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Edward Seckerson: “Having A Musicality Which Chimes With What The Artists Are Doing.”

Edward Seckerson, music, writer, British, broadcaster, classical, musical theatre, interviewer

Photo: Kevan Bamforth

“What’s the c-word?” I ask my students.

“Context!” they reply.

It behoves any writer to know something about the subject to which they profess passion, love, adoration. Far from being antithetical to the spirit of discovery, context tends to enhance appreciation, understanding, and overall enjoyment, while leaving room for questions: why is a musical phrase Beethoven’s 5th done a certain way by Carlos Kleiber, but not by Klemperer? How much should the tempo in the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde be guided by text, or might there be another approach (and if so, what)? How do the alliterative sounds of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s writing inform the aural sounds of Strauss? What roads led to Wagner’s famous lack of resolution in Tristan und Isolde and what paths led out of it (what didn’t, really)? Some things have definitive answers, but in art as much as life, some things tend to be –must be – evolving conversations.

It’s good to be reminded of the importance of both definition and evolution, even while striving, amidst quotidian mundanities (the continual handwashing, the ever-growing pile of ironing, the nightly nod-off on the sofa) for something that can be felt and experienced beyond the immediate. Around the world culture lovers are largely in situ; the only travel many are able to do is through one’s own imaginings. How rich they truly can be when one has the brushes and the pigments at hand to shape the many flat, smooth surfaces of weeks and months before us, but oh, how difficult it can be to find the inspiration to start, let alone to continue. I tangle, on any given day, with threads that pull in all directions: emails, updates, cooking, correcting, battling seemingly-endless streams of dust. But something within persists, and has done to varying degrees since the pandemic began, a constant akin to Malevich’s infamous black square, which resonates, reverberates, swallows, enfolds, encompasses, and even (especially) enlightens. As I wrote at the end of April, curiosity has been the guiding light through not only the current COVID19 era, but more broadly, a music education sorely lacking in proper guidance through childhood and youth, but one which has enjoyed a lovely Renaissance in the last few years. In an editorial for Opera Canada magazine earlier this year I revealed my strong belief in studying prior to attending (or now, livestreaming) events; that belief extends to listening. I find it stressful to put on a piece of music and not know even a little bit about what I’m hearing, let alone something about the artists involved, its history of composition, and the various approaches to interpretation. The work of Edward Seckerson has been invaluable in this regard; context and curiosity join in important ways through his work, allowing for new insights, deeper questions, and ever more bundles of curiosity.

A self-described “writer, broadcaster, podcaster, and Musical Theatre obsessive,” I discovered Seckerson’s work via his regular reviews for Gramophone magazine. His smart, accessible, well-observed writing employs poetic if equally clear language; the Gramophone review of the Pentatone/Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester release of Das Lied von der Erde from earlier this year, for instance, mixes the text of Mahler’s grand work and its recorded history with keen musical and vocal observations, contextualizing and poeticizing in one sublime whole. Along with working in formal media for various British papers through the years (in the role of critic), Seckerson has worked in theatre and music, appearing onstage in various forms and roles. Writer and host of the long-running BBC 3 Radio series Stage & Screen, he is and has been a regular on radio and television, and has contributed commentary for the Cardiff Singer Of The World competition regularly. As well as penning books on Mahler and conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas, Seckerson has also been part of stage works exploring the life and works of composer Richard Rodgers and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Despite (or perhaps owing to) such accomplishments, Seckerson does not think of himself as press these days so much as a figure who, as he puts it, wants to be (nay, is) part of a broader creative conversation. Indeed, conversation is the thing he positively excels at; Seckerson has interviewed many, many people, including, as his website says, “everyone from Bernstein to Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney to Pavarotti, and Julie Andrews to Andrew Lloyd Webber.” His interviewee list is a who’s who of figures from the classical music, theatre, and musical theatre worlds, reflecting his passion for all of them, and, more broadly, his commitment to the intelligent exploration of culture in all its facets and forms.  Such a gift for (and active commitment to) one-on-one conversation is truly a rarity in a world of pre-written Q&As and preening Insta-videos. I was fortunate to be able to experience this gift live earlier this year, during a talk at London’s Bishopsgate Institute featuring Sir Antonio Pappano; over the course of the evening I was struck by his casual balance of personal and profound, funny and foundational; attending a Seckerson talk means one will learn as much about humanity and artistry (and the sometime-connections therein) as about the actual figure themselves, no small thing in a world where image tends to trump authenticity.

Seckerson has put his distinct talent for conversation to work via a regular chat series produced over the course of the lockdown. Guests so far have included conductor Edward Gardner, violinist Nicola Benedetti, actor/singer Julian Ovenden, and mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connelly. Conversations span from thirty to sixty minutes and, as he explains, are entirely unedited, and are inviting exchanges which nicely embrace both the macro and the micro aspects of individual artistry and creative development, particularly within the context of our current pandemic era. His casual remark to violinist Nicola Benedetti during their conversation in June, that Elgar’s Violin Concerto (the performance of which was one of the final performances he attended in London before lockdown) is “the most intimate of epics”, inspired a spontaneous and enthusiastic response from the violinist (“It’s an amalgam of the very public and the very private Elgar”, he went on to explain), the warmth of which fuelled their lively almost-30-minute exchange. In a time when one’s spirit can so easily be dragged down by a multitude of daily mundanities, when life can feel so cold, empty, and robbed of joy, such sincere exchanges feel like a needed blanket of warmth and goodness.

Writing about another writer one happens to admire is no easy task; writing about a writer who is also a gifted conversationalist and who, octopus-like, has many arms in many different and fascinating worlds and is, quite simply, so very genuine, is indeed a rare gift. Perhaps my students, when asked what the c-word is, might also now respond loudly with, “Conversation! Commitment! Curiosity!” – for these are things Seckerson’s work has encouraged in my own pursuits, particularly through these many gloomy months. We spoke in August, before much of the programming now underway in London was announced.

Edward Seckerson, music, writer, British, broadcaster, classical, musical theatre, interviewer

Photo: Edward Seckerson

How have things been for you through the lockdown?

I live in central London, and it’s disturbing that the West End, and London overall, has been so empty – so many businesses are going to close. The Chancellor introduced a supplementary package for eating out Monday to Wednesday; it’s done the trick, and a lot of people are eating out as a result – they get £10 off their meal. In terms of the arts, people here are so desperate to get things moving again – they’re being so resourceful and creative. It isn’t always successful, but the will is there, and that’s important.

Have you had time to reflect on your work during this time?

Well, one of the things I suppose I learnt over the years of reviewing – and of course I still review for Gramophone – is that I always feel, just as I did when I was writing for The Independent, there is really no point offering your subjective view. Everything is subjective! But it’s best to offer some sort of insight into the piece you’re reviewing. I wrote a review this morning for Gramophone of the new Dudamel recording of the Ives symphonies, and I spent most of the review really talking about the music, because that, to me, is more important than just registering whether we have another successful performance on our hands, or what the merits or otherwise are of this performance. I think it really is important to give some kind of guide to the piece you’re reviewing, and the same is true of when I do the comparative reviews on (BBC) Radio 3, on Record Review – I think it’s important to offer people some kind of road map to the piece as well as interpretations.

That map, for those who don’t have a formal degree in music, is very helpful; it feels like a door swinging open, which isn’t always the case with classical music writing. Is that your intention?

Yes, that’s exactly my intention, to make that map clear. I always say that it’s almost irrelevant whether Ed Seckerson thinks a performance is special or not; what is important is that I offer some kind of sense of the experience, the shared experience if you’re reviewing something live. People who weren’t there want to know what it was like to be there, so there’s that element. I used to get a lot of flak when I reviewed opera for The Independent; people would say I spend too much time discussing the production and not enough time discussing the relative merits of the cast and their performances, but since most of those reviews were about new productions to me it was important to try and express, or offer, some kind of insight into what I think the director was looking for.

I’ve received similar feedback, that I focus too much on the ideas of the director and theatre aspects overall, and not enough on the singing, but I read your review of Barrie Kosky’s infamously divisive staging of Carmen and it gave a real sense of why he chose what he did, contextualized within the history of this very famous opera.

… and that’s the point. I think there are a lot of spectators out there who simply want their opinion to be endorsed or otherwise when they go to the opera – (like) if their favorite singer is singing, they want to see a rave about them. But it is actually important to discuss how the piece is being reimagined. Opera would very quickly become a museum culture if people didn’t keep reimagining the pieces, and sometimes they do so with limited success, sometimes they do so with hugely insightful success, and I think that’s important. One of the reasons why I’m successful as a critic is because I was an actor, and I have a very real sense of what it’s like to be on a stage and be that vulnerable – but also, if a director makes a choice, I feel it’s important to be able to ask, if it’s not immediately clear, why he or she has made that choice, to be able to offer some kind of suggestion or insight as to why they might’ve made that choice. And I don’t think audiences question that side enough. One of the reasons it took so long for slightly more, shall we say, radical theatrical productions to become the norm was because audiences weren’t prepared to do some of the work themselves. And I think it’s important that audiences are not passive, even if it’s a concert. I’ve spoken to so many musicians who say they know immediately when an audience is listening in a certain way; if an audience isn’t listening in a certain way, or there isn’t that connection, they know immediately that that performance won’t succeed, or won’t succeed on the level they might’ve hoped.

Musician friends of mine have noted how the quality of the listening can change dramatically according to where they perform; geography makes a difference. 

That’s because certain audiences are experiencing a different culture of music, sometimes for the first time, so they might listen more intently.

Or not…

That’s true! We do take a lot for granted here; we are very spoiled in cities like London, which is surely a music capital of the world. The choice, on a daily basis, when there isn’t a pandemic, is absolutely extraordinary, and you know, this time has made me appreciate what live music really means to me.

Edward Seckerson, music, writer, British, broadcaster, classical, musical theatre, interviewer, Diana Rigg, backstage, Queen Elizabeth Hall, conversation, artist, theatre

Backstage with Dame Diana Rigg at Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 2019.

What has changed in the quality of your listening as you stepped away from reviewing?

Well, one of the pleasures of giving up writing newspaper reviews was that I could actually go and sit, relax and participate as an audience member, which gave me, and still gives me, great joy. You do listen differently when you are writing about something. I still listen in great detail but I think part of your brain is already forming the sentences, is already thinking of images, for the review you’re going to write, which is an intrusion. I first wrote for The Guardian in the days when pretty much all the reviews were overnight reviews, and I was never so unhappy as I was at that time as a journalist. I did it because it was a big break for me and it was establishing my name, but I hated every minute of it, and when I joined The Independent, the first thing I said to Thomas Sutcliffe, the arts editor, was, “If you’re doing overnight reviews, I’m not in the business of writing them” and he said, “No, I want people to sleep on what they’ve experienced and get up the next morning having digested and let it sit for a while.” All this nonsense about rushing out to meet the 11pm deadline doesn’t help anybody.

A long time ago there was an arts editor I worked with, and (Placido) Domingo was in town doing a revival, yet another, of the (Franco) Zeffirelli Tosca, it was Gwyneth Jones and Domingo, and the editor said, “We want an overnight review because it’s Domingo” and I said, “The show comes down at twenty minutes to 11pm; there are two intervals in the production; your deadline is 11pm; it’s impossible” and the editor said, “Well you’re no use to me as an opera critic if you can’t deliver a review after the show.” I said, “When will I do it?” He said, “You write during the intervals.” I said, “How can I write organically about a performance when it’s only a third of the way through? Oh, but wait, I have a good idea: why don’t I write the review before the performance?” It took him a moment or two to realize what I was actually, rather savagely, saying. And I did write the review, and I basically had to cheat it and write at the intervals, so there was no coherence. That is the kind of attitude that existed in media then and it still does, but thankfully some things have changed.

Some things have changed, but some have not, that attitude has transferred over to an obsession with clicks and views; Antonio Pappano and I spoke about it earlier in the summer and he said at one point, “if that’s what we rely on, we’re lost.”

When I did my talk with Pappano – you were there – at Bishopsgate earlier this year, we spoke backstage about the new culture of journalism, actually. You know, I was in at the start of this (change) – I was a mainstream classical reviewer in the days of broadsheet papers as well as this transition online, and indeed I remember people I knew at Glyndebourne, when the online thing started to happen, saying to me, “What are we going to do about inviting people?” I said, “You have to make value judgments about the kinds of writers you’re inviting – ignore all this business about how many clicks and hits they get, and just read what they write; read the work, and decide who you think is worth inviting.” It’s that difficult, and it’s that simple. And so when we spoke in January, Pappano himself was horrified I couldn’t get arrested at the ROH these days. I said, “It’s not because I’m writing reviews; I’m honest about that. It’s because I want to be part of the argument; I want to be part of the debate about the kind of work that’s being done at the ROH.” I mean, I’d be quite happy to attend rehearsals, but the attitude is always, “Oh no, you’re a member of the press! You can’t!” and I’ve said, “But I’m not a member of the press anymore, I’m just me…!”

This sounds frustratingly familiar. 

It’s so frustrating. If I go to a dress rehearsal and I want to make some constructive comments, I won’t write a review, I want to be part of the debate before or after the performance. But I can’t contribute anything if I wasn’t there.

You’ve still really crossed over from the media world. What has that process been like?

