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Lyubov Petrova: “I’m Always Learning Something”

Petrova soprano Russian portrait head shot singer art opera

Photo courtesy IMG Artists

Lyubov Petrova is an artist impossible to put in a box; as you’ll read, that’s just the way she likes it. An immensely gifted soprano with a knack for infusing her singing with a keen sense of storytelling, Petrova has an immensely varied opera history, from a smart, note-perfect Adele in Stephen Lawless’s 2003 production of Die Fledermaus at the Glyndebourne Festival to a raging Queen Of The Night in Kenneth Branagh’s fascinatingly recontextualized cinematic adaptation of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (2006). She’s also ace at epic concert repertoire (including Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony The Bells and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem), as well as more intimate work, a talent she poetically showcases on her 2017 album of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs.

A winner of the 1998 International Rimsky-Korsakov Competition and 1999 International Elena Obraztsova Competition, Petrova trained at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow before joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Programme, and has enjoyed numerous Met appearances, including as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (her Met debut), Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Norina in Don Pasquale, Sophie in Werther, Nannetta in Falstaff, and Woglinde in Das Rheingold, to name a brief few. The New York-based soprano has performed with numerous other North American outlets too, including Dallas Opera, LA Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera, and has performed at various festivals worldwide, including ones Glimmerglass, Glyndebourne, and Spoleto, at the Bellini Festival in Catania, the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi, Italy, and the BBC Proms.

Petrova soprano Russian portrait head shot singer art opera

Photo: Ronnie Nelson

Petrova has appeared with numerous prominent international houses including Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Dutch National Opera, New Israeli Opera, Korean National Opera, the Bolshoi, the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow, and the Teatro Colón (Argentina). She’s also done a range of symphonic and concert work (music of Bach, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Bizet, to name a few) with an assortment of orchestras including the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Orchester Pressburger Philharmoniker, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and the Russian National Orchestra. One look at such a varied history reveals an impressive and entirely consistent development into vocally heavier repertoire, while still keeping a firm foot in Petrova’s place of origin (figuratively and literally) – a tuneful and fleet-footed spot with an ever-present edge of laser-like authority.

Petrova first caught my attention through her remarkable, gleaming, in-concert performance in Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw in 2016, where she brought a thoughtful lyricism to Prokofiev’s angular, driving score, making the fraught nature of the work  – and its deceptively simple characters – warmly, recognizably human. During the opera’s composition, the opera’s would be producer, Russian theatre artist  Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested and later murdered as part of the Great Purge; at the time of its 1940 premiere its perceived importance was strongly connected to a “Soviet opera” aesthetic (despite the frisson between its obvious melodramatic and moralistic scheme of social realism), a perception strengthened for its being based on Valentin Kataev’s 1937 novel, I, Son Of The Working People. The complicated nature of the work, combined with its even more complicated (and tragic) composition history (involving the sudden disappearance of Meyerhold as well as a political pact that necessitated changing the bad guys from Germans to Ukrainian nationalists), plus its (predictably) myopic reception (celebrating its ideology while ignoring the music) meant the opera wasn’t performed anywhere between 1941 and 1958, and only entered the repertory of the Bolshoi in 1970; Prokofiev would later compose an orchestral suite based on the opera. It is notable when singers can integrate this sort of charged history into the very seams of sound, so that performances become much greater than the sum of their individual parts; such visceral interpretative artistry is what Petrova – and indeed the entire cast – did with such affecting results in Amsterdam in late 2016.

Petrova’s vocal warmth is something of a signature. Her tonally shimmering, golden-hued turn as Freia in Wagner’s Das Rheingold was truly memorable, part of an in-concert presentation in early 2018 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Michelle de Young, Matthias Goerne, Matthew Rose, and Brindley Sherratt, under the baton of conductor Vladimir Jurowski; she performed the role again the role later that same year with the Odense Symfoniorkester (Denmark) with conductor Alexander Vedernikov. 2018 also saw Petrova sing the role of Marfa in Bard Music Festival‘s presentation of The Tsar’s Bride and perform works from Shostakovich’s 1948 song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry as part of Music@Menlo. 2019 opened with the music of Mozart, with Petrova taking on Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro with Florida Grand Opera. Freia returned with an October 2019 in-concert presentation of Das Rheingold in Moscow, again with Jurowski but this time with the State Academic Orchestra of Russia Evgeny Svetlanov.

Petrova’s 2017 album Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff: Songs (Nimbus Records), recorded with pianist Vladimir Feltsman, showcases this vocal excellence, and nicely displays another side of the multi-faceted artist, a silken, soft suppleness that delights the ear. Her caressing of the text, careful phrasing, and thoughtful tonal intonations betray a deeply sensitive artistic sensibility able to quickly adjust itself according to both the tangible and intangible elements of music-making. In 2017 music writer Ken Herman noted of Petrova, in relation to her performance at that year’s edition of the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, that “(w)hether she sings of love, death, sorrow, […] she never merely sings about these states—she incarnates them and forces her listeners to confront them.” It’s an observation that feels very apt to not only the works on her album, but her artistic approach overall, one that combines a deep musicality and love of text with a natural affinity for theatre and drama. Listening to Petrova isn’t a mere exercise in passive hearing but an active experience of the visceral power of her art, and her skill in expressing it with such a vivid force of conviction. Indeed, David Patrick Stearns’ observation in Gramophone that “when she sings of ‘magic stillness’ in ‘A Dream’, you hear it in her voice” applies far past the final album track to which he alludes.

Petrova is currently preparing for her premiere performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, happening at Moscow’s Zardadye Concert Hall on February 22, with Tchaikovsky’s own “Ode To Joy” Cantata also on the bill. Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra together with the Prague Philharmonic Choir and chorus master Lukáš Vasilek, together with fellow soloists Daria Khozieva (mezzo-soprano) Vladimir Dmitruk (tenor) and Nikolay Didenko (bass). A more intimate appearance takes place at Zaryadye (in the small hall) on March 6, when Petrova will be giving a recital with pianist Rem Urasin. Together, the appearances encapsulate Petrova’s refusal to be easily classified or boxed in by sounds or experiences. We spoke recently when the soprano was recently back in Russia and busily preparing for her upcoming Zaryadye performances.

How did you choose the songs on your album?

I went through the whole of two Tchaikovsky volumes of song, and one big book of Rachmaninoff songs – I went through all of them, and chose what I liked, basically. Vladimir (Feltsman) also had ideas of what to do but he basically left it to me, and it was very special. Most of the songs I’ve never sang before, so it was very risky, I have to to say. We have a funny saying in Russian; we say, “the first blin” – like a Russian pancake – “always goes badly”, but I don’t think it’s the case here, so I’m happy!

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Photo: Vladimir Feltsman / Nimbus Records

I feel like your interpretations offer understanding on a deeper level that goes past language.

It’s like souls talking, mine and Vladimir’s, and it’s very universal – that’s the key to music: it communicates beyond words, heart to heart.

So are some of these going to be part of your recital in March?

Yes, most definitely.

Many singers I’ve spoken with emphasize the importance of doing recitals. What does that experience give you creatively?

It’s very true; recitals give a completely different connection with the pieces of music, and a different connection with the audience, actually. The songs are rather short so you have to create a whole world in three to seven minutes, and it has to be the story, the complete story, and it’s like, two sections, so twelve different worlds each half, so then it’s twenty to twenty-four songs – so basically I create twenty-four different worlds. And then I also consider how it’s me, and the pianist, who is part of me – we are together; I try to become one person with the pianist, and the audience. And in a way we are completely naked. We are very exposed, much more than in opera, because we have costumes and sets and a director; it’s a completely different interaction. In recitals, I’m basically just sharing what I am and what I’ve learned; it’s much more intimate.

Petrova soprano Russian portrait head shot singer art opera album songs cover

Photo: Nimbus Records

When you emerge on the other side, what things do you take back into the world of opera?

Absolutely I come out different. I know myself much better through this experience, as a musician and a person; I can create more defined characters and go, on a much, much deep level, into the characters I play onstage. I love drama, and I love theatre, and I love opera – I’m a singing actress, no question – but I started to feel suffocated without doing recitals, those little songs. I missed not sharing that side with people, and not having that experience. So I’m happy I am able to get more in nowadays.

And you’re doing your first performance of Beethoven’s 9th soon. His vocal writing is known for being difficult; what’s your experience as someone new to singing his music?

