Being a fan of opera is not always a love/hate affair, though it can be. Love might turn to hate over months, years, and decades, with such feelings becoming entrenched, normalized, difficult to undo. Hate is active and hot, with pointed edges – but worse, and perhaps more insidious, is bitterness, with its dulled sides and deadening stare. Bitterness leads to cynicism, which is so easy (too easy) to engage in unconsciously, and creeps in like a headache from too much Amarone drunk over a rich meal. Seeing and hearing much, traveling far and wide, speaking with those involved, reading lengthy tomes; thinking, writing; more listening, always that. Eventually the stereo is turned off, the books close, and one is housebound, limited to one’s small quadrant; the slightest hint of such sounds – specific sounds, of specific works – provoke an immediate, firm, inner no.
Such cynicism takes on an acid tone given the realities of taste, upbringing, exposure – over-exposure may well be a more appropriate term. Do opera people hate a work because it’s popular? Or is it because that work is over-programmed? Over-relied upon at the expense of other more things that ought to be given a fair chance? Such reliance seems especially relevant amidst post (or whatever this is) pandemic realities for arts organizations, and even more potently true for North American companies, who don’t enjoy anywhere near the financial support and cultural positioning as many counterparts in Europe do. The programming of Carmen this season across many companies may have been done prior to March 2020, or not; it hardly matters, because staging what is one of the most famous operas of all time, at any time, usually guarantees tidy returns, and for organizations struggling, as they are now, that is a good thing. There’s also the not-small fact that people – lots of people – really love it, and have done, since its scandalous premiere in 1875. As Opera Canada‘s Wayne Gooding wisely wrote recently, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Carmen the opera in which “one bids farewell to the damp north and to all the fog of the Wagnerian ideal.” Perhaps opera, as a whole, is not meant to be approached with such serious, poe-faced joylessness. Maybe one ought to choose an Aperol Spritz over Amarone. Maybe the little self-created quadrant ought to be widened, or even abandoned. On World Opera Day, perhaps the doors, as is hinted below, are swinging open a little wider, letting out the cynicism, and letting in something else – something brighter, better.
Tori Wanzama is a new contributor. Her first opera was, in fact, my own introduction to the art form, at the age of four in what was then called the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto. It’s a bit too easy to close ears and heart to something that’s sat in one’s consciousness for so very long, and which is also a tremendous part of the cultural milieu; it is just as much of a challenge to re-open one’s mind to such a relentlessly (brilliantly) melodic work when one is constantly surrounded (by choice as much as necessity) by things so unlike it. And yet, Tori’s enthusiasm and creative insight all work together here to provide fresh, new ground – for me, as much as for those who feel too deeply rooted in classical cynicism. What can possibly grow in such highly acidified soil, after all? Tori’s writing gives opera newbies a bit of needed encouragement toward exploring an art form they (as she rightly outlines) might have their own preconceptions about, and also gives old cynics (alas) a new breath of the curiosity that felt so important to these pursuits in the first place. Reading her words was akin to seeing an old friend after many decades; all the old animosities simply departed. Tori is a second-year Communications student and has, as you will read, an incredible talent for the observation of stagecraft, as well as the nature of opera fandom itself. I look forward to publishing more of her work here in future.
Seeing Carmen For The First Time
Until a couple of months ago, I only ever encountered opera in the form of cartoons. As a kid, I watched Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd feud over the sounds of Richard Wagner in What’s Opera, Doc? (1957). I also saw the rabbit torment an opera singer in “Long-Haired Hare” (1949). These shorts, among other comical representations, would shape my understanding of opera and unfortunately spawn a disinterest in the genre as a whole. The portrayals I had been exposed to made me see opera, and consequently its fans, as serious to the point of silliness. While I’m not so dismissive now, part of me still saw attending an opera as an aristocratic activity, an art form that is just barely being kept alive. This was, of course, before Carmen.
Illustration of Bizet’s opera Carmen, published in Journal Amusant, 1875. Via Bibliothèque nationale de France.
I attended the Canadian Opera Company (COC) production on October 20th, 2022, one of two dates in which COC Ensemble alumni mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb takes the stage in the title role. Flirty and free-spirited, Carmen captures the attention of many men – especially soldier Don José, sung by tenor Marcelo Puente. The love-stricken soldier abandons his position as an officer and his fiancé Michaela (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) in pursuit of her. But Carmen’s feelings are fickle; she soon becomes bored with Don José before abandoning him for the bullfighter Escamillo, sung by baritone Lucas Meachem. Unable to handle her rejection, Don José is driven mad, leading him to take her life. What is widely considered one of the most famous operas was a mystery to me, but I believe this ignorance was ultimately to my benefit. Every part of the show was new and though more than a century old, the story (based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée) certainly doesn’t show its age. The production (based on Mark Lamos’s 2005 presentation) is here presented by visionary Against the Grain Theatre director Joel Ivany, who first staged it with the COC in 2016 – and it never once feels static. Carmen, it turns out, was the ideal opera introduction.
While the Bizet work was my first opera, I’m no stranger to live shows. The atmosphere at the Four Seasons was not much different than the rock shows to which I am accustomed. As I entered the lobby from the subway the evening of October 22nd, I was thrust immediately into the action: the whole house was alive with an excitement I wouldn’t have expected. There was a tangible giddiness amongst the crowd as we piled in, and when the five-minute warning bell beckoned, the audience carried its enthusiasm to the auditorium. It is only the orchestra that silences us with a short tune signalling the start of the show. The appearance of conductor, Jacques Lacombe, prompted boisterous applause from the audience. and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the screams emitted from fans of rock bands as they witness their heroes enter the stage. Opera fans are politely rowdy.
Everyone is welcomed into the world of Carmen with an ominous prelude. The strings anticipate the tragedy; the eeriness of the orchestral writing is palpable. As the curtains rise, the tone shifts, and the start of Act I is deceptively cheery. We see a set of guards standing outside a cigar factory, and immediately, I am into the music, to the point of it being a challenge not to tap along. The buoyancy of the playing is infectious, making a song about just waiting around incredibly entertaining. The title character is irresistible right from the moment she makes her entrance. Carmen’s charisma speaks before she does. With her walk alone she is a force to be reckoned with, and when she starts to sing … the sound is bewitching.” Habanera” is a siren song that lures you in and has you hanging on every word and note. Rather like the men who hang around Carmen, I cannot be immune to this music – I’ve had “Habanera” on repeat since hearing it live. Chaieb’s portrayal assigns a sensuality to every movement, even as she throws fruit at her obsessed admirers. There was also an immediate familiarity: I discovered a commercial from 2003 in which singer Beyoncé performs the same song and uses the same style of seduction, only this time to sell Pepsi. The spirit of Carmen, it would seem, is alive in unlikely places.
The staging here entirely complements the nature of Bizet’s hypnotic score. Ivany’s company, Against the Grain Theatre, typically stages smaller, more immersive productions and though Carmen is the opposite in the vast space of the Four Seasons Centre, the production benefits by this more close-knit approach that so marks his theatrical background. Ivany makes great use of the ensemble and sets up each scene in a way that suggests constant activity, whether in the background, midground or foreground, and on different levels. The stage itself allows for one angle, but there is so much to see and observe. Each environment is given a considered depth, creating a quiet realism amidst the boisterous melodrama and overall activity of the opera. This quiet aspect is often employed to emphasize Carmen’s charisma. As she appears, men in the background can be seen clamouring to get a closer look at her, a staging choice which is perhaps the most effectively used in the final act.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, 2022. Photo: Michael Cooper
So when the stage is set for Escamillo’s bullfight, the audience is truly allowed into the action. Ivany makes sure the audience has a feeling of direct investment and here his experience with intimate theatre stagings perhaps shows itself best; we are encouraged to join in with the festivities in a way I would not expect to see at the opera. Such techniques also intensify the tragedy. In the final scene, the crowd sees the fight from only a partial view;. the spectators are shown as silhouettes, as Carmen, completely alone, struggles against a deranged Don José. A crowd that would have once adored her is restricted to shadows unknowingly cheering along as she is murdered behind them. The ending is powerful, and, even with foreknowledge, I’m grateful for experiencing its magic.
How could Looney Tunes have led me so far astray? Opera is much more than horned helmets and longhair! Beyond the obvious talents of the performers and the creative visual designs, opera has heart, beauty, and yes, humour too; Carmen convinced me of that. It has an ability to laugh at itself – and even amidst the tragedy, that humour is what perhaps impressed me the most. The show laughs at itself more than once, often using the expected conventions of opera to deliver a joke. Take the bullfighter Escamillo: the Elvis-esque matador enters every scene with a dramatic theme song. Of course my seatmates and I cannot help but chuckle. The difference now is, I’m laughing along with the genre instead of at it, enjoying the melodrama for both its brilliance and its ridiculousness. Before my experience with Carmen, I held onto a cartoonish idea of what opera was, without considering what it could be. A musical door has been opened for me, and I hope there is more of everything on the other side.
