Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ewig, ewig; The Berliner Philharmoniker Binds two works on the Secular Eternal

In a much anticipated pairing the Berliner Philharmoniker, led by music director Simon Rattle, juxtaposed the final scene of The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Both works explored ideas of the eternal in terms related to the cyclical in nature. Both used common images from daily life as a portal toward awakening--toward seeking solace in the idea that even though the particular dies that there is still youth expressed through rebirth. It is the idea that Nietzsche called "eternal return."

The correspondence between the two works was more than metaphysical, it was also strangely practical. It turns out that the scene, centered on Bass-Baritone Gerald Finley, also required two small roles--the innkeeper's wife, and the schoolteacher that could be performed by the mezzo and tenor from Das Lied. This not only gave us an extra opportunity to hear Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and tenor Stuart Skelton, but it also seemed to connect them directly from the opera into Das Lied.

A new insight was layered into Das Lied in this performance: It was as if the mezzo role in Das Lied was still the innkeeper's wife, and the tenor was still the schoolteacher.

Rattle began the excerpt from The Cunning Little Vixen just after the gunshot that kills the Vixen (beginning with the adagio on page 159 of the piano vocal score). This opened the concert with music of transition; it was like a 90 second upbeat to the final two-scene division that Janáček marked in the score.

The scene at the inn was described by Milan Kundera in an essay from his book "Encounters." Kundera observed that the scene "seems insignificant but [it] always grips my heart. The woodsman and the schoolteacher are alone at the inn. The [...] The innkeeper’s wife is very busy and doesn’t feel like talking. The teacher himself is taciturn: the woman he loves is to be married today. So the conversation is very sparse: where is the innkeeper? off to town; and how is the priest getting on? who knows; and the woodsman’s dog, why isn’t he here? he doesn’t like to walk any longer, his paws hurt, he is old; “like us,” the woodsman adds. I know no other opera scene so utterly banal in its dialogue; or any scene of sadness more poignant, more real."

"Janáček has managed to say what only an opera can say," continued Kundera, "the unbearable nostalgia of insignificant talk at an inn cannot be expressed any other way than by an opera: the music becomes the fourth dimension of a situation which without it would remain anodyne, unnoticed, mute."

Finley voiced this scene and the meditation that followed with simple expression and with resonant

After intermission von Otter and Skelton returned for Das Lied von der Erde. Skelton sang with deeply voiced baritonal colors, but he was able to sing effortless high As and projected like a heldentenor over the orchestra. He brought a wide variety of characteristic expressions to the role--fear during the passage where he first sees the ape among the tombstones, wit during the reflected images of friends chatting seen on the surface of the "little pool," intoxicated conversation with a bird in springtime.

Von Otter brought dignified solemnity to the texts on loneliness and charm to Von der Schönheit, a work about the dangers of youthful obsession.

In a short blog entry last week, I wrote about Kundera's sense that Janáček sought the opposite of "Wagnerian emotion­alism." This performance showed Janáček and Mahler to be brothers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Janáček and Mahler in the Digital Concert Hall; Brothers or Others?

Beginning in August 2010, the Berliner Philharmoniker undertook a project that involved the performance of the complete major orchestral works of Gustav Mahler. These events were transmitted over, and archived within, the Digital Concert Hall. This project will come to a close on Saturday with a performance of  Das Lied von der Erde with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and tenor Stuart Skelton as soloists.

Das Lied will be paired with the final scene of the "Cunning Little Vixen" by Janáček. One imagines that this imaginative companion was chosen for its similarities. The brief online notes for the program indicate that the Janáček scene "reveals fascinating parallels to Das Lied von der Erde. Janáček, born like Mahler in what today is an area of the Czech Republic, creates a wonderfully delicate scene in which the Forester ponders life – and in turn bids farewell to youth and beauty."
In an essay called "The Most Nostalgic Opera," from his recent book "Encounters," Milan Kundera argues that Janáček wrote in opposition to romanticism.

