding the nature and exercise of power and intimacy, Penaluna takes issue with Masham’s insistence on “women’s superior capacity for care”, noting how such a position “further entrenches patriarchal views”. This portion of the essay brought to mind a popularly-held view that “mothers understand the giving of life and if they ran the world we wouldn’t have so many wars” (a handy derivative of “if women ran the world we would have peace”) – there is a world of history, past and present, repudiating such (frankly narrow and rather sexist) views; viciousness – and nurturing – are not confined to any capacity for reproduction, individually or as a whole. Masham’s view, that “with the right conditions, women could make significant contributions to philosophy, on a par with men”, has real-life (if perhaps uncomfortable, for some) corollaries. Also, it must be said: the intertwined lives of Locke and Masham is the stuff of plays or movies – one or both should really exist. Were either to be realized one might anticipate more body than body-of-work depictions, a pity given the breadth of Masham’s ideas and work, only reprinted in (gasp!) 2005, and alas, no longer in print.
Masham might find more than a bit of interest in the words and music of Marko Halanevych, a member of the Ukrainian “ethno-chaos” band DakhaBrakha: “Art is not outside of politics; it is a factor within politics itself.” Halanevych distills the complex if innately linked relationships between art, history, and politics in a way that points up the connection with power and historically-received narratives; there is no hint of music being somehow magically “above” the fray of war but a key component within it. Culture is a longtime tool used in the wielding authority, particularly via the subtle, soft power methods used before the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. “Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and compromise in Putin’s Russia” (Granta, 2020) by Joshua Yaffa, is a useful reference for Halanevych’s responses, and more broadly, to DakhaBrakha’s artistic output, including their 2017 live-performance soundtrack to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksander Dovzehnko’s at-the-time controversial 1930 film Earth. Perceived within a larger framework of cultural history, one is struck by the continuing influences of the prisposoblenets Yaffa highlights, and a Soviet nostalgia (referenced so memorably in Zerograd), and the various ways each continue to shape current creative responses to the tragedy in Ukraine.
Notions of choice and circumstance do a strange, uncomfortable dance throughout Yaffa’s book – but such dances are, in 2023, coming to be the norm, and perhaps it’s wise to simply accept the discomfort. Hopefully such dances don’t signal the end of cultural appetite, discovery, and curiosity, but some kind of new beginning.
Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
There are occasions when a work of art can have such an immense effect that one sees it everywhere, in everything – if not as a whole, then in pieces, like tiny pinpricks at consciousness. One starts to rethink habits, mundanities, high art and fun diversions, all at once; I can’t say if that conceptual stickiness is a measure of some “greatness” or not. What might have an impact at one point in time may not hit the same at another, and as I’ve written before, the c-word is context. As I glance at my almond chocolate bar, take a sip of tea, and look out the window at the rain, recalling so very many carefree July holidays of past times, thoughts turn back and forth (and back) to temptation, choice, bargaining, compromise, consequence… how very close they feel, in news and politics, as much as in art and culture, as much as in love and life and the living of it. Some months ago I watched the Oscar-winning 1981 film Mephisto about a German actor in Nazi-era Germany who makes a morally reprehensible bargain in order to climb to the top of the arts ladder. It may be a testament to director István Szabó’s cinematic mastery (he won an Oscar for it, after all), or simply the reality of heavy outside factors (war, recession, pandemic), or just spooky timing (I watched it on Walpurgisnacht, quite by accident) – whatever the reason, Mephisto has stayed, sitting on the brain, a fuzzy cat on a warm stove, refusing to budge and making its presence known through every hair and whisker.
The story’s roots have had a pervasive influence across various cultural forms, underpinned by the relentless human drive for success (validation, applause, acclaim, some form of assurance) which exists in forever atonal tension with more humble pursuits. Functional equilibrium is often a fast dance of negotiation performed in a mostly (or more precisely, presumed) moral vacuum. This “dance” has resonance in an age when so much of what we see, hear, taste, experience, order, and use has such a huge and mostly silent labour force behind it. There is a measure of Faustian bargaining behind the anodyne gestures of modern life – tapping the app, subscribing to the service, letting the thermostat decide, asking Siri or Alexa. The cha-cha dance of negotiation is easy if we don’t see who’s playing in the band, or have to stop and consider the details – footing becomes less steady once we do have that knowledge and awareness (maybe), but momentum continues apace, empathy being, of course, the most expensive thing to be careful not to lose footing over; the fall would be too expensive, too distracting, we’d lose our timing and a place on the dancefloor. In 1965-66 Hannah Arendt examined the ideas of morality, conscience, judgement, and the role of divinity in “Some Questions Of Moral Philosophy” (subsequently published as part of Responsibility and Judgement, Schocken Books, 2003), noting that “ours is the first generation since the rise of Christianity in the West in which the masses, and not only a small elite, no longer believe in “future states” […] and who therefore are committed (it would seem) to think of conscience as an organ that will react without hope for reward and without fear of punishment. Whether people still believe that this conscience is informed by some divine voice is, to say the very least, open to doubt.” (p. 89; Schocken Books/Random House Canada edition) The gaping void created by such doubt points at a yearning for meaning, or even simple connection – for attention to be directed purposefully.
The story of Faust speaks to this longing. The doctor who longed for youth and riches, who sold his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for earthly pleasure, has a deep resonance with the vagaries of culture (socio-economic as much as artistic), and with the ways culture (in all its forms) is accessed, experienced, understood, and accepted – or not. The present is empty, says the Faust myth; the future is murky; history is forgotten – what matters is how well one plays the game. History, however, is uncomfortably near, more visceral than at any other point in history, unfolding live on our television screens and computer monitors and TikToks and Twitter feeds. How much we choose to engage, or ignore, is individual, a negotiation as near as filling the online cart, tapping an App for a ride, hitting “subscribe” on a TV screen. It’s all so easy, which makes forgetting the deals we made for such conveniences and comforts even easier. Examining the history of Faust is useful for not only appreciating the myth’s sticky qualities in many artists’ minds (it isn’t just me) but for seeing the ways in which its profound and profane elements interact with the spiritual, even nihilistic void which characterizes much of modern life.
Emil Jannings as Mephisto in a famous scene from Murnau’s 1926 film “Faust”.
Pre-Faust figures are contained within Judeo-Christian storytelling (Simon Magus (d. 65 AD), who tried to buy the power to relay the Holy Spirit from the Christian Apostles John and Peter; St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD) and his dealings with demons) as well as in morality plays popular through the 14th through 16th centuries, the latter exactly paralleling the time of German magician, astrologer, and alchemist Johann Georg Faust himself, a suspicious figure who apparently had the ability to conjure dark forces – and to stir social unrest in the process. The myth around Faust’s life and work began in 1587 with the publication of The Historia von D. Johann Fausten by German printer Johann Spies, which in turn led to English playwright Christopher Marlowe penning The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 1592. Spies’ original version was edited and ultimately re-published, and read by a great many across Europe. Printing, as I like to remind my first-year media students, was a very big deal, firing up imaginations, emotions, mental investment, and spiritual fervour. Amongst those keen readers was a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) whose influential reworking of the story went on to be published in two parts, its second posthumously, in 1808 and 1832, respectively, and the rest, as they say, is history – except that it isn’t. Generations of writers have since been thusly inspired, perhaps most famously Thomas Mann (1875-1955) whose Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (“Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend”), published in 1947, is a hauntingly brilliant integration of mythology, culture, politics, and personal response to the horrors of the Second World War. Other writers including Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890), C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, 1942), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, 1967) and John Banville (Mefisto, 1986), to name just a few, have taken the original tale (be it Spies’, Marlowe’s, Goethe’s, or some combination) as a basis from which to explores themes relating to spiritual void, to compromise and cost, to cultivation of the soul amidst ever-unfolding developments in technology, science, medicine, and mechanics. Such developments have served to intensify the myth’s durability, even as they continue to power creative imaginations.
Thus have classical composers also been duly inspired: Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1846); Schumann’s Szenen Aus Goethes Faust (1844-53); Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854); Gounod’s Faust (1859); Boito’s Mefistofele (1867) – these are all arguably the most famous opera/classical versions. Many more exist (Spohr, 1813; Radziwill, 1835; Hervé, 1869; Boulanger, 1913; Busoni, 1924; Prokofiev, 1941-42; Schnittke -cantata 1984-5, opera 1993; Fénelon, 2003-2004; Dusapin, 2006 – a partial list) and are explored in Music In Goethe’s Faust, edited by Lorraine Byrne Bodley (Boydell and Brewer, 2017). An captivating (and certainly, covid-era useful) blend of music and theatre is L’Histoire du soldat (“A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky’s 1918 work which takes the Faustian elements of a Russian folk story and brings them alive in a zesty chamber format. The work has enjoy a diverse recording and performance history (including a 2018 release narrated by Roger Waters), with the tale of the soldier making a deal with, and then outwitting (maybe) the devil at his own game. On film, 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz (based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart) is arguably the best example of the fusion of Faustian mythology, classical music, and schlocky occult horror, with various forms of bargaining and the temptation of great artistry used as central plotting devices. Unsurprisingly, Faustian mythology has also made its way into the world of comics (Marvel specifically), with Mephisto taking his demonic place in 1968 among a varied cast of characters, and positioned by Stan Lee and (writer) and John Buscema (artist), rather suitably, as one of Spider-Man’s chief adversaries. Marvel-Mephisto went on to get the Hollywood treatment, first in 2007’s Ghost Rider (played by Peter Fonda) and its 2011 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (played by Ciaran Hinds), taking one of many pleasing guises as befits his devilish roots. The story has predictably influenced the world of popular music too, and in the early 1990s, became a theatrical element in U2’s mammoth ZOO-TV tour. Bono took Szabó’s film as inspiration for an onstage persona in the band’s European stadium dates, with the white-faced, platform-heeled character of “MacPhisto” cleverly milking and mocking the celebrity-worship that comes with rock and roll superstardom. The uneasy relationship with fame, creativity, and success (and the associated compromises and costs) bubbled up in Bono’s later lyrics, including 2004’s “Vertigo”, which references the biblical story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert: “All of this can be yours,” he whispers, “just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt.”
Such variance across cultural formats and media testify to the myth’s durability, as the lines between art, faith, entertainment, and politics grow ever more blurred in the 21st century. The Faust Legend: From Marlowe and Goethe to Contemporary Drama and Film, by Sara Munson Deats (Cambridge University Press, 2019) examines various Fausts through the ages. Deats writes in the Prologue that “the Faust legend has served throughout the years as a kind of Rorschach test, in which the narrative assumes different shapes depending on the perspective of the author who adapts it and the customs and values of the period in which it is written, with the meaning of the legend shifting to reflect the zeitgeist of a given era or place. Thus the Faust avatar’s desideratum – the goal for which the hero sells his soul – often reflects the values of a specific society, even as the character of the Devil evolves to represent a particular culture’s concept of evil.” Munson Deats includes analyses of various cinematic adaptations, notably F.W. Murnau’s visually sumptuous 1926 version, in which the characters and their respective worlds are depicted as simultaneously alluring and terrifying. That contradiction hits precisely where it matters, because it connects directly with the dark heart of Szabó’s vision of Mephisto. Based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann (1906-1949) which was itself inspired by Mann’s brother-in-law, actor and purported Nazi collaborator Gustaf Gründgens, the film explores the path of provincial actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who becomes celebrated through performing the role of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust in Berlin of the 1930s, to the acclaim of ever-growing Nazi audiences; ultimately he becomes General Manager of the Prussian State Theatre. It is a haunting, brilliant work that speaks directly to our age in seductive whispers – until the final scene, that is, where Hendrik caught in a ‘crossfire’ of spotlights in a stadium, the eerie centre of attention, as shrieks of “Schauspieler!” are hurled at him – a horrendous twisting of Goethe’s conclusion which portrays a vital form of divine grace. Whither grace? Who cares? It’s too late. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in a 2008 review, “there are many insults, but the most wounding is simply the word “actor”” – it is withering, terrifying, aimed with chilling precision. Evil, as the design, cinematography and Szabó’s careful directorial approach imply, is not a cliched, easily identified thing, but, as Arendt might say, banal– if entertaining, charming, well-spoken, well-dressed, a point made repeatedly throughout its 2.5-hour running time. Hendrik’s narcissism has, in the world Szabó paints, been been costumed in the lofty robes of a celebrated artistry, one which thrives in a self-contained vacuum of continual approval and unquestioning worship. There is no right or wrong in this comfortable vacuum – there can’t be – there is only the next performance, only the next work, on and off the stage – whether for the general public; the art-loving General (Rolf Hoppe); Hendrik’s wife (Krystyna Janda); his lover (Karin Boyd), whose outsider status as a mixed-race woman allows for a biting perspective on his world, one he doesn’t see the need to take seriously until he is faced with the reality that his love of such a vacuum has robbed him of his authentic self, his artististry, and ultimately his true exercise of free will. “The uniforms are deliberately fetishistic,” Ebert continues, “to wear them is to subjugate yourself to the system that designed them.”
Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer, right) speaks with The General (Rolf Hoppe) as supporter Lotte von Lindenthal (Christine Harbort) looks on. From István Szabó’s “Mephisto”, 1981. Photo: imago images/Mary Evans
This observation has come to mind every time I see a promotion for Prime Video series The Boys, a show filled with every assortment of colourful costume, almost all uniformly (I write this ironically and not) indicating subjugation to a very specific system (inner and outer), ultimately playing to a company culture in which the imaginary and the real inevitably blur. Based on the aughties comic of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the Emmy-nominated program takes the vividly binary world of the saviour trope and presents it in a million shades of grey, with some tremendously sticky, messy splashes of red splattered across the glass of innumerable shiny buildings (including Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). Broadcast via Amazon’s streaming platform since 2019, the third season of The Boys recently concluded and further explored the intersections of ethics, self, success, curation, image, popularity, celebrity, community, and stealth corporate culture. Playing with the superhero idiom and its immense influence across popular culture opens the door to clever, sometimes brutal portrayals of said elements, with many bizarre gags Dali himself might have applauded. (i.e. the infamous Season 3 Episode 1 penis scene). No character in the ensemble emerges as noble – not the supposed heroes (who are damaged), not the supposed good guys (who are even more damaged), not well-meaning parents (who are almost wholly abusive), not even (yikes) the children. There is a quiet question as to whether any of them are truly redeemable, and the answer, rather wisely on the part of the writers and showrunner Eric Kripke, is left to viewers. But in true Faustian fashion, the show presents those big and small pacts in the most seductive manner possible in modern life: with ease and the promise of minimum effort. If you want this, of course you can have it, but it will cost you, and you will leave your soul at the door – and what’s more, everyonewill cheer (as the season finale clearly showed – the banality of evil indeed). Vividly muscular superhero costumes; perfect hair; shiny white teeth – terrible loss; exploding/melting body parts (heads, genitalia); outlandish scenarios (boat speeds into nasty whale) – every element paints an unremittingly bleak world populated with single-minded entities operating within their own bubbles; Hendrik Höfgen would surely recognize all of it.