Top Photo: A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, 2022. Photo: Michael Cooper
It behoves any writer to know something about the subject to which they profess passion, love, adoration. Far from being antithetical to the spirit of discovery, context tends to enhance appreciation, understanding, and overall enjoyment, while leaving room for questions: why is a musical phrase Beethoven’s 5th done a certain way by Carlos Kleiber, but not by Klemperer? How much should the tempo in the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde be guided by text, or might there be another approach (and if so, what)? How do the alliterative sounds of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s writing inform the aural sounds of Strauss? What roads led to Wagner’s famous lack of resolution in Tristan und Isolde and what paths led out of it (what didn’t, really)? Some things have definitive answers, but in art as much as life, some things tend to be –must be – evolving conversations.
It’s good to be reminded of the importance of both definition and evolution, even while striving, amidst quotidian mundanities (the continual handwashing, the ever-growing pile of ironing, the nightly nod-off on the sofa) for something that can be felt and experienced beyond the immediate. Around the world culture lovers are largely in situ; the only travel many are able to do is through one’s own imaginings. How rich they truly can be when one has the brushes and the pigments at hand to shape the many flat, smooth surfaces of weeks and months before us, but oh, how difficult it can be to find the inspiration to start, let alone to continue. I tangle, on any given day, with threads that pull in all directions: emails, updates, cooking, correcting, battling seemingly-endless streams of dust. But something within persists, and has done to varying degrees since the pandemic began, a constant akin to Malevich’s infamous black square, which resonates, reverberates, swallows, enfolds, encompasses, and even (especially) enlightens. As I wrote at the end of April, curiosity has been the guiding light through not only the current COVID19 era, but more broadly, a music education sorely lacking in proper guidance through childhood and youth, but one which has enjoyed a lovely Renaissance in the last few years. In an editorial for Opera Canada magazine earlier this year I revealed my strong belief in studying prior to attending (or now, livestreaming) events; that belief extends to listening. I find it stressful to put on a piece of music and not know even a little bit about what I’m hearing, let alone something about the artists involved, its history of composition, and the various approaches to interpretation. The work of Edward Seckerson has been invaluable in this regard; context and curiosity join in important ways through his work, allowing for new insights, deeper questions, and ever more bundles of curiosity.
A self-described “writer, broadcaster, podcaster, and Musical Theatre obsessive,” I discovered Seckerson’s work via his regular reviews for Gramophone magazine. His smart, accessible, well-observed writing employs poetic if equally clear language; the Gramophone review of the Pentatone/Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester release of Das Lied von der Erde from earlier this year, for instance, mixes the text of Mahler’s grand work and its recorded history with keen musical and vocal observations, contextualizing and poeticizing in one sublime whole. Along with working in formal media for various British papers through the years (in the role of critic), Seckerson has worked in theatre and music, appearing onstage in various forms and roles. Writer and host of the long-running BBC 3 Radio series Stage & Screen, he is and has been a regular on radio and television, and has contributed commentary for the Cardiff Singer Of The World competition regularly. As well as penning books on Mahler and conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas, Seckerson has also been part of stage works exploring the life and works of composer Richard Rodgers and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Despite (or perhaps owing to) such accomplishments, Seckerson does not think of himself as press these days so much as a figure who, as he puts it, wants to be (nay, is) part of a broader creative conversation. Indeed, conversation is the thing he positively excels at; Seckerson has interviewed many, many people, including, as his website says, “everyone from Bernstein to Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney to Pavarotti, and Julie Andrews to Andrew Lloyd Webber.” His interviewee list is a who’s who of figures from the classical music, theatre, and musical theatre worlds, reflecting his passion for all of them, and, more broadly, his commitment to the intelligent exploration of culture in all its facets and forms. Such a gift for (and active commitment to) one-on-one conversation is truly a rarity in a world of pre-written Q&As and preening Insta-videos. I was fortunate to be able to experience this gift live earlier this year, during a talk at London’s Bishopsgate Institute featuring Sir Antonio Pappano; over the course of the evening I was struck by his casual balance of personal and profound, funny and foundational; attending a Seckerson talk means one will learn as much about humanity and artistry (and the sometime-connections therein) as about the actual figure themselves, no small thing in a world where image tends to trump authenticity.
Seckerson has put his distinct talent for conversation to work via a regular chat series produced over the course of the lockdown. Guests so far have included conductor Edward Gardner, violinist Nicola Benedetti, actor/singer Julian Ovenden, and mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connelly. Conversations span from thirty to sixty minutes and, as he explains, are entirely unedited, and are inviting exchanges which nicely embrace both the macro and the micro aspects of individual artistry and creative development, particularly within the context of our current pandemic era. His casual remark to violinist Nicola Benedetti during their conversation in June, that Elgar’s Violin Concerto (the performance of which was one of the final performances he attended in London before lockdown) is “the most intimate of epics”, inspired a spontaneous and enthusiastic response from the violinist (“It’s an amalgam of the very public and the very private Elgar”, he went on to explain), the warmth of which fuelled their lively almost-30-minute exchange. In a time when one’s spirit can so easily be dragged down by a multitude of daily mundanities, when life can feel so cold, empty, and robbed of joy, such sincere exchanges feel like a needed blanket of warmth and goodness.
Writing about another writer one happens to admire is no easy task; writing about a writer who is also a gifted conversationalist and who, octopus-like, has many arms in many different and fascinating worlds and is, quite simply, so very genuine, is indeed a rare gift. Perhaps my students, when asked what the c-word is, might also now respond loudly with, “Conversation! Commitment! Curiosity!” – for these are things Seckerson’s work has encouraged in my own pursuits, particularly through these many gloomy months. We spoke in August, before much of the programming now underway in London was announced.
Photo: Edward Seckerson
How have things been for you through the lockdown?
I live in central London, and it’s disturbing that the West End, and London overall, has been so empty – so many businesses are going to close. The Chancellor introduced a supplementary package for eating out Monday to Wednesday; it’s done the trick, and a lot of people are eating out as a result – they get £10 off their meal. In terms of the arts, people here are so desperate to get things moving again – they’re being so resourceful and creative. It isn’t always successful, but the will is there, and that’s important.
Have you had time to reflect on your work during this time?
Well, one of the things I suppose I learnt over the years of reviewing – and of course I still review for Gramophone – is that I always feel, just as I did when I was writing for The Independent, there is really no point offering your subjective view. Everything is subjective! But it’s best to offer some sort of insight into the piece you’re reviewing. I wrote a review this morning for Gramophone of the new Dudamel recording of the Ives symphonies, and I spent most of the review really talking about the music, because that, to me, is more important than just registering whether we have another successful performance on our hands, or what the merits or otherwise are of this performance. I think it really is important to give some kind of guide to the piece you’re reviewing, and the same is true of when I do the comparative reviews on (BBC) Radio 3, on Record Review – I think it’s important to offer people some kind of road map to the piece as well as interpretations.
That map, for those who don’t have a formal degree in music, is very helpful; it feels like a door swinging open, which isn’t always the case with classical music writing. Is that your intention?
Yes, that’s exactly my intention, to make that map clear. I always say that it’s almost irrelevant whether Ed Seckerson thinks a performance is special or not; what is important is that I offer some kind of sense of the experience, the shared experience if you’re reviewing something live. People who weren’t there want to know what it was like to be there, so there’s that element. I used to get a lot of flak when I reviewed opera for The Independent; people would say I spend too much time discussing the production and not enough time discussing the relative merits of the cast and their performances, but since most of those reviews were about new productions to me it was important to try and express, or offer, some kind of insight into what I think the director was looking for.
I’ve received similar feedback, that I focus too much on the ideas of the director and theatre aspects overall, and not enough on the singing, but I read your review of Barrie Kosky’s infamously divisive staging of Carmen and it gave a real sense of why he chose what he did, contextualized within the history of this very famous opera.
