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Sardanapalus, death, French, La Mort de Sardanapale, Eugène Delacroix, oil, art, Byron, Liszt, tragedy

David Trippett on Liszt’s Sardanapalo: “It Was A Genuine Leap Of Faith”

For many in the classical world, summer means one thing: festivals. In continental Europe, the UK, and North America, outdoor festivals celebrating both opera and orchestral works, not to mention chamber music, are unfolding, with a certain joy more palpable this year than others. After so many experimental iterations (especially in Salzburg, where the festival powered through the worst of the pandemic in 2020), there is a firm, fond embrace of the familiar, and one hopes, a bit of a face toward the future in terms of programming, casting, productions, and (one hopes) safety protocols.

Fans of composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) will have already long planned a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, founded by Wagner himself in 1876 and built expressly to manifest his groundbreaking concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. Getting there takes a bit of planning; the town can be reached by train (from Munich it’s roughly a two-hour journey through Nuremberg) and tickets to performances require completing an early application, though online purchases were made available at the end of May. Local hotels are booked months in advance – usually; a quick check shows they aren’t all quite full this year, owing, perhaps more than anything to lingering effects of covid/omicron. Just how the classical world continues to navigate this challenge depends on who you ask; many are soldiering on, but there are also many cancellations and fill-ins, onstage and in the pit. Audiences are somewhat skittish about returning to indoor spaces – and again, the level of skittishness depends on who you ask, and where they’re travelling. The Festspielhaus, (in)famous for its uncomfortable seats and lack of air circulation, is mostly wood, as per Wagner’s wishes – as such, the nature of the house’s architecture simply doesn’t allow for modern interventions à la AC, a challenge given Germany’s increasingly steamy summers. You will experience Wagner’s works the way he intended; if you have to endure physical discomfort to do so, well, so be it. With the opening of the festival on 27 June with Tristan and Isolde (featuring tenor Stephen Gould opposite soprano Catherine Foster), there occurs the kind of sonic immersion Wagner aimed for; Wagner’s magnificent score has this odd (oddly discomfiting, for me) way of utterly erasing… time, circumstance, the edgeless, blunt forms of sameness that have been a hallmark of pandemic life thus far, the immediacy of mediocrity (and arguably the immediate realities of a hot, airless auditorium). As I’ve written in the past, my ears have lately developed teeth, a reaction to the prevailing attitude of safe-and-boring programming that colours far too much of post-pandemic classical life; Wagner offers up a chewy, delicious eight-course feast, then demanding even further capacity and appetite.

Something strangely similar in terms of sonic experience occurred in Weimar in August 2018, when I attended the world premiere of the first act of Franz Liszt’s Sardanapalo, a presentation which had been 170 years in the making. Liszt (1811-1886), a composer known far more for his piano work (compositions as much as his famous performances), never completed a full opera. Sardanapalo was based on the tragedy by Lord Byron, (published in 1821) and began life in sketch-form in 1849, with Liszt using abbreviations and creating alternative versions, eventually coming to a 115-page manuscript. The project fell by the wayside when the composer was unable to find a proper libretto for the second and third acts. Catalogued in 1910, the work was considered too incomplete for performance – until British musicologist David Trippett came across it at the at the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar in the early 2000s, and subsequently spent years painstakingly piecing it together. Presented by Deutsches Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar with soloists soprano Joyce El-Khoury, tenor Airam Hernández, and bass baritone Oleksandr Pushniak all under the baton of Principal Conductor Kirill Karabits, the work has sonic connections with Wagner’s 1845 operaera Tannhaüser (something Karabits had noted prior to the premiere) and an equally clear nod in orchestration to Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) though its insistent melodicism and pungent scoring also recall Verdi’s Nabucco (1841) and Simon Boccanegra (1857). Sardanapalo demands much of its listener (one indeed needs toothsome ears here), but it offers compelling characterization through its orchestration, scoring, and mix of creative influences – indeed, hearing it inspires many thoughts around possible live presentations that go beyond in-concert formats. A recording of the work was released via Audite in February 2019 (done in Weimar), and a performing edition of the score released by Schott in summer 2019.

Dejan Vukosavljevic, opera lover, writer, reporterTrippett and I spoke briefly after the 2018 performance, but unfortunately we didn’t have the kind of extended, chewy exchange I would have liked. Thank goodness for an email that landed in my inbox this past April from Europe-based classical writer Dejan Vukosavljevic, asking if I would be interested in just this exchange, one which he and Trippett, who is Professor of Music at Cambridge University, had happily conducted earlier this year. Vukosavljevic explores not only Liszt’s work but the complicated artist behind it, his very complex relationship with Wagner, the possibilities for a work long thought lost, and, more immediately, inquires as to how the pandemic impacted academic pursuits. Trippett himself is a formidable interview subject, knowledgeable but never stuffy, excited to share discoveries, his joy of the material (and their various social, cultural, political, and historical contexts) palpable and infectious. This exchange was a fortuitous and good bit of timing personally – I have long considered bringing on new contributors to my website. The advantages of new voices are myriad, their wealth of knowledge, experience, and passion immense – you don’t always want one voice or viewpoint on any given topic, but a multiplicity of voices and related experiences in order to make the meal that much richer. This seems especially important in classical, which can very often feel like a small, airless bubble. Vukosavljevic has a natural curiosity (he mentioned in recent exchange that his hobbies include “stargazing, reading, playing chess, socializing”) and his knowledge of (and obvious enthusiasm for) the classical world makes one hope for further contributions, and further journeys up in music history, composition, and performance. Thank you Dejan, and thank you Professor Trippett – if I can’t go up the hill to Bayreuth this year, I am happy to go up the hill of music history and learn something new along the way; I hope readers will join us.

DV: How did COVID-19 pandemic influence your work as a musicologist and a cultural historian at the University of Cambridge? Where did you feel the biggest pressure?

DT: The world seemed to change in the blink of an eye, didn’t it? We instantly become online avatars, and adapted courses to keep all paths of study on track. But no online medium can replace the vibrant atmosphere of the seminar room. Looking back, lockdown feels like stolen time. Oddly, though, there were also benefits – like a lot of reading and exploring new repertoire, along with innovations in mediatized performance and testing the limits of multitrack performance. Digital resources are excellent for 19th-century studies, where many manuscripts are available online. This is the case for the Richard Wagner Museum and the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv, both of which I use often in my work. So, if anything, the pandemic increased my reliance on these resources. Where was the biggest pressure? I would say the lack of contact, which was strangely alienating even as so much music went online. In concert, music touches you – literally so. Touch is the sense that unifies all other sense modalities. A singer’s voice or the vibrating reed sets in motion a pressure wave that physically touches your middle ear. Not experiencing that proximity to real acoustic sound, collectively as part of an audience – with its capacity for beauty, curiosity, and catharsis – was difficult.

DV: Your work encompasses many areas of classical music. What was your motive to begin to study the life and works of Richard Wagner?

David Trippett, scholar, Professor, musicologist, CambridgeDT: Originally I intended to do my doctoral research on Franz Liszt. I’d played so much of his piano music as a child that it had become a point of orientation for me, and I often felt it refracted in the music of others, from Debussy to Ligeti. In the end I defected to Wagner. I had listened to the Ring cycle three times when I was 14 (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink), the third time with libretto in hand, and I began playing all the vocal scores. As a student, I remember travelling to Helsinki just to hear Leif Segerstam conduct the Ring. Wagner’s intellectual reach is unparalleled in 19th century music and philosophy, and, aside from the sheer richness and power of the music, the range and quantity of his ideas and commentaries, and the copious evidence of the manuscript sources proved irresistible. There is still so much work to do.

DV: Would you label yourself as a Wagnerian? What do you see in Wagner’s music that makes him so special?

DT: The history of ‘Wagnerians’ makes any such label tricky. That’s one of the fascinating aspects of the Wagner historiography. On the one hand, few would want to align today with the likes of Houston Stewart Chamberlain or Winifred Wagner, both of whose curation of Wagner’s legacy was intertwined with bad politics; on the other hand, his works are continually reimagined for our time by directors, as when Siegfried’s body was draped in the Ukrainian flag in Madrid last month, or when (director) Peter Konwitschny situated Lohengrin in a German school. What remains constant is the powerful nature of the music, its continual colouristic and harmonic flux, and the ongoing psychological resonance of the drama.

Early on, leitmotifs were wryly dismissed as dotty ‘calling cards’ or ‘an address book’, but beyond simple signs, they convey the way that memories change, and the different experiences of time passing. When Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, its significance reverberates backwards and forward throughout the entire cycle. The Greek model of an orchestral commentary, too, offers a dynamic structure in continually re-evaluating the significance of events. That said, Wagner’s sophisticated orchestration and motivic techniques change significantly across his oeuvre – so there isn’t simply the leitmotif technique. Listening before and after the Act III Prelude to Siegfried (the densest compression of motifs to date) makes this particularly stark.

Beyond this, Wagner absorbed the values and learning of his age, so his works faithfully and fatefully refract these interests, from anti-vivisectionism to purification by holy fire. The director Michael Hampe once put it to me that Wagner’s works are ‘miracles of humanity’, and that opera directors might begin by asking ‘how do I present this so that others will understand this immense value?’ I think it’s a wonderful question.

DV: Your first monograph Wagner’s Melodies, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, examines the cultural and scientific history of melodic theory in relation to Wagner’s writings and music. How did it start?

DT: I became fascinated with the paradox that Wagner placed ‘melody’ at the centre of his aesthetic theories (‘music’s only form’), yet he was consistently ridiculed by critics for being unable to compose a melody. The book uses this basic incongruity to re-examine Wagner’s central aesthetic claims, and places his ideas about melody into the context of the scientific discourse of the age: from the emergence of the natural sciences and historical linguistics to sources about music’s stimulation of the body and inventions for ‘automatic’ composition. Researching and writing it at Harvard and Cambridge was a fascinating experience. It led me to explore all manner of sources, from Wagner’s insertion aria for Bellini’s Norma, to a device called the psychograph for transcribing your unconscious musical thoughts… it gave me a chance to ask why it had become so difficult for German writers even to define melody (and—for most—quite impossible to teach it), and why melody simultaneously occupied the centre-ground of expression in opera, yet sat at the apex of artistic self-consciousness for German composers. Thinking about melodic intensity without actual, Italianate melody changed the way I listened to certain music – yes, I think it did.

DV: Wagner composed thirteen operas in total, but was also his own librettist; how would you describe his approach to literary writing?

DT: Wagner’s alliteration, coordinated speech roots, and creatively antique forms of language often raise a smile. Unlike, say, his orchestration, it was an area of his work that was openly questioned by contemporaries. For me, the opera poems after 1850 reflect his theories about language and of how language communicates, and these change, of course – which is why you find a diatribe against rhyming, metrical verse in his essay “Opera and Drama” (iambic pentameter as ‘five-footed little monsters’), yet a return to precisely such verse in Meistersinger fifteen years later. Ever pragmatic, his underlying goal in what he called ‘verse melody’ was to uncover a musically infected form of communication that couldn’t fail to be understood, even (especially) by those with no training.

There are various librettos that he completed but never set to music, including a quasi-Buddhist drama (The Victors), and a vaudeville about a cross-dressing bear (The Happy Bear Family). He held all of these poems dear, and suggested to other composers, including Liszt, that they set them instead. So fiercely did he feel that the Ring poem was a work of world literature, that he published it in 1853, as a book, though he came to regret that decision! Even accepting the importance of his theory of speech roots that rhyme and concatenate sounds, we now tend to use Wagner’s language more as an artistic means, for music, rather than celebrate it as literature.

DV: You were the Main Editor of the book published by the Cambridge University Press in 2019, Nineteenth-Century Opera and the Scientific Imagination; the book features, among other things, the so-called “Wagnerian manipulation” – what is its connection to Bayreuth?