You know, as short as (the vocal part in Symphony No. 9) is – compared to any opera it’s rather short – I have to agree, it’s difficult and rather demanding, and from a soprano point of view, it’s very high; he keeps the vocal line up there and we have to soar above the orchestra, and yet keep it graceful and also be “full of joy! full of joy!” but I’m very excited and am working hard on it. Of course I don’t want anybody to hear, “Oh, she’s working hard!” when I perform it, though.

Sir Antonio Pappano recently said that Beethoven’s writing for voice is entirely analogous to his instrumental writing, minus the consideration that people actually have to breathe.

Yes, I know what he means. Basically you use everything you’ve ever gathered as an artist, and try to enjoy it and pray it comes out well! There are some brilliant moments – it’s phenomenal music.

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With Matthew Rose (L) and Brindley Sherratt (R) in the 2018 London Philharmonic Orchestra presentation of Das Rheingold. Photo: Simon Jay Price

You’ve done Wagner too, which is also demanding vocally, though in an entirely different way.

I’m starting to do Wagner, and I have to say … it’s, well, Wagner is a genius but only when I started singing his music did I really embrace it, and now I’m feeling , like, “Wow, what a phenomenal experience for any musician to sing his music!” There’s a lot to discover in his work, it’s true – but I was surprised. I surprised myself at how much I love it.

It’s not music that is commonly done in Russia either.

Not that much, only in St. Petersburg – it’s done almost exclusively there. A few pieces are performed here and there, outside, but not really. I have to say it’s a whole universe, and I’m excited about that.

There’s no end of learning when it comes to Wagner’s work.

That goes with my whole philosophy about singing and stage and my profession: I never stop learning. Since I started this, it’s always, to my mind, been a process; I’m always learning something and trying to make my instrument better, and finding new ways and colours. It’s non-stop. Wagner fits in perfectly in with how I see myself as a singer and my job.

You’re featured on The Compassion Project (Innova, 2018) as well – your work on the album features some new sounds for you, writing which I think suits you well vocally. What does performing contemporary work give you artistically?

I am searching for the not-well-known stuff, for things forgotten or for things fallen out of the limelight. I think it’s exciting for us as musicians to find those gems and open them and bring them to people. On that album there’s also some pieces of Tchaikovsky, ones few ever knew of… and it’s Tchaikovsky of all people! Same with contemporary music, but you see, it’s, how can I say, it’s challenging most of the time for singers if they don’t have a musical background, because you need to have a very attuned ear. You have to hear, really well, the intervals and all of the changes (within the composition) – it’s just a skill. As long as a young singer is willing to learn and challenge him or herself, they’ll find it exciting and fascinating, but if they are not secure enough, then of course it’s easier to stay with Mozart, because it’s universally harmonic and easy and something they’ll hear again and again.

and it’s something audiences will have heard a lot as well. There’s something to be said for classical artists purposely – and purposefully – doing things outside the mainstream, on mainstream stages.

Yes, and I have say unfortunately it’s not that easy, because some people who organize concerts and programming at concert halls – not all but some – are afraid of new pieces, even if it’s not contemporary music. Recently I did a beautiful cycle by Bartók; it’s not contemporary – I mean, it isn’t Mozart but it’s not contemporary – but it’s glorious music, and I had to push for it. I had to use my name and all that, to just say, “Hey , don’t ignore this just because people haven’t heard it!” And later (audience members) came up and said, “That was phenomenal – thank you for introducing that to me!” People who organize for venues are scared, I guess because there are problems with financing – maybe difficulties related to the financial end of things – but hopefully again, if we keep doing what we love and what we feel is important, then we will push through these tough times.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

Yes.

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As Contessa Almaviva in the _ production of Le nozze di Figaro at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Chris Kakol

Classical organizations in North America are facing similar issues, if in a more concentrated way. For instance, if Stravinsky is programmed, it’s always The Rite Of Spring, which is considered daring; it’s never lesser-known works that are just as interesting, if not more so. Organizations are scared tickets won’t move, but if you never program it, people won’t know, and they won’t have a chance to decide for themselves.

Thank you very much, yes!! It also takes, as a musician, time and experience to have grown into that. For me, I feel I have something to say in those new pieces, I feel I’ve grown things inside in order to do it. I’ve grown into the music, so I have all that I’ve learned put into this music and I offer it, and I hope people will love it, because it’s something new, something very human – but again, it is constant work, and it all depends on if we’re willing to work and make ourselves better, and if we’re willing to push other things, and make concerted, constant pushes toward… what’s the word…

Evolution?

That’s a good one, yes. Never stopping. Trying new things will always teach you something!

Evolution is two-pronged; it’s work, as you said to do this – evolving is work– but it’s also allowing yourself to evolve, which means being open to all sorts of things, including discomfort, which takes courage to face. How much did your time with mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova helped to cultivate that quality?

She has always been one of those people you look up to, and the fact that I had chance to meet her personally and a chance to share the stage with her… it’s huge. Also the trust and… you know, she was such a generous and kind person, and the things she told me when I was still young gave me so much confidence, you know what I mean? She believed in me so much, and that belief gave me wings, like, “Go baby, fly! Enjoy the singing and share it!” Such an amazing woman and amazing artist she was, and I feel very fortunate and very blessed she was in my life. I have, as we say, a ticket and a blessing from her for this career, and for this world of singing.

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At the Opera Ball at the Bolshoi in November 2019. The concert was in memory of mezzo-soprano Elena Obratzsova. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News

How much did she help to instil your sense of exploration?

It’s just how she was herself; she was never afraid to take a risk. For example, at some point she went into theatre; she was doing a lot of things with various organizations – recitals and working with contemporary composers, and being onstage doing big opera things and going to recital halls and doing small pieces – and when she was older she went into theatre, and people said “Are you crazy? What are you doing?!” The main thing was, she enjoyed it, and that was one of the biggest inspirations. (Obratzsova was artistic director of the Opera Company of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre from 2007-2008, and appeared as The Countess in their production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen Of Spades in 2011, the same year she created a charitable foundation to promote music education; she passed away in 2015.)

There are so many languages an artist can speak in terms of different ways and different approaches, and (Obratzsova) showed all of us there is not one way, that we don’t have to lock ourselves in one box: “I’m doing opera” or “I’m a recitalist” or whatever. She was free herself, and she inspired us in that way, those who were her students or the winners of the competition. She never put any chains or anybody; she never put anyone in a box. And that was a very big inspiration, no question.

That’s how it seems with you, that you’re not in a box of doing one style or sound, which reflects your life between the United States and Russia.

I feel like it’s a blessing and a gift; every way is different. Everybody has a right to choose the way they’re living and approach careers, but I love it. It’s very challenging, that’s true, but I do love it and I am enjoying it. When I sing Wagner that doesn’t mean I don’t love singing Handel, or that I can’t; if I sing Handel that doesn’t mean I can’t sing my heart out in other modern pieces, or do the most intimate, almost whispering things in a recital. I love it all.

“She Had A Choice”

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum Berlin)

Today’s news about Placido Domingo was shocking to some and not to others. I spent much of the day pouring over various reactions, curious to take the temperature of the online classical world. What was and is most striking throughout various forums I read has been the divisive nature of the comments, sharply moving between “finally” and “bunch of lying opportunists.” Addressing this in writing offers a rumination on something I’ve not commented on very much publicly. I’m not one to shriek about anything on social media (those who know me know I do that enough in-person over anything I feel strongly about), but with news of one of the most famous living opera figures being accused of sexual harassment, the time feels nigh, and so.

I met Placido Domingo as a wide-eyed child who was pulled out of school to attend a record store one blustery Toronto afternoon. My mother smiled graciously when it came to be our turn. I only later understood the looks exchanged between the tenor and my starstruck (if very beautiful) mother. He told me to “study hard” and off we went. Years later my mother and I would watch Three Tenors concerts now and again, and after her passing, I got to see Domingo myself, in a concert version of Thais at the Salzburg Festival, and later in Macbeth at LA Opera. In any business the reality of transaction is part of overall functionality; scratch my back, I scratch yours. Within the arts world there exists, with equal if not greater presence, a spirit of what I’d call relationality, where the bonds of positive relationships power much of what is experienced within a live performance, in opera or in concert. Those relationships are, quite often, sacred things, creating webs-within-webs of connectivity between artists, administrators, musicians, designers, directors, managers, dramaturgs, répétiteurs, and the many, many others who help to make classical things happen. Transactionality, and more vitally, relationality, create a frequent blurring between art and life, a blur which often manifests itself in some of the most magical and unexpected ways, but within that world, there are barriers people (professionals, that is) know not to cross. Others – those in positions of power – step over the lines without a second thought; they know they can. Power affirms a feeling of impunity, entitles poor behaviour, highlights narcissism. When your norm is applause and adoration, you don’t care about blurring lines, because the rules don’t apply. This, of course, is where abuse happens.