It’s been very interesting. Long before I wrote for The Guardian or The Independent I was invited to ENO, during the Sir Mark Elder/David Pountney regime, and I got invited because the Press Officer was enlightened enough to know my background. I was making in-roads as a journalist and writer but had come from the theatre,  and I had a musical background as well, but I had come from the theatre directly and they had the good sense to invite me long before I was writing reviews – so I had points of reference. When I did start writing reviews, I’d been there, watching these shows, seeing this company develop, which fed into the kind of writing I produced, which fed into the things I did when I started writing for a major paper.

So you paid your dues, just not in the usual way… ?

I paid my dues, though yes, my background is very unusual for a music journalist, because although I studied music when I was young – I was saying this in the interview I did recently with Nicola Benedetti – my problem was when I started learning the piano at a young age was that my musicality had already exceeded what I was capable of doing on the instrument, and I found it hugely frustrating. Nicola completely identified with that, by the way! I said, unless I started even earlier – and that battle that goes on between technique and musicality is huge.

When I was learning piano as a child, musicality was something others tried to forcibly extricate; there was an intense focus on technique instead, which I was never very good at. Musicality was perceived as being unfocused, sloppy, pointless. 

How awful! I mean, I went to a comprehensive school where they had peripatetic music teachers, and I was handed a violin one day and learned my way around that instrument without much success, but at least I knew my way around it. I took up percussion, which was a way of producing more instant results. I could read music and rhythm, and picking up the technique was relatively uncomplicated compared to learning the violin, so I was able to play with amateur orchestras and youth orchestras, and that was another way in. But this thing about musicality, coming as I do from a theatre and music background, I was brought up to believe rather as Leonard Bernstein said, to just embrace music in all its facets, in all its styles – that’s the way I was brought up. I was never directed toward “good” music or “serious” music, I was just encouraged to enjoy music, period, and lucky enough to be taken to theatre and musicals and concerts, and that’s where it all started to marinate. Many of my colleagues come from more academic backgrounds. I always say, nothing wrong with that at all, but if you’re going to be a critic, and a lot of young students have often asked me about this – “What is the route in? What is the way in?” – I’ve always said, there isn’t any particular way in, it’s a case of just doing it.

This is precisely the advice I give my own students: do it, do it a lot, but be wary of doing it for parties who will exploit your talent and energies.

Precisely. I started years ago, by producing dummy reviews and sending them to people, because I was an avid record collector as a boy, and as I grew up I became more and more fascinated by interpretation, and that, to me, was where the music-making really started to happen. So I always say to people, it’s not so much what you know, it’s what you feel. And if you can’t recognize when an artist makes a beautiful phrase, then you’ve no business doing the job. It’s about having a musicality which chimes with what the artists themselves are doing. And you have to feel confidence in that. The one thing I am confident about amongst all my insecurities: I am completely confident about my musicality.

That confidence translates to your online conversations. Why did you start this series?

When lockdown happened, my partner said to me, “Why don’t you do audio?” I said, “Honestly, do I really want to do audio? And not earn a penny?! Surely I should be looking for ways to earn a bob or two during this period!” And my partner said, “It’s important you’re out there and doing what you do.” So I decided to do a series with people that I had some kind of association with, either we’ve crossed paths or I knew their work or they knew my work. Nicola was the exception – I had never met her, but one of the last concerts I went to this year was her live performance of the Elgar violin concerto at the Royal Festival Hall; I was blown away by it and thought it was a good reason to speak to her, since the related album was coming out.

But basically what I wanted to do was to talk to people that would feel comfortable relaxing on a remote audio with me, and were prepared to do so without editing. These audios are all unedited, they are completely spontaneous – this was important to me; sometimes a doorbell rings or whatever, but basically I’ve said to these artists, “I want this to be raw, as if we’re doing this live.” And I was determined we should mix classical and musical theatre, because they are my two main areas. I started with John Wilson – I bumped into him literally in the first week of lockdown, he’d moved around the Tate Modern, and I was walking down the Embankment, and there he was. We stood in socially-distance conversation for a while, and I said, “Hey do you want to this?” and he said “Sure!” What I decided now is to continue to do them. I think as a writer you have to get past … look, this is tricky, but you have to get past the idea that you do this only professionally for a living; sometimes you should do things occasionally for the hell of it. That was a difficult pill to swallow at first; I felt I was putting a lot of effort in for no return, and as a freelancer that’s a no-no. When I think back now to the kinds of jobs I would turn down routinely, I would be quite grateful for them now.

Engaging in freebie culture is something I caution my students against. When it’s you calling the shots, it’s a different energy; you have all the control. That’s different than giving everything away to an organization who will exploit your talent for their numbers.

Exactly! Several have said to me, “You should charge for these interviews” and I said, “But this is my product; I have total control over it.” It’s been quite refreshing to go to people with my reputation and history and just say, “Hey, do you want to do this?” Generally speaking they’re only too pleased, especially during this time, but I think they’ll be pleased after this crisis is past, so long as I can supplement it from other paid jobs; most of my work consists of live conversation events at festivals or the like; Bishopsgate was an experiment. I lost a huge amount of work when the pandemic struck, including live interviews with Dame Janet Baker, an evening with Petula Clark at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and many bookings with Patricia Routledge, who I’ve been working with for years in a show called Facing The Music, about her musical theatre career. Those things are where the money for me is. Writing, broadcasting, the BBC fees have gone down and down…  you have to move with the times, and reinvent yourself. I reinvented myself hugely, because as an ex-actor, I loved the buzz of being onstage and still do, albeit in a different capacity.

Edward Seckerson, music, writer, British, broadcaster, classical, musical theatre, interviewer, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, musicals, backstage, Bridge Theatre, conversation, artist, theatre

Backstage with Claude-Michel Schönberg at Bridge Theatre, February 2019.

I was in theatre also and I do miss it, though I find performance and authenticity now tend to meet through writing; do you find this in your pursuits?

Oh yes – and these audio interviews, I hope, are something that shows the best of what I do. I think good interviewers are few and far between; let’s focus on the people who can initiate a conversation as opposed to doing a Q&A. I hate those. People say “Will you do a Q&A?” and I say, “No, I’ll do a real conversation.”

The reciprocity of a real conversation demands sincerity, which seems like a rare commodity these days.

It is – and  I’ve met and spoken with a huge cross-section of people, in various capacities. I was a mainstream presenter on (BBC) Radio 3 for some years, I used to do the breakfast show on the weekends and had a show called Stage & Screen, which ran for six years and was devoted to musical theatre. I learned a lot on that show and had a great time. We met an awful lot of luminaries from the world of musical theatre, and I learned a lot about sitting down and conversing with people.

That’s what radio teaches one: the importance of give and take.

It’s a huge thing. You know in the first few minutes of talking to someone who’s done x number of interviews with people if it’ll work. I interviewed Glenn Close for Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum; they didn’t want to put her in front of the press corps, it was done with me interviewing her rather than people shouting out questions. I did a video interview just before that for the website and I remember, it was so obvious, she sat down like, “Oh here we go, another interview” – as a film star she would have done twenty-five or more in a day to promote a film – but the first thing I wanted to talk about was the Richard Rodgers musical Rex she’d been in when she was unknown. I was just curious about that; Nicol Williamson had been in it also And she looked visibly stunned when I brought this production up. The whole interview changed direction the minute she knew that I knew what I was talking about, that I wasn’t another hack. But I’m afraid in some quarters, in the theatre and movie world, it’s par for the course. The level of ignorance among so-called journalists is breathtaking – and yes, the sheer laziness, the total lack of research. People you talk to, they want to know that you respect the work they do, it’s only natural, you sometimes have to talk with people in rotten moods, but the minute you turn it around and say, “What I thought was interesting about your performance was this and this and this… ” – it changes everything.

Good interviews demand many things: research, listening, reciprocity – all while holding one’s own. Lately it feels as if these things have been disposed of via online culture… 

… oh, this whole business of so-called “influencers” is driving me absolutely nuts! It’s about nothing at all; it’s just so much noise around people who appeal to the lowest common denominator and who generate a following. Suddenly they’re endorsing various things…

… and some are being invited to things or cast based on their social media presences. I wrote about Instagram as it relates to opera casting in 2018, but the pandemic seems to have underlined that  growing connection.

It’s worse in the musical theatre world too – it’s a different kind of celebrity. There is Instagram casting in that world; I’ve spoken to producers who have engaged in it. When I did my stage conversation last year with Patti Lupone I brought this up and she was mortified by the whole thing. It’s this whole box-ticking thing…

Edward Seckerson, music, writer, British, broadcaster, classical, musical theatre, interviewer, Patti LuPone, backstage, Theatre Royal Haymarket, conversation, artist, theatre

Backstage with Patti LuPone at Theatre Royal Haymarket, March 2019.

“This person has x number of followers” – even if they bought them – “this person gets x number of views on their videos” – those are easy to fake – “this person gets lots of engagement” – how many of them are genuine? – “this person has a cool/sexy image”  – which is all photo filters… 

Indeed, but there’s also the basic question: can (the artist) actually do the job? Live and onstage? Are they the best person for the role? Or are they being cast because they have six million followers on Instagram? It’s a serious problem. Producers want to sell tickets obviously, and Intendants want to sell their opera houses, but if we’re not very careful, it could derail the integrity of the business. It really could. I participate in social media because I like to think of myself as savvy when it comes to online, but I don’t exploit it as much as I could; I am very suspicious of it. And I think unfortunately, the first question you’re always asked – and you probably experienced this yourself – you go to someone who doesn’t know your work, and you say, “May I do this?” and they say, “How many hits does your website get?” I mean… many of the people working in the business now are so young and they have no history or knowledge of the people or the history of people like you and me. And I’m not saying that in a boastful way; I’m saying it because it’s a fact. I get the most insane emails sometimes asking me to cover things that have absolutely nothing to do with my area of operation or expertise. I’m on a press list somewhere and so…!

Very often I get questions about my metrics too, and my response is that my numbers aren’t The New York Times, but they don’t have to be; my readership is faithful.

Exactly, and that’s the point! I mean social media is famous for endorsing things so you put something up with all your powers and people who know you in the business will like it, and click on the button, but how many listen to the interview the whole way through, or read the whole feature to the end? Of course I know people read Gramophone magazine – they read it from cover to cover, it’s the only serious record magazine left, which is why I still write for it – but I’m delighted some of my audio interviews have hit the spot for listeners. I know people who’ve listened to them and I know the pleasure they’ve got from them, which is far more important than reaching 50,000 people who don’t listen to more than a couple minutes. I will say, I didn’t want to do a series on the lockdown or the problems (of the music industry) associated with the pandemic; important though it is to talk about these things, that’s not what I’m in the business of doing. I wanted to stay talking about the music.

Speaking of music, Sarah Connolly’s relating the text of Das Lied von der Erde to Bach in your chat made me rethink that piece, but then, isn’t that the point of good conversation – to inspire one to think about things in new ways?

I agree with you entirely – but of course you’re only as good as the quality of your interviewee; this is where one has to be selective. I know why I chose the people I chose. And Sarah is a rare bird, not only a wonderful talent, but I’m probably more pleased with that one than the others so far, she’s such a great talker: engaging, amusing, smart, all those things.

Her trust in you seems palpable.

That’s where the history comes in. With some people it takes a long time to earn their trust; for instance, with Patricia Routledge, it took a long time before I earned her trust. She’s someone who’s lived on her own, who has huge integrity as an actor, but my goodness, it was worth the wait. When there is mutual trust, it frees you up, and it’s lovely for me when one’s reputation precedes one and someone is happy to do something simply because they trust you. We both know we’re going to have a reasonably stimulating exchange and I’ll not be talking about non-musical things as others might, that I’m there for the music. At the end of the day the music is what it’s all about, and that’s what I’ve adopted as my yardstick over the years.

Edward Seckerson, music, writer, British, broadcaster, classical, musical theatre, interviewer, Patricia Routledge, backstage, Theatre Royal Haymarket, conversation, artist, theatre, Danny With A Camera

In conversation with Patricia Routledge at Theatre Royal Haymarket, part of Seckerson’s “Facing The Music” series with the British artist. Photo: Danny With A Camera

Barrie Kosky: “Crises Always Bring Out The Best And Worst Of People”

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus

What do you do when all the energy you’ve put into careful planning over many years is suddenly threatened? Barrie Kosky decided to wipe the board clean and start again. The new autumn programme at Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic means, for the busy Intendant, a tangle of what he calls “scheduling nightmares” but also opens the door to new possibilities, for artists and audiences alike. It’s a purposeful step into the unknown, something the self-described “gay, Jewish kangaroo” is well used to doing after three-plus decades of working in theatre.

