Tag: writing

Dramaturg Julie McIsaac: “It’s The Role Of The Artist To Prompt Conversation”

Julie McIsaac dramaturg writer theatre artist Canadian musician COC residency

Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Dramaturgy is an art which holds alluring fascination for me as a writer. It’s a pursuit that knits together the solo worlds of research and academe with the collaborative energy of cultural disciplines on which opera is based (theatre, dance, art, music) in a way which, if done well, is barely noticeable, but wholly vital. It is interesting to consider dramaturgical contributions at opera houses in Europe, particularly in German-speaking ones where the role is most active, and to consider what a dramaturg’s influence may have been (or is, or could be) on the final product in places like Berlin, Munich, Zürich, and beyond. How do the role’s various elements (historian, researcher, objective observer) intermesh with others (designers, directors, conductors, performers, creative and administrative personnel) to produce an ever- evolving (sometimes satisfying, sometimes not) end result? How is it central to an audience’s appreciation (or lack thereof)? How does that work influence perceptions? Why should it matter? How is the “soft power” of dramaturgy important?

These questions were swirling around my mind when the announcement came in late 2019 of Canadian theatre artist Julie McIsaac’s appointment as the inaugural Director/Dramaturg-in-Residence with the Canadian Opera Company (COC). McIsaac’s year-long residency is the latest addition to the COC Academy, the company’s professional development program for young opera artists, creators, and administrators, and seems like the right thing, at the right time, for a company that wants to expands both its audiences and creative possibilities for its productions. General Director Alexander Neef (Director Designate of Opéra National de Paris), has, since his coming to the COC in 2008, taken an iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach to expanding both the capabilities and the ambitious of Canada’s biggest opera company, bringing in many so-called “Regie” directors (Claus Guth and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) as well as high-calibre names including Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto. The fact that the company now has an in-house dramaturg bodes well for the future. One can only hope the position extends beyond a year to become a regular part of the COC, its influence and significance becoming sewn into the fabric of various production cycles.

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Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

McIsaac has an incredible  and varied resume in theatre, with experiences in stage direction, writing (plays and libretti), and music. She studied theatre (University of York), Music (Carleton University), and Theatre Performance and Playwriting (Canadian College of Performing Arts), and, along with collaborating with directors Atom Egoyan and Peter Hinton, was Artist-in-Residence at Pacific Opera Victoria from 2016 to 2018. In September 2019, McIsaac helmed the world premiere of Beauty’s Beast (with music by composer and soprano Allison Cociani and libretto by Anna Shill) for East Van Opera. McIsaac also helped to create an original series of opera presentations for young audiences which featured excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute,  Puccini’s La Bohème, and Janacek’s Jenůfa. As part of her COC residency, McIsaac will be collaborating with the company’s Composer-in-Residence, Ian Cusson, on a new work for young audiences, which will be presented as part of the company’s 2020-2021 season (officially announced on 10 February).

I was curious to learn how McIsaac perceives her overall role as dramaturg and what she sees as its inherent possibilities for creating opera as an integrated art. I was also keen to get her thoughts on working as Assistant Director on the upcoming COC production Hansel & Gretel, which opens February 6th; she’s working with COC Music Director Johannes Debus as well as stage director Joel Ivany, a Canadian theatre artist celebrated for his unique, space-specific work with Against the Grain Theatre Company (including a 2016 staging of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a reality-TV dating game, presented in a real TV studio). In the official release for Hansel, the COC hints that Ivany’s vision for Humperdinck’s 1893 opera will focus on “income inequality and environmental sustainability.” In addition to mainstage presentations, the company is set to present a number of condensed English-language performances for young audiences. McIsaac and I chatted in December 2019 amidst the bustle of the holiday period, just as she was exploring the granular details of Hansel & Gretel.

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Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Your creative range seems well-suited to your new role as COC dramaturg – is that accurate?

I’m really fortunate, but also it’s a testament to my upbringing and my interests, also the breadth and diversity of work happening in Canada right now.

Why do you think the role of dramaturg isn’t the norm in Canada? You discussed it in detail on the COC website.

With Germany in particular, the operatic tradition there, and the national connection to it in terms of its connection to that art, is long-standing. There are centuries and centuries of work created by artists living and working (in Germany) directed toward audiences living and working there. So it does make sense to me that over time those artists and those audiences are interested in digging into the origins of those pieces, but also reinterpreting them and taking the time, when a new production is done, to meet the production within its original context but to also have these convos and explorations that open up how they might resonate in the here and now. Perhaps it’s because they already have such a firm foundation in the straightforward representation of those words they feel it’s a natural progression for them, as an artistic and national community, to then go beyond that and delve further, to push further, in terms of the interpretation of those works. 

Whereas in Canada I feel like we really have felt the pressure to live up to a standard of excellence that our European and perhaps American counterparts have reached. And perhaps because our focus has been so much on reaching that standard or being able to compete and to perform at that level, that’s been the main focus – you could say, that’s where a lot of the energy has gone, getting to a place where we can do what they do as well as they do it. So now, what I’m really interested in, and what I’d like to see more of, is that as Canadian opera artists, we step out on our own – and in that space, I feel the dramaturg can help us do that, to dig into our processes and shed light on the questions we’re asking – or failing to ask, or could be asking. 

opera stage Hansel COC Canadian Opera Company singers performance culture theatre fairytale

L-R: Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

In relation to those questions, I’m wondering where your role is in relation to staging and music. How does the triumvirate of dramaturg, director, and conductor function within your own context?