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

Those who’ve been shrieking about opportunistic ingenues tend to point directly at Instagram as evidence of their claims, and while one might suspect any number of young artists would happily go to some effort to meet such powerful (and obviously useful) men, in this age of carefully curated selfies and meticulously groomed feeds, yes, sex sells, and always has; the classical world is not immune. (In working on a story about Instagram and opera last year, one friend commented that the platform has become “one giant competition to see which ingenue can pout the hardest –never mind the singing.”) It could be reasonably said that young women in the arts are more empowered than ever when it comes to presenting the image they wish the world to see; there are others who claim they’ve experienced instances of ingenues coming on to those in power (directors, conductors, major leads). I would argue such instances are perfect examples of women feeling they need to play into a male-gaze game for professional advancement. But, you may say, isn’t that how the world works? My question is, why should it have to be in 2019?

In my own younger days, I was agog at any attention from men whose work I enjoyed; they were indeed gods to me. (One of Domingo’s accusers speaks of him in similar terms.) Yes, it’s dangerous to put people on pedestals, but it happens with predictable regularity in the arts world, and it can be hard to see our heroes as fallible beings who are capable of screw-ups, let-downs, and generally terrible behaviour. When I was the receiving end of some flirtation by a famous man in my 20s, I remember being flattered, stunned, bewildered (“he’s paying attention to little old me?!“) – it was a sort of high I didn’t want to come down from. I did not possess the maturity or self-confidence to be able to discern whether or not such attentions were appropriate or sincere; I only knew it was exciting, addictive, and good at quelling the blizzard of negative inner voices, all of them crying for validation. If such validation happened to be coming from the object of worship… what better thing? I felt I was getting ahead; I felt, as a twenty-something stuck in a series of dead-end jobs, I was finally progressing. I felt the true me was being heard, seen, accepted, celebrated.  Of course, it wasn’t the “true me” at all that was being recognized but the part handy to the powerful man. I gave away a version of myself, quickly and freely, in exchange for the validation I thought I needed, the feeling of advancement conflated with acceptance and affection with equal determination.

Altes Museum, Berlin, sculpture, naked, couple, man, woman, sex, face, stone, art

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Altes Museum, Berlin)

It’s tough when the only arena in which you might hope to experience intimacy (or its fantasy-laden pastiche) is a transactional one. Some powerful men will, quite purposefully, sing a siren’s song to one’s doubting inner voices, a song that promises success, wholeness, joy, that says “I can give you all this…“. Attention, flirtation, the promise of success: narcotics for a young woman with a shaky sense of both herself and her worth. It’s hard to say “no” to all of that. It’s hard to say “no” to someone you idolize, who is powerful, who says he’ll help you, who convinces you that he thinks you’re talented and sexy and brilliant. It’s hard to say “no” to the attentions of a powerful man when you, as a young woman in a far less advantageous position, feel you need those attentions, and you need to accept them to climb the ladder of success. You don’t recognize you’re being groomed because you don’t have the tools for that, much less to refuse and walk away. And even if you do recognize the predatory nature of the attention, what “choice” do you actually have? Would it be right to call it “consent”?

The use of that word has been widespread in today’s online discussions. I take particular issue with its misuse because it begs the question: from which environment — mental, emotional, intellectual, societal — does that consent arise? From which vantage point? From whose history? From which influences? A woman’s history with that word, and its power in her life (to say nothing of the culture in which she was raised), may have taught her to think of it in ways that are the precise opposite of its true meaning and lived application, thus leading to a deep internalization of patriarchal notions of power – who holds it, why, how. So I ask again: whose consent? In what spirit was such consent made and given? Was it even a conscious decision, made with the full faculties of reason, rationality, maturity, and experience? “Consent is consent!” some may argue, “Stop twisting things!”

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collectiion Bode-Museum, Berlin)

But the situation itself is twisted, because current ideas of who holds power and why have been internalized to the point of a total blindness that does not and literally cannot allow for empathy (which extends to much of the current political discourse as well). The perception of what true consent actually is, in and of one’s self, is (and was) a ridiculously complicated (though it shouldn’t be) matter when one is starting out in a notoriously difficult industry which, in itself, is adverse to change and evolution. A woman may be “consenting” because she feels there’s no other path. She may be “consenting” because she truly believes this is just how things are done, and have been done, in the industry. She may “consent” because she was raised in a culture that says men are always horny, always the boss, and always have more power than you. She may be “consenting” because the idea of courting rejection from someone she idolizes is too painful to bear, her sense of self being so closely tied up and twisted with the person she’s presented – and it may well be career suicide to say “no.” From what I’ve read today there are a number of people who simply don’t comprehend the vast power of someone like Placido Domingo – though there are just as many who do; there isn’t real “choice” in dealing with someone who has sat so high, for so long, on the throne of his own classical kingdom. Failure to recognize this constitutes the worst form of ignorance, willful or not. The exercise of choice within such a context is illusory at best. A powerful man can sometimes be very clear about the sex-in-exchange-for-opportunities thing, and so a young woman’s choice (so-called) between offering sexual favors to ascend professionally, and not having any professional opportunities at all, is hardly a climate in which any human should be expected to operate. It certainly isn’t one in which the notions of choice and consent can be freely exercised.

Bode-Museum, Berlin, della Robbia, face, art, painting, fresco, round, circle, doubt, expression

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

I want to believe that human evolution is moving far past a place where sexual transactionality within the classical industry is perceived as normal and fine and even (good grief) empowering for women. I believe serious damage – creative, emotional, spiritual – is being wrought through the perpetuation of a casting-couch culture, a damage only felt decades down the line, as women face the fallout of their perceived choices, ones made for reasons wholly unconnected with true advancement. New worlds are opening up as more people feel emboldened to come forwards and say: I don’t accept this as our system. This is not the key we should play in; this is not the aria we should continue to sing. This tempo stinks; let’s rewrite the whole thing together.

It takes a lot, to risk saying this in public, much less living it –to risk being perceived as a flake, a golddigger, a finger-wagger, an apologist, a malicious figure of angry embitterment. One must continually acknowledge that we operate within a system that’s been set up with the most strict and narrow conventions (of race, sex, opportunity), but we love the classical arts enough to push for change. It is a risk, and  areward, to be truly heard, seen, recognized, accepted for who one is, without the thousand masks we wield on a daily basis to please our respective audiences. To the ladies who spoke up: thank you, and encore.

Writing, Evolution, And The Pleasure Of Discovery

thoth tjaj scribe god ancient egypt

The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon. (New Kingdom, late 18th Dynasty, Amenophis III (?), 1388-1351 BC; collection of Neues Museum Berlin)

As some of my readers may know, the past year has seen a gradual shift away from formal journalism and toward more creative, personally fulfilling arenas. The precise nature of such a destination has yet to manifest or clarify itself, but, trusting the path, as they say, often brings the most important discoveries, whether we like them or not. Liking, much less being comfortable, isn’t so much the point, but evolving is.

One stage in that evolution has been taking a conscious step away from writing reviews. In Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant 2012 New Yorker essay about critics, he notes that “(t)he role of the critic […] is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” Mendelsohn, Editor at Large of the New York Review of Books, writes with engaging specificity about how the work of certain critics from his youth inspired his curiosity: “I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments. ” We all find our own in-roads when it comes to culture: the influence of people we are raised by; the big and small events we experience as children; the sounds and sights and smells and surfaces we absorb intellectually, emotionally, spiritually through the various facets that carry us into and through adulthood. Social influence, of course, has taken on a life of its own within the digital age, with the culture of “like” and “favorite” occasionally (Mendelsohn might argue too often) taking the place meaningful criticism might have occupied in the past. There’s also the pervasive (and now normalized) trinity of programming, pageviews, and promotion that have become sticky symbols of, among other things, the contemporary force of clickbait. A music historian friend of mine refuses to hit “like” on most things he sees on Facebook, whether he truly enjoys such posts or not, his reasoning that inspiration, and personal taste for that matter (something Mendelsohn mentions frequently), shouldn’t be reduced to algorithmic slavery. He has a point.