… and that’s the point. I think there are a lot of spectators out there who simply want their opinion to be endorsed or otherwise when they go to the opera – (like) if their favorite singer is singing, they want to see a rave about them. But it is actually important to discuss how the piece is being reimagined. Opera would very quickly become a museum culture if people didn’t keep reimagining the pieces, and sometimes they do so with limited success, sometimes they do so with hugely insightful success, and I think that’s important. One of the reasons why I’m successful as a critic is because I was an actor, and I have a very real sense of what it’s like to be on a stage and be that vulnerable – but also, if a director makes a choice, I feel it’s important to be able to ask, if it’s not immediately clear, why he or she has made that choice, to be able to offer some kind of suggestion or insight as to why they might’ve made that choice. And I don’t think audiences question that side enough. One of the reasons it took so long for slightly more, shall we say, radical theatrical productions to become the norm was because audiences weren’t prepared to do some of the work themselves. And I think it’s important that audiences are not passive, even if it’s a concert. I’ve spoken to so many musicians who say they know immediately when an audience is listening in a certain way; if an audience isn’t listening in a certain way, or there isn’t that connection, they know immediately that that performance won’t succeed, or won’t succeed on the level they might’ve hoped.
Musician friends of mine have noted how the quality of the listening can change dramatically according to where they perform; geography makes a difference.
That’s because certain audiences are experiencing a different culture of music, sometimes for the first time, so they might listen more intently.
That’s true! We do take a lot for granted here; we are very spoiled in cities like London, which is surely a music capital of the world. The choice, on a daily basis, when there isn’t a pandemic, is absolutely extraordinary, and you know, this time has made me appreciate what live music really means to me.
Backstage with Dame Diana Rigg at Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 2019.
What has changed in the quality of your listening as you stepped away from reviewing?
Well, one of the pleasures of giving up writing newspaper reviews was that I could actually go and sit, relax and participate as an audience member, which gave me, and still gives me, great joy. You do listen differently when you are writing about something. I still listen in great detail but I think part of your brain is already forming the sentences, is already thinking of images, for the review you’re going to write, which is an intrusion. I first wrote for The Guardian in the days when pretty much all the reviews were overnight reviews, and I was never so unhappy as I was at that time as a journalist. I did it because it was a big break for me and it was establishing my name, but I hated every minute of it, and when I joined The Independent, the first thing I said to Thomas Sutcliffe, the arts editor, was, “If you’re doing overnight reviews, I’m not in the business of writing them” and he said, “No, I want people to sleep on what they’ve experienced and get up the next morning having digested and let it sit for a while.” All this nonsense about rushing out to meet the 11pm deadline doesn’t help anybody.
A long time ago there was an arts editor I worked with, and (Placido) Domingo was in town doing a revival, yet another, of the (Franco) Zeffirelli Tosca, it was Gwyneth Jones and Domingo, and the editor said, “We want an overnight review because it’s Domingo” and I said, “The show comes down at twenty minutes to 11pm; there are two intervals in the production; your deadline is 11pm; it’s impossible” and the editor said, “Well you’re no use to me as an opera critic if you can’t deliver a review after the show.” I said, “When will I do it?” He said, “You write during the intervals.” I said, “How can I write organically about a performance when it’s only a third of the way through? Oh, but wait, I have a good idea: why don’t I write the review before the performance?” It took him a moment or two to realize what I was actually, rather savagely, saying. And I did write the review, and I basically had to cheat it and write at the intervals, so there was no coherence. That is the kind of attitude that existed in media then and it still does, but thankfully some things have changed.
Some things have changed, but some have not, that attitude has transferred over to an obsession with clicks and views; Antonio Pappano and I spoke about it earlier in the summer and he said at one point, “if that’s what we rely on, we’re lost.”
When I did my talk with Pappano – you were there – at Bishopsgate earlier this year, we spoke backstage about the new culture of journalism, actually. You know, I was in at the start of this (change) – I was a mainstream classical reviewer in the days of broadsheet papers as well as this transition online, and indeed I remember people I knew at Glyndebourne, when the online thing started to happen, saying to me, “What are we going to do about inviting people?” I said, “You have to make value judgments about the kinds of writers you’re inviting – ignore all this business about how many clicks and hits they get, and just read what they write; read the work, and decide who you think is worth inviting.” It’s that difficult, and it’s that simple. And so when we spoke in January, Pappano himself was horrified I couldn’t get arrested at the ROH these days. I said, “It’s not because I’m writing reviews; I’m honest about that. It’s because I want to be part of the argument; I want to be part of the debate about the kind of work that’s being done at the ROH.” I mean, I’d be quite happy to attend rehearsals, but the attitude is always, “Oh no, you’re a member of the press! You can’t!” and I’ve said, “But I’m not a member of the press anymore, I’m just me…!”
This sounds frustratingly familiar.
It’s so frustrating. If I go to a dress rehearsal and I want to make some constructive comments, I won’t write a review, I want to be part of the debate before or after the performance. But I can’t contribute anything if I wasn’t there.
You’ve still really crossed over from the media world. What has that process been like?
It’s been very interesting. Long before I wrote for The Guardian or The Independent I was invited to ENO, during the Sir Mark Elder/David Pountney regime, and I got invited because the Press Officer was enlightened enough to know my background. I was making in-roads as a journalist and writer but had come from the theatre, and I had a musical background as well, but I had come from the theatre directly and they had the good sense to invite me long before I was writing reviews – so I had points of reference. When I did start writing reviews, I’d been there, watching these shows, seeing this company develop, which fed into the kind of writing I produced, which fed into the things I did when I started writing for a major paper.
So you paid your dues, just not in the usual way… ?
I paid my dues, though yes, my background is very unusual for a music journalist, because although I studied music when I was young – I was saying this in the interview I did recently with Nicola Benedetti – my problem was when I started learning the piano at a young age was that my musicality had already exceeded what I was capable of doing on the instrument, and I found it hugely frustrating. Nicola completely identified with that, by the way! I said, unless I started even earlier – and that battle that goes on between technique and musicality is huge.
When I was learning piano as a child, musicality was something others tried to forcibly extricate; there was an intense focus on technique instead, which I was never very good at. Musicality was perceived as being unfocused, sloppy, pointless.
How awful! I mean, I went to a comprehensive school where they had peripatetic music teachers, and I was handed a violin one day and learned my way around that instrument without much success, but at least I knew my way around it. I took up percussion, which was a way of producing more instant results. I could read music and rhythm, and picking up the technique was relatively uncomplicated compared to learning the violin, so I was able to play with amateur orchestras and youth orchestras, and that was another way in. But this thing about musicality, coming as I do from a theatre and music background, I was brought up to believe rather as Leonard Bernstein said, to just embrace music in all its facets, in all its styles – that’s the way I was brought up. I was never directed toward “good” music or “serious” music, I was just encouraged to enjoy music, period, and lucky enough to be taken to theatre and musicals and concerts, and that’s where it all started to marinate. Many of my colleagues come from more academic backgrounds. I always say, nothing wrong with that at all, but if you’re going to be a critic, and a lot of young students have often asked me about this – “What is the route in? What is the way in?” – I’ve always said, there isn’t any particular way in, it’s a case of just doing it.
This is precisely the advice I give my own students: do it, do it a lot, but be wary of doing it for parties who will exploit your talent and energies.
Precisely. I started years ago, by producing dummy reviews and sending them to people, because I was an avid record collector as a boy, and as I grew up I became more and more fascinated by interpretation, and that, to me, was where the music-making really started to happen. So I always say to people, it’s not so much what you know, it’s what you feel. And if you can’t recognize when an artist makes a beautiful phrase, then you’ve no business doing the job. It’s about having a musicality which chimes with what the artists themselves are doing. And you have to feel confidence in that. The one thing I am confident about amongst all my insecurities: I am completely confident about my musicality.
That confidence translates to your online conversations. Why did you start this series?
When lockdown happened, my partner said to me, “Why don’t you do audio?” I said, “Honestly, do I really want to do audio? And not earn a penny?! Surely I should be looking for ways to earn a bob or two during this period!” And my partner said, “It’s important you’re out there and doing what you do.” So I decided to do a series with people that I had some kind of association with, either we’ve crossed paths or I knew their work or they knew my work. Nicola was the exception – I had never met her, but one of the last concerts I went to this year was her live performance of the Elgar violin concerto at the Royal Festival Hall; I was blown away by it and thought it was a good reason to speak to her, since the related album was coming out.
But basically what I wanted to do was to talk to people that would feel comfortable relaxing on a remote audio with me, and were prepared to do so without editing. These audios are all unedited, they are completely spontaneous – this was important to me; sometimes a doorbell rings or whatever, but basically I’ve said to these artists, “I want this to be raw, as if we’re doing this live.” And I was determined we should mix classical and musical theatre, because they are my two main areas. I started with John Wilson – I bumped into him literally in the first week of lockdown, he’d moved around the Tate Modern, and I was walking down the Embankment, and there he was. We stood in socially-distance conversation for a while, and I said, “Hey do you want to this?” and he said “Sure!” What I decided now is to continue to do them. I think as a writer you have to get past … look, this is tricky, but you have to get past the idea that you do this only professionally for a living; sometimes you should do things occasionally for the hell of it. That was a difficult pill to swallow at first; I felt I was putting a lot of effort in for no return, and as a freelancer that’s a no-no. When I think back now to the kinds of jobs I would turn down routinely, I would be quite grateful for them now.