But again: where is the grace? Whither the price of those bargains? Who cares? The largely nihilistic world of The Boys is a natural extension of Faustian mythology and clearly embodied within the series’ chief characters, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Homelander (Antony Starr). Writing about Mephisto at The Calvert Journal in 2018, Carmen Gray noted the film shows how self-deception is an integral part of fascism’s incremental seductiveness” – an observation applicable to these characters and their wildly different window dressings, if strikingly similar yearnings to fill respective inner voids. The eponymous boys are presented as variants of an archetypal Everyman, which echoes the series’ initial presentation as a sort of modern-day morality play, albeit one with heaping mounds of swear words, sticky bodily fluids, flying fists, and smirking bravado; they’re us, but they are, but they’re not… but. Every man (being) here is “supe” (superhuman, that is) as lines over the most recent season continue to blur allegiances and sympathies. In press interviews leading up to the season launch in June, Urban remarked on the journey of his character: “Are you willing to become the monster to defeat the monster? And if you are, what is the cost of that?” Such inner debate is fraught with mythological connection and underlined via the dualistic qualities which manifest in a cancer diagnosis being the ultimate price for a Faustian knowledge/ability Butcher was never meant to possess. Such duality carries over as much in the scenes with the quasi-hero Homelander, as to those with Super-Everyman good guy(ish) Hughie (Jack Quaid), and also to the scenes involving the show’s vigilante crew, which includes Frenchie (Tomer Capone), Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso). Even if the blanket of moral absolutism is made soggy with running torrents of grey muck (with those sticky red splashes – surely a real-life Mephistophelian deal for the cast, that), there remains a kernel of truth once the superhero storms settle: these are damaged people desperately seeking some form of meaningful connection (divine/earthy; superhuman/normal human). Though the world of The Boys strongly hints that such a connection may never manifest, there is a tiny hope, glimmering like blood on shards of glass. As the Angels say at the close of Goethe’s Faust, “He who strives on and lives to strive / Can earn redemption still.”
Deats writes in the Epilogue for The Faust Legend that “(h)ow we resolve the temptation to make our own personal pact with the Devil will define our identity” – something she suggests is the real significance of the myth. I would go one step further: how one lives with the consequences of that pact, and how much awareness one brings to the ways in which such pacts affect others, is what really matters, and what might possibly lead to some form of grace. As to what “defines” identity, those definitions change, and have to; what was unthinkable to someone in peacetime suddenly becomes normal, even ordinary, in war. But how much can (should) one choose to live in a complete vacuum, and for how long? How many pacts must be made – to live comfortably, creatively, productively, with dignity and purpose and clarity, with compassion and contemplation, cultivating some form of meaningful connection, extending some form of tenuous trust? How many apps to tap? How many subscriptions to buy? How many more times will I lose my footing in this dance? Hannah Arendt wrote in the aforementioned 1965-66 essay (published as part of Responsibility and Judgement) that “If you are at odds with your self it is as though you were forced to live and have daily intercourse with your own enemy. No one can want that.” (p. 91) As I type on my Mac, sipping semi-warm tea, nibbling at chocolate from far away, an overhead fan whirring on full power, gazing at the robins pecking at the delicate green patches of a boxy lawn… who am I to disagree? Accepting the terms of pacts required for daily living is difficult, but I persevere, trying to ignore the nattily-dressed figure in the corner who is ordering, subscribing, filling the cart, dimming the lights, sipping wine, and smirking. It looks like me, and maybe, just maybe, it is.
Top image: Mephisto (Emil Jannings) with young Faust (Gosta Ekman) in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 cinematic adaptation.
One of the most moving episodes in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) occurred in 1960 upon his first visit to the health resort of Gohrisch, a mountainside town located forty kilometres south-east of Dresden, where he had gone to write the music for Lev Armshtam’s film “Five Days, Five Nights”. The String Quartet No. 8 was famously composed instead, the sole piece he wrote outside the Soviet Union, done over three days in mid-July in the green, scenic spot near the River Elbe. Tortured by questions of identity, integrity, history, creativity and the tenuous links therein, having been heavily coerced into joining the Communist Party just prior, Shostakovich dedicated the work to victims of fascism and war, offering a mourning of the past, a dirge for the present, a worried sigh at the future. The composer returned to Gohrisch in summer 1972 following the premiere of his Symphony No. 15, where he visited with conductor Kurt Sanderling. Little could he have known that the site would host a celebrated festival bearing his name, featuring a range of his own works as well as those by his colleagues and contemporaries.
The International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, founded in 2010 with the help of the Staatskapelle Dresden, has been a fount of musical exploration in the decades since its titular composer paid his visits. This year’s edition, which opened on Thursday (30 June), features the music of Shostakovich, of course, as well as that of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), Yuri Povolotsky (b. 1962), and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), who is this year’s recipient of the International Shostakovich Prize. It’s fair to say that there are several spectres hanging over this year’s edition of the festival, but they are encapsulated in the figure of one person who is no longer present, but whose history, with both Shostakovich and Gohrisch, remains vital. Conductor Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year, helped in the formation of the Festival and indeed led the Sächsische Staatskapelle in the concert barn (or the concert marquee) in Gohrisch from 2010 to 2013, and was awarded the third International Shostakovich Prize by the Shostakovich Gohrisch Foundation in 2012. An award-winning album of live festival recordings, released in 2017 (Berlin Classics), features the music of Arvo Pärt (1935), Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), and Shostakovich, including the 1948 song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, op. 79, which was composed following Shostakovich’s denunciation of the Zhdanov Decree; it had to wait until 1955 to receive its premiere performance. Jurowski championed such repressed works, making it something of his life’s mission to uncover and present the pieces which an insidious combination of politics, history, nationalistic fervour, and ideological intransigence forced longtime silence, ignorance, misperception upon. Born in Moscow in 1945 but with Ukrainian roots, the conductor was a champion of bringing rarely heard (and even more rarely recorded) works to the fore, as much out of a sense of civic duty as artistic curiosity, something that stayed with him and was inherited by his children, pianist/vocal coach Maria; conductors Vladimir, and Dmitri. It is a family rich in artistic lineage as much as intellectual probing, as concerned with present exploration as much embracing the past, and looking to the future not with a worried sigh, but a defiant, direct stare.
This year’s festival is dedicated to the memory of Michail Jurowski, whose memory will be most poignantly marked on Sunday (3 July), when youngest son Dmitri Jurowski leads the Saxon State Orchestra Dresden in a programme of works by Silvestrov and Shostakovich, including the world premieres of Michail Jurowski’s arrangement of the latter composer’s The Human Comedy op.37 (1934) for concert orchestra, and Dmitri Jurowski’s arrangement of Six Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva opera.143a (1973) with soprano Evelina Dobračeva and chamber orchestra. The transposition of voice feels somehow very right for an artist like Dmitri Jurowski, a cellist with an innate feeling for vocal expression, both human and instrumental. Over the past two decades, he has led over one hundred different opera productions for a range of celebrated houses, including Bayerische Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Teatro La Fenice, Grand Théâtre Geneva, Lyric Opera Chicago, Israeli Opera Tel Aviv, and the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. From 2011 to 2016 he was was General Music Director of the Flemish Opera Antwerp / Ghent. Jurowski’s history with opera does not obscure his deep sensitivity to (and with) orchestral scores – he has worked with the BBC Philharmonic Manchester, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Stockholm, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Shanghai Philharmonic, to name a few. One of my own favourite recordings features the works of Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960) with Jurowski leading the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal (Cybele, 2018). With iron-hand-in-velvet-glove confidence, the conductor coaxes a luscious lyricism from the string section in Symphonic Minutes for orchestra op.36 (1933), a lyricism that is carried through into conversational woodwind exchange so lovingly conveyed in the piece’s second movement Rapsodia: Andante, and manifest in an energetic final Rondo: Presto, which is resplendent with busy strings and Jurowski’s repeated emphasis on cross-sectional conversation, allowing the drama which arises naturally from and within it to direct, turn a corner, then another; balance is thoughtfully maintained, but not at the expense of spirit; seriousness is equally present, but not without an equal dose of play.
Theatre, like music, would seem to be a part of the Jurowski family’s creative legacy, which, given the actual as well as artistic ties, only makes sense, given their long connection with many celebrated theatre artists, as well as Dmitri Shostakovich himself. The Human Comedy, composed for a 1934 stage adaptation of Balzac’s immense 19th century work by Russian writer Pavel Sukhotin (1884-1935), the mix of lightness and uncertainty of Balzac’s Paris, its surface charm hiding an anxious underbelly. The Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva possess their own form of drama, its power imparted via the fulsomeness of the poet’s vowels and consonants and the ways Shostakovich writes in, through, and around them. In listening to recordings, one is constantly confronted with the question of inner and outer ‘voices’, both vocal and instrumental, by experiences as much spoken as not; the third poem in the cycle (“Hamlet’s Dialogue With His Conscience”) with its ponderings on guilt, responsibility, notions of love and romance, and micro/macro ideas of place, speaks directly to the fourth (“The Poet And The Tsar”) and fifth (“No, The Drum Beat”) with its meditations on private-public faces and paradigms of power within various spheres of influence. The composer’s ever-present internal debates are reflected in this cycle, as much through the words of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) as through its chewy score, which was recorded by contralto Ortrun Wenkel under the baton of Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouworkest, released by Decca in 1993. Placing the Six Poems cycle on the same bill as The Human Comedy, written four decades earlier, feels ballsy and somehow, important, particularly in light of ongoing debates related to the various uses and teachings of music, the role of canon, the expectations of audiences, whether music ought to have an “identity” (and if so, what it should be), as well as perceptions of Music As Entertainment (“Unterhaltsmusik”) and (or, more tiresomely, versus) Music As Serious Art (“ernste Musik”). Can Balzac and Tsvetaeva (and Silvestrov, and Shostakovich) share a creative universe? Well, why shouldn’t they? Moreover, how could they not?
The concert barn at the International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, 2016. Photo: Oliver Killig
The lives and feelings these artists explored in their respective works, the words and sounds they choose for describing those lives and sharing inner thoughts, ask for the very quality Shostakovich himself seemed quite interested in (consciously or not), the thing which is in short supply as much in life as in art, especially at the moment: empathy. I am not a believer in music magically melting barriers; specific contexts (socio-economic, racial, religious) must be taken into account whenever one experiences new sounds – contexts as much as atmospheres, inner and outer, controllable and not. These things exist. Sounds don’t magically ping them away. The ways in which one experiences the work of Silvestrov and Shostakovich (and/or writers and poets) are as relevant as one possessing a background in either’s work, or both, or none. These things are as much related to context as the environment in which one experiences such works, environments filled with all manner of human comedy, tragedy, mediocrity, diversion, novelty, affliction, agenda, and (one hopes) opportunities for contemplation. Ugly circumstances, harsh realities, human life in all its variance, must be recognized. Lived realities, and the inevitable lines they (mostly unconsciously) create do not magically melt; they simply are. It’s up to you to acknowledge them. Thus is art’s role as a vehicle of empathy vital; If we are unwilling to do the actual, real work of feeling another’s experience (much less acknowledging it as real), particularly those who have not had the privilege we have enjoyed (and perhaps do not even recognize), if we do not conscientiously direct imagination toward those foreign experiences which are beyond our direct experience and knowledge (and thus may be unpleasant, unfamiliar, dull, wearying), then what use is theatre, art, music, culture? Leo Tolstoy grappled with this very question in What Is Art? (1897):
The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena. (trans. Aylmer Maude, 1899)
Painter Mark Rothko would later say that “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” While such strength and visibility of reaction is personal, and may or may not be warranted (in the age of social media reaction can be more performative than authentic), that doesn’t cancel its validity within a real, lived framework. Empathy is needed in times of strife – in times of war, in times of pandemic, in times of division, separation, hostility, horror, anger, intransigence; it is work, indeed. Empathy is the energetic opposite of whataboutism that so heavily (alas) dominates contemporary discourse, and it is the hardest thing to keep alive, let alone cultivate, when algorithms inspire (and profit from) strong reaction, not slow thought. Consider slow thought, the festival in Gohrisch seems to whisper; slow thought is, very possibly, the very thing that best cultivates empathy. Somehow I can hear Silvestrov, Shostakovich, Balzac, Tsvetaeva, and Michail Jurowski whispering such a suggestion a bit more loudly right now.
And so, amidst such consideration, and one hopes, a related cultivation of empathy within creative realms, is a conversation in which family, culture, creation, grief, poetry, and that sticky, marvellous word “transposition” are all carefully, slowly considered. It was a true privilege and pleasure to speak with Dmitri Jurowski, and to hear, over the course of nearly an hour, his observations and ideas on music, writing, sound, performance, and his father’s influence. I remain grateful for his time and energy.
Why did you choose the Tsvetaeva song cycle – why arrange it it for chamber orchestra?
This work of Dmitri Shostakovich was one of my father’s favourite compositions. The whole concert is dedicated to him – actually the concert, and the whole festival, which he had planned one year ago, was one he was supposed to conduct. So when everything happened of course we decided not to make any changes in the programme – the only thing we did was put in the Tsvetaeva cycle. That was not foreseen; originally it was a Shostakovich violin concerto with the bigger orchestra, but since the pandemic is still going on, the orchestra actually asked to have a work in the programme which is for chamber, not a big group. That was the first thing they asked, and the (the song cycle) was one of his favourite pieces. During his funeral his recording of it was played many times during the day – so we decided to do this. Also there was one little change (to the work itself). It was written for mezzo soprano, but we wanted to do this together with (soprano) Evelina Dobračeva; I know her, we studied together, she was working more with my father than with me, and during all these years they made many projects together. He was like a teacher for her, and it was very important to have her on board for this project, so the only thing we had to do was change the tonalities for the cycle, because for a soprano it’s really too low. That was the only thing we did. The programme’s second half, The Human Comedy, will be a very special thing; it’s a world premiere. The work has been performed in the past of course, but it’ll be the first time the whole music, music for theatre, is done, the way it was played in Moscow in the theatre of Vakhtangov in 1934. That was the only year it was performed in the theatre, so that’s why we had to go and find it all; it was a real adventure to find that material. I spent a lot of time in different archives in Moscow, in the Vakhtangov Theatre, searching for it – I have good friend who is an actor who helped me, and it was a real thrill to find all the notes of the director from that time, his writing on when exactly which part of music was supposed to be played. Luckily they were very bureaucratic in the 1930s, so I could find everything I needed, but it’s still interesting. I’m really thrilled – again, yes, it will be the first time it’s performed.
The Human Comedy has been dismissed in the past as something Shostakovich simply did for the money, but having it in a chamber arrangement also means it forces a reconsideration…
You’re right, it’s becomes very transparent because of that. As to my opinion on its inception, the same thing you can say about Mozart: a lot of music and composers wrote for money. It was normal, they did it for a living, but even what Shostakovich did for the money was great. I think he had a lot of humour, sometimes very black humour, cynical humour, so even with the music he was writing for entertainment, it still becomes, somehow, very biting. And it’s interesting that the problems in the society they were facing in the 1920s and 1930s, I have the feeling many of these things we are facing again. Shostakovich was saying the music, there is actually a great quote of his, that music is the only thing which should survive any wars and any illnesses. I have the feeling now in the beginning of the 21st century we are back in the same situation somehow. We have to somehow prove that art, that music, has the power and the possibility to survive and bring, a little bit, people back together, that’s actually the only thing you can do in this really difficult situation.
Conductor Michail Jurowski leads the Staatskapelle Dresden and cellist Isang Enders at the inaugural International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch in 2010. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
The context in which it is presented is important, your father’s history with the festival being very much part of that context. I’m curious what you think attracted him to this work. I recall him telling me years ago that conducting in America was like a dream for him – something that really wouldn’t be expressed now – and I can only theorize that such an experience, and the related feelings of curiosity and wonder, play into Balzac’s explorations about the variance of human experience, and Shostakovich’s also.
