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Essay: The C-Word Is Context (Part 2)

On a recent afternoon, I looked out at the pond outside my office window and noted a pair of geese staring at the sky in confusion. It was 12°C yesterday, their tiny flapping wings suggested, now it’s snowing! This isn’t  normal! The idea – the experience – of “normal” is gone. Whether it was real or a veneer hiding far uglier things, “normal” or our idea of it, has been blown apart. What we did in some version of then, and who we are in an ever-evolving sense of now, don’t mix or even intermingle, despite the ephemeral details  indicating otherwise. Thus does the practice of letting go – of the old, the familiar, the “normal” – ascend in conversation yet be ignored in practice; old markers of an old life, like jangling charms on a bracelet, make the right sounds, but play the melody roughly, too slow, out of tune. Nothing can be as it was, but still, we long for the return of that which we knew, or thought we knew, and thought we wanted to continue forever, and so we wait, like Puccini’s Butterfly, all night, all day, and then all night again, time blurring into self, waiting, hoping, looking for signs to materialize, in some sentimental, macaroon-coloured reverie of hope, lowering masks and taking a deep breath, eyes darting around in the darkness. It was like this and now it’s like this – not normal!

My writing focuses on the intersection of culture, media, and history, with a firm eye on current affairs, which is related to the influence of my other life, as a Professor of Media Studies. As journalists know, what is “current” one day is old the next, or more likely within hours. Constantly trying to keep up with the “new” in news renders one’s concentrated efforts rapidly obsolete, one’s words tired and old, “like too little butter scraped over too much bread,” to quote Tolkien’s world-weary Bilbo. Meaningful conversation is in short supply in such a world, and is now mediated and distributed through digital means. Cues are lost, viscerality is lost; far more valued is short, hot reaction, stoked to keep the engines of commerce turning. Horror is churned out into mere content; images of suffering are rendered war porn pleasing hungry advertisers. There is little I feel qualified to say about this, other than to continue reading, thinking, conversing, in as respectful and curious a manner as possible. This series aims to examine the ways in which individuals and organizations move, or try to move, past the hot reaction and loaded language that turns the wheels of social media and related ad technology; I have no idea if it will have any effect, and have given up hope of such impact, but I write it anyway, mainly because I don’t see this kind of analysis happening elsewhere. There’s a reason for that lack: money. Finance, or its lack, is also the root cause of misunderstandings, snap judgements, and shallow readings of events which deserve more thoughtful analyses within the classical sphere.

In analyzing the varied and deeply-rooted causes of recent Russian artist/artwork cancellation, there has been a growing awareness of the role of flexibility: who can bend, when, how much, to what cost, literal and otherwise. The ideas of “normal” held by audiences and administrations, and the ways in which the classical industry has continued to cling to those notions, veneering themselves in some semblance of it, are revealing, and mostly unflattering. Anxieties over cost, in Dollars and Euros and Pounds, is very real in the post-pandemic (or whatever phase we are currently in) landscape of the performing arts; ignoring it or pretending it is not a motivating factor in current cultural decisions is to ignore perhaps the single most vital element of the industry. The North American performing arts landscape has been immensely altered by the experience of pandemic; an LA Times report (March 24, 2022) lists ten artists who have permanently left the theatre scene in the United States, but judging from social media activity and reactions, one may safely assume there are far more departures from the industry across the continent, with individuals leaving an industry en masse, simply because they cannot energetically (financially, socially, mentally) justify staying. Organizations have, simply put, not been flexible in accommodating needed changes, particularly when it comes to freelancers (a point made with repeated brutal clarity by Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones at his blog). The single biggest factors asking for this flexibility (money and education, and how the two relate) don’t seem to be given any meaningful degree of public scrutiny in any media outlet – the need for healthcare; the need for paid ensembles; the need for early arts education across all sectors; the need for active and consistent outreach; the (great) need for far larger arts budgets; the centrality of culture to community (especially to healing the broken sense of community so exacerbated by corona isolation); the inherent comprehension that culture can and should be a cornerstone of such community and of asking vital questions within those communities – apparently the examination of such elements doesn’t drive clicks, so (I know this from experience) those stories are not being assigned in newsrooms. Editors have to justify their chases and thus their budgets; public institutions in particular (and this applies as much to arts organizations as news outlets) have been pressured, through years of heinous budget cuts, to feel they must compete with commercial interests and outlets. The two should be able to co-exist, with understandings of the roles and functions each fulfills, and yet the worst impulses and influences of one (namely ROI) have largely co-opted the base mandates of the other; thus the chance for real change, and thus real flexibility, dies. The whole tenor of contemporary conversation – around current events as much as arts and culture – been largely (if not wholly) reduced to clicks, likes, reaction, firing flames for a guarded, angry intransigence that doesn’t like looking beyond headlines, let alone making time for such examination.

Yet the old “normal” no longer exists, and it seems clear many in the classical industry are aware of this. To paraphrase Hamlet, organizations would rather bear those ills they have, than “to fly to others we know not of.” No one knows what the “new” will bring, but there are small signs that point to those who may have the bravery, and the will, to offer another path. People don’t want to race back to auditoriums; the risks are still real. What was once “normal” within the sphere of live performance experience (especially certain behaviours) is no longer acceptable; what was once taken for granted can no longer be treated as such. That sense of needing to create a new normal is lately reflected, at least sometimes, in programming choices and the will which has clearly been exercised to make them; it has been encouraging to see various organizations acknowledging this need and manifesting it, without worrying too much about sexy clicks. At the very start of the war in late February, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin made a quick if important change to their weekend programme. Contrary to reports in Russia media, Chief Conductor and Music Director Vladimir Jurowski did not (as he had been accused of) “cancel” Tchaikovsky from the entire existing program; he replaced Marche slave (written in 1876 as a paean to Russia’s intercession in the Serbian-Ottoman war) with two works by Ukrainian composer Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-1870), the Ukrainian anthem (1863), and Symphonic Overture No. 1 in D major. The latter work, with its folk-like lines, created an immensely thoughtful frisson alongside the world premiere of Dmitri Smirnov’s “Concerto piccolo” for cello and orchestra, “History of Russia in 4 anthems” (2001), a sarcastic and brilliant deconstruction of Russian machismo within the paradigm of shifting musical-political identities. Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D minor (1874) followed, its nods to Ukrainian folk melody so apparent in its final movement, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (1888) to close; its militaristic lines sounded a snide bravado most poignantly in a final movement that spoke as equally to specific tragedy as to the broader circumstances which birthed it. None of this was on any social media channels – such thoughtfulness does not play well within the strictures dictated by such platforms, nor publishers – though it was thankfully broadcast (and accessible for a month thereafter) on the public radio channel Deutschlandfunk Kultur.

Other orchestras have followed suit. The Berlin Philharmonic was featured on both their own dedicated platform (its Digital Concert Hall) and that of German national broadcaster RBB for a benefit concert held recently at Schloss Bellevue. The concert was one of many recent (and rapidly-organized) charity initiatives done in partnership with ARD, an integrated organizations comprised of Germany’s public-service broadcasters. The Berlin Phil’s programme featured two works by Valentyn Sllvestrov (b. 1937), who fled his native Kyiv earlier this month, thanks to the help of Ukrainian conductor Vitaly Alekseenok and Russian pianist Yuri Lyubimov. Silvestrov’s music is also featured in a beautiful new release by violinist Daniel Hope with Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, Music For Ukraine (Deutsche Grammophon) which, along with works by Silvestrov, includes music by Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020) and Jan Freidlin (b. 1944). All proceeds from the album’s sales will go to Aktion Deutschland Hilft, a non-profit organization working to deliver emergency aid to those affected by the war. If Silvestrov’s music known only to those with specialized knowledge of the contemporary compositional scene in Europe prior to February 24th, it is now being hoisted into something approaching mainstream awareness. Lithuanian Opera and The Metropolitan Opera both performed Silvestrov works as part of hastily-organized charity initiatives, though his Symphony No. 4 was presented by the London Philharmonic Orchestra last month as part of a regular season concert, albeit in an altered programme that impressively demonstrated the needed flexibility in accordance with the times. Some might posit that the work of the so-called “most famous living Ukrainian composer” has become something of a go-to for organizations looking to telegraph concern for current events; perhaps one ought not to question sincerity in such cases, these are worthy causes after all, and attract wide audiences and much-needed funds. But the composer himself expressed frustration at the race to embrace his work at this particular juncture, telling Professor of Musicology Peter Schmerz “that this misfortune needed to happen for them to begin playing my music. […] Does music not have any value in and of itself without any kind of war?” (New York Times, March 30, 2022)

It is a question worth pondering, especially as questions around flexibility and, related to that, responsibility swirl in the classical community. Will audiences get the opportunity to hear the works of Silvestrov, Skoryk, and Verbytsky as part of regular programming? And will organizations place them beside Russian works, or have them be played by Russian artists? Should they? Will some kind of statement be required? Conductor Ariane Matiakh, who has described herself as “a Frenchwoman with Ukrainian roots which are bleeding at the moment”, told Radio France earlier this month that she “condemn(s) the artists who have always seemed close to power” in Russia but, like others in her profession, made a distinction between the artists cozy with power, and those others who are “not able to take a stand.” Similarly, The Association of British Orchestras (ABO) released a statement in early March in which they stated that “no Russian artist should be compelled to make such a public statement, when the consequence of doing so would be that the lives, liberty and livelihoods of themselves and members of their family in Russia are endangered. We will also look after those of our staff and musicians who are personally impacted by the invasion of Ukraine.” Here the question is one of perception, of proportional concern, of turning away from the urge toward simplistic false equivalency, the problematic nature of which I outlined in Part 1 of this series). To put it plainly: there is no equivalency between artists suffering in Russia and those (artists or not) suffering in Ukraine. It’s upsetting to see such moral trafficking made quotidian, within such insulting and reductive equivalencies, when the context exists for a far deeper and more compassionate response; concern-trolling and moral policing plug up what should be open if extremely difficult discussions that must be had, in the classical world and elsewhere. It is equally vital to understand the ways in which the classical industry has, or is, or could be responding, most specifically within the context of post-pandemic recovery, with a firm awareness of the economics, inside the industry, and outside of it, via the media who cover it with less and less depth of detail and comprehension. Controversy, or the mere whiff of it, plays well to the machinery of algorithms and ad technology; a headline that uses triggering keywords or phrases (“cancel culture”, “boycott”, “ban”, “freedom”) is likely to please publishers (and advertisers) far more than one that might better represent its true content (or indeed, the actual, far more complex story). Context is often the thing left behind under duress of analytical realities (time on page, clicks, other forms of engagement metrics) but such contemporary publishing realities leave a gaping hole in precisely the spot where most cultural workers (artists, writers, composers, academics) like to think they live: the world of thinking. For every cancellation, there is another story (or more); for every decision veneered by brand management, there is another one deserving of attention. In a searingly honest op-ed (published 1 April 2022), Opera Wire Managing Editor Polina Lyapustina wrestles with her own background, the notion of supposed “cancellation” and the ways in which the recent flexibility shown by artists (Jurowski included) has proven important: “The Great Russian culture was supposed to educate (its own people in particular). Stop using it to mask problems, and excuse crimes. Stop.”

If one approaches the study of a score and only looks at its most superficial elements – sans history, sans connection to other works, sans past recordings or artists’ performances – one misses a great deal; perhaps a similarly careful and contextualized media literacy needs to be at play, particularly within the classical music realm. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve suggested that a basic education in the realities of contemporary publishing (especially within the digital realm) is required for those in the classical world – just as writers in this realm need to be aware of the particulars of music, the awareness and knowledge should be reciprocal – but this may be my most direct appeal. Never has context been more important to so many, and so many with or needing money especially. Making a snap judgement, and creating a confirmation bias around that judgement, of there existing an overarching “cancellation” of Russian culture based on cherry-picked headlines (ones which are algorithmically pushed up to prominence in Google searches) ignore immense and very important contextual roots: limited repertoire because of funding; management timidity; administrative ignorance of repertoire; audience skittishness; audience ignorance (remember, they are as culpable to those hot-reaction headlines as anyone); shifting infection numbers; optics to please a moneyed and influential donor base; ever-widening educational gaps; marketing to attract a longed-for young audience (who are largely victims of that educational gap, natch). To not acknowledge these factors and investigate them further, but instead choose a reductive understanding that plays into a mythologized (and highly politicized) clash of civilizations seems reductive when placed against the thoughtful approach which the classical industry tends to pride itself on cultivating. One cannot look at such incidents in isolation but as part of a much wider, and rapidly shifting ecosystem with innate ties to money, or lack thereof. The fashionable “reimagining” terminology has only been applied in some cases, and with utter timidity, and not seen or experienced at this moment with any level of reliable consistency that would indicate long-term commitment to change.

Yet, as with the RSB decision in February, motions toward meaningful dialogues exist, however minutely. Those motions are dependent on leadership demonstrating the kind of mature resolve which the situation requires – a resolve to open dialogues (however uncomfortable), to dare returned tickets (certainly a great risk, given the times), to court angry social media reaction (which perhaps means taking a step or two back from it – yes really; no, I’m not naive). The flexibility with which certain programming changes have been (and continue to be made) in incremental ways suggests an innate awareness of the importance of this flexibility in leading an embrace of a new normal, and the willpower to implement it. The ABO released a link to a spreadsheet listing six pieces by Ukrainian composers, their respective orchestrations, and their respective publishers, as well as a far more comprehensive link to Lviv National Opera featuring a far larger range of Ukrainian composers, and related works, performances, and useful information. Facebook groups, similarly, have been active in providing links and downloads to Ukrainian works. Some organizations are actualizing their intentions beyond charity initiatives. Writing at American Orchestras’ website recently, London Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director Elena Dubinets referenced the need for programmatic flexibility and active engagement with new and/or unfamiliar repertoire. In acknowledging her personal history (Dubinets’ husband is Ukrainian, she is a self-described “Jew from Moscow”), Dubinets reflected on how cultural connections (in both macro and micro senses) can (or should) play out within artistic realms. The complicated, all-umbrella term “Russian” music was given particular attention, with Dubinets repeatedly recognizing the contributions of Ukrainian artists to past and present classical life, and observing that the LPO’s inclusion of Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 4 in its programme last month was a symbol that “sooner rather than later, Ukrainian music will become an essential part of the symphonic repertoire.” Let’s hope these are not hollow words and empty gestures; as she notes, “Ukrainian music is less known than it ought to be”, due in part to intransigence, nervousness, and pushback by organizations who are, more than ever, risk-averse to programming new and unknown works.