As head of the Komische Oper Berlin since 2012, Kosky (who has been called “Europe’s hottest director“) has made it a mission to regularly stage early 20th century operettas, Baroque opera, musicals, Mozart, and 20th century works. The pervasive idea of opera being an art form designated entirely for certain classes is one that niggles Kosky; he told The Telegraph in 2019 that “it fits a cultural agenda to say it’s elitist, but it is bullshit.” The idea that a work of art is challenging, entertaining, and enlightening at once is, in Kosky’s world, good, and entirely normal; just how much the bulbs for any or all of the elements in this trinity are dimmed or brightened depends, of course, on the material, but just as equally, the context. Berlin’s history, and indeed, that of Germany, have been constant sources of inspiration and exploration, and have often provided a meaty subtext to Kosky’s stagings, notably in his 2017 Fiddler on the Roof, here called Anatevka, with its unmissable, and purposefully uncomfortable, recalling both distant and recent pasts. His 2015 staging of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron featured imagery which disturbingly recalled the Holocaust. This bold combination of vision, politics, and thoughtful imagination (and in many cases, reimagination) is what has largely fuelled the incredible success KOB has enjoyed over the course of Kosky’s tenure, which is set to end in 2022. Before then, the company’s re-envisioned autumn program is a concentrated symbol of all Kosky has, and hopes to still, accomplish, both within and outside of Berlin proper. The new slate of programming is ambitious: there will be minimalist stagings of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Offenbach’s opéra bouffe The Countess of Gerolstein, Gluck’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, Schumann’s Mondnacht, and the operetta Die Blume von Hawaii by Paul Abraham; concert performances of works by Schubert (the song cycle Winterreise will be performed by ensemble baritone Günter Papendell) and Kurt Weill (with singer/actor Katherine Mehrling); a three-concert series devoted to the works of Igor Stravinsky (led by Music Director Ainārs Rubiķis); a series of salon talks combining science, creativity, and social issues; dance presentations (including choreographer Emanuel Gat’s SUNNY by Staatsballett Berlin); and a video project by Gob Squad (a British-German collective specializing in video/performance collaborations) which will use Berlin as a backdrop tot explore perceptions around the comfortably familiar.

That sense of comfort is not, as a concept, something Kosky has ever spent time or energy presenting or encouraging. In a conversation with James Clutton (Opera Holland Park’s Director of Opera) earlier this year, he compared the overall position of KOB to Berlin’s other two opera houses, noting that “Deutsche Oper is Moby Dick, Staatsoper (Unter den Linden) is Jaws, and… we’re Flipper.” It’s Kosky’s smart, sassy,  singular way of illustrating the vivid approach of the house and its sparky Intendant to the material they program and the artists (both ensemble and guests) they engage. The longtime director’s style – if he could be said to have one – busily combines color, movement, and drama in a vivid theatrical aesthetic, colorfully aided by the work of longtime collaborators, including choreographer Otto Pichler, set designer Rufus Didwiszus, costume designer Klaus Bruns, set and lighting designer Klaus Grünberg, and designer Katrin Lea Tag. Embracing strong imagery and dramatically rich theatricality, Kosky is unafraid of upsetting the apple cart of operatic expectation; in fact, it’s something of a specialty of his, to purposefully turn it over, kick the wheels, collect the apples, and go off to make something considered delicious by some and unpalatable by others. Not everything he does is easily digestible, but then, it isn’t supposed to be; Kosky’s oeuvre as an artist is to question perceptions and long-held beliefs, which sounds simple enough but is no small thing in an industry constantly pressured to hew to so-called “safe” programming and presentation. While expanding the possibilities of live presentational experience, great attention is given to small details within a larger overall narrative framework. His 2017 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, for instance, contextualized the very place in which it was presented – Bayreuth – in order to question notions of identity and creativity; utilizing puppetry and a backdrop of the Nürnberg trials, Kosky put the opera’s composer on trial. As Martin Kettle noted in The Guardian “(a)t the heart of this Meistersinger is an imaginative, subtle and serious staging of a simple question: how far does Wagner’s antisemitism invalidate his artistic achievement? In the end, Kosky proves to be a fair judge of a question that is still necessarily debated.”

Creative probing into the nature of creation, ideas of artistry, and the role(s) of context within all of them reveal pursuits at once serious (Schoenberg’s unfinished 1932 opera Moses und Aron) and gloriously silly (Oscar Straus’ frothy 1923 operetta Die Perlen von Cleopatra), with a particular penchant for combining surreal dreamscape visions with unapologetic disruptions to socio-religious (and operatic) norms. His 2016 production of The Nose by Dmitri Shostakovich for the Royal Opera Covent Garden famously featured a line of tap-dancing title characters, while the 2015 staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel for Bayerische Staatsoper revealed (nay, revelled in) an even more surreal, grotesque world where the personal and political intersect. The production, which was to have been presented at the Metropolitan Opera this December (cancelled because of COVID19), features a sparring, obsessive couple, and delves into the subconscious of each to reveal a parade of decadent, deprived fantasies that strip away the eroto-goth, pseudo-romance of Valery Bryusov’s breathless 1907 novel. Fierce, ferocious, and at times suitably unfathomable, the memorable production was not only notable for its comically nightmarish vignettes (one of which featured a very sarcastically-presented penis being roasted and consumed) but for the genuine interest Kosky took in the depiction of the opera’s female character, Renata, an interest which applies more broadly to the many pivotal female characters within the works he’s helmed. Paul Abraham’s 1932 operetta Ball im Savoy, staged at KOB in 2013, featured the inimitable Dagmar Manzel (a company mainstay) as Madeleine de Faublas, who clings desperately to an elegant dignity while trying to keep her marriage afloat; Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe Die schöne Helena (known more for its French title La belle Hélène, and staged at KOB in 2014) offered a fascinating depiction of its title character, one touching on vampy, vapid, scary, silly, and girlish. Monteverdi’s Die Krönung der Poppea (in its original Italian, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with the Komische using a richly reimagined score by composer Elena Kats-Chernin) portrayed the title character’s ruthless and naked (sometimes literally) ambitions with zealous, bloody clarity. Franz Schreker’s 1918 work Die Gezeichneten (staged in 2018 at Oper Zürich) Kosky presented Carlotta through the disturbed, damaged perceptions of the male character obsessed with her, creating a twisted parable that hinged, like much of his work (notably his Pelleas et Melisande staging in 2017), around the dialectics of male desire, female identity, power, subservience, and beauty.

Nowhere, perhaps, were these angular explorations made more clear than in Kosky’s highly divisive staging of Carmen, first presented at Oper Frankfurt and subsequently at the Royal Opera in 2018. Kosky purposely stripped away the opera’s historical visual cliches (farewell fans and flamenco!) while mocking the audience’s expectations of them. Instead of the cliched-sexy, wide-eyed, wink-wink-nudge-nudge choreography so often (almost constantly) deployed as a central part of the character – as embodied in the famous habanera – Kosky’s Carmen was a kind of toreador herself, and during the aria itself she wasn’t swaying hips but peeling off a gorilla costume – gimmicky perhaps, but a deliberate nod at Marlene Dietrich’s similar revelation in Blonde Venus, with its balance of power, desire, and subversion of expectation, and a smirking (if highly confrontational) shove at long-held, seemingly immobile notions of what constitutes “sexy” in female operatic depiction. The moment – indeed the entire production – underlined Kosky’s love-it-or-leave-it approach. 2021 will see the Australian director helm a highly-anticipated new production of Der Rosenkavalier for Bayerische Staatsoper together with his regular team, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, with whom he has previously worked several times, including, most recently, at Komische Oper Berlin last autumn, for a visceral staging of Henze’s 1965 work The Bassarids. There is no small amount of anticipation for next year’s Rosenkavalier; it follows Otto Schenk’s widely-adored, Rococo-style production, first presented at the house in 1972. The production will also mark Jurowski’s first staging at the house since being named the company’s General Music Director Designate (formally starting in autumn 2021); soprano Marlis Petersen is set to sing the role of the Marschallin. The production is set to open in mid-March of 2021.

Before that, however, is the re-envisioned autumn season in Berlin, a brave step into what is a largely unknown world still grappling with the effects of pandemic; how much audiences will respond is anyone’s guess, though the combination of a faithful live audience, and a growing digital one (thanks to a partnership with Opera Vision) means the company will continue to grow its presence in both local and global respects. When we spoke recently, Kosky had just returned to Berlin from finalizing lighting plans for a future production at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. (“Who would say ‘no’ to a week in the South of France?” Well, especially right now… “Hello!”) This was my second conversation with Kosky, the first having been in early 2018 when we chatted about the central role of operetta in his programming. Funny, warm, blunt, and chatty, Kosky is a lively conversationalist with none of the I’m-A-Famous-Artiste characteristics that might trail from a figure of his stature. Authenticity is a theme which has emerged through the many conversations I’ve been privileged to share with various classical figures, and I can think of no better figure to embody such a quality than Kosky; he is real, earthy, wholly himself, wholly authentic, with a like-it-or-lump-it boldness that will either engage or repel. It’s not difficult to figure out which camp many opera fans sit in, myself included. Here the director shares his thoughts on the whys and wherefores of changing programming, what the pandemic hath wrought in terms of acceptance and humility, the logistics of funding, upcoming projects (including Rosenkavalier in Munich), and just how his dedication on an April episode of Hope@Home came to be.

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

Why did you redo the schedule from September through to the end of the year?

We decided we just couldn’t mess around. Some of my colleagues are all hoping by October we’ll all be back to normal, but I think they’re living in la-la land – it’s impossible. We have a luxurious thing you don’t have in North America or Britain: the subsidized ensemble system. It enables us to be able to do things so we don’t have to spend a cent, and we don’t have to employ people – they’re all here.

I read somewhere you’d said how artists who are complaining in Germany have no idea about how bad things really are elsewhere…

Oh… yes, it’s my pet thing at the moment! It’s like, I just find that this German word, “jammern”, it’s like this, well, more than complaint, this … <whining noise>… and you know, I understand any freelance artist can do that if they’ve lost jobs. I have no problem if friends of mine, freelance friends, do it – they can complain twenty-four hours a day if they have no money. But for people within the system who are getting their full monthly payment and doing no work – like the orchestra, like the chorus, like the soloists, like the technicians – you know, shut the fuck up. Really. I don’t even want to hear about your difficulties – you have none, you’re being paid and not working. And then they say, “We miss performing!” And I say, “Go stand in front of an old folks’ home and play your violin like so many other people are doing!” When I speak to all my friends in America, Canada, Australia, Britain, they’ve just lost six months of work! Some of them fall between the funding slots so they can’t apply for financial help! So… really.

Comparatively speaking , I think many classical artists outside of Germany look in with envy because of the system being much more well- funded.

Well it is. The system is stronger, and the financial packages are bigger – Merkel announced €1 billion for the arts, but that’s on top of hundreds of millions the city gave, and on top of the billions they give to the arts anyway.

Is it true you don’t like the term “reduced” opera? That seems to be what many organizations are doing, or thinking of doing, right now.

I mean, I don’t think if something is small that it’s “reduced.” Certainly if you have a reduced Ring Cycle, like the one by Jonathan Dove, it’s a reduced orchestration, but what we’ve deliberately done is not that, even though we may be using smaller forces. Some of the best pieces of music ever written are small, and quite frankly, if we have to have a six-month pause from Mahler, well, there’s too much Mahler being played anyway – it’s lost its specialness being done so much. But more Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Bach wouldn’t hurt anybody! Not everything has to be monolithic – but “reduced” is a word that implies things that I don’t want to imply. We all know what the situation is, and I feel it’s better to say, “We’re doing a version of The Countess Of Gerolstein” and not “We’re doing a reduced version” – I don’t like that word “reduced.” I’ve tried to ban it.

The needed move into these smaller versions of things highlights an intimacy within the overall experience which audiences may have been craving – this idea that opera and classical must always be so grand and monolithic, as you say, is being dismantled.

Indeed. Let me give you an example. We started rehearsals recently for a planned production of Pierrot Lunaire with Dagmar Manzel; she’s been wanting to do this for the last twenty years. We paired it with those two fabulous Beckett monologues, Not I and Rockaby. This was planned two years ago, but the idea we begin a season with that talking mouth, I mean… it couldn’t be better, that you actually begin the first season after the whole corona thing with not music but Beckett’s (style of) music and this insane talking mouth! And just to be in the room and to work on that Pierrot Lunaire score – it’s an important work written in Berlin in 1912, just before Schoenberg started to meddle in 12-tone music – but you forget what an astonishing piece of music it is. Stravinsky said Pierrot Lunaire was like the solar plexus of 20th-century music. You hear so much in these tiny twenty-one poems – they’re not even sung, there are about ten notes the speaker has to sing, but with five instruments. And it’s just as extraordinary as Tristan und Isolde, it’s just as extraordinary as Wozzeck, and it’s just as extraordinary as the chromatic worlds of Mahler 6 and 7, so you suddenly think, well, maybe forget the epic, forget the grand, forget the huge statement – there’s plenty of repertoire to use.

But I do tend to feel a bit wary of giving large philosophical or existential answers about what is art, what is culture, what is opera, what will it be, what should it be, when we’re still in the middle of a health crisis. We can have this discussion maybe next year when we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, because that’s going to hit. I feel my job now is to try and discover what wonderful pieces of music theatre we can perform with the resources we have available and within the constraints which are in place. It’s very pragmatic; I think the existential things can come later.

Speaking of pragmatism, KOB has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Opera Vision; the broadcasts have had a central role in shaping ideas relating to culture within the digital realm. Those working in music and theatre have said numerous times over the past four months that video can never replace the real thing, that the live experience is entirely singular and of course that’s true – but digital isn’t supposed to replace anything; it’s ancillary, complementary, an add-on, and it’s also very helpful for those who can’t make it to the actual location. You have a digital component to this new fall season, which implies an embrace of technology as part and parcel of this new way to experience culture in the so-called “new normal.” Why?

I’ve always said technology isn’t here to replace the live experience; it’s to operate through it in some way. It is a great marketing tool – we hardly print anything anymore – and it’s also a way, as you said, to share. Not everyone, outside of a few German opera critics, can jump on an airplane and come see work all the time, so what’s the choice, you can’t see this show because we don’t want to present it digitally, or we give you the opportunity to see it and… ? I think after the crisis finishes there’s a big discussion to be had about rights and royalties; people should be paid something, the time of all free-free-free should be over. I’m also not sure in future we’d have everything free online; we’d have to look at that. So I think if we do charge for viewings, the money would go toward the artists’ royalties in some way. I think it’s very important. But yes, when it comes to digital, people jump to the polarized position: when opera has a livestream, it’s “oh this is the end of the magic of opera!” and you go, “No.” I don’t make the jump from ‘making it accessible and available in another form’ to ‘it’s the end of opera’ – I don’t make that jump.