Yes, I’m thinking a lot in the last few months about his relationship to Shostakovich as well. It’s a strange thing, my father had such a close relationship to (the composer) in a human sense, as well as professionally. It was such that I always had the feeling I knew Shostakovich myself, even though it’s not possible. We spoke a lot about Shostakovich from my childhood and now since my father is no longer here I think about this energy he was creating, because you are right, I feel strongly his presence is still here. Even though I’m not able to ask him in real life for advice, I feel it, and it has been like that before when I was in touch with the music of Shostakovich – I was doing a lot of his music throughout my life and always feel an energetic support from him myself, although I didn’t know him. My father would speak about a genetic memory, and I think it’s valuable; he himself had strong genetic memory because of his father and grandfather. The period of The Human Comedy, or when we speak about Balzac and the 19th century, or the first thirty years of 20th century when this piece was written for theatre, those are all periods my father couldn’t know himself, but still a very strong connection existed. And I have the feeling it’s not an accident that history sometimes makes these repetitions – that is also a little bit related to this Human Comedy, to this exchange of tragedy and comedy, this continuance; it never stops.
So the idea of Shostakovich, as with other artists, is that there is no end of the story – there might be the end of somebody’s life, but the whole story will continue with other characters, like a play. So when you feel part of the huge theatrical play, that’s also what people like Shakespeare imagined, then you… have to also create a distance to everything, which is not bad, especially in our days, because it is very difficult to continue and to go on when you are facing really very strong negative things, like war, like illness –so you need a distance to all that.
But you also need immediacy, a sense of relationship to what you watch, what you listen to, the people you spend time with, the food you eat, whatever you consume in whatever forms, and I feel Shostakovich really understood that – your father understood that also. That sense of connection is powerfully manifest in chamber arrangements. How, to your mind, does changing the tonality for voice, and within a chamber configuration, affect understandings of Tsvetaeva’s poetry, and Shostakovich’s music?
The word “transposition” is a great word; it has so much inside of it! I am always curious why we call it, in musical language, a transposition from one tonality or modulation to another one – of course it will be another piece, so I am very curious how this particular piece will sound. Every tonality has a colour; every tonality has a character, so when you change tonalities you change a lot of things – that’s clear. But we have to take into account that every piece of music we hear, from Baroque times or from Classical times, that all the tonalities – all the G Minors and whatnot – from that period are not the same as now because of the tuning, so when you start to play this music in the way it was done at the time it was written, then you understand it’s really another feeling. But it doesn’t mean you have to do that – you can play it also in the modern tonalities, with modern instruments. The times are changing and the acoustics are changing. What I can say about the Tsvetaeva work is, I have a feeling for now anyway, that the music itself remains dark, the cycles of Shostakovich remain dark, even if we put everything one tone higher, but the transference of the text now means it might be even stronger because of that. When you take the very high voices with the very high notes you can barely understand them.
For example, I’m talking now a little bit lower, because there is also microphone so I don’t have to raise my voice so much, but if I’m talking to somebody, the minute I speak a little bit higher, the attention, the whole energy, changes – it’s like a string pulled tighter, the whole connection is stronger, right at this moment. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different kind of energy, so I’m really curious how (the song cycle) will be, but it’s my feeling that the darkness becomes more transparent there. Also the number of musicians onstage is really not big, you can do it with a bigger group, but for me, I’m not a pianist, I’m a cellist – I was doing a lot of chamber music and a lot of soloistic music, especially, so it’s a different feeling. My best memories were the cycles of Shostakovich with the Blok poetry which is written for piano trio and voice, and there were movements where you had just cello and voice together, and this type of intimacy where you have this one voice and one instrument, for me is something I always try to aim for even when I have a big symphony to perform. I’m always searching for these intimate moments when you can really produce this kind of tension. It’s like when you have a crowd of people and everyone is talking and then suddenly everyone is silent and you have two people looking at each and talking to each other – that’s powerful. This silence is extremely strong. And for somebody like Tsvetaeva, her work really asks for silence, even if she’s screaming or crying, it’s not for mainstream television, let’s say.
Some translations capture that relationship between silence and music better than others; the repetitions in her writing are staccato in some ways – so deliberate, so rhythmic, so musical.
They really are…
I wonder if people miss that musicality because of the drama, but she’s asking as much for a subconscious understanding through that musicality as a conscious one through the words themselves, and I think Shostakovich captures both in this song cycle…
Yes that’s true!
.. now I wanted to ask you, these chamber sounds, vocal sounds, ensemble sounds – the ways you perceive sound, and write, conduct, and transpose, are they informed by the cello?
Yes, you’re right; they are. I have to say, my biggest learning, one of my best schooling in working with singers was by playing cello, because it is the instrument which has the biggest connection to the human voice. It includes the whole range of all possible sounds, from bass to soprano, in one instrument. I remember I had an ensemble, a chamber group, we performed with a baritone, me as a cellist, and a pianist, we were doing many arrangements, not only opera arias but we were also playing, lots of duets for example, of Schumann and Schubert, where one voice was played by cello and one was singing, and there was always a moment where you consciously lost this – like “where is the voice and where is the cello?” This is also what Shostakovich really did great, his understanding of sounds, of the voice as an instrument, was really central. So when vocalists deal with Shostakovich, they have to really think like an instrument, especially for performing his music, it’s a great need. Of course it helps when you have, generally, great poetry. In Italian opera you sometimes have a kind of text which is, I don’t want to say it’s useless, but of course you have it sometimes where the words are really not important but the vocal line is, and that’s something else – but when you deal with Russian or German or also sometimes Italian, but another type of style, like something from Petrarch or Dante, something where the text is leading, it’s obvious how the music has to be.
That’s why it’s so great with Shostakovich: the music has to be leading and carrying at the same time. And especially when you see the amazing last movement of the cycle, when it’s about Akhmatova, so Tsvetaeva is writing about Akhmatova, through Shostakovich’s musical line, it’s just… you have so many incredible people in one little musical bar… it’s immense. For a conductor, a musician, a listener, it doesn’t matter – you have to show it to others, you don’t have to show yourself, you don’t have to pretend your art is higher or mightier than anything those people were creating. It’s not about you. That’s why it’s so important to be a little bit aside, and to be a little bit under this, let’s say, sound, still controlling everything, still producing your language, and with your capacities, but! This is too fragile, all this music and chamber music generally is very fragile, and in combination with poetry of Tsvetaeva and music of Shostakovich, you can’t just throw it somewhere; you have to touch it as if it’s crystal. That’s the best possibility, for everyone … to hear, to listen, to inhale it. That’s why I am always looking forward, so much, to all these sorts of concerts, but energetically they take… it’s a much bigger challenge than a huge symphony or opera. It’s sometimes much more difficult to produce something like that.
Your use of the word “fragility” brings Silvestrov’s work to mind. He is on the programme with Shostakovich on Sunday. How do you see the connection?
The interesting thing is I performed Silvestrov in my time as a cellist many years ago. His work is always very much related to beauty, and it’s very honest music; he was never trying to pretend that he was the big modernist of the 20th century. Somebody like Arvo Pärt is also not a modernist but is very much about the spirit of music. I know Pärt very well, we spoke a lot about music, and you can feel how important the spiritual energy has always been for him in his life, and not only in his music – but with Silvestrov, it’s different; it’s so simple with him. Of course now the situation has changed. He’s not the only existing Ukrainian composer but he’s the big one being performed. He’s the oldest, for sure – luckily it’s still alive, and he will be present on Sunday. For musicians performing his music now, you can imagine it’s even more a responsibility now than it was twenty years ago, and still, I am absolutely sure it is so important for him as a composer, and for us as interpreters, to play music, to make music, to show the artistic side of Silvestrov. Shostakovich was much more political than Silvestrov, of course, they were much different times in which Shostakovich lived. But he was somebody who was a fighter; he was always fighting crises. Somehow, luckily for him, he didn’t need to invent anything; it was already present in reality. Shostakovich generally works very well in combination with other composers of the Soviet Union of the 20th century, but with a little bit different way of energy.
It’s interesting that Silvestrov is being honoured at the festival this year, and that his work is on this programme with the Shostakovich chamber arrangements.
Especially the Tsvetaeva work, which comes directly after the Silvestrov piece. His work is chamber music, and it’s about feeling, about atmosphere. With Shostakovich there is a script, always, there is a clear storyline, even if it’s not… even if you play Shostakovich’s chamber music without words, still, yes, he is the narrator of the story. Silvestrov, it was always my feeling, he’s a witness of atmosphere, and he’s sharing that atmosphere. So that’s why I think there is a good link between them.
He’s an observer of atmosphere and putting it out there has its own kind of interpretation of script…
… it’s one that is being written as it’s being played, and it changes all the time. That’s what I hear in Silvestrov, not a narrative but a sort of Beckett play where there’s a very pervasive mood that is inherent to overall understanding. I wonder if that’s another connection with the work of Shostakovich, that development of feeling with inner and outer worlds.
That’s about performing, though. Performing must include a script – whatever you are doing, it must have a certain sense. Sometimes you have a kind of clear help from the composer who is writing everything already, so you have just to comment; in other cases you have to create a script for yourself, and with the music of Silvestrov it’s not difficult. Especially in the 21st century – and the 20th they had it as well – you have movies, when you know how a movie can work, and you know what the perfect music is for it. That’s essentially what Shostakovich said about Silvestrov – they knew each other of course. Silvestrov is 84 years old now, he knew Shostakovich, who was always very polite to his colleagues, and had a lot of respect for people like Schnittke and Kancheli. I remember hearing from the widow of Shostakovich, from Irina, I spoke to her two weeks ago about this concert, and she said, “Yes, he always respected Silvestrov, he said (Silvestrov’s) music is amazing especially when somebody knows how to paint.” So somehow it’s an interesting way to describe his music.
So if Shostakovich is Kandinsky, Silvestrov is Mark Rothko?
Good point, yes.
Experiencing all these “paintings” in a live setting on Sunday, one which is so historically loaded, and especially with you doing it, feels profound, though it must be a little daunting for you?
What do you mean?
Parental figures who give their children deep connections to art can cast large shadows, as my own mother did; after she passed and I had to go do things in public with some kind of connection to her, it was like walking into a room naked; I learned that one has to draw a line between what one gives the public and saves for one’s self.
Well, you know Catherine, when I chose this profession and started to conduct, having my father and my brother, these important and successful conductors already, I knew I would be kind of naked my entire life. So that’s nothing new to me. I’ve done this job for seventeen years now. The only thing which is kind of changing for myself, not for other people, is that I feel my… responsibility, first of all, for this profession since he passed away, is now bigger than it was before. Because now I have not only to be just to be on a certain professional level, we all have to achieve this for all our lives, but I have also to respect and show respect to his memory, you know? And respect to memory, responsibility for somebody who is not there anymore, physically at least, for me it’s now an experience to say that somehow it’s even bigger, but it gives you more energy.
I remember the day he passed away, on the 19th of March, this day I was in my theatre in Novosibirsk and the next day I had Traviata to conduct, not the easiest opera to do, especially… but the thing is… whatever piece I would conduct, whatever I would take, my father had such a huge repertoire and had done so many things in his life, so there is always a kind of link to him. And I have to be honest, I didn’t have so much energy to go onstage of course at that time, but I did it, because I knew he would really appreciate it at this precise moment. And I mean I always have, it’s one of the main reasons I do this profession, is that I have very special feelings for singers – that’s the most fragile and most sensitive thing because you have an instrument here, inside. I always trying to treat the singers with a necessary sensitivity, but now I have the feeling it’s even more, because I know they have to produce out their emotions they have inside, you know? So this experience is something, and it’s the thing that will stay with me forever. I know of course there is always a period of grief you have to go through and some of your parents or the people close to you die, and somehow it’s over, you’re over this hill, and you still have the memories but there’s a distance…
… I can tell you the grief comes back, but in a different form.
Yes, I have the feeling when we talk about him, it will never be completely distant to me. We are doing the same profession and my life and profession are the same thing. There will be, always, a strong connection, and probably through the years, it will become even stronger.
Top: Dmitri Jurowski leads a rehearsal with the Staatskapelle at the Semper Opera. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
Throughout my series of essays over the past three months examining various cultural, musical , and media-related aspects concerning the war in Ukraine, the one thing that seemed just out of reach was a direct view on the act of departure – or the act of remaining – from or in one’s place of birth. Recent events, most notably those around so-called “Victory Day” in Russia, have served to underline the changing realities around leaving and staying, in both tangible and intangible ways.
Russia’s list of émigré composers is lengthy; the reasons for their departure (and in some cases, return) relating to socio-cultural, financial, and political circumstances and opportunities. Perhaps the most notable Russian non-Russian, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) could only explore his culture through being away from it, not unlike his literary counterpart, the Ireland-born, Europe-living James Joyce (1882-1941). Stravinsky’s relentless curiosity and his willingness to experiment with elements of the Russia he’d left behind in various ways – milking, mocking, embracing, tossing aside those sonic elements, and surgically excising the clichés even as he sentimentally held on to their other, more personal aspects – feels, in retrospect, like a quilted instruction manual of artistic fortitude and spiritual survival. He is one of the composers examined in Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (The Boydell Press, 2012), authors Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker. The authors incisively feature a quote used by Soviet musicologist Yuri Keldysh (1907-1995), who is himself quoting critic/pianist/composer V. G. Karatygin (1875-1925), with relation to speculations on the roots of Stravinsky’s work: “The artist, while his art reflects a soul that has been splintered and corroded by neurasthenic impression, is fatigued at the same time by all this nervous tension and seeks out an antidote in the knowing return to simplicity.” Social relations, posit the authors, relate to this tension: “The less the facts of public life pointed towards hopeful outcomes, the more these demands were placed on art. Some strong and vivid external impulses were needed for this.” Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, premiered in 1911 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, reflects a dualism which became more varied if concentrated in its expression once Stravinsky embraced his émigré status. Keldysh’s observations on the work’s symbolism hold modern echoes:
By way of contrast to the noisy, notley crowd, there is Petrushka, with his sufferings and his broken heart, expressed through his convulsive rhythms and angular melodies. A wooden doll, a mere puppet, turns out to have feelings too. We have an opposition here: on the one hand, an apparently lifeless puppet jerking mechanically on his strings but capable of refined and complex feelings, and on the other hand we have the living but soulless crowd; this opposition bore a social meaning that responded perfectly to the mood of the intelligentsia during the period of reaction following 1905. A complete withdrawal from active social struggle, a forlorn subjectivism, a dissatisfaction with reality – all these were expressed through the passivity of a moribund psyche, embodied by the image of the suffering Harlequin. The bright colours of Petrushka’s folk scenes, is thus only a superficial element that throws the inner psychological content into relief.” (p. 244-245)
The bright colours seen in recent news reports, as well as across the social media pages of various Moscow-living musical figures, might be viewed thusly, with the realities of those who have left the country making for a far more grim, far less click-friendly presentation. Writer Masha Gessen captured the contemporary experience of departure thusly: “The old Russian émigrés were moving toward a vision of a better life; the new ones were running from a crushing darkness. […] As hard as it is to talk about guilt and responsibility, it’s harder to figure out what the people who used to make up Russia’s civil society should do now that they are no longer in Russia.” (“The Russians Fleeing Putin’s Wartime Crackdown”, The New Yorker, March 20, 2022) It must be noted, of course, that there are varying levels of the experience of tragedy, and that no equivalency can or should exist between Russian émigrés and those fleeing Ukraine. In an exchange with Ilya Venyavkin, who is a historian of the Stalin era, Gessen makes this point explicit: “Now that this parallel society was gone, Venyavkin could think only of the future, which had become strangely clearer. “I refuse to look at this as some kind of personal disaster,” he said. “Disaster is what’s happening in Ukraine.” (The New Yorker, March 20, 2022).