This is where the Instagrammification of classical music niggles; “fun” content is favoured over meaningful items that might dare less engagement. I have sat through numerous “day in the life of” Instagram Stories released by various houses and orchestras over the course of the past four weeks; there’s nothing inherently wrong with such things, but the timing, and the content (that hideous word) is wretched. Oh, I kept thinking looking out the window at the confused geese, for an ounce of something intelligent and good, something that does not so obviously play to shallow algorithms. It’s not that I believe the classical industry is somehow “better” than entertainment outlets that utilize such strategies, but I do believe it is different, and thus it has an entirely different set of demands and realities. The willingness to embrace meaningful change might, particularly at this moment, convey a real form of real commitment to dialogue and respect (the very words Bayerische Staatsoper loftily hashtagged in their own posts at the start of the war in late February), yet the lack of commitment to such realization renders these motions as little more than optically-pleasing marketing, of lulling audiences into some perceived form of “safe” that does naught but museumify what should be a living, breathing, vital entity, with shiny, Instastory wrapping.  Arts organisations need to ask who they are serving , and more pointedly, to what end. The 2022-2023 seasons of many orchestras and opera houses have been announced, and so far, there is little if any embrace of risk, or display of meaningful change. If we are to ‘carry on’ in whatever fashion we can now, two years into Covid and amidst war, then let’s not “carry on” as per usual; it behoves every leader at every level to make a concerted effort which entails not merely the replication of an old normal but the embrace (and active cultivation) of new ones. This won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, because there can’t be, and yes, it is difficult, and indeed very risky, especially in an era where (as I also wrote) audiences are proving very slow to return, where every ticket return and disgruntled subscriber is magnified one-hundred-fold. Better not to risk even one angry letter or one pair of returned tickets, all these season brochures whisper (or sometimes shout), better to stick to the tried and the true. Carefully telegraphing We Really Care™ to audiences has priority; real change, or committing to it, is much further down the list.

I am willing to court accusations of cynicism – that would hardly be new – but I am not willing to let context and its inherent need at this juncture evaporate, not when arts and media, together, and the people who work in both, can do more. Alas, if only they were allowed to. Organizations who believe they are doing precisely what they think audiences want by doing the safe thing are only proving how little they actually know about those audiences, and how little they care about the tenor of the times; they are also unwittingly telling me how adverse they are not only to risk but, ultimately, to any form of meaningful change which the practice of their art might inspire. Those who bat around ugly phrases and espouse the beliefs inherent to them (i.e. “cancel culture”) reveal how little commitment exists to needed change, how little commitment exists toward the cultivation of context, how much attachment there is to an old idea of “normal.” That “normal”, and our perceptions of it – our attachment to it,  as audiences, as artists, as administrators, as writers, as thinkers, as lovers of culture – must be set alight. At their final stop on a recent European tour, the RSB performed a piece by Valentyn Silvestrov, “Abschiedsserenade” (2003), a hymn to endings, a prayer for beginnings. The two-movement work, written just after the passing of Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits (1945-2002), was not part of the orchestra’s formal Budapest programme but was added on and performed with gentle grace and delicacy. With its long lines and lingering tones, the work reminds one of the cyclical nature we so often take for granted. Music in 2022 can, must, be more, for everyone; to quote poet E. E. Cummings, “where everything’s nothing —arise,my soul;and sing”.

Harry Bicket, conductor, The English Concert, maestro, Baroque, classical, The English Concert

Harry Bicket On Touring, Being Bullish, & Believing In Live Performance

Baroque music might be the classical form that comes with greatest number of clichés. It is arch, it is highly formal, it possesses a tight structure which erases any notion or expression of emotion; it is repetitive, it is fussy; once you have heard a bit, you have most certainly heard all – these are the bit of baggage I carried myself whenever I would sit down at the piano and play the works of Bach, Telemann, and Handel. I knew the notes well enough, and I didn’t care; I understood the repetitions, but they were dull. Along with grey hair and wrinkles, adulthood brings maturity (one hopes), patience (sometimes), and a deeper appreciation of form and content, and the connections therein. So arrives a greater energy put toward understanding the myriad of emotional expression wrought by artful engineering; through time da capo comes to mean something more than the snazzy hat from youth now gathering dust in the hall closet. Those olives that were once so acrid are now heavenly; those anchovies once so bossy on the palate now meltingly luscious – those repetitions once so dull are now so… real, so immediate, so achingly, recognizably human – messy, even, just the way humanity, and all manner of human relating, happens to be.

That immediacy, so inextricably and intimately linked with baroque itself, is something conductor Harry Bicket knows well, as his recording and performance history so thoroughly demonstrate. Bicket started out as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, and went on to be an organist at Westminster Abbey, from there going on to play freelance harpsichord through the 1980s with Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner – and Trevor Pinnock, who, significantly, co-founded The English Concert in the early 1970s. In 1990 Bicket led  Handel’s Ariodante at English National Opera – it was his was his first outing conducting an opera – and it was the success of that production (by David Alden) which led to an invitation to lead Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne with director Peter Sellars. From there, productions with Bayerische Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera soon followed, opening the doors to something of a baroque opera revival. Maestro has appeared at The Royal Opera Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company, to name just a few, and has also led concerts as guest conductor with The Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic,  the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and led masterclasses at The Juilliard School. Numerous appearances with Santa Fe Opera (starting with his first, Agripina, in 2004) led to his being named the company’s Chief Conductor in 2013, and in 2018, the Music Director. He led two of the company’s 2021 productions (The Marriage of Figaro and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and is set to lead a new production of Carmen for Santa Fe’s 2022 season.

Bicket became Artistic Director of The English Concert in 2007, and has left an indelible mark on what is considered by many to be one of the finest baroque chamber orchestras in the world. The group, who play on period instruments, have conducted lauded international tours and played numerous concerts at their London base, in an assortment of venues, including Wigmore and Cadogan Halls and the Southbank Centre. The group’s recording of Handel’s Rodelinda, released earlier this year (Linn Records), is miraculous in every respect. Its stellar cast includes piercingly beautiful performances by soprano Lucy Crowe in the title role and countertenor Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. Handel’s opera, premiered in London in 1725, is one of his most popular, if also deeply touching, with its themes that explore ideas of power, loss, grief, and the nature of fidelity. The production was originally scheduled for presentation at Carnegie Hall, but pandemic realities rendered that plan impossible; instead, a recording was done at St John’s Smith Square, London in September 2020, with musicians and singers observing formal distancing protocols. Despite, or perhaps owing to such mandated distancing, the work has a rich aural cohesion of instruments and voices, a quality one might associate more with late-nineteenth-century German opera than with baroque opera, although the distancing contributes what Fiona Maddocks noted (in her review at The Guardian) as “a sense of risk to music already, in its energy and complexity, on the edge.

Bicket knows that edge very well, and his attention to detail is palpable; he led a hailed production of the opera at The Met in 2004 (the opera’s first-ever production of the work in the history of the company), and returned for a revival in 2012. In March 2022 he returns to the pit at The Met once more, leading Elza van den Heezer and Iestyn Davies. He told San Francisco Classical Voice‘s Michael Zwiebach in early November that his work with the chamber-sized The English Concert, which he leads from the harpsichord, forces such attention to detail:

[…] all this music, obviously, is based on text, and the music exists because of the amazing libretto and also the characteristics of the Italian language. You know, every double consonant, every diphthong, every open vowel, every closed vowel: How do we find a color in the orchestra to match that. Because if we don’t do that, we are the equivalent of a singer that goes on stage and sings “lalalalala.” So I say to the orchestra, “look this word begins with a hard ‘S’ not a soft ‘S’ so our bowstroke has to be a sibilant ‘S’.” Now we have a common language so we can do that quite easily.

Earlier this month Bicket and The English Concert went on a much-awaited mini-tour of California, presenting a series of in-concert performances of another Handel opera, Alcina, with stops in Los Angeles and Berkeley; the stellar cast included Karina Gauvin, Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth DeShong, Paula Murrihy, Alek Shrader, and Wojtek Gierlach. Bicket and I spoke between those performances, about that needed detail, travel realities amidst pandemic, the recently-announced 2022 season at Santa Fe Opera and why he loves its house, how atmosphere informs experience, and why he feels it’s vital to fight for the continuance of live performance in an atmosphere of digital streaming.

Harry Bicket, conductor, The English Concert, maestro, Baroque, classical, The English Concert

Photo: Richard Haughton

How is California treating you?

Good! We had our first performance two nights ago when we were very jet-lagged; it was an effort to get through the third act of the programme – it was 5am for us! – but we did well.

Is this your first time being on the continent since the pandemic?

Yes, we only got in, really by the skin of our teeth. Any other organization might’ve not bothered going it, but we were determined to make it work. All the orchestra had to get visas, these NIEs they’re called, National Interest Exceptions, which are notoriously hard to get; you have to go to the (American) embassy, be interviewed, each member has to be able to prove they can come, then they take your passport away and don’t tell you if you’ve got your visa or not.

Is that paperwork only because of the pandemic?

Yes, although starting next week you can get on a flight to the United States without any of this paperwork – I mean, as a musician, you always need a visa, but at the moment, because (the border) is still technically shut down and they are not allowing Europeans in, and if you do come in you have to prove your work is essential, which is quite hard to do and very labour intensive. We’d already booked flights and hotels and everything, so we’d have taken a huge hit had we not made it, but it worked.

So traveling to the U.S. was a real leap of faith then… 

It was! This was the third time we’ve tried to do this in Los Angeles, it’s been three years in a row trying now, the first two years were cancelled because of both lockdowns and we thought, “We can’t not do it now!”

What’s the atmosphere been like?

We had a very joyful time the other night, but obviously ticket sales are down and they’re not going to come back immediately. I mean with Santa Fe this summer, people were crazy ordering, but that is more of an outdoor space, so perhaps people feel more comfortable going there, but it’s depressing to think if people don’t want to come back to live theatre and music overall.

Have you found this pandemic has revealed an intercontinental chasm in terms of those audiences?

I think in Europe it varies from country to country in terms of the strictness (of safety protocols and related enforcement) – L.A. is pretty hardcore on those rules; you can’t go to restaurants without proving you’re double vaccinated. We’re being tested the whole time we’re here. People wear masks walking down the street – and in L.A. the streets are the size of five blocks anywhere else, but people wandering around here, not near anyone else, are doing it with masks. You see it. It’s mandated. And so it feels very locked down, in a way. The audience has to show proof of vaccination also, but I think it’s too early to tell, to be honest, how long things may last, and how people will react once things are just open. I mean, my sense in Europe is that we’re over it. I think now that the majority of people are vaccinated, and I think everyone accepts masks are here to stay and for certain rules and distancing, to a certain extent, to keep going, but it’s more a question there of, “how do we live with it?” rather than, “when will it be over?” – because it won’t really be over.

In your line of work you must hear of the attitude to baroque music – that it is emotionless, clinical, cold – but I don’t feel that listening to your Rodelinda at all.

I understand what you’re saying about those attitudes, though!

A lot of those clichés get perpetuated – in media of various forms, and even by some musicians!

I wasn’t an early music person years back; I was a pianist. I listened to Rachmaninoff and a lot of contemporary music. It was only by chance I got into earlier stuff partly because I started playing harpsichord for groups in the 1980s and yes, I don’t know why I ever thought baroque was boring but I thought of it as rather crystalline, this sort of perfect thing, and then I started working with certain theatre directors who were staging Handel operas particularly, and that was such an eye-opener, the depth of passion and also how very human that work is. We’re so used to opera being very telescoped, like Mimi and Rudolfo meet and three minutes later they’re singing a love duet and we accept that: “That’s opera, isn’t it?” But I always sat there and thought, “Oh come now, that’s absurd, really!”

In a Handel opera, for all the convoluted plots – well, it’s not really about those plots at all. After every recit you’re hearing someone for ten minutes, exposing their inner life, their inner thoughts, in real time, with two sentences – which is actually a very human thing. I spend a lot longer than ten minutes if there’s a grief in my life of an issue, so it does require a certain amount of recalibration in terms of the way we listen to something. Great are the artists who can really invest the repetition of these words in a way that makes clear the same words but constantly gives them a new meaning – like a person holding up a prism; it’s the same prism, but your turning it to the right, then the left, the light moves through it in a slightly different way. It’s a prism, it’s the way we use words. You can say ‘I love you’ as words, but how many different ways can we say those three syllables? That’s what Handel, for me, really explores. And this apparent simplicity, and some would say rigidity, of form becomes something really powerful.

Structurally it reveals so much, but often it feels like some people can get hung up on those repetitions; my mum used to say, “The music is all the same from this point on” – but it isn’t…

.. and that applies just as much to non-opera music! I’ve had discussions with orchestra members performing Mozart and Haydn symphonies and they’ll say, “Oh God, do we have to do the repeat? It’s just the same music…!” but you look at later repertoire where the composer writes out the repeats, and they don’t have a problem with that. You put a double bar there and they go, “Oh, let’s just go on, why are we doing it at all?”

And for opera especially, there is that theatrically rich territory related to that element…

That’s right…

… so it’s a prism as you say, but sometimes one requiring strength training for arms and shoulders to hold it up, and especially to hold it up in a way that allows the seeing of new things. How much do you think working those arms and shoulders is necessary when coming to something new? There is a debate now about preparing for classical events beforehand – what’s your take?

In terms of telling the story, I don’t… well, I mean, sometimes I don’t think a lot of these pieces are about the actual stories, they’re stories which were well known in the 18th century, it’s not like people came to Alcina going, “Hmm, I wonder what happens?” Everyone knew the story of Orlando Furioso; what the composer was doing was taking a snapshot of the middle of that book and exploring these characters, so to me it’s all about character, I mean plot is really secondary.

In terms of doing the homework before you go, of being a good listener, and/or getting the most out of enjoying a performance, I mean, different people have different ways of approaching it; a lot of people say, “Oh we always listen, we start couple weeks before going to this or that, it’s how, so we know what we’re coming to and understand it all” – and I think that’s fine. But equally, personally, I love going to pieces that I’ve never seen or heard before and not really doing that sort of study – not because I’m lazy, but I’d rather do it afterwards, so if I see something, if it can’t interest me on a surface level, more often than not I’m intrigued and maybe I’ll go back and see it again, or not.

Santa Fe Opera, theatre, auditorium, opera, outdoors, New Mexico, classical music, performance, culture, United States

Santa Fe Opera with the Jemez Mountains in the background. Photo: Robert Godwin

Looking into it later depends on the circumstances in which one experiences it in the first place, though. In Santa Fe the venue is outdoors; how does that affect music-making?