DT: Much has been written about Bayreuth as a proto-cinema, but I think the desire to control an audience’s sensorium was only part of the story. Since his time in Dresden during the early 1840s, Wagner had been advocating practical innovations to his theatre (like enabling sight lines, updating the instruments, pensioning off the weakest performers), and his friendship with the brilliant architect Gottfried Semper — who designed the barricades Wagner defended during the uprising in May 1849 — shaped his ambitions for what a theatre could be. Add to this the explosion of contemporary research into sense physiology under figures like Johannes Müller and Helmholtz, and Wagner’s own belief that audiences had to physically experience music, first-hand, in order to ‘get it’, and it is not hard to see why the Festspielhaus project came about. Nor why it has become a focal point for the history of a specifically Wagnerian culture in all its stripes. Wagner sought to do away with mediating explanations, where ideally the entire role of music criticism would become redundant – in many ways Bayreuth was conceived as a monument to that ideal.

DV: Franz Liszt was the composer who helped raise the profile of the exiled Wagner by conducting the overtures of his operas in concert while he was in Weimar. How would you describe the relationship between the two composers?

DT: In a word: asymmetrical. They first met in 1841. Initially, Wagner pursued Liszt more for career advancement than artistic kinship, sending him the scores for Rienzi and Tannhäuser (‘I proceed quite openly to rouse you up in my favour’). By 1848, he began requesting financial help from Liszt, initially selling the copyright to his extant operas and accepting commissions, but thereafter simply requesting a series of bailouts, often in uncomfortably obsequious, manipulative prose. 1849 marked a sea change: Liszt was enormously impressed by Wagner’s latest works, which he felt were at the vanguard of progress. He conducted Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, making sets of piano transcriptions of both (a supreme endorsement), he sought to conduct Siegfrieds Tod (had Wagner finished it), and even asked to premiere Tristan und Isolde in Weimar. During the 1850s, Liszt had the fame, influence, resources, and financing to rescue Wagner from critical and political ignominy as a composer-criminal, ingloriously expelled from Germany in 1849. Perhaps most significantly, he was a key figure in securing Wagner’s eventual amnesty and in promoting the first fledgling Bayreuth festivals.

But by the end, he referred to himself as ‘Bayreuth’s poodle’ after being wheeled out as a celebrity to endorse the second festival, after Wagner’s death (in February 1883). Wagner had questioned the comprehensibility of symphonic poetry in 1857, and would (privately) dismiss Liszt’s late works as ‘budding insanity’. There were two rifts in 1859 and 1864, the first over a misreading of tone in Liszt’s remarks about Tristan, the second more serious – about the Cosima affair (Wagner to Cosima: ‘Your father is repugnant to me’). So despite an early period of genuine, intense artistic friendship on both sides, the relationship was always lopsided. There is much more to say, of course, and I’ve written about this in the Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (2013; Editor Nicholas Vazsonyi).

DV: Liszt was a prolific composer, but spent nearly seven years on Sardanapalo, an Italian opera based on Lord Byron’s play. How did Sardanapalo come about, and why do you think it became such a challenge for him?

DT: By his mid 20s, Liszt’s ambitions for the ‘social mission’ of art exceeded mere pianism. By his early 30s, he saw how Rossini and Meyerbeer towered above other composers in Paris. Their medium? Opera. In his eyes, the spectacle, size, expense and public appeal of Franco-Italian opera ensured that this was the privileged route to such power, to entering ‘the musical guild’, as he later put it. Schumann had written publicly of a ‘disconnect’ between Liszt’s two identities, as a great pianist but less developed composer, and it must have hurt. The opera Sardanapalo was born of ambition (‘to cross my dramatic Rubicon’) – and it sounds like that. Liszt was intimately familiar with French and Italian opera scores of the age (that is, transcriptions and paraphrases), so composition of his mature opera was remarkably fluent; the libretto was his Achilles heel. He had searched widely for the right topic, eventually settling on Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus in 1845. Sadly, he wasted several years waiting for the playwright Félician Mallefille (1813-1868) to fulfil the libretto commission. He finally accepted a text procured by his close friend the Italian Princess Belgiojoso, a well-connected writer and salonnière exiled in Paris. We don’t know who this poet was – he was reportedly imprisoned for agitating towards Italian independence, and in need of funds! Liszt worried that he was no Byron or Metastasio, and implored Belgiojoso to work on the text herself so that it would emerge under her authority (‘Permit me simply to place my entire musical destiny in your beautiful hands’).

When the versified text for Act 1 finally came through, Liszt set it to music in a detailed, continuous short score (a particell). It took many letters, follow-ups and prompts, including the threat of commissioning a new poet, to extract the versified libretto for Acts 2-3, but Liszt never set them. He questioned aspects of the libretto to Belgiojoso, and evidently wanted changes made before setting anything further. As far as we know, no revised libretto was ever sent, and by this time (c. 1852), Liszt was so deeply involved in other compositional projects, not least the symphonic poems, that the zeal and original reason for completing an Italian opera a decade ago had faded.

DV: The score for Sardanapalo was thought to be almost impossible to read, and its music irretrievable. What was your approach in its reevaluation and eventual presentation in 2018?

DT: I was puzzled by the idea that a musician as intelligent as Liszt would have notated musical materials that were full of errors or made little sense, as some had suggested. The problem was more likely to be that we were reading his manuscript incorrectly. When I began studying the manuscript in detail, parts of it were legible, but at first glance it looked incomplete; Liszt used many abbreviations and forms of shorthand – like mini-codes to himself – to get everything on paper at pace. I made about 15 transcriptions of the full manuscript. With each new transcription, the contents became clearer. It was a bit like a very pixelated image gradually coming into focus, in ever-higher resolution with each transcription. Liszt was writing for his eyes only, so a lot of accidentals, signatures, rests etc. were missing. Fortunately, the vocal parts were complete and continuous – fully notated with text underlay. In three places, the accompaniment appeared to drop out, creating odd gaps with continuous vocal parts above. The solution was that Liszt in fact sets up clear, formulaic accompanimental patterns that would continue; in an age before cut & paste, he simply didn’t feel the need to write them out in full.

DV: How did the research process for Sardanapalo unfold for you?

DT: It was a genuine leap of faith. I had no idea what the manuscript would contain when I began, but as the project progressed, I felt a growing responsibility to bring the remarkable material he wrote to light in a way that was both scholarly and historically sensitive. There is a very detailed commentary in the critical edition (Neue Liszt Ausgabe), and a major question that remained was whether or not to orchestrate the work. As written, the short score is often unplayable on the piano, and Liszt left a few cues for instrumentation, even specifying orchestral textures in detail here and there. (Following normal practice, his assistant Joachim Raff was due to produce a provisional orchestration in 1852, which Liszt would then have revised.) It was clear, then, he was thinking in orchestral colours. For that reason, I felt the music should be presented in fully orchestrated form as well as in a critical edition.

Beyond this, it was enormously valuable working with several young singers from the Jette Parker Programme at the Royal Opera House, and later, with (conductor) Kirill Karabits and the three singers (Joyce El-Khoury, Airam Hernández, Oleksandr Pushniak) who performed the full world premiere. Although Liszt notated the vocal parts in full – for instance, with all ornaments, phrase markings – many details for performance still had to be discovered by trying out the music, and seeing how it fits in the voice: tempo, transitions, articulation, shape. All of this could only be explored by making the leap into sound.

Liszt, Sardanapalo, premiere, Weimar, opera, performance, stage, culture, Germany, David Trippett, presentation, live, classical music

Oleksandr Pushniak, Airam Hernández, Joyce El-Khoury and David Trippett at Staatskapelle Weimar on August 19. Photo: Candy Welz

DV: What were your impressions from hearing the world premiere in Weimar?

DT: It was a revelation. The performers were so committed and inspired in bringing this to an audience, and the orchestra – Liszt’s own orchestra, in his adopted city – was magnificent under Kirill. It had the feel not only of creating history, but of history folding back on itself, as though in an alternative reality the opera had finally materialized in all its splendour. That first performance was released as a CD, and it was such an achievement for all concerned, topping the UK Classical charts, ICMA finalist, making the Guardian’s Top 10 discs of 2019. I have such admiration for all the performers.

DV: The opera had concert performances lined up this year in Budapest, Edinburgh and London, but things got frozen due to COVID-19 pandemic. What are your plans for the future?

The pandemic froze many exciting artistic projects, and Sardanapalo was no exception. There are some discussions ongoing for future performances in Hungary and America, but it is sad to think that the music waited 170 years to be heard, had a moment of glory and began spreading with momentum, only for it to be silenced again by the cruel effects of the pandemic. I would hope that Liszt’s ingenuity in creating a modern, through-composed bel canto opera will continue to be enjoyed by audiences. And, it’s crucial to note here that following detailed work on the critical edition, the final, fully corrected score has yet to actually be performed – there is a striking difference at the end of Mirra’s cabaletta, for example.

DV: Do you believe that Sardanapalo could find its way into the repertoire of the opera houses in the near future in some staged production?

DT: It would be a creative opportunity for the right director. Could it be staged? Yes. Without doubt. The action is largely psychological – interior – but that is no different to Tristan (Wagner) or Bluebeard (Bartók). The challenge would be how to couple it with another one-act opera that complements Byron’s drama. Liszt frames the act with a concubine chorus and the royal army marching off to war; in between we have the adulterous couple learning about each other’s passions, insecurities and power, and on stage is the silent wife.

In today’s world of conflict, King Sardanapalo’s firmly anti-war stance resonates (‘Every glory is a lie, / if it must be bought with the weeping / of afflicted humankind.’), and the outer action pivots on Mirra’s plea that the he overcome this aversion to violent conflict, that he stand up and defend the realm. He listens and is finally persuaded by her lyricism – so off they go to war. It certainly offers plenty of creative material, from the opulence of ancient Assyria to the irony of a brutal Byronic hero who loves peace – 2024 is the 200th anniversary of Byron’s death, so who knows?

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Top: The Death of Sardanapalus (La Mort de Sardanapale), Eugène Delacroix, 1827. Source: Musée du Louvre.
Elena Dubinets, LPO, classical, music, leadership, management

Elena Dubinets: Ukraine, Russia, And Émigré Artists

Throughout my series of essays over the past three months examining various cultural, musical , and media-related aspects concerning the war in Ukraine, the one thing that seemed just out of reach was a direct view on the act of departure – or the act of remaining – from or in one’s place of birth. Recent events, most notably those around so-called “Victory Day” in Russia, have served to underline the changing realities around leaving and staying, in both tangible and intangible ways.

Russia’s list of émigré composers is lengthy; the reasons for their departure (and in some cases, return) relating to socio-cultural, financial, and political circumstances and opportunities. Perhaps the most notable Russian non-Russian, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) could only explore his culture through being away from it, not unlike his literary counterpart, the Ireland-born, Europe-living James Joyce (1882-1941). Stravinsky’s relentless curiosity and his willingness to experiment with elements of the Russia he’d left behind in various ways – milking, mocking, embracing, tossing aside those sonic elements, and surgically excising the clichés even as he sentimentally held on to their other, more personal aspects – feels, in retrospect, like a quilted instruction manual of artistic fortitude and spiritual survival. He is one of the composers examined in Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (The Boydell Press, 2012), authors Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker. The authors incisively feature a quote used by Soviet musicologist Yuri Keldysh (1907-1995), who is himself quoting critic/pianist/composer V. G. Karatygin (1875-1925), with relation to speculations on the roots of Stravinsky’s work: “The artist, while his art reflects a soul that has been splintered and corroded by neurasthenic impression, is fatigued at the same time by all this nervous tension and seeks out an antidote in the knowing return to simplicity.” Social relations, posit the authors, relate to this tension: “The less the facts of public life pointed towards hopeful outcomes, the more these demands were placed on art. Some strong and vivid external impulses were needed for this.” Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, premiered in 1911 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, reflects a dualism which became more varied if concentrated in its expression once Stravinsky embraced his émigré status. Keldysh’s observations on the work’s symbolism hold modern echoes:

By way of contrast to the noisy, notley crowd, there is Petrushka, with his sufferings and his broken heart, expressed through his convulsive rhythms and angular melodies. A wooden doll, a mere puppet, turns out to have feelings too. We have an opposition here: on the one hand, an apparently lifeless puppet jerking mechanically on his strings but capable of refined and complex feelings, and on the other hand we have the living but soulless crowd; this opposition bore a social meaning that responded perfectly to the mood of the intelligentsia during the period of reaction following 1905. A complete withdrawal from active social struggle, a forlorn subjectivism, a dissatisfaction with reality – all these were expressed through the passivity of a moribund psyche, embodied by the image of the suffering Harlequin. The bright colours of Petrushka’s folk scenes, is thus only a superficial element that throws the inner psychological content into relief.” (p. 244-245)

The bright colours seen in recent news reports, as well as across the social media pages of various Moscow-living musical figures, might be viewed thusly, with the realities of those who have left the country making for a far more grim, far less click-friendly presentation. Writer Masha Gessen captured the contemporary experience of departure thusly: “The old Russian émigrés were moving toward a vision of a better life; the new ones were running from a crushing darkness. […] As hard as it is to talk about guilt and responsibility, it’s harder to figure out what the people who used to make up Russia’s civil society should do now that they are no longer in Russia.” (“The Russians Fleeing Putin’s Wartime Crackdown”, The New Yorker, March 20, 2022) It must be noted, of course, that there are varying levels of the experience of tragedy, and that no equivalency can or should exist between Russian émigrés and those fleeing Ukraine. In an exchange with Ilya Venyavkin, who is a historian of the Stalin era, Gessen makes this point explicit: “Now that this parallel society was gone, Venyavkin could think only of the future, which had become strangely clearer. “I refuse to look at this as some kind of personal disaster,” he said. “Disaster is what’s happening in Ukraine.” (The New Yorker, March 20, 2022).