Engaging in freebie culture is something I caution my students against. When it’s you calling the shots, it’s a different energy; you have all the control. That’s different than giving everything away to an organization who will exploit your talent for their numbers.
Exactly! Several have said to me, “You should charge for these interviews” and I said, “But this is my product; I have total control over it.” It’s been quite refreshing to go to people with my reputation and history and just say, “Hey, do you want to do this?” Generally speaking they’re only too pleased, especially during this time, but I think they’ll be pleased after this crisis is past, so long as I can supplement it from other paid jobs; most of my work consists of live conversation events at festivals or the like; Bishopsgate was an experiment. I lost a huge amount of work when the pandemic struck, including live interviews with Dame Janet Baker, an evening with Petula Clark at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and many bookings with Patricia Routledge, who I’ve been working with for years in a show called Facing The Music, about her musical theatre career. Those things are where the money for me is. Writing, broadcasting, the BBC fees have gone down and down… you have to move with the times, and reinvent yourself. I reinvented myself hugely, because as an ex-actor, I loved the buzz of being onstage and still do, albeit in a different capacity.
Backstage with Claude-Michel Schönberg at Bridge Theatre, February 2019.
I was in theatre also and I do miss it, though I find performance and authenticity now tend to meet through writing; do you find this in your pursuits?
Oh yes – and these audio interviews, I hope, are something that shows the best of what I do. I think good interviewers are few and far between; let’s focus on the people who can initiate a conversation as opposed to doing a Q&A. I hate those. People say “Will you do a Q&A?” and I say, “No, I’ll do a real conversation.”
The reciprocity of a real conversation demands sincerity, which seems like a rare commodity these days.
It is – and I’ve met and spoken with a huge cross-section of people, in various capacities. I was a mainstream presenter on (BBC) Radio 3 for some years, I used to do the breakfast show on the weekends and had a show called Stage & Screen, which ran for six years and was devoted to musical theatre. I learned a lot on that show and had a great time. We met an awful lot of luminaries from the world of musical theatre, and I learned a lot about sitting down and conversing with people.
That’s what radio teaches one: the importance of give and take.
It’s a huge thing. You know in the first few minutes of talking to someone who’s done x number of interviews with people if it’ll work. I interviewed Glenn Close for Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum; they didn’t want to put her in front of the press corps, it was done with me interviewing her rather than people shouting out questions. I did a video interview just before that for the website and I remember, it was so obvious, she sat down like, “Oh here we go, another interview” – as a film star she would have done twenty-five or more in a day to promote a film – but the first thing I wanted to talk about was the Richard Rodgers musical Rex she’d been in when she was unknown. I was just curious about that; Nicol Williamson had been in it also And she looked visibly stunned when I brought this production up. The whole interview changed direction the minute she knew that I knew what I was talking about, that I wasn’t another hack. But I’m afraid in some quarters, in the theatre and movie world, it’s par for the course. The level of ignorance among so-called journalists is breathtaking – and yes, the sheer laziness, the total lack of research. People you talk to, they want to know that you respect the work they do, it’s only natural, you sometimes have to talk with people in rotten moods, but the minute you turn it around and say, “What I thought was interesting about your performance was this and this and this… ” – it changes everything.
Good interviews demand many things: research, listening, reciprocity – all while holding one’s own. Lately it feels as if these things have been disposed of via online culture…
… oh, this whole business of so-called “influencers” is driving me absolutely nuts! It’s about nothing at all; it’s just so much noise around people who appeal to the lowest common denominator and who generate a following. Suddenly they’re endorsing various things…
It’s worse in the musical theatre world too – it’s a different kind of celebrity. There is Instagram casting in that world; I’ve spoken to producers who have engaged in it. When I did my stage conversation last year with Patti Lupone I brought this up and she was mortified by the whole thing. It’s this whole box-ticking thing…
Backstage with Patti LuPone at Theatre Royal Haymarket, March 2019.
“This person has x number of followers” – even if they bought them – “this person gets x number of views on their videos” – those are easy to fake – “this person gets lots of engagement” – how many of them are genuine? – “this person has a cool/sexy image” – which is all photo filters…
Indeed, but there’s also the basic question: can (the artist) actually do the job? Live and onstage? Are they the best person for the role? Or are they being cast because they have six million followers on Instagram? It’s a serious problem. Producers want to sell tickets obviously, and Intendants want to sell their opera houses, but if we’re not very careful, it could derail the integrity of the business. It really could. I participate in social media because I like to think of myself as savvy when it comes to online, but I don’t exploit it as much as I could; I am very suspicious of it. And I think unfortunately, the first question you’re always asked – and you probably experienced this yourself – you go to someone who doesn’t know your work, and you say, “May I do this?” and they say, “How many hits does your website get?” I mean… many of the people working in the business now are so young and they have no history or knowledge of the people or the history of people like you and me. And I’m not saying that in a boastful way; I’m saying it because it’s a fact. I get the most insane emails sometimes asking me to cover things that have absolutely nothing to do with my area of operation or expertise. I’m on a press list somewhere and so…!
Very often I get questions about my metrics too, and my response is that my numbers aren’t The New York Times, but they don’t have to be; my readership is faithful.
Exactly, and that’s the point! I mean social media is famous for endorsing things so you put something up with all your powers and people who know you in the business will like it, and click on the button, but how many listen to the interview the whole way through, or read the whole feature to the end? Of course I know people read Gramophone magazine – they read it from cover to cover, it’s the only serious record magazine left, which is why I still write for it – but I’m delighted some of my audio interviews have hit the spot for listeners. I know people who’ve listened to them and I know the pleasure they’ve got from them, which is far more important than reaching 50,000 people who don’t listen to more than a couple minutes. I will say, I didn’t want to do a series on the lockdown or the problems (of the music industry) associated with the pandemic; important though it is to talk about these things, that’s not what I’m in the business of doing. I wanted to stay talking about the music.
Speaking of music, Sarah Connolly’s relating the text of Das Lied von der Erde to Bach in your chat made me rethink that piece, but then, isn’t that the point of good conversation – to inspire one to think about things in new ways?
I agree with you entirely – but of course you’re only as good as the quality of your interviewee; this is where one has to be selective. I know why I chose the people I chose. And Sarah is a rare bird, not only a wonderful talent, but I’m probably more pleased with that one than the others so far, she’s such a great talker: engaging, amusing, smart, all those things.
Her trust in you seems palpable.
That’s where the history comes in. With some people it takes a long time to earn their trust; for instance, with Patricia Routledge, it took a long time before I earned her trust. She’s someone who’s lived on her own, who has huge integrity as an actor, but my goodness, it was worth the wait. When there is mutual trust, it frees you up, and it’s lovely for me when one’s reputation precedes one and someone is happy to do something simply because they trust you. We both know we’re going to have a reasonably stimulating exchange and I’ll not be talking about non-musical things as others might, that I’m there for the music. At the end of the day the music is what it’s all about, and that’s what I’ve adopted as my yardstick over the years.
In conversation with Patricia Routledge at Theatre Royal Haymarket, part of Seckerson’s “Facing The Music” series with the British artist. Photo: Danny With A Camera
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Sir George Benjamin leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Musikfest Berlin 2018 (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)
Attending the Berlin Musikfest is quickly becoming something of a habit. Since my first experience with the event last year, I’ve become captivated by its varied and very rich programming, which features local organizations (including the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, the Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester), plus a number of important chamber groups, vocal outfits, and an assortment of stellar visiting orchestras (including the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Boston Symphony Orchestra recently). What I love about Musikfest is that it is so unapologetically varied; there is no sense of needing to appeal to a so-called “mainstream” base, because the term simply doesn’t apply. Thus the programming is what one might term adventurous, exploratory, just plain smart — and features many modern and/or living composers, like the concert given by the Berlin Phil this past weekend, led by conductor/composer (and Composer in Residence for the 2018-2019 season) Sir George Benjamin. Saturday’s performance was a chewy, thoughtful presentation that examined notions of time, impermanence, and various states of perception. Like so much of the programming at Musikfest, the concert was a thought-provoking examination of how we experience music, in time and space, according to personal and historical perceptions, and how we live in, around, and outside of sound itself.