In acoustical terms it’s a very good – it doesn’t feel like an open-air theatre. It’s really a remarkable pit and stage area which allows the sound to be as good as any indoor theatre. I think the audience knows what this mysterious alchemy is if they’ve been before. And I think if you go there and you sit under the stars and watch the sunset go down behind the mountains – and often directors have the back of the set open during the sunset so you look through the set so the mountains become part of the set –I think then, if you hear some profound, beautiful music in amidst all that, it’s like you just drank three bottles of wine. It’s so rich and so powerful. And I would say it’s more powerful for some than going to a city centre opera house, battling the traffic and all that. Working (in Santa Fe) is the same thing; every morning, you drive up the hill with yet another beautiful cloudless sky, and you see these incredible gardens and rehearsal spaces, which are outdoors as well. I find that people’s spirits are so open because there’s something about that landscape and way of working that makes people happy. Musicians, by and large, have difficult working conditions, I mean for some places, not all – not everybody has what’s (in Santa Fe), which is very much a place of hard work as well. It’s not summer camp; it’s an Eden where people expect you to work very hard and the level is extremely high, so it’s not a pool party.

But how much of those expectations have changed now because of the pandemic? I would imagine there’s an extra layer of pressure.

I was very bullish when we were talking about reopening there, and about how exactly we can reopen. There were many questions: can we have a chorus onstage? Will we all have to wear masks and be distanced? A lot of decisions had to be made in February-March even though we didn’t rehearse until June. The thinking was, “In June it might be better, or “In June it might be worse!” We had to make a lot of those decisions, but I was very keen to quash this thinking of, “Oh look, it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the chorus onstage, the audience is so grateful we have a season at all!” I said, “No, no, no, that’s not part of this story! We have to be good, I’ll not have people making allowances.” “Oh, but we could be creative! We could use the restrictions in a creative way!” – this attitude to just sort of cop out and say, “Let’s work with those rules, everyone will be fine with them” – well I wouldn’t be fine. I would not be fine.

But that move toward allowances, of relegating everything to digital without any demonstration of willpower with regard to live presentation’s return, has become been a frustratingly common norm for certain companies. It makes me question whether the people working there really understand the nature of what they supposedly want to produce.

Well, this magic of the live experience is not just a thing in Santa Fe, which is particularly a unique experience – you don’t get that everywhere! – because it’s not something strictly related to landscape or setting .. it’s this thing of listening to music, together, with fellow human beings who you don’t know, who maybe you don’t even say hi to, maybe you sit there on your own, but you are all there, communing, for the evening, and you then disperse to all parts of the world. And you were all just at a totally unique performance, an experience you will never be able to replicate. When you watch a stream or edited concert, you know when you press ‘play’ what it’s going to sound like, every time, guaranteed, absolutely – it will be the same. But there is no danger, there is no excitement.

The whole point of live theatre is that we, as human beings, can communicate with each other – artists, performers, musicians, and audiences do that too, just by being there, together: loving it, hating, being indifferent to it. It is really important as a society that we do this.

So if you don’t get that, well, then anything I say will not make a difference anyway, but it will for the people who do come and experience it and get something out of it, or not – not everyone does! But then, not everyone who goes to a restaurant likes the food either; what’s important is that we go and eat, and that we can still do it, together.

It’s the act itself that counts.

That’s right.

Now with your live tour now, you have an amazing cast…

Yes we sure do! In a way one of the nice things… well, if you can say that about pandemic, but the fact is, when things like this are done at such a high level in these conditions, a lot of people are saying, “I want to be a part of that!” So a lot of singers through this period have looked at their lives, having had almost two years off now, and said, “I want to do the work that I really want to do; I’m just not going to take every single thing and be crawling up that ladder the whole way through my career, but pick the things I’ll get some personal satisfaction from as well.”

But that satisfaction, those projects existing at all, is, in some places, rather miraculous. Alexander Neef said in our conversation last year that he thinks classical companies should be embracing risk more than ever right now, so to your point, perhaps musicians are picking and choosing, but there has to be the will to make those projects a reality in the first place.

I think we have to be more aggressive with that. At The English Concert, we have a fantastic manager who is also our principal viola – I think having a musician there in that position is a good thing, at least from my point of view. He knows the value of an orchestra of working, and of being part of an orchestra; it’s a group of people, together. And if that group is sitting at home, not working, well, you’re not really an orchestra, are you? It’s not like being a resting actor; an orchestra, by definition, plays together, and it’s really important we are working, together. For instance, this tour was meant to be bigger, we were meant to go to Bogota for ten days, then go back to the U.K. via New York; Bogota got cancelled, it was put on the red list until a few days ago. We took the choice to cancel that, and our manager said, “That’s fine, we’ll do a week of recording in New York then” and I thought, “Oh really?” because I knew this tour would be busy – but actually, I also thought, “Good, yes, let’s keep working, let’s keep doing this.” So let’s keep knocking on doors, sometimes kicking those doors down – and let’s keep doing it.

Top photo: Dario Acosta
Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Dorn, culture, classical

Jan Lisiecki: “Live Art Is Live”

Jan Lisiecki has had a busy summer. Performances at a number of celebrated summer festivals, including Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival (SHMF), the Rheingau Musik Festival, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and Musikfest Kreuth left the pianist little time to prepare for his release of a long-planned project, Frederic Chopin: Complete Nocturnes (Deutsche Grammophon) but in speaking recently from his home base in Calgary, Lisiecki is chatty and energetic, a keen conversationalist who clearly revels in the reciprocal exchange of artistic ideas.

It’s an approach that colors his latest release, one which, as he explains, had been in his mind to do for many years. Hardly his first foray into playing or recording the much-loved music of the Polish composer (he’s released recordings in 2013 and 2017, respectively), his approach to the nocturnes conveys a delicate musical sensibility and a keen artistic maturity which belie Lisiecki’s own relative youth (he is not yet 30 years of age) and, even amidst pandemic, kept him in a creatively aware state which greatly aided in the realized recording. Lisiecki’s fame as a sort of wunderkind of the keyboard through the last decade-plus served to intensify such fastidiousness. At the age of 18, he became the youngest ever recipient of both the Leonard Bernstein Award (established by SHMF and named after one of the festival’s founders) and Gramophone‘s prestigious Young Artist Award (other recipients include countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and soprano Natalya Romaniw). Having worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Claudio Abbado, Daniel Harding, Antonio Pappano, among many others) and orchestras (Staatskapelle Dresden, Bavarian Radio Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, to name a few), his playing has been described as “pristine, lyrical and intelligent” by The New York Times. This month sees him playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Marin Alsop and DR Symfoni Orkestret in Denmark, before a series of dates in the U.S., both solo recitals and appearances with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. In November Lisiecki tours Europe, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic under its new Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner.

Amidst his busy live calendar (which, like many artists, extends years into the future) Lisiecki had long planned for a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes. Recorded in Berlin in October 2020 and released in August 2021, the work shows a distinctively thoughtful approach to the famous, widely beloved pieces. Chopin wrote the series of works between 1827 and 1846, expanding on a form developed by Irish composer John Field (1782-1837). Unlike other piano forms (sonatas, for instance), nocturnes do not  possess a sort of programmatic narrative or formal structure, but mainly utilize a ternary form (ABA) which emphasizes a main theme and its related contrasts and embellishments. With a song-like right hand melody and the use of rhythmic, broken chords in the left hand, Chopin, in writing his own set, also utilized pedal effects and counterpoint in his composition to underline sonic tension and drama. There are a number of scholarly papers and debates around the tempos and role of rubato in the nocturnes, and the influence of such choices in relation to interpretative fidelity and style. In her 1988 book Performance Practises in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Applications (Indiana University Press, 1988), Sandra P. Rosenblum writes that “choice of tempo is a fundamental yet elusive aspect of performance practice. Tempo affects virtually every other aspect of interpretation: dynamics, touch, articulation, pedalling, realization of ornaments” and also observes that a pianist’s choice of tempo will certainly affect “what the listener perceives, hence it bears directly on the effectiveness of the interpretation.” Lisiecki has notably chosen to take a much slower tempo in his recording than many of his famous forebears, an aspect which has been questioned by some since the album’s release. If I may inject a personal view here, Lisiecki’s choice of tempi allow, to my own (admittedly non-conservatory-attending/music-degree-holding) self, a very thoughtful and lovely listening experience, one that skillfully combines intellect and imagination in ways that highlight the rhythmic nature of the writing (for both hands, equally) and the thought-to-word-like manifestation of clear creative articulation; such willful (nay, conscious) turning of the gears well reflect the sort of late-night contemplations to which the nocturnes directly refer. Don’t we all muse thusly in the middle of the night? This may not a so-called “traditional” reading, but, it doesn’t have to be – not for whatever perceived musical validity is deemed important by the classical world, let alone for one’s personal enjoyment. As musicologist Richard Taruskin argues in Text and Act: Essays in Music and Performance (Oxford University Press, 1995), traditions “modify what they transmit” via what he terms as “active intervention of the critical faculty, but also by what we might call interference.” Such traditions, he writes ( and most particularly within “a musical culture as variegated as the Western fine art of music has become”) are open to what he views as “outside influence.” It is this act, of combining inner critical faculty with various forms of external influence, combined with understandings of tonality, structure, and dynamics, that lends Lisiecki’s interpretations such innate power. Taking this course with such well-known works only serves to underline the pianist’s powerful blend of intellectual and musical instincts, and only makes one more keen to hear how he might re-adjust them for a live and considerably larger setting.

Despite, or more accurately owing to, the realities of the current pandemic era, Lisiecki was provided the an atmosphere conducive to the personal. The combination of simplicity (a room with a piano), proximity (or lack thereof, in relation to engineers), and the natural light in which Lisiecki recorded at Meistersaal (in Berlin) last autumn was, as he noted recently, good for encouraging a sort of natural approach, one which is so easily perceived on this, his eighth release with Deutsche Grammophon.

Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, culture, classical

Photo © Christoph Köstlin / Deutsche Grammophon

What struck me about your album is how you personalize everything, but without sitting and steeping in a so-called sentimental sound. Your tempo choices, for instance, are well considered.

Well, I might not agree in ten years about them, but at the moment I did them it felt right, because, to be honest with you, those tempos choices were completely natural in the sense that I had no knowledge of them being that much slower. I’ve played the nocturnes a lot, in concerts and otherwise, and I know how I feel about them, some in the studio just ended up being like that. Listening in the booth and going back and forth, it never felt unnatural. I’m happy with it; I think it’s a good reflection of how I connected with (Chopin’s) music.

You didn’t consciously say, “I want this one to be this specific tempo” or do any sort of preplanning then?

No, definitely there was no, ‘Everybody’s playing these too fast; I’ll be much slower!” – I was recording the material at the tempo in, I guess, the way it felt right.

To me it makes them seem almost like speech if that makes sense…

Yes!

… it very much has the sound of somebody musing in the middle of the night on something; as a writer I like that.

Aw thank you Cate, I appreciate it.

But you recorded this in Berlin, in a space with natural light, during the day; did that make a difference energetically?

Let’s say, first of all I’m an artist and musician who plays concerts in the evening but I like working in the day; I’m not an evening practiser. I finish my work day of practise by 2 or 3pm, if I can, so to me recording during the day is when I feel most comfortable. What I like about natural light is feeling I’m connected to the day and not in a studio, especially since it was late October. During the day, the mood in Berlin, if you know Europe during the winter, is grey and bleak, so it’s nice to have those few hours of sunlight inside and you don’t feel like you’re missing out, and also then you can find your own space within that environment. It’s a beautiful hall, a rectangular room with high ceilings, and it’s rather ornate, not excessively so, but has some ornate elements, and feels nice to be in, the piano in one corner, the microphone in another area; it felt very natural.

It seemed like an environment where you weren’t completely in a bubble, cut off from everything, but just separated enough to be with your thoughts.

Exactly, and I’d had enough experiences of concert halls with no audience during the pandemic; it was nice to have not have yet-another-empty-concert-hall, but a studio with a piano, it almost felt like you were in your own studio practising for yourself, or working just for yourself.

That’s how it sounds.

Yes, and another sort of relevant fact, in terms of the sound, is that the booth where the recording engineer was sitting is quite a distance away from the (room with the piano), it’s down two flights of stairs and then across a hall, so it takes a fair bit of time to get from the room to the booth, and as a result, first of all, you’re more focused on doing something, it was a complete thought whenever you did sit down, and second of all, you have that crazy walk back and forth to get you out and into the mood accordingly.

And nobody behind a pane of glass staring at you and evaluating.

Right.

Now, recording in a space in these times, there is something unique about doing these extremely well-known works, and in this particular pandemic environment; how much were you able to pull down the blinds, or did you not want to? Was the act of recording amidst a worldwide pandemic an essential part of the creative process, or did you block it out?

It was definitely part of my process,and that’s part of the reason that I was able to record during the pandemic. I’d been thinking or dreaming about recording the nocturnes for a long time; it was a long-term project, not something that just came up, it was something which was a very conscious thought for years, and so it involved years of preparation, and those years of preparation are connected to wanting to experience (the works) in a concert hall – they are very personal as you said, but you run the risk while playing them of going too far in that direction, of going too far into your comfort zone, which is not where it feels the best when you are onstage, when you feel you’re losing the audience’s attention, when you can feel their attention wandering away. I can hear when that happens.

So to play and program 21 nocturnes onstage took many many many years, it’s something that I was preparing for, and happened to reach a culmination point this past year, and at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, Deutsche Grammophon said, “Oh, you’ll have fewer concerts, so let’s record this in August!” and as it got closer, I saw that things were very uncertain and people were antsy still, and I was supposed to have a few concerts but they were much more stressful than usual because there were so many external layers involved. I didn’t know how they’d look and be, and I would not have been in the right frame of mind at all. And then from March to October I did have things to do, I had things beyond music I was enjoying, and had the opportunity to do – like work in the garden or go camping with my dad, or not do anything for a whole day, which was very nice – but I could also work on the nocturnes in a much more relaxed sphere of mind, it wasn’t forced like I had a fixed deadline to prepare for and get to a certain point with. I could prepare and think through each one of them. That time right before the recording, to be honest, I was quite busy, I had something like ten concerts with Manfred Honeck and I was playing the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto in Dresden, it wasn’t like, “Oh sigh, I’m at home!” but some of the (moments leading to recording) felt calm, everything was calm, and I had to make peace with the pandemic and with the uncertainty it brought. Because of that, I could simply focus on what I was doing.