All of which is to say, criticism still matters, but instead of writing reviews myself, I’m going to help others do it. As of January 2020, I’ll be part of the Emerging Arts Critics panel, a Canada-based program that aims to mentor the next generation of culture writers in partnership with a variety of  Toronto-based media and arts institutions including Opera Canada magazine (to which I am a frequent contributor) and the Canadian Opera Company. I may no longer review opera, but I am happy to be teaching the next generation. I’m equally happy to point out interesting figures whose work, while uncritical, inspires that all-important cultural curiosity, while providing fun bursts of inspiration and education; classical music writer and enthusiast Jari Kallio is one of those people. Known to the online classical community for his deep knowledge and refreshing lack of pretension, the well-travelled Finn documents what he sees, listens to, and studies at regular intervals. His posts aren’t intended to provoke reactivity (namely those 21st century digital diseases like hate-likes or juvenile jealousies) but are meant to inspire and educate, and sometimes entertain too.

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Esa-Pekka Salonen’s score for Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo: Jari Kallio

It would be easy to dismiss Jari as a cheerleader. When he likes something (or someone), it is obvious. He does not make a secret of his favorites, but in an age where the fandom of Anna Netrebko is loud and boisterous, it’s nice to see that spirit being so vigorously applied to artists like Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and Jörg Widmann. Having worked as a teacher of psychology and philosophy for over two decades in pre-university studies for students sixteen to nineteen in Finland, Jari has a natural ability to be as direct with his language as he is clear in his contextualizing. Well-versed in music new and old, he considers score-reading to be a natural extension of his ever-unfolding education as well as an expression of his intense creative curiosity. Those qualities lend him an authority which can often be seen in his online exchanges with fellow music lovers, ones which are wonderfully free of patronizing and condescension, and offer in-roads for those new to classical music. Clearly aware of the culture of the internet, his Twitter and Instagram feeds regularly feature playful comments and humorous shots of both himself and his cat, Nono (yes, named after the Italian composer). If one wants to apply the term “blogger,” I suppose one could, but the term feels somehow too small for his wide-ranging curiosities, and too limiting for his talents. He’s not a singular figure for his cultural pursuits, but he is one of the most earthy in their expression.

Our conversation here marks the first of what I hope will become regular exchanges with digitally-savvy classical music writers. There’s value, and some manner of delight, in conversing with such ambassadors and educators in a rapidly-changing art form.  And so, to my original point, that making a conscious choice to change one’s path without knowing the final destination isn’t meant to always be a comfortable process. Indeed. Jari’s posts sometimes provoke sharp stabs of shrieking panic (mainly of not knowing nearly enough about our shared passion) but it’s a reaction softened by a calm, more sustained voice whispering that it’s never too late to learn; the willingness is all. Back in June, Jari and I enjoyed a lovely, wide-ranging chat – about score reading, contemporary composers, the joys of attending rehearsals, and the connection between Star Wars and Sibelius. Enjoy.

Photo courtesy Jari Kallio.

Do you find your music passion seeps into your teaching life? I’ve introduced things like leitmotifs within a project-specific context, so students can then apply that concept. 

Yes, I do that too! For example, in psychology there are so many things you can work out through pieces of art and music, so basically that’s an endless source for cases and examples and allegories…

… and concepts, and inspiring people to understand things and experience things in a new way… 

Exactly.

Speaking of new ways, you found your own path into music, yes? 

I didn’t go to a conservatory but I took piano lessons for three or four years, and when I studied psychology as a major, I did some musicology and history of music as a second subject. From my teens is when it all got started. I’m from a working-class family, and there’s musicality in my family, but it comes from my father’s side. My grandfather was quite a good amateur player – he had a good ear. He could pick out tunes from the radio and play them; he was really good at it. My father had some of that too, but he played very little, and so in their world, there wasn’t a thing like music education; yes, it would’ve been available, but it was something rather unknown to them. 

Jari Kallio, scores, Bärenreiter, publishing, music, coffee, perusal

Photo: Jari Kallio

That sounds a lot like my mother; she came from a working-class background as well and only seemed to know the Conservatory as it related to my yearly piano exams. 

Exactly! I had very few early influences though, apart from school. In my first year at school in Finland – we start school at the age of seven – I remember our city orchestra, which was a small, 25-piece orchestra, paid a visit to our school. That was the first time I’d heard an orchestra live. They played some orchestral music, and the only piece I remember from that is Sibelius, his Karelia music, the intermezzo. It was such a huge thing to hear, and that’s the early thing which got me curious. And then, being of my generation, which is the Star Wars generation, I of course picked up John Williams’s music for the film, which was actually the first thing I had on a physical record. In my teens I suddenly started discovering more, and at some point I just felt I had to try to play something, so I did a couple of years of piano lessons and soon realized that I’m not much of a player. That never bothered me because I learned to read music and got kind of an understanding of how music works, performance-wise, which I think was very important. I picked up my first scores when I was about eighteen or nineteen.

What inspired you to delve into scores as a non-musician?

I was really curious to see how the music works, what happens on the page, how does it look? It was the fascination of seeing scores at the conductor’s podium and being really interested in seeing what they see, what do they look at, what is the source? So at first it was simply curiosity, and kind of like, can I read through it? Can I follow a performance from it? It was a challenge.

At the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with the score for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, June 2018. Photo: Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager, Digital Communications, London Symphony Orchestra

What was the first score you bought?

I bought cheap editions of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s “La Mer.” In Helsinki, there’s a music shop that sells records and scores and they had these score on sale, and I went there with what little student money I had back then and I found these two, and I thought they were brilliant.

How many do you have now?

I haven’t really counted them, but I’d say something like 200 to 250 or so.

You take a particular interest in new music.

Finland has a great scene for contemporary music and not just special ensembles but for large orchestras. They all do it – they’ve been doing it for a very long time. It’s something really organic, it’s not just (orchestras) commissioning short pieces and force-feeding the audience; it’s an essential part of the programming. And interestingly, in Helsinki for example, many of the concerts that feature new music sell really well and really fast. They are very often the first concert that are sold out, which is really interesting. 

Why do you think that is? 

I think in a sense, it originally comes from the fact that the first Finnish orchestras were established in the late 19th century; from early on they played music like Sibelius and all the Finnish composers. (Orchestras and composers) were part of the Finnish independence movement at the time, so it became a natural part of our culture. Also, because we are here at the border of Europe, we don’t have such a long (classical) tradition; the first Finnish orchestra of music comes from the latter half of the 19th century. We weren’t burdened by tradition, so to speak, and that liberated the programming, which is a great thing. Many (living Finnish composers) are definitely well known outside Finland – Salonen and Saariaho and Sebastian Fagerlund, for example. There are really so many great new composers

What sorts of things do you think new music provides the listener? 

It might sound clichéd, but the first thing that pops into my mind is that it gives purpose, in the sense of discovery. It’s really hard to express in words, but especially with new music, I think it’s the pleasure of discovery. When you listen to a lot of music, you start to get the idea that there are sort of these black areas on the map – between styles, between pieces, these undiscovered territories – and then you hear something somebody has written, and it goes to that undiscovered territory. You hear something which is totally new, which totally opens a new view. That, in a sense, is one of the most rewarding things. And also with the older repertoire, I mean, the pleasure of music is that you can perform the same piece of music a thousand times differently and it can be fresh and new every time. This season I heard St. John Passion in Berlin, dramatized by Peter Sellars and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and it showed totally different aspects to a classic piece. I think, if you get the impression that, “this is the most important thing at this precise moment, the thing I want to focus on…” then that’s a good concert. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen during rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera, spring 2019. Photo: Jari Kallio

Yet you also delve into rehearsal work as well; your behind-the-scenes report on Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera with Salonen, for example, were fascinating. 

That was a lot of fun to do, to spend two weeks there. I’ll be covering the time when Salonen starts his first Ring Cycle at the Finnish National Opera – they’re doing Das Rheingold in August – and I have a couple of other projects in mind. For instance, Rattle is doing Idomeneo at the Staatsoper Berlin, so I might try to cover that. Obviously, it’s an important thing to review concerts, but it’s been done for ages. I know this might sound a bit pompous, but in a sense, I think that a critic (preserves) a memory – he or she documents something in the past…

… and evaluates it within various contexts for the present.

Usually yes! But I think it’s very important that the wider public understands how a performance is put together. What does it take? What is all the hard work done before the performance? This is so people can truly appreciate and understand how the thing is built. And of course, on a personal level, the best way to learn is to go to rehearsals and follow them and really try to get a hold of the thing.

From the very few I’ve attended, I find I re-discover, re-evaluate – and explore entirely new things as well. I’d love to attend more rehearsals.