These readings, combined with observations of the numerous concerts, benefits, and tours recently, have been powerful reminders of the ways in which people respond to trauma, particularly those within the creative sphere. Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka wrote about such trauma in his 2000 paper The Ambivalence of Social Change: Triumph or Trauma? (Polish Sociological Review , 2000, No. 131 (2000), pp. 275-290). He expertly examines the coping mechanisms through which various traumatic situations and events might turn into what he terms a “mobilizing force for human agency” and catalyze “creative social becoming.” Aside from the fascinating examinations of the rise of moral panics (more on that in a future essay), Sztompka quotes American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) in his four adaptations to anomie, a term with particular currency. Merton had postulated possible consequences to social strain, elements which could be experienced via the misalignment of individual or collective ambitions, and the circumstances in realizing them. These elements formed the basis of his famous strain theory, published in 1938 in the American Sociological Review. Piotr Sztompka (b.1944, Warsaw) adapted Merton’s ideas to cultural trauma thusly as innovation; rebellion; ritualism; retreatism, elements which he discusses at length in excellent paper, written a scant decade into post-Soviet life. I fully credit Marina Frolova-Walker for the introduction to Sztompka’s work; in an online lecture last month, she provided a wonderful introduction to these concepts within the context of her own post-Soviet musical analyses. It is the innovation aspect to which I am the most interested presently, one I suspect possesses the greatest resonance within the post-pandemic realities of the classical sphere. Certainly innovation (or its lack) is a concept relevant to the many new season announcements by orchestras and opera houses of late; just how those “reimaginings” will manifest, in light of pandemic and war, remains to be seen.

Thus it was that Sztompka’s ideas, together with the currently cautious cultural climate, that I was inspired to reread Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned (Indiana University Press, 2021), by Elena Dubinets, with a fresh, curious view. As well as being an author, Dubinets is the Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), a position she began in September 2021.  A self-described Jew from Moscow with a Ukrainian spouse, Dubinets has a length and very impressive CV. She worked as Vice President of Artist Planning and Creative Projects at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for 16 years, where she also played a central role in producing and co-founding the orchestra’s in-house label. The trained musicologist was also a Chair of the City of Seattle Music Commission (appointed by the Seattle City Council), a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Washington’s School of Music, and was Chief Artistic Officer at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra before accepting her position with the LPO. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Dubinets has taught in her native Russia, as well as in Costa Rica and the United States, the country where she and her family moved in 1996. Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned examines the movement of both Soviet and post-Soviet composers within the greater paradigm of socio-political identities, ones which shifted and morphed, or not, according to geography and circumstance. Connections in and around these inner and outer realities are ones Dubinets takes particular care with; such investigations have pointed resonance to the current, perilous displacements and journeys being made by so very many. Utilizing a myriad of references and quotations from a variety of sources (including composers Boris Filanovsky, Anton Batagov, Serge Newski and Dmitri Kourliandski) Dubinets examines the 20th and 21st-century diasporic musical landscapes through wonderfully contextualized lenses of history, culture, finance, socio-religious beliefs and practises, and old and current politics, as well as the ways in which identity can and does change according to a combination of these factors.

In a Chapter titled “The “Social” Perspective”, Dubinets features an exchange she shared with composer Mark Kopytman (b. 1929-2011), outlining the cultural explorations and varied journeys which were seminal to his creative identity. Born in Ukraine, Kopytman graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and went on to work at conservatories in then-Soviet Moldova and Kazakhstan. Kopytman emigrated to Israel in 1972, where his ascent at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance (Jerusalem), from Professor, to Dean, then to Deputy Head, gave him a unique perspective on his past experiences and then-current path. He told Dubinets that his understanding of his own Jewish roots stemmed from his study of Yemenite folklore, which led directly to various compositions integrating various histories and traditions. “Would Kopytman have developed his Jewish identity had he stayed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Moldova? Most certainly not.” (p. 139) Dubinets also examines the important if often overlooked act of return. Given the current circumstances and the related antagonisms connected to speaking out against the war or not, these observations hold particular poignancy:

There is a heightened sensitivity among Russian returnees about the resentment they perceive to be directed toward them, and some clearly remember the antagonism and even discrimination they experienced when they came back […] Having studied the emigration-related consequences of the Balkan conflict, Anders Stefansson observed that relationships between emigrants and those who stayed behind often provoked the strongest outbursts of frustration and anger, even more than their memories of violence or the stigma of refugee life. The notion of Otherness and nonbelonging developed in these situations in relation to one’s territorial kin and the sense of former national unity did not guarantee welcome, tolerance, or even basic acceptance. Emigrants – many of whom later tried to return – fell from favor in the homeland and were treated as both social and cultural foreigners and national defectors. (p. 290-291)

The notion of “Russian”-ness needs to be re-examined, Dubinets posits, as she skillfully untangles the fraught web of Soviet and post-Soviet musical identities, and the twisting social connections therein. Her thoroughness and conversational writing style lend a cohesiveness that illuminates Eastern creative landscapes as well as those further afield; Dubinets puts her business acumen to good use in examining aspects of marketing, criticism, and “value” as ascribed to musicians across varying social fields, and related locales. This is a book of nuance, not of binaries, a timely work that moves past the noise of reductionism. Dubinets provides meaningful investigation into the realities of creative life amidst the current sea of both manufactured and real outrage, of profitable obfuscation and polemical thought, creating a myriad of vital understandings and illuminations of musical life, insights which are especially valuable in a time of war.

We spoke at the end of April (2022), about war, identity, and much else.

How do you see musical Russian musical identity now, especially within the wider umbrellas of socio-political and cultural shifts?

Elena Dubinets, book, author, Russian, Ukrainian, diaspora, composers, classical, historyI think the definition needs to change – it needs to be decolonized, yes. How we do it is a different story. It will take many generations, I’m afraid, to bring it to something different, because the definition is so established in our minds due to the fact that the idea of Russia as a whole has been perpetuated in the hands of successive governments, not just the current one but prior ones. They made that cultural identity a soft weapon for the country, and the Russian world, so to speak. I’m not sure if you speak Russian, but there’s a term that’s been widely used by Putin’s government, “Russkiy mir“, in order to include any Russian-speaking person on the planet. This was striking for me to realize when I was beginning to do my research about the music of émigré composers: wherever they’d go they’d do Russian music based only on their language. They could be from Georgia, Estonia, from Ukraine of course, or from Russia, but wherever they were placed on the globe, the perception is that they were Russians.

I have a similar story myself: back in Russia when I was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, I did a dissertation on American music, and when I moved to the U.S. and people realized I was speaking Russian and a musicologist, everybody who got in contact with me assumed I was a specialist in Russian music itself – and I was not. I had to slightly go with the flow, but it was an assumption that was quite often put on people and they became labeled with it. Typically this is what the current Russian government wants, and what they organized way before the war, in the late 1990s; Putin then strengthened it, but they organized these meetings of Russians abroad, so to speak, and created certain organizations for supporting the development of Russian culture and Russian music abroad. These associations were especially strong in the UK and they were run by Russian state organizations, so it was an intentional effort to broaden the scope of the government, and to put us all under the same umbrella, regardless of our differences. And it didn’t work, this idea of Russian culture.

… and now it’s biting many people back. Various forms of identity are part of the public discourse now, and identity politics, traditionally seen as being the purview of the West, are being applied in the very place that would resist them most. I wonder what you think about that, particularly within the broader scope of what is being programmed for future seasons? Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kyiv), for instance, specifically identifies as a Ukrainian composer. 

Well, there are ethnic identities, some want to change them, stick to them, become something else, not all want to be presented as Russian or Ukrainian. Silvestrov specifically wants to be considered a Ukrainian composer because this is his passion, this is what he dedicated his life to. Others will tell you, “I am a composer. I am not a Russian composer.” The same goes for women composers: “I am not a woman-composer; I am a composer.” And so… I’m in favour of people somehow identifying what they do themselves, rather than us putting them in a corner, and trying to label them with certain things that sometimes even we don’t understand. What is indeed “Russian”? It’s really hard to explain to those who are far removed from that state and culture, and for some of us, even the word “Russian” can be understood differently, because there are different words for it. One word can be translated to mean it’s a state-related identity, like Russia as a country-state – “We are Russians because we belong to the state in one way or another” – but another word can be translated as a cultural identity, a language-related identity, which would have nothing to do with the state. In my book I have discussed this concept, and the idea of cultural affiliation – it might be a useful concept to consider instead, to replace the other, much more questionable forms of national identification. What I mean by that is some people simply can’t or don’t want to be singularly associated with the state, or another state, not just Russian; it’s an idea which is applicable to all countries. You might have seen the names in my book, composers like Tszo Chen Guan (b. 1945, Shanghai), who is from China, or Lantuat Nguen (Nguyễn Lân Tuất; b. 1935, Hanoi), who is  from Vietnam – they learned Russian, it’s not their first or even their second language but they moved into Russia, and became Russian citizens. And for that reason they had to be affiliated with that specific culture and learn how to accommodate its main stipulations. They started writing Russian overtures and Russian symphonies, and went on to other cultural affiliations. So there is a way to be attached to a country even if you are not really born there.

What I’m trying to conceptualize is that the binary concepts of inclusion vs exclusion, belonging vs otherness, acceptance vs intolerance – these concepts are becoming outdated because the world has changed so much. We are on the move; we are learning new cultures. And we want to be considered as individuals rather than attached to any identity politics.

Context moves against those binary notions, although the nature of contemporary publishing is such that context is thrown off in favor of binary thinking, because it means more clicks, more views, immediate reaction; outrage. I was thinking about this when I read Kevin Platt’s op-ed in The New York Times, which made me consider composer Elena Langer (b. 1974, Moscow), whose work you write about and have programmed as part of the LPO’s 2022-2023 season. How much do you think the idea of redefinition matters? Redefinition moves against binary reductiveness, but it requires flexibility to implement. How do you cultivate that?

I think after the pandemic we have received this very unusual level of flexibility – because we had to change everything for two seasons and we had to do it on the fly, according to each situation. This season we had at least five weeks in a row when we had to make considerable changes in our programming for multiple reasons, not only covid-related but we had a storm – there were all kinds of things, and one of them was the war. For me this ability to change programming and to change, to react to the surrounding world, is absolutely necessary. I have always been troubled by the inertia of arts organizations, and particularly opera houses and symphony orchestras; we have to plan very early, at least two to three years out, and with the opera houses, it’s even more, it’s up to five years out they plan, and that’s in order to ensure availability of composers, singers, directors, conductors – everybody possible – but covid changed all of it. All the plans got shifted. Organizations are still rescheduling and will be accommodating those whose performances got cancelled during covid, for a while, but priorities are also changing, so now I’m asking myself: what should I prioritize? A piece by a Ukrainian composer or one that was cancelled during covid? I’m enjoying the flexibility this time gives us because the audiences expect that kind of flexibility; they got trained by cancellations, which is a strange thing to say. We’d print our brochures and send them out in the “before times”, and we’d stick to what was in those brochures for the rest of the year; this is what people expected from us and we were proud we could satisfy their expectations. But it all went astray, and now if I ask somebody, “What concert are you coming to here next week?” they often get confused – the programmes have been so regularly changed. And that’s the beauty of the situation, this is terrific actually, because we can swiftly implement something that hadn’t been in the plans but can be responsive to the moment.