Maybe this comes out of my own experiences, but I’m a firm believer that there are no two projects which are the same. If we were to use the idea of a trinity or trifecta, as a team leading a process, depending on the work, the company, the audience for whom this work is being produced, I feel like there will be different needs and that can take so many different forms. For example, it might be there’s a director who wants to push an interpretation of a work but before doing that they want to make sure they have a firm understanding of what’s in the score, of what is there around original circumstances, I feel like we’re always doing our best approximation of what we can understand in terms of original circumstances, but I do believe there will be something a little out of our reach; as much as we dig into what’s there, we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived 250 years ago! There’s an ephemeral bit of something with we will never quite capture, and I’m okay with that.

But, circling back to your question, if that stage director is wanting to push a certain aspect in a work, I think it’s important we have a firm understanding, much as we can, of the original intent and what’s embedded in both the score and the libretto, so that interpretation can happen in relation to that, even if it’s in contradiction to it. At least there’s a conscious contradiction happening, so those choices aren’t being made in a vacuum. Even if they’re going against something that was part of the original intent of the piece, there’s a mindfulness around it. 

“Mindfulness” seems to be one of the dramaturg’s biggest jobs – is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s making sure we’re aware of the repercussions of the choices. For the conductor and director, there is so much going on they have to manage and make happen, and I think it can be useful to have another person in the room who has the time and space, who can go back to those nitty-gritty details, or to just send some questions into the conversation as a prompt, like, “Hey do we realize by virtue of doing this, we’re going against that?” or “Do we realize that by making this choice we could risk alienating a particular group of our audience who may have a lived experience of x-y-z?” I said in the press release it is central to my ethos that it’s not about censoring or diluting what we do – we do want to put things out there that are bold and daring and risky. We know we can never please everyone; it’s not the role of the artist to please everybody, it’s the role of the artist to prompt conversation, and to move us forwards ideologically, but at the same time, we want to be conscious of doing that, as opposed to doing it by accident.

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Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Russell Braun as Peter with (background L-R) Simone Osborne as Gretel and Emily Fons as Hansel in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Audiences don’t always realize the mountain of things that have gone into what they’re sitting there watching as entertainment, which relates  to what you wrote about the work of a dramaturg involving clear communication, compassion, discernment, and humor; I’d like to add curiosity to that list. 

I think you’re right, yes! Curiosity is such a great word! As much as we want to be curious about the work and what’s possible in the interpretation of the work, I think it’s great if all the artists working on the project also have a curiosity in terms of their own processes. One may have worked the same way on every single project, and there’s a reason one might have success doing that, but doesn’t mean there isn’t something else you can undercover in your process and shed light on who one is as an artist and what one can bring forward. I think you’re right about curiosity being valuable. It’s my hope, whether the audience is consciously aware of it or not, that there’s something that emanates from our interpretation of the work that open up a curiosity in them.

SIS NE’ BI-YÏZ: Mother Bear Speaks in October 2019 was very special; I’m curious if experiences from doing that, or other things, translates into Hansel & Gretel now, or if you start on a blank slate.

There’s a blank slate in the sense that no two projects are alike, so trying to bring my attention to what are the particular needs of this project, given the artists involved and the audience it’s intended for. At the same time, I can’t help but bring previous learnings and teachings from other projects into things. For example, with Mother Bear Speaks, (creator/performer) Taninli Wright asked me to direct the piece. Sometimes when we think of director-performer relationships it’s a hierarchy, and the director is higher than performer, but I think there’s reason to challenge that model. I think there’s also ways in which that model works, but in this case Taninli being a performer, it was important her voice and vision be centralised. I was always wanting to ask her questions or get feedback in the sense of, “In that moment we just saw that you just performed, here’s what I feel audience received – is that your intention? Is that what you want your audience takes away from that moment?”

In that case it was important for us to work collaboratively, because when I do feedback, I’m conscious that I’m one person feeding back and I can’t contain a multitude of experiences – I can only see things through my eyes and hear things with my ears, and there are subconscious biases in that – in each of us. By virtue of having a collaborative model, the designs were also welcome to feedback, and the stage manager and our producer were also feeding back. I was hoping to host a conversation in which a multitude of voices could feed back to the performer to let her know what we feel was kind of being perceived and emanating out from the stage so she could ask herself: “Does that align with my intentions?” 

That’s one particular example where collaboration was important and everyone in the room having a voice was very important. That (collaboration) is something I feel passionately about, but I acknowledge it becomes complicated when you have many more people involved, like in a mainstage opera! You also have an orchestra, and all these people working backstage. If we honestly wanted to create a forum wherein every single artist has an opportunity to have a voice, that is a massive undertaking and we would have to build a specific kind of process for that to happen. I do acknowledge that some of these collaborative ideals might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, but again, I think this is about us asking: “What’s the desired outcome?” It’s about asking a community company or a large producing company and its leadership, “When a work is performed on your stage, what’s the desired outcome?” and then crafting a process to get us close to that desired outcome, whatever it may be.

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Director Joel Ivany (left), conductor Johannes Debus (centre) and Assistant Director Julie McIsaac (third from left) in rehearsal for the 2020 Canadian Opera Company production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

You’re working with Joel Ivany on Hansel & Gretel, who also has experience working collaboratively and in small, unique spaces. 

It is! We both came up through this indie-theatre, indie-opera ethos, and we’re both used to working outside the mainstream, so it’s like we’re the scrappy kids from down the block coming into the big opera house! In relation to this production in particular, there’s a number of things we thought about: there’s a push for contemporary Torontonians to have an experience in the opera house that resonates with their lived experience, and there’s a push for the English-language performances for young audiences. We’ve got a partnership with four other local choirs, so kids from those choirs come on stage for the finale; having that community-engaged practise, and having this desire to reach into communities that might not otherwise feel like they have a place at the Four Seasons Centre, who might not feel included, or that (opera is) for them… in that way I think Joel and I are very much at home in the sense of being so aligned with values we hold dear. And it’s really exciting to see those initiatives at work and on the mainstage. I can’t stress enough the fact that sort of activity is happening on the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre is so exciting.