With more experience you gain more levels of listening. What you hear in rehearsals – the process of creating music – is really the most rewarding part. Sometimes I have the feeling after attending a series of rehearsals I could easily skip the concert itself! I think one of highest fascinating and rewarding things was last year in January, when I attended a series of rehearsals by the LSO and Simon Rattle; they were doing the Berg Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust as soloist. Within the three days I heard that piece, they played it something like four or five times through, and worked on it and worked on it. I had known the piece for roughly twenty years or something, but hearing it that way was really amazing. 

Nono the cat. Photo: Jari Kallio

It often feels as if you provide a way into sometimes challenging pieces and composers through your updates on these processes, demystifying what is, for many, a rather daunting thing.

I hope so – that’s the point, really! When I started my writing career nineteen years ago, I worked as a full-time, jack-of-all-trades journalist for a year, and of course initially you are really excited to see your work in print, like “WOW!” But as time goes by, that feeling wears off and you really start to think about the most important thing: readers, the public. You are writing for someone, not just to please yourself. You have to think: what’s the point of doing this? What do I want to say and emphasize? If somebody reads my stuff, and if they are in some way inspired or informed, I’m really happy and pleased. 

ensemble unitedberlin: Between Past And Future

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The Goethe-Schiller-Denkmal (Monument) by Ernst Rietschel in Weimar. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Lately I’ve found myself re-evaluating the past within the context of the present. It’s been an important and sometimes painful journey, for a variety of reasons both personal (disposing of photo albums, many of which were my mother’s) and professional (my slow if sure transition away from journalism). Through travels, research, readings, and various creative ruminations, I’ve come to appreciate just how deeply recontextualizing materials of the past can help us understand and appreciate new ways of being fully and completely present, however uncomfortable that may sometimes be; evolution is not, after all, supposed to be a comfortable process.

I suspect this is something Georg Katzer understood. The award-winning German composer, born in what is now Poland in 1935, was a pioneer of electronic new music in the German Democratic Republic. He founded the Studio for Electroacoustic Music in the 1980s, and made a career of redefining past to understand present, setting the stakes high for future modes of expression. The weight and influence of Europe’s shifting history through the decades lent him a ravenous curiosity for exploration of the past mixed with an enthusiasm for for redefining the present; he did so much with a twinkle in his eye as well rather than the furrowed brow of a serious artiste, which gives his work a discernible humanism, even amidst the plaintive bleeps and sighing bloops of works like “Steinelied I” (1984) and “Steinelied II” (2010). Listen to his wide-ranging oeuvre, which moves easily between lyrical brutality and brutal lyricism, and you’ll hear Bartok, Stravinsky, Lutowslawski and Zimmerman, as well as bits of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubauten. Sounds brush, bump, groan, and grind against each other in ways that are, even many decades after their creation, gripping, contemporary, and theatrical.

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Georg Katzer (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

That theatricality is readily apparent in “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), premiered in Leipzig in 1975. A smart work that embraces various meta aspects of music-making, Szene was, at its inception, a meditation (and, it must be said, a sarcastic commentary) on the bureaucratic nature of the GDR and its uneasy relationship to cultural life and artistic expression. The work was presented by German chamber group ensemble unitedberlin last month at the Konzerthaus Berlin for their 30th anniversary concert; the group first performed it in 1994, on the premiere appearance of conductor (and eub Artistic Advisor) Vladimir Jurowski leading. As the program notes state, the piece is “one of the representatives of “Scenic Chamber Music” or “Instrumental Theatre,” in which performative aspects of music production and linguistic elements came to the fore.” 

I’ve written about ensemble unitedberlin in the past (specifically in relation to composer Claude Vivier), and this concert was special in terms of its being a symbol of remembrance as well as anticipation; never did the word “present” feel so apt. Katzer has taken lines from Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe and placed them directly within the piece. Delivered by the conductor to the audience, the lines relate specifically to the nature of new composition, and concern a new piece written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn. As recorded by Eckermann:

Conversation from Sunday evening, January 14 1827:

I found a musical evening entertainment with Goethe, which was granted to him by the Eberwein family together with some members of the orchestra. Among the few listeners were: General Superintendent Röhr, Hofrat Vogel and some ladies. Goethe had wished to hear the quartet of a famous young composer, which was first performed. The twelve-year-old Karl Eberwein played the grand piano to Goethe’s great satisfaction, and indeed excellently, so that the quartet passed in every respect well executed.

“It is strange,” said Goethe, “where the most highly enhanced technique and mechanics lead the newest composers; their works are no longer music, they go beyond the level of human feelings, and one can no longer infer such things from one’s own mind and heart. How do you feel? It all sticks in my ears.” I said that I am not better in this case. “But the Allegro,” Goethe continued, “had character. This eternal whirling and turning showed me the witch dances of the Blockberg, and I found a view, which I could suppose to the strange music.”

It’s interesting to note that Mendelssohn and Goethe enjoyed a great friendship thereafter.

Katzer noted in the program notes for a 2016 presentation with the Dresden Sinfonietta that his inclusion of Goethe within “Szene” should “not be interpreted as malice towards the genius. Lack of understanding of new music is a widespread phenomenon and, as we see, not a new one.” His essential point is clear, driven home by the work’s closing scene: the musicians gathered around a spinning top, silently observing. Our perception of change and its inevitable nature is coloured by a near-unconscious wiring of a past we don’t want to remember, yet cannot forget, much less look away from.

Katzer passed away earlier this year — on May 7th, to be precise, which is the date Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made its world premiere, in 1824. The two composers shared a program last December thanks to the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, when Katzer’s “discorso” for orchestra was given its world premiere just prior to the orchestra’s annual New Year’s presentation of Beethoven’s famous symphony (led by RSB Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Jurowski). I thought about this strange confluence experiencing “Szene”, and of Beethoven’s reported meeting with the very man Katzer quotes. The composer created incidental music for Goethe’s 1788 drama Egmont, as well as lieder incorporating his texts. The two came from utterly different worlds — Goethe being Privy Counsellor at the Weimar court, Beethoven, decidedly revolutionary — but despite such vastly different experiences and worldviews, the composer was effusive in his praise of the writer, and Goethe may have enjoyed the new sounds Beethoven created, however much he would complain about his sticky ears to Eckermann just four years later. According to an account in Romain Rolland’s famous book Goethe and Beethoven (1931):

On October 27th (1823) a Beethoven trio was played at Goethe’s house. On November 4th, in the great concert given at the Stadthaus in honour of Szymanowska, Beethoven figures twice on the program. The concert opened with the Fourth Symphony in B Flat, and after the interval his quintet, op. 16 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, was played. Thus Beethoven had the lion’s share, and without mentioning his name, Goethe confessed to Knebel that he was again “completely carried away by the whirlwind of sounds (da bin ich nun wieder in den Strudel der Tone hineingerissen).” Thus there had been opened to him a new world, the world of modern music which he had hitherto refused to accept — “durch Vermittelung eines Wesens, das Geniisse, die man immer ahndet und immer entbehrt, zu verwirklichen geschaffen ist (through the medium of one who has the gift of endowing with life those delights which we resent and of which we deprive ourselves).”

Classical music lovers tend to enjoy —nay, expect —the so-called canon to never change, let alone the ways it’s presented (something Washington Post classical writer Anne Midgette addresses in a recent piece).  However, contemporary composers have mostly embraced change and risk, frequently at the cost of widespread popularity and acceptance; they, and the artists who perform and program them, stand at the vanguard of creative evolution, come hell or highwater, fully present of time, place, space, and relationships. The ensemble unitedberlin was formed at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989; like many German cultural institutions, it’s using 2019 to mark the changes wrought over three decades — how past merges with present, in sculpting possibilities for the future. As the program states, the group’s aim has been to explore “areas of tension, between the past and the future,” presenting works that incorporate and inspire a “joy of musical discovery.” Experiencing many works live that I’d not been given an opportunity to hear live before was not only a discovery, but a revelation; it’s been akin to squeezing out a tube of a color never seen before and then experimenting with its application on different surfaces. There are certain works I’m happy to take a (lengthy) break from, but contemporary works I heartily want to explore; I have ensemble unitedberlin, in part, to thank for stoking that long-suppressed curiosity.