Living day-by-day has always been my motto; I’ve always lived in the present, but the pandemic has really heightened that. I like looking forward, I like to think “Well, I’m playing this concerto two years down the road” and “In two weeks I have to prepare this piece” – but all that went out the window. So it was, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What can I enjoy right now?” In this case, what with recording, it allowed me to focus, and to enjoy the moment.

Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, culture, classical, Chopin, nocturnes, coverThat’s palpable in the recording, and I hear something different every time. Listening to the left hand can really bring something alive that one thought one knew well.

If the music is only a sum of its parts, if you don’t pay a close enough attention, then you can risk the music becoming too comfortable, and being too happy with the gorgeous melodies; you just completely tune out everything else because it’s easy, it’s just, “Oh, the left hand, sure, whatever, put it away!” and the right hand, “Yes, let’s enjoy that, it’s so lovely!” But it doesn’t work musically. That (balance) has always been something important to me in playing Chopin. Of course there’s a principal theme and an idea and the harmonizing in the left hand, but sometimes the interplay between right and left creates completely new concepts and I do like finding those.

To me you can hear it in other things of his, or things written around the same time, but I find it takes the right interpretation to find those connections.

That’s right.

Obviously you know the other recordings; did any stick in your mind as you prepared?

I tend not to listen to other interpreters when I’m actively playing something unless it’s a concerto and I want to hear the orchestra, which of course includes a pianist, but in the case of the nocturnes I didn’t hear any interpretations for at least a year before recording them. Perhaps it wasn’t conscious – it was not a forced effort – but I just had no need to, because I’m living and experiencing these pieces on my own, and that’s a huge privilege. I know the audience listening to these works who come to the concert hall don’t have that same privilege for the most part, to simply play something for themselves, so they have a different appreciation of what it means to listen. When I’m listening to a recording, I find it very hard to get into the right mood to enjoy it as opposed to analyze it, so I tend not to, especially with regards to pieces which I’m actively playing.

Of course, that being said, I do respect other interpretations, and the ones that accompanied me through my childhood and longer, into my life, are those by (Anton) Rubinstein. He recorded all of the nocturnes, and there’s a sophistication about his playing; it’s always so elegant, so poised, it’s hard to find any fault with them… it’s just beautifully done.

Yes, I have that set! I wanted to ask you with relation to others and individual identity, some have said, “Oh it’s a Polish pianist playing Polish music!” I’m not sure if that kind of a reduction is good or bad for art, but I wonder what you make of such an assumed connection.

I think Poland, of course, likes to claim Chopin as their own, and they have a complete right to do that, but he lived most of his life beyond Poland, his composing and adult life, so undeniably that (experience of living abroad) did shape his writing, and likewise, while I was born in Canada, I do have Polish roots, and without a doubt they must also shape how I approach Chopin, although I never had a Polish teacher and I never really liked the so-called “Polish sound” in playing Chopin, which has a lot of rubato, it’s very rich, quite swingy, and not at all my taste. Now, this is a sort of stereotypical description, and there are exceptions – I love how Zimerman plays Chopin, for instance – and so that’s a rather unfair stereotype perhaps, but it’s an easy thing just as much to say or assume, “Oh you have special affinity for him then, being Polish yourself?” It’s hard for me to say, because I am who I am, and I don’t know how I’d be if I wasn’t – if I was born in Poland, or if I didn’t have those roots, but I appreciate his music as a person and an artist. I just like it , and I feel very comfortable playing his music. I can sit in front of a score I’ve never seen before and feel, “Ah yes!” – I have a vague understanding of what I want to do, and how I will play it, which cannot be said for every composer. I will get to a point, eventually, that isn’t that straight-forward, but (the inherent understanding) speaks to how he wrote for the piano; his musical language is very familiar to me, and he wrote so beautifully for the instrument. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m ever struggling to find a way to solve any problem (within the work).

Do you find you approach other musical things differently now, having had this time with Chopin and especially, this time with Chopin during a pandemic?

Again, sort of like the Polish question, I don’t know how it would’ve been if I didn’t record during this time, but I do feel everything has an impact and shapes the way one approaches music broadly. I think the sort of calmness that has pervaded, or became constant during the pandemic… for me, I will certainly take it with me into the future, though I can see and am hopeful of course it all turns out, and that life is getting back to normal in the some parts of the musical world. Some countries are getting back to normal, so the natural thing is to feel like, “Oh I’m going to get back to my old self now – at last!”… but it’s not quite like that. The pandemic has changed our values and understanding, in the same way it’s changed the approach to the nocturnes, and I’m glad I had that chance of recording them amidst all of this.

What’s it been like for you to go back to live performance then?

There have been many stages, because last summer I played one of the first concerts live, if not the first in Germany, in June 2020. So if you think of the situation in Canada then, like… wow, just nothing… and it was the same in some parts of Europe in many regards, except where they were starting to experiment, and those experiments kept going and going, and there was a palpable excitement with each one. And after each lockdown this excitement kept building in the performing arts world – I experienced it so many times, and everyone had different concepts of how long they’d be locked down, so even though I had been playing live a while, everybody was so excited, and asking me “How does it feel to be back?” And I’d say, “Well last week I was playing a live concert in Spain!”

I was always happy to play live, but the difference for me is, I’m not a fan, at all, of streams. I prefer not to play if I have to do a stream, for the most part. It doesn’t have any aspect of what I cherish in music. Live art is live, and it should stay with those who are there, those who have shared that experience and felt its power. Recording is high quality: you prepare, you put a lot of thought into it; you have the best environment; you have the studio, the piano, the technician, the sound engineer. But streaming is somewhere in-between these things; it’s not live for an audience, it’s not the same high-quality sound you expect – in fact, it’s usually poor-quality sound. It was interesting to see orchestras doing streams, and it was good to see that musicians were playing, that they had the chance to play – but just me playing solo, no way, no – I’m not doing that, at all.

So you need the feedback?

Yes. And you know, people say with these streams, “Well of course live art will die now” – no it won’t. Many people will be happy to go back to the concert hall the moment they can. But until then, to be honest, we have such a rich array of performances, both live recordings from pre-pandemic times and things recorded in a studio, and we haven’t had time to listen to those during normal our lives – why don’t we go back to those amazingly high-quality things and listen to them? Instead of choosing to watch something live, just because…? Others will disagree but I’m happy to argue with them.

There’s a tremendous drive on the part of marketing departments everywhere to get people of your generation interested in classical music through streaming…

… but that’s not the strength of our genre. The strength of our genre is in the concert hall. It’s about this extraordinary experience you will sometimes have… sometimes. I play hundreds of concerts a year and not every single one will be magical, either it’s me or the piano, it’s something in the hall, or the day, or the circumstances outside – whatever. You will have those extraordinary experiences a small percentage of the time, and everybody remembers them. Many who’ve never been to a hall happen to chance on those magical concerts and they’re suddenly a huge fan of classical because they had that experience of intimacy which provided a foray into the musical world of live performance.

And you think that epic and imitate combo only happens in a live environment?

Exactly, yes.

Essay: Finding The Right Fit (Or Not)

Manon Lescaut, stage, opera, Puccini, performance, culture, women, image, branding, singing, lingerie

A scene from the 2013 production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at La Monnaie / De Munt, directed by Mariusz Treliński, set design by Boris Kudlicka. Photo © Forster.

This essay started out as a love letter to fashion, within the context of the joys to be had in buying a dress amidst pandemic. Folded into this were contemplations on dressing up – for the opera, and otherwise; there were (are) quotes from Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde, and Marlene Dietrich. I still intend to publish this essay in some form or another in future (hopefully sooner than later), but for now, it feels smarter, especially in light of the restart of live cultural events as autumn draws near, to explore my original idea, one I was encouraged to pursue by a longtime editor friend. It’s been in my mind to write this for a while, and the combination of seeing a production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut recently, a closet full of pinned items, an overstuffed drawer of underthings I’ve come to despise, all seemed like cosmic signs urging me on.

Following my second jab in August I had an exchange with this individual which touched on issues of body image, fashion, fit, popular perceptions, and the longtime, frequently tortuous relationship I have with my body, and more specifically, my breasts. This time last year I arranged an appointment with a doctor to see about a reduction, a procedure I had long pondered. To relieve the near-constant shoulder and neck pain; to have the stacks of ribs, distorted by years of intense weight, corrected; to have things finally, at long last… fit… it seems, even now, like a distant and incredible dream. To have a breast reduction would (could) mean I might at last look like the actually-size-2 woman I am, that I might actually for the first time in my life, be in proper proportion without the aid of acres of close-fitting fabrics. I wouldn’t have to worry about stares, smirks, or judgement; I could wear what I like – a low-cut gown at the opera; a fitted turtleneck in the classroom; my strapless sundress in the supermarket. Ultimately I decided against the operation – for now. The thought of removing chunks of my own flesh, of living with permanent scarring on a part of my body to which I have an already-troubled relationship, of navigating postoperative pain, of courting judgement (and possibly real horror) from would-be lovers at the sight of my scarred body… such concerns created a mountain of anxiety I am not, even now, able to scale. So I contend with thick straps, well-padded cups, tight, strong bands; a good bra really is a piece of marvelous engineering, and a well-fitting one is something I will pay (have paid) good money for. Finding one that fits off the rack is (like any item of clothing) a rarity; I have a litany of bras sitting in a drawer, all of them impaled with pins in a desperate attempt to fit a much-shrunken frame (I have lost a significant amount of weight over the past eight months or so). It’s good enough for now, but oh, for the freedom of awakening without pain, of moving around without aches, of fitting things perfectly, of never having another button pull or another visible strap or of having to buy things two sizes too large. Oh, to never have to feel I am inviting lecherous stares, acrid judgment, social ostracizing, or risking professional advancement, credibility, acceptance, approval.

It’s an odd thing, to write a piece which might come off as a complaint, when one admittedly receives attention, and more specifically certain types of attention, over the very thing (things) one purports to dislike. I do get a jolt of joy from the reactions I elicit through my highly-curated posts; it bolsters the shaky confidence of an isolated woman whilst reassuring some form of public worth, however superficial. That satisfaction is finite (perhaps intentionally so), as I wonder why in hell I can’t seem to get over 100 likes on anything, all the while knowing the reason: algorithms don’t favour aging female bodies, or faces, unless scantily-clad and heavily-filtered – since wrinkles, cellulite, stretch marks (more precisely, real, lived experience) are unwanted within fantasy landscape celebrated and promoted throughout much social media, Instagram in particular. A thusly-filtered photo of me in a bikini, bum expectantly up, breasts prominently displayed, head orgasmically thrown back, ultra-posed, ultra-horny, ultra-algorithm-pleasing, would unquestionably hit that magical 100 (200? 400? 700?)-likes mark. Indeed, such measurement (of worth / goodness / hotness / popularity / desirability, and much else, maybe) is an unfortunate tool in the freelance world, one worth knowing how to wield, if requiring very careful handling. Post the wrong (so-called) things, and one is ignored, along with one’s work and oeuvre; post the right (so-called) things, and one’s work is read (my own analytics bear this out) but one courts judgement in the process, along with distinct and narrow forms of categorization. One risks judgment and labels as well: dumb, shallow, vain, needy, an attention-whore, wannabe, poser, super-bitch. Bimbo. Dilettante. Sycophant.

All of these labels (and worse) run through my head whenever I post anything imagistic; I often wish there was a “reduce giant boobs” filter that might lessen such anxieties, but then I wonder if it’s really me who has the problem(s). My mother certainly didn’t think so. Years ago she and I attended the opening night of an opera season; it turned out to be her final one. A night of dressing up was a blessed bit of relief between chemotherapy sessions and hospital runs, and she looked so pleased and proud as watched me descend the stairs of our house wearing a black, strapless Yves Saint Laurent vintage piece (found in a consignment shop for a song), a dress that fit perfectly. I knew there would be hate-filled stares entering the members’ lounge – those always greeted me, they were predictable, if very wearing; I was good at pretending such nastiness didn’t bother me; I still am. “I love how you scoop your hair up and put your shoulders back and stick your bust out and don’t care what anyone thinks,” she said later that night. I didn’t have to look at the faces in the lounge to actually feel their all-too-clear judgments; I threw my head back indeed, jutted chin out, batted eyelashes, gave a tremendous smile. It’s a skill I have come to perfect. To quote Marquise de Merteuil (from Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons; play 1985, film 1988), “I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork onto the back of my hand.” Add to that making a tremendous middle finger.

There exists in my closet a lovely line of beautiful gowns, one a sumptuous, sweeping, super-low-backed, very fitted number, ordered in a fit of restlessness amidst the worst of the pandemic last year. I slipped it on at New Year’s in an attempt to summon some needed optimism. “If I ever have the nerve to wear this publicly,” I thought, “at least I’ll know what’s required.” (Two rolls of tape, carefully applied, and even more carefully removed; I will use more if and when that time ever comes.) But dare I court the inevitable judgment if I wear it? Dare I risk dumping whatever little professional credibility I might have (and have fought for), all for the sake of my innate love of fashion, and an even more innate need to feel the joy of wearing something that actually fits, and amidst (sigh, post) pandemic times, when dressing up is a pleasure that has been so long denied? I think, to a certain extent, many women, especially us large-breasted ones, are raised to ignore, to carry on, to try to keep head held high (when our necks and shoulders aren’t screaming in agony), and to fight against the high tides of judgement while riding the big, bouncy waves of attention. The digital era has brought a keen awareness of the pressures of playing to desire, of its inherently performative nature, of the idea of “sexy” being somehow divorced from presence (in the symbolic sense), of the lines between fantasy and reality blurring, of the perceived “power” in playing to a male-gaze-y algorithm that dictates what is seen, when, how, by whom. Susan Sontag wrote, in a 1999 essay “A photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” (published in Women (Random House, 1999), a book of photography by Annie Leibovitz) thusly:

To be feminine, in one commonly felt definition, is to be attractive, or to do one’s best to be attractive; to attract. (As being masculine is being strong.) While it is perfectly possible to defy this imperative, it is not possible for any woman to be unaware of it. As it is thought a weakness in a man to care a great deal about how he looks, it is a moral fault in a woman not to care “enough.” Women are judged by their appearance as men are not, and women are punished more than men are by the changes brought about by aging. Ideals of appearance such as youthfulness and slimness are in large part now created and enforced by photographic images. And, of course, a primary interest in having photographs of well-known beauties to look at over the years is seeing just how well or badly they negotiate the shame of aging.