Hansel Canadian Opera Company production early design S. Katy Tucker stage culture theatre opera

Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Hansel & Gretel has a lot of dark undertones relating to themes of poverty and greed but as is the case with The Nutcracker, they’re often smoothed over.

It’s true, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and (that dark nature) is in the libretto; there’s an edge to it in German that I think can get watered down in translation, and depending on the choices made in terms of production and staging and all of that, it’s interesting to consider. This being a new production, there’s a certain amount of prep work that’s been done, especially with (production dramaturg) Katherine Syer and the designers and the team at Banff who’ve been helping to create video and projection content (by S. Katy Tucker). But, despite all the work done ahead of time, there’s still exploration to come that we don’t quite know yet – that will really inform how those moments read that could have more edge, or darkness, or whatever. It’s remains to be seen how all those moments will come out! 

“You’re Being Too Sensitive”

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Mihail Teisanu, “Woman Wearing A Mask”, 1919. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest.  Photo: mine. Please to not reproduce without permission.

Earlier this week Associated Press released a year-end summation of sorts relating to the story they broke earlier this year around allegations of sexual misconduct by Placido Domingo. Reading it, I found myself sad but also frustrated – it’s depressing to see so much consistent pushback against the women who spoke out, and equally sad (if unsurprising) to note the consistent attempts to discredit them. Such actions highlight the many social and cultural divisions that must be overcome if we, as an industry are to evolve. 

I wrote in a recent post about walls, and how, despite a lot of big talk on the theoretical beauty of their vanishing, the reality is that we tend to like them – what they keep in but also what they perceivably keep out. Nowhere is this more true than in the chasms that have been revealed within the classical world related to the #MeToo movement. The issue is, to my mind, larger than whether or not these women should have spoken out (though I think it’s good they did); more broadly, it points to attitudes held by many in and around the industry which dictates that women and men are “a certain way”. There’s a lot of gender-slotting into little boxes of behaviour, ones that adhere to very old-fashioned and outdated clichés. These clichés around what’s “normal” for a gender feed into a reality relating directly to power, one that can hire and fire, favor and dismiss. Some may well argue (and have, vociferously) that women should use their so-called “feminine wiles” in an industry that is so tough to break into. Why shouldn’t a woman use the gifts God gave her? Aren’t all men interested in “that sort of thing” from a woman? Such comments bring to mind an exchange I noted on social media earlier this year, in which, over the course of a lengthy thread relating to the Domingo case, one individual reiterated the belief that young women today are “too sensitive” and they should “toughen up” and “in my day we weren’t so bothered by flirtatious men.” This attitude is reflected in a quote soprano Laura Flanigan gave to AP, that “(t)he climate has always been ‘don’t tell and suck it up and deal with it.” 

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Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, 19th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This past year I’ve frequently thought back to a memory from childhood, of a friend and I hiding in closets as tweens whenever a flirty male friend of my mother’s would visit; this man, married and with three children, would insist on kissing us at every visit. We made a kind of game of it, daring him to find us, as my mother emitted what I can only surmise now must have been vaguely embarrassed chuckles as she clattered away in the kitchen. We would mock-shriek when closet doors opened and there he would be, this man in a three-piece suit, grinning at us and then puckering up and leaning forward, as we would duck and attempt to run. Usually we weren’t successful and would have to endure cycles of his lips repeatedly on our faces and occasionally lips. We were taught to “endure” it (and that if we weren’t enjoying it, there must be something wrong with us), but in truth, neither my friend nor I found any of it fun or playful; we found this man exasperating, irritating, his attentions humiliating and annoying. We giggled in the darkness of the closet not out of good, spirits, but out of nervousness, not knowing what else, as young girls, we should do.

My mother, being pre-boomer, belonged to an era where women were indeed taught that such attentions were “normal male behaviour” and, as I grew older, I was told, in either word or gesture, that I should “use what God gave” me. My mother was part of a generation that proclaimed women should “toughen up” (especially when it came to male behaviour) and “not take everything so seriously” (I still remember her saying that, almost up to her death in 2015), and, should any hint of complaint be uttered, it was my fault for being “too sensitive.” If I had a dime for every time my mother accused me of this in the negative sense, I would indeed be wealthy. Hers was an attitude that would shape large swaths of my life, my choices, and my perceptions around power, and men, and what validation is and how it supposedly works. I wasn’t entirely surprised when, years later telling her about my own assault, I was met with a dismissive attitude and accusations that, having drank too much and worn a low-cut a dress, I had somehow “asked” for it. Every time I see a woman vehemently defending terrible male behaviour, I think of hiding in that closet, choosing that dress, my mother, and her words. 

Such moments from the past year, together with the AP round-up, also make me think back to a frank discussion I had with soprano Lisette Oropesa this past autumn. Much has been made about using so-called “womanly power” and how, in the classical world, this has and continues to be a key tool to getting ahead, and staying ahead. As Oropesa put it:

I’ve seen successful women behave and talk and dress and flirt a certain way and I think to myself, why? At this point, it shouldn’t be necessary… it’s such a cheap trick. It’s low-hanging fruit! Any gorgeous woman can use it to advantage – and how many women can have careers doing that? Sure it has power, but it’s *old* feminine power.