To help make his case Kundera focuses on an unexpected moment at the end of the final scene where a frog jumps up onto the woodsman and talks with him. The woodsman believes this to be the same frog that led the vixen to him in the first scene, but time passes quickly for animals; this stuttering frog is the grandson of the frog the huntsman believed him to be.

"Ah, that little frog!" wrote Kundera. "Max Brod did not like him at all. Max Brod—yes, Franz Kafka’s closest friend—he supported Janáček wherever and however he could: he translated his operas into German and opened German theaters to them. The sincerity of his friendship authorized him to let the composer know all his criticisms. The frog must go, he wrote Janáček in a letter, and in place of his stammering, the woodsman should solemnly pronounce the words that will close the opera! And he even suggests what they should be: 'So kehrt alles zurück, alles in ewiger Jugenpracht! (Thus do all things repeat, all with a timeless youthful power.)' ”

"Janáček refused. Brod’s proposal went against all his aesthetic intentions, against the polemic he had waged his whole life long. A polemic that set him in opposition to opera tradition. In opposition to Wagner. In opposition to Smetana. In opposition to the official musicology of his countrymen. In other words, in opposition (to quote René Girard) to 'the romantic lie.' The little disagreement about the frog shows Brod’s incurable romanticism: imagine that weary old woodsman, his arms widespread, head thrown back, singing the glory of eternal youth! This is the romantic lie par excellence, or, to use another term: this is kitsch."

I can't imagine that Kundera would call "Das Lied" Kitsch. But his concept does create the possibility that the works are more others than brothers. I will tune into the Digital Concert Hall on Saturday to hear this event and will write about it here on Sonic Labyrinth. Join me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Toasting the Death of our Illusions. A Review of Faust from Met Live in HD

If you heard the Live in HD Faust production you will know what I am talking about:

Je T'aime!

Jonas Kaufmann, as Faust, blew us all back with a full-throated high B that he was able to control over an extended diminuendo before completing the gesture to land a tenth lower. It was during a G major harmony during the lover's interlude late in Act II when the Faust and Marguerite fix one another in the midst of the infamous waltz chorus. [The passage is at the bottom of page 92 of the Schirmer vocal score]. The sound and color of that high B as he shifted gears was simply awesome. Kaufman was the Faust of surprises. Familiar as the role is, he found ways to imprint new possibilities. He was that kind of Faust.

The Des McAnuff production was classical in most regards. Yes, the time frame was set in the 20th century, but the feel of narrative unfolding with its long vocal portraits set against motion created through genre changes and the altered perception of its characters was almost conservative. Why did it work?

The McAnuff production made it appear that Faust was going back in time specifically to meet Marguerite somewhat akin to the concept of the book "Somewhere in Time" by Richard Matheson (which was made into that popular movie from 1980 starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour).

It was great to hear the Walpurgis Night episode at the beginning of Act V. Faust is such a long opera that most productions opt to cut this passage because it is irrelevant to most stagings. The McAnuff production was centered around ideas from this passage. The "blazing flashes, cold as ice," and "dark to light in an instant," in the text seemed natural in the context of atomic science.

The staircases on either side of the stage were lit vertically and each began to take on the appearance of a double helix. "Come, let us toast the death of my illusions," sang Kaufmann as Faust. In this production the aging scientist we met in the first act woke up from a dream that was the opera itself, and collapsed onto the stage dead as the curtain fell. The setting never left the laboratory scene of Act One, and though the setting was transformed throughout the opera the stasis of the physical setting both reinforced the dream scenario and made the passages of time portrayed in the music itself seem even more surrealistic.

I was interested to hear McAnuff indicate that his production concept was influenced by Rita Bronowski, who died this last September at the age of 92. She was wife of the anthropoligist Jacob Bronowski, known to most people through his impressive and passionately argued series "The Ascent of Man." Rita was a long-time resident of the San Diego area and was involved in local theatre--especially the La Jolla Playhouse.