As an aging albeit large-chested woman with a chosen online presence – one I require and have cultivated as a freelance writer and educator within a particularly narrow cultural field – I am simultaneously aware of both the judgement and the attention, the inherent risk of professional punishment, and virtue-patrolling, to say nothing of professional discreditation and social ostracization, all of which run concomitant with potential benefits and possible advancement. (Whether that advancement manifests in actual dollars and opportunities remains to be seen, and various classical and academic ingenues might tell you something similar, however quietly.) Damned if you do; damned if you don’t; such has always been the case for women, and never more so than now, in the pandemic-ridden 21st century, whence a screen is professional, social, political, cultural, creative, and personal, all in one. My mother’s pre-boomer, always-wear-lipstick generation didn’t have to face this, but then, if she had, I’d suspect she’d be very popular.

My mother had a ballet dancer’s body: a long torso, long legs, just-right shoulders, a long neck, and perfectly (to me) small hips/bum/breasts. She had my ideal body shape, one I still covet and dream of having. Anything else, to my mind and literal body), is chubby, gross, vulgar. She was a “model” in the definition that still largely fuels the definition of Very Beautiful today. “You didn’t get those from me,” she’d say, staring at my chest. Shorter, fleshier women have a history of being placed into the tiresome bin labelled “curvaceous” (or the like), one that is wholly fantasy-driven and easy to discredit; she always used the word “voluptuous” as a compliment, but it never felt like one. I could never (and indeed cannot) find things that properly fit. While I’d watch my thin, small-breasted school friends go off and meet decent men, I always felt I’d been left with horny ones wanting naught but masturbatory entertainment. The work world was just as bad, if not worse. An early episode of the American television sitcom Three’s Company (1977-1984) features a large-breasted if wholly unqualified woman promoted over the more small-breasted Janet by a bug-eyed man in a cheap suit who speaks in a lusty rasp. The woman later visits Janet at her apartment, resigning in a fit of shame and exasperation, and explains the realities of navigating a world in which men only see breasts (and their related sexual desires) without seeing the attached whole person. “They say things like, “why don’t you stand over me and keep the rain off, baby!”” she says, holding back tears.

These days of course, that woman would have a huge Instagram following, post pictures of herself in tiny bikinis, call herself “empowered” and many would simply seal-clap along. I’m not so sure; to borrow from Charles Laughton’s character in the 1957 film Witness For The Prosecution, that line of thinking feels “too neat, too tidy, and altogether too symmetrical…” (Note: most breasts are not, in fact, symmetrical, let alone sitting at attention when one lies on one’s back; they tend to sloppily nod off to armpits, gravity being the great downer in all senses.) Swimwear always presents a challenge; modest is realistic if boring, but finding something that fits is impossible. I don’t own a bikini, and if I did, I wouldn’t wear it publicly, let alone post pictures of myself in it. “Be proud!” shout the masses, “do your thing!” The problem is, all the male things go up whenever I reveal too much tit in public, and though i can’t control the reactions, I hate that I inspired them at all, and find myself wishing, at such moments, after a galling incident or smutty, unwished-for attention, that I had those perfect, tiny, pert, ballet-dancer breasts. The scars, the pain, the thought of going into a hospital at all right now… tell me to sit, round-shouldered, and do another round of dreary sit-ups. Apparently strong abs are helpful, but they’ve yet to relieve an ounce of the pain.

Following my second vaccination, I came home and changed into a low-backed bodysuit, one I would never wear in public – too revealing, too honest, too real. (I love it.) ‘Real breasts versus fantasy ones’ is a distinction that needs to be made (one might say this about female bodies overall) – I consciously thought this, putting that bodysuit on – but the need to recognize that distinction points more directly at a need to acknowledge real people versus fantasy figures. A 2013 production of Manon Lescaut from Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), directed by Mariusz Treliński and featuring Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, caught my attention for just this reason. How refreshing, to see the soprano floppy-haired and braless and perspiration-soaked in the last act; yes, it’s the character, and yes it’s the opera, and of course, it’s part of the setting, but this was not the highly-stylized, romantic, dewy-doe-eyed suffering so often seen on opera stages. The transformation felt real, raw, and very visceral; it dared to explode the sexy-babe mythos into a thousand pieces, and dared its audience to see what was left. I wondered about two things, concurrently, as it concluded: Westbroek’s corseting (or apparent lack thereof, which is brave, and shouldn’t be, and yet) and, what would my opera-loving, glamour-obsessed mother make of it. In her younger years she so much resembled the younger Manon, poised and smiling across numerous images in photo albums spanning many decades. One shot features her wearing a green polka-dot bikini; she used to like to tell people how much she weighed when it was taken, some ridiculously low number, hiding the actual truth of her self-starving then, her utter self-loathing in fact, dating someone who eventually threw her over, having treated her like a diversion, a bit of fantasy, a sex doll. She wasn’t “curvy”; she didn’t have large breasts. I remember meeting him years ago, before she passed, wondering at her being so reserved around him then; I don’t wonder now.

And so I look at my closet-fulls of dresses, some of them my mother’s, many of them, like my underthings, full of pins and awaiting the skilled touch of my ever-patient tailor, and I wonder if I’ll ever wear any of them again. Do I want to? Dare I? Can I be floppy-haired, braless Manon and still have any worth? Still ignite any true desire? Does it matter? Can I be busty, non-music-degree-holding Catherine and still be perceived with any seriousness? Should I feel okay with being reduced? Am I not already? Oh, how I long for a good fit. A trip to the moon, even for a few hours, would not be so bad either; my shoulders, like much else, could use the rest. Maybe this is the season to fly, to not feel small, to not shrink, but to jut chin out, pull shoulders back, and at last, to truly smile, even, as the times dictate, it will be behind a mask or two.

opera, Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, stage, culture, opera, performance, reach, hands, beautiful

Essay: Bridging The Divide

One of the most painful aspects of the current era has been the observance and experience of chasms. Opera, as an art form, mixed with the reality of pandemic may find fascinating intersections within the virtual sphere, but that meeting does not translate very effectively, at least so far, within tangible form. Cost, travel restrictions, vaccination passports, and Brexit challenges aside, many more barriers exist which ask for careful consideration. The opera road has many divergent avenues which are all largely based around locale; views and vistas along respective routes, to say nothing of who travels them, vary widely. Big trucks, small bikes, winding paths, superhighways; “how far to the next pit stop?” and are-we-there-yet-isms; lamps, darkness, diners, picnics; baggage, necessities, extras; time, route, and of course, purpose, are all paramount, but none trumps locale, of calculating just how one actually gets from Point A to Point B, and just who’s going to pay for that particular ride.

Such matters came to mind during Bayerische Staatsoper’s final presentation of the company’s 2020-2021 season, a performance / livestream of Tristan und Isolde featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Anja Harteros in the title roles and outgoing Music Director Kirill Petrenko on the podium, with a moody production by Krzysztof Warlikowski. During the second intermission, German media personality Thomas Gottschalk, acting as event host, spoke with American baritone Sean Michael Plumb (who was singing the role of Melor) about the differences between North American and European systems, highlighting obvious financial realities and the ways in which certain perceptions relate to not only aesthetic expectations but to overall presentation, as well as to the early and regular exposure to classical music. I confess to being struck by this exchange, especially the questions – ones that are rarely if ever asked in interviews, let alone at the intermission of a major production at one of the world’s foremost houses; they’re the sorts of things I tend to discuss privately with friends, not openly in a broadcast, for thousands to hear and ponder. Yet such an exchange is worth publicly contemplating in an era when some North American opera/classical devotees may well be looking across the sea green with envy (or blue with sadness), highly aware that homegrown and European models are simply not comparable. Artists and administrators who have traveled from Europe to North America, whether on a contract or in lengthier capacities, are struck by such sharp contrast, within the realms of style and approach as much as the realities of funding on one side and audience expectations at the other. There are a lot of those expectations to fulfill, many more demands to be met at every turn, and sitting at the obvious core of it all, of course, is money. In many senses it is miraculous that wheels turn at all in North America, given the delicate state of funding, the realities of union negotiations, a near total lack of media exposure, and widespread public indifference to an art form so heavily laden (if not outright presented) with hideous clichés, literal as much as figurative.

And while there’s plenty of talk about the funding side (not wrongly), the other aspect which must be considered is education, perhaps now, more than ever. Generations of brutal government cuts in Canada and the United States, to education as well as to public broadcasting services, have cultivated an environment whereby experience, understanding, and appreciation of the arts has been perniciously removed from numerous non-arts contexts to which is dependent; history, social issues, politics, and other art forms (literature, painting, dance) are now largely disconnected from any form of live performance art and/or presentation. The teaching of history, in all of its diverse and frequently ugly aspects, has been divorced from that of cultural expression (and direct experience) by generations of teachers who may well not know or understand the role of culture themselves, and who, not unlike opera companies, are working in relation to the decisions of their own boards and committees, and the related budgets as set forth by each according to respective government bodies. Teaching journalism at post-secondary institutions myself, I wrestle with how to infuse my media teachings with music; students tend to get fired up through sounds, not words, because sound, in most spheres, has a resonance words do not (cannot) wholly possess. Sometimes  international examples (written + audio/audio-visual) are given within the contexts of lectures and homework; study this, listen to that; watch this, what did you get out of that, and how can you apply it to your work? The results are usually insightful, enlightening, expansive, lending themselves to new questions – and that’s precisely the intention.

Encouraging such enthusiasm is central to education, particularly for endeavors attempting to integrate the world of culture within an environment that would seem to spurn and diminish such efforts. Stefan Zweig writes in his momentous memoir The World Of Yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers, 1942) that “enthusiasm is infectious among young people. It passes from one to another in a school class like measles or scarlet fever, and by trying to outdo one another as fast as possible novices, in their childish vanity and ambition, will spur one another on.” Infection does not live long in a state of lockdown, as many of this era certainly know; enforced isolation, within education as much as artistic realms, is its own form of hell. Teaching online this past year was harsh for all involved; the “enthusiasm” of which Zweig writes was in little supply, yet I found its expression in some unexpected if delightful places. At the end of various classes, there would almost always be some students who would want to chat – about the lesson and the issues we raised, about things they’d seen/read/heard which were somehow related, about the various music things I’d brought in as illustrations of this or that concept. Very often there were further questions, about how I became interested in opera, who introduced me, what I specifically liked. Such curiosity and enthusiasm would later be glimpsed (explored, realized, manifest, however tentatively) via formal submissions, whether written or via audio or visual means. How different these exchanges might’ve been within a live context is difficult to say; would students have possessed as much boldness? Did the perceived safety of a monitor – distant, faceless if they so chose (most did), vocally disembodied –  make the asking of such questions, about a world so foreign (and perhaps daunting) to them, less awkward? I find the medium of a monitor energetically deadening, that it robs me of the vibrations and resonances which accompany the experience of the live, whether in the house or the classroom; one senses the receptors inherent within learning and response, which allow one to fully listen and fully feel, are simply not there. I never felt entirely as present I should’ve been for my students from behind the screen, and yet there was something about the experience that encouraged curiosity. Hurrah!

Just how much this curiosity may or may not be expressed in the autumn is questionable. As of now, classes and labs are to be held in-person partially, with a 50% in-room capacity. It will be another chasm to cross, creatively, enthusiastically, with much courage, curiosity, commitment. I am not quite sure what I’ll be using, music-wise, as part of my instruction, but by December, I imagine we will all be thirsting to attend some form of live music event, perhaps genres not yet anticipated. Until then, I’ll be cocking an eyebrow at the various education departments of opera companies, hoping they encourage the experience and exercise nuance, rumination, and curiosity; though not formally part of the STEM system, they are vital to helping close the chasm to which Gottschalk and Plumb’s exchange alluded. It isn’t about budgets now; it’s about brains. Bitte, let’s use them, in all their various capacities, through all the various trips.

Lisette Oropesa, Pentatone, album, soprano, singer, opera, classical, vocal, dress, fashion, Mozart, album, Ombra Compagna

Lisette Oropesa: On Mozart, Recording, And Why Opera Does Not Need Redefining

Certain sounds inspire one to sit up a little straighter, look away from the monitor, pull up the blinds, gaze out the window, and then remove the pandemic uniform of fleece loungewear and replace it with something more elegant and beautiful. Thus it is that those sounds – singers, operas, concerts, arias, and oratorios – have worked in tandem to provide a much-needed uplift over the course of the past fifteen months, aiding in a more focused, thoughtful, and elevated quality of energy than much of the classical internet, and its overdue if very often over/underwhelming digital pivot, tends to demand at any given moment in the age of Covid. Lisette Oropesa’s debut album, Ombra Compagna: Mozart Concert Arias, released via Pentatone earlier this month, provides such uplift, along with a hefty dollop of inspiration.

Recorded in August 2020 with conductor Antonello Manacorda and orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro, the album’s ten tracks showcase Oropesa’s poetic musical sense, as well as her talent for balancing the whirlwind spirals of drama with the straight-arrow trajectories of technique. Hearing such luscious sounds, one immediately adjusts one’s spine, fixes one’s hair, puts on a nice dress; it feels as if the artists, and composer too, would request nothing less, or more, in the era in which the album was recorded and released. Three tracks feature the words of Italian poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782): “Misera, dove son!”, (composed in 1781) “Alcandro, lo confesso – Non so d’onde viene” (1778) and the album’s closer, “Ah se in ciel, benigne stelle” (started 1778; completed 1788). The latter two arias were composed for Aloysia Weber (1760-1839), an accomplished singer whom the composer had taught and been enamoured with prior to his marrying her sister, Constanze (in 1782); the works are notable for the poignant musical ideas which fully anticipate more fulsome creative expression in Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and La clemenza di Tito (1791) . Oropesa’s handling of the aural and textual aspects of the respective arias expresses a touching emotional honesty; the knowing way in which the soprano delicately modulates her tone and breath, her studied phrasing and vivid coloration, imply a comprehension of things beneath, around, between, and beyond the words. “Alcandro, lo confesso”, for instance, is from Metastasio’s libretto for L’olimpiade (Olympiad), and was originally set to music by Antonio Caldara, who was court composer to Empress Elizabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (the work was originally meant to celebrate her birthday). As John A. Rice’s fine album notes remind us, “(t)he concert aria gave composers and performers flexibility in regard to the gender of the singer vis-a-vis the gender of the character portrayed. To be more specific: a female singer could freely portray a male character.” Such fluidity is conveyed with quiet elegance through Oropesa’s controlled if unquestionably heartfelt delivery, complemented by Manacorda’s stately tempo and dynamics:

Alcandro, lo confesso,
stupisca di me stesso. II volto, il ciglio,
la voce di costui nel cor mi desta
un palpito improvviso,
che lo risente in ogni fibra il sangue.
Fra tutti i miei pensieri
la cagion ne ricerco, e non la trovo.
Che sarà, giusti Dei, questo ch’io provo?