I wonder if that relates to the first facet of cultural trauma as outlined by Piotr Sztompka, innovation, a concept that feels especially important now. Your choice of quotes from critics in both North America and the UK in your book  made me wonder how much innovation does or doesn’t travel across the ocean, particularly post-pandemic.

It’s coming, slowly! It’s much much slower than what we are used to in North America, and I’m still struggling with the fact that sometimes I have to explain very simple things to my colleagues in London. They didn’t live through BLM (Black Lives Matter), or, they didn’t have a similar experience of it; that time was a very, very different thing for them. It was mostly distant; music people here heard about it but didn’t internalize it. In the States it’s impossible not to think about it, but in the U.K., it’s largely, at least in the cultural sector, “Oh right, that.” It is slow to get it into the fabric of our thinking about classical music, and you know, we need a number of pioneers who will lead the way, like for example, my orchestra has been working closely with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) – they are definitely leading the way, they know about BLM and what they should be doing, but you know, they need to continue convincing the constituents. There are other organizations the LPO works with who are educators, they are groups who are very passionate – they don’t do programming themselves but work with the institutions who do. So I think the more of this work there is, the better it will be. The consensus exists that change has to come but they haven’t gone through things yet.

The UK is much more attuned with the concept of sustainability, however. People use public transportation here more than in North America. There, my team was trying to consider what could be done in terms of greener orchestra attendance, and because everybody uses cars it’s just not possible, but really, it’s one of those things we have to think about. It’s what we do, after all, it’s a life form – people have to physically attend – and In the U.S, to do so they have to drive, whereas in the UK it’s much more about trains, even when we’re on tour. We work with venues on certain aspects of that much more so than counterparts in the U.S. do.

One thing I appreciate your acknowledging during the recent LPO season preview recently is the overall insularity of the classical music world – “our small and somewhat isolated classical community” as you put it – but do you think that bubble is breaking up now, however slightly?

We’ve been observing a pretty interesting process here, but sadly we still can’t qualify it. What we’ve noticed this season, when we came back with the first season of live performance after the pandemic, was that many people got used to watching us online, because we had organized a major series of concerts. We streamed 35 concerts online, the same number we’d normally perform live at the Royal Festival Hall. People were receiving it in the comfort of their homes and they got used to it. Many say it’s a very different experience than when they come for live concerts, that they get something else, they get a different type of engagement – but not all of them decided to come back (live). Some of them are still worried about their health; some live too far away; there is a constituency that hasn’t returned.

However, there is a completely new group of people and it’s mostly younger people who show up randomly at our concerts. We always understand how many are coming, it used to be so subscription-based that we’d know a year out how many would come, but it’s not the case anymore; people really don’t buy until the last minute now, but they do come and they are extremely enthusiastic A recent concert with Renée Fleming is a good example. Of course she’s a star, but it felt like a rock concert! People were screaming, they were young people too – it was stunning for me to see. I’ve worked with her before, in many orchestras, but it was a totally different planet, this concert. So I’m constantly asking myself if this is what we are getting because of the covid and the streaming, if this is why people are so much more embracing of programming changes and of new music and of things they’ve not heard before – I hope this is the case. I do hope we have obtained new audiences somehow after the pandemic, but we still don’t have any statistical data.

I had a conversation with classical marketing consultant David Taylor recently and we discussed how low prices do not inspire younger audience attendance – it could be free but they wouldn’t go – it’s the experience itself, of offering something that can’t be had online.

I totally agree, and I know things we’ve learned about, that we understand what may or may not bring them in that regard. We had an Artist-In-Residence this year, Julia Fischer, who did all five Mozart violin concerti, and we had half-houses for all these concerts. Now if you asked our marketing department three years ago about this they would have said, “That’s a definitive sellout, continue doing only this stuff and then we’ll be all set with our budgets” – but people didn’t show up this time. They showed up for some random and obscure performances we hadn’t budgeted for accordingly, so yes, they come unexpectedly. It’s hard to understand at this point, as I said.

That’s part of the innovation aspect with relation to the cultural responses to trauma, seeking new experiences after two years of watching behind a monitor, although there are many who still choose to do so, whether because of economics or health, or a combination of both. It behoves many cultural organizations not to take those audiences – or how we choose to enjoy concerts – for granted.

That’s true – it’s why our goal with programming has been and will remain in balancing our repertory and offerings; we know that younger people are predisposed to new things and older people mostly prefer their blockbusters, and we’re also going back to the habit of explaining musical experiences – that is, our conductors speak from the stage. I want to say that for almost a decade such a thing was considered a no-go: “Music should speak for itself,” many would say. But now people seem to have the desire to learn more, and how do you learn if you have all possible restrictions? I’m always annoyed the lights go down during performances to such an extent it’s impossible to read the program books – you just can’t see them – and also the small type is very unfriendly. On the other hand younger people can open cell phones and read the notes online but it is too bright in the auditorium to do that, and we make a point to tell them they can’t use their devices during performances. It is an unfriendly art form in many ways when it comes to educating people about music and educating them about the experiences they have paid money to hear, so we are now beginning to talk more openly about doing pre-concert lectures and doing quick introductions from the stage right before the music. Of course we’ll be using digital means going forward as well, that’s important, we really want people to come back! They vote with their feet, and if they don’t like something, they don’t come back.

But you are also filling in the holes for an education system that has been continually underfunded over many decades. I am not sure all classical organizations themselves think of their mission this way; I recently read about a festival featuring the music of Rachmaninoff and the language consisted largely of clichéd notions of “Russian” music. Is this, I thought, how we should talk about him (or any Russian composer) anymore? It seems so outdated.

We played Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony on the third day of the war – that concert was called “From Russia With Love” and consisted entirely of Russian music: Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Second. I actually had to go onstage and say something because it was unimaginable to do the concert without any framing of it, without putting it within the current situation, whereby it could have been just cancelled outright. We could have done just that, but people bought tickets; they wanted to hear this music. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) has never associated himself with Putin, and I thought, “Why would we cancel it? We just have to position it properly.”

So we played the Ukrainian national anthem to open, after I said a few words, and really, this is what it means to be relevant as an industry: it means engaging with people’s emotions and thoughts in a particular moment. We played the anthem at a time before everyone else was doing it. I explained how Prokofiev (1891-1953), even though he is considered Russian, was born in Ukraine, specifically in the territory being bombed at the moment; as to Rachmaninoff, he left Russia because he never agreed with the regime change or its policies. Putting the music in context makes a huge difference in people’s minds…

Context, the magic word!

Yes! And we had a standing ovation after the anthem, and it wasn’t a standing ovation for only how well they played this music or how beautiful it was or is; it was a standing ovation for the fact we decided to open a concert with, let’s use this word, a “dangerous” program this way, by explaining what it means to us and why we are doing it.

I asked Axel Brüggemann about this recently and he agreed but added that such contextual information can sometimes disturb people’s closely-held perceptions of beauty in art…

So maybe he’s thinking of Dostoyevsky’s idea that beauty will save the world… and we know it will not!

It’s interesting you mention Dostoyevsky because there have been numerous discussions pondering if he should still he be held up as “the great Russian writer” considering his anti-semitism. Rather than knee-jerk reaction, my instinct as a teacher is to examine his work with  full contextual awareness, which might lead, as your book also suggests, to a rethinking of greatness, of Russian-ness, and how we use the word “genius” going forwards.

Yes, and what I tried to always state and intimate, when I can, is that Russians are very different, Russian music is a part of the Russian image, the government has used it to its own narrative, but we must never conflate all Russians, and especially Russian composers and musicians – and artists in general – into something unified. It would be anachronistic and inaccurate. In that op-ed you mentioned, Kevin Platt was trying to do this, and I don’t think it came off right, especially since he placed Gergiev and Netrebko in a strange context – but he did say Ukrainians who write in the Russian language, they certainly self-identify as Ukrainians, but they still use the Russian language, the same way as Gogol (1809-1852) did in the 19th century or Shevchenko (1814-1861) as well. They did it because Russian was the language of the empire, it was a colonizing language, and actually moving to Saint Petersburg was because of the opportunities that existed there, ones that didn’t exist for their art in Kyiv or in Ukraine in general.

We can never forget about the social element and infrastructures of how the arts are done when we examine any art form, especially music, because it is an extensive art form; you sometimes have to hire hundreds to perform your piece, and how can it be supported if the state or major donors don’t invest in the art form? We can’t forget about that reality. Some Ukrainian writers simply had opportunities in Russia, and when Russian had become a terribly universal language for all citizens of the former Soviet empire, they simply continued using this language – but that doesn’t mean they’re Russians; we can’t conflate them all into the same plot . For this reason we can’t cancel it all; we should perform it. People like Gergiev… no, that’s different. It’s clear to everyone on the planet I believe, that he specifically benefited from this government and specifically supported its war efforts; many others have not, they protested, it should also matter and it should count.

Having said that, I have experienced opinions from other folks, for example Ukrainian musicians, who think that while the war is ongoing, Russian and Ukrainian music shouldn’t be on the same platform or the same programme, and while I don’t quite agree with it, I do see the rationale for that, and I understand their position. Ultimately what they’re saying is music is their weapon as well, the same way it is and has been soft power, and a soft weapon for the Russian government, so Ukrainians are also saying, “We have this meaningful tool and we want to use it appropriately.” But there is also another element bothering me recently as a scholar of Russian music and culture: I agonize over the fact that right now is not an ideal time to advocate for Russian music, but it is impossible to reconcile the unimaginable atrocities that have been committed by Russian soldiers with the fact they were educated in school studying Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. They were part of the system and even if they didn’t internalize it, it was there, it existed. I know myself, I studied and taught there, and know how it’s done right now. So it’s hard to understand how people who had at least some cultural background and education in school, do what they’ve been doing…

Quite a few reports have explored the connection between military service and poverty, and President Zelensky has noted this also, which makes me think that for all culture they were shown in school, it doesn’t mean the same thing for them as it would for others in different areas. What is culture if you have nothing in the fridge and no job prospects outside the door? This makes me ponder our role(s) as artists / thinkers / writers / producers / programmers of culture, and of how to create or support a system that reaches past our bubble – which goes back to your points. The classical community needs to start thinking about all of this… 

… we do have to, yes, but unfortunately right now the domination of the Russian government there, in those places, is remaking the ways in which school kids, those in elementary schools, will be studying history and culture, and also unfortunately, that history and culture will now become even less based on facts and even more based on ideology. This is the reform they’re initiating right now as we speak. So who will grow up within that system, between ten to fifteen years from now, is scary to imagine. And that’s not talking only about rural areas but cities as well, because they all have the same agenda, to glorify what the army is doing right now.

The language for that glory creates and shapes a reality which is not, in fact, reality – but surely this is why we have to talk about culture, and characterize decisions in culture, very carefully ourselves, and make sure when we make these decisions public or engage in exchanges that such language is very precise and not reactionary…?

Yes, and we should do that. In Russia that sense has been killed; what exists is public television which is a very determined agenda. And going back to what you asked me about what we learned as a result of the pandemic and how Europe is different from North America: Russia is an entirely different planet. They’ve never heard of some of the concepts we are trying to implement, or they are totally against them. They are not even trying to understand or accept the realities of the current time. If you are talking about diversifying the art form, they’re never considered this. I’m worried this feeds into the overall line of the “exceptionality” of the Russian culture in general, and that idea applies to Russian musicians in particular. They don’t want to accept that there are other cultures, other important elements in our world that they need to consider.

That’s an important point, this notion of Russian exceptionalism, which has existed in parts of the Russian classical world for a long time I am not convinced such an attitude is good for art, or for people. Journalist Maxim Trudolyubov tackled the topic of Russian exceptionalism in the arts in a newsletter which attracted immense pushback from Russian artists, if also support from certain musicians, including composer Boris Filanovsky, who you quote in your book. 