This attitude of, “if you got it, flaunt it” makes as many gigantic assumptions as its closest sibling, “she had a choice“; first of all, why should you? To quote the song, is that all there is? Secondly, what if one doesn’t have “it”? Through choice or not, what if the “it” simply isn’t there? In many senses the lack of a societally defined “it” makes a woman, no matter how talented, entirely invisible. In an ideal world, talent would win out (and sometimes it does, but not often), but to quote my post about walls, human foibles make such idealism incredibly difficult to manifest, let alone enact. Changing attitudes in the industry means changing the way classical is both thought of, and marketed,  and yes, run – which means changing the way both audiences and artists view a very specific list of things that require redefinition, starting squarely with what “it” is and why it should so matter in 2020 – or be booted out the proverbial door along with last century ideas. 

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Alessandro Varotari (called Il Padovanino), “Susannah and the Elders” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

A woman coming into an industry where she can expect to be objectified (and used) sexually is de rigueur for success, where that notion of utilitarianism as it relates to the interweaving threads of success, sex, power, and identity, has no actual power– or choice. To pretend otherwise is a very convenient illusion; what a wonderful trick of the prevailing powers, to have so many, young and old, mouthing such nonsense with such wide-eyed seriousness, for so long. Secondly, there is no notion of “two consenting adults” when the playing field is not level to begin with; who’s doing the hiring and firing? Who’s propagating a continuing (outdated) framework of what “it” is? Who’s making the decisions? Why? To quote Lisette Oropesa again, “There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!”” A woman fortunate enough to have “it” and using “it” within a world run by those holding on to their outmoded frames is not levelling the playing field, it’s bending over to make the world seem normal. To pretend otherwise is to engage in the most intense form of cognitive dissonance, and such a willful misperception would be amusing were it not so common.

Women who speak out against this system do not deserve to be branded as harpies, or to be called “over-sensitive.” They don’t deserve to be held up as examples of “typical American overreaction” or some “Westernized” anti-male brigade. If you hate the term “woke,” fine – use “evolution” in its place. Cultural difference is understandable but sharply contrasting ideas about the female experience reveals uncomfortable truths about which environments are willing to acknowledge alternative (and perhaps more equitable) realities, and which ones are fiercely determined to stay the same.

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Aelbert Van Der Schoor, “The Concert” (detail), 17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The intransigent adherence to so-called “tradition” in this sense (“men are like this; women are like this”), even as modern presentations and productions are simultaneously applauded, reveals a sad if unsurprisingly comfortable hypocrisy that gives a strange new meaning to the term “Old World”; I would ask such audience members to apply their same spirit of opennness to women who don’t fit the so-called “traditional” moulds of desirability, and indeed, to women who are willing to stand up and say clearly, “I don’t like this system, it’s crap, can we please make a change?” They aren’t sensitive; they’re direct. I would ask women who can’t understand such directness to kindly not use the very same brush for others’ portraits as they might use for their own; everyone requires different shading, details, application, and focus. There is no one-size-fits-all in any world, classical or otherwise. Your experience is not their experience; your time is not their time; your voice is not their voice – nor should it be.

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Hans Von Aachen, “The Three Graces” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

And so, as 2019 comes to a close, I want to believe there is a chance for evolution in the classical world. I want to believe there is a will to use ways and means heretofore unseen. I want to believe we can all do better. Whether or not we choose such an evolution is entirely up to us. We hate to admit loving our walls, and, more than that (and especially within the classical world), we hate to admit they exist at all. Let 2020 be the time we can at least see them, and if not take them down entirely, at least remove a few pieces here and there, to let the most strange, new, beautifully sensitive and wondrously strong flowers emerge.

Matthew Jocelyn: Interpretation Over Illustration

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Scene from the 2019 Oper Köln production of Hamlet. Photo: Paul Leclaire

Many people have mixed memories about studying Shakespeare. One of my strongest is coming to the famous tale of the gloomy Dane in high school, and an English teacher expressing shock at being able to spout lengthy scenes from memory. That awe quickly morphed into annoyance when my impatience with what I perceived to be a reductive approach made itself known in a typically boisterous teenaged way. “Would you like to explain this passage then?” my teacher asked testily. I took her up on that offer. Passion for the play would subsequently manifest in numerous essays, reviews, poems, and theatre experiences, including playing the lead myself in an abridged university production that seemed key to my calling as a theatre artist at the time.

Owing to an equal love of opera, it has always been a source of disappointment that I’d never heard a version that satisfied, or, to my mind (and heart), fully expressed Hamlet‘s beautiful, potent mystery – not until, that is, I experienced the work of composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. Their Hamlet, with its nods to works like Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Elektra, is as much about the journey of the artist as it is about a gloomy Prince, and captures human connection (familial, romantic, inner) with every ounce of fraught complexity; the awful, awesome beauty of Hamlet‘s humanistic psychology pairing is very much a quiet, palpable force that creates momentum every ounce as much as it inspires contemplation. The theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone. I was (and remain) as much in awe of Jocelyn’s libretto as of Dean’s score; it’s a rare if precious experience to find both exerting such equal power, in such memorable and affecting ways.

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Photo: Tony Hauser

Canada-born Jocelyn is a well-known theatre figure in Europe. He’s directed numerous works, including the French-language premieres of Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel (Théâtre de l’Ecrou, Fribourg), The Love of the Nightingale and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (both Atelier du Rhin, Colmar), The Liar by Corneille (Stratford Festival), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Atelier du Rhin) Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter by Tankred Dorst from his own translation, and Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (both Canadian Stage Company), as well as opera productions including Martinù’s Larmes de couteau and Alexandre Bis, Piccinni’s La Cecchina ossia la buona figliola, Boesmans’s Reigen,  Gluck’s La Clemenza di Tito, Chabrier’s l’Étoile (all for Opéra National du Rhin), Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten  (for Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Bruxelles), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (for Oper Frankfurt). He wrote the libretto for La bal by composer Oscar Strasnoy, based on a story by Russian writer Irène Némirovsky; the opera was part of Die Trilogie der Frauen for Staatsoper Hamburg in 2010, which he directed and which also featured Schönberg’s Erwartung and Rihm’s Das Gehege. Jocelyn also wrote the libretto for Requiem, again with Strasnoy, and based on William Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun; that work was presented in 2014 at Teatro Colón in Strasnoy’s native Argentina.