Non so d’onde viene
quel tenero affetto,
quel moto che ignoto
mi nasce nel petto,
quel gel, che le vene
scorrendo mi va.

Nel seno a destarmi
sì fieri contrasti
non parmi che basti
la sola pietà.

Alcandro, I confess it,
astonished by myself. His face, his
expression, his voice—they awaken
a sudden tremble in my heart
which the blood repulses through my veins.
I try to find the reason in all my thoughts,
but I can’t find it.
Good Gods, what is it that I feel?

I don’t know where this tender
feeling comes from,
this unknown emotion
that is born in my breast,
this chill that runs
through my veins.

Pity alone
is not sufficient to cause
those strongly opposed feelings
in my breast.

(English translation by Christina Gembaczka & Kate Rockett)

With a rich vocality displayed in the frequently challenging, wide-ranging works, Oropesa’s flexibility and confidence, together with her calculated blend of sass, class, and deep sensitivity, show an artist flowering in a range of colors and styles. The concert arias demand, as Oropesa writes in the album notes, “extremes of range, breath control, dynamics, and stamina” and the soprano’s versatile technique (well explored through her history with Italian repertoire, especially bel canto) is keenly studied, if easily received.

That’s the point, Lisette said when we chatted recently – the music should sound effortless, even if it’s anything but – in content, as much as in style. Having such multi-faceted awareness is, for the singer, central to understanding and expressing the depths of real, lived emotional experience within the music; even if the topics are mythological, the subtext is far more familiar.The album’s title (which translates as “companion spirit”), originates in the aria “Ah, lo previdi” (“Ah, I foresaw it”), used in a scene from Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi’s libretto for Andromeda (1755); it uses the recitative form for maximal dramatic impact whilst offering a careful musical scoring that highlights aural power to convey the speaker’s grief over what she believes is her beloved’s passing. As Oropesa writes, “the most sublime music accompanies the journey between life and death, as the spirit of a loved one slips away.Though we may wish to follow them into the next life, we must stay behind. So to be an “Ombra compagna,” to be with someone in spirit”, when we say that, it is a comforting yet heartbreaking testament of love.”

Known for her work on the stages of Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala, Opéra national de Paris, and the Met, Oropesa is acclaimed for her performances of Italian, French, and German repertoire; she is especially known for her performances as Verdi’s Violetta (La traviata) and Donizetti’s Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor). Zooming recently from Arizona, Oropesa was warm, funny, real, moving with ease and humour between discussing music approaches and dishing life lessons, with the same warmth and honesty as I remembered in our previous chat in 2019. Despite the challenges of the past year-plus, Oropesa’s upcoming schedule is busy, and, along with recordings and performances in Paris, Zurich, and Vienna, features concerts in California, Italy, and, in March 2022, a much-anticipated concert appearance at Teatro Real Madrid. January 2022 sees the soprano perform the title role in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, after being unable to perform at the season opener for the fabled house in December 2020 because of coronavirus-forced closure.

We began by discussing Ombra Compagna and how the project came to fruition amidst the numerous restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.

How did you choose material – why Mozart?

I didn’t actually pick that material! I am a big Mozart fan and I sing a couple of the concert arias; I studied them, but Pomo d’Oro wanted to record this material and they wanted me to sing it –they were the ones who reached out originally. I didn’t have a label at the time, so while I said yes to them and “it sounds great, send me a list of which arias you mean, there are so many and some are out of my realm of possibility but some are doable, I’d have to study them” – shortly thereafter Pentatone reached out. We had a meeting, and they said, “We want to offer you a package deal for six albums: three recital discs and three opera discs, and I said, would you consider this Mozart project? They said, “Yes, that would be a great first disc!” – so that’s how it happened. From there, Pomo d’Oro sent me a list of arias they were originally thinking of me doing. I chose which ones I wanted, and went on a journey; I got all this sheet music and spent a long time studying and listening to stuff, trying to find what arias were more well-known, ones that had and hadn’t been done. I did pick the arias but didn’t plan the project. In our business so much is given to you, and you either take it or you don’t; very few artists are capable of manifesting their own dreams into any reality. I had wanted a record deal for years, so I’m happy. To produce an album is akin to buying a house: to get an orchestra together, hire a conductor, order scores, find the space for recording, get in the right sound engineers… it’s a lot. So this was great, because someone else produced it. Pentatone is a label that very much cares about sound quality and specifics, and their producers have a lot of experience with orchestra and voices.

And artistically, if you offer me a Mozart project, I’ll never say no! In recording this, I had to find ways I could sing and interpret these works, because they’re all written for different individuals and that means, in a lot of ways, they’re tailored to specific voices: some might have amazing jumps, some might have great coloratura, some might have dramatic capabilities. Every aria has its own personal stamp, so I had to find my way of interpreting all of that, with the best of what I can do. I’m not a master of every single technical thing but I can do a lot of things okay enough that, I can probably pull from my experience – I can pull my flute experience here, I can pull my band experience there, I have my experience with recitative – and the fact I feel comfortable in Italian was very helpful too. The conductor (Antonello Manacorda) was a concertmaster and leads a lot of Mozart so we got on really well, and the orchestra are a great Baroque ensemble. They tuned down to 432Hz for some things; because I am not the highest-sitting a soprano right now, that made my life easy. It was fun, the whole thing. I loved it!

You really personalized the material in your approach.

You have to – really, you have to! I was telling someone the other day, with a lot of people singing Mozart, it’s like watching a gymnastics routine or an ice skating routine; we’re waiting for the jumps and flips and landings. And that’s fine, but those routines in particular, even though they’re sports, they’re also artistic: you’re looking for elegance and beauty and seamlessness of one move to the next, and the power of the gymnast who has their own way they move. In that respect, it’s like singing Mozart: you can’t just look at the technical demands and not go past that into what he is really about, which is depth of emotion. And you can’t do the emotion without the technical stuff – that’s a doorway into the realm of what I think Mozart really is, but you can’t start from that side of the door, you have to go through the technical door first. The problem is a lot of people – artists, industry people, listeners even – get very hung up on the door, but we have to get past it. It’s a tough thing to do, so I try to make the easiest-sounding door possible. Whatever technical demands there are, I try to make them sound easy, even though they’re not. But if I make it seem hard you won’t get past it.

Then all we’d hear is a door.

That’s right!

Lisette Oropesa, soprano, singer, vocal, vocalist, stage, artist, performance, performer, opera, classical, Spain, Teatro Real, Donizetti, bel canto, Artur Rucinski, blood

With Artur Rucinski in Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro Real, 2018. Photo; Javier del Real

Your bel canto experience must have been good preparation too…

Tremendous. Bel canto helps you with learning to use recitative in a way that is emotionally effective. Mozart is a beautiful writer of recitative so I never had an issue. These arias are all accompagnati; the orchestra is playing, it’s not with just a harpsichord, which you get in his operas – so because these are concert pieces, the entire orchestra is involved, even doing recit, and you might be doing it for four pages before the aria starts. It’s odd to sing it in a way, but it’s also a dramatic part of the piece: you’re setting up the story and that’s very nice as a singer! The other thing is that being a former instrumentalist is really helpful; I learned to express music that didn’t have words, I learned how to express a musical intention, a phrase, without text. With text, sometimes it’s all singers obsess over, this “What about this consonant? What about this vowel? How should I put across all the immense poetry?” – and yes, all of that is important, but with Mozart, the text and the musical phrase are joined; the musical phrase is as vital as the text. Ideally, you marry those two things together when you perform.

Would you say they’re lieder-esque in a sense… ?

Yes, they are.

I hear a lot of Schubert and Beethoven being anticipated in these works, and especially in how you perform them, which made me consider how much I’d like to hear you doing these works in recital.

Thank you, that means a lot. I love lieder, especially the Viennese school and the German stuff; it’s some of the best rep in the world. One of the good things about the pandemic, one of the few silver linings, is that solo-singer-with-piano configurement has become much more popular; I have a massive book full of recital rep that I’m preparing for next year. It’s months’ worth of recitals – the bookers all want lieder, so honestly? Yay! I’m ready, I’m bringing it!

That echoes what Helmut Deutsch said to me earlier this year, that he feels the time has come for lieder. But of course, lots of people are still recording too.

Well yes, recording was the only thing people could do for so long, because orchestras were free and you could record, as long as you were distanced and the room was aired out, and you tested throughout the process. It was one of the only things still allowed to happen. I did three albums myself since this whole thing has happened, and realistically, I’d never be able to book them otherwise; most singers are never free, they need a week at least of just recording, and normally no one can spare the time, so (setting time aside to record) is a scheduling issue (in relation to opera houses). But this past year everybody’s been recording or rehearsing, or learning new roles.

What’s that like for you as a singer, to be taken away from audience energy but to get closer to your voice and to other musicians?

It is a chance to navel-gaze at our larynx, haha! And, not having the audience when you’re doing an album is not a problem because you’re focusing on just recording; you can rehearse, worry about the singing, you don’t have to please a director, you don’t have to wear a costume, you can wear the flat shoes, no makeup and do your thing. I never recorded with an orchestra before – this was my first taste of doing that, and even though we were distanced (so it was slightly less intimate than it would normally be), I was maskless and I could sing into the mic, start, then stop; repeat.

Now, doing performances like an opera or a concert, without an audience… that sucks. We can do it, but. What happens in rehearsal is, you’re basically rehearsing and then you run the whole show with an audience of your castmates, which is intimate and beautiful, but the next level is presenting it to the public; that is what you are preparing to do. And then to do that presentation with no public present, except on the internet – we can’t hear them, or see them – it almost feels like you’re still rehearsing somehow, like you painted something but didn’t hang it on the wall. There’s no finished feeling, and that’s odd; there is no energy back, and that’s odd. So you can sing your balls off and then you don’t hear any applause or reaction – you can’t feel what the audience’s energy is toward you – and that’s awful.

I read a piece about the LSO recently which underlined the point about the need for an audience. ”Why else are we doing this?”

That’s right, why else indeed?

But lately I feel I have to wave my arms about this; yes, you do it to fulfill an innate creative urge, but related to that, at least to my mind, is the desire for energetic feedback.

Exactly right. I mean the thing is, we, and this is what’s been hard, the public comes to us for escape in some ways. We are entertainment for many people; they come to the theatre to dream, and that’s been taken away from them, but, we as artists are expected to still perform at the same level, or a more high level, because everything is so hard now, so it’s “Please come perform on the internet for an audience you can’t see or hear!” You’re doing it for less money and for much more stress and much more risk, and the stakes are 100 times higher; as artists we’re stressed beyond belief doing this, and we still have to put that aside, and put emotions to the side. It’s hard enough when things are functioning normally – there’s enough difficulty in the business as it is – but now there’s far more; there’s world stress, there’s financial stress, there’s various forms of personal stress, and there’s still this attitude, like, “Sing for us! Entertain us! Sing under these circumstances!”

Lisette Oropesa, soprano, singer, vocal, vocalist, stage, artist, performance, performer, opera, classical, Spain, Teatro Real, Verdi

In La traviata at Teatro Real, 2020. Photo: Javier del Real

Your work as a singer is being filtered through the choices of a director as well; it must create a weird self-consciousness not only about how you sound, but how you look. 

I’ve talked about this with regards to opera in HD – you don’t get to direct what frame is on the screen at any given moment, so you might be on camera or not, doing all this great work, but no one will see it if the director doesn’t choose you. And then there will be these snap judgements – “He’s a bad actor!” – but in theatre you can pick where you want to look. The energy and electricity of performers reaches audiences in a different way live than through a camera. Cinematic awareness is something we are having to deal with more and more, yes – I made a movie in Rome of Traviata, and we did so many takes of every scene, live-sung, with the orchestra piped into a speaker. We had to follow as best we could, and I had no idea which take they ultimately took. My mother saw rough cut and said, “That director likes your back!” and a friend in film said, “Oh that’s a specific directorial thing, seeing what (Violetta) is seeing rather than presenting an outside perspective” but I was doing all these things with my face, because I have experience in theatre, and theatre is much more immediate.

It’s surprising how many don’t understand or appreciate that immediacy, implying the big digital pivot is somehow going to “save” opera and how it needs re-defining; I wonder if the real issue is better cultural education.

It is, because the art form does not need redefining – I 100% agree with you. Opera does not need redefining; it does not need watering down, it does not need censorship. It is actually more progressive than people have interpreted it as being, even though it isn’t always presented that way, but it can and should be presented in different and new ways. Opera also provides one of the very best opportunities for women to work: as a prima donna, as a lead character, as a very central if not entirely pivotal character on the stage. I mean, I’m lucky I don’t have to compete with men for my job.

The pandemic era has shown that a lot of companies definitely needed to up their digital game, but lately it feels like music is the last thing to be considered.

You’re right; it doesn’t seem like the music is that important sometimes. I feel at the moment that the focus is more on, “how many people can we reach”, “what are the numbers”, “what social message can we put out”. Some companies are trying to do innovative things, like performing in a parking garage, a racetrack, an airport… but I think, look, we’re not cars. We don’t belong in cement buildings. I know we’re trying to do the distance thing and I get the whys and wherefores of that, but an opera voice is meant to resonate in a concert hall that’s designed in a very specific way to showcase this very specific thing. It’s the same thinking as, ‘let’s put a ballerina on a cliff and make her dance’ and sure, she could, but her shoes aren’t made for that, her training isn’t made for that, it’s taking this very particular craft and sticking it in another medium it isn’t made for, and as a result it doesn’t come across the same way.

And it isn’t perceived the same way as a result; there’s pluses and minuses to thatBut to me the central issue is still one of education, or lack thereof. 

Yes, and so I’m hoping (the activities of the past year) are just a patch job and not a permanent thing. I know San Francisco Opera just built a whole outdoor theatre, a whole new one. I mean, their War Memorial War Opera House still exists…

… they might be trying to do what’s been done in other places in terms of adding to the outdoor summer festival scene. But the question of what role the music plays in all this still niggles.

Yes, I mean, where does the music go when these sorts of construction things happen? You lose a lot of the intimacy in those giant settings…

… sure, but it’s not a new thing;  Arena di Verona exists, and other spectacles have come and gone. I remember attending Aida at the local stadium as a kid, and that was really not about the music. The sound was horrendous but it looked impressive.