"I was always struck by a story of [Jacob] visiting Nagasaki," said McAnuff in one of the intermission interviews, "and deciding never to practice physics again. And I thought this was a sort of quintessential historical moment." The McAnuff production allowed us to focus on elements of this opera that are often misplaced or underscored. "Come, let us toast the death of my illusions."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Review of "Four Corners!" The New CD from The Berlin Philharmonic Horn Quartet

Thanks in part to the success of the Digital Concert Hall, the Horn Quartet of the Berliner Philharmoniker could easily be the most recognizable horn quartet anywhere. They are rock stars with embouchures.

Their new disc is called "Four Corners." The title derives from an expansion of one of its own tracks in which Michael Barnett arranged tunes from the "four corners" of the British Isles: England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. The resulting concept became a collection of sonic souvenirs and tributes based on the touring schedule of this ensemble which takes them to the four corners of the globe.

Fully one-half of the twenty-two track on the disc are arrangements made by Berlin Philharmonic Horn Quartet member Klaus Wallendorf. The eleven tracks that he was responsible for creating give us a unique insight into his musical personality. His arrangements span from the formal in Anitra's Dance and Solveig's song from Peer Gynt to off-beat humor like his arrangement of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

My favorite Wallendorf arrangement is "Sous le Ciel de Paris," where a clever and elaborate figuration in fast triplets never gets in the way of the tune or the attitude of the waltz itself. Wallendorf's arrangements could easily become a compendium of possibilities for anyone thinking about sonorities for four horns.

Of the other material, I enjoyed the Joshua Davis arrangement of Walzting Mathilda with a soulful and jazzy big-band style low horn solo played by Sarah Willis.

I don't understand the concluding E-flat major chord of Florian Janezic's arrangement of Nessun Dorma--the chord forces the piece to sound like it meant to end on V. Perhaps the original context contained other Puccini arrangements that would have made this idea work, but within this context it crashes into the mysterious D minor opening of "Kalinka" on track 17. This was a rare example of discontinuity. The disc is otherwise quite effective in its tonal and stylistic design, and as a result the music flows without sounding overly segmented.

The disc itself opens like a present. The booklet insert folds out into a twelve-panel double-sided collage of photographs, tour markings and impromptu notes. In one photo Stefan Dohr is standing next to a smiling Buddha. Underneath the photo is a traditional Chinese recipe (written in Chinese) for making beef wonton soup. This particular recipe only makes twenty wontons...most horn players I know would need forty.

Wit and wackiness mix with stunning virtuosity on this disc which would make an excellent gift for any music lover with an off-beat sense of humor.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Living Ghosts of Rodelinda; Some thoughts on Handel at the Met Live in HD

Baroque opera is a celebration of strangeness. The vocal qualities, instrumental ensembles, formal structures and plot devices seem soaked in the unfamiliar. Why then do so many commentators resonate with an idea expressed by Renée Fleming during one of the intermission interviews during the Live in HD presentation of Handel's opera Rodelinda? "Handel is modern," said Fleming.

Modern is the right word. This production by Stephen Wadsworth focused the existential qualities of this score and made the work seem a commentary on an afterlife where spirits were reunited because death was a misunderstanding.

"You say that I am dead," sang countertenor Andreas Scholl as Bertarido in his opening recitative. There was no one else onstage. He was singing to those who memorialized him with an engraved headstone because they believed him to have been killed in exile. The chilly tone and high pitches that Scholl produced sounded like the voice of the dead. Moments later, Bertarido heard Rodelinda mourning for him but could not reveal himself. It was as if he were dead and inhabiting an afterworld aware of, but just outside the world of the living.

Act three provides symmetrical balances. Bertarido's sister Eduige (played by Stephanie Blythe), recognizes him by hearing his disembodied voice. She follows the sound of the voice and finds him, and to her surprise he is alive.

In a wonderful and strange twist late in the third act, Rodelinda again becomes convinced that Bertarido has been killed because of bloody clothes left behind in his jail cell. Wadsworth set this scene in a jail cell that was physically underneath the tombstone monument from Act I. In an Aida-like moment, the horizon lifted as a section of the stage elevated and we could see that the jail was underground, like a crypt.