I do feel differently with the cinema stuff; I think there’s a big difference. You can sit at home and watch Moses und Aron in your house, which I like the idea of, but I’m not so wild about you going to your local cinema and buying a ticket to see that work live on the big screen. For some reason I think that competes then, it takes away from your local house, and makes it into a cinematic experience…

… which it wasn’t meant to be in the first place.

Right. But I like the idea of streaming things at home – that sort of accessibility I like a lot. Digital is there as another way of exploring how we can make interesting work available to more people. We did Moses und Aron for only six performances, so only 7000 people saw it live – we sold out the run – but now already 15,000 or even more have seen it in the last few weeks. So more people  saw it digitally than they did originally. I’m not going to complain about that.

Moses und Aron, staging, Kosky, Komische Oper Berlin, Schoenberg, opera

Robert Hayward as Moses in Moses und Aron, Komische Oper Berlin, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The style of filming was very specific to online streaming; it wasn’t trying to be cinematic but did provide a different perspective than if one had been sitting in the back row on the top tier of the house. 

Every theatre experience is different if you watch it live or filmed, and we were very lucky when we decided during my time at KOB that we would do livestreams and we would record them. I think the other big house that has a library for livestreams is Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper), in terms of being able to just release productions during the last few months, but my job is to try and entice people to Berlin eventually, so if thousands of people have seen these productions in the last few months, maybe some are thinking, “Oooh I want to go to Berlin, what are they doing right now?” It’s all connected.

I shared the link for Die Perlen der Cleopatra to a friend who is writing a musical and although he doesn’t know the KOB’s work he loved it and was curious to see more. 

That’s great! I think for non-Germans, in terms of seeing operetta or musicals done on that scale, you just don’t see it anywhere else quite like that.

We’ve spoken about operetta in the past, and it’s nice to see it as part of your autumn programming.

We do need laughter right now. What I’ve found amazing the last few months is, at the beginning, when the shock of the lockdown was dissipating – we had our lockdown so early – various things came online and people started to play, and it was terribly lamento, this self-indulgent thing of “it’s the end! I’m playing the saddest most depressing music I could imagine to share with you across the world!” And I’m thinking, you know, it’s not a requiem we’re dealing with. I think we can still assume, when we weren’t playing, and then when we do play, we want to present a spectrum of music theatre experiences, so to balance the Schoenberg and Iphigenie, (KOB) had to do an operetta with the ensemble, because by the time we get to October we’ll have to have some laughs along the line. That’s not to make any light of any situation or of the hundreds of thousands of deaths, but we’re going to have to not just sit here and think it’s the end. Because it isn’t the end.

It’s felt that way for many – there’s been a lot of despair because of the pandemic situation.

Yes but I think we’re also got to realize it’s all about perspective. The Western idea of despair is not on the scale of despair on other continents. Historical despair…  you know, a lot of the sort of, German cultural scene at the moment is railing against the idea of wearing masks and think it’s hysterics and whatever, the whole discussion is about, “are my freedoms and rights being taken away by being told to wear a mask in shops and on public transport” and I think, if your definition of the loss of freedom and rights is about wearing a mask to maybe not infect someone else in society, then you need to go and live in a country when freedom and rights are really under threat. That to me is another issue of this whole thing.

I said to my house as part of an internal video that I think it’s very important we have a perspective about this, and that it’s very easy to sink into a negativity – you can sink into a frustration, but as I said at the beginning, you know, outside the Western European cultural system, it’s terrible – orchestras, dance companies, institutions that have been developing for decades are under existential threat, and I think sometimes it’s better if you’re lucky to either help people or to shut the fuck up.

… or whinge on the internet?

The internet is the great whinge forum of all time! I don’t mind people being frustrated, I can understand it, and also understand I speak from a privileged position, and I’m very careful about that. I think crises always bring out the best and worst of people. It’s interesting to run a house when you’re successful, it’s also interesting to see how stable the ship is if you’re in a storm. That’s also interesting.

You’re hoping to leave something of a stable ship at KOB in the near future, then?

I leave in two years, but I sort of don’t leave, because I’m still staying on to do my work and as an advisor. I’ll be looking after the whole renovation project for two years, my team I’ve been working with are taking over the house so there’s continuity there but it’s a chapter finishing, and the last thing I want to do is hand over an institution that isn’t strong and creative.

I feel like this whole lockdown experience has been such an exercise in humility for many.

It still is, and everyone’s in the same boat. Salzburg, it’ll be interesting this summer to see what happens there in the laboratory of Salzburg, but that’s also not quite the reality, because Salzburg is a summer festival. At the Felsenreitschule where they’re presenting Elektra, there is no pit, it’s a huge, open area, so they don’t have to deal with musicians and big orchestras in pits and big choruses and hundreds of people backstage – they don’t have to deal with any of this. So I’m skeptical of it being used as a template of how the future will be. I wish them well, but it has nothing to do with what we’re doing or the challenges we face.

… or the audiences you have.

The average age in Salzburg is 345; we are considerably younger than that.

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

And your Der Rosenkavalier is still in the books next year in Munich. 

We won’t be changing it. If we have to do social distancing, it’ll be postponed. I can’t do with it what I’m doing with Boris Godounov in Zürich – the chorus and the orchestra will be beamed into the opera house live, and the singers and extras will be doing a strange, dreamlike production live, but I can do that with Boris Godounov because it’s fragmented anyway, it’s about history and how we remember history, so conceptually, fine – that’s not how I conceived it, but it’s fine.

But with Rosenkavalier, no! The opera itself is impossible to do with any form of social distancing, and it’s impossible to play in a smaller orchestral ensemble. They’re building the sets so it’s not as if it won’t happen. But as I said, I refuse to get into a situation where it’s, “Oh no my precious Rosenkavalier, it simply must be done!” – yes, I’d be devastated if it didn’t happen, but if it doesn’t happen in February-March, well, they’ll have to do it at some time; they’ve invested so much in costumes and sets already. I really want to do it next year, but it’s impossible to know what’ll happen, and they know that. Some of these productions we’re planning are impossible to do with restrictions, but I’m not even thinking about next year. January the 1st is not on my radar.

So it’s an exercise in non-attachment then?

It is. And the good thing about Rosenkavalier is that the work had all been done before corona – we’ve been working for three years on it, three-and-half years in fact. And it was all sort of finished in terms of the large concept – that was finished, but now it’s how it’s to be done, working it out in rehearsals, as you know. So it’s Strauss, and Rosenkavalier, and it’s Kosky’s Rosenkavalier, and in Munich: throw everything and the kitchen sink into it! And yes, there’ll be a lot of surprises in that one.

But first some surprises in the autumn in Berlin… 

I think what’s happened in the German-speaking world is there are two thoughts: one thought is to bury your head in the sand and say, “It’ll all be fine and we’ll deal with it after summer; just wait and see” and…  I don’t think that’s the way to do it. Some of the larger houses are doing that. But the other thought is to ask: how far ahead do we want to imagine this will have an impact on us? The Met cancelled my Fiery Angel I was meant to come for a month to New York to do – which I am sad about. I was going to go to Tel Aviv to do Magic Flute also, and it got cancelled.

So when the lockdown first happened, I thought, “I’m in Berlin, and that’s good; it’s good to be with my house” and I said, “I think we have to just scrap everything.” So we postponed the three premiers that were to happen this season: Katya Kabanova, the children’s opera Tom Sawyer, and (Rise and Fall of the City of) Mahagonny, which are going into 2021-22. We cancelled four revivals as well. For me it’s more interesting not to adapt or reduce – that terrible word – existing repertoire, but to start from scratch, to invent things, do new things, all with social distancing. The biggest thing is smaller audiences –okay, that’s one thing, but the social distancing with an orchestra and ensemble, that’s the tricky thing. I said, “Let’s see what we can do; do I want to do this in a year’s time? Or for a few months’ time next season? I’ll have to do it.” And the only way we can do this and have the luxury to do it, is because I have 105 orchestra musicians, 60 chorus members, and 24 singers, all on salary. And I said “okay, we won’t have any sets; we’ll have a bare stage but we’ll invest in lights and costumes” and I’ll be in the rehearsal room with my company creating things. The alternative is to say, “We can’t possibly present anything” and that’s not an option if you’re being paid millions and millions of Euros in taxpayer money. It’s not an option.

It’s a sharp contrast to the North American system. 

It costs money, that’s the thing. We have a 90% subsidized system here and we also have ensembles, which don’t exist in North America, They can’t do anything. And they actually save money by not investing money – of course they could put on this and that but it’ll cost money, and as you know, it’s all box office, box office, box office, so it doesn’t make sense to have a few hundred people in the theatre…

Or outdoors.

Right, it still costs. I know from discussions with my colleagues in North America, yes, as you said before, they look over here with extreme jealousy. We know where the biggest costs in opera go – they go to salaries of orchestra, chorus, and singers; it’s a very different discussion being had in North America and Britain, and as I said, within the subsidized system we are even more lucky because we are a repertoire-based ensemble house; we are not having to pay a lot of guest singers.

When I spoke with (KOB Kapellmeister) Jordan de Souza near the start of the lockdown (for Opera Canada’s summer 2020 edition) he explained how rescheduling singers and guests is a tremendous jigsaw because cancellations mean constant changes.

It’s not a jigsaw; it’s a domino set, and it’s always falling! Jordan is absolutely right though, you deal with cancellations and the new plan, and then of course the longer it goes on the more problems it creates because someone is suddenly not available, they’re meant to be here, or they’ve been postponed, or “oh that’s still happening, we’re changing the version, are you free then?” It’s been a nightmare of coordination. A nightmare! And that’s why I did what I did: by sweeping everything off and concentrating on one thing, it instantly creates a new situation.

The difficulties are with next year; the more there are postponements and cancellations, the more it gets really complicated. In Berlin we decided to keep the workshops open; they’re building all the sets for all the new productions as per normal because if we don’t do that we get into a situation where you can’t just switch on a machine and build a set in two weeks. Secondly, there’s a few hundred people not working and they need to, as a purely psychological exercise in saying, “These sets have to be built.”

So you don’t really have a proper summer…

I’m rehearsing Pierrot, but I do have two weeks’ holiday in Greece. In quarantine I had seven weeks off, which is the longest I’ve had off in thirty years.

It was nice to see you accompanying various KOB ensemble members on the piano over the course of the lockdown.

That was an easy thing to do, they’re great people. It started with Katherine Mehrling doing the Kurt Weill songs, there was something like 15,000 people who saw it. We saw that number and went, “oh! Let’s do it every two weeks then, and feature people associated with the house!” I didn’t want it to be… I mean, you look at other houses, and their livestream musical presentations with no audience are treated like a funeral. That’s why we called ours celebrations, like, “here’s a little taste of something and we hope you enjoy it” – I wasn’t making any great statement about the times we live in, I just wanted to show people we’re still there and we’re thinking of them. They were fantastically successful, but after five we said “that’s enough, we have to get back to working” but also, I play the piano very rarely in public, and so I get such enjoyment out of doing it, particularly when accompanying. I’m not interested in playing solo, I just like playing with great people. I feel happy and secure when they’re in front and I’m playing away behind them – but also it’s a middle finger, to show people around the world who assume directors aren’t musical or that directors don’t know or care about music. All of that is nonsense. Sometimes it’s good to remind people of that.

You read the work of Joseph Roth as part of an early episode in Daniel Hope’s ARTE series at the start of the lockdown; that reading began with your dedication to people who were enduring the lockdown alone. I must confess when I heard you say that, I stood in my kitchen and wept with gratitude – it was very special to feel seen during that time.

I have a number of friends who are between partners, or don’t have partners or families or whatever, and were doing it alone, particularly the first part of it, and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, a few days and nights fine, but for weeks and weeks and weeks, that’s quite tough” – especially in some countries that had very severe lockdowns. So I really felt for a number of my friends. And I thought about the time when I didn’t have a partner or whatever, and I have a dog too, which helps – the dog has to get out and have a pee – but I thought about those who were alone, I mean…  oh, that’s quite hard. We all love being alone at various times; I love being alone in my apartment or walking my dog, but weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks of it… my God.

So it just came to me, I mean, I so love Joseph Roth, and I love everything about his writing and everything about him; he was this sort of solitary journeyman going on trains through Europe and staying in hotels. Actually a few minutes before we went on, I said to Daniel, “Can I say something?: and he said, “Whatever you like!” He was playing something beautiful and melancholic just before, so it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I’m glad I did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

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

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

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

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

Lucas Debargue: “You Are A Human First; Then You May Be A Musician”

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Photo: Felix Broede

The famous sonatas of 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti are daunting, not only for their sheer number but for their demands. As Gramophone‘s Patrick Rucker observed, “pianists do well to think twice before recording this enticing but treacherous repertory.

Scarlatti wrote 555 sonatas in all, though many were unpublished during the composer’s lifetime. As well as utilizing unique modulations and dischords, some of the sonatas were clearly influenced by Iberian folk music. Along with the sontas, Scarlatti composed operas, cantatas, and liturgical pieces, and counted fans among composers (Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but also Shostakovich,  Messiaen, and Poulenc) as well as pianists (Horowitz, Gilels, and Schiff). The late American harpsichordist Scott Ross was the first to record all of the sonatas (across 34 CDs for Erato/Radio France) in 1988.