The program opened with the work of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. Though he passed away in early 2016, Boulez was easily one of the most influential artists in twentieth century music. His experimental, and frequently ground-breaking approach helped to shape so very many composers and artists (Benjamin included) who followed. “Cummings ist der Dichter” (“Cummings is the poet”) is a 1970 work that imitates through sound what the poet ee cummings attempted to achieve in text. As Anselm Cybinski’s fine program notes remind us, “(p)erception is broken up into multiple perspectives; the possibilities for reading and understanding increase.” While the work can be jagged, there is a majestic beauty at work, an undeniable forward momentum despite “its gestures seem(ing) discontinuous and spontaneous.” Benjamin thoughtfully emphasized these multiple perspectives through careful (indeed, loving) emphasis on the relationship between harps, strings, and voices (especially female) via ChorWerk Ruhr. Their melismatic vocalizing was hugely complemented by the tremulous bass work of Janne Saksala, which made for a gorgeous fluidity that nicely contrasted the many crunchy chords and dissonant jolts. Benjamin himself has a gentle approach that is simultaneously intuitive and narrative-driven, equal parts heart and head, perhaps reflecting his own operatic considerable (and rightly celebrated) history. This gentle force would shape and define the program overall, becoming especially discernible in the final work of the evening by Benjamin himself.
Cédric Tiberghien performs with the Berlin Philharmonic as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018 (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)
Before then, the audience was treated to a ravishing performance of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D major for the left hand, with French pianist Cédric Tiberghien. The piece, written between 1929 and 1930, was commissioned by concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had suffered grave injury in the First World War, losing his right arm as a result. The concerto is a fiercely virtuosic work which Ravel himself described as being in “only one movement” though its slow-fast-slow structure and allusions to various other works (some by the composer himself) make it far more thoughtful than its title might suggest. The opening, as sonically luxuriant as any from Ravel’s 1912 “symphonie chorégraphique” Daphnis et Chloé, featured beautiful bass and bassoon work, with Benjamin emphasizing sensuous tone and phrasing. The build to Tiberghien’s virtuosic entrance dripped with drama; Benjamin pulled a sparkling ebullience from the orchestra, with ringing strings and boisterous if well-modulated brass and woodwinds. A syncopated section featuring violas, cellos, and bassoons could so easily have been played cartoonishly (and in fact, frequently is), but the maestro avoided any easy sonic trappings, focusing on the probing heart beneath the plucky lines, with the piano as a blended and equal partner.
Sir George Benjamin with Cédric Tiberghien (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)
In this he and the orchestra were matched by Tiberghien’s energetic playing, his laser focus never obscuring or erasing his highly poetic approach. The young pianist seemed less concerned with showing off his (clear) virtuosic talent than with coaxing color, modulation, a refined texture (clarified to a remarkable degree in his encore, “Oiseaux tristes”, the second movement of Ravel’s piano cycle Miroirs). The clear sonic references contained within the Concerto to Ravel’s famous “Boléro” (premiere in 1928), as well as to Gershwin works (especially “Rhapsody in Blue”, premiered in 1924) were made clear enough without belaboring the obvious; Benjamin emphasized percussion (as he did throughout the evening), with an insistent pacing echoed by cellos and bass, making the sound more akin to a grinding war machine than flamenco or jazz, a clear reference to the history of the piece’s commissioner and first performer.
The contemplative nature of the performance also underlined the temporal nature of the sound experience in and of itself, and how it might be altered with the use of only one limb; such contemplations around temporality, perception, and one’s direct experience of sound would emerge as a dominant theme of the evening, highlighted in Ligeti’s Clocks and Cloudsfor 12-part female choir and orchestra, written in 1972-73, and a reference to a lecture given by Karl Popper in 1972 in which the Viennese philosopher juxtaposes (as Ligeti himself wrote) “exactly determined (“clocks”) versus global, statistically measurable (“clouds”) occurrences of nature. In my piece, however, the clocks and clouds are poetic images. The periodic, polyrhythmic sound-complexes melt into diffuse, liquid states and vice versa.”
Like much of the vocal writing done by Claude Vivier (whose traces here will be noticeable for fans of the Quebecois composer’s work) the twelve voices sing, according to the program notes, “in an imaginary language with a purely musical function.” And so spindly strings contrasted with the sheet-like vocals of ChorWerk Ruhr members, before roles reversed and chirping vocal lines were set against (and yet poetically with) steely-smooth strings. Benjamin held the tension between the worlds of voice and instrument with operatic grace, creating and recreating a sort of narrative with every passing note fading in and out as naturally as breathing. Interloping woodwinds and clarinets brought to mind the image of an Impressionist painting being projected in a darkened planetarium, against a backdrop of slow-moving galaxies. This was immensely moving performance, at once as emotional as it was intellectual.
Sir George Benjamin leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Musikfest Berlin (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)
The audience was given a good chance to reset heart, mind, and ears between the Ligeti work and the final piece of the evening, Benjamin’s “Palimpsests”, written in 2002 and dedicated to Pierre Boulez (who also led its premiere). Another stage rearrangement (many were needed this evening) allowed for numerous basses at one side, a line of violinists at the front, and good numbers of brass, woodwinds, plus three percussionists directly in front of Benjamin. The set-up, compact but equally expansive, allowed Benjamin’s titular layers (and their related, possibility-ladden connotations) to come in waves around and outwards and around once again, with clear references to the works of both Boulez as well as Olivier Messiaen, Benjamin’s former teacher. Expressive violin lines here act as a quasi-choir; at Saturday’s performance, there was a small but lovely moment between Concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa and violinist Luiz Filipe Coelho, in an almost-dancing lyrical duet which brought to mind Benjamin’s own edict that he wanted the piece to be “anti-romantic and yet passionate.”
Despite the sheer muscularity of sound particular to the Berlin Philharmonic violin section, Benjamin carefully controlled and shaped for maximum dramatic (and vocal) effect, placing just as much care on their twisting lines with harp, a highly cinematic and charged series of moments which recalled the sounds of film composer Bernard Herrmann. Impressively angry horn sounds were the loudest volume heard all night, complementing a stellar percussion section, whom Benjamin made sure to recognize during bows at the close. The gentle force which had opened the program now closed it, with thoughtful grace and a heartfelt elegance. In a current interview in New Yorker magazine, Benjamin says of his childhood that “I loved playing the piano, but it was the orchestra I went to see […] I loved the variety of instruments, the energy, and the source of drama through sound.” That drama was realized in this thought-provoking Musikfest program.
Kirill Petrenko conducts the 2018-2019 season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo: (c) Monika Rittershaus
It’s hard to leave one’s mental baggage aside when approaching things we feel strongly about. One brings a grab bag full of expectations, consciously or not, which frequently weigh down perceptions and any new experiences. When it comes to beloved works of art, one either approaches with an expectation of ecstasy or a suitcase of cynicism; rarely are there any in-betweens these days, let alone room for nuance, contemplation, or surprise.
As Kirill Petrenko so amply demonstrated in the season opener with the Berlin Philharmonic this past Friday night, it’s precisely these things — nuance, contemplation, surprise — that make the experience of live music so enriching. The current Generalmusikdirektor of the Bayerische Staatsoper and chief conductor designate of the Berlin Philharmonic (he formally starts next fall) is renowned for his gifts in fusing the elegant and the inexplicable, the artful and the soulful, the epic and the intimate. I used the word “orgasmic” on social media in a rather futile (in retrospect) attempt to capture the heart-pounding excitement of the 2018-2019 season opening performance, but really, that word in all its modern, explosive connotations, does not remotely capture its magic. What made this performance so very special was that Petrenko took essentially well-known repertoire and didn’t churn it out for easy effect, but plumbed several layers of sonic depth out of a deep and very clear love of the scores, the music, and the art form; he took the audience to new shores with a gentle confidence, using his passion as a passage through which we eagerly followed.
Kirill Petrenko conducts the 2018-2019 season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo: (c) Monika Rittershaus
Opening with Strauss’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan, which paints episodes from the exploits of the legendary figure (based on work by poet Nikolaus Lenau), Petrenko carefully highlighted shimmering strings and bold brass section, counterbalanced by delightfully pensive winds. Albrecht Mayer’s poetically plaintive oboe work, his looping sonic interplay with Stefan Dohr’s lyrical horn and the rounded tones of Wenzel Fuchs’ clarinet were all kept in tight balance by Petrenko’s watchful baton. To use an apt phrase penned by Guardian critic Martin Kettle (writing about Petrenko leading the Bavarian State Orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth this this past June), the sound “was never permitted to meander into reverie” — which might bump up against a few expectations sonically, but earned a greater emotional payoff by the piece’s end, one less steeped in sentimentality and closer to quiet grace.