These readings, combined with observations of the numerous concerts, benefits, and tours recently, have been powerful reminders of the ways in which people respond to trauma, particularly those within the creative sphere. Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka wrote about such trauma in his 2000 paper The Ambivalence of Social Change: Triumph or Trauma? (Polish Sociological Review , 2000, No. 131 (2000), pp. 275-290). He expertly examines the coping mechanisms through which various traumatic situations and events might turn into what he terms a “mobilizing force for human agency” and catalyze “creative social becoming.” Aside from the fascinating examinations of the rise of moral panics (more on that in a future essay), Sztompka quotes American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) in his four adaptations to anomie, a term with particular currency. Merton had postulated possible consequences to social strain, elements which could be experienced via the misalignment of individual or collective ambitions, and the circumstances in realizing them. These elements formed the basis of his famous strain theory, published in 1938 in the American Sociological Review. Piotr Sztompka (b.1944, Warsaw) adapted Merton’s ideas to cultural trauma thusly as innovation; rebellion; ritualism; retreatism, elements which he discusses at length in excellent paper, written a scant decade into post-Soviet life. I fully credit Marina Frolova-Walker for the introduction to Sztompka’s work; in an online lecture last month, she provided a wonderful introduction to these concepts within the context of her own post-Soviet musical analyses. It is the innovation aspect to which I am the most interested presently, one I suspect possesses the greatest resonance within the post-pandemic realities of the classical sphere. Certainly innovation (or its lack) is a concept relevant to the many new season announcements by orchestras and opera houses of late; just how those “reimaginings” will manifest, in light of pandemic and war, remains to be seen.
Thus it was that Sztompka’s ideas, together with the currently cautious cultural climate, that I was inspired to reread Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned (Indiana University Press, 2021), by Elena Dubinets, with a fresh, curious view. As well as being an author, Dubinets is the Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), a position she began in September 2021. A self-described Jew from Moscow with a Ukrainian spouse, Dubinets has a length and very impressive CV. She worked as Vice President of Artist Planning and Creative Projects at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for 16 years, where she also played a central role in producing and co-founding the orchestra’s in-house label. The trained musicologist was also a Chair of the City of Seattle Music Commission (appointed by the Seattle City Council), a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Washington’s School of Music, and was Chief Artistic Officer at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra before accepting her position with the LPO. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Dubinets has taught in her native Russia, as well as in Costa Rica and the United States, the country where she and her family moved in 1996. Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned examines the movement of both Soviet and post-Soviet composers within the greater paradigm of socio-political identities, ones which shifted and morphed, or not, according to geography and circumstance. Connections in and around these inner and outer realities are ones Dubinets takes particular care with; such investigations have pointed resonance to the current, perilous displacements and journeys being made by so very many. Utilizing a myriad of references and quotations from a variety of sources (including composers Boris Filanovsky, Anton Batagov, Serge Newski and Dmitri Kourliandski) Dubinets examines the 20th and 21st-century diasporic musical landscapes through wonderfully contextualized lenses of history, culture, finance, socio-religious beliefs and practises, and old and current politics, as well as the ways in which identity can and does change according to a combination of these factors.
In a Chapter titled “The “Social” Perspective”, Dubinets features an exchange she shared with composer Mark Kopytman (b. 1929-2011), outlining the cultural explorations and varied journeys which were seminal to his creative identity. Born in Ukraine, Kopytman graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and went on to work at conservatories in then-Soviet Moldova and Kazakhstan. Kopytman emigrated to Israel in 1972, where his ascent at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance (Jerusalem), from Professor, to Dean, then to Deputy Head, gave him a unique perspective on his past experiences and then-current path. He told Dubinets that his understanding of his own Jewish roots stemmed from his study of Yemenite folklore, which led directly to various compositions integrating various histories and traditions. “Would Kopytman have developed his Jewish identity had he stayed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Moldova? Most certainly not.” (p. 139) Dubinets also examines the important if often overlooked act of return. Given the current circumstances and the related antagonisms connected to speaking out against the war or not, these observations hold particular poignancy:
There is a heightened sensitivity among Russian returnees about the resentment they perceive to be directed toward them, and some clearly remember the antagonism and even discrimination they experienced when they came back […] Having studied the emigration-related consequences of the Balkan conflict, Anders Stefansson observed that relationships between emigrants and those who stayed behind often provoked the strongest outbursts of frustration and anger, even more than their memories of violence or the stigma of refugee life. The notion of Otherness and nonbelonging developed in these situations in relation to one’s territorial kin and the sense of former national unity did not guarantee welcome, tolerance, or even basic acceptance. Emigrants – many of whom later tried to return – fell from favor in the homeland and were treated as both social and cultural foreigners and national defectors. (p. 290-291)
The notion of “Russian”-ness needs to be re-examined, Dubinets posits, as she skillfully untangles the fraught web of Soviet and post-Soviet musical identities, and the twisting social connections therein. Her thoroughness and conversational writing style lend a cohesiveness that illuminates Eastern creative landscapes as well as those further afield; Dubinets puts her business acumen to good use in examining aspects of marketing, criticism, and “value” as ascribed to musicians across varying social fields, and related locales. This is a book of nuance, not of binaries, a timely work that moves past the noise of reductionism. Dubinets provides meaningful investigation into the realities of creative life amidst the current sea of both manufactured and real outrage, of profitable obfuscation and polemical thought, creating a myriad of vital understandings and illuminations of musical life, insights which are especially valuable in a time of war.
We spoke at the end of April (2022), about war, identity, and much else.
How do you see musical Russian musical identity now, especially within the wider umbrellas of socio-political and cultural shifts?
I think the definition needs to change – it needs to be decolonized, yes. How we do it is a different story. It will take many generations, I’m afraid, to bring it to something different, because the definition is so established in our minds due to the fact that the idea of Russia as a whole has been perpetuated in the hands of successive governments, not just the current one but prior ones. They made that cultural identity a soft weapon for the country, and the Russian world, so to speak. I’m not sure if you speak Russian, but there’s a term that’s been widely used by Putin’s government, “Russkiy mir“, in order to include any Russian-speaking person on the planet. This was striking for me to realize when I was beginning to do my research about the music of émigré composers: wherever they’d go they’d do Russian music based only on their language. They could be from Georgia, Estonia, from Ukraine of course, or from Russia, but wherever they were placed on the globe, the perception is that they were Russians.
I have a similar story myself: back in Russia when I was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, I did a dissertation on American music, and when I moved to the U.S. and people realized I was speaking Russian and a musicologist, everybody who got in contact with me assumed I was a specialist in Russian music itself – and I was not. I had to slightly go with the flow, but it was an assumption that was quite often put on people and they became labeled with it. Typically this is what the current Russian government wants, and what they organized way before the war, in the late 1990s; Putin then strengthened it, but they organized these meetings of Russians abroad, so to speak, and created certain organizations for supporting the development of Russian culture and Russian music abroad. These associations were especially strong in the UK and they were run by Russian state organizations, so it was an intentional effort to broaden the scope of the government, and to put us all under the same umbrella, regardless of our differences. And it didn’t work, this idea of Russian culture.
… and now it’s biting many people back. Various forms of identity are part of the public discourse now, and identity politics, traditionally seen as being the purview of the West, are being applied in the very place that would resist them most. I wonder what you think about that, particularly within the broader scope of what is being programmed for future seasons? Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kyiv), for instance, specifically identifies as a Ukrainian composer.
Well, there are ethnic identities, some want to change them, stick to them, become something else, not all want to be presented as Russian or Ukrainian. Silvestrov specifically wants to be considered a Ukrainian composer because this is his passion, this is what he dedicated his life to. Others will tell you, “I am a composer. I am not a Russian composer.” The same goes for women composers: “I am not a woman-composer; I am a composer.” And so… I’m in favour of people somehow identifying what they do themselves, rather than us putting them in a corner, and trying to label them with certain things that sometimes even we don’t understand. What is indeed “Russian”? It’s really hard to explain to those who are far removed from that state and culture, and for some of us, even the word “Russian” can be understood differently, because there are different words for it. One word can be translated to mean it’s a state-related identity, like Russia as a country-state – “We are Russians because we belong to the state in one way or another” – but another word can be translated as a cultural identity, a language-related identity, which would have nothing to do with the state. In my book I have discussed this concept, and the idea of cultural affiliation – it might be a useful concept to consider instead, to replace the other, much more questionable forms of national identification. What I mean by that is some people simply can’t or don’t want to be singularly associated with the state, or another state, not just Russian; it’s an idea which is applicable to all countries. You might have seen the names in my book, composers like Tszo Chen Guan (b. 1945, Shanghai), who is from China, or Lantuat Nguen (Nguyễn Lân Tuất; b. 1935, Hanoi), who is from Vietnam – they learned Russian, it’s not their first or even their second language but they moved into Russia, and became Russian citizens. And for that reason they had to be affiliated with that specific culture and learn how to accommodate its main stipulations. They started writing Russian overtures and Russian symphonies, and went on to other cultural affiliations. So there is a way to be attached to a country even if you are not really born there.
What I’m trying to conceptualize is that the binary concepts of inclusion vs exclusion, belonging vs otherness, acceptance vs intolerance – these concepts are becoming outdated because the world has changed so much. We are on the move; we are learning new cultures. And we want to be considered as individuals rather than attached to any identity politics.
Context moves against those binary notions, although the nature of contemporary publishing is such that context is thrown off in favor of binary thinking, because it means more clicks, more views, immediate reaction; outrage. I was thinking about this when I read Kevin Platt’s op-ed in The New York Times, which made me consider composer Elena Langer (b. 1974, Moscow), whose work you write about and have programmed as part of the LPO’s 2022-2023 season. How much do you think the idea of redefinition matters? Redefinition moves against binary reductiveness, but it requires flexibility to implement. How do you cultivate that?
I think after the pandemic we have received this very unusual level of flexibility – because we had to change everything for two seasons and we had to do it on the fly, according to each situation. This season we had at least five weeks in a row when we had to make considerable changes in our programming for multiple reasons, not only covid-related but we had a storm – there were all kinds of things, and one of them was the war. For me this ability to change programming and to change, to react to the surrounding world, is absolutely necessary. I have always been troubled by the inertia of arts organizations, and particularly opera houses and symphony orchestras; we have to plan very early, at least two to three years out, and with the opera houses, it’s even more, it’s up to five years out they plan, and that’s in order to ensure availability of composers, singers, directors, conductors – everybody possible – but covid changed all of it. All the plans got shifted. Organizations are still rescheduling and will be accommodating those whose performances got cancelled during covid, for a while, but priorities are also changing, so now I’m asking myself: what should I prioritize? A piece by a Ukrainian composer or one that was cancelled during covid? I’m enjoying the flexibility this time gives us because the audiences expect that kind of flexibility; they got trained by cancellations, which is a strange thing to say. We’d print our brochures and send them out in the “before times”, and we’d stick to what was in those brochures for the rest of the year; this is what people expected from us and we were proud we could satisfy their expectations. But it all went astray, and now if I ask somebody, “What concert are you coming to here next week?” they often get confused – the programmes have been so regularly changed. And that’s the beauty of the situation, this is terrific actually, because we can swiftly implement something that hadn’t been in the plans but can be responsive to the moment.
I wonder if that relates to the first facet of cultural trauma as outlined by Piotr Sztompka, innovation, a concept that feels especially important now. Your choice of quotes from critics in both North America and the UK in your book made me wonder how much innovation does or doesn’t travel across the ocean, particularly post-pandemic.
It’s coming, slowly! It’s much much slower than what we are used to in North America, and I’m still struggling with the fact that sometimes I have to explain very simple things to my colleagues in London. They didn’t live through BLM (Black Lives Matter), or, they didn’t have a similar experience of it; that time was a very, very different thing for them. It was mostly distant; music people here heard about it but didn’t internalize it. In the States it’s impossible not to think about it, but in the U.K., it’s largely, at least in the cultural sector, “Oh right, that.” It is slow to get it into the fabric of our thinking about classical music, and you know, we need a number of pioneers who will lead the way, like for example, my orchestra has been working closely with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) – they are definitely leading the way, they know about BLM and what they should be doing, but you know, they need to continue convincing the constituents. There are other organizations the LPO works with who are educators, they are groups who are very passionate – they don’t do programming themselves but work with the institutions who do. So I think the more of this work there is, the better it will be. The consensus exists that change has to come but they haven’t gone through things yet.
The UK is much more attuned with the concept of sustainability, however. People use public transportation here more than in North America. There, my team was trying to consider what could be done in terms of greener orchestra attendance, and because everybody uses cars it’s just not possible, but really, it’s one of those things we have to think about. It’s what we do, after all, it’s a life form – people have to physically attend – and In the U.S, to do so they have to drive, whereas in the UK it’s much more about trains, even when we’re on tour. We work with venues on certain aspects of that much more so than counterparts in the U.S. do.
One thing I appreciate your acknowledging during the recent LPO season preview recently is the overall insularity of the classical music world – “our small and somewhat isolated classical community” as you put it – but do you think that bubble is breaking up now, however slightly?
We’ve been observing a pretty interesting process here, but sadly we still can’t qualify it. What we’ve noticed this season, when we came back with the first season of live performance after the pandemic, was that many people got used to watching us online, because we had organized a major series of concerts. We streamed 35 concerts online, the same number we’d normally perform live at the Royal Festival Hall. People were receiving it in the comfort of their homes and they got used to it. Many say it’s a very different experience than when they come for live concerts, that they get something else, they get a different type of engagement – but not all of them decided to come back (live). Some of them are still worried about their health; some live too far away; there is a constituency that hasn’t returned.
However, there is a completely new group of people and it’s mostly younger people who show up randomly at our concerts. We always understand how many are coming, it used to be so subscription-based that we’d know a year out how many would come, but it’s not the case anymore; people really don’t buy until the last minute now, but they do come and they are extremely enthusiastic A recent concert with Renée Fleming is a good example. Of course she’s a star, but it felt like a rock concert! People were screaming, they were young people too – it was stunning for me to see. I’ve worked with her before, in many orchestras, but it was a totally different planet, this concert. So I’m constantly asking myself if this is what we are getting because of the covid and the streaming, if this is why people are so much more embracing of programming changes and of new music and of things they’ve not heard before – I hope this is the case. I do hope we have obtained new audiences somehow after the pandemic, but we still don’t have any statistical data.
I had a conversation with classical marketing consultant David Taylor recently and we discussed how low prices do not inspire younger audience attendance – it could be free but they wouldn’t go – it’s the experience itself, of offering something that can’t be had online.
I totally agree, and I know things we’ve learned about, that we understand what may or may not bring them in that regard. We had an Artist-In-Residence this year, Julia Fischer, who did all five Mozart violin concerti, and we had half-houses for all these concerts. Now if you asked our marketing department three years ago about this they would have said, “That’s a definitive sellout, continue doing only this stuff and then we’ll be all set with our budgets” – but people didn’t show up this time. They showed up for some random and obscure performances we hadn’t budgeted for accordingly, so yes, they come unexpectedly. It’s hard to understand at this point, as I said.
That’s part of the innovation aspect with relation to the cultural responses to trauma, seeking new experiences after two years of watching behind a monitor, although there are many who still choose to do so, whether because of economics or health, or a combination of both. It behoves many cultural organizations not to take those audiences – or how we choose to enjoy concerts – for granted.
That’s true – it’s why our goal with programming has been and will remain in balancing our repertory and offerings; we know that younger people are predisposed to new things and older people mostly prefer their blockbusters, and we’re also going back to the habit of explaining musical experiences – that is, our conductors speak from the stage. I want to say that for almost a decade such a thing was considered a no-go: “Music should speak for itself,” many would say. But now people seem to have the desire to learn more, and how do you learn if you have all possible restrictions? I’m always annoyed the lights go down during performances to such an extent it’s impossible to read the program books – you just can’t see them – and also the small type is very unfriendly. On the other hand younger people can open cell phones and read the notes online but it is too bright in the auditorium to do that, and we make a point to tell them they can’t use their devices during performances. It is an unfriendly art form in many ways when it comes to educating people about music and educating them about the experiences they have paid money to hear, so we are now beginning to talk more openly about doing pre-concert lectures and doing quick introductions from the stage right before the music. Of course we’ll be using digital means going forward as well, that’s important, we really want people to come back! They vote with their feet, and if they don’t like something, they don’t come back.