French pianist Debargue acknowledges Ross in the liner notes to Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas (Sony Classical), and also notes Ross’s influence on his own playing, but in releasing the work (in October 2019), Debargue must’ve known the challenges he would face. As Music Web International’s Richard Masters notes, “every piano-fancier has their champion of choice” for the sonatas.” Playing against preset favorites is always a risk, as any classical artist well knows, and yet Debargue is an artist who embraces such risk, and always has. The album is a continuation of a risk-taking drive that has been present ever since he burst onto the classical scene in 2015, his playing a deep and discernibly personal expression of an ever-evolving authenticity, to craft and to self.

His entrance into the classical music world is not the story you might expect, but it’s one that has directly influenced his approach. With no family or background in the industry, Debargue only took his first piano lessons at the age of eleven. As he told the Seattle Times in 2016,

I met a very nice pedagogue who was not trying to put me in a box and tell me what to do with a piano. She let me go my way. I was quite undisciplined and could not bear practice. For me it was absurd and I just wanted to play what I wanted to play.

Piano playing ceased in his teens, and Debargue instead went on to play in a rock band and work in a grocery store. He studied art and literature before returning to the piano at the age of twenty, attending the École Normale de Musique de Paris “Alfred Cortot”, a top French conservatory, and studying with famed Russian pianist and professor Rena Shereshevskaya, which he still does. Shereshevskaya’s opinion is one he very much defers to for her being “an authentic listener.”

In 2015 Debargue placed a controversial fourth place at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition; many felt he deserved a higher placement, and that snobbery (related to his background, which included being self-taught) prevented his being awarded top honors. In any case, it hardly mattered; Debargue was invited by Competition Chairman Valery Gergiev to perform in the winner’s gala – in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less. The French pianist has since attained much success, with non-stop rounds of touring, recording, and yet more awards, including an Echo Klassik (Germany’s major classical music award) in 2017. He’s played an assortment of great halls (including Wigmore, Carnegie, the Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie Berlin, Theatre des Champs Elysées, Munich’s Prinzregententheater, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall) and has worked with top artists including conductors (including Andrey Boreyko, Mikhail Pletnev, Yutaka Sado, and Tugan Sokhiev) and musicians (Gidon Kremer, Martin Fröst, and Janine Jansen). His discography includes recordings of the work of piano greats, including Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Bach, Beethoven, and Medtner; he recorded a stunning album of the music of Schubert and Szymanowski in 2017. His most recent recording, of the carefully-selected Scarlatti sonatas, offers a very unconventional if highly inspiring listening experience, one which finds intellectual, emotional, and spiritual coherence through its various pedal-less ascents to grand harmonic vistas and gentle descents into valleys of varied tonal melody. Debargue’s rubato-infused playing is hypnotizing, heartfelt, intelligent, and intuitive.

I’ve written in the past about how certain pianists inspire my desire to return to the keyboard myself, and this disc is perhaps the most supreme encapsulation to date of that urge; Debargue’s gorgeously delicate if quietly confident Sonata in A Minor  K. 109 (the 13th track on the first disc), for instance, is devastating in awful, awesome beauty, a whispering grandeur rustling through his delicious phrasing and touch. More than once I’ve hissed a happy “yassssss” listening to this, and to other tracks on this grand, sometimes overwhelming album. Richard Masters rightly notes in his review that this is not an album to be experienced all at once, but rather, savoured, “like a box of expensive chocolates,” with each of the three discs making up the album existing as their own sort of recital – its own little species of plant, which is possibly an appropriate reaction, as my conversation with Debargue revealed.

It wasn’t a surprise to learn that NPR rated Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas as one of their top classical picks in terms of albums that might best usher in a new decade, with writer Tom Huizenga noting Debargue’s “great self-assurance” and his ability to find “clarity, texture, and color” in order to coax “the mercurial personality in each of these miniatures, whether it’s the spirit of flamenco strumming, a tender aria or a boisterous march.” Currently on a tour that takes him to Toronto (on January 16th), Montreal January 19th) and New York (January 22nd in Brooklyn and January 31st at Carnegie Hall), Debargue and I chatted in the midst of a bustling festive season, in December 2019.

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Photo: Xiomara Bender

You have said in the past you feel Scarlatti’s music is very psychological – what did you mean?

It’s because he plays with our consciousness. Music is language, and it’s playing with the connections you can make, not only between elements but surprising you, or confirming something you were expecting. He plays with the mind.

Fragments of the scores indicate Scarlatti didn’t write them himself… 

Yes, the thing is that we only have so much information about Scarlatti, it’s hard to figure out how he managed to write those pieces, the copies are not in his hand, so someone copied this. We don’t have the draft from his hand directly, so it’s hard to figure out how it was originally made. 

… but there’s a suggestion others copied down his improvisations. To me that echoes how your album sounds: very natural, very improvised.

It’s is one of my biggest interests – and this is part of the point of my approach also, an important part of my approach. Improvisation is probably the highest side of musical practice, and every piece I play I try to aim for improvisation – it has to sound that way. You can really be driven by the playing, because so often (these works) sound not like improvisation, and if you play them this way, you lose the energy of the music. And the energy of the music gives the presence, and the presence is expressed through the improvisation; it all goes together, especially for Scarlatti.

How does that translate into larger works? You worked with Tugan Sokhiev in December, for instance; how does this connection with energy and improvisation translate into an orchestral situation?

It’s not the same thing when there’s an orchestra; it’s less possible to improvise. The first thing is that it has to be very clear; for this reason you cannot really be free in time. For the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, I allowed myself to be free when I played alone – so during the Adagio, playing alone I just did what I wanted. But when it was with the orchestra, and you don’t play with this orchestra very often – I played only once before with the Orchestre National Du Capitole de Toulouse – this makes it more…  for me the priority is to be attentive to the elements, to find some common points. It’s better to be more simple at the start.

If you collaborate again and again with an orchestra there are natural things that appear and it can be more flexible, but it requires time, and a lot of listeners and music lovers are not concerned about the time to takes. Even speaking about recital programs, a lot of people ask me, “What will you play in your next concert?” They don’t realize that a recital program takes at least one year to prepare. It’s not a question of being slow at memorizing – I’m fast at that, I can learn big pieces in one day or one week, but this doesn’t matter, there is nothing to admire here – what is important is the time it takes to actually raise it, as if you were growing vegetables or flowers. It takes time to make an interpretation exist, because it’s not only memorizing a score and playing the notes, it has to be like a living being, and the cultivation of a living being takes time.

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Photo still: Bel Air Media

The recital you’re doing at Koerner Hall features the music of Scarlatti as well as that of Medtner and Liszt; what was the thinking to feature these three composers on the same bill?

It’s not so easy to explain, but there is a connection. It’s very personal. I would not try to put a bridge between these pieces and explain intellectually why, but within these works there is a kind of energy in terms of how they’re crafted. Scarlatti and Liszt have a lot in common in terms of the ability to transcend the techniques of the keyboard in order to express their musicality – Scarlatti with harpsichord and Liszt with piano, but it’s the same thing, to use all possibilities of the instrument to go beyond, spiritually. And you will hear, between the Liszt and Medtner pieces, that there are lots of connections, speaking about the form, the theme…  I think the two pieces go well together, like some kind of Faustian inspiration, these romantic, Gothic, cosmic dreams I would say, fantasies. They go very well together and are good with the Scarlatti. With recital programs I like to use the possibility of having two parts, so there is a big contrast between the first part and the second part; then the people can have the sensation having attended two concerts instead of one concert.

You’re also forcing audiences to listen.

For me, yes, because I don’t think the audience is stupid, I think the audience has the ability to listen, to be moved and participate in what is happening, so I play as if my audience will not be passive but active, and participating with me.

This idea of transcendence is interesting in terms of your background, which is not musical.

My little brother is a musician but there are none before – parents, grandparents, no one was involved in music.

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Photo: Felix Broede / Sony Music Entertainment

So you transcended your own background being a classical pianist.

Yes, but I take things simply. For a lot of people it’s special to be a musician, but for me it’s normal. I try to live with it as if it was just my job and my vocation – I take it seriously, and I do it with all my heart, but it’s not this prestigious, elite thing that people should admire. For me it can stay very simple. I see myself… I don’t have the desire to transcend normal life with what I do, but for speaking this language, and for sharing this kind of spirit with others. 

What do you think that desire has given you? Especially since you don’t hail from a background where you had parents involved and conservatory training from a very young age?

Of course everyone has a mental picture of child prodigies but most of the big masters of the piano, if we talk about the piano and masters like Gilels and Rachmaninoff, they were not child prodigies not at all, they took their time,  and they were doing other things and had other interests. What I see nowadays with children is that they are just obeying teachers and parents, and I’m not interested in this way of practising and this vision of music. For me I cannot be inspired by such musicians, they cannot have something to say; they are living like in a jail. And it’s very important for an artist to get inspired by a lot of things, to have other outside interests – to see movies, to read books – to manage to have a human life. So many musicians allow themselves to have a special life because of being in music, but I don’t think being a musician is special, and I don’t think one can allow one’s self to live with a special regime just because he or she is a musician. You are a human first; then you may be a musician. But it can never replace being a human first.

There’s a tendency for many in this industry to ensconce themselves within the classical-world bubble, which seems obvious but also bad for art.

Of course it’s bad for art – but it’s the same for all the other fields. We live in an era of specialization; everyone is a specialist in his or her own field. And that’s a problem because then people don’t really know what others are doing outside of their own channel. We all should manage at least to have the real life of a man or a woman, and not be overwhelmed by the job, or by the need for an audience, or for fame, or money. Those things take so much of the space of the spirit … and it’s crazy, actually. 

It kills the spirit of taking risks also, a spirit which is discernible on your recordings. 

I do it because I have no choice – it’s my only way, the only one I can consider sincere and honest, and where I am doing my best. That’s why I follow this path – otherwise I’d do something else. To not be true to one’s self in the field of arts… for me it is like a betrayal, really, because where you have such a gift of being able to understand a language like music, you don’t have the right to betray this, or to put yourself or your ego ahead of that. No! You need to cultivate humility. I wonder what one can communicate if he’s not putting his ego aside and thinking about being humble and having music be a tool to being more open and human.

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Photo still: Bel Air Media

Few things make an artist more humble than doing recitals.

Yes, the recital is special — the solo recital is so special! There is something psychologically that is a bit insane, though; there are one thousand people attending the show, it’s a one-man or one-woman show, you are there for two hours, and you are the master of the time and the silence. It’s crazy if you think about it – it’s like a dictatorship, in a way! The people pay for being submissive to the atmosphere of one man or one woman for two hours; there is something not normal there, and it’s very important for me to feel it’s not normal. Before every recital I have these strong thoughts in mind: “What am I doing here? It’s not normal at all! This is insane! It’s crap!” And then the whole energy is to transform this crap situation into something nice, in which people are involved in a creative process, an expressive process. The aim is to feel better, for me and the people. And that’s a spiritual process. 

Yuja Wang: “I Respond To Something On The Spot”

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Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

What could possibly be said of Yuja Wang that hasn’t already been said?

Yes, she’s glamorous, yes, she gets a lot of attention, and yes, she’s one of the world’s most celebrated pianists. But she is also warm and funny, and a very thoughtful conversationalist, strong in her opinions, it’s true, but also entirely unapologetic in her individualism. It could well be that such innate authenticity, and never feeling the need to apologize for it, has been, and continues to be, part of what draws audiences around the world to her – that, and of course, her being one of the true greats of the piano.

Born into a musical family in Beijing (her mother is a dancer; her father, a percussionist), Wang began piano as a child, and went on to study as a teenager at the famed Curtis Institute of Music. In 2002, she won the concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival, and a year later, made her European debut with the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich led by conductor David Zinman, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Wang debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival in 2006, and toured with the orchestra and conductor Lorin Maazel their very next season. Wang’s big international breakthrough came in 2007, when she replaced Martha Argerich as soloist in a concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

In 2011, Wang made a lauded debut at Carnegie Hall, in a program featuring the works of Scriabin, Liszt, and Prokofiev, and has since gone on to work with some of the classical world’s most noted figures, including fondly remembered conductors Sir Neville Marriner, Claudio Abbado, and Kurt Masur, as well as Zubin Mehta, Michael Tilson Thomas, Paavo Järvi, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and has worked with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the London Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, NHK Symphony (Tokyo), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the Royal Concertgebouw orchestras. In reviewing a 2012 concert appearance in San Francisco, Joshua Kosman wrote that Wang is “quite simply, the most dazzlingly, uncannily gifted pianist in the concert world today, and there’s nothing left to do but sit back, listen and marvel at her artistry.”

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Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Wang is almost always on hectic rounds of touring, and moves regularly between continents and concert halls. 2019 has been a particularly rich time; along with her tour with Capuçon, Wang gave a hugely well-received performance at the Enescu Festival in September (as part of a tour with the Dresden Staatskapelle and conductor Myung-Whun Chung), and also performed at the inaugural edition of the Tsinandali Festival in Georgia. Last month, she gave the first London performance of  John Adams’ “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”, a work commissioned by the LA Phil and written especially for Wang; music writer Jari Kallio called the performance “a ravishing experience.”