That grace continued in a lovely, thoughtful performance of Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), a tone poem completed in 1889. Petrenko kept a strident tempo, providing a sonically fascinating sense of momentum; this wasn’t a race to death so much as an inevitable countdown stripped bare, once again, of sentimentality, but with a rich and textured spirit. Concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto displayed a lovely virtuosic tone in his solos, as did flautist Emmanuel Pahud in the piece’s first section, with Petrenko never resting too long in pensive solemnity; he cleverly accentuated a palpable partnership of basses, percussion, and brass to underscore the passing of one phase of mortality to the next. The result was not a clanging, cliche-ridden sound implying transcendence at the close, but rather, a question, a contemplation, a deep joy.
Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold
This joy was brought to the fore in the concert’s second half, which featured Beethoven’s famous Seventh Symphony. Ladden as it is with so many sonic expectations (everyone seems to have a favorite bit and thinks they know the best version), Petrenko threw the roadmaps away and blazed his own trail — not with a storm of fortissimos or percussive overuse, but with smart phrasing and energetic interplay between sections. It made for a meaty, mighty listen that allowed one to experience the work anew. Momentum in the first movement (Poco Sostenuto) was created via lilting tempos and carefully modulated exchanges between strings and woodwinds; this led, with stunning elegance, to a gorgeous rendering of the movement’s theme, first performed by Pahud, and then echoed with boisterous intention by the orchestra. The work’s ties to military history were made unmissable (Beethoven conducted the 1813 premiere himself as part of a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau), with Petrenko leading the charge with brisk tempos and evocative sounds that called to mind the clomp of horse hoofs and the dizzying speed of a charge. A watchful percussion section, working in tandem with basses, produced a lusciously fulsome sound that avoided loud-Ludwig/big-boom-Beethoven cliches. Such an elegant approach went entirely against whatever sonic expectations one might bring — Petrenko seemed determined to embrace the score’s inherent lyricism while offering a fascinating, tapestry-like array of colors and textures.
The famous second movement (Allegretto) saw more than a few swaying heads in the formally-attired opening night crowd; as with the Strauss, the movement was firmly not played for sentimental effect, and was taken at a refreshingly (if not overfast) brisk pace. Petrenko cultivated efficient momentum through strings, swelling horns and percussion, yet never once wallowed in a too-rich sound, keeping very tight modulation on pacing, volume, and texture. He displayed a great balance of drama, lyricism, intellectualism, and contemplation, attending to each with care while never abandoning the other in the slightest. And so we heard the call response moments between brass and strings in a lively sort of pas-de-deux that brought to mind similar structures in the program’s first half, and indeed, in the musical lines from a production of Parsifal Petrenko conducted earlier this year in Munich.
Kirill Petrenko conducts the 2018-2019 season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo: (c) Monika Rittershaus
The Berlin Philharmonic’s season opener on Friday evening was indeed full of opera, though not one word was sung. The intensity of the performance was counterbalanced by a thoughtfulness that never veered into didactic intellectualizing but rather, used joy as a guiding principle. Each section within the orchestra became a kind of new and different voice, nay, each individual musician had their voice carried, shaped, blended, formed and reformed again, within distinct voices forming a perfect whole. No over-intellectualized approach fraught with ideological or historical baggage, but a concert filled with light, warmth, and life. Any and all expectations were thrown out the window, and it was magical. The Berlin Philharmonic are currently on tour with this program, along with soloist Yuja Wang. Catch them if you can.
Baritone Gerald Finley and the Berlin Phliharmonic led by conductor Daniel Harding, March 1, 2018. (Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold)
Musical works which take the concept of nature as a theme are deceptive. There’s a perception they’re somehow full of soft and lovely, full of peace and tranquil sounds. Ludwig van Beethoven reminded listeners, however, of the terrible force of nature in his Sixth Symphony (nicknamed”the Pastoral”), with its dramatic, stormy scenes in the Fourth Movement holding particularly memorable power. Titled “Gewitter, Sturm” (Thunder, Storm) it serves as a useful counterbalance.
Something very similar exists with Strauss’s Eine Alepnsinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64; its musical splendor allows for an abundance of sonic intensity in which the orchestra can reveal a darker side of the nature it simultaneously worships. This doesn’t necessarily always translate into minor key transitions but it does, through the inventive (and expensive) integration of percussion, brass, and woodwinds, paint vivid pictures in the minds of its listeners. So while Strauss’ work is not at all musically incongruent, the work, fifty minutes in total and requiring an immense number of musicians (125 at least), is a study in contrasts, and in knowing how to use such intensity on a very large scale.
Baritone Gerald Finley takes bows following his performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, led by guest conductor Daniel Harding.(Photo: (c) Stephan Rabold)
The Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of guest conductor Daniel Harding, explored these ideas in a the program featuring the songs of Franz Schubert for its first half. Baritone Gerald Finley, coming off a busy schedule of firsts (I interviewed him for Opera Canada magazine), was in vocally splendid form, delivering Schubert’s works (in arrangements by Reger, Berlioz, and Brahms) with gorgeous delicacy and steely force. His “Erlkönig” (based on a very creepy Goethe poem about a child assailed by the supernatural “Erl King”) was particularly striking for the character-rich modulations Finley exercised, demonstrating unforced flexibility and a deep sensitivity to the material, from his beautiful and thoughtful rendering of “Memnon” to his exquisite performance of “Du bist die Ruh’, D.776, in an orchestration by Anton Webern, as an encore. Finley never lingered too long in a phrase or indulged in vocal flights of fancy, but kept a nice balance between crisp, character-driven diction, a ringing top end, a secure, oaken mid-range, and incredibly smart phrasing; the integration of these traits, combined with a clear love of the material, made for a very splendid and deeply satisfying musical experience. As the program notes of Berlioz’ orchestration (for “Erlkönig”), “(e)very instrument seems to be deployed according to its colouristic and dramatic potential.” No kidding; it’s a phrase that could well be applied to the entirety of the program.
Colour and drama were certainly a big part of the evening’s second half, which featured Eine Alepnsinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64. Partly inspired by a youthful Alpine adventure Strauss enjoyed, along with his later love of the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the work is less of a typical “symphony” in that it forgoes the traditional structure of movements, and instead features twenty-two sections which trace the experiences of a climber, from daybreak to dusk, scaling an Alpine summit. It received a mixed reception at its premiere here in Berlin 1915 (with Strauss himself conducting the Dresden Hofkapelle), with some sneering that it was “cinema music” — but it’s precisely these grandly cinematic qualities which, when brought out properly, with the right amount of love, care, commitment and respect, create such powerful sonic experiences. In all the times I’ve seen the orchestra live, I’ve rarely heard them sound better than last evening, when each element (and Harding squarely treated them as such, related to climate, nature, atmosphere) worked to create a journey as much for spirit as for imagination.
Conductor Daniel Harding leads the Berlin Philharmonic in “An Alpine Symphony” by Richard Strauss, March 1, 2018. (Photo; (c) Stephan Rabold)
Right from the pensive opening (“Nacht” or Night), through the glinting “Am Wasserfall” (At the Waterfall) to the careful “Stille vor dem Sturm” (Calm Before the Storm), and then, of course, onto “Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg” (Thunder and Tempest, Descent) and back to “Nacht” to close, the orchestra didn’t just lead listeners along the primrose path, but dropped them into the middle of a high, rough, rocky ledge, forming walls of enveloping sounds that underlined the dualistic nature of the work, the relationship (nay, need) for darkness and light between and around one another. Horn players Stefan Dohr and Sarah Willis led their sections with aplomb, shaping their phrases and long musical lines ever so intuitively around woodwinds, harps, and strings, while Harding ensured the busy percussion section wasn’t merely an accessory but a living, breathing organism, colored in shape and expression, the “heartbeat” of the piece. This was far less a pretty excursion into the mountains than a fearsome journey into a ferocious darkness, one that in no way wiped out the capacity for the experience of beauty or majesty, or, in fact, community; more than once various orchestra members could be seen smiling instinctively at one another as phrases approached and receded. There is joy in the darkness, of course; it just sometimes takes bravery (and a few connected spirits) to stand and face it.
And face it, they did; this was the Berlin Philharmonic at its magisterial, ballsy best. I’ve spent many nights in many different symphony halls, listening carefully to many different orchestras, but very, very rare is the moment I will lean my head back, mouth open, and simply… sigh. It happened more than once lastnight. And it was simply beautiful.