But you are also filling in the holes for an education system that has been continually underfunded over many decades. I am not sure all classical organizations themselves think of their mission this way; I recently read about a festival featuring the music of Rachmaninoff and the language consisted largely of clichéd notions of “Russian” music. Is this, I thought, how we should talk about him (or any Russian composer) anymore? It seems so outdated.
We played Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony on the third day of the war – that concert was called “From Russia With Love” and consisted entirely of Russian music: Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Second. I actually had to go onstage and say something because it was unimaginable to do the concert without any framing of it, without putting it within the current situation, whereby it could have been just cancelled outright. We could have done just that, but people bought tickets; they wanted to hear this music. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) has never associated himself with Putin, and I thought, “Why would we cancel it? We just have to position it properly.”
So we played the Ukrainian national anthem to open, after I said a few words, and really, this is what it means to be relevant as an industry: it means engaging with people’s emotions and thoughts in a particular moment. We played the anthem at a time before everyone else was doing it. I explained how Prokofiev (1891-1953), even though he is considered Russian, was born in Ukraine, specifically in the territory being bombed at the moment; as to Rachmaninoff, he left Russia because he never agreed with the regime change or its policies. Putting the music in context makes a huge difference in people’s minds…
Context, the magic word!
Yes! And we had a standing ovation after the anthem, and it wasn’t a standing ovation for only how well they played this music or how beautiful it was or is; it was a standing ovation for the fact we decided to open a concert with, let’s use this word, a “dangerous” program this way, by explaining what it means to us and why we are doing it.
I asked Axel Brüggemann about this recently and he agreed but added that such contextual information can sometimes disturb people’s closely-held perceptions of beauty in art…
So maybe he’s thinking of Dostoyevsky’s idea that beauty will save the world… and we know it will not!
It’s interesting you mention Dostoyevsky because there have been numerous discussions pondering if he should still he be held up as “the great Russian writer” considering his anti-semitism. Rather than knee-jerk reaction, my instinct as a teacher is to examine his work with full contextual awareness, which might lead, as your book also suggests, to a rethinking of greatness, of Russian-ness, and how we use the word “genius” going forwards.
Yes, and what I tried to always state and intimate, when I can, is that Russians are very different, Russian music is a part of the Russian image, the government has used it to its own narrative, but we must never conflate all Russians, and especially Russian composers and musicians – and artists in general – into something unified. It would be anachronistic and inaccurate. In that op-ed you mentioned, Kevin Platt was trying to do this, and I don’t think it came off right, especially since he placed Gergiev and Netrebko in a strange context – but he did say Ukrainians who write in the Russian language, they certainly self-identify as Ukrainians, but they still use the Russian language, the same way as Gogol (1809-1852) did in the 19th century or Shevchenko (1814-1861) as well. They did it because Russian was the language of the empire, it was a colonizing language, and actually moving to Saint Petersburg was because of the opportunities that existed there, ones that didn’t exist for their art in Kyiv or in Ukraine in general.
We can never forget about the social element and infrastructures of how the arts are done when we examine any art form, especially music, because it is an extensive art form; you sometimes have to hire hundreds to perform your piece, and how can it be supported if the state or major donors don’t invest in the art form? We can’t forget about that reality. Some Ukrainian writers simply had opportunities in Russia, and when Russian had become a terribly universal language for all citizens of the former Soviet empire, they simply continued using this language – but that doesn’t mean they’re Russians; we can’t conflate them all into the same plot . For this reason we can’t cancel it all; we should perform it. People like Gergiev… no, that’s different. It’s clear to everyone on the planet I believe, that he specifically benefited from this government and specifically supported its war efforts; many others have not, they protested, it should also matter and it should count.
Having said that, I have experienced opinions from other folks, for example Ukrainian musicians, who think that while the war is ongoing, Russian and Ukrainian music shouldn’t be on the same platform or the same programme, and while I don’t quite agree with it, I do see the rationale for that, and I understand their position. Ultimately what they’re saying is music is their weapon as well, the same way it is and has been soft power, and a soft weapon for the Russian government, so Ukrainians are also saying, “We have this meaningful tool and we want to use it appropriately.” But there is also another element bothering me recently as a scholar of Russian music and culture: I agonize over the fact that right now is not an ideal time to advocate for Russian music, but it is impossible to reconcile the unimaginable atrocities that have been committed by Russian soldiers with the fact they were educated in school studying Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. They were part of the system and even if they didn’t internalize it, it was there, it existed. I know myself, I studied and taught there, and know how it’s done right now. So it’s hard to understand how people who had at least some cultural background and education in school, do what they’ve been doing…
Quiteafewreports have explored the connection between military service and poverty, and President Zelensky has noted this also, which makes me think that for all culture they were shown in school, it doesn’t mean the same thing for them as it would for others in different areas. What is culture if you have nothing in the fridge and no job prospects outside the door? This makes me ponder our role(s) as artists / thinkers / writers / producers / programmers of culture, and of how to create or support a system that reaches past our bubble – which goes back to your points. The classical community needs to start thinking about all of this…
… we do have to, yes, but unfortunately right now the domination of the Russian government there, in those places, is remaking the ways in which school kids, those in elementary schools, will be studying history and culture, and also unfortunately, that history and culture will now become even less based on facts and even more based on ideology. This is the reform they’re initiating right now as we speak. So who will grow up within that system, between ten to fifteen years from now, is scary to imagine. And that’s not talking only about rural areas but cities as well, because they all have the same agenda, to glorify what the army is doing right now.
The language for that glory creates and shapes a reality which is not, in fact, reality – but surely this is why we have to talk about culture, and characterize decisions in culture, very carefully ourselves, and make sure when we make these decisions public or engage in exchanges that such language is very precise and not reactionary…?
Yes, and we should do that. In Russia that sense has been killed; what exists is public television which is a very determined agenda. And going back to what you asked me about what we learned as a result of the pandemic and how Europe is different from North America: Russia is an entirely different planet. They’ve never heard of some of the concepts we are trying to implement, or they are totally against them. They are not even trying to understand or accept the realities of the current time. If you are talking about diversifying the art form, they’re never considered this. I’m worried this feeds into the overall line of the “exceptionality” of the Russian culture in general, and that idea applies to Russian musicians in particular. They don’t want to accept that there are other cultures, other important elements in our world that they need to consider.
You know it’s always interesting to consider how decolonization should happen, and quite an obvious way would be for those formerly colonized cultures to be considered independent of their colonizers. This is what I am observing right now: I think the deconstructing of Russian imperial identity is happening in such a way. Ukraine has always been positioned in comparison to Russia, and Ukrainian artists are often compared to Russian artists. I’ve heard here, on my job with the LPO even, on multiple occasions, that we don’t know Ukrainian music because “Oh, it’s not as good as Russian” – and this is silly. People don’t know Ukrainian music, period, because it was purposely colonized that way, it was undermined by the occupier, by the empire, by its ambitions for their counterparts who would willingly point it out to everybody, that what they do is better than what other people in the provinces do, and Russians just don’t want to hear this piece of history, we completely ignore this societal argument. So when decolonizing these cultures, say, Belarusian or Ukrainian, I think they should be able to stand on their own rather than being constantly compared with Russians – and right now the public discourse is such that it’s just not happening. Maybe a few more months have to pass. Right now our goal is to perform as much Ukrainian music as possible and convince everybody it does stand on its own, and that it does have this individuality which it was not granted in the past.
So it starts with those programming choices and the flexibility you mentioned and saying, “Yes, we are going to have this composer and that composer in our programme tonight, it isn’t announced, but here it is” – just that spontaneous?
It’s just that. We performed a piece for violin and orchestra, “Thornbush”, by Victoria Polevá (b. 1962, Ktiv) at the fundraiser for Ukraine in Glyndebourne in early April; it was not really announced but we spoke about it from the stage, and then we decided to commission a new piece from her for next season.
Our entire 2022-2023 season will be dedicated to music by composers who had to leave their own countries as refugees to displaced composers – so we’ll talk about issues of home, what is home, what is displacement, how the composers experience exile, homelessness, despair, when and why they had to drop everything and leave – and what does it mean to “belong:, in a much broader sense? Is the idea of “home” just an emotional environment they wanted to create for themselves? Or is it a certain geographic location? Is it a time and place? There are so many possible descriptors of what “home” is, and this is what we hope to explore through music next season. The idea of this season came up when I was just hired to become the Artistic Director, about a year ago, and we thought we were implementing it pretty well, we incorporated composers who had left Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany but also Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria, and you’ll hear music from all these composers although few know their names. We had to make some choices in favour of these composers instead of programming Beethoven, let’s say, who could sell us many more tickets – but we used this new season to represent our general mission. And unfortunately the idea became – I say “unfortunately” because I wish this war never happened – very relevant when the war was starting, so we commissioned Victoria Polevá, who was on the way from Kyiv to Poland to escape the bombs at the time we asked – and so she will write for us next season. This is how I understand the mission of our art form at this terrible moment: decolonizing the preconceptions about classical music.
Chasms in the classical music world are becoming increasingly obvious as a result of the war in Ukraine. The pressures recently placed on artists to make a clear public statement, pressures which are being applied by various cultural organizations, have fomented resentments and created a whirlwind of controversy around the exercise of private and public opinions in relation to art and culture. There has been a heated reignition of the long-standing debate of how far one might (or should) separate the art from the artist. Things are not quite so clear-cut as some involved in the debate would believe, however; the institutional motivations behind applying that pressure, and the decision to cancel Russian artists and music in some instances, are enmeshed within a tight knot of funding, education, location, history, access, and the effects of two years of pandemic on the arts landscape overall. Audiences are proving slow in their return in many markets; the optics of doing the perceived “right thing” to convince them of the value of return has never been more pronounced.
This essay began life as a series of observations on the current state of music, politics, intercontinental preconceptions, funding models, education cuts, algorithms, public relations, and evolving notions of collective responsibility. Since starting on 3 March, the piece has become longer and broader than what was initially intended, and is now an ever-evolving, super-fussy Hydra. Just when I think one section is complete, along comes… more: another piece of learning; a dire bit of news; the reading of a comment thread; a conversation; the sound of violins playing a folk song. At those times I become curious, and am forced to rethink. In the interests of organization and finitude, I will be publishing this piece in four parts, likely not wholly consecutive but interspersed with artist conversations, this website’s initial raison d’être at its launch in 2017. It has been suggested this current essayistic pursuit is more suited to book form – perhaps? The great paradox of digital publishing is its essential changeability and permanence; everyone remembers when you screw up; everyone knows when you edit. I have no problem standing thusly naked before readers – I just want to make sure I can control the temperature of the water before dropping my robe.
It feels reductive to state “war is hell.” It is that, of course, because it makes everything and everyone around it hell, one rife with twisting corridors and uneven floors, crumbling staircases leading to ever more dimly-lit labyrinthine levels. The invasion of Ukraine has uncovered an increasingly rigid cultural exceptionalism across continents, one fast becoming the elephant in the auditorium. It is an element which is proving unhelpful for artists and audiences alike, because its existence is so patently antithetical to the notion that music is a unifying force, this concept which many artists state with urgent sincerity. How can this great oneness have any validity in the real world if a newcomer is constantly made to feel intellectually and creatively small by those holding more formal knowledge and training? The reactionary engineering of social media fosters such hostilities (and related reactivity) whilst simultaneously obscuring the practises of public relations, thus perpetuating a broad ignorance around the roles of finance and education. Such comprehension is not something governments or organizations would wish to be known, but that does not erase the validity of such investigation. One cannot simply shout “They are cancelling Russian artists!” without understanding the true mechanisms which have largely driven such cancellations; I would wager that they are less driven by xenophobia than by economics, and as much related to maintaining public relations as to pleasing donor bases. There is also, importantly, a deep aversion to risk after two years of pandemic; anything that gives off so much as a whiff of risk is duly launched off the boat, with all the expected words and righteous noises – sensitivity; community; solidarity. Bravo… ish.
Thus the recent claims of there occurring a giant wave of Russophobia within the classical realm (a victim narrative the Putin regime fosters, incidentally) are not completely accurate; no doubt that does exist, but one must keep context in firm focus. New York’s Metropolitan Opera, for instance, has roughly ten Russian singers, as well as Ukrainian basses Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Dmitri Belosselskiy, on board for this season and next. Such a detail holds significance; to ignore it is to ignore the necessary context which lays the groundwork for meaningful discussion. If we mean what we say, as music lovers and seeming ambassadors, we must be willing to get our hands dirty with various realities, including our own unconsciously-held beliefs and attitudes, as much as negotiating with those held by others. While classical culture prides itself on humanism, growth, and the ever-vital curiosity, I have witnessed few of these qualities in action of late from so many directly and indirectly involved parties; what I have seen is judgement, obfuscation, anger, showboating – reaction. Is there hope for sincerity? The jury is still out. As bass baritone Paul Carey Jones pondered in a recent post, “is the classical music industry all of a sudden truly serious about its desire for politically engaged artists, after a generation of hammering them into monochrome moulds of glossy PR-friendly “Living The Dream” bullshit?” In an attempt to explore pertinent issues within and around the intersections of culture, technology, politics, PR, and presentation, it seems wise to continually turn attention back, and forwards – to read, study, think, repeat, and to keep asking such questions, and expanding on them at every turn.
Such is the privilege of my own situation that I am able to pursue study, in a relatively healthy environment, with food in the refrigerator and heat buzzing on at predictable intervals. It is worth acknowledging this – the thing I ask for more of (education) and the things required to carry that out (time, money, environment) are not necessarily things everyone has access to, or easy access at that. Between hoovering, hay fever, student marking, sighing, cooking and clearing up, my days have filled up with reading, writing, note-taking, chasing people, ideas, and some cogent line of discourse, interspersed with glances at the telly every now and again. Context, as my many media and broadcasting students through the years will attest, is something of an obsession, but it takes continuous amounts of time, energy, money, and a calm atmosphere to grasp and cultivate an appreciation of context – not everyone has those things, or can so easily parcel them out; I acknowledge this (and shake angry fists at the utter failure of education systems, school boards, and arts departments here, but that’s a future essay). Context is often the very quality most often missing in contemporary discourse, and especially in times of war. Its absence, and the overall lack of commitment to its fostering on the part of artists, writers, organizations, educational departments, teachers, writers, publishers (most everyone in or around the system) has created a crater of non-awareness; that crater existed far before the start of war on February 24th but is growing exponentially, caving in on itself – and classical culture is fast becoming its most damaged casualty.
Along with an obsession of context is, as my students well know, a heavy dislike of false equivalency. Its rise not only within media presentation but the seemingly-innocuous realms of quotidian exchange is immensely frustrating for both its intellectual laziness and whataboutism, that debate-stopping, brain-melting tendency with a rather timely history. It is exhausting to wave arms against things which, over the last three weeks, have become so common, and so often go unquestioned. False equivalency hinges on giving equal weight to that which is not at all equal, but it also underscores a galling lack of empathy for which music is (again) meant to (magically, romantically) cure. Over the past week there have been numerous posts from musicians expressing concern at losing opportunities over what seems to be little more than their nationality – but (to be a bit of a broken record here) I’m not convinced that’s the actual reason for the cancellation. We all know perceptions are not reality, but oh, they certainly feel that way, and nowhere more sharply than in times of war. The wording isn’t always the same with these expressions, written in a mix of despair and outrage, but the subtext is shared: fear. Who should speak out? Is it a good idea? How much specificity is expected? As violinist Alexey Igudesman recently posited:
You are a Russian artist who lives in Moscow with a family and a child, or who has family in Russia.