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Hans-Jürgen Wenzel (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

Hans Jürgen Wenzel is one of those composers whose work I hope to know better. Along with “Szene”, his intriguing “Eröffnungsmusik” (opening music, 1978) was performed as part of their birthday celebrations; the program charmingly describes the composer (who passed away in 2009) as the “the initiator of the formation of the ensemble.” Wenzel was dedicated to introducing young people to contemporary music, and many of his students went on to become composers in their own right. It was a perfect opening to the evening, and enjoyed a perfect follow-up: the world premiere of young composer Stefan Beyer’s “зaukalt und windig” (cold and windy). Katzer’s “Szene” was followed by Vinko Globokar’s “Les Soliloques décortiqués”, premiered in 2016 by Ensemble Musikfabrik. The France-born Globokar, whose creative process involves writing music based around stories he’s written first, told The Globe & Mail in 2011:

“I was part of a group of friends, an avant-garde that was based on risk. The idea, collectively, was to find something new. But even if you didn’t find this end result, it was still okay, because you were exploring ideas. That kind of collective thinking we did has disappeared.”

Based on cultural experiences over the past few years, I’m not so sure that spirit has entirely disappeared — it’s just become more of an effort to find and subsequently commit to. It was a decidedly stirring experience, to observe Katzer’s widow interacting with Globokar (elegant in a suit), the young Beyer, Jurowski, and ensemble co-founder Andreas Brautigam casually interacting post-concert — generations of past and present, all moving into the future, in their own ways and methods. Here’s to the unbound joys of new discoveries, sonic and otherwise; may we never deprive ourselves of them, but welcome them, with open arms, clear ears, and brave hearts.

Capuçon’s Breathtaking Shostakovich in Dresden

capucon viotti gmjo dresden

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

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

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

gmjo dresden capucon viotti

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

dresden dome

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Shternshis_IMG_1110 photo by Roman Boldyrev

Anna Shternshis (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

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

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

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

Psoy Korolenko performing live. (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

How were the pieces on Yiddish Glory chosen? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why these particular pieces? Do you have any favourites?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yiddish-Glory-303 Sophie Milman, photo by Vladimir Kevorkov

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

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

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

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

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

Power, Drama, And Grace: Pondering Dior’s Designs

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The designs of Christian Dior at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo: Julia Bachelor. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

“That’s straight out of Lucia di Lammermoor!”

Those were the words I exclaimed in setting sights upon a voluminous, stripped 19th century dress on display as part of the Dior exhibition, currently on view through March 18th at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). I was reminded of the opera yet again when I caught sight of a beautiful red-black piece nearby, complete with nipped-in waist and black gloves; never mind trying to impress Edgardo, it seemed certain Lucia certainly would have worn this for herself. Doing precisely that, by and for one’s self, feels like a powerful subtext of much of individual style, though certainly one has to be aware of the effect one might have at any given time. This feels especially true for Dior.

I attended the exhibition for a variety of reasons: my mother was a fan of the French designer’s work and owned a choice few items I now cherish; many of the women I admire, particularly within the arts world, were fierce fans of his work (“No Dior, no Dietrich!“); they are artworks — sleek and shapely as sculptures, textured and colorful as paintings, sensuous and free-flowing as dancers. Dior’s designs have a timeless and appealing blend of drama, elegance, power, and sophistication.

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At the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Dior” exhibition. (Photo: Julia Bachelor. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

At initial glance, some of the items on display seem flimsy, flouncy, frou-frou — but the experience of wearing them changes that perception entirely. The power of putting on a Dior dress is one thing, moving around in the world quite another. I have enjoyed that privilege (again, thanks to my mother), though at times I’ve wondered if I needed the charm lessons drilled into their original owner, a gentility that the garment seems owed. Then again, I remember the photos of Ava Gardner with the designer (who was also a friend), and I feel reassured that yes, us sailor-mouthed, earthy, padding-around-the-house-barefoot-laughing-too-loudly ladies can (nay, should) wear such finery.

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Christian Dior fitting Ava Gardner in Paris, 1956. (Photo: AP)

The collection on display at the Royal Ontario Museum focuses specifically on the designer’s haute couture work between 1947 and 1957, an era notable for being a time of great social, cultural, and technological change. I love this era (particularly styles from the 1940s) for its incredible tailoring, elegant flourishes, and careful balance of (yet quietly happy rebellion against) perceived “feminine” and “masculine” notions: the broad shoulders, the nipped-in waistlines, the contoured bottoms, the boxy necklines, the S&M-esque buttons, and the fetishistic high necklines. There’s a mischievous quality at work in much of Dior’s work through this era, and it’s wonderful to stand and reflect on on it all against a backdrop of soft lighting, vintage photos, and billowing fabrics.

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Swatches of fabric at the ROM’s “Dior” exhibition. (Photo: Julia Bachelor. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

The show, presented by Canadian luxury retailer Holt Renfrew and curated by ROM Senior Curator Dr. Alexandra Palmer, features fashions from the museum’s own collection, with various items donated by Canadian society doyennes and their families. Although it is quite limited (more than a few “is that all?”s were overheard) and there remains, for me, curious gaps in contextualization, the exhibition makes up for these limitations by featuring a fascinating array of small delights which can be all too easily missed.

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Jewelry at the ROM’s “Dior” exhibition. (Photo: Julia Bachelor. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Carefully displayed along lengthy side cabinets, one can (should) marvel over the intricate embroideries, swatches of fabrics, ornate, if unapologetically statement-making jewelry, perfume bottles, old photos, and sleek footwear as one puts together mental ideas not solely between what is present within the room, but outside of it, in one’s own closet, in one’s own life. How would we wear these things? Where? And why? How would one smell? What would one drink? The collection invites meditation on possibilities within the realms of reality, fantasy, and the theatre of life. How measurable is one’s impact upon entering a room well-dressed? How does it make one feel? What’s the best way to put one’s foot initially forward? What about the second step? And the third? What would Mr. Dior say?

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A 19th century dress in “Dior.” (Photo: Julia Bachelor. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

I considered these questions as I looked again and again at the dresses, details, and the possible dramas contained therein. The smart, viewer-friendly displays reminded me very much of the rotating costume exhibits at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City as well as the ones at the Fashion Institute of Technology, each inspiring respective awe, admiration, wonder, and fascination. The drama of dress, of course, never ceases to amaze. We all play roles, onstage and off, each holding, inspiring, producing, reflecting, and releasing various levels of power and drama. How is it different as a woman now, versus a woman in 1947-1957?

I pondered this as I wandered the exhibition proper, and subsequently through the museum’s vast ancient collections, and into rooms devoted to various facets of Roman fashion. Some lovely pieces of gold jewelry were almost precise, early models of the Dior works I’d just admired. Dior’s connection to history is obvious; he based many of his designs on much older shapes, including corseting and lingerie, vital twin aspects whose absence was very much missed. Such shapes were both used, reflected, imitated, and recycled at various social events (including opera, of course) through the decades which followed.

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Dior at the ROM. (Photo: Julia Bachelor. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Life imitates art, art imitates life, it is a constant cycle of giving, taking, inspiring, and expressing, a fact made clear to any fashion-lover, culture-vulture, opera-lover, and/or fascinated observer of humanity who may or may not know Dior, love Dior, or even be indifferent to Dior. You don’t need to know a lot about the particulars of style or tailoring to enjoy this sort of an exhibition; all it asks of visitors is to open themselves to the realm of elegant, meaningful, quietly powerful possibilities. Authority doesn’t shout; it doesn’t have to. Good design reminds of all this, and asks how we might manifest them with grace, goodness, and fortitude. I feel like we could use more of those qualities in our lives right now.

Dancing With Ghosts In Berlin

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

Landing in Berlin from a recent (and generally difficult) trip to Italy was bumpy but oddly calming. A violent storm was brewing, its intensity on a slow, fierce climb as the evening progressed. In some strange way, the scene felt, through gale-force winds and lashing rains, like a brusque reminder: “This is nichts; there’s so much left to see and to do…!”

One of those things was, mundane as it may sound, making a trip to the grocery store; I was tired but hungry, desperately craving a paprikas dip I’d come to know and love during my frequent visits to the city of late.

Supermarkets are, for me, fascinating places, for what they reveal as much for what they conceal in terms of cultural indicators. At my regular, it’s easy to find Eastern European things; paprikas-infused everything (not just dips but jarred sauce, flavoured meats, salads) are right alongside items like tabouleh, curry, tagines — items readily available in most Canadian supermarkets, especially over the last few decades. My experience of other cultures has come largely through music as well as food, and it’s nice to be able to buy harira, chana masala, fish sauce, pierogies, piri piri, and uborkasalata all in one go. Much as people may roll eyes and say it’s a silly, small thing, it isn’t for me.