The Philharmonie Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)
It’s taken me 72 hours to get to the Philharmonie in Berlin. That’s longer than many other visits I’ve made here, and while this was one of the shortest concerts I’ve attended in the storied music venue, it was one of the most quietly magical.
Performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester (Radio Symphony Orchestra) Berlin under the baton of guest conductor Sebastian Weigle (who is General Director of Oper Frankfurt), the Sunday afternoon concert was a graceful integration of contrasts, joining the vast passions of the material (and the composers’ intertwined lives) with a whispering elegance underlined by smoothly assured playing. Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of the Wayfarer) and Symphony No.1 in E Major by Hans Rott were performed with sparkling clarity and a passion that whispered rather than declaimed. The effect? Beautiful. No fancy bombast, this, nor any falling into comfortable mediocrity; it was pure musicianship.
Conductor Sebastian Weigle and the RSB at the Philharmonie Berlin, February 25, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)
Baritone Björn Bürger, a member of the Oper Frankfurt ensemble, filled in for an ailing Michael Volle for the program’s first half, infusing Mahler’s four famous works with a lovely youthful ardor and earnest endearment. The songs, romantic and yearning in nature, were written in the late 1800s and were inspired by Mahler’s doomed affair with soprano Johanna Richter; they are shot through with the sort of panting passion you might expect from a young composer. These qualities were nicely reflected via both Bürger’s glinting high baritone (tonally anxious in spots, no doubt due to nerves), and Weigle’s deeply intuitive, poetically astute conducting. Never leaning too far into a phrase or banging out motifs, Weigle and the RSB very clearly trusted their audience to appreciate the subtlety of a thoughtful approach, and delivered a loving performance that underlined the waterfall-like passion of the material with gossamer-like strings and a sinuous bass section.
That waterfall-like quality came into focus in the program’s second half, which featured Austrian composer Hans Rott’s First Symphony, replete with plenty of string runs and interplay between woodwinds and brass sections. A contemporary of both Mahler and Bruckner, Rott struggled with debilitating mental illness and died (of tuberculosis) roughly six weeks shy of 26. His work was largely dismissed in his lifetime — including, notably, by Brahms, who said the Austrian should give up music entirely. Mahler, however, recognized his talent, and wrote after his passing (in 1884) that “(Rott) is so near to my inmost self that he and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree which the same soil has produced and the same air nourished. He could have meant infinitely much to me and perhaps the two of us would have well-nigh exhausted the content of new time which was breaking out for music.”
Roses left by conductor Sebastian Weigle on the podium after leading the RSB in Mahler and Rott. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)
Traces of Mahler’s influence, as well as a clear anticipation of his output, can clearly be heard in Rott’s First Symphony, a work which only enjoyed its first full recording in 1989. The third movement, in particular, largely anticipates the sort of instrumental interplay Mahler would regularly deploy later in his career. The RSB performed this movement, a scherzo, with sparkling buoyancy, even as Weigle maintained strident sonic discipline; no large, sentimental displays here, but rather, thoughtful, clear, sensitive playing that showed the intricacies of Rott’s score while highlighting its expressiveness. The horn section was impressive with round, fulsome sounds, qualities not always associated with brass instruments, and yet so skillfully deployed here; perhaps Weigle’s fifteen years spent as a horn player with the Berlin Staatskapelle was making itself known. At the close, the conductor left the traditional bouquet given to artists on the score, gesturing as he did so, a nod to Rott and his cultural legacy.
It was a lovely, quietly elegant welcome back to the Philharmonie, and certainly a heart-and-ear-opener that underlined the energy of youth while underlining the importance of a mature approach. The material asked for it, and Weigle and the RSB delivered, beautifully.
Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions
Is this the year of great singers making their Canadian debuts? Perhaps.
Soprano Anna Netrebko and husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, appeared in Toronto this past April (along with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky), as part of a concert co-presented by the Canadian Opera Company and Show One Productions. This past Thursday, (8 June) soprano Hibla Gerzmava made her debut in the city, joined by conductor Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, who has led the ensemble since formation it in 1979.
Gerzmava, who hails from Abkhazia (located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea), is a singer of some acclaim. I’ve been following Gerzmava’s work for a number of years, particularly her annual gala concerts (called “Hibla Gerzmava Invites”) that feature a who’s-whoof great classical-world talent. She’s a singer with a laser-pointed tone and a warm, textured sound. I had the chance to see her live last fall in Don Giovanni (not shocking to those of aware of my fascination with that work) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with famous baritone Simon Keenlyside in the lead; Gerzmava’s Donna Anna was pleading, angst-filled, guilt-wracked. Her performance of “Non Mi Dir” was lovely, with Gerzmava shaping her rolled consonants and luxurious vowels into a rapturous embrace.
Paul Appleby as Don Ottavio, Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna, and Simon Keenlyside in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Aside from that memorable voice, what makes Gerzmava interesting to me is that the same year she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, in 1994, she became the first singer — and the sole woman ever — to earn the prestigious Grand Prize in the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. Since then, she’s appeared on some very notable opera stages, including the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna), the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich), Bavarian State Opera, Opéra National de Paris, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Met of course, and the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, among many others. This past spring she sang the title role in Donizetti’s dramatic opera Anna Bolena (part of his Tudor trilogy) at Teatro Alla Scala Milan (opposite venerable Italian bass Carlo Columbara as Enrico / Henry), one of the most challenging of roles within the repertoire, both musically and dramatically.
Gerzmava’s recent albums, Hibla Gerzmava, Soprano (Melodiya), released in 2014) and Opera. Jazz. Blues. (Melodiya), from 2016, explore an array of sounds, with the latter focusing on jazzy forays into traditionally classical repertoire (with arrangements by Daniel Kramer), and the former an impressive live recording of a concert she gave in Moscow with Spivakov and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia in 2013. She gives thrilling readings of many opera classics on this album, every piece full of laser clear tone and dramatic verve; it’s a highly listenable album, and I think it works really well as an introduction to opera overall, offering a nice selection of well-known favorites, wonderful interpretations (including a lively rendering, together with baritone Arsen Sogomonian, of the duet between the main female character and the charlatan-doctor character in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore, or The Elixir of Love, another huge favorite of mine), and the sparky dynamism of live performance. Consider that a recommendation for those of you who are a bit nervous about sticking your toe into the opera ocean; trust me, this is a nice bubbly jacuzzi best enjoyed with a good cold glass of rose.
Currently on tour with the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra through North America, Gerzmava made her Canadian debut Thursday night at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall (the regular home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), offering a highly eclectic program featuring works by mainly French and Italian composers. After a first half that featured Spivakov leading the Ensemble in an a wide array of works (including Mozart, Shostakovich, Bruch), as well as a sparky performance by young cellist Danielle Akta, Gerzmava appeared, splendid in a grand, floor-sweeping red/blue/gold dress, with long hair neatly pinned up, and launched straight into one of the best-known arias within the operatic repertoire (also featured on her live album), “Casta Diva”, from Bellini’s Norma. It could well be suspected that Gerzmava was facing a few challenges (she appeared to be sucking on some kind of lozenge or candy at several points), what with some uneven moments vocally, and a gradually diminishing volume throughout the concert that left her with a small but very sweet tone for the evening’s encores, the famous “O Mio Babbino Caro” (from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi) and Strauss’ ethereal “Morgen“, also featured on her live album. Whatever vocal color she may have been lacking, Gerzmava made up for with brilliant flashes of the muscular tone for which she’s rightly celebrated, particularly in the middle portion of the program. Her renderings of the showpiece stretto aria from Verdi’s I Masnadieri (The Robbers) and “Ecco… Io son l’umile ancella” (“I am the humble servant) from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur were standouts for their tonal clarity, light if well-considered vibrato, and the fierce dramatic heft of their delivery.
Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions.
Gerzmava showed herself so deeply cocooned within the music she was performing at points as to be acting out the parts to and with various orchestra members, who gamely played to her, along with conductor Spivakov; it would have all come off unbearably corny but for the fact that Gerzmava, and her fellow musicians, were so very clearly committed to the music, and to the moments of both intimacy and grandeur within the music. Some pieces were more like duets, which made Gerzmava’s and the Virtuosi’s connection with the music that much more touching. Here’s to many more appearances by Gerzmava in Canada in the future, and fingers crossed for not only some Russian repertoire in that program, but some Mozart, too.
Attending and writing about opera on a regular basis, it becomes all too easy to take space for granted. The setting becomes almost secondary: the vast space of an auditorium, the plush nape of seats, the hushed, reverential silence during a performance. If you’re used to going to the opera, these are elements you don’t consider too deeply, if at all.