You know it’s always interesting to consider how decolonization should happen, and quite an obvious way would be for those formerly colonized cultures to be considered independent of their colonizers. This is what I am observing right now: I think the deconstructing of Russian imperial identity is happening in such a way. Ukraine has always been positioned in comparison to Russia, and Ukrainian artists are often compared to Russian artists. I’ve heard here, on my job with the LPO even, on multiple occasions, that we don’t know Ukrainian music because “Oh, it’s not as good as Russian” – and this is silly. People don’t know Ukrainian music, period, because it was purposely colonized that way, it was undermined by the occupier, by the empire, by its ambitions for their counterparts who would willingly point it out to everybody, that what they do is better than what other people in the provinces do, and Russians just don’t want to hear this piece of history, we completely ignore this societal argument. So when decolonizing these cultures, say, Belarusian or Ukrainian, I think they should be able to stand on their own rather than being constantly compared with Russians – and right now the public discourse is such that it’s just not happening. Maybe a few more months have to pass. Right now our goal is to perform as much Ukrainian music as possible and convince everybody it does stand on its own, and that it does have this individuality which it was not granted in the past.

So it starts with those programming choices and the flexibility you mentioned and saying, “Yes, we are going to have this composer and that composer in our programme tonight, it isn’t announced, but here it is” – just that spontaneous?

It’s just that. We performed a piece for violin and orchestra, “Thornbush”, by Victoria Polevá (b. 1962, Ktiv) at the fundraiser for Ukraine in Glyndebourne in early April; it was not really announced but we spoke about it from the stage, and then we decided to commission a new piece from her for next season.

Our entire 2022-2023 season will be dedicated to music by composers who had to leave their own countries as refugees to displaced composers – so we’ll talk about issues of home, what is home, what is displacement, how the composers experience exile, homelessness, despair, when and why they had to drop everything and leave – and what does it mean to “belong:, in a much broader sense? Is the idea of “home” just an emotional environment they wanted to create for themselves? Or is it a certain geographic location? Is it a time and place? There are so many possible descriptors of what “home” is, and this is what we hope to explore through music next season. The idea of this season came up when I was just hired to become the Artistic Director, about a year ago, and we thought we were implementing it pretty well, we incorporated composers who had left Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany but also Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria, and you’ll hear music from all these composers although few know their names. We had to make some choices in favour of these composers instead of programming Beethoven, let’s say, who could sell us many more tickets – but we used this new season to represent our general mission. And unfortunately the idea became – I say “unfortunately” because I wish this war never happened – very relevant when the war was starting, so we commissioned Victoria Polevá, who was on the way from Kyiv to Poland to escape the bombs at the time we asked – and so she will write for us next season. This is how I understand the mission of our art form at this terrible moment: decolonizing the preconceptions about classical music.

Michail Jurowski conductor Russian music classical live performance

Remembering Michail Jurowski (1945-2022)

I learned of conductor Michail Jurowski’s passing yesterday morning, March 19th, 2022. What a blessing, to have met him and later spent time in conversation. Initially meeting at a concert (where else), we subsequently arranged to speak, with him in Berlin, and me in Bucharest. Kind, patient, generous, and full of stories, he was very involved in sharing his thoughts and experiences, and offered extraordinary insight extrapolating on how things like compromise and authenticity affect the work of being a conductor and artist, pondering responses, breaking out big grins now and again, asking me to repeat things (“the sound on my computer is so bad!”). I confess to feeling like a fraud at a few points, battling through the anxiety I could feel rising in waves now and again: who was I, after all, this yokel Canadian asking these questions, even daring to approach him, music-degree-free me?

How long have I been incubating this, after all, this perceived lack which is burnished into shame: I don’t fit in because I can’t! It is a shrieking demon. Some days I wonder how much I should keep listening. In learning of Jurowski’s passing I was reminded of a moment when that demon was, if not silenced, content to sit in a corner, only making the occasional ruckus. Some days are better than others in facing down such a creature. Sometimes it shrieks, tells me I ought best quit writing about music, that I cannot possibly have any value: I am unworthy! Everyone is laughing at me! What a fraud! No one in the industry takes me seriously or values my work! Why am I doing this? No one cares because I’m an idiot!  Imposter syndrome for writers is real; equally real is the rejection one feels from lacking what all the other members of the club seem to so easily possess, and the benefits they enjoy as a result (community, acceptance, applause, access, encouragement). I am learning to negotiate such details, to see a much broader picture; there are things happening in the world. I am slowly learning to kick the demon’s tail out of the way as best I can, with a reminder (in my mother’s voice) that I’ve always been an outsider anyway; why should now be any different? Maestro didn’t care about my perceived deficiencies, or if he did, he didn’t let on. Get the lead out, as my mother would say. Ah, but broody rumination pops its soggy head up just as the demon’s bright tail disappears.

The last thirty hours or so has been spent, in large part, ruminating on that 2019 conversation with the conductor, between looking at a litany of news items, one more horrible than the next. That he should pass now, of all times, seems especially tragic. Moscow-born and with Ukrainian-Jewish roots, Jurowski belonging to a certain generation that looked to the West as a source of hope and even inspiration. He didn’t buy the reductive Them vs. Us narrative made so popular (so widely if unconsciously carried) promulgated through Putin-era politics. His focus was European and Slavic repertoire (his father’s included), but he was well aware of administration stesses and funding realities and what they all meant, having held official positions in various organizations (Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden). He was highly aware of postwar perceptions of Russian-ness versus its lived reality, aware of what it was to be an outsider. He knew about audiences; as he told me in our chat, the one in Cleveland was among the most receptive he’d experienced. He didn’t carry heavily  sentimentalized notions of his home country, or if he did, he didn’t let on publicly. (Through such a lens the final image of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia begins to make an awful sense, but more on that in a future post.) “My family has been through a lot,” he said, speaking about his father toward the end of our chat. I remember he shook his head, letting out a little sigh.

Whatever memories he did carry were firmly in the past, and not meant to be guides of the present, creatively or otherwise. It is painful to think he only enjoyed his American debut in 2019, at the age of 73, a few months before we spoke. Jurowski cared about a great many things, but what he didn’t care about where I happened to be from, what that might imply, or what that could mean in European classical music circles. (The recent cries from the continent, along the lines of, “Mon Dieu, don’t import your North American culture wars here!” seem especially absurd, but again, more on that in a future post.) Maestro didn’t seem to care about my perceived lack, as someone born in North America: of the “right” background; of the “right” degrees; of the “right” books / movies / theatre / albums having been consumed in childhood / youth; of the “right” linguistic skills; of the “right” cultural knowledge. All of these things seem to hold a certain weight to some in the current cultural milieu, ironically, in an era that is (the marketing tells us) meant to be more inclusive. He was curious, and in today’s climate, a symbol of what Russian culture can, should be, and maybe still is: curious, yes, but also open, inclusive, generous. He asked me again in that conversation, just as he’d done when we met: how did I know his work? (Moses, by way of soprano Chen Reiss, who appears on the recording); how did I know about Kancheli? (Youtube makes sometimes-magical suggestions); he was flattered at my enthusiasm, my admitting to exploring things I didn’t grow up with, what I want to call my Canadian moxie. He was happy to exchange ideas, happy to listen to what I heard in those albums and others, keen to know the paths I’d taken thereafter. He offered suggestions and encouragement, and I remember leaving that conversation smiling.

It wasn’t because there was some kind of bridge that had been magically built over the course of our 70-minute exchange, more a sense of open reception, faith, good energy. Music is not, to my mind, a universal language, nor does it build bridges; there are too many varied perceptions, too many differing lives, too much inequality, too many varied streams of thought, too much intransigence, too much sadness, and none of that is magically erased with romantic artsy lenses (nor should it be in some instances) – but the thing music asks us to do, in its best form, matters: to use your imagination, and sometimes, do that in the exercise of empathy, to make the leap across a chasm, sans bridge. Some (composers, conductors, singers, ensembles) are more skilled at highlighting this act than others. As listeners, we are often asked to imagine – other people, other worlds, the composer composing, the musicians playing, the maestro on the podium, the faces and hands of engineers and producers and audiences – and yes, of course, one imagines one’s self sometimes too, as one or another (that’s the navel-gazing instinct social media encourages, after all), but the music I love best is the sort that gently requests a look outside, away from self, to another world, another time, another life, without attempting to understand. Some things don’t make sense, because they can’t. This has been something I think the last two years has constantly reminded us of; loss doesn’t ask to be understood. We cannot understand, we cannot control. We can only mitigate effect, minimize transmission, think, consider, act – stare at the chasm, wonder if we have the right boots. Sometimes the right sounds, at the right time, blow the fuse on the ouroboros of suffering. It isn’t the music doing that, it’s what what we’re bringing to it. Perhaps we’ll light some tiny spark, somewhere. Perhaps the chasm will fill in, however slightly and temporarily.

Alas, we also have the choice not to move at all. A quietly-yawning compassion deficit, prevalent throughout modern life and made noticeable amidst pandemic, is now writ horribly, painfully large through war. I’ve been writing about this lately and how it relates to the classical industry (including as part of an essay series; Part 1 is already up), contemplating its implications and origins a great deal – reading, watching, trying to understand various worlds, minds, lives, and ways of thinking and being, all of them largely powered on this horrendous deficit of compassion (Andrey Kurkov, Hannah Arendt, and Ingeborg Bachmann provide a few clues, along with the films of Yuri Bykov and Andrey Zvyagintsev). I have been avoiding and simultaneously diving straight into news, furiously hoovering, barely eating, avoiding mirrors, slowly completing student marking, booking a trip, cancelling a trip, pecking at writing (and tossing around giving it up altogether), eyeballing graduate school, smirking at cat photos, and looking out the window at the pond across the street. The signs of life are there, though the colors are still muted; the geese have yet to return, but the robins are already out, bobbing along the edges of low bushes. I want to flick the parked cars away like dirty crumbs. Perhaps a little bit of faith is required (hard and expensive it may be); perhaps a bit of patience. Loss is so difficult to understand, so huge to navigate. It is such a large hole, with such rough edges. There is no such thing as the “right” kind of grieving; there is only grief, and it takes as long as it must. In the meantime, one remembers, and keeps remembering.

And so I remember Michail Jurowski – his kindness, his generosity, his curiosity, and the ways in which his work touched so many. Seeing the various tributes of late, I am struck at their shared chords, the ones sounding out those qualities which are so precious, the ones which have become so scarce. He was Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, a musician, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a confidant, an inspiration, a mentor, an artist; he only made it to America once, but oh, lucky Cleveland. He affected so many, so much, and I hope his spirit lives on not only through his family but through those who worked with him, spoke with him, and those who listen to his work with renewed curiosity and enthusiasm. His mind, and his spirit, knew the notes as if burned into the heart; as he told me in 2019, he “composes” them in a sense, himself, every time he opens a score. He never used such knowledge as a weapon, but instead, as an umbrella. I imagine myself standing under its shade now, hearing the sounds of Kancheli, Rubinstein, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and those of his father too, and I imagine things blooming, slowly, however briefly, waiting out the storm.

Thank you, maestro. I wish we could have spoken one more time.

Top photo: T. Müller
painting, oil, figures, Yablonska, Ukrainian, art, culture, history, socialist realism, war, Russia, identity, scandal, protest, punishment

Essay: On Ukraine – Moving Beyond Performance

What is there to say?

Artists and organizations – some of them – have said plenty; others, very little. Some have chosen their words carefully, like a doe making her way through a field riddled with landmines – any step provokes angry reaction, any bent blade of grass a torrent of judgement. Some have simply not said anything at all. There are arguments in waterfalls of threads online – sometimes they break a dam, mostly they don’t. Walls remain walls. That doesn’t mean hacking at them in a real way, with real tools, isn’t important. Social media has, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, been a fascinating way to observe who uses tools, and how, and why, though these platforms (whose influence, for good and bad, ought not to be dismissed) have also provided reminders of the ease with which many organizations and figures alike can hide, obfuscate, and conceal, or alternately, promote, congratulate, posture. Sometimes though, none of those things happen, but something far deeper, better, more authentic. At present that authenticity isn’t merely nice – it’s necessary.

The Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra, currently on tour, recently engaged in a fascinating series of exchanges on their Facebook page after posting a supportive message and an actionable link (which I publicly thanked them for); the transparency of such efforts and exchanges is what the situation now demands. One hopes more organizations will follow suit, but alas, such direct expression in those other arenas is being blunted by political and economic interests, not humane and conscientious ones. The meaningful change inspired by pandemic which so many had hoped for in the classical world hasn’t totally manifest. (Some may argue with me on this, and really, go ahead; sticking to my guns.) There is a feeling, in looking at the mad race back to a crap old normal that didn’t work well for anyone not at the top, that war has magnified the compassion deficit uncovered by the pandemic a hundred-fold. People are already suffering emotional burnout, and now… now. But I’m not so sure performative hashtags are the answer. Certainly, such gestures satisfy marketing departments and board members who wish to convey concern (#concern); whatever is easiest, least risky, most theatrical, requiring lowest effort but eliciting maximum applause and maintaining the comfortable position of coolness (or victimology narratives), with the requisite grab for sexy influencer clicks, well yes, this. (I get it; take a look at my hashtags, done for clarity and indexing on the internet, but still.) I naively want to believe people are still (somehow) good, that they are not all selfish, that they will take initiative, however big or small, and not for their own sake; how I want to feel there is a willingness to risk comfort and familiarity and position, that humanity will make an effort, move beyond, give a damn – not for themselves, not for bank accounts, not for comfort or the continuance of some pretentious, capital-A form of art or some jewellry-rattling form of #fancy #night #out, but because it is simply the right thing to do. Watching numerous huge protests across the world is encouraging; people care, many of them, but I wonder how much is translating into real action, a contemplation given extra force in examining various responses within the classical world.

It is a community which has, this week, been a hodge-podge of activism, protest, confusion, awkwardness,  silence, diplomacy, and carefully-worded outrage. Some, like Opernhaus Zürich, have been straight-forward: “We strongly condemn the unprecedented war of aggression on Ukraine.” The purposeful inclusion of those words (“condemn” “war” “aggression”) are incredible when seen in contrast to the approach of other houses. Clarity matters; language matters. Russian conductors Kirill Petrenko and Semyon Bychkov, have used similar clarity in their respective statements. Released through the Berlin Philharmonic, Petrenko’s note says that Putin’s “insidious attack” does indeed “violate international law.” The head of one of the world’s most famous (and storied) orchestras writing this, publicly, is noteworthy; for Petrenko (who is Jewish), music is certainly not above, nor separate, from politics. How could it be, though, considering the history and creation of so many pieces? Going further yet is Semyon Bychkov, who has written a series of strongly-worded, thoughtful responses over the past week. In one statement, he pinpoints the importance of recognizing the intersection of history, memory, conflict, and narratives, something which has been the subject of heated online discourse since the start of the war this week:

One of many signs and symbols that the country has returned to pre-Perestroika times is the dissolution of the Memorial Society founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov in 1989. Its mission was to research every single victim of repression and keep the memory of the dead alive. Through the dissolution of the Memorial on 29 December 2021 victims of repression were killed once again. This too is a form of genocide. Not in the Russian-occupied Donbas of Ukraine as Putin claims.

The Russian regime wants to obliterate the memory of its victims. If we forget them we will betray them.

Earlier this week, Bychkov announced the cancellation of a planned series of concerts leading the Russian National Youth Orchestra. Rather than sticking head in the sand and stating “culture continues” he makes real the very real idea that choices during war matter; actions result in things people will, or won’t, experience directly – and this is what creates impact in a real way, an impact which morally dominates any ostrich-like, romanticized notion of what culture (specifically classical music) can or should be. Bychkov’s cancellation is not about punishment, as the St. Petersburg-born maestro explains:

I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death’.

He writes something incredibly important just before this, that performing “under the present circumstances would be an unconscionable act of acquiescence.

This is not, it is worth nothing, an act meant to sow division; it is an act of solidarity that fully and openly acknowledges the central role of economics within the classical world, one rarely discussed but wholly vital, especially the impact the pandemic has had on culture. The money-meets-government factor is an element which certainly deserves scrutiny, and indeed it’s one many Russian artists have now dared to question. A strongly-worded open letter from Russian arts workers reads, in part, “Everything that has been done culturally over the past 30 years is now at risk: all international ties will be severed, cultural private or state institutions will be mothballed, partnerships with other countries will be suspended. All this will destroy the already fragile economy of Russian culture and significantly reduce its significance both for Russian society and for the international community as a whole.” So far the petition has more than 2100 signatories. I can only guess how many of those who signed are, or have been, on the streets to protest – there have been several across Russia, and thousands of people (including composer/musician Alexander Manotskov) have been detained . Several Russian cultural figures (including, rather notably, Vladimir Urin and Vladimir Spivakov) have signed an anti-war petition in which they recognize that “in each of us lives the genetic memory of war. We do not want a new war, we do not want people to lose their lives.” It may seem milquetoast in its wording, but as Meduza editor Kevin Rothrock pointed out, “many people are risking their livelihoods with this. It’s not your throwaway virtue signalling.” If art is about connection, as some have recently claimed, then the most important points in that line of connection must be financial; to disinclude them is to engage in a privileged form of willful blindness. Who can afford such a luxury now?

Moscow-based art museum Garage has released a public announcement in which they announce they are halting all of their exhibitions “until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased. We cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place.” A group of public figures, including author Vladimir Sorokin and actress Chulpan Khamatova, composer/pianist Anton Batagov, and Nobel-Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov, have added their names to another petition, which reads (in translation):

The war Russia has launched against Ukraine is a disgrace. It is OUR shame, but unfortunately, our children, the generation of very young and unborn Russians, will also have to bear responsibility for it. We do not want our children to live in an aggressor country, to feel ashamed that their army has attacked a neighbouring independent state. We call on all citizens of Russia to say NO to this war. 

We do not believe that an independent Ukraine poses a threat to Russia or any other state. We do not believe Vladimir Putin’s statements that the Ukrainian people are under the rule of the “Nazis” and need to be “liberated”. We demand an end to this war!

The outrage – its reality, its clarity in expression, the risk inherent to its expression – are all very real, and witnessing it across the spectrum, in real time, has been harrowing. To be blunt: I never expected Russian artists to publicly take a stand, to venture, to risk, but when they did, I am struck (mostly) by the humanity, and the specificity of language in conveying that humanity (something I think Bychkov is especially good at capturing). That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been disagreement, defensiveness, an appalling lack of compassion. False equivalency, that pungent symbol of 21st century socio-political exchange, has been expressed by some – it reads as little more than self-interested apologism; the “what aboutisms” that come with such reactions beat on the intellect and the soul equally. Such responses were taken to task by Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who shared specific and personal details of her family history, one which is, like so many of us Eastern Europeans, threaded through with tragedy:

My already very old grand-grand-parents were deported by the Russians to Siberia during the second world war. One grand-grandfather was shot. My grandparents were robbed by Russian soldiers of home and everything. Not even being allowed to keep the shoes of their small children they had to live on the street. These are facts, not opinions.

Equally clear has been the position of music publisher Bärenreiter: “We vehemently oppose violence as well as the unfounded and unjustified aggression of one state against another, for which there is absolutely no place in cultural Europe.” They added the call to “let us all think about how we can actively support the Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price just for expressing their will to live just like us.”

Herewith are two links, ones I shared with Bärenreiter, which I am sharing here – not to seem saintly, not to prove anything, but merely because of a feeling of utter helplessness; I don’t know what else can be done, but to provide something which might have a real impact past numerous other tepid words and performative gestures. Perhaps my history working for Amnesty International many years ago in Dublin is making itself known; those busy days working alongside journalists covering a variety of human rights stories left its own indelible mark. These links (to accredited charities) were shared with me by Ukrainian contacts, who have been pleading with their well-meaning, non-Slavic counterparts to please fucking do something! They contain real, actionable suggestions to real organizations, many of them working at ground level in Ukraine. 

I don’t want to offer any grand philosophical statement about how culture “erases” borders – those borders and identities matter to people. People are fleeing across them right now; the fact they’re from a certain place matters a great deal, to them and to others. People right now are arguing about those identities, warring over them, with words and weapons equally. Culture doesn’t melt anything; music doesn’t mend anything – if anything, music has the power to rip hearts wide open, to inflame passions, to provoke strong feelings and thoughts; sometimes it should. Music isn’t always some mystical prescriptive bandage meant to heal the world – history has repeatedly taught us (or tried to teach us) that such reductive understanding doesn’t exactly work, for performers or audiences. Of course, history is largely labyrinthine; right action and its effects are not. We all experience life, and its sounds, differently – anthems, marches, symphonies, operas – births, deaths, sex, love. We all come from somewhere; sometimes we leave those places, but our hearts stay. How could they not? Sing, proclaim, protest; have a voice. Your voice matters, and will in time, I think, be less a part of the labyrinth of history than a ragged, colorful thread in a vast quilt, a piece of which we take back to our homes, someday, somehow – against our skin, hidden, but close to our hearts.

(Artwork: Tetyana Yablonska, “Life Goes On”. Oil on canvas, 1970. The National Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.)
Harry Bicket, conductor, The English Concert, maestro, Baroque, classical, The English Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Richard Haughton

How is California treating you?

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

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

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

Is that paperwork only because of the pandemic?

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

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

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

What’s the atmosphere been like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the act itself that counts.

That’s right.

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

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

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

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

Top photo: Dario Acosta
Nicky Spence, opera, tenor, singer, vocal, voice, music, Royal Opera, Scottish

Nicky Spence: Opera is “About How People Correspond With One Another”

London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of fresh ones for English National Opera (ENO)’s The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production of the Wagner Ring work, set to grace the stage of The Met in 2025.

There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. Those tales tend to follow a predictable path, and indeed Spence’s tale falls into this mould: all-night buses and anxious auditions and moving from hard-scrabble Dumfries youth to London music school, and onwards, of helping relatives and settling into a house with partner and dog when success did arrive. It’s the stuff of cliché, but sometimes the cliché is simply too correct to dismiss, and besides, the brand of success Spence is now enjoying was hard-won, because it wasn’t the sort that initially came knocking. In 2004, during his final year of school at Guildhall School of Music And Drama, Spence accepted a five-record contract with Universal Classics (Decca). He went on to make his first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award (as Young British Classical Performer Of The Year). During this time Universal/Decca had promoted him as “The Scottish Tenor”; Spence was in his early 20s at the time. When it came time to record his second album, Spence declined; back to Guildhall he went, for more intensive study of his craft. In 2009 Spence won a place at the National Opera Studio, and a year later joined ENO, as one of their inaugural Harewood Artists, where he did an equal mix of so-called “classic” opera (David in Die Meistersinger, The Novice in Billy Budd, Steva in Jenůfa) and contemporary: Spence created the role of Brian in Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera about the tragic intertwining of technology and passion based on a true story, which was subsequently staged at The Met.

Spence clearly wants to be a star, but that drive is in no way at odds with his keen musicality and theatrical instincts. An awareness of timing, texture, and technique, both vocally and physically, is evident, but Spence is smart enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (read: theatrical) reason. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence is still young, not quite 40; he’s performed on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu,  Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few. He returns to working with Martyn Brabbins on The Valkyrie at ENO later this year; it seemed clear from our conversation he was both daunted and thrilled by the chance to tackle Siegmund, a role that mixes dark and light, shade and nuance, in vocal writing as much as theatrical expression. So, to simply state that the tenor specializes in “darker” repertoire is to rather miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (sometimes dirty, ugly) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t diminish the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven (whose works can be every bit as chewy – Spence has performed them also), much less the work of contemporary composers, which Spence has admitted he would like to perform more often.  Taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the infusion of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), George Steiner ponders this equation of rare and special matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:

Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.

I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.

There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the Songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.

Complementing the hectic scheduling of an opera world that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) is Spence’s bubbly style. In his conversation with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently, he says, “I found this gift, I guess, it was like a superpower, really.” No longer The Scottish Tenor; now, perhaps, Super-Siegmund-Tenor, Spence’s past life filters into his present one: the pauses as much as the tones, the phrasing choices, the dynamic choices; the smell of hay, grass, and sea; the fumes of black cabs, the perennial buzzing of St. Martin’s Lane; everything informs Spence’s sound. Such authenticity makes his performances special, and memorable, events.

Nicky Spence, tenor, classical, singer, voice, vocal, sing, stage, performer, culture, Scottish, Royal Opera

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?

Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!

What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?

It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.

I spoke with (tenor) Allan Clayton when he was preparing this in 2020, and again when it was cancelled; he observed that Laca has “the chippiest of chips” on his shoulder. Your characterization will be different of course, but how did singing Števa prepare you for this, or did it?