As well as being known for his directing and writing work, Jocelyn has also worked extensively behind the scenes. In 1995, he joined the Centre de Formation Lyrique of the Opéra National de Paris, where he developed and presented programming of semi-staged operas in the amphitheatre of the Opéra Bastille. In 1998, he became Artistic and General Director of the Atelier du Rhin (Centre Dramatique) in Colmar, a position he would hold for a decade until being named as head of the Canadian Stage Company (2009-2018). In a 2017 interview with theatre writer Robert Cushman, Jocelyn was asked him about the style of theatre he’d hoped to encourage; one which “gives preponderance to the human body as a holder of expression“, he responded, adding that “(d)espite appearances, I’m a classicist.”

That classicist side was given wonderful expression with Hamlet, which had its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017, in a production directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by former Glyndebourne head honcho Vladimir Jurowski. At the time, I wrote in my review for the national Canadian newspaper The Star that Jocelyn’s reordering the narrative added a dramatic immediacy; there’s a psychological closeness that was achieved within and through his smart, insightful writing, one that blended seamlessly with Dean’s varied, beautifully complex score.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

It’s an integration I suspect has deepened with Jocelyn’s own production of the opera, currently on in Cologne. Together with conductor (and composer) Duncan Ward and the Gurzenich-Orchester Köln , Oper Köln’s production (which opened on November 24th) marks Hamlet‘s German premiere. The cast includes bass Joshua Bloom in the duel role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the Gravedigger, baritone Andrew Schroeder as Claudius, mezzo-soprano Dalia Schaechter as Gertrude, soprano Gloria Rehm as Ophelia, and, in the title role, tenor David Butt Philip, who sang the role of Laertes at the work’s 2017 premiere and has since performed Hamlet as well. Jocelyn and I chatted as he was in the midst of rehearsals just before opening.

How is your production of Hamlet going?

It’s going well! It’s a big opera, a huge piece in terms of its concept and in terms of its requirements. It really stretches to the limit the resources of any moderately large opera house that takes it on. So we’re stretching to the limit the resources of Oper Köln, but it’s going for the most part really well. It’s been special to see it all come together.

How much are you thinking back to the production at Glyndebourne, not just stylistically but overall? How much has that influenced what you’re doing now?

From a stylistic point of view, not at all; it was a really beautiful production and a wonderful way to discover the work in the context of opera — it went on to Australia, and it’ll be at a few more places in the coming years too, but this is a very different reading. There’s a very different series of priorities of things to bring to the fore in this production. It’s funny, I sent a note to (original director) Neil (Armfield) the day before rehearsals began here, thanking him for having created such a beautiful narrative production, because it enabled and forced me to not do that. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to test the resilience of the work to a more metaphorical reading, to a parable of some kind. 

So this will be more abstract?

Yes, more abstract.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

You’ve written libretti for other things but this feels different on a few levels; what’s it been like to direct Hamlet, and in Germany?

It’s interesting, I’ve always separated the works — the ones I did, La Paz, or Requiem for Cologne – when I wrote those, I wasn’t saying how I’m going to stage it; I was really trying to write a text that was going to inspire the composer and give the material needed for them, but this time even more so. Because it was Shakespeare and because it was Hamlet, and because I was not going to be directing it, I had a different kind of liberty in thinking things through and then offering them to Brett as material in which to work.

Doing it in Germany now… what’s marvelous about Germany is that they do, insofar as possible… there are resources that are made available. And there is a deep understanding of conceptual – more conceptual and more abstract – work. The audiences are looking for interpretation rather than illustration. And they’re looking for a clear perspective and a clear take, rather than a kind of more illustrative thing. So one feels a liberty working in Germany, in that it is perhaps more elastic than working for audiences that have a lesser habit of experiencing conceptual work. 

And a famous play like Hamlet doesn’t have the same cultural baggage in Germany as it might for English-language audiences.

Definitely, the play is well-known, and for an English audience, it’s very different than for a German audience because a German audience will know a half dozen lines or so, but an English audience will know, for the most part, a hundred different lines from Hamlet – even if you don’t realize they come from Hamlet! The story will be known more or less clearly, so the way in which the libretto twists the story and rethinks things at times, that’s going to be much clearer for an Anglo-Saxon audience than for a German audience, but the objective of the libretto is not to have the audience say, “Oh look! He took that line here and put it there!” or “Oh what a funny twist there!” It’s very much its own thing as a story.

So in a way, working for a German audience is wonderful because either they get it or they don’t, whereas an Anglo-Saxon audience is often thinking, “Oh, isn’t that funny, that scene goes here in opera whereas it goes there in the play!” It can become a bit of a treasure hunt for English audiences, which is not the goal, but it can have that effect on audience members who know the text extremely well.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Photo: Paul Leclaire

So there’s a freedom working in Germany… 

Yes, it’s a huge freedom to work on it here – and also a good way of making sure that the story works on its own without being compared to anything. 

It’s not like you’re presenting Goethe!

That’s right!

What’s been your process working with the cast? 