January sees further tour dates with Capuçon as well an extensive solo recital tour and concert performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (led by Andris Nelsons), the Toronto Symphony, (led by incoming TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno) the San Francisco Symphony (led by Michael Tilson Thomas) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Chances are she may collect a few more awards along the way; she’s already been the recipient of several, including being named Musical America’s Artist of the Year in 2017. A four-time Grammy Award nominee, The Berlin Recital (Deutsche Grammophone), released in November 2018, is a live recording done at the Philharmonie Berlin; in October it won the prestigious 2019 Gramophone Classical Music Awards in the instrumental category.

The recording evocatively captures Wang’s ferociously individualistic voice, her unapologetic musicality filling space – sonic, but also intellectual and emotional. These are qualities Wang balances so skillfully in her readings of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti, and Prokofiev. Gramophone’s David Fanning noted in her performances of both Rachmaninoff’s B minor Prelude as well as Scriabin’s Sonata No 10 that “she moves smoothly between feathery, evocative touches and maximum eruptive volatility.” The recording is a firm personal favorite of mine for a number of reasons, chief among them its beautifully therapeutic qualities. Speaking as a simple listener, it feels as if Wang has a special talent for poking holes in the many clouds of depression that have descended with such force, weight, and consistency over the past year. The way she shapes the trills of Scriabin’s Sonata, her twisty rubato of Prokofiev’s Sonata No 8 , her fierce, eff-you-haters phrasing of Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in G Minor (which opens the album) – these sounds, and the feisty spirit behind them, have been instrumental in envisioning a path through some desperately sad, cloudy times.

And so it is with Chopin-Franck (Warner Classics), released today. As I wrote in my feature on the French cellist earlier this week, the album offers truly enlightening approaches with composers whose works you may think you know well, with two works by Chopin (Sonata in A Major and Polonaise brillante in C Major), the famous Sonata in A Major  by Cesar Franck (in a transcription for cello by Jules Delsart), along with an encore of Piazzolla’s  beloved “Grand Tango”. Recorded at Toronto’s Koerner Hall at the end of a whirlwind tour that included stops in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York’s Carnegie Hall, the work brings inspiration both intellectual and emotional, and is a luscious sonic intertwining of two highly complementary artistic sensibilities, with Wang’s performance (blazingly sparky one moment, whisperingly delicate the next) matching Capuçon’s note for note, and, as you’ll read, breath for breath. The pianist told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that for her, “playing music is about transporting to another way of life, another way of being” and this album is a very good display of such sonic transcendence.

Wang took time over the recent Thanksgiving holiday to chat about the nature of performance and the unique joys of collaborative musical partnerships.

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Gautier said he felt the creative chemistry with you immediately; did you have a similar experience?

Yes, definitely that feeling is mutual. On tour we’d sometimes joke, “Oh, we don’t have to rehearse!” We have the same ideas of phrasing and how a piece should go. It’s very flexible in terms of what we’re deciding on the spot. And with this (album), all the pieces are so centered on piano, like the Chopin Sonata – I told him, “This is harder than the solo stuff!” It was fun; it never felt like there was a dull moment, and if we play something beautiful for encores which he’s known for – like “The Swan” (Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” from his Le Carnaval des animeaux) or “Meditation” (from Massenet’s Thais)– he just melts every person in the concert. I enjoy that as well.

How did you decide on touring and recording these pieces specifically?

We did the tour and decided on Chopin, since I am always a big fan of Chopin. Even talking about repertoire is very easy, we never have to explain – it was just, “Okay, let’s do that!” And I always loved the Franck sonata. Violinists will hate me, but I love how it sounds on the cello more than the violin version,. We did Rachmaninoff when we played Carnegie Hall – he did record it in 2001, but I think it’s time to do another version.

How does the energy of your partnership affect other things you do?

I have a few fixed partnerships, and he is definitely one of them, the other is Leonidas (Kavakos). Gautier and I did that recording in April and now we are preparing to go out for another three weeks in January – it is a big chunk of your life, to travel together and play together. I always look forward to that because, as a pianist, you always usually travel by yourself, and this way it’s like having a partner around musically. I mean, as a woman and musician, this sort of work seeps into your psyche. It’s not like playing a concerto where you are soloist and there’s an orchestra. The hardest is the solo recitals, where you’re traveling by yourself and busy onstage for ninety minutes. But with Gautier or Leonidas, I’m onstage with another person, making music together – in a way it’s more relaxed, very relaxed – which I love.

That’s the biggest difference, but you know, you count on the other person as well, you give and take onstage, it’s not just you with full responsibility. And, of course, there’s the usual cliche, “we learn a lot from each other” – and of course we do – but in a way it feels like a musical family to be around. You can count on someone, and be very comfortable with them.

It feels protecting?

Yes, protecting, yes! That’s the word. And, because (Kavakos and Capuçon) are such amazing musicians, if I’m having an off day, if I’m tired, they are there to support and to be there. The recording session (in Toronto) was at the end of a two-week tour, and there was a photo session, and an intense recording session; it was a lot, but because Gautier was there I agreed to do it. He is very different from Leonidas – I don’t want to compare! – but with Gautier, we just breathe the music together and it’s there, super-spontaneous.

It’s a musical intimacy that feels rare for its authenticity.

It’s true, and we try to protect that as much as can onstage. It’s very delicate, very vulnerable, that kind of intimacy, and it’s really about intensely listening and just being there for each other, breathing together. It sounds so strange, but because of that, it’s why it feels so spontaneous – because there’s this other way of making chamber music, which is very calculated and planned. And that’s never my way of doing things, but the contrast of doing that also sometimes brings very good results. I think the only other musician like that was Claudio Abbado. He never said anything – he used his gestures and his musicians knew what to do. Gautier is a bit like that; his bowing and his breathing, his whole body is so involved in music. So artistically speaking, it was love at first sight!

Yuja Wang classical music piano artist Chinese creative

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Has this partnership changed your relationship with the piano? I would imagine when you experience such creative closeness, you return to your own instrument with a slightly different perspective… ?

I wouldn’t say I play very differently actually, I feel like the repertoire we chose is so piano-oriented so sometimes I feel as if I’m playing solo. But you learn how they use the bow, how they sing, what colours you can bring, and how they see music. That’s the thing with Gautier: we see it very similarly. When I play concerts, I always have been the same way – I’m very reactive; I respond to something on the spot. I see what others are doing and I respond like that.

I guess that’s why I love playing this music and my partners are happy with it too – it’s all about listening, which I learned from Curtis: that’s how you should play music. I’m not so much, I think, trying to be like the leader or like, “Do this! You follow me!” – I’m never like that in any kind of way, and I have the same principles doing concertos or chamber music. But solo is a very different thing, because it’s like being a conductor: you decide what pieces you’re going to play, what they mean to you, and you have to take full responsibility for everything. So that’s a totally different way of operating. 

But I would imagine you think of Chopin and Franck in new ways now.

The Chopin cello sonata is very enigmatic for me. I never played any Franck in any real sense! We did Rachmaninoff together – I’m doing Rachmaninoff 4 this week in Cleveland, it’s a language I know very well, so I would say it’s in my comfort zone – but the Chopin was a puzzle for me. The Polonaise, okay, that was very fun to play, but especially after we did the Sonata, it was so intricate, and so much voice, the cello… he just had one line and had to go in and out, but between all of my five lines, and the harmony is so forward-looking. It’s not just, “Oh, what a nice melody by Chopin!” except the third movement, which is so meditative and beautiful – especially the way Gautier played it! But the rest is a Mazurka, and it’s the Chopin we know, but not; he didn’t finish it, and it’s a late work and … it makes you think, where would he go if he didn’t die at 39? The harmony… it’s fun, but it’s really hard. There’s one passage in the first movement, these chords are almost like in Petrushka –but then you have to think about the balance with the cello and the melody.

I think, in a way, I do think more about orchestrating when I go back to my solo music: how to balance the sound, each voice in harmony. Those are the things that become more obvious as a result of doing chamber music-making.

Gautier called the Polonaise “pianistic.”

I think maybe he is conscious of choosing this repertoire because he’s aware that I am in my comfort zone doing all this stuff, rather than sometimes, you know… I mean, I don’t want to just be playing accompaniment…  

… but it seems like this is very much both of you doing equal give-and-take, like a tennis match.

Yes, totally! 

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Warner Classics

And I would imagine things will expand now? Gautier mentioned you’re in planning stages for future projects.

Exactly. I just love the chamber music by Rachmaninoff, and why not the cello sonata? There’s so much other repertoire, I was telling him yesterday, that I want to do: “Let’s do Brahms! Let’s do Rachmaninoff!” He already recorded that, but it’s very special when we do it. We can choose to stay with Russians: Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev… I mean, he makes the cello sing but he can also make it such a beast; I just take care of voicing. And it’s fun, I don’t have to always worry about, “Oh, I’m covering the cello now” because he has such a big presence.

So do you!

We little people have big presence! 

Alexandra Silocea: “It’s Important To Just Be You”

piano pianist Silocea music classical performance culture stage live Romania orchestra Bosendorfer

Alexandra Silocea performs with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Alex Damian)

Trading one keyboard for another doesn’t mean I don’t miss owning a piano.  I used to skip afternoons of school as a youngster so I could sit at home in the quiet calm – just me, the cat, and the sounds. My school principal soon arranged for a piano I could play at school –an old, stiff-keyed upright in the teacher’s lounge – and I did use it, at lunchtime, recess, and sometimes even the much-hated gym (for which I was mercifully excused); it ain’t quite the same as my mahogany grand at home, but it was better than nothing. I naturally gravitate to the instrument, not so much for sentimental reasons as for creative ones; I’m keen to play things as an extension of my musical explorations that include score-reading and a wholly new curiosity toward composition. These are activities that complement, and sometimes refreshingly contrast, my many other creative pursuits. The abstract nature of music, and of music-making, are things I once took for granted; no more.

Some performers awaken that place where soul and touch collide, and it’s here that the work of Alexandra Silocea touches a nerve. Her remarkable debut album of Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 – 5 (Avie Records), recorded in a church in England in 2010, is a showcase of delicate touch, knowing timing, lyrical phrasing, and an immensely personal approach to the kaleidoscopic, entirely idiosyncratic piano work of Prokofiev. The album speaks (though more frequently whispers) in ways that tickle the ivories of my own music-filled curiosities and leanings. The ease with which Silocea switches up styles, while still stamping everything with her very own mark, is inspiring. As has been rightly observed, “if Silocea is a talent to be reckoned with and a name to be remembered, it is because she is undaunted by interpretive challenges.” Indeed, but in the most elegant way possible.

This elegance was on full display recently, when Silocea made her debut at the George Enescu Festival in her native Romania, where the Bösendorfer artist performed Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski at Bucharest’s immense Sala Palatului. Along with a very loving performance of the famous concerto (one rapturously greeted by an enthusiastic audience), Silocea also gave a spellbinding encore of Music Box by Anatoly Lyadov, that wonderful delicate touch of hers so nicely suited to the whimsical, chiming tones of the work. It recalled her gorgeous solo work on her Prokofiev album, as well as on the 2015 album (done with cellist Laura Buruiana), Sonatas: Enescu, Prokofiev, Shostakovich (Avie Records), which highlights that flair for individuality, coupled with lyrical flexibility and tonal dynamism. Her 2013 album, Sound Waves (Avie Records), highlights her natural feel for the work of Debussy, Ravel, Liszt, ​Schubert, and sometimes a lovely combination of the latter two composers. At its release, Gramophone noted that “Silocea proves to be as good a pianist as she is a programme-builder and her playing offers much to savour […] and contours the ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ transcription’s melody/accompaniment in a way that suggests longtime familiarity with Schubert’s original song.” The opening track, Eärendil by the Norwegian composer Martin Romberg, sees the artist carefully highlight the rich, impressionistic writing with her signature elegant touch and deft dynamic coloration.

Silocea got her start as a student at the George Enescu Music School in Bucharest, before going on to the Vienna University for Music and Performing Arts, where, in 2003, she won the Herbert von Karajan Scholarship. In 2008 she made her professional debut with the Wiener KammerOrchester, and a year later, gave recitals in Vienna (at the Musikverein), New York (the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall), and Paris (Le Salon de Musique). She’s performed at St. Martin In the Fields, and Camerata Pannonica, Finland’s Kymi Sinfonietta, and at this past year’s edition of the Mahler Festival in in Steinbach/Attersee, with bass Matthew Rose. Based in Vienna, Silocea gae a well-received debut with the London Philharmonic in 2012 at Eastbourne’s Congress Hall, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G Major; Bachtrack’s Evan Dickerson noted “her left-hand touch was particularly notable as it gracefully underlined the melodic material that was imparted with delightful ease by her right hand. The two elements were unified in no small part by good judgement when it came to pedalling.” That good judgment will be exercised when she performs the Shostakovich Piano Concerto 2 again next year over several dates with the Romanian Mihail Jora Philharmonic and Sibiu Philharmonic orchestras, and will be making her debut with the Bamberger Symphoniker under Jakub Hrůša next year; before that, two dates in Ireland, one of which is a concert with Romanian soprano Gabriela Iștoc.

 Just before the start of her busy autumn schedule, I sat down with the pianist to chat on the morning following her triumphant Enescu Festival debut. “I’m tired but happy!” she exclaimed, her cheeks flushed pink with joy.

piano pianist Silocea music classical performance culture stage live Romania orchestra Bosendorfer

Alexandra Silocea performs with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Alex Damian)

Pianos are very much extensions of one’s body for some of us. I remember briefly playing a Bösendorfer years ago, and recall the feeling of its sound really resonating within. Why do you love it?