I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.

They’re both outsiders.

Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.

… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?

I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.

His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?

I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.

So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?

The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…

What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?

I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…

… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?

Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.

Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.

That’s true!

You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.

For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I led masterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.

Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.

Well it’s important to be real.

Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…

There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.

In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epic nature of Wagner’s writing…

… yes it is…

… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?

Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling – they are epic tales! – The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day, and that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.

What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?

I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.

That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?

Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and, La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.

Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”

So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?

It’s a perfect balance.

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Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Dorn, culture, classical

Jan Lisiecki: “Live Art Is Live”

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

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

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

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

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

Photo © Christoph Köstlin / Deutsche Grammophon

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

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

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

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

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

Yes!

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

Aw thank you Cate, I appreciate it.

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

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

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

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

That’s how it sounds.

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you need the feedback?

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

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

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

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

Exactly, yes.

Essay: Finding The Right Fit (Or Not)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilker Arcayürek: “Whatever You Sing, You Have To Sing It With Your Voice”

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Photo: Janina Laszlo

Throughout the pandemic era the experience, or more precisely, lack of experience, in relation to human connection has been repeatedly underlined, in both large and small ways. How might that be attained through the glare of a monitor, the click of a mouse, the sound of a faraway voice resonating through tinny speakers? As life restarts and returns to some form of normal in certain areas, an unusual if somewhat predictable paradox reveals itself, for while the understanding of human connection has risen, its evolved expression has not; indeed, there are far fewer expressions of empathy than one might’ve hoped. The compassion deficit borne of the coronavirus experience is an issue yet to be worked out and in many cases acknowledged at all, particularly within the realm of culture, where new and old ways of being have collided (and occasionally enmeshed) with mixed results. People power culture, and this is a point worth remembering as the “new normal” unfolds. Such is it that the experience of chamber music, and particularly the art of song, comes into focus for some, for it is within such a realm where one might experience, however intangibly for now, the lifeblood of those people, and the sense of connection with them which is still very much missing in so many lives.

Tenor Ilker Arcayürek radiates this quality of warmth in bundles, whether on stage, in recordings, or through various online performances. His beautiful album of Schubert songs, The Path Of Life (Prospero Classical), recorded with pianist Simon Lepper, nicely conveys Arcayürek’s deft talent in handling difficult material, rendering the sometimes cold and over-intellectualized lied form with grace, intelligence, and genuine human warmth. The album, released earlier this year, is a showcase of vocal and interpretive gifts, the tenor’s rendering of “Dass sie hier gewesen” (“That She Has Been Here”) colored with the pungent longing so clearly expressed in both Friedrich Rückert’s poem and the mournful lines Schubert wove in and around them. The way he lingers on specific syllables, modulates volume between and around vowels, the careful coloration and phrasing, the watchful breath control and achingly sensitive delivery – all this, combined with Lepper’s sure-footed playing, makes for a rewarding, deeply enriching listening experience which highlights the humanity so central to the best lieder experience.

This human approach might have been influenced by a decidedly unconventional path for a classical singer. Born in Turkey but raised in Austria, singing figured prominently in Alcayürek’s youth, but conservatory training did not. In his youth Alcayürek worked a variety of odd jobs (not unlike pianist Lucas Debargue), and, as he told Turkish news site TRT World in 2018, “(o)ver time the singing got more and more, and I decided to try and live from (it)“, a decision that led to him being spotted by a casting director from Oper Zürich; he became a member of the company’s prestigious International Opera Studio, and remained, from 2009 to 2013. From there Alcayürek joined the respective ensembles at Stadttheater Klagenfurt (2013-2015) and Staatstheater Nürnberg (2015-18), performing a variety of roles, including famous Mozart-penned ones like Tamino (Die Zauberflöte) Ferrando (Così fan tutte), Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni), and the title role Idomeneo, as well as Puccini’s celebrated Rodolfo in La bohème. Since then, he has performed at Teatro Real Madrid, the Salzburg Festival, Volksoper Wien, and the Munich Opera Festival, among many others. In 2015 Alcayürek was finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World; the same year saw him as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist; in 2016, he won the International Art Song Competition of Germany’s Hugo Wolf Academy. Summer 2019 saw him make his American opera debut, with Santa Fe Opera, as Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. His concert repertoire includes Bruckner (Alcayürek performed the composer’s Mass in F minor with Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks), Liszt (Faust Symphony, with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre National de Belgique), and Bach (both the St Matthew and St. John’s Passions; the former with Orchestre national de Lyon and Kenneth Montgomery, the latter with the Academy of Ancient Music and Riccardo Minasi). Arcayürek has also performed the immensely challenging vocal portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and more than once: with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018, under the baton of David Parry, and on a Naxos recording with conductor Ádám Fischer and the Danish Chamber Orchestra, part of a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, released in 2019.

Balancing such grand orchestral sounds is the devotion Alcayürek has shown toward the decidedly more intimate world of lieder. The Edinburgh International Festival, the Innsbruck Festwochen, the Schubertiada Vilabertran (Spain), and the deSingel Antwerp, are just a few of the venues in which he has given recitals; in 2018 he told writer Frances Wilson that the celebrated Wigmore Hall, where he has also notably performed and recorded, is a place in which he feels “very well linked to the audience.” The distinctly larger Park Avenue Armory in NYC was the location of the tenor’s American recital debut in 2019 alongside pianist Simon Lepper, with whom he also recorded his debut disc in 2017, Der Einsame (Champs Hill Records). The title references not only the contents of Karl Lappe’s poem, but the idea of solitude as a state of being, one Arcayürek explores in various facets throughout the album’s 23 tracks. As he writes in the album notes, “(w)e can find ourselves alone as the result of many different circumstances in life – unhappiness in love, a bereavement, or simply moving to another country. For me, however, being alone has never meant being ‘lonely’. As in Schubert’s song Der Einsame, I try to enjoy the small things in life, and, especially in those times when I am alone, to consciously take time out of everyday life and reflect on my own experiences.” At the time of the album’s release, Alcayürek was praised by The Guardian’s Erica Jeal for his “airy, easily ringing tenor that puts across words beautifully, with power in reserve yet a hint of vulnerability too.

It’s that very vulnerability, and the willingness to explore it through careful musical means and smart creative choices, which makes Alcayürek’s artistry so special, particularly now in the time of pandemic; perhaps the classical music world needs the sort of sensitivity and compassion which are so inherently a part of his approach. We started off our chat by discussing the ways in which perceptions of solitude have shifted as a result of the “new normal” and how this “new” aspect led him to perform the music of Benjamin Britten, which he performed back in March in a livestream with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

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As Rodolfo in Staatstheater Nürnberg’s production of La bohème, 2015. (Photo: Jutta Missbach)

What has your experience been through this time?

It’s been an opportunity I would say; every challenge has good parts and also negative parts. But I see (this era) as a call to use my time for another approach, another way. I get the chance to spend more time with my daughter, which is great, and I have the chance to explore my barista qualities, and to work on my latte art! You also recognize the small successes of life, and realize every day has new challenges – this became my motto, actually: you realize that singing is very important – it’s nice, making music, it’s essential – but on the other hand, you realize how much you have missed in the last couple of years by spending time on different things.

Those “different things” took in new meanings in the pandemic; has this been the case for you?

Definitely. But it’s strange to talk about! It’s like talking to a psychotherapist, because on the one side I do miss being in a hotel, I miss being on my own sometimes, because I used to be lonely and it became part of my life, to be lonely and on my own a lot, and have time to think about things, and now suddenly, you are responsible for the dishes, you are responsible for the cooking, you are responsible for all these things you missed out on in not being home – and also you are very involved in raising your child. It’s things like that you think about now. And it can be difficult to balance everything.

And I’d imagine having an album out now too, and seeing things slowly reopen in some places, underlines that divide.

Yes, for sure.

How much has your approach to singing has changed? Is there any stress at moving between the various-sized venues which are so much a part of any singer’s career?

Not very much, because every performance is a live performance and I react to the reaction of the audience. That’s especially important when you come from the chamber music world. It’s easier to get in contact with the audience in that world, and to react, and to get their reactions, than what happens on the opera stage, because on the opera stage you just see a dark room usually – you don’t have the faces you can rely on. When I sing Schubert and I see somebody crying, I am touched and I know I am in real contact with that person, and so then I try to bring the audience to me, somehow. I do the same in opera, or try to, but it doesn’t matter the size (of the venue); you have to just be connected with the music and then not act – you know, like “act” – something (which could be construed as) sincere but be as honest as possible in that moment.

But is that honesty easier to access now, because of the pandemic? You along with many musicians have been forced to examine your own approach to your work, and that related sense of honesty, in relation to music-making for over a year now.

It’s like this: when you make this music, when you perform, it’s all about honesty. And for me, I try to find a relationship between each song and my life. There are some funny songs like, “I wish I were a fish” (“Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Fisch“) – so it’s happy, and if you read this music, and read these kinds of poems, it has nothing to do with our time, but the honesty and the message within those songs has everything to do with our time. You could make a tweet instead of writing this type of poem now. The message and the honesty within a work like this will always survive, so this is what I try to do, to convey the honesty of this music to our reality now, because we all know the pain of love, and the nice moments too, and also the moments of reflection, or the moments of acceptance, and this human desire, these deep wishes – I try to bring out all of that during music-making. Yes, these are also the topics which people from the 18th and 19th centuries were working with, and they are still up-to-date.

How much do you think there is more of a place now for lieder, and chamber music – these smaller more intimate musical experiences? In my chat with Helmut Deutsch earlier this year, he seemed to think the pandemic had opened a new door for the art form. 

I think lieder, and the way people think of it, is changing a bit.

How so?

You have to see it from an historical perspective. Lied was quite popular after the Second World War, but it was performed with a different approach, and in a different way than it is now. Lied was like, how can I say this, like a theatre piece, performed as a piece of art but maybe not with the same view, like I personally bring now, because emotions were kind of forbidden in that period, so it was more to bring people joy after this time of suffering.

As artsy escapism?

Yes, it was more like singing nice melodies, like a form of escapism, as you say, and I think now it is about time to break that, and say, “I am a musician, reading my own poem, and bringing this to you, and trying to explain my own personal story.” I think this is the next level we have to achieve. Also it’s vital to make lieder, the art of lied, interesting for a broader audience – the big difference between lied in the 1950s and nowadays is that people were educated about it in school, and they knew the poems which make up the text of these works. But nowadays people don’t know the poems. So getting to know these written works and their authors is another way to explain it, and to bring the audience into this music, and into the poetry, into this artwork overall, like the understand which existed before.

Maybe one small story: the first time I sang in New York was at the Park Avenue Armoury, and there was a young couple sitting in the first row and they were quite fashionably attired, the guy in the couple looked like a rock star; we met afterwards in a bar by chance, this place where we all went for a drink, and he said that he’s also a musician, and although he didn’t understand a word I sang and didn’t know the music either, he felt the emotions inside. So he understood on this other level. That was a very interesting experience for me, to hear that – I really liked it! And I think this is exactly what it’s about, to transport emotions, and not play them falsely but to live them. Singing this music needs a lot of life experience. For certain pieces I sing I think of various aspects in my own life, and these things make me emotional, and I try to express myself in a way that touches on those things.

Good lieder should connect to real life experience – and some of us can’t applaud at the end because we’re processing everything…

I prefer when people don’t applaud immediately after my singing.

Do you?

Yes! For me, pauses, within the music but also after the music, are really important, so I really try to also have a moment of silence. I really enjoy that, especially after signing a cycle like Winterreise; I think it’s important to digest the music for a while, and then applaud, or not.

How does that translate to a venue like Santa Fe? What was that experience like?

Scary! I loved it a lot, but it’s scary, because the winds can be a challenge. It’s open-air, so you are affected by the weather, and it can be very cold, very hot, very windy, and suddenly there’s lightning; you see the clouds moving around and you think, “Oh no my aria is coming! If the winds come in on this side, will people hear me if I stand there?”” But oh, it was a very nice, very special experience, and I’m so glad I did it.

And it’s quite large, isn’t it?

It’s huge, I think it’s more than a 2000-seat capacity.

The other houses you’ve sung at are such a contrast – Zürich is very jewel box, for instance.