If you give statements against the government, the danger of something happening to you or your family in a regime like Russia is very real.
No-one should be forced to become a martyr and put their family and livelihood in danger. If one does, that has to be the individual’s own choice.
As human rights project OVD Info outlines, such exercise of choice is not done lightly. It begs the question: is it a choice when it isn’t really a choice? Artists living in the West who have spoken out are to be lauded, but such statements are not comparable with those made by others living in the country, or with family living in such an environment. In acknowledging such a reality there is also the need to acknowledge another: “How can one feel bad for Russians when Ukrainians are being bombed?” – there is no answer to this. There can’t be; there shouldn’t be.
Grappling with suffering means gently if consciously engaging the imagination; even (or especially) if that suffering is not ours. This is which is a key component in making the engine of empathy run. Such exercise sometimes opens the door to understanding – but more often, in this age of quick reactions and retweets, leads to un-feeling, to closing doors, to shutting down engines and kicking them down several sets of stairs. Invariably come the comparisons (of suffering; of victimization), neither side bearing equal weight to the other. (If you don’t think Putin and his gang delight in fomenting such divisions, kindly reconsider; he is arguably the author of the mud-slinging event at contemporary edition of The Suffering Olympics. Such an event merits no winners, and should not attract so many willing recruits, and yet.) Why do people engage in this? False equivalency isn’t related to “seeing all sides” – such valuation robs us of humanity, and robs us of the ability to exercise the empathy that clearly expresses that humanity.
Alas, such reductions are the currency with which wars are waged and fought; bending too far back is dangerous, but bowing too far forwards is apologism. That doesn’t mean suffering should not be acknowledged, and it doesn’t mean such an acknowledgement negates the need for figures within the classical community to speak with clarity at a moment when it ought to be least effortful; compassion is either present or it is not. If it is effortful, well, so the person is clearly revealed. Politics, as ever, presents a challenge. The classical community was largely silent over many things, seemingly floating above it all: James Levine, Me Too, BLM, casting couches, COVID19 – the list of issues which classical has faced are lengthy, perceived as inconvenient, viewed as overheated reaction from an over-anxious, social-media fuelled public. It’s a witch hunt! they shout, and alas, the algorithm of social media clicks along; fans obediently seal-clap, defend their heroes, slut-shame accusers, publish breathless articles filled with puffy questions that mysteriously divorce art from life. Such conversations are handy bits of propaganda and certainly make the classical ecosystem (along with non-paying publishers and ad tech) very happy. So what? The fact that war is possibly the classical world’s tipping point for meaningful change is telling; something has to give, but whether something will is a whole other matter. In a recent exchange at Tablet, celebrated refusenik Natan Sharansky offers his thoughts on the war, and remembers his own experiences of being a Jew growing up in Ukraine:
Donetsk was a very international city, it had many nations. It was an industrial center, so for 100 years people had been coming there to look for work from different parts of the Russian empire. There were Ukrainians and Russians in Donetsk, of course, but also Kazakhs and Armenians and Georgians and Tatars. So none of that really mattered. What really mattered was: Are you Jewish or not? […] Jews were the only people who were really discriminated against. There were jokes about every nation, but the real prejudices and the official discrimination were against Jews. Now, I studied in a Russian school where the second language was Ukrainian, and there were many Ukrainian schools where the second language was Russian. As a Jew, I tried to be the best in everything, so I tried to also be the best in Ukrainian literature.
The pressure on a minority group to be the very best has gone from being a shared reality among many young musicians into an uncomfortable requirement. Expectations are high; competition is rampant. Be the best at performing, and now, be the best at performing the mechanics of virtue; such is the pressure now. Any chance for meaningful change is choked in the race to apply the right level of knowledge at the right time, in front of (or with) the right people. Ever has it been thus.
It’s easy to point at these cancellations and scream witch hunt! (Putin would want you to) but far more difficult to examine the position of each, their board members, their audience demographics, the position of unions in some of them, and the ever-significant role of funding, which matters in providing wider music knowledge and related (needed) rehearsals of new material. Perhaps the work of Serge Bortkiewicz, Yevhen Stankovych, and Myroslav Skoryk will be programmed for more than benefits alone; perhaps these works will become, like so many others, part and parcel of regular season programming. Perhaps audiences will want to hear them, and more.
Serious consideration of such possibilities hint at the acknowledgement of a needed structural change and an overdue embrace of its smart application. The grounds must exist for dialogue which is free from angry exceptionalism but open to uncomfortable realities, including anger and disappointment, sometimes with words, sometimes in the form of returned tickets. That’s the reality; some outlets will be skittish in broaching this. Two years of pandemic has meant a wholly risk-averse landscape (the effects of which can clearly be seen in cancellations now), but such initiatives – such bravery – is required. It is in the exercise of these qualities that classical culture will, perhaps, find the kind of 21st century significance many argue it sorely needs. Alongside angrily returned tickets might come, one hopes, something else: curiosity. It is a quality which lays the seeds for… I won’t call it hope (which sounds precious) but… an opening. There needs to exist curiosity – for discussion, education, expansion, uncomfortable ideas, new avenues. “Just look,” says curiosity, “at least look…”
One might stomp off across the concrete, back to the labyrinthine bunker, ignoring the green shoots pushing through that soil, seeing only craters, mud, debris; one might walk away carefully, observing tiny buds, remembering it is spring, after all; one might be grateful to see such possibility. Setting fire to the field is not the answer. It is time to breathe, and to replant, carefully.
Photo: The curtain of the Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
This year’s edition of the Enescu Festival came to a close with a sharp contrast of good news and bad news. The good news is that Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru, currently Music Director of the Orchestre National de France in Paris and Chief Conductor of the Orchestre National de France, will be entering the role of Artistic Director of the Festival, taking over from Vladimir Jurowski, who this autumn has begun his tenure as Music Director of Bayerische Staatsoper, in addition to his duties as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Along with duties in France and Germany, Măcelaru is also Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, and Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Interlochen Arts Center in Michigan. He won a Grammy Award in 2020 for conducting Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Decca Classics). Timișoara is his hometown, which is where the next Enescu Festival is set to take place, in 2023. With such intercontinental experience, particularly within the realm of administration and festivals, Măcelaru may very well be the right man for the right job, coming in at just the right time, but just how much of that precious time he’ll be spending in Romania as a whole, especially in the coming months, remains, like much of the festival, an ever-shifting question mark. Classical, as a whole, has largely gone back to a sort of normal (ish), with an added frenzy provided by playing a massive, years-long game of catch-up, following months (sometimes years) of non-activity. Măcelaru’s responsibilities, like those of many other conductors right now, are mounting, outside of whatever tentative plans may already exist for 2023.
The bad news for the Romanian festival is that it’s losing its longtime General Director. Mihai Constantinescu is stepping down from what has been, one may safely assume, a hectic quarter-century of service. Very much a force behind the biennial fest, Constantinescu was also a continual presence who could be seen at any number of live presentations, backstage and in the audience, always talking to numerous people in-person or on the phone, via email, in messages. Along with arranging for artists (this year’s edition hosted 3500 of them according to the festival website), Constantinescu regularly liaised with branches of government, major sponsors, and all manner of management, marketing, publicity and touring teams to produce a busy, buzzy fest spread over several venues in Bucharest proper, as well as towns across the country. To see him at any point during the festival was to see the contemporary concept of “hustling” well and truly manifest. And no wonder: this year’s festival, its 25th, hosted a total of 78 concerts in Bucharest, and 13 events in other cities. That’s a scaleback given its usual size and sprawl, and one wonders how that sprawl might translate from Bucharest (population 1.83 million) to the smaller city of Timișoara (population roughly 306,000). Geographically the city is closer to the Hungarian town of Szeged than to Bucharest; having a more westerly locale may give the festival a more immediate presence (and easier, driveable access) through central and Western Europe, which may well benefit those visiting organizations, but proximity aside, the city has another reason for being an interesting choice for the future. Timișoara was the site of government demonstrations in 1989 that spread nationwide, ones that led to the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918–1989) and his wife on Christmas Day of that year; whether or not these events enter into or influence the shape of the festival is a huge question mark. The festival, for all its ambition, could certainly do with a more specific vision. It will be interesting to see, over the coming weeks and months, the extent to which Constantinescu’s exit, Măcelaru’s entrance, the roles of history, memory, and geography might play. The question, as ever, remains: will audiences follow, go, support – locals included, or perhaps especially?
The Enescu Festival is one of the world’s Top 5 classical festivals, as its website proudly notes. This year’s fest featured continual enforcement of health codes, ones that become more stringent toward the closing in late September. Masks backstage became not optional, but de rigeur, for artists and visitors alike. What with an alarming pandemic situation (one which has steadily worsened in the weeks since the final note sounded), conductor and former Festival Artistic Director Lawrence Foster made an impassioned plea for vaccinations from the stage of the ornate Romanian Athenaeum, a landmark in the city opened in 1888. Before a small if attentive audience, Foster was leading an in-concert performance of Berg’s Lulu with the Transylvania Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Cluj-Napoca, in a reduced orchestration by German conductor/composer Eberhard Kloke and featuring young German soprano Annika Gerhards in the title role. During his speech, Foster (who revealed he’d had COVID 19 himself) also saluted the work of Constantinescu and shared his own personal memories of working with the outgoing General Director. One had the impression everyone, onstage and off, was simply grateful to be there, in this, of all years. Yet the fact the festival (which Yehudi Menuhin supported in its earliest iterations) exists into the 21st century is a noteworthy thing. Since its inception in 1958, it has hosted a good number of big names, sometimes more than once (Joyce Di Donato, Valery Gergiev, Yuja Wang, Gautier Capuçon) with concerts through most of September presented every other year, alternating with the Enescu Competition for young musicians. Local audiences are given numerous opportunities to experience the work of artists and orchestras who don’t normally appear otherwise, and to experience live work that isn’t normally played or programmed across much of the country. Those benefits extend to tourists; tickets (and indeed, hotels, food, attractions) can be had for a fraction of the cost of going to Vienna, Paris, or Munich. The savings are concomitant with difficult historical and political details in a place that still struggles to fit a terribly difficult past with a very fraught future, and some Romanian musicians have quietly complained that the Enescu Festival gets the lion’s share of funding (it being a big glamorous event that attracts foreign talent and visitors), while local companies are left to wither. While the festival features numerous Romanian musicians, artists, and orchestras, at my visit to the country in 2019, I kept hearing, repeatedly, sentiments that “the system isn’t fair” and “we feel ignored.” Such criticism isn’t new but is indeed valid, and worth heeding; there is a sharp and visibly distressing disparity between Western and Eastern EU countries.
The country has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the EU, and according to political scientist Iulian Chifu, who was an adviser to Romania’s president between 2011 and 2014, “corruption is the new communism.” Romania, with its painful past and seemingly-inert present, with a lack of socio-political willpower enmeshed with widespread (and again, distressing) corruption, horrific rising COVID rates (roughly 15,000 a day), government officials at odds with health officials, immense church influence across swaths of society, and a rapidly rising tide of right-wing political populism, such criticism feels both spiky on the surface and sharp around the edges; such realities have the very real potential to take a big bite (or two, or more) out of the country’s biggest and arguably most famous festival. The sentiment of many in Bucharest (and the wider country) of feeling ignored, of having their concerns be ignored, still strongly influences my memories of the city three years on, recalling the many sites that confirm the country’s painful past whilst at the same time trying, desperately, to paper it over. The immense Palace of the Parliament, built in 1977 by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu , stands like a stern monolith in the middle of Bucharest, and its ghosts, even in the day, seem eerily intact; passing by after dark is shudder-inducing. It was surreal to visit the truly excellent National Museum of Contemporary Museum (MNAC), which is housed in one of the palace’s wings; even with its modern renovations and inspiring collection of abstract works, the building renders the presence of its creator a little too present, with its windows that look down menacingly upon various passers-by. A disparate group of elements always seems to be living next to each other in Bucharest, and no single can be discerned, let alone resolved; history, art, money, power, corruption, poverty, inequality, stagnation, and some form of glamour (which the festival has certainly celebrated and promoted) are neighbours in this post-communist society. The delicate layers of sonic magic from a concert just experienced seemed to wilt like petals with every evil glint from those palace windows, and the choice to run across the street, as it turns out, was obvious, and not only owing to impatient traffic lights and the aggressive drivers who seem to dominate the city’s roads.
One side of the garden of the Stavropoleos Church and Monastery in Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Several ideas for repurposing the palace were tossed around after the 1989 revolution; possibilities included a casino, a mall, a Dracula theme park (!) before the decision came to maintain it, and to house Romania’s government within. For all its grim history and overblown pretentiousness, the structure gives a shred of order to what is a mostly chaotic urban layout. Wherever I wandered; I always managed to reorient myself in relation to its sprawling centrality. As Shaun Walker noted of Bucharest in The Guardian in 2019, “Decaying art nouveau mansions mingle with brutalist communist architecture. The city sprawls over a huge area and traffic is appalling. Masterplans for urban renewal have been written and ignored. The quarter around the Palace of the Parliament is perhaps the only area with orderly streets and layout, but has a soulless feel. “The whole ensemble makes no sense in relation to the rest of the city, and does not fit on the city’s main transport axises,” said Andrei Popescu, an urban planner and tour guide.” That delicate – some might say dysfunctional – infrastructure comes to light in ways one wishes weren’t so intermingled with the festival’s functioning, but geography, politics, the simple reality of Eastern Europe and the EU in the 21st century all make that impossible. Zig-zags of streets, punctuated by wide avenues pregnant with a seemingly endless zipper of roaring cars are, together with sidewalks, cracked, uneven, poorly lit, crumbling. They extend well past the immediate festival area into the touristy Old Town (surely a tip-off of a title), where the tiny if utterly delightful Stavropoleos Church and Monastery sits, a quietly elegant Orthodox jewel. Forget the giant Orthodox cathedral-monoliths dotting the city (including the one beside the palace itself); small is definitely beautiful, as the Stavropoleos so quietly, beautifully proves. A visit there, and a silent sit in the adjacent gardens, is good, and needed, medicine for the soul.
Close by is the bustling Romanian restaurant Caru’ cu Bere. Stained glass and wood panelling inside, with an expansive patio at the front, it (like the fest favorite, Romanian restaurant La Mama) features a distinctly Eastern European mix of offhand service, huge portions, reasonable price tags, rich, garlicky flavours and spicing that simultaneously embrace tradition and cross continents, their rich tastes intermingling with cigarette smells and loud laughs. Don’t go to such places if you’re alone, or rather, do go, but solo diners should be fully prepared to be largely ignored and exposed to numerous many happy young faces enjoying an extended summer. Many of them belong to visiting musicians in orchestras from everywhere; I heard Finnish, Russian, Italian, English, Norwegian, German, and French the times I visited these establishments, and others like them, through the afternoons and evenings between and around concerts. It was fascinating to see an assortment of musicians there, sometimes hours after a performance (or before), a concert in which they’d been more dressed, less free, but oh, young, beautiful, eyeballing every move of maestro, as if on some kind of shabby-chic safari. Oh, to be a young musician in Bucharest on a sunny day or starry evening during the festival, sipping beer in a garden with fellow minstrels, gossiping about the soloist, fidgeting with hair, smirking at the Sala’s notoriously poor acoustics, as the (male) musicians, spread around pushed-together tables, smile and nod silently, staring at bare shoulders and pert bosoms, holding up empties at the frowning, perspiring servers who would invariably scurry back with a full tray, plates of little sausages, fried potatoes, glinting shards of vinegar-dressed cucumber. Clouds of smoke would hang in the humid evening air like thought bubbles containing that word so present on everyone’s lips and minds: freedom.