The sound, and especially the model for yesterday, is very special — the model is called 280VC – Vienna Concert – and the speciality of this one is that the sound is so homogenous, it goes from the lowest the highest very balanced, but with a special tone.

It was very discernible, that tone.

It’s also very powerful — and especially for this Concerto, you need so much strength! You need that for this concert hall too, because you can kind of get lost.

… but you also need lyricism. Its second movement is stunning.

You have to be be careful not to overdo it there, not to fall into cliche. (The concerto) is very often used for film music, and audiences have a preconception of this second movement in particular. I’m so happy Vladimir and I were on the same page with (approach): we were adamant about not going in that sentimental direction. It is sad, but it shouldn’t be sweet.

Bittersweet?

Not even that. It’s very sad. it’s like being in a trance, after this gigantic start and crazy end. In the middle you don’t know where you are.

That isn’t necessarily sad.

Yes — it’s some wordless place. For me it’s like looking through a glass window in the middle of winter on a sunny day, and the glass is not quite clear. That’s my visual image when I play it. And I think the orchestra played it so beautifully. The orchestra… was just amazing. They played the second movement as if with their closed eyes. It was very emotional.

piano pianist Silocea music classical performance culture stage live Romania orchestra

Alexandra Silocea performs with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Alex Damian)

This is your first appearance at the festival of your home country.

My family was there. I think this moment will stay in my daughter’s memory. She was humming the theme as I practised. She knew it by heart up to last night; she’s heard it so many times now.

What’s it like to play as a Romanian artist?

It’s a dream come true. I’ve been dreaming of this for so many years! I was eleven or twelve years old when I first attended the festival, in the audience, as part of the music school. I think everyone who does music here dreams of being on the other side of the hall.

And with Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto…

It was my first time performing it! The orchestra told me afterwards they had only played this work with men — it was the first time a woman played this piece with them, and they discovered a different way of playing, because it was powerful but yet not… it was a different approach than the male soloists they’ve had, and they’ll remember this. I was quite touched, and so grateful to play with them. What a huge honour. They’re so powerful and I was quite intimidated.

In chats with musicians recently, some think chemistry is either there or it’s not, while others think it can be cultivated. What’s your feeling?

From the beginning having it is the best. If it’s not there and you’re trying and trying, well, it’s better than nothing, but it will never be the same. It’s like with people: with some you click, and with some you don’t, and you feel it from the beginning.

Art is a mirror of life in that way.

Yes.

You have a lot of chemistry with the music of Prokofiev; has it always been there?

For me Prokofiev is one of the gods, and I do feel a deep and special connection with him. It’s always been there, and when the chance of recording a CD came, he was the first composer I thought of. I’m very grateful my label agreed because it was risky for a debut CD, to record five Prokofiev sonatas — it’s not quite the usual! I will continue, especially in 2021, when it’s the 130th anniversary of his birth. It’s not easy, because promoters can be quite difficult.

That seems to be the norm these days; promoters dictate the programming from organizations on tours in order to move tickets.

Maybe sandwich programming is the best — like something popular but also contemporary in-between. We’ll see what will come out of it. Promoters need to trust artists.

And audiences.

Yes, and they need the courage of putting it out there.

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Elisabeth Leonskaja performs with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Catalina Filip)

Speaking of passion on display, I saw one of your influences — Leonskaja — recently. How much do you think about them when you play?

I think people who are inspiring you have a huge influence on you. I think there’s always a bit of them in you. Every time I have something very important, Lisa (Leonskaja) always sends me a message before the concert and I know she’s with me, and that’s very special. Somehow it is a responsibility, because somehow the person I am today is thanks to her — we’ve known each other sixteen years now. It’s about moving forwards and keeping all the inspiration I have from her.

That reminds me of a recent conversation I had about the important of humility for artists.

Yes, and Elisabeth is the model for humility and modesty.

The most interesting artists are ones that let themselves be humbled by their art, and translate that humility into life.

You can’t be a true artist if you are not humble and modest. I think you are missing something. I’m just trying to serve the music and the composer, and at the moment I’m quite overwhelmed by the reaction at the festival here, because I honestly didn’t think it would be like this, I didn’t think people would be so touched.

piano pianist Silocea music classical performance culture stage live Romania

Alexandra Silocea at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Alex Damian)

People were so excited to meet you at intermission!

I’m so grateful to the festival for the invitation. This moment is one I will never forget. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new era, but… something has shifted, at least inside.

Often that’s how the best kind of art happens: new chapters in art come from new chapters in life. How do you view the art-life connection?

Honestly, how can you separate them? It seems impossible. Being a mother with two kids, I see the change in my playing. It just isn’t possible to separate them. Either a whole personality transposes in the music, or…  not. I wouldn’t know how to separate them. I think if they are separate you hear it — you’re not connected to yourself. Maybe it shows later in your life.

… which leads to a quality of the inauthentic.

Yes, especially nowadays.

… and unfortunately not everybody is discerning enough to hear the difference.

I think authenticity today is the most important thing. There are so many of us musicians, and it’s important to just be you. In everything you do, balance is the most important thing, and it’s something I always try to aim for. 

Personal Essay: “She Had A Choice”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lucke grimace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruno Ganz, A French Novel, And Grappling With Loss

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Detail from the top of the Opera Garnier, Paris. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

This morning I sat in my light-strewn living room, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, impatiently waiting for the espresso to gurgle itself to sharp, acid life, when I learned of the passing of Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. Known for his roles as the angel Damiel in Das Himmel uber Berlin and Hitler in Downfall, Ganz was active mainly in Europe, and was known for stage, screen, and symphonic appearances. He was friends with Claudio Abbado, and among many readings, offered the work of German poet Hölderlin at a tribute concert to the late conductor in 2014. I recall seeing Ganz’s name through the years listed in various orchestral program guides in Germany and thinking how special it would be to see him perform live. Alas.

In looking through various reports (including one from a recent project in which Ganz is bearded, and to my eyes, resembles some kind of magical Teutonic Zeus) I was reminded of my introduction to Ganz’s work as a teenager, which was (as I suspect was true for many artsy, angsty teens growing up in 1980s North America), through Der Himmel über Berlin, known to the English-speaking world as Wings of DesireWim Wenders’ poetic meditation on history, spirituality, and human vulnerability left an indelible impression, with Ganz’ expressive face and haunting voice creating a spell that never quite lifted. As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw observed about his performance, “Ganz’s face is delicate and boyish, with an ascetic sensitivity. The poetical presence of his beautifully modulated speaking voice is also what makes the role so memorable.” In seeing the movie again last summer, I found myself weeping at the delivery of certain lines, the framing of a certain shot, the look in the eyes of both Damiel and Marion (Solveig Dommartin) in the club where the roars of Nick Cave create a hypnotizing background din. I’ve not been able to watch it since; emotions come brimming to the surface like uncontrollable hot lava, a reaction I could have never anticipated as a wide-eyed, enchanted teen.

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Still from “Der Himmel über Berlin” (“Wings of Desire”,) 1987.

Such sensitivity has, I realize, become something of a hallmark, one I’ve grappled with to varying degrees of success. Oftentimes that sensitivity and wonder are tied up together in strange configurations and manifest within the cultural realm. The older I get, the more I am amazed at the mechanisms behind how one offsets the other; the way a singer will lean into a note, the resonance of percussion across the vast expanse of a hall, the wet ambiance of strings — things that I find myself invariably and sometimes wordlessly moved by. Writing about such things is no easy task, and it will surprise no one to learn I have taken a step back from such duties. Enthralled, enraptured, enlightened, enraged… enchanted; all these things, and more, live within and can be icily uncomfortable to narrow into the mean parameters defined by the precise and rather severe geometry of language. 

legs book reading

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Enchantment was borne in my younger days through the encouragement of figures who would place challenging things in front of me, things (be they movies, books, TV shows, composer works) they had full faith I would somehow understand and appreciate. I was raised in what might be termed a firmly anti-intellectual household, with newspapers being the only regular reading source (and no, not the fancy, so-called “paper of record,” either); attempting to reach beyond that atmosphere, despite my mother’s (primal if passionate) opera love, was not at all encouraged and was, in fact, basis for fierce and unyielding criticism. But discoveries were always possible; one of those things was Wings of Desire, introduced by a piano teacher (now a dear friend); another was Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love, loaned to me by an arts-loving teacher my final year of high school. (Where or how she got hold of an English translation I cannot say; the work only got a proper one a few short years ago.). Her dog-eared copy, with pencil underlinings from her own younger days (I presumed), brought a world of intrigue and yes, enchantment, setting my Faust-loving imagination aflame. “The devil takes many pleasing shapes” is its premise, with a Borgian-style layers-within-layers narrative, an intentional blurring and integration of the surreal, the Gothic, and the fantastical, and free floating questions of the nature of desire, morality, and abundance, reflecting the spirit of the age in which it was written (1772) and offering a timely-timeless devilishly dialectical dance that you can still shake your ass to in 2019.

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Illustration from the first edition of “The Devil in Love” by Jacques Cazotte. (Photo via the Stanislavsky Theatre).

Alongside updates and tributes to Bruno Ganz on my newsfeed were tidbits about the novel’s operatic translation which recently opened at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, in Moscow. Russian composer Alexander Vustin created the work over several years, finishing it in 1989; the work lay dormant until the theatre decided to feature it to mark their 100th birthday. This work made my list of intriguing things for 2019, and if photos and quick news clips are anything to go on, it’s a production I hope to someday experience live; I remain open to whether the element of enchantment will be as present as it was upon my first reading as a teenager. My acute sensitivities lean in a direction which oppose nostalgia, but embrace reshaping; this quality has inserted itself into areas tangible and not. I have embraced much of what my mother left me as my very own, without (at last) the drama of recrimination or any burden of guilt. It has come as something of a pleasant surprise that the things my mother greatly valued are the things I have allowed myself to reshape and redefine, sometimes with purposeful intent, other times with an unthinking authority that is, I suppose, the natural result of being an only child. Emboldened by a new sort of freedom which arose out of my mother’s passing (a domineering presence rendered into initially shocking absence) meant being allowed to remake her still and finite passions into my wide-ranging passionate pursuits.  Inheritance has become a less a winding lane of the past than an avenue for the future.

Still, the loss of a precious cache of items which had belonged to her has been hard to overcome, not only for the fact they were pregnant with her long ago and far-away memories, but because they were so wrapped up in mine — new, fresh, raw. Without divulging every painful detail, I will only write: in the morning I moved into my current place of residence, I had a box of jewelry and a satchel of pearls; things were delivered and arranged; once that was finished, I passed out in exhaustion, and realized with horror, shortly thereafter, that the box and satchel were nowhere to be found. What did I do, I keep asking myself, to deserve this? Why wasn’t I smarter? Why did this have to happen? My mother’s understanding of (and approach to) the world was built on merit-based effort and behaviour: be a good person, and good things happen; be the opposite, and you deserve what you get. It’s a notion that has tipped the broader world into extreme chaos, and, within my micro one, radiated burning slabs of blame, shame, and a horrible, near-paralyzing sadness. I have kept this information to myself and shared it with only a few (including yes, proper authorities), but those items, I realize with much pain, are not going to magically appear before me, the way Damiel suddenly manifests before Marion, the way Biondetta appears before Alvaro — no angel, no devil, there is only the wide, yawning chasm of loss.

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Hans Brüggemann, Angel Playing the Lute; 1520; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.

The revelation here of my sharp vicissitudes of providence means enduring the inevitable smirks and Schadenfreude of some. I accept this. Various details of my life are, apparently, points of envy — something I find utterly baffling to comprehend. (I envy the presence of their partners, paramours, children, extended relatives, and wide and active social circles, particularly during the lonely holiday periods, but at regular weekends as well.) I have chosen to reveal this personal history in order to embody a dictum I voiced within the past year, one relating to the importance of embracing vulnerability. There are things to be silent about, and things to shout about, and still yet things that straddle between; the point is acknowledging the tender spot within, where vulnerability meets and makes peace with the existential zero of silence. Pema Chödrön might remind me this is precisely where I need to be, in the middle, fully present. It’s hard, and it’s lonely. The symphony of sighs fades in and out; today it was interrupted by the whispering wonder of enchantment. I’m glad I was sensitive enough to listen. Maybe in the spring it will become a song. 

Krisztina Szabó: Singing Is “A Lifelong Process”

szabo mezzo

Photo: Bo Huang

Krisztina Szabó is a busy lady.

A recent whirlwind trip between her home city of Toronto and Berlin left the mezzo soprano jet-lagged but, one might suspect, quite happy; within the space of a few days, she’d made her German debut at the annual Musikfest with the acclaimed Mahler Chamber Orchestra, performing the work of Sir George Benjamin under his very baton. Considering the number of engagements she’s had over the last few years, it’s probably fair to say she’s used to the pace.

Since postgraduate studies at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she’s had a busy career with incredible highlights, including working with celebrated Russian baritone with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Don Giovanni Revealed: Leporello’s Revenge, as soloist with Plural Ensemble in Madrid under the baton of composer-conductor Peter Eötvös, and having a part composed by Benjamin specifically for her voice (more on that below). She’s worked with a number of celebrated institutions including Wexford Festival Opera, the Mostly Mozart Festival, L’Opéra National du Rhin, and the Colorado Music Festival (just to name a few), as well as Canadian companies including Vancouver Opera, L’Opéra de Québec, and Calgary Opera. Her passion (and talent) for new work is clear in her bio, having worked with a number of organizations specializing in contemporary repertoire, including Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal, Soundstreams, and Tapestry Opera, and living composers including Anna Sokolovic, James Rolfe, and Aaron Gervais, as well as the aforementioned Eötvös and Benjamin.