This is a very actor-heavy – or acting-heavy – opera and production. It really is like acting Shakespeare. You have maybe a quarter or a fifth of the text, but every singer has the full text in their minds – they’ve obviously all read Hamlet before coming into rehearsal. It does require huge dexterity with text. It’s not a text from a Bellini opera, it’s Shakespeare, and every word in the libretto comes from Hamlet except for a couple of chorus passages, so there’s a need for total versatility with language, that tasting, that love of language – the French say “dégustation” – that absolute enjoyment of the language on the tongue and in the mouth.

And because we’re working on a very bare stage, relationships are key, because there’s nothing to hide behind, so the veracity of what the singers are experiencing and communicating to each other and receiving from each other is absolutely essential. We also don’t have huge amounts of time, but before hitting the set itself we had four weeks of time in the rehearsal room to really massage out the essential elements of the opera, the essentially elements of the text, and really explore the spatial relationships and dynamics between characters. And again, time is always the most precious ally one can have when trying to deepen the relationships which will work, whether musically or textually or dramatically.

Duncan Ward conductor music artist baton podium

Photo: Alan Kerr

I would imagine Duncan Ward has been key to that also. 

Duncan is one of those conductors of his generation who is most adept at contemporary music. He’s extraordinarily well-read musically and extremely sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding of the score. He was in the rehearsal room from the second week onwards, and he’s been not only a terrific ally but partner and collaborator, and he is really going to be the one to bring the show to life every evening, because he’s got a wonderful relationship with the orchestra and a wonderful relationship with the singers. He is amazing at holding all these musical textures and musical fabrics together.

The libretto and the score are very intimately linked in this work; how has that intimacy changed in terms of your approach in directing? 

I think that we were very blessed, Brett and I, to come together over a piece such as Hamlet, and to have such similar tastes and such similar desires with regards to this work. There were some quite radical decisions I made as a librettist. I’d say the more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it; he could hear it. When you’re working with a composer, your chief goal is to write things that make him or her hear music and want to create a musical universe around it – so we were blessed in that sense.

In this production I’d say there are a few things that have changed: Brett has added a few bars of music – a few passages here and there, a little bit of chorus to a couple moments – and I added maybe two lines to the text. But I did this a year ago now so it’s in the new score, but there are things I felt had been missing in the original version, and I wanted to draw special attention to them in this version. I wouldn’t say things have changed; it’s more just the joy of rediscovering and taking full advantage of this marriage of text and music you were talking about.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

So not change so much as evolution… 

Yes, a good evolution. This piece is now out there, and hopefully what you’ve heard in terms of an integration of text and music is also heard by other opera houses and it gets produced around the world. Hopefully now it will be part of the 21st century repertory. We’ve been very lucky and very blessed; it went from Glyndebourne to Australia, and it will also be presented by a few organizations in the coming years. For a contemporary opera to have been done with so many houses within a few years of its creation is a pretty lucky thing! Obviously there is an appetite for cracking open this old chestnut and experiencing it in a new and hopefully pertinent way for the 21st century.

ensemble unitedberlin: Between Past And Future

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

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

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

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Georg Katzer (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

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

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

Conversation from Sunday evening, January 14 1827:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hans-Jürgen Wenzel (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

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

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

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

Counting From One To Ten (But Not In That Order)

books collage mine

#7BooksILove (Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

#HBD is probably the most common hashtag I use online. I use it to mark birthdays of artists, musicians, poets, and others whose work I admire. Overall though, online trends are not things I tend to engage in. I know about them, working for myself and needing to be aware of what’s popular when, but rare is the moment when I feel inspired to partake, partly out of a fierce desire to protect my non-online life , partly because the trend will fall a little too far outside my interests; also, my style simply doesn’t fit the compact style social media promotes. (My #SaturdayThoughts are here, and they are more than 280 characters.)

The pullback in personal online shares has been gradual if needed; I tend to agree with a blunt assessment on the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter triumvirate made to me last year, that their nature is essentially “vampiric.” I will only add that one can play the vampire as much as the victim here, and I have certainly drunk more than my fair share of digital blood, in the form of music, movies, history, and art, as well as an unfettered love of Mariella Frostrup columnsBBC Food, and cat pages. (A million thanks to Curious Zelda.) Curation — of what I share, what I imbibe, how I do both, when, and in what spirit — matters, and is largely a private matter.

nigella favorite books

#7BooksILove Day 3/7. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

So I surprised myself in choosing to partake in a recent revelation of favorite books on Twitter. Nominated by Washington Post classical journalist Anne Midgette with #7BooksILove, I shared a variety of titles from different points in my life, with no explanations and no respective personal histories. (A similar nomination took place on Facebook a while ago with music albums, and I am still mulling participation; my Instagram is full of record covers, after all. ) The photos are not perfect; I don’t care. For those wondering, “why all the legs? Don’t you ever wear pants?!” — again, the answer is spontaneity; I grabbed a book, flopped on a chair, and took the photo. (Also I largely favor dresses in my wardrobe; for days off, large shirts.) The pose was semi-planned (you have to see the covers somehow) but also intended as a simple reflection of my life and ethos — one integrating curiosity, intellect, sensuality, the vividness of living. This vividness is something I admit to currently finding difficulty in keeping and cultivating lately, perhaps an important reminder to myself, that amidst so many changes and challenges of late, it’s important to keep (nay, cultivate) the parts of my identity where beauty, wonder, and the ever-present sensuality so central to my life and being can eat, drink, dance, and also stop, embrace, and inhale, free and unencumbered.— well, as free as I choose to be online, that is, in my big shirt, on my big fancy chair, feet up.