Some way or another, the lot of them realized that concept, with varying degrees of success, at (perhaps ironically) the Sala Palatului, an acoustically dire hall built under the country’s Communist regime in 1959-1960, with its shabby velvet seats and worn floors and thick walls, amidst air so still and sweltering one could carve it with that little sausage knife. Modern sounds, amidst old Communist history; contradiction as balance. It would be the jolt the festival (country) needs, but oh the sound was (is) so bad. Whether or not Culture Minister Bogdan Gheorghiu will give a green light to that long-needed, much-requested new facility is an open question. With a background in theatre and television, Gheorghiu was, at the time of his appointment in May 2019, the fourth person to hold the position since 2015. Worth noting here is the Arena Națională, the largest sports arena in Romania, was opened in 2011, and cost €234 million. Earlier this year it hosted the UEFA European qualifying matches. Without going into tiresome false equivalency arguments around sports and arts, and populism and culture, what is notable is the just how quickly the government gears will turn, when, why, and for whom; it is a truth universally acknowledged that a small country in possession of a smaller budget must be in want of a big audience, with bigger wallets. “Every government from 2003 wanted to build a new hall, but every government refused to do it,” Constantinescu told me in 2019, “they told us in the beginning,”We’ll do it” but when the moment came, said, “We don’t have money or time” and “Oh, you need a different (location) for this hall.” It’s stupid, this is the best situated place in Bucharest – the hotels are here, the underground, buses – why move it? Bucharest doesn’t have so many places where you can situate a big hall.”
Inside the Sala Palatului in Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
When Jurowski presented an in-concert version of Enescu’s 1931 opera Œdipe at the Sala in 2017, Bachtrack writer Aksel Tollåli noted that “the loudness of the magnificently played orchestral climaxes was swamped, reducing what could and should have been a tidal wave of sound into a trickle.” At the close of this year’s festival Jurowski commented that “I think what it most needs is a concert hall. It has been promised to us by so many ministers of culture, I have seen three or four who have come and gone; they all made this promise, which remains unfulfilled to this day.” Any given performance at the venue at least during festival time, requires spending money on a seat near the front, or else much will be lost sonically; I did this, more than once, and found a better if no less troubling acoustical experience. Sitting further back one will observe audience members shaking fans and programs back and forth, dabbing foreheads with embroidered hankies, anxiously awaiting the appearance of a nattily-dressed soloist playing that popular violin or piano or cello piece, then exiting at intermission or more notably during any not-mainstream work that might come after, Enescu symphonies included. They want what they know; sometimes, usually, the festival obliges.
“I’ve always observed it’s a vicious circle,” Jurowski said at a press conference just prior to the start of his tenure in 2017, “(that) conductors and orchestras come, visiting the festival, and all they usually put on their programs is hits.” Audiences, as anyone who’s been to the fest will attest, eat it up. Why shouldn’t they? Having performed Brahms’ famous Violin Concerto in D Major at the fest in 2019, violinist Julia Fischer (performing with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, led by Jurowski) was greeted with such sustained, loud, and enthusiastic applause, it seemed impossible to oblige with anything less than an intensely-delivered encore. (Attendees certainly would’ve liked more, something violinist Ray Chen did provide thereafter, following a performance with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia Evgeny Svetlanov and conductor Gabriel Bebeșelea.) Similarly, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, performed in 2019 by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Oslo Philharmonic and led by conductor Vasily Petrenko, was wildly received. Petrenko, an affable presence and meticulous conductor, indulged the packed Sala, following a sweeping performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, with warm smiles to the audience and directions to clap along. He was met with cheers, whistles, numerous camera-phones held aloft before-during-after. In a small room set aside for media interviews at the hall the day before, Petrenko said he felt it was a “duty” for him to perform contemporary works alongside the so-called hits; on the program for one of his concerts with the Oslo Phil was Morgon i skogen (Forest Morning) by Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund (b. 1976.) Neither the instinct nor the inherent risk to pair the new, and mostly strange, with the known, and mostly beloved, is confined strictly to Western orchestras, many wringing their hands over how to strike the right balance while attracting their own set of new and old audiences. “I think classical music should be alive,” Petrenko said, his blue eyes shining, “it should not be a museum, and the only way to have it alive is to perform new pieces. And I think it is the duty of every conductor and orchestra to perform music of local composers – if a piece is not played, it does not have a chance; we have to give a chance for them. If we don’t, who will?”
Indeed, Enescu himself, whose 140th birthday was marked this year, is among those “local composers” to whom Petrenko was referring, and his work has been a mainstay of the festival. This year, he took the opportunity, in his new capacity as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to lead a series of works over two nights that prominently featured the work of Enescu. The composer’s Strigoii, which started out as a piano sketch for an oratorio in 1916 and was “assembled” in the 1970s by Romanian composer Cornel Țăranu (with orchestration by conductor/composer Sabin Pautza) was presented in Romania for the very first time this year, by the George Enescu Philharmonic under the direction of conductor Gabriel Bebeşelea (who has become something of a champion for the work, recording it in 2018 with Capriccio Records and the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin). Cristian Măcelaru led the Orchestre National de France in a pair of concerts over two consecutive nights featuring the music of Shostakovich, Ravel, Dutilleux, Messiaen, Grieg, as well as Enescu, the latter featuring multimedia visual accompaniment by Romanian theatre director Nona Ciobanu and Slovenian artist Peter Kosir, part of the festival’s ambitious integration of various art forms through the medium of music.
Claims that the festival may have had some hand in the ascension of Enescu’s opera Œdipe, first presented in Paris in 1936, and being presented this season at both Komische Oper Berlin and Opera de Paris, speak to a certain optimism of influence, but such claims are not entirely accurate, especially if one considers the number of years opera houses plan in advance (at minimum four; usually more) and the demands being placed on the industry for new – but not too new – material. Wiener Staatsoper presented the opera as far back as 1997; La Monnaie/De Munt produced a staging (a co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu and Teatro Colon) in 2010, one that was later produced (and revived) at Dutch National Opera. The Royal Opera Covent Garden staged Œdipe in 2016; the Salzburg Festival in 2018. It was also staged in Romania, by the Opera Națională București, in 2015 and again in 2019. Certain houses, under pressure to present newer material and to expand the so-called ‘canon’ of core repertoire (Verdi, Wagner, Puccini) might wish to embrace the sole opera of a Romanian conductor/composer/violinist, famous for his widely (some might argue overly) programmed Romanian Rhapsodies, inviting their respective audiences to experience a work that, while new, isn’t so far afield sonically; the work clearly references the music of Strauss, Debussy, and Ravel, thus retaining a perceived “safety” in having European roots. (It’s worth noting the opera is usually marketed sans the tiresome cliched Eastern exoticism that usually tends to otherwise characterize many Western initiatives involving the work of composers from Romania and much of the former Eastern bloc.) The opera has as its basis a widely-known story taken from Greek mythology, giving directors a wide palate of opportunities for creative presentation. Programming Œdipe is an expansion of the canon, those in charge might say, one that comes with risk – just the right amount of risk. Being just that much outside the known canon will mean, of course, finding the right artists for its realization, but listing a performance/production on a CV is an assured feather in the cap for any singer, one that can open potential doors to future parts, conductors, recordings, houses. The vocal writing is, in places, fiendishly difficult, with the lead baritone role required to maintain an immense energy and vocal flexibility throughout the opera’s nearly three-hour running time. Yes, the opera itself is a thing of immense beauty, but featuring the work as part of a season in Europe (or further afield) seems less a symbol of the Enescu Festival’s reach than a considered business decision for houses in what is, more than ever, a tenuous time for the industry, with repeated pushes and pulls to expand, explore, include, exemplify, examine, exhume, and execute as warranted. Between those demands, and threats to funding, drops in audience attendance, ever-changing quilts of venue entry and visitor restrictions (not enforced in some places and roundly criticized for enforcement in others), well… what’s an opera company to do? The sight of baritone Christopher Maltman stalking around the Opera Bastille stage recently (in Wajdi Mouawad’s thoughtful, beautiful production), his eyes covered by a patchwork of tiny, mirrored squares, seemed more relevant than ever. Reflect; refract; rethink. Revive, over and over.
Constantinescu admitted over the course of a lengthy and involved conversation (part of a feature eventually published in the Winter edition of Opera Canada magazine that also featured the thoughts of Petrenko) that he agreed with Petrenko’s sentiments around avoiding a sort of musical ossification. “We need to present the work of people who are alive,” he told me, but he added a vital detail: Romanian audiences have not had the privilege of hearing many works by Western composers, the very works other audiences may know and take for granted, since they live in places where the funding, education, and public support for such things exists and is regularly cultivated. “Vivaldi, Gluck, Handel and Couperin are names that are not often performed in (regular) season concerts in Bucharest,” he said, his eyes widening behind his owl-like glasses. “This is the goal of the festival: to educate people.” Such didactic instinct was realized in many offerings, particularly over the past four years, in drims and drams. The 2019 program saw the Romanian premiers of Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten (presented by Jurowski and the RSB), Britten’s Peter Grimes (performed by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra and Radio Academy Choir, led by Paul Daniel) and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (conducted by Lothar Zagrosek and performed by the Orchestra and Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic together with Vocal Consort Berlin). Composer/conductor Lera Auerbach presented a number of her own works at the Radio Sala; Mark-Anthony Turnage premiered his new song cycle with tenor Allan Clayton and the Britten Sinfonia.
At the 2021 edition, Jurowski presented a series of works recognizing the 50th anniversary of the passing of composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), leading eclectic and demanding works (Les Noces, Renard, The Flood) which had never been performed live before in Romania; included in the first evening of his and the RSB’s two consecutive concert evenings was the work of Romanian composer Anatol Vieru (1926-1998). Czech composer Ondřej Adámek (b. 1979) enjoyed the premiere of his new work, “Where are you?”, written especially for Magdalena Kožená & Sir Simon Rattle, by the musical couple together with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, led by concertmaster Matthew Truscott and featuring soloist Yuja Wang, featured works by Haydn, Janáček, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich; members of the Berlin Philharmonic (including Noah Bendix-Balgley and Stephan Koncz) presented Enescu’s Piano Trio and Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1 (both pieces, rather interestingly, in G minor), while the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra closed the festival with two concerts, the first featuring Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini paired with the music of Carl Nielsen (led by Alan Gilbert) and the second comprised of Enescu’s Pastorale-Fantaisie, Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 (led by Daniel Harding). The sheer scale and ambition of the festival, particularly amidst the realities of this year’s pandemic, cannot be underestimated – nor can the realities of such future ambitions be ignored; while such realizations are certainly worth applauding, their direct experience can be, for want of a better word, totally exhausting, with little to any space given, in practical or theoretical terms, for contemplation of them in isolation, or more especially, broader relation to one another. Is there a connection? Should one attempt to be found? Whither the events of 1989? Themes given to the festival by its own team (this year’s was “The Sound Of Love”; in 2019, “The World In Harmony”) feel, somehow, too ephemeral, too vague. Together with data, such elements reveal and conceal simultaneously in a strange, Soviet-style bit of politicking. One would ask for something – not bigger and more impressive and more wow, but more substantial, meatier, more solid, and not from its foreign attendees from from its extant (make that shifting) leadership. The figures trumpeted on the Enescu Festival website are impressive, but obvious. Indeed it was “the world’s largest classical music festival of 2021” (bien sur) far more telling is the number of locals who attended in lieu of foreigners scared off or stuck by travel restrictions. I found myself happy to read this, but equally curious to know if these indoor attendees comprised the same audience who’d attended free presentations across the street in years past, at the giant outdoor screens which had been set up with rows of folding chairs, spaces which were half-occupied most daytimes, with mothers and prams and older people, stopping, sitting briefly, cocking heads and enjoying ice cream cones, before moving along, cloth shopping bags in hand. Perhaps this is just the sort of social milieu that might play into the 2023 edition and somehow (one hopes) shape future programming choices. Rethink, reframe, revive; se poate spera.
Inside the Sala Palatului. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
A part of the infrastructure to which Walker alludes in his Guardian piece has an influence in shaping the perception of the music experienced live, in content as in performance. Works with noticeably little to no energy live, or delivered in a sort of rote manner, are suddenly, owing to the shared frenetic pace of Strada Știrbei Vodă and Calea Victoriei outside, infused with a manic quality. The effect also works in reflection, acting as a nifty sort of mirror to those concerts in which joy and good humour arise naturally, and there are plenty of those performances as well. The streets outside are bustling, sizeable thoroughfares; renamed after the 1989 revolution, they act as sharp lines of demarcation between festival venues (the Sala, together with the smaller Sala Radio and the Athenaeum, located opposite/behind-ish) and bars, restaurants, cultural attractions, as well as the many hotels used by artists and guests alike. How busy, how rushed, how intense it all felt being in the midst of it all. The festival itself, with its team of kind and ever-patient publicists, assistants, and other personnel, works hard, and is determined to shape a specific impression – Very Impressive, Very Big, Very Wow; like a happier, better version of that giant palace, perhaps. But it can all be too impressive, too big, too wow; the pace and sheer variety can be overwhelming, frenzied, mentally/emotionally/creatively/spiritually exhausting. (I can only imagine what it must be like for visiting artists.) Visits to the Stavropoleos: regular, and required – that, or after a concert, sheer solitude and silence. Following a beautiful performance (usually of a work I hadn’t heard live before) in a hot, stilted venue, the last thing I wanted to do was to rush off to yet another presentation – usually a midnight presentation of an opera. Nu, mulțumesc. I wanted to sit and simply be with the rather miraculous sounds I’d heard sitting in a hot hall in high heels and slowly-dampening hair over the past how-many hours. There was no respite at any bar or restaurant or street, large or small; the winding paths to my own hotel weren’t poetic, they were decrepit, depressing, scary to navigate even in flat sandals. (But oh, I was so grateful for the large bathtub, a rarity in Romanian hotels, or so I was told; I may well have had the biggest one in the city.) The race of footsteps along dim, cracked yellow-lit pathways shadowed by low-hanging branches and peppered with cars, the giggles and glass-clinks like staccato shots in the open-air gardens, the echoes in the long, goldfish-bowl-like, quasi-chic bars of hotels – the quiet contemplation of such creative experience one wished for, in conversation or alone, was simply impossible.
In downtown Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Still, it’s tough to look at the festival in any careful way without being perceived as mean or peevish. It’s Eastern Europe, goes the (mostly Western) thinking, what did you expect? Well. I am not sure who is served by fluffy travelogues that ignore on-the-ground realities; certainly such reports fall into the “favourable content” category so favoured by online publishers (and marketers), but I’m not sure they do the artists, the administration, the organizations (visiting and local), or the country as a whole any favours. The city, once described to me as a sort of “shabby-chic Paris” by a previous visitor, is, as Walker noted, a hard-scrabble hodge-podge of new and old, have and have-not, blazingly modern in some sections, achingly dilapidated in others, a terrible if terribly real reflection of the country’s widening social divides. The Enescu Museum, a short walk from the festival locale proper, and with no real connection to the festival itself beyond the composer’s name (bizarrely), is in a horrendous state of disrepair. Perhaps there is a charm in the cracks, the discoloration, the water marks on the ceiling, the curling edges of paper and the worn velvet surfaces, but it’s one that can be experienced, or understood, as a visitor without romanticizing its actual, lived realities for so many; such romanticizing only serves to reduce the direct experience of its people, particularly the many young people I noted working in service positions across the city. They don’t want pity; they want to leave.