… especially in Zürich, yes. And it has a really good acoustic, and the seating, the way that’s built, was done with an angle, so the acoustic lifts up, which makes it easy to sing in. It also gives the singer the opportunity to step back and not sing at 100%, so you can create more colors, you can be very musical. Because of that (design), you are not using your full capacity, so you always have 20% left. My teacher said that in such a spot you are singing with your, how do you say it in English, it’s like with a bank account, you don’t sing with your capital, you sing with your…

Interest?

Yes, the word I was looking for, interest! (Jewel box-sized spaces) give you the freedom of playing around and not going to the very, very edge, and then if you do go to that edge once or twice, it’s to build up a climax.

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Interior, Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Indeed, one is able to hear so many colors in that house. You were part of the opera studio program in Zürich, yes?

I was in the opera studio at Zürich – most of the time I sang smaller parts during my years there. I used Zürich as my study spot actually, and I got some stage experience from singing in choir before, so (working at) Zürich was useful to get some confidence and security onstage, to find one’s self.

It seemed like a good place for that, and not only because of the singer-friendly acoustic.

I must say, it’s still one of the best houses. During the time of Alexander Pereira, the former opera director (Intendant of Oper Zürich, 1991-2012), it was filled with all the stars of the business – Netrebko, Nucci, Hampson, Bartoli, Camarena, and Kaufmann as well, to name a few – so it was just great for me to observe those artists, to be around them, to work onstage with them; you get so much input by seeing these people and getting the chance to be close to them. You also get to know in which places they save their voice, where there is the possibility to do that, when they go on their edge and how – things like that. I was amazed at being part of the whole thing. Later when I came to Klagenfurt, the first time maybe, of course, it was clear the orchestra was different, and there were challenges, but you find new ways to deal with those challenges, and ways to grow through them. Nürnberg was my first state opera experience, so it was a bigger orchestra again, and my debut there was La bohème of course – and I can tell you, the first time, with a German orchestra playing Puccini, is also not so easy! And in comparison to Zürich the acoustic in Nürnberg is, again, not the same either. So you have to adapt to each room, to each space, each orchestra, and you have to find your strategy in how to manage the whole situation, and your role within that situation.

That’s a good education is it not?

It is definitely good! As a singer you will always learn new things and adapt to situations, so after the pandemic I’m really curious what will happen with artists; I’m sure some singers will struggle, at least for a while, until they get back to shape. You can sing as much as you want at home, but it isn’t the same as singing on a stage, and you won’t have the same feeling of adrenaline and excitement. It’s another level of singing, like for a basketball player, the difference between the training and then the game. When you have people in front of you, it’s difficult to make that throw the same way.

Some singers have expressed those kinds of concerns; how much have your pandemic activities helped set the stage, to whatever extent, to going back to the actual stage?

I haven’t been singing recently so much. My last project was in March, so not so long ago, but it was during that experience that I sang, for the first time, the Serenade (Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings) by Benjamin Britten with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and it was in a hall which is not so big. It was like a normal concert venue size – and it was different to sing not for an audience who’d normally be there, but for the microphone, because it was a broadcast concert, so.

That’s a whole new skill, one many are learning: how to sing for the internet.

Exactly! I mean, I have had some background in recording and singing for radio or for CD, but this project was still a new experience for me because I was singing for an audience without having an audience, so it was a mix between live performance, where you sing for the audience, and a CD recording, where you don’t. It was something in-between.

So was that Britten piece back in March a sign of things to come?

I wish I would sing more of it, actually, because the music is, for me, it was… musical love at second sight. Can I say that?!

Yes, that’s precisely my experience of Britten’s music too.

Really, it just happens sometimes with some composers!

Well I wasn’t raised to his work…

… me either! I was raised more to the music of Schubert and Mozart and so on, because I sang at the age of 9 in a boys’ choir, and we never got in touch with the music of Britten, we weren’t raised with it, like in the UK for example, when you sing Britten in choir, so it’s a totally new world for me and a new language, not the English language, but the musical language – the harmonies, for instance – but I really, really enjoyed singing this piece, I must say! I was surprised at how much I liked it.

It suits the timbral quality of your voice, and you bring a warmth to music which is not always perceived as warm (rightly or wrongly!) – but your approach is very sensitive.

Whatever you sing, you have to sing it with your voice. And yet there is always the sound of Peter Pears in one’s ear, or head, when singing this music. People know these pieces through Pears’ recordings. Friends in the UK said, “It’s hard to imagine you singing this because we have it in our ear with Peter Pears”, so I really tried not to adapt or imitate at all, but to sing it my way. Also, these pieces are a fit for me, I think, because they’re like singing lied but with some moments more operatic – it can be difficult to find the right balance, to find colors, which you need, which are connections with that world of lied, but also with the technique which requires operatic singing. It’s interesting, his music is right on the edge for me, and singing his work is a balancing game.

I want to hear you sing more Britten.

I hope I do more of it! We shall see what the future holds.

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Essay: Coming Back To Live, Maybe

“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, so says Hamlet, in Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s famous play, and indeed, the phrase holds several painful truths for our times. The sad news of the passing of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig at the weekend was met with a chorus of loving tributes and tender memories. That such an event occured amidst the hodge-podge of COVID-forced closures and reopenings inspired numerous listenings of her past work and moments of melancholy if vital contemplation.

Music, and the will toward its live presentation, has taken on a potent symbolism amidst pandemic; that will never really went away in certain places, while in others it has vanished entirely. Marketing buzzwords (“pivot” and “experience” and “reimagine) seem to be clothing a nifty, selfie-snapping holographic Emperor I’m not sure I’m ready to applaud. As digital producer Jon Jacob highlights in a recent blog post, the way certain forms of music – and more broadly, culture – are perceived has heavily colored large swaths of its current presentation and much-awaited in-person iteration. The past year-plus has forced a much closer connection to sounds and sights, solidifying and simultaneously blurring the relationships to entertainment, escapism, imagination, and immersion. Thus has music – sound as much as visual counterpart – become far more immediate and simultaneously distant, heightening the consciousness of directed attention, specifically in relation to one’s perceptions of time. Neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann explores this issue in Felt Time: The Science Of How We Experience Time (The MIT Press, 2017; translation Erik Butler):

Where full attention is lacking, intensive experience is impossible. […] Presence is not simply a matter of mental focus; it also concerns the corporeality of the moment. The experience of presence occurs when body and mind, space and time, constitute a unity: here and now.”
(Chapter 3, In the Moment: Three Seconds of Presence)

Somewhat ironically, I have yet to see Wiener Staatsoper’s new production of Parsifal directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, and featuring Jonas Kaufmann and Elina Garanca; Wagner himself decreed that his final opera should, as Bachtrack‘s Mark Valencia succinctly put it, “be reserved exclusively for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in order to avoid the “Entweihung” (sacrilege) of merely entertaining opera-goers.” Those of us who thrive on the experience of the live in all its sensual glory have been (continue to be) forced to gawk at a glassy, glowing image ready-made for entertaining diversion. The immediacy which live experience so thrives on is now mediated through headphones, screens, speakers. Occasionally there is the unwelcome noise pollution of traffic and neighbours seeping through thin, uninsulated walls and ventilation shafts. Pressing hands against speakers does not, in any way, fade ugly circumstances out and bring something better back in, but oh, the intention is good, and surely that must count for something.

Intention is what seems to be guiding so many of us these days, for good or bad, and the most seemingly simple acts are, paradoxically, sometimes the most heroic; such is oft-contradictory nature of the times. Entering a big-box store pharmacy to get my first vaccination last week, I longed to hear some kind of music that wasn’t the determinedly busy-buzzy rock-pop every store seems to now pipe through its gaggle of tinny speakers. (It seemed wistful to want for the days of Muzak, and yet.) As I tried not to be alarmed at the full parking lot and number of shoppers (how is this acceptable but attending – giving –  a chamber concert, indoors or outdoors, is not?), a fashionably-attired mother-daughter team passed within inches of me, the younger member giving me a disdainful stare as I sat perched on the edge of a chair with a specially-marked area of tape around its perimeter. I stuck out my legs thereafter, feet touching tape, toes beating out a hurried, pseudo-tap “La donna è mobile”, comically sarcastic if self-soothing. It brought to mind memories of my own mother shopping at a certain supermarket because the owner would always put on opera at her visits; she would merrily bob her head along to that very aria as she picked up the week’s supplies. Not everyone has such (supposedly) fancy tastes, I realize, but then, my mother would say that classical music isn’t at all fancy. “That’s stupid,” she once said in relation to all this. “Just sit there and listen.”

It wasn’t Verdi but Mahler I had floating through the brain, or rather, heart, the day I received my first vaccination. The sounds of Das Lied von der Erde came floating in and out of the ears, its closing lines undulating like multicolor waves against the aisles of colorless boxes within view:

Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt

Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!

Ewig… ewig… 

A picture of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig came into mind’s eye, not of her performing this work, but from her final concert in Vienna in 1994; the poise, confidence, and grace were buoys against those long, grey aisles, and the prick of a needle behind a closer door moments later. Just sit. Just listen.

I do not recall the first time I ever heard  Ludwig’s voice, it was simply present, like oxygen – sensitive, feeling, alive. It was the famous 1964 Warner Classics recording of Das Lied von der Erde, featuring the mezzo soprano, together with Fritz Wunderlich and conductor Otto Klemperer, that led me back to a classical path I had strayed from for over a decade. In NPR’s tribute to Ludwig, music writer Anne Midgette notes that “If you want to sing German, you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling, but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory.” I think the warmth Midgette is referring to here (I think it’s that) extends to Ludwig’s performances of Mahler’s repertoire as much as to formal lieder. The phrasing, the pauses, the careful breaths, the coloring, the tremendous control and modulation – there is so much technique to be found and (rightly) marvelled at, whether in opera, art song, or orchestral work, but there is also a deeply felt humanity. Ludwig knew the lines well enough to know she could draw – really, really well – outside of them, and she trusted both her onstage colleagues and her audiences to follow her along on those journeys. To be confident about your choices as an artist is one thing; to be confident about showing such authenticity, as a woman and a public figure, is quite another.

In her wonderfully-titled memoir (“In My Own Voice”, Limelight, 2004), Ludwig wrote that “(c)ourage is needed to reveal one’s own feelings in interpretation and not tell the audience with raised forefinger: “The composer wanted it like this, and no other way.”” There must be room for that flow and confidence, but oh, what an uphill battle it can be for an aging woman to cultivate either (or both) of them within the confines of contemporary (and digital) culture. Courage, to paraphrase Ludwig, has indeed been needed. I stood at my easel this past weekend, for the first time in almost a year, and rather magically, I didn’t hear the mewls of insecurity which so often (and loudly) screamed; energy goes where attention goes, and the direction of it, like surgical incision, must be precise, flow allowed without judgement. Leaving doors open means allowing a spiritual kind of lüften; thus emanating from the carefully-placed speakers on Saturday was Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Strauss’s 1919 metaphysical opera about creation, connection, choice, and unique identity. Christa Ludwig sang in the very first Met presentation of this opera back in 1966, as the Dyer’s Wife, alongside then-husband Walter Berry as Barak. My first time seeing this opera live was in 2013, a conscious if rebellious (and ultimately life-changing) decision to skip a graduate school class.

The memory of that live experience still washes over me, a wet, warm, salty blanket of timbres and textures and tones, and instead of drowning, my fins make a happy, flapping return; I’ve been swimming upstream ever since, and over the past six years, negotiating an ocean of loss. Learning to live with less (people, opportunities, money, food, space, fun, conversation, closeness, trust, touch) has meant learning to be more careful in directing the sort of attention and presence to which Wittman alludes. I listen (read, watch, speak, and write, I hope) in very different ways, and relistening to Ludwig’s work recently, I was struck by the extent to which everything – the whirl of fans within, the din of traffic without – simply stopped. Her “ewig” is here, for us, for me, for this moment, and, somehow, feels hyper-concentrated: forever, right now, stay present, that voice entreats. And so, reapproach, recalibrate, reimagine: buzzwords for the era of coronavirus, advice for the will to return to culture, fortitude for colouring outside the lines. One has to trust one’s instincts; if others choose to follow, so much the better. Defy augury, that voice continues to whisper, the readiness is all.

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