And yet, Against the Grain wants you to think, and feel, and reassess — and to approach opera in a whole new way. The Toronto-based independent company has built an acclaimed reputation on producing opera in unusual spaces; La Bohemetook place in a bar, Don Giovanni was staged in an old theatre set up as a wedding reception, and now, Cosi fan tutte takes place in a television studio. Why should this matter? Well, for those of you who may never consider going to the opera, who find its formalities daunting, who feel it has “nothing for them,” AtG aims to make you re-think.
For opera fans like me, entering Studio 42 at the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s so-called “mothership” building in Toronto for A Little Too Cozy (AtG’s updated title for Mozart’s 1790 opera) was a strange if exhilarating experience — there’s a thrill of the new combined with a slight anxiety over gimmickry, and how much the old will be incorporated without being arch. While many directors approach operatic works with an attitude approaching holiness, some new productions are also occasionally done with an art-for-capital-A-art’s-sake approach. There’s still a widely held perception (one not completely incorrect) that curiosity, mischief and whimsy are missing in the opera world; Joel Ivany (who is AtG’s Artistic Director) keeps the proper reverence for the music (as he has in all his past works) but loses the poe-faced seriousness which opera neophytes might perceive comes with the territory, instead injecting a playfulness into the proceedings that is entirely fresh and creative.
Photo by Darryl Block
A Little Too Cozy is presented as a reality TV dating series, with each of the work’s characters as contestants vying to win love, and, it would seem, a measure of fame and validation. Felicity (soprano Shantelle Przybylo), Fernando (tenor Aaron Sheppard), Dora (mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb) and Elmo (baritone Clarence Frazer) perform with phones in-hand, delivering punchy, swear-word-laden songs dressed in swishy club clobber, with sleazy Donald L. Fonzo (Cairan Ryan) hosting the proceedings and randy Despina handing the show’s talent relations. The latter two characters are, in the Mozart original, somewhat “controllers” of the situation, and the adaptation of them here, with more than a frisson of underlying sexual tension extant, makes perfect, zesty sense. What also makes this transposition work for the opera crowd is Ivany’s keen awareness of the source material being somewhat… silly, shall we say. In using a popular, mainstream medium to both mock and milk it at once, Ivany creates a foundation that is at once satisfying to opera regulars and enlivening to newbies.
After all, Cosi fan tutte (which translates roughly as “women are like that”) is not exactly what I’d call a work of great narrative genius; some of us (myself included) find the plot (which revolves around couples testing one another’s affections) rather unsatisfying, if not entirely asinine. But, by using a recognizable cultural outlet that has gained particular traction in the last decade-plus, Ivany betrays a deep awareness of both the power of media and the power of music, and marries them in a way that is entirely beguiling and extremely familiar. A Little Too Cozy is smart and fun and modern — it’s also very much opera. More fully than in past productions, Ivany and the AtG team here heartily embraced old and new, forging a sexy, sassy mix that will (and does) appeal to the social media set.
And so it was, the audience was reminded of related hashtags (#TeamDora, etc) and encouraged to use cell phones during the production. The immersive taping experience was deepened with “commercial” breaks, which allowed Ivany’s adapted libretto the opportunity to cleverly utilize and explore the re-imagined recitatives and arias (translated into English and matched to the proceedings) that provided further characterization and insight. It would be merely clever if it wasn’t also involving, entertaining, and deeply respectful to its source material.
Photo by Darryl Block
Perhaps AtG’s next project should be called, “So, You Think You Hate Opera” — I’d bet by the end of the night a few hearts and minds would be changed. Never mind the plush seats, here’s a beer and Twitter — sit back and enjoy. Opera can, and should be, for everyone.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was not the first band I saw solo -but the first time I saw Nick Cave et al I did happen to be solo. The difference is fine but important. Special is the artist (or collection of artists) that I’ll merrily throw away social anxiety to become purposely lost in the Enchanted Forest of Noise. But Cave is that special breed of artist. Recently I came across a review I breathlessly typed up many moons ago for an international music zine. In those dot-matrix filled pages, I enthused, admired, mused, and wondered at the sonic noise/poetic genius of the Bad Seeds. At the time Nick Cave had a sizeable troupe with him; not only was he joined by original members Mick Harvey, Martyn Casey, Thomas Wydler, Conway Savage, & the ever-amazing Blixa Bargeld, but he was joined by two musicians who, in retrospect, changed the course of his -and their (and possibly even my) creative output. Warren Ellis and Jim Sclavunos added a creepy, dramatic, other-worldly feel to an already-raucous musical outfit. I remember beeing especially impressed with Ellis’ stomping and passionate embrace of his violin, conjuring evil, twisted spirits, whacking his instrument’s wooden body and plucking its strings, a possessed look on his (then-handsome) face.
I came away from the evening with a wholly new appreciation of musicianship, the art of the band as a concept, and the joy of spontaneously solo-show-going. There was something about being alone that rendered me much more open to everything. It was as if my aural/emotional/spiritual absorbative powers increased twenty-fold. And, as a woman, I was suddenly free to expore -and embrace -the amazing power of my own aggression within a positive context. Even now, more than a decade later, that night lives within me. And re-reading my young and breathless review makes me want to step out of my grown-upish, self-imposed (and kind of boring) safety zone, even just for one night, to jump and dance through that mad forest of sonic mayhem again.
The internet gods seems to be with me. A few nights ago, I engaged in an online conversation about Cave’s other band, Grinderman, and the wonders of their live set. I’d been debating going to Grinderman’s concert here in Toronto in November. There are so many “unlike” factors: I don’t like lines, I don’t like crowds, and I most definitely don’t like being pushed and shoved. My short stature renders me a near-target for boots-in-the-head and obnoxious tall people who can’t dance standing in front of me. That’s to say nothing of the wild, horrific social anxiety I feel when entering a club gig alone -it’s like there’s a sticker on my head reading”Lone Thirty-Something Woman Lacking A Relationship.” I bring little but my opinions and big hair; the heels stay firmly in the closet. But social anxiety and the fear of being judged melt away like butter in a hot frying pan the minute an artist (or group of artists) I love takes to the stage. The magical, and frankly, sexy melange of lights, costumes, body language, sound, and frankly, the knowledge there’s a few hundred (or thousand) sweaty bodies behind me is, all together, deeply, almost dangerously intoxicating. I wind up staying awake long after such experiences, staring out windows, drawing, sipping wines and trying not to leap to easy definitions or categories. Some experiences are too deep for that.
But try my darndest I did back when I first saw the Bad Seeds. That sense of joy, that freedom, that wiping away of time and space and social anxieties … they touch on something profound about the power of art, and the role it plays in shaping identities. I think I’ll go see Grinderman. Maybe I’ll write a breathy blog. Or maybe, this time, I’ll savour the experience like a tasty, sweet bonbon enjoyed in a dark, silent room. Either way, being a part of the magical sound of Nick Cave and (as I put it in 1998) his “band of unmerry men” will always be a treat. I may not be able to come down and write about it for a while, though. And that’s probably a good thing.
In prepping for my live radio interview with actor Jordan Pettle last week (he plays tough nut office manager John Williamson), I returned to my review of last year’s production. Shock and awe aside (“I wrote that?! No, really… I wrote that???”), I was struck by how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same in this year’s version. The chemistry between the six cast members is as pungently male as ever, its energy as snappy and smart as the salty dialogue. Director David Storch has the performers -Eric Peterson, Albert Schultz, Kevin Bundy, William Webster, Peter Donaldson, and Pettle -play, literally and figuratively, with their own energies, reactions, and relationships with one another. Most noticeable in this year’s revival is the sheer physicality on display; chests and chins jut forwards like prize fighters daring their smarmy mugs for a loud, proud shiner. Spit flies around with as much aplomb as big promises and dead contracts.
There’s a kind of manic, angry magic at work here; between Ken MacDonald’s sexy, shiny design and _’s slithering sound design, a kinetic energy comes sparking from the stage, full-throttle. It’s exhilerating, exhausting, and ultimately enlightening. Jon Stewart and his gaggle of writers are equally foul, fierce, and funny about financial ruin -in a way, they’re Mamet Circa 2010, with every ounce of anger, wit, and that alchemical transformation that happens in the arena of performance; a kind of magical inversion of “reality” happens, with equal gasps and guffaws bouncing off sets, sofas and stages. There’s something so powerful about the mix of funny and angry -it makes the underlying rage all the more bitter, and strangely, cathartic.
Storch nicely captures this magical combination. You’ll leave wanting to either jog a twenty-mile marathon, or take a long, hot shower. Maybe both. Whatever you do, channel that energy into something positive that doesn’t involve selling bad stocks or properties in Florida.