Some things don’t work outdoors, and some do. The problem is that (outside stages) force  singers to adopt a whole different way of interpreting the music, and Aida has a lot of intimate moments. How would you expect a soprano to sing “O patria mia” in a stadium? That’s a very internal moment, that aria, she isn’t barking  it – and sure, The Triumphal March works great, it’s 800 people and the orchestral scoring is very exciting right then – but for much of the opera, it’s just two people or one person singing on the stage. It’s a story about relationships, and you can so easily lose sight of that. It’s the same for any of these operas about individuals going through intimate experiences – in Aida or Traviata or Rigoletto. Actually, Rigoletto was staged at Circus Maximus – the stadium where the chariot race in Ben Hur was filmed – last summer; now, Rigoletto is about a father and a daughter, and a very complicated, close relationship, and … you know, in such a big space… I don’t know, it’s unusual. But somewhere like Arena di Verona, it’s an amphitheatre, it’s good acoustics, the stagings are done at night; there’s a special sort of vibe there.

Singing for the internet is a whole different thing, I’d imagine…

Oh yes – for broadcasts shown in a cinema or for the internet, you have to deal with a crappy little microphone hidden in your bosom or wig, and then try not to think about the fact that you’re singing for somebody’s crappy computer speakers. And: the majority are judging your voice. You are totally aware that the online audience are often critical and anonymous. Everybody’s a critic and has a platform to bitch and moan about not sounding good, but look, it’s not fair to watch and judge a singer’s voice on this platform; overtones don’t get picked up, color largely do not translate, subtle things you do with your voice do not translate, and there are these weird resonances. Now, a real hall has acoustics which are designed to promote those things in a proper way; at La Scala a voice bounces, as it should, and you can’t get that in speakers. I don’t know how else to explain it. When you train as a singer in school and take lessons you are not training to sing into a microphone; you are trained to sing over an orchestra and/or another instrument, playing loudly, in a hall. That is our training. If you tell me to take my training and do something else and expect me to be brilliant and get everything perfectly, there’s a problem.

And, we are not trained to act for a camera; we are trained for the theatre, our faces are meant to be open and expressive, and we are taught a certain level of exaggeration in ways that underline enunciation and presentation. You stick that on camera and it looks unflattering, over-exaggerated, not believable, silly. Then you get told, “Well tone it down for the camera” and you think, I’m supposed to be singing for 3000 people here, but apparently I should… be subtle? It becomes this whole issue, and then it goes into, “This person doesn’t look good on camera because they are old.” And they’re not old at all, they’re at a perfect age, they’re good-looking, and, yes, they sound amazing! But it’s become this new “normal” for singers, that they look “old” somehow.

Lisette Oropesa, Pentatone, album, soprano, singer, opera, classical, vocal, dress, fashion, Mozart, album, Ombra Compagna

Ombra Compagna was released via Pentatone in May 2021.

Right, we’ve discussed this Instagram issue and how tough that is for women especially – so again, the music gets left behind, because  follower numbers are more important, being sexy is more important, how it will all magically translate into ticket sales…

… exactly, “People love her, she has lots of followers, she looks hot in a bikini…”

“… and we have to attract a younger, hip audience, so…”

… “we have to attract a younger audience” is dog whistle for, “We have to get the heavy, unattractive, older people off.” Why are we trying to attract them? In Europe there are tons of young people going to classical events; if you make it cheap enough, the younger patrons will attend, and, if you don’t try to water it down into these headlines, like, “Passion! Jealousy! Opera!” That sounds like a telenovela, come on, they see through that. But the marketing to young people involves us singers now, too, so any singer with a decent following – organizations tend to use us to advertise, and that’s fine, they can do it; that’s the reality.

So much marketing adds insult to injury by implying knowledge is somehow bad, that it’s elite to educate your potential audiences. 

If people think they don’t like classical music, or that it’s elite, then ask them to turn on any movie/series/TV show, and tell me what it is they’re hearing and responding to. I’ll tell you: it’s classical instrumentation and writing. 90% of the time people are responding emotionally to a theme while something is happening. Classical is an art that deals in human emotion; it happens naturally. You can play a video game and the music is gorgeous, epic, classical music, most of the time, it’s otherworldly – so if people don’t think they’ll like it, well, they might. It shocks me sometimes, the ignorance, but classical is absolutely mainstream. And so I don’t think it’s any more elite than the Olympics. People think classical is so hoyty-toytoy – but it’s like going to a nice restaurant or a special dinner; you have certain protocols you follow. That should be something you look forward to doing, like going on a date. Do you really want to go in your PJs?

Ah, but that’s the uniform this year!

Right? Lounge-office wear is the fashion in 2021 now!

I actually took off the lounge-wear and put on a dress to listen to your album; I still do.

Oh thank you!

It felt elevating and inclusive at once, and that is an integration Mozart seems especially good at.

Mozart is not a composer who leaves people out – he’s one of the more easy-to-listen-to composers. It’s why so many of his works are known by so many people, in and out of the realm of classical music. It’s melodic, harmonic, theatrical, entertaining, not too much chromaticism, nothing people wouldn’t get, but so human. His work is a great introduction to classical music overall.

Various singers have told me they love returning to the music of Mozart because his music is a massage for the voice – is that true for you too?

It is, yes, and it can be a really great thing to get you in line vocally. If you are everywhere with your voice, Mozart is a very challenging composer. He demands you understand the door, to go back to our image from earlier; all the hinges have to be lined up, everything has to be right, and just so. Only then, yes – walk through that door; Mozart wants you to.

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

piano, keys, keyboard, music, instrument, playing, hands, fingers, sound

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Toward the end of her life my mother would chide me for what she perceived as prolonged screen time. “You are always at that damn computer,” she’d sigh, “but I suppose you have to think about your audience and what they’d like to read.” What with everyone spending longer and more concentrated time in front of screens amidst the current coronavirus crisis, the lines between education, entertainment, and enlightenment can be fraught indeed. As an educator and writer, I frequently have to balance my desire to share information with a deeply-held urge to entertain, and then be able to skillfully juggle the added ball of measured impact. Those of us whose work is largely based in or around the internet (i.e. writers, artists, musicians) are at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms; we want to have our work seen, but we want to keep our voices and ideas intact. Playing to the desired young audience many classical institutions now eagerly pursue should, I suppose, be a priority, but playing to such an audience is not easy when you are no longer young yourself, not comfortable changing the nature of your work (or its presentation), and have an innate awareness that it is not desirable (or very dignified) as an aging woman with highly specialist passions and specifically artsy tastes, to attempt to compete with young/cute/sexy/etc. And yet, to note one’s work being read, shared, engaged with, and sense it is having an impact – it is gratifying. To play to the algorithm, or not to play to the algorithm; this is the question.

This juggling act can become even more complex when it is one’s modus operandi to impart what you feel is vital information whilst providing a modicum of inspiration which might (possibly, hopefully) encourage independent exploration, on and off the screen. Gresham College has been able to do all of these things, with incredible style and success, specifically through its Russian Piano Masterpieces series, featuring Professor Frolova-Walker and pianist Peter Donohoe. Introduced in September 2020, the series consists of what can only be described as lecture-conversation-concerts – in-depth, one-hour explorations of the history, structure, harmonics, and socio-economic-creative contexts of composers and their respective (if oftentimes linked) outputs. Frolova-Walker specializes in Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has published, lectured and had her work broadcast on BBC Radio 3; along with being Professor of Music History and Director of Studies in Music at Clare College, Cambridge, she is a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2015, she was recognized for her work in musicology and awarded the Edward Dent Medal by the Royal Musical Association. Peter Donohoe, CBE, is a celebrated international pianist who, since his winning the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, has worked with a range of conductors, including Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gustavo Dudamel, and Sir Simon Rattle. He has appeared at the BBC Proms no less than twenty-two times, and is steeped in the music of the composers who are featured in the series, though he also has vast experience with the music of Tchaikovsky, whose music Frolova-Walker had also wanted to include as part of the series, as she explains below.

The wonderfully easy rapport between Frolova-Walker and Donohoe – their mix of playfulness, intelligence, insight, experience, and genuine love of the material – makes the series a special event amidst pandemic gloom, and their impressive viewing numbers seem to confirm this. Algorithm or not, the series has hit a nerve with numerous classical-loving, culturally starving viewers; newcomers and old hands alike have been tuning in faithfully these past six months and interacting with good-humoured ease, judging (if one dares) from the comments shared and exchanged during live broadcasts. Indeed Frolova-Walker and Donohue do have their sizeable and frequently overlapping fan bases, but it’s heartening to note the embrace with which those fans have greeted a virtual presentation, and just how welcoming the community has been to newcomers. It was something of a thrill to chat recently for thirty minutes with Professor Frolova-Walker, whose work and style I have long admired, and to discuss not only the series itself, but wider ideas about classical music’s youth appeal (or not), how and why fashion intersects with events (or not), and the steep digital learning curve experienced by educators and artists alike over the past twelve months. The next presentation in Russian Piano Masterpieces is scheduled for Thursday, March 25th (at 6pm GMT), and explores the music of Sergei Prokofiev; the following presentation (the final one in the series) is on May 20th, about Dmitri Shostakovich.

How and why did this series come about?

Good question! When I applied to Gresham College I secretly was hoping I could get Peter to collaborate with me. Gresham College has been so proactive in using a different venue they don’t usually use, because we needed a piano. About a year ago we found out they managed to secure it, and I was absolutely delighted because it’s such a wonderful venue, everything is there; of course we couldn’t imagine how it would turn out, because it was planned as a live event, always. It was *never* supposed to be online. I mean, the online presence of Gresham College lectures was always an afterthought – it’s not the main thing, so you shouldn’t imagine we planned it as an online series at all – but emotionally it started with this great feeling of despair that we could only get 15 people. The next time we couldn’t get anyone, and then we got used to it. Now we’re just grateful for the opportunity, even if it’s in an empty hall! Really, it’s been a learning curve.

I would imagine part of that curve has involved upping technological skills, as has been the case with so many in the classical world.

I’m not sure I can claim anything in that field, really! The big moment was when, a year ago exactly, I was told I would have to do my other course, my Diaghilev lecture series, online; that was really… I was in complete panic, because basically I’m a person who draws energy from the audience. About 50% of my energy comes from the audience, from improvising in front of an audience, and in seeing their reactions. And suddenly, to not have this energy… I thought, “I can’t do this; I can’t write out text and read it. That isn’t me. I can’t do it properly!” So that was I think the worst, the steepest learning curve. It was primitive what I used – I just recorded myself and it was edited by someone else, but I had to actually speak to the camera and still have it be lively.

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

Photo via Gresham College

I find you very engaging – knowledgeable, passionate, with a really good understanding of pace and structure; I wonder if that’s because you have an artist’s understanding of the role of audience already.

It’s just something that was given to me. I think it’s one of the few gifts that I *was* given. Really, it’s not a gift of speaking coherently at all! But there’s something about connecting with an audience, which I was able to do since I was 19. I did my first lecture at that age, at a college in Moscow, and there were these students completely bored; they were basically forced into this room, it was their cultural program, they had to be there, and I was talking about Bach, and something just clicked at a certain moment, and they seemed to be really enjoying it so it was an opening. And I realized, “I want to do this” – but I don’t know what I do or how. It is just something I suppose I am predisposed to doing. And I’m sure I could learn to do it better, but I wouldn’t know how.

There has been a learning curve for everyone; my own output has been transformed and I’ve had to learn to release the need to know the immediate impact of my work on others.

It has been difficult, doing a series of undergrad lectures in an empty room, and there’s no connection! The previous year I was doing them so much better because I had the power of the audience. But what can you do?

Nothing. But it’s so hard sometimes…

It is!

… but things like your series help. How did you choose these composers and which pieces of music to feature in each segment?

When I was choosing which six to feature, it was very difficult because I had at least seven I wanted, but because I knew I’d be working with Peter, I looked at what he’d recorded and would play or remember, to bring it back to mind. One that is missing is Tchaikovsky; I would’ve loved to have had the music of Tchaikovsky as well, because Peter has a wonderful recording of his Grand Sonata and it’s a very I think undervalued work – people think it’s very loud and goes on forever, and I think it’s wonderful! So yes, Tchaikovsky had to fall off, but generally you know, I had some ideas of stories I could tell about some particular works, but then very often Peter would say, “Well let’s do this instead” and though it’s not what I planned it works perfectly, because there is no audience, and it’s not a concert. So it makes more sense to break things up, I think, and show different pieces in different ways.

Part of that method involves you and Peter trading various moments; how do you and Peter decide on these trade-offs in speaking, or do you just wing it?

I think you can guess!

I want you to tell me.

I think he believes in improvisation as much as I do, and you do, probably.

I do.

Right. So there is a certain amount of preplanning, but I think the interesting thing about this, and my thought behind it was, I’ve always known the way musicologists talk about music is very different from the way performers talk about it; I discovered that very early on when I travelled with a quartet. I was supposed to give a lecture about Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and then they’d play it; on the train (with quartet members) I was telling them my ideas and they were like, “Wow, we would’ve never thought of it in this way!” and some of them I know, like other performers, find some of these things weird. So I’m kind of… I know that some of the things musicologists say about music are completely opaque, and possibly the other way around is true as well, so these are two different approaches, and my idea was to see whether they can go together and whether people in the audience can gain a third thing which might emerge. As to what is working or not, it is not for me to judge.

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

Photo via Gresham College

So musicologists, performers, and audience are in this interesting triangulation of musical reception and experience within the context of live experience specifically; where do you see the role of online presentation?

My idea, my vision for it, is that in principle (the series) can grab the attention of someone who is not into piano music, who is not into music at all, who doesn’t read notation or know many things about this, that they would get something out of it, maybe very different things from what what you could get out of it, or what my students would get out of it, or my colleagues would get out of it. Ideally I would like that *everyone* will get something out of it, and that’s why I think also, this series is so multilayered; those who, say, want to do a project on Shostakovich’s piano music, can watch it and stop and look at the slides, and get much more out of those slides than during the lecture itself, and download the transcript – which of course is not really the actual transcript, because I wrote it before the lecture, but it has references on things we cover. There is depth in it, and depth in varied slides. I don’t have time to address everything when we’re presenting it live, and especially when it’s an improvised performance, but I am secure the content is there, and if somebody wants to get at it in a deeper way, they’d be able to.

Do you imagine your potential audience and write to that, or… ?