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The exterior of the Philharmonie at night. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Taking things for granted is something I’ve never been comfortable with. Distressing news from Poland recently has made me reflect carefully on my own Eastern European roots (extant on both sides of my parents’ respective backgrounds), on being a child who was raised by a culture-loving single woman in the highly unfashionable suburbs, on the role that culture plays in every aspect of my life — including its filling the many gaping holes left by absent family, chosen and not. I don’t take anything for granted; I can’t afford that luxury.

I don’t know if I would label it a luxury, but it is certainly good to have been raised without the spectre of war or obliteration. Again, that sounds obvious and silly, but for me, it isn’t. This past Saturday was Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in America, I have developed complicated feelings toward this day, mainly owing to something shared by a relative from my father’s side (who I barely knew) had shared years ago: a relative of ours perished in the Second World War, fighting, as she put it, “on the wrong side.” It has always been hard for me to know what to do with this information. Alternately, my maternal grandfather (who I didn’t know either) was an immigrant to Canada, who had been decorated for  bravery in the First World War, fighting for Britain, and later went on to be a trapper. Both my parents also have Jewish ancestors, a discovery I made through investigations years ago. It’s difficult to reconcile these various facets, never having known any of my relatives. They are all ghosts, frustratingly faceless and maddeningly nameless, dancing in and through my imagination, and I feel that dance keenly every time I’m in Berlin.

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Conductor Daniel Barenboim. (Photo:© Holger Kettner)

My mother let go of all her connections with my father (who had been a violinist) when they divorced, save for the one to music – the force which initially drew them together so powerfully. Daniel Barenboim, the Argentine-Israeli pianist/conductor, General Director of the Staatskapelle Berlin, and also the co-founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, who is celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow, expressed things so well at a concert in post-Brexit Britain in July:

… if a French citizen wants to learn Goethe he must have a translation. But he doesn’t need a translation for the Beethoven symphonies. This is important. This is why music is so important. And this isolationist tendencies and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is something that is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation.

I thought of these words recalling one of many special events I attended while in Berlin, American conductor James Levine leading the celebrated Staatskapelle Berlin in Mahler’s Third Symphony; it was, to quote one German media outlet, “Ein Jahrhundertkonzert” (“a concert of the century”). Levine was General Music Director and Chief Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC for 45 years, and has conducted close to 2500 performance of 85 different operas; among many accomplishments, he founded the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and has received a slew of awards and citations throughout his decades-long career.

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Maestro James Levine led the Staatskapelle Berlin at the Philharmonie on 31 October 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

I grew up watching Maestro Levine (who is now 74 years old) conduct, both live and on TV; for me, it was part of my own education, one which continues in so many forms. I have vivid memories of the very beautiful Idomeneo Levine led at the Met last winter, to say nothing of the many times I watched him lead the Met Orchestra with my mother. It was very special to experience the work of someone whose work I’ve followed for so long, conducting at one of my favorite venues, playing the work of one of my favorite composers, in one of my favorite cities. The concert was a reminder of the special relationship between Maestros Barenboim and Levine (the former invited the latter), both of whom have worked around one another for decades. Levine, using a specially-installed ramp, led a deeply operatic rendering of the longest work in the standard symphonic repertoire, with a combination of elegant control, deliberate pacing, and a pointedly elegiac tone through even playful movements; he carefully shaped the work’s many moments of explosive intensity into something precious and wonderfully contemplative.

The five-movement work (given an intermission after its lengthy first section) gained an immense amount of thoughtfulness; this wasn’t about throwing a giant, over-filled platter in front of you, but rather, elegantly presenting small plates of delicately-curated specialties, every morsel both beautiful and tasty. Soloist/mezzo soprano Violetta Urmana and the Staatsopernchor (State opera chorus) and Kinderchor der Staatsoper (Children’s choir), together with lustrous string and horn sections, were carefully-treated ingredients, utilizing lovely legato phrasing and modulating textures. The effect was one of a whispered grandiosity.

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Maestro Levine at the Philharmonie. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

History didn’t impose on that particular evening, but in light of the news from Poland, as well as learning about histories I didn’t fully know and stories still unfolding, I’ve been confronting past, present, and future, in micro and macro ways; a Jewish conductor, leading the work of a Jewish composer, of an orchestra led by another Jewish conductor, would not have been welcome in Berlin a few short decades ago, and indeed, may not be welcomed by certain individuals now. Again, to quote Barenboim (from his website), “(n)ationalism is the opposite of true patriotism, and the further fostering of nationalist sentiment would be the worst case-scenario for us all.” Which Europe is supposedly being fought over, and died for? What should the role of culture be, especially in the 21st century? Is there any hope left? May I not enjoy paprikas and tagine together?

I want to say a hearty” ja” and “Na sicher” (“of course”), and remind myself of that mantra whispered amidst the lashing rains and howling winds as I landed: “This is nichts; there’s so much left to see and to do…!”

So very much.

Travels In Italy: Dolce e brutto

San Michele Arcangelo, the church where Verdi was baptized and was later an organist. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Two weeks ago I was touring the lands of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi in Emilia Romagna, northern Italy: the place he was born and raised, the splendid home of his benefactor, the lush gardens he would walk through. Those were the good parts.

Any sentimentality or indeed, romanticism, which so many feel in traveling to Italy, has been largely scrubbed out; never, in all of my travels, I felt more aware of my status — my vulnerability — as a woman. While there are finger-waggers who will tut-tut with inevitable “you should haves” and well-meaning “if only you hads” (instincts I find frustratingly passive-aggressive if not outright patronizing)  I stand by the validity of my reactions, deeply aware of the various costs of singledom as a woman, the frequently taken-for-granted privilege of coupledom, and the need to accept the wildly different realities of each, particularly within the wider context of travel experiences. I got to see a part of Italy very few people get to see, a unique experience to be sure, but one that comes with a bitter recognition in realizing that my only return to the country will be as either part of a tour, or for quick excursions to very specific places, namely Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, and of course, Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

A rose on the property of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

In retrospect, I wonder what Verdi, a man who felt such a clear kinship with the so-called “common man,” would have made of my experiences in his country as a woman in the 21st century. Would he have been appalled, I wonder, by the cat-calls, the leering, the begging? Being a solo woman traveler opened the door to an ugly jarful of assumptions, which led to harrowing experiences: theft, harassment, manipulation, and (as was the depressingly repeated case in so many restaurants), being totally ignored. What would Verdi have made of it all? What would he have made of my wrists being grabbed by a older woman wanting money? Or waiters running to serve amorous couples but consistently ignoring my inquiries about a missing lunch and requests for another glass of Lambrusco? Or of personal items being stolen from an abode? What of the forced kissing and repeated fondling after accepting help with luggage?  What am I to make of these experiences? Are they operatic? Is it “Italy being Italy” ? Should I not be bothered? Was it my fault? Did I somehow “ask for it?” Did I deserve it because I was alone?

In any terrible situation (or series of them), there are always minuscule shards of light, and it’s these shards I have to pick through now, with the benefit of hindsight. I will always remember the free shot of espresso provided by a friendly woman in a bustling shop in Parma; the plate of sandwiches set before me in a cafe by another woman who gave me a knowing nod when she saw I was alone; the warm, expressive tone of my tour guide at Villa Verdi (the composer’s primary residence for many decades), as I struggled in my limited Italian to understand her every detail. All of us were above a certain age, all of us perhaps had some shared understanding we couldn’t articulate. I remember these moments, cherish them, and I’ve taken a friend’s advice to try and focus on good things, like these moments, and the ones provided via music and history.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Jacopo Spirei’s Falstaff was my favorite production, and I don’t write that purely because I interviewed him about it before I left. Smart, funny, timely, and with a marvellously human lead performance by Roberto de Candia, the production (presented at the Teatro Regio di Parma as part of this year’s edition of Festival Verdi) was a true standout, and I wasn’t alone in that reaction, as chats with members of a refreshingly friendly British tour group revealed. Spirei placed the action in a familiar present, and filled the scene with very familiar people. De Candia played Falstaff as a kind of slobbish everyman, notably lacking the cutesy quality so common to characterizations. Instead, he was a kind of bar pig whom no one wanted to spend much time around — women especially; Falstaff wasn’t cuddly and harmless, he was slovenly and horrible. Only through his spectacular humiliation did he becomes semi-tolerable. The production made it abundantly clear that a character like Falstaff must be brought low in order to be raised once more, not as the phoenix, but as more of a messy pigeon who pecks around rotting porticos, and has to be kept in line with brooms and hoses every now and again.

Portrait of Verdi by Giuseppe Boldini, 1866.