Doing this list was ultimately a useful cosmic reminder of  accepting what was and what is, a notion applicable to method as much as to content; it took more than seven days to complete this task. It was once said about director Francis Ford Coppola that “he can count from one to ten, but not in that order.” I relate to a similarly scattershot, non-linear, non-conventional thinking and approach to living. In learning to navigate a life free from maternal influence and its concomitant harsh judgement, it is liberating to give one’s self permission to explore the unorthodox person within (the artist? I wonder this), a figure who forced into the shadows for so long. In my teaching life, lessons do go from A to B to C as they must, but they might incorporate A flat, C sharp, diminished fifth, dominant seventh (and so on) along the way, and my students might tell you (I hope?) it makes for a rather less dry learning experience. Explorations across the digital realm (and that includes my professional writing work) move in similar ways — the greatest difficulty has been in sustaining the tone. Ah, the ever-present digitally-inspired attention deficit; combine it with the weighty responsibilities and ever-expanding anxieties of older age, and one is sometimes left with impatience instead of enlightenment , impotence in place of inspiration — cracked eggs over Kandinsky, you might say. The course of any serious study requires diligence, dedication, and concentration, even (or especially) voyages within the creative realm. Clarity can emerge from chaos, but that chaos has its own kind of order and definition and schedule that can (and probably should) change with every experience.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That shouldn’t mean leaving spontaneity by the wayside, however. As I wrote, the photos of the books were done spontaneously, and the choices made as to which books I’d share was equally unplanned. Still, I admit relishing the mystery folded into this entire process: Here’s a little slice of my life; no, I’m not telling you more; here’s a bit of me but no more than that, hurrah! There is a great value and power to mystery, particularly in this reveal-all, tell-all age, which leaves little if anything to the imagination — notably when it comes to the lives of women. I am aware of this reality, and have learned to deal with it in different ways since my first posts on social media more than a decade ago. A mix of spontaneity and mystery seems like the best recipe I can muster when dealing with the sometimes welcome, sometimes-unwelcome nature of the digital realm. You can hit “delete” in your online life, but technology has a memory; there’s a reason the word “branding” has become so popular. Similarly, there’s no “delete” button in life. The consequences of choice can be dire, but they can also be surprising, strange, beautiful. Sometimes it’s worth the effort and the inevitable mess to apply a pure color, to scrape it off, to reveal something entirely new; to take away a note, to add a pause, to leave unsaid what escapes mere language —  each act a mystery, a prayer, a stab at grace. There are no hashtags for such moments; there is only the beautiful silence unfolding between the bleeps and bloops of new, unfolding life.

A Gorgeous Grisey With Ensemble intercontemporain

Ensemble intercontemporain Musikfest

Ensemble intercontemporain, conductor Matthias Pintscher, and mezzo soprano Salomé Haller perform at the Boulez Hall as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

In a previous post, I wrote about how a recent concert attempted to (and was largely successful at) making its listeners examine their relationship with time, space, and sound. Despite some complimentary words, I still don’t feel I did a very adequate job in explaining just how Sir George Benjamin and the Berlin Philharmonic achieved such a mighty thing. Try as I might (many hours were spent frowning and sighing), I simply could not put into words the uniquely special effect this past weekend’s concert had within such a specific context. My more recent experience Monday evening with the Ensemble intercontemporain at Berlin Musikfest underlined this futility of language to describe the aurally sublime, while also providing clues about getting thoughts to page and expressing that unique and sometimes-elusive how. Masterful, powerfully moving performances of works by Berg, Boulez, and most especially Grisey, showed me the way.

Maybe it’s more precise to say that Ensemble intercontemporain showed me the way; the French group brought a special flair and intense focus that only musicians in a full-time group dedicated to modern works can bring. Formed in 1976 by Pierre Boulez (with the support of then-Minister of Culture Michel Guy), the group, which employs 31 soloists full-time, is dedicated to the exploration of instrumental techniques and the developments of interdisciplinary projects, blending theater, film, dance, visual art, video, and music. As their official bio reminds us, new pieces are commissioned and performed on a regular basis, and they also have a strong commitment to music education. Resident of the Philharmonie de Paris, they take part in various worldwide festivals and have consistently won acclaim for their meaty, fascinating programming.

ensemble intercontemporain

Photo: © Christophe Urbain

The ensemble’s palpable blend of exploration, experimentation, and education was melded with a deep poetry at the Boulez Hall in Berlin on Monday night, with the ten musicians (plus mezzo soprano Salomé Haller) in perfect alignment with conductor Matthias Pintscher. The first piece featured pianist Dimitri Vassilakis and clarinetist Martin Adámek in a wonderfully sensuous reading of Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano op. 5. Composed in 1913 , the work is notable for its brevity (it’s only about nine minutes in total), one which music writer Paul Griffiths’s excellent program notes remind us is “more characteristic of Webern”, another Schoenberg pupil known for composing expressive miniatures. The clear chemistry between the soloists here added to the inherent drama of the harmonies; while Vassilakis placed special emphasis on shaping lyrical piano lines, Adámek’s clarinet produced full, rounded tones, giving the piece a dreamy feel. It was a poetic performance packed with narrative intent, and a perfect introduction to the heart-and-head, forty-plus-minute opus of Gérard Grisey’s Vortex temporum I-III for Piano and five instruments, composed between 1994 and 1996.

It’s worth noting here that I think any listener who comes to the work of Grisey will have a very strong reaction to it; you can’t hear his work and remain indifferent. I first heard the French composer’s music as a teenager, and though I loved it, I was strongly discouraged from further exploration by an Italian-opera-loving mother who dismissed modern composition as “irritating noise that goes nowhere.” Moving past that pronouncement had its own set of challenges, but also a rich mountain of rewards; through regular (if sometimes covert) exposure, I began to listen to things in a far deeper way, finding it was music that went everywhere, most especially places I didn’t think I was smart enough to enter. (I still struggle with this feeling of utter intellectual ineptitude.) Shortly after my Grisey discovery (and directly related to it), I came across the work of Claude Vivier, which I had the privilege of writing about professionally earlier this year. A live presentation of the work of either composer is, for me, a thing apart; I never leave as quite the same person after such performances, and without speaking for them, I can only wonder if Grisey and Vivier might take some sort of delight in this.