My mornings during my visit were largely were spent in a tiny cafe located with small wire chairs and shaky tables set out on a slanted, cracked sidewalk framed by yawning old trees and lining a narrow, similarly-cracked street hosting fast-moving cars. The servers at the cafe were all young, multilingual, polite; most were students, all of them hoped to leave Bucharest, in the near future, most probably for good. One server warmed up to conversation after consecutive days of my asking for extra milk for my coffee, and asked, with a cheeky grin, if I wanted a whole cow set on the pavement tomorrow. He wasn’t planning on staying in his country of birth much longer.
“There’s nothing here for us,” he said, “unless you are willing to work in a corrupt way, and then you can only go so far.” Where would he like to go?
Maybe Germany, although he didn’t think his German was good enough. Possibly France, probably Spain. Had he been? “Yes, Madrid is fantastic!” A broad smile, as he collected my empty mug. “Better coffee than here.” Had he been to any Enescu Festival concerts? “Only one, but that hall is so hot and awful. We go for other things here, you know, big musicals.” Did I know about them? Yes, I’d seen the posters outside the venue. “Sometimes I’ll go for those, but I don’t want to sit there sweating to music I didn’t know. And the tickets for the festival…” he said, waving at a persistent fly with his free hand, his brown eyes rolling up, “pfffft, I’d rather spend my money on other things. Maybe I’m a bad patriot, but… I don’t care, really. I’m too busy trying to survive, you know?”
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Among the many unexpected delights of lockdown life has been the opportunity to connect with people from the worlds of media and culture, and sometimes, the two combined in one. Waldemar Januszczak is art critic for The Sunday Times as well as a documentary maker with numerous television specials to his name. Those programs, which have been produced for over two decades, reveal immense curiosity for the ever-evolving, all-encompassing universe of culture, and each is presented with humour, gusto, and incredible if equally approachable intelligence. Waldy, as he’s known online and through his entertaining podcast with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, first came to my notice in 2015; though I’d read his work for years, it was Waldy’s four-part series on the so-called Dark Ages that caught my attention. Broadcast on a local channel across four Monday evenings at the height of summer, the series (from 2012) came at a particularly challenging time that year, having lost my mother in July and endured severe illness and multiple surgeries on my own before and after that. The nagging questions, in both personal and professional spheres, of who I was without the central figure of my music-loving mum loomed extraordinarily large; I would stare at the works of Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo in books and online for hours, trying to glean some sense of order (beauty seemed too far-off and impossible to hope for), some sense of understanding, to a world rendered hazy, tilted, skewed, strangely airless. I would go to my own easel and try to draw or paint; I would sit at the computer, and no words would come. Who was I, outside of being this person’s daughter? Who was I, outside of this prison of a body I felt trapped in? Who was I, with these hands, which held my mother’s as she passed away, which held pencils and brushes, which typed out so very many words-words-words that seemed to affect no one and nothing at all?
Waldy’s work – his friendly presentational style, his enthusiasm, his clear thirst for knowledge – helped provide some clues. The full of the series (The Dark Ages: An Age Of Light) was precisely the feeling imparted through the experience of watching the series at that point in time. It was as if a great spotlight was being shone on not only early Christianity and the Middle Ages, or indeed its related iterations, forms, and expressions, but along the way I, myself, was experiencing history and related notions of darkness, light, and all manner of shade and shadow between. By showing a new way to look at the past, the series, and Waldy’s work more broadly, provided an inspiring way of perceiving present and possible futures. The approach the writer/filmmaker takes to his work (one which, as I said at the start, blends smarts, humour, knowledge, and approachability) makes him a natural storyteller. Starting out at the University of Manchester as a student in art history, Waldy went on to become art critic, and subsequently arts editor of The Guardian. He worked in a variety of capacities across the BBC, and has, according to his own (quite humorous) biography, “since popped up pretty much everywhere where a radio dial can reach.” In 1989 he became commission editor for arts at Channel 4 (a time, which, he explains, was immensely fruitful in terms of providing future inspiration to his own broadcasting pursuits), and in 1993 also was put in charge of music at the channel, and subsequently began annual broadcasts from Glyndebourne – not to mention a little festival called Glastonbury.
That same year saw him become art critic for The Sunday Times, where he has been ever since. Twice voted Critic Of The Year, he co-curated a show at the British Museum in 2008 where modern and ancient sculptures were shown side by side, inspired by his own series on sculpture from four years earlier. Making films since 1997 with his own company, ZCZ Films, Waldy’s artistic explorations have been wide-ranging and ambitious: countries (Japan, Kazakhstan, America), concepts (politics, night), artists (Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo), religio-historical depictions (Mary Magdalene), and eras (the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo). Along with writing about contemporary art issues, including pieces on art collectives, the creative and spiritual meeting in abstraction (specifically the work of Hilma af Klint; both March 2021), the Turner Prize, the symbolic power of a show focused on textiles (both May 2021), and how COVID has changed the art world (January 2021), Waldy has also written touchingly personal pieces – about the father he never knew, and about his battles with weight. Those writings are sincere and visceral, but they bear no trace of the sort of overwrought sentimentalities which so often characterize such works in the digital era; rather, they are the rich and (more than occasionally) spicy ingredients which constitute a person who is unafraid to be his own culture-loving, knowledgeable, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, unpretentious, immensely real self.
Such qualities may go a ways in explaining his presence on this website, for while Waldy does not work in opera, he embodies the very qualities so vital to the classical world, especially at this point in history. I referenced his work last year in an essay, and I’ve come to feel in the time since that his is a presence and a talent wholly needed, as various cultural worlds move away from lockdown status and toward some kind of normalcy. For while brilliance does indeed hold a place in the classical world, authenticity, compassion – humanity – matters more, in this, our brave (and hopefully better) new world. We connected on Twitter (very brave new world indeed), over what I seem to recall was my love of the work of performance artist Ulay. (If you know of and/or like the work of Marina Abramović but have never heard of Ulay… please amend; his work holds extraordinary significance and beautifully poetic power.) Amidst the variety and ambition of Waldy’s pursuits, it seemed important to ask him, first and foremost, what he thinks of himself as: writer or broadcaster? His answer wasn’t particularly surprising, but his warmth and good humour, which carried throughout the course of our near-half-hour exchange, was a welcome and hopeful sign for post pandemic culture, and the people who love it.
You balance writing with broadcasting and documentary-making, but I’m curious what you call yourself.
An art critic, that’s what I’d like written on my grave. But right from the beginning, I’ve managed to do two things at once. When I was younger I was a student in Manchester, and I did this thing for radio, a student’s hour – I got roped into it – and someone at the BBC heard it, so I got working on the BBC doing a radio program when I was still a student, and it was out of pure luck. At the same time I was writing for Time Out; I’d do things for them and someone from The Guardian came across it and asked me to apply to them, so to cut a long story short, I’ve always done broadcasting and always done writing and the two have managed to keep going in parallel all the way through. I’m very lucky, and I made a step into television, but what I really like is looking at art and writing about it, which is what being a critic is – it’s not about being right or wrong with your opinions; you simply want to look at art, and to write about it.
Your integration of education and entertainment feels natural without being reductive.
I’ll put it simply: I’m an art lover. From my earliest memory, anything joyful involved cutting out pictures of famous paintings and pasting them, in my little cubby hole I had under the stairs – I’d paste stuff on the wall. I’ve always taken great pleasure from looking at art. I don’t understand why everyone else in the world isn’t that excited about art – it baffles me. In the UK we have these nature programs and people are happy to watch two frogs having sex or see beautiful butterflies in the air, or whatnot, for literally hours on end – millions will watch that – but put on something about a Raphael painting, which is also a thing of great beauty, or something about a sculpture by Bernini, or some great piece of architecture, and they tune out in the millions. I just don’t get it. It’s been this battle, always for me, to try and bridge that gap, to try and share this idea that art is interesting, exciting, and above all, a human achievement. It is my mission to try and tell stories of art in ways that connect with people’s lives. That’s all I ever tried to do. I don’t set out to be an original thinker necessarily, or to be necessarily different, I just set out with the firm belief that everybody should be able to talk about art in ways that involve or interest them, and that communication about it is what counts.
I like how you pull things away from being purely academic into a very direct and often sensuous relationship with art. I might be daunted by the artists and their related histories but watching your stuff, I don’t feel daunted at all.
That’s a real compliment, thank you. I’m so glad to hear that, because that is what I want to do. Many years ago now I did have a job in formal television, I was the commissioning editor for music and art programming at Channel 4. So for the eight years I was there, I commissioned other people to make art programs, and I watched what they did and how they did it. And I became more and more determined and experienced in the field myself, and determined to not do what they did. The thing I least like in any kind of writing about, or making films about art, is what you’re talking about, this sense of art being something difficult, some kind of homework, that not everybody can get or understand. A lot of the language of documentary filmmaking emphasizes that aspect, with these added tropes: the music that isn’t very cheerful or it is atonal and difficult; there is speaking about stuff in ways that don’t really mean anything – if people don’t know what they really want to say, they usually use twenty words instead of one, because it creates an illusion of knowledge, authority, and experience. So when I gave up being a manager of other people’s work and began making my own documentaries again, I made rules; there were things I knew I wanted to do, and those rules are all to do with this thing you’re talking about. I want people to learn stuff and enjoy it – I’m not there to preach or look down on them if they don’t know something. It’s been the experience of watching other people do this that has driven me to that.
But you combine this knowledge with your strong personality – I wonder how much that draws people in, so it’s not solely “Oh, a doc about the Renaissance” but “Oh, Waldy is presenting a doc on the Renaissance…”
I think one of the things is, I’m Polish, I’m not English, as you can tell from my name, and we’re a different breed you know? Polish people are not like English people; we have a different way of speaking and expressing ourselves. And in television and the BBC especially, there’s a very specific type of person that works there, fits into that culture, and succeeds, and someone like me comes along, and I’m the other, I’m different in almost every way. One of my sins is I like eating, a lot, so I’m chunky, and in television, especially these days, you don’t see chunky people, they go for the slim, pseudo-intellectual from Cambridge, so I stuck out there, because I am different and I’m not afraid. And, I think I’m confident in my knowledge. That’s one thing I can say of myself: I love art so much I’m constantly researching it, seeing it, loving it, and if you’re confident in your knowledge there’s nothing to be afraid of. So I try to find new ways of delivering material. I’ve always wanted to do that.
What I’ve noticed is that people remember things from the films, and what they remember surprises me often. In one of the things I made years ago, about the Baroque, there’s a scene where I’m looking at a ceiling in Rome, and I decided to do the camera shot lying on my back, because that’s the only way to look at it. If you want to see it properly, you lie on your back. It was a BBC series, and all the BBC people said, “You can’t lie on your back, you have to stand up and look authoritative on television!” So there are these funny things that do tend to bother some people but they’re not done for gimmicky reasons, I do them because I want to convey my excitement and experience in looking at stuff.
But that humanizes the art in the process, and that’s what is so often needed in the culture world. But it’s questionable if that style is supported by the people in charge…
That’s the point, yes – and arts programming does not get enough support anywhere. It’s a hard graft, getting the commissioning to do stuff. You know, I can’t tell you how many programs I’d love to be making right now; we don’t get the numbers to compete with the shows like reality television or the cooking shows, we don’t get the numbers they do because partly, in the past, arts programs have presented themselves as this thing you referenced, and that put a lot of people off. That’s a hard history to shift – a lot of people remember this sense of being talked down to, boringly, and they don’t want to see that. Of course what we want is everybody dying to turn on the television to watch, but it’s a tough ask because of that history; when you say something is “arty” there’s’ an awful lot of people who turn off, immediately. That word alone puts them off, and it’s one of the battles.
But do you think that tide might change now?
I’d like to hope so. I don’t know! I’ve not had a chance to find any evidence yet, but I do think the pandemic is having and will have a profound impact on the future, and I think it will be very hard to unlearn the joy of being at home and to not be imagining things for yourself. The pleasures we’ve had from this situation – as terrible as it’s been – have been things relating to people being in the position of having the time to examine the basics. And they’ve found new outlets for their attention, whether through television or podcasts or whatever. My own podcast, we only did it initially to do something during lockdown, but loads of people have said they’ve enjoyed it, so there is hunger for art, and an opportunity to take advantage of that hunger, but whether broadcasters will help us out with that is another question; they are not interested in changing the way people think about art, they have other fish to fry. But I’m optimistic.
One good thing is that my work has reached a much wider audience and that’s not to do with Covid, but the way television has gone everywhere with the preponderance of satellite channels. It used to be the only people who recognized me in the street were people who watched the BBC, but in the time when things eased between lockdowns last year, I remember going out and there were about sixty South Korean people who came rushing toward me in the street shouting, “Hey Waldemar!” They’d seen me on television there. So the international aspect of all that (interest) was very encouraging. I have a theory that in every country there are a million people who might be interested in art who, years ago, you had no chance of speaking with, but now there’s a chance, so add a million people up in every country – and that’s a lot of people interested in art. That’s encouraging.
I love Twitter – you hear other voices there. And the best thing about it is the reactions! For all we know, no one will ever read what I write formally, but on Twitter, people get back to you, and I love a good argument; I’ll argue with anyone, anywhere, on Twitter or elsewhere for that matter. So I’ve found (social media) fruitful. Some things I’ve done have been so pleasing. During the lockdown I ran this art thing with kids; people did homeschooling when the schools were closed, and, well, what could be more homeschooling-esque than art, really? People were drawing away, and so I’d set them little tasks, and there were these fantastic responses, they were really pleasing, these kids, 8, 7, 6 years old, drawing away and sharing their work. The other day we had David Hockney on the podcast and he said something wonderful: “why would anybody not want to draw? Try telling a 3 year-old kid not to draw!” It’s a thing we all have; everybody has that instinct, and so I had this forum where kids could express that during lockdown.
I loved that series (as didmany), especially as someone without kids. That series was actually the point where I lost my patience with people who dismiss social media; for some of us, that’s the only way we can see that kind of thing. It’s our window on a different world.
Well gosh, you’d be horrible not to like this kind of thing, and to just dismiss it because of where you saw it! And it’s worth remembering that so many artists have nourished themselves on memories of childhood as well, and that Twitter is a great vehicle for expressing and sharing that sort of stuff. If you’re someone who comes up with lots of ideas, it can be a great forum for expressing them, and for promoting them. I find it very alive. With all these hours of daytime we had because of the pandemic, a lot of times in the day, you’d be in the office, alone, twiddling thumbs; you’d go on Twitter and find someone to talk to. I’d see these nice people writing in from Scotland and Australia and New Zealand, and that (experience of communication) was liberating and very pleasing.
It’s how we connected too! I want to feel reading your various exchanges makes me a slightly smarter person.
You’re pretty smart as it is, so don’t worry about that! I’m so pleased we’ve connected, and with others too, I’ve done so much during lockdown. It’s nice to talk. That’s what it’s about.
How has all this connecting online changed your approach to your work, or… has it?
I don’t know how much it’ll change my approach in terms of my bread and butter work with The Times – with that, I do what I always do: see shows and write about them. But I have made a lot of new friends. One thing that Twitter is really good at is supplying you with information: you ask a question, you get a lot of responses. I had a film about Michelangelo on Sky Arts out recently and posted something relating to obscure arguments about biblical translations – the kind of stuff no one is into except me and a few biblical scholars, or so I thought! – and got so many responses from so many people. It was such fantastic information! You have to be really in the world of bible studies to know about these things, but it was so exciting to learn these things. So it can be a fantastic forum for education, for all of us, and more broadly, I think it’s given lots of silver linings to this terrible, terrible time, which we are now hopefully coming out of.
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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.
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 Rosenkavalierstreams live from Munich on Sunday, March 21st, at 3.30pm CET.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Photo: Katharina Konradi
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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?
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.
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.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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)