I thought of Sir John Falstaff when I went to Villa Verdi some days later, because, as with Spirei’s magnificent production, I was being allowed to glimpse a vivid humanity which lives beneath an image. The house is located just outside the town of Busseto, roughly 40-odd kilometres north of Parma. Verdi supervised its construction, and, together with lady love (and soprano) Giuseppina Streponi, moved in in 1851. The house contains a number of mementos, as one might expect, all carefully and lovingly displayed.

Observing the bed in which Verdi died in 1901 (which had been shipped from the Grand Hotel in Milan) and various personal effects (including letters, knick-knacks, and the top hat and scarf he wears in Boldini’s famous portrait), a portrait of a good man dedicated to music and the people he loved emerges. It sounds hokey, but somehow, it wasn’t — but it was odd to walk around the living quarters of someone whose music was the soundtrack of large swaths of my life, to say nothing of my mother’s; it was ordinary and yet not, simple and yet grand, intimate and epic, all at once. Two pianos on which Verdi composed his works (early and later) were there, a clear case covering their keys. I stared at those pianos, longing to touch them. (No photos are allowed inside the house, alas.) I couldn’t rip my eyes off the second instrument on which he had composed Aida; this epic of the opera world, this contentious, difficult piece, with clashing ideologies and a gorgeously intimate subtext about loving the wrong person in the wrong time, “Celeste Aida” and the so-called “Triumphal March” — all that was done on the simple, upright piano sitting before me.

Gelling those reactions with the personal effects (to say nothing of the little section on Wagner) was surreal but also beautiful. I wish I could have had a few moments to stand in that room and take it all in, quietly, thoughtfully; it was one of the rare times during my travels in Italy that I actually wanted to be alone.

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The exterior of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

A more fulsome piece about my visit to Villa Verdi and the town of Busseto is set to appear in a future edition of  Opera Canada magazine, but at this website, expect a piece (soon) about a very unique version of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) presented in Reggio Emilia, which featured members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Italian entertainer Elio. Mozart’s opera has been on my mind a lot lately, because it is, as Komische Oper head honcho Barry Kosky rightly has noted, a work infused with a deep loneliness, and that quality is one which haunted me throughout Italy. Perhaps it was the absence of my mother, the social isolation that comes with being an independent woman of certain means, an overall disappointment… whatever the case: I am happy to have seen and experienced the things I did in Italy — and it will take a lot to get me to return.

Spirei Stages Falstaff In Parma

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Every time I hear about an opera based on a play, my antenna goes up.

I was a theatre writer before I was an opera writer, and a theatre performer and aficionado before all of that. In my youth I spent countless hours pouring over journals, books, and audio recordings of works by (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) Pinter, Beckett, Miller, Pirandello, Artaud, O’Casey, Orton, Moliere, and of course, Shakespeare. When my mother would take me to operas based on plays, I would always wince, thinking, “surely this won’t be as good as the original.” Ah, youth.

Living in Dublin and London allowed for many fantastic nights of theatre, with some of my favorite moments unfolding at (or being connected with) the Almeida Theatre in Islington, north London. When Jonathan Kent, whose work I had long admired, moved into opera, I was immediately intrigued. The flow between the worlds of theatre and opera has always been a natural one, of course, but owing to youthful arrogance (and more than a bit of romance around the world of theatre), I couldn’t see or appreciate it clearly. I still love theatre but whenever I go now, I find myself missing the music.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff and Sonia Prina as Mrs. Quickly (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Opera is, of course, a fluid art form rich in drama and rife with possibilities for presentation, something various head honchos in opera know and riff on, to frequently wondrous effect. (See: Barry Kosky’s work, especially with Komische Oper Berlin; the work of Pierre Audi and Robert Carsen;  the recent 017 Festival, courtesy Opera Phildelphia, for just a few examples.) Making opera theatrically gripping isn’t always easy, however much creativity, talent, and goodwill is extant.

When it comes to staging the work of Giuseppe Verdi, who adored the work of Shakespeare, things can get even more sticky. A director is faced with certain choices: do the stodgy Shakespeare thing, involving various shades of grey and frilly collars? Or do super-high-concept, involving surreal set pieces and bizarre effects? Listening to the music and text, together, as one unit, is of course, the director’s job. Italian director Jacopo Spirei excels in integrating drama, visuals, theatricality and music into one satisfying whole. He gets opera, he gets theatre, he gets why you might be resistant to combining them  — and he thinks you should come anyway.

I first spoke with Jacopo earlier this year when he directed Don Giovanni at the San Francisco Opera, in a remount of a work originally done by Gabriel Lavia in 2011. He’s just opened his entirely-own production of Falstaff at the Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy. Having gotten his start working with British director Graham Vick (who has a production of Stiffelio at this year’s Festival Verdi involving the audience standing and moving), I thought Spirei’s thoughts around the theatre-meets-opera issue would be very valuable.

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and involves the jocular title character, Sir John Falstaff, in various misadventures with a variety of ladies and angry husbands. Basically, Sir John’s giant ego gets him in trouble. Frequently played as a jolly big man with a beard and a rolling laugh, this famous literary character is often presented as the stuff of stage comedy, a figure we laugh with and laugh at, a bon vivant whose lust for life knows no bounds. This is fun, but I wondered if Jacopo saw something more; the photos of the production (which I will be seeing the end of this month) seem to suggest so, with a dirty Union Jack flag being used at various points, to say nothing of baritone Roberto de Candia’s dishevelled appearance and modern dress. What was Jacopo thinking as he directed this in one of Italy’s most notoriously fussy houses for opera? Find out.

How is directing an opera based on Shakespeare different?

We could say that Verdi and Shakespeare is a very happy match; whenever the two have met great art has been produced.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Who is Sir John Falstaff? What does he have to say to us in 2017?

It’s easier to say what Falstaff is not: he’s not a moral creature, he’s not young, he’s not thin, but he has been in the past all of these things. Falstaff is a man who has known glory, wealth, poverty, defeat and survived through it all with a smile and a philosophy. He tells us how morals and honor are just words created but mankind. He’s a man who survives, who values a good glass of wine more than many words; at the same time he’s a man who represents old values in a changing society, so he’s a character that, like every human being, lives in a constant contradiction. He does not understand the modern world but also wants to participate in it, does not want to let go, wants to show that he still “has it.” I can’t think of anything more actual than that — we live in a “like” obsessed society where youth and beauty is the only value. It’s not easy being old today!!!

There is a tendency with many productions of Falstaff to emphasize the comic aspects; your production seems more serious and thoughtful. Why this approach?

The opera is funny, but not comic. It’s an opera about different stages of life, and has a strong dose of cynicism; it’s a comedy with teeth! I have approached the opera from the text, like Verdi did, so I’ve developed what’s on the page, I have researched with the cast and what we’ve discovered is what we are presenting to the audience today.

The cast of ‘Falstaff’ (Photo Roberto Ricci)

The design sense of this production is very unique: contemporary, somewhat expressionist, familiar. What were your visual influences? What was your process with designer Nikolaus Webern?

With Nikolaus we always start from the text and we discuss a lot before even starting to design. One big element  that inspired us is the weight of the protagonist that creates an imbalance in the perfect lives of Windsor’s bourgeois world, so we have worked on this loss of balance in life.

A great visual influence for me came from all the years working at Glyndebourne, so the village, the house, the pub — they’re somewhat related to those years where I was assisting Graham Vick and reviving his shows in this magical festival. You can see in the show the village of Lewes, the house of the owners of the festival and in fact. almost every single pub in the neighbourhood.

Giorgio Caoduro (Ford) in a scene from ‘Falstaff’ (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

How much did Brexit influence your direction with this work?

Funny you ask — whenever I presented the production to the cast and the theatre I said, “Falstaff at the time of Brexit.” In a way there is a relationship to what’s happening to England now, but I’ve treated it more as an example than anything else. I believe we have a lot to learn from what England is going through politically and socially. I don’t and never believed that division is the answer. In a bizarre way England is behaving like Falstaff, still thinking an Empire is possible and not accepting reality and how the world has changed. Brexit has been a very divisive subject within England and Great Britain in general.

What’s it like to direct at Festival Verdi in Parma, a city known for its strong opera opinions?

It’s an honor to be directing at this prestigious festival next to names like Vick and (Hugo) De Ana (directing Jerusalem at the Festival Verdi this year); I was thrilled at the idea of working in Verdi’s land for an audience that loves and deeply knows Verdi. I enjoyed the process, never fearing any good or bad reaction from the audience. As long as you are loyal to your vision, there’s nothing to fear.

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