You get a little bit of feedback on things, not ever, of course, as you would like, but you get a bit, and I know that some of my former students for example who work in schools, show it to their pupils, who are A-level music students. I know there are music lovers who tune in, but there are also people who are just into Gresham College lectures overall – because Gresham College lectures are amazing. I started getting into them as well, for instance, I listened to a lecture on bell-ringing and mathematical patterns, and about 25 minutes into it I was completely lost, the mathematics side stopped making sense, it was too complicated – but I could still enjoy what I got out of it. It’s still valuable as an experience. My attitude to everything, basically, is it’s better to have a part of something and not be a purist, instead of having the attitude of, “I don’t understand this at all; I won’t bother getting into it.” I think it’s the same with classical music. When you first listen to a Wagner opera you get about 5% of it, then after 30 listenings you get maybe 20% of it; I think this is very important for people who want to get into classical and feel it’s too forbidding. It’s a reminder not to be too hard on themselves.

Having things laid out clearly, with intelligence and confidence, and letting people use their imaginations as well, is a good way to introduce the classical idiom overall, I have found.

Yes, I think it’s good too – I mean, notation is such a hot topic right now, but it’s why I use it. I think even for people who’ve never seen it before, it’s like a diagram: you understand it when (the piece) goes up and when it goes down, and that’s all you need to know. The time goes like this, you have these two axes like that; just from those elements, you can get quite a lot. You can see how many notes there are, how fast it goes – roughly – so with this very basic knowledge you can get quite a lot of comprehension, just by looking at two bars of music, even if you don’t know what it sounds like.

That’s just it, and then having the immediate experience of hearing Peter play what might be shown too...

It’s amazing. I think the last lecture we did Peter sight-read a piece just straight off the screen – the whole piece! It was so funny!

When I spoke to John Daszak about singing reductions he mentioned working with Peter on the Das Lied Von Der Erde piano reduction and how he found it louder than the full orchestration, and Peter’s playing in particular to be very full-on.

People who would have been in the room to actually hear the sound… it’s *astounding*. What a loss not to hear him live. Our little group from Gresham College has been obviously privy to this, and myself, and you realize this kind of piano playing is completely on a different level; there’s nothing in common between how I play the piano and how Peter plays the piano, it’s just a different thing. First of all the range of sound, the range of pianissimo to fortissimo is six times bigger – he can be very loud but he can be very quiet too – and also the control is amazing, I don’t know to what extent… we are in the hands of the technical team, so many things can go wrong, but really, the live-ness can never be replaced.

I hear your lectures and all I want to do is hear these pieces live.

That’s nice to hear! Maybe we’ll have a CD sale at the last lecture. There’s a tiny bit of hope that by the 20th of May we’ll have an audience, but we’re not worried about this now, we’ve gotten used to it the way one gets used to chronic illness or chronic pain, but it’s not something you want to necessarily have permanently. When the restrictions are lifted I think, people will realize what they were missing.

Some, but it’s different for everybody.

I think you know this well, that what we need to realize is that there are different generations who have very different relationships with online. My son, for example, was born online and he lives online, and to him, it’s different, so I’m sure, he would enjoy things in the real world, so to speak. His attitude to online things is *very* different, and for that young audience I think the idea of a short video or something that is not actually a full-scale lecture but a short video, really well done and well presented, professionally done, expensively done, is the best possible teaching aid. And I think he would prefer those things to reading books, to having live lectures, I have a suspicion that young people think very differently about these things.

But then when you get them in the concert hall or opera house they are quite shocked at what they’re hearing –in a good way, but shocked nonetheless. “What do you mean it’s not amplified?!” etc…

Oh, it’s amazing, yes! But here we get into the ritualistic side of it, and also I found out by talking to him, for example, what would prevent him from coming into the Royal Opera – I would always demand he would put on some smart clothes. I was shocked by this. He wants to hear the music but feels there is something alienating and hostile about the audience, and you know, he feels he can’t really wear normal clothes. And that’s something we have to fight. It really was shocking for me to hear that.

I find the correlation between dressing up and elitism bizarre; I dress up because I enjoy it, but I haven’t done it every single time I’ve attended an event.

I dress up as well – because I’m Russian, we tend to dress up, it’s normal to go out of the house to the bakery dressed up, so it’s a different attitude. There’s a big long explanation for it, I am sure – Russia never had a hippie culture, for example – so the idea of casual clothing is, for us, still a bit alien. For my son, who is 18 right now, he doesn’t want to make that effort, and also I think, if I meet someone who knows me and say, “This is my son” – he hates that, so that’s another reason he won’t hear a Wagner opera. But I said to him, “You can wear what you like and be completely separate from me” – and that was the pact.

So did he go?

He‘s seen the whole Ring cycle, and he knows it’s amazing – he could feel the fire in Walküre because he was in the 2nd row! He said, “I could feel the heat… !” Really, he loved it.

If you can get young audiences exposed like that even once, they’ll get it.

Some of them will come back, I think… some. But we need this kind of thing, of just going at all; we used to have this sort of cultural exposure in Soviet Russia. We used to have concerts for children, and for teenagers, and you had to go to them with your school – you had to go to a symphony concert, it was not a choice. And for 80% it meant nothing, but there would be that 20% who’d get completely hooked.

So your series feels like the next logical step for people who are curious, young or not…

I think that’s probably why I can do this so easily with Peter – he thinks the same; he’s very open, he can talk to anyone about these things without trying to create a mystique about any of it. I mean obviously there is a sense at some point where we say, “The rest we can’t explain because it’s magic, it takes you over” – but there are lots of things you can explain in an ordinary way, with very simple language, and that’s what we try to do.

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Auguste Rodin, sculpture, bronze, art, culture, history

Essay: Music Amidst Pandemic – New Doors, New Windows, Same View?

Since mid-March, I’ve been engaging in drawing and painting more frequently. It is a passion I first found immediately following a trip to the Algarve almost two decades ago. After years of engagement in photography, dance, and acting, visual art seemed like a natural next step. A sharp contrast to my then-job in advertising (the social aspects of which were fun but equally draining), a weekly art class, held in the basement of a local artist and teacher, was a solace of quiet, self-directed time, a solitary creative activity at once technical, instinctual, emotional, and sensual. I loved the smell of paints, the feel of charcoal on fingertips, the way red smudged into green. Art became an extension, rather than an escape, and it’s one I’ve found myself driven to over the past few uncertain and lonely months of pandemic lockdown. The quarantine necessitated by coronavirus restrictions has allowed for both contemplations of the present and future, as well as regular wanderings through old memories and experiences, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes winding up in waves and lines across sheets of foolscap and virginal white canvasses.

Looking through a stuffed old steamer trunk of old paintings, I remember the ochre sand, the cerulean blue sky, the jade-like palm fronds, the steely grey of clouds, of the intermingling textures of mottled-smooth-rough sculpture of every crevice and darkened corner. I recalled smells (of salty sea and wet sand on skin), tastes (I brought spice packets and various savoury pastes home with me), the cool-warm granular feel of the rocks, the grains of sand like razor-blades underneath, around, and against fingernails and feet and face; all of this I tried to translate with paints, pencil, points and brushes. I even tried to capture my conviction at the time that one of the red-shorted lifeguards at the local beach was a merman; he had vanished beneath the waves one day for well over fifteen minutes, gracefully materializing out of the waves unexpectedly and glinting a sleek silver against a mid-September overcast sky. My amateur efforts were sometimes successful, sometimes not; it was a feeling I aimed to capture, of oneness with a moment outside of time, reason, reaction, comforting identities and familiar faces and places. My instructor, a professional artist and professor at a major Canadian art school, would actively discourage the use of erasers in sketching. “Be open to any and everything,” she would say, in soothing caramel tones, “Whatever you think is a mistake might not be.” It was surprisingly easy for me not to use an eraser, surprising considering I was a lifelong perfectionist. might instead be approached as an opportunity for a new and unexplored path, and so, off I went on many, many paths, losing, finding, forming, shaping, and re-shaping, again and again, each time anew, awake, alive… or, that’s how I frequently want(ed) things to be. They sometimes weren’t, and aren’t, and that’s probably important to remember, especially now.

The current overtures toward reconfiguring presentation within the context of classical music are being greeted with a mix of sighs, scowls, boos, cheers, but largely (I would suspect) held breath. Navigating change is not, depending on one’s familial, cultural, and social baggage, always easy; in a forced situation it seems even more difficult and onerous. it might be done on tentative tiptoes, or it might be approached with an open-armed embrace. What with the figurative windows and doors being replaced, there’s concern if and how the view might be affected – and if that’s a good thing, a bad thing, an overdue thing, a thing that can lead to what may or may not be some overdue transformation within an industry some (particularly in North America) perceive as being adverse to innovation, one which would embrace experimentation and all the possibility (and diversity) within that framework. The openness to new horizons, even (or especially) ones that don’t seem good or viable (or comfortable or familiar), are notions being actively discussed and tried, especially in light of the recent reduced musical and theatrical presentations at Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, running through early June. Some are appalled at the safety restrictions in place; others say it’s a hopeful sign. Classical fans (at least some) perceive the safety measures as a small (and hopefully temporary) price to pay for the opportunity to experience live performance again. Being taken entirely out of self and place and time, whether at the easel, the concert hall, or the opera house, is not a reliable or predictable thing, and indeed, it does not happen with every single drawing, or every single performance.

Still, there’s the possibility, and it’s the opportunity for this possibility that I suspect is so missed. Our collective cultural saudade (for what else should we call it?) relates directly to the concept of community, quite possibly the most important form of beauty we have right now, and perhaps also our hardest loss. What was ‘normal’ may not, as I wrote recently, be coming back any time soon, and as such, we can’t experience the breaths, the sighs, the miniscule “mm”s and slight (or not) head cocks, the irritation of audible humming and tapping feet and seat-conductors, the resonance of instruments and voices vibrating through thighs and hips and sternum, into temples and through ear lobes. Pressing one’s head against speakers does not produce the same feeling of transcendence, one intimately tied to community. Communal transcendence within a confined space and time is not an every day experience . It is, in the 21st century, one of the few highly experiential and directly visceral things we desire actively and will pay for. Writer Charles Eisenstein wisely writes in a lengthy and very thought-provoking essay:

Our response to it sets a course for the future. Public life, communal life, the life of shared physicality has been dwindling over several generations. Instead of shopping at stores, we get things delivered to our homes. Instead of packs of kids playing outside, we have play dates and digital adventures. Instead of the public square, we have the online forum. Do we want to continue to insulate ourselves still further from each other and the world?

[…]

To reduce the risk of another pandemic, shall we choose to live in a society without hugs, handshakes, and high-fives, forever more? Shall we choose to live in a society where we no longer gather en masse? Shall the concert, the sports competition, and the festival be a thing of the past? Shall children no longer play with other children? Shall all human contact be mediated by computers and masks? No more dance classes, no more karate classes, no more conferences, no more churches? Is death reduction to be the standard by which to measure progress? Does human advancement mean separation? Is this the future?

Advancement versus preservation; this seems like such a strange idea, and yet it has become, like masks in public, part of the new definition of normal. Perhaps the two ideas are synonymous? That advancement as a species means the preservation and protection of others, especially its most disadvantaged? Perhaps, amidst the lessons corona might be able to teach us (as Eisenstein posits), a more active idea of community might not only be understood but literally, loudly lived. Experience of community within a live setting implies agreement of chosen presence within a predetermined space, for a predetermined period of time with other breathing beings with their own notions and ideas (and hopefully sense of openness as well) hearing and seeing what you are, but as themselves, with their own ears and eyes. I go to live events as much to experience this unique interconnected energy as I do for the music and staging; hell is other people, so goes the saying, but it feels equally true that hell is also being without other people, without having the opportunity for that community, not by choice, but by force. To be robbed of that, when one has not partaken of the social ritual of family, is indeed a cruel and unusual punishment – never mind the masks.

despair, sculpture, art, Perraud, history, desepoir, French, face, man, physique

Le Désespoir, Jean-Joseph Perraud, 1869, Paris; Musée d’Orsay. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

For those of us who are quarantined on our own, community and time acquire new meanings and varied applications. In an excerpt from his book On Nostalgia (Coach House Books, 2020), David Berry writes that “Nostalgia can only be lived in or abandoned: it is yearning distilled to its essence, yearning not really for its own sake but because there is nothing else to be done. Maybe it resisted definition for so long because naming it doesn’t help resolve anything anyway.” Thoughts of the past, of Portugal, of more recent trips and journeys, inspire an assortment of images, bold and pastel, hazy and in sharp focus. Amidst drawing, reading, teaching, there has also occurred the right kind of mental space for a re-exploration of Susan Sontag’s landmark 1977 collection of essays On Photography (Picador, 2001). The writer’s words ring particularly true in light of the many video items on offer throughout the pandemic era:

Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity — and ubiquity — of the photographic record is photography’s “message,” its aggression.

Such broadcasts are effective at giving a sense, however ephemeral, of memory of how, and what we remember of which performances, and why. How did X orchestra handled that particular passage, of who’s looking at the conductor and how often (and when, and sometimes perhaps why), of unconscious (and sometimes not visible to the assembled audience) forms of body language which may indicate sound and fury, or indeed, nothing at all. The Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD series, originally intended for cinema transmission alone, has taken on a second life online, a life many of us feel should’ve been there all along as an actual first iteration in the way Wiener Staatsoper, Moscow Conservatory, and the many offerings via Arte and Mezzo have done, and continue to do. Does the disposition to digital erase the supposed “grandiosity” of the operatic experience? I suppose it depends on how (and if) one perceives the experience of opera-going as such in the first place. There is an understandable element of nostalgia at play for certain audiences who attend live performances, a nostalgia that leaks into filming and demands pure (so-called) documentation, rather than creative interpretation.

Playing on such nostalgia is useful for marketing (especially right now), but tries (in vain) to supercede the reality of theatre as living, breathing art form, giving obvious weight to those who say a creative experience can’t be replicated online. Hopefully governments in North America will sit up and take notice, and stop handing out grants based on digital appeal alone; never has the understanding of art as a necessary part of every day been more divided than in the pandemic era, with its patchwork of funding models and ensemble support. Perhaps now is the time, more than ever, for North American artists to stand, sing, act, move, dance in the streets, more boldly than ever, not to play on a collective saudade but to blaze, fiercely, in the windows of all, providing a new and better view.

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

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

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

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

Wagner, composer, German, opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicholas: The Ring is always for now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark: No, it isn’t!

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

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

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

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

Yes I do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wagner, composer, German, opera

Richard Wagner in Paris, 1867.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Berry, writer, author, music, classical

Mark Berry

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

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

Mark: I think that says it all, really.

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

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

(long silence)

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

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

Nicholas Vazsonyi, Clemson, writer, author, music

Nicholas Vazsonyi (Photo: Craig Mahaffey, Clemson University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Rémi Thériault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Dwayne Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was ill… 

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

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

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

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

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

… which is rather macho  to my ears… 

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Rémi Thériault

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

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

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