Grisey’s Vortex temporum has an opening like circles in water, referencing what Griffiths smartly describes as a “little flurry” taken from the dawn scene of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. Grisey was part of the spectral music movement (though he disliked the term), one which music writer Alex Ross describes in his monumental 2007 book The Rest Is Noise as “often just a step or two removed from the singing and shimmering textures of Debussy and Ravel.” The presentation on Monday night at the acoustically gorgeous Boulez Hall brought this relationship to the fore. String players were flanked, on either side, by woodwinds (flautist Sophie Cherrier and clarinetist Adámek), with piano behind them, affording those of us situated in a certain spot to catch tonal flurries as they underwent various progressions of renewal, reiteration, and revolution, each sound stretched and distended, a “rotary tuning par excellence,” to quote the composer himself. The experience of this “rotary” and its subsequent metamorphoses would be experienced differently for each member of the audience on Monday night; my own view allowed not only observation Vassilakis’s flying fingerwork, but to experience the sound of the strings — lilting, twisting, floating, stabbing — in unique and unusual ways. I kept wondering how people in the seats ringed above me were experiencing such ethereal sound; surely it had to be different and no less sublime?

Boulez Saal Berlin

Photo: © Volker Kreidler

Between the musicians’ seating arrangement and the hall’s architecture (a long oval, and not dissimilar to a basketball court), perceptions and direct experience with the sounds being produced were being gradually if very clearly altered and moulded, highlighting the paradoxical nature of performance: individual and communal, personal and shared, epic and intimate. Echoes of ritual were also underlined, a connection with a wordless divine shaped by the shared and yet highly personalized experience set within formal parameters at once predictable (people blow into instruments or put bow to strings and sound is produced) and unpredictable (how do they blow in those instruments or touch that bow to strings?). Technique was utilized not merely in the service of imitation (for instance, the sawing of strings recalling the sounds in nature) but as part of exploration and meditation, which become twins in Grisey’s rich and spectral sound garden. A ravishingly virtuosic piano section (using purposefully detuned notes) became part of a larger continuum  of time and space, where even the turning of pages was part and parcel of an insistent and entirely holy sonic exploration.

grisey musikfest sciarrino

Program photo: mine. Grisey photo: Salvator Sciarrino. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Thus the slow fade of a chord melted cinematically away into a windswept bassline, and the slow repetition of notes transformed into a plodding foreboding storyline in and of itself. Ensemble intercontemporain have an inbuilt sense of drama, whereby they imbue theatrical knowing into every tiny moment and microtone. The act of listening becomes far more than passive; you are being asked (nay, demanded) to thread tone with three tempo levels which, as Griffiths writes, “for the composer represented human time (the time-sale of speech and breathing), the dilated time of whales, and the effervescent time of birds and insects.”

With sound at points becoming pure building blocks, Grisey challenges us: how do we hear this sound right now? Are we all hearing it the same? What images do we associate with this tone, or this, or… this? Ensemble intercontemporain forced its audience to ask these questions even as Pintscher moved the work invariably forwards with thrilling momentum, and into the third section, with its reprise of spiralling introductory chords, a hypnotizing sound with intricate waves of sound — sweeping, careful, then broad. Pintscher emphasized the relationship between strings, which provided a clear counterpoint to lyrical piano lines, which led to a  grandiose pseudo-finale, musically anticipated, but magically transformed and then distilled, like mists of raindrops, into a breathing single note. 

Haller intercontemporain musikfest

Photo: © Adam Janisch

Thus the influence of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître  (The Hammer Without A Master), performed in the program’s second half, was made all the more clear, as Boulez, even in 1955 (when the piece was composed), was examining what Griffiths terms “the co-existence of spontaneity and system.” With Boulez, however, his work (scored for contralto and six instrumentalists, and  sets to the surrealist poetry of René Char) examines the relationships between psychological and technological, natural and mechanical, historical and inexplicable. This was the work that established the then-30-year-old composer’s international reputation, and, as my seatmate on Monday reminded me, shares unmistakable similarities (especially in its last movement) to John Cage’s Sixteen Dances, composed in 1950-51. Again, the spatial arrangement affected listener perceptions and experiences, though as the program notes, “Boulez’s logic was a logic in how the music was made, not in how it may be perceived: there his ideal was an opacity of scintillation and speed, an encounter with something too fluid and fast to be grasped.” Being behind the ensemble and close to the percussion section (with a vibraphone to my left and xylophone to my right) afforded an intimate experience with this opacity. 

With a spritely opening and bouncy interplay of strings, flute, vibraphone and guitar, Pintscher emphasized the pulsating nature of the work, with both vibraphone and xylophone aggressive in their attacks. Haller’s luscious tone became a distant call, less intimate, more beckoning from afar, expressively swirling through Boulez’s syncopated lines. The lyrical woodwinds in the third movement were complemented and continued by jagged if bright percussion, which led directly into the prodding strings of the fourth movement. Overtones of Ravel’s gentle lyricism could be heard in the final section, though by then, heart and head were at bursting point. 

This was an immensely moving concert that answered the how in my music-listening explorations, even if it inevitably left the imprint of a million more whys. Perhaps there are some questions that defy answers, and maybe, just maybe, that is just where music comes in.

 

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