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Phillip Addis and Krisztina Szabó in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2015 production of “Pyramus and Thisbe / Lamento d’Arianna / Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

In 2015, Szabó sang no less than three leading roles one show production, a triumvirate vision that combined Claudio Monteverdi’s 17th century Lamento D’Arianna and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda with Barbara Monk Feldman’s 2009 Pyramus and Thisbe, directed by Christopher Alden. In my review I referenced Szabó’s compelling stage presence, admiring her range, projection, chemistry with co-star Phillip Addis, and amazing versatility, both vocally and physically (at one point she was required to sing lying flat on the stage floor), though what has really stayed with me since has been her innate sense of theatre; the haunted look she would give Addis at points (the production was a fascinating look at the battle of the sexes), her loose physicality, the keen, cool balance of control and vulnerability, combined with a lovely mahogany-meets-cognac vocal tone, are qualities that give her a special place in the opera world.

That was reiterated in her recent performance with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, in Benjamin’s 2006 chamber opera Into the Little Hill: that same haunted look, an immense energy, a fierce vocal prowess. Szabó, who also speaks fluent Hungarian and is a member of the voice faculty at the University of Toronto, has drama running through her veins, and her work with the MCO (who matched her intensity with ferocious intelligence and quiet elegance) was a highlight of this year’s Musikfest. She has, she admits, done “a ton of Benjamin”, including performances of his celebrated 2012 opera Written on Skin (twice in concert and once in an Opera Philadelphia production), as well as his new work, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (where it made its world premiere in April) and at Netherlands Opera, where she worked alongside fellow Canadian singer  (and contemporary repertoire virtuoso) Barbara Hannigan, who has a close relationship with the work of Benjamin herself.  The same goes for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the celebrated troupe whose repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary compositions. Founded in 1997, the orchestra premiered Written on Skin in 2012 (the composer/conductor has said he had heir specific sound in mind when he wrote it) and they’ve also toured the work internationally, in both opera and semi-staged concert versions. Into the Little Hill, though presented in concert at Musikfest, lost none of its dramatic power (the work is based on the fairytale of the pied piper), with Szabó and soprano Susanna Andersson making a fine, fierce duet onstage, their delivery crisp and careful, their characterizations gripping. 

Prior to the performance, Szabó made time to chat about Benjamin, working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and what she takes away from here whirlwind trip to Berlin. (It doesn’t include beer, I don’t think.)

What is it you find so rewarding about Benjamin’s work as an artist?

I find the colors he gets from the orchestra one of the most striking things about his scores, and you’ll find that again in Into the Little Hill — it’s just remarkable. It’s so delicate and yet it can be so full and impactful as well. It’s quite striking. This one is scored for contralto, which I am not, so for me it’s a on the low side but the low stuff is lightly scored, so it’s doable. Written on Skin has some remarkable passages — some are quite low, some are quite high; it’s a large range. It’s rhythmically really, really detailed, just like his scores. I love that kind of stuff — I love rhythmic complexity, it’s like a sudoku puzzle I have yet to figure out. That’s my anal-retentive nature coming out, maybe.

Some of his scores also feature a cimbalom.

Yes, Written On Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence both have the cimbalom. The first time I was looking up the score for Skin, I was like, “Hey! That’s the instrument of my people!”

What does that add?

It’s an exotic color, it’s that twangyness. Into the Little Hill has a banjo too, but the cimbalom has this cut-through sound; the violins, when bowed, have this lyrical sound, and plucked they have another certain sound, but the cimbalom has a certain cut to it, which gives it this exotic flavor.

Benjamin Lloyd

Photo: Matthew Lloyd

What is Benjamin like to work with?

I have worked with a lot of living composers, not at his level obviously, but working with him is a particular adventure because that man likes to rehearse! And if you look at his score it’s incredibly detailed. You have to be on your toes and be super-prepared, but he always appreciates musicianship and preparation and detail; if you give that to him, then it’s great. He’s such a sweet man, actually. But at my first rehearsal for Written on Skin, I thought, “Oh, I don’t have as much to sing” — we had a two-hour call — “we won’t use all the time up.” But I was sweating by the end; we used every bit of it and I thought, “This guy likes to rehearse!” He doesn’t smile necessarily, he’s very serious, very focused, very British. After a few rehearsals he starts to loosen up, and it’s like, “Okay, he doesn’t hate me!”

And you’ve developed something of a relationship now because you have worked together a few times and he knows how he can push you.

Yes he does, for sure. I mean, the part in Lessons in Love and Violence was composed specifically for my voice, which was kind of cool — it was written particularly to my strengths, which was fun. That’s not going to get old!

How has working on Into the Little Hill stretched you creatively?

Vocally it’s stretched me for sure! It’s scored for contralto, so I am trying to find my inner contralto. I live higher — I’m a high mezzo, I straddle soprano repertoire as well, so making friends with my middle-low register has been interesting – a little scary, but a welcome challenge. In terms of the drama, I play several characters. Both soprano and mezzo have to switch and make quick changes (between various characters) and (Benjamin) wants those changes really sharp, to make it clear for the audience.

And you’re doing this as part of your Musikfest debut…

Yes, this is a wonderful opportunity for me. I am thrilled to be here, but for me the biggest hurdle is making sure that George likes it. When you have the composer standing two feet in front of you, he’s the audience I am trying to impress the most.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Photo: © Manu Agah)

What’s it been like working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra? They have such a celebrated history with Benjamin.

The quality of the musicianship is extraordinary — Susanna Andersson (soprano) was saying during rehearsals, “They are playing things I cannot believe they are playing!’” As detailed as George is with the singers, he is super-detailed with the instrumentalists, picking them apart, so it’s very clear what they’re doing. Some parts of the score have extremely complicated passages for them to play. He’s not a showman conductor; he’s clear and detailed and precise and delicate.

That delicacy was what I found so amazing when I saw him lead the Berlin Philharmonic recently; it was so very noticeable and gave the music so much more depth and color. 

Yes, and we haven’t had a hell of a lot of rehearsal for this, but… that man has bionic ears! When someone plays a wrong note somewhere: “Was it you?” He can pick it out. I know conductors can have that ability, but to take the most delicate chord and pick out, immediately, what needs to be worked on… he’s very organized and detailed about what he wants, and how to get something.

… whether it’s the Berlin Philharmonic or the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

He said, “Oh they’re reading this for the first time” today and I went “WHAT?!” It was already at a level… it did not seem they had just cracked the score.

szabo mezzo

Photo: Bo Huang

What kinds of things are you already taking from this experience in Berlin, especially in your role as a teacher?

I think about my students more often when I perform now. I think I take away the idea of stamina for sure. You hear students complain a lot: “I don’t have time to do that” and “I’m tired!” Well, I haven’t slept, I’m jet-lagged, I’ve worked six-hour days the last two days straight on a piece that is stretching me vocally, balance the stamina vocally while giving the composer/conductor what he wants. These are the things they have to learn. There’s vocal technique, but there’s all the other stuff, and it’s still an ongoing process. What I tell them is, learning singing is a lifelong thing, because it will change daily: how you feel, how you’ve slept, what you’ve eaten, if you’re well, if you’re unwell, if you’re upset, if you’re happy. All these things factor into how you sing on that day and it is a lifelong process of how to deal with that in any given moment. You don’t know what you’ll wake up with but you have to get the job done, and I am all about getting the job done. It’s about managing what’s important.

A Rich Meal With The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

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The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under conductor Manfred Honeck rehearse for their performance at the Berlin Musikfest. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

Whether owing to or despite the recent dramas the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has endured, their concert at this year’s edition of the Berlin Musikfest was remarkable in every sense. Even more remarkable was the number of empty seats within the Philharmonie.

“Berliners,” commented a seatmate, her eyes rolling, “only tend to come out for their own.”

Whether there’s any truth to this observation or not, it was a pity to note; this was a gorgeous, rich meal of a concert which featured a mixed program of works with an interesting commonality: initial failure. I attended with a heap of curiosity, not only to see how replacement conductor Manfred Honeck might fare, but to see how he and the artists might fit the works of Webern, Berg, and Bruckner together — works which, at their respective premieres (in 1909, 1913, and 1889) failed entirely. There was a riot at the performance of the Berg work; audiences at the premiere of Bruckner’s Third literally walked out as the music was being performed. These works were not without formidable influences; as the program notes remind us, “the composers, over the generations, found their own answers to Wagner’s challenge” —  but it’s worth noting that other sonic echoes — that of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Second Viennese School leader Arnold Schoenberg especially — are entirely palpable (or anticipated), in both form and style. There is an immensity of intention which draws clear parallels to the elder statesmen of late romantic/early modern music, along with a palpable, grand dread. This quality is especially perceivable throughout the Webern and Berg works, as if they were somehow intuiting the immense social reset and the terrible tragedy just around the corner. It is music within whose bars you can hear empires crumbling, a call into the total void, a questing for authenticity and meaning.

Remaking old forms and probing new avenues were hallmarks of the compositional approach of the Second Viennese School, and for all the atonal explorations and aural adventuring, the works of composers like Berg, Webern, and their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, has, at least for me, sonically luxuriant leanings, even amidst the most sparse sounds. Central tonalities or not (some have them; some don’t, and this can be initially strange for new listeners), there is a heartbeat of the real in this music, and that makes it captivating; I’m always struck, hearing the work of Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, at their immense presence, their reaching for the essential, the real, and even, to my ears, the sensuous. One simply has to have the right orchestra, and the right conductor, to draw (carefully) such features out. The Royal Concertgebouw, as led by Honeck, provided just that this past Tuesday evening.

royal concertgebouw orchestra

Photo: © Anne Doctor

Certainly, Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5, Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs , Op. 4 (also known as the Altenberg Lieder), and Bruckner’s Third Symphony have enjoyed success since their respectively disastrous premieres. The Concertgebouw Orchestra underlined the unique beauty of each in a rich, well-paced program that was a treat to experience. Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5 (the 1929 orchestral version), running roughly eleven minutes in total, is an exploration of color and tonality —or austere atonality, as it were.  The first movement is characterized by a conversationality between strings, with whisper-like pizzicato effects, a sinuous string tone, and virtuosic demands on the Concertmaster; in this, Vesko Eschkenazy handled the lines with aplomb. Resembling at times a film soundtrack (Jaws came to mind), Honeck highlighted the idiosyncratic bass work in the third movement, rendering chewy timbres that led to a dramatically hushed conclusion, echoed later in the rippling opening of the fifth movement, with its interplay between textures and colors. Held with a tenuous balance, Honeck ensured the ending was pointedly unstable, a close that provided the perfect foray into Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs, which featured the vocal talents of soprano Anett Fritsch.

soprano Fritsch

Soprano Anett Fritsch (Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann)

As scholar David P. Schroeder rightly notes, this work “defined Berg’s future direction as did no other of his early works.”  The cascade of sound opening the work was characterized by the Concertgebouw’s luxurious approach, with a deft mix of phrasing and tempi. Honeck emphasized the sonic resplendence with a lovely balance of strings and vocality, leading with an expansive lyricism which finds the soft edges and colors within Berg’s fascinating score. Based around a series of epigrammatic texts by writer  “Peter Altenberg” (real name Richard Engländer), with whom Berg shared a complicated friendship, the work is a densely rich collection that balances beauty and melancholy in one tension-filled package; one can clearly hear early indications of Berg’s 1935 opera Lulu within its score. As composer/violinist Jonathan Blumhofer rightly notes, “The Altenberg-Lieder feature Berg at his most direct and concise, as well as his most sumptuous.” Fritsch’s rich sonority complemented the pithy prose, with Honeck providing plush phrasing and beautifully capturing the push-pull of sounds of the Second Viennese School and its aims.

If the first half of the program featured music that aimed for pure color in and of itself, the second half, thanks to Honeck’s quilt-like approach, used all the colors, and textures, and patterns, making Bruckner’s third sound experimental, even playful, though its length (280 pages) might leave some wondering how playful it could possibly be. Conductor Herbert Blomstedt commented in an interview late last year that the lengthy didn’t mean the work took any longer to play than usual symphonies — there are just so many notes within this particular one. Honeck and the Concertgebouw made a point to distinctly emphasize all of them, whether in fast runs or sustained tones, and while this could prove aurally exhausting, the maestro shaped it into a greater listening whole, using a variety of colors and textures, and an expansive, thrilling lyricism. 

honeck conductor

Conductor Manfred Honeck. (Photo: © Felix Broede)

With a broad, Mahlerian intensity, he led the first movement through a series of glorious builds made of brass and strings, each time a trip to a precipice offering a different and unique view. A thematic underlining by a fulsome brass section showed a clear relationship to the rippling upward ascent of strings, deftly modulated and colored. The lusciousness of sound carried over, beautifully, from the evening’s first half — perhaps a sign of the clearly positive relationship Honeck has with the orchestra, who seemed to relish playing under the Austrian maestro’s baton. Honeck (named Artist of the Year by the International Classical Music Awards for 2018) could be seen smiling broadly at various moments throughout the work — surely a good sign, for the performance, the orchestra, and the audience?

More’s the pity, then, that not more Berliners and music fans made the trip to see this performance. It was a rich meal that left questions, to be sure, but the right sorts of ones that left you hungry for yet more.

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