Between both images of false death is a reunion. Rodalinda sees Bertarido at the end of the second act. Is he still alive?

"I embrace you," they sing in the only duet in the opera, "stronger and harsher than death is this this farewell that tears me from you." Wadsworth staged the duet at the site of the funeral monument. It all connected.

Handel set no indications that the dead could have been in a heavenly realm where they were freed from the struggles of living. Though there are occasional references to God in the libretto the references are exclamations of drama rather than prayer. What could be more different from the energy of Bach than this philosophical exploration? This is not Messiah.

Rodelinda explores a concept of death that remains alive and present, with us. "I marry vengeance," sang Rodelinda to Grimoaldo in the second act, "you marry death."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wisdom's Fire; A review of the Met Satyagraha Live in HD

"When the motives and the fruits of a man's actions are freed from desire," sang baritone Kim Josephson as Mr. Kallenbach, "his works are burned clean by wisdom's fire."

Unlike most operas, the words that Josephson sang were not independently conceived texts, but were lines from the Bhagavad Gita sung in Sanskrit, that challenged the borders of thought, expression and prayer.

The McDermott and Crouch production of Satyagraha by Philip Glass expressed Gandhi's gradual identification with the poor, and the development of nonviolent protest, through new ways of seeing things. Common objects like paper and tape come to be understood as having new potentials revealed in wisdom's fire.

The Live in HD cameras provided intelligent angles on the production. It allowed us to move amongst the machinery and to understand the how the improvisational puppetry of The Skills Ensemble interacted with other layers of the performance. Richard Croft was a convincing Gandhi. He was able make his vocal colors an overtone of an otherworldly meditative stance; both present and eternal, of which Gandhi came to define. But something was missing.

The text itself proved a significant barrier during the Live in HD presentation. At the Met, texts were projected onto the walls of the set from time to time. As texts were projected they were also echoed as standard subtitles on the HD screen. The echo was distracting and not necessary.

The Met also tried a new and unique way to prepare for the text challenges in advance of the HD presentation. In addition to the usual one-page program, we were also given an English translation of the libretto in a 3-column format, front-and-back sheet made to look like a newspaper page. It is the first time that anything like this has ever been done. Still, that text was too small to read in the darkness of a cinema, and much of the time we remained outside of the words, even though they were echoed to us onscreen.

Glass has indicated that the text of the opera was meant to be "heard but not read." That is a welcome idea in our overly interpreted world, but it neglects the fact that the significance of the words within Gandhi's culture was that they would have been heard and understood. Understanding the words is the first step toward transcending them. The singing of the texts also sustains phrases repetitions. One brief projection did not sustain the ideas the way the musical setting intended for us to experience them.

When I heard the opera live at the Met the text issue seemed much less of a problem. Why? Because the conductor, Dante Anzolini, was visible the entire time. Anzolini has a unique and aesthetically significant way of articulating the metric patterns to the orchestra, and seeing his presence during a live performance at the Met makes the structure and intention of the music apparent. Throughout the score the succession of metric groupings and figurations constantly shift and when you can see the conducting patterns you can anticipate them. Becoming absolutely absorbed in the music itself is one key to the meditative quality that was sought.

In the Live in HD production, Anzolini was given camera time only briefly at the beginning of each act and did not get an interview during any of the backstage segments, yet we heard from Philip Glass during two different segments. This Live in HD presentation also spent too little time with the physicality of the music itself. This score requires a very distinct kind of counting, requires unusual endurance skills, and makes many other unusual demands on the Met orchestra. It would have been helpful to understanding the opera to have had the opportunity to explore this side of the music during the production.

The "desire" to remain onstage throughout the production may have prevented "wisdom's fire" from allowing us to absorb the music, anticipate its patterns, and find our way beyond the words.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker; Mahler 9 in Taipei as a Sunrise Concert on East Coast

This morning, here on the East Coast of the US, we had the opportunity to hear the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle perform Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center in Taipei. The concert was simulcast live through the Digital Concert Hall.

One of the pleasures of the Digital Concert Hall is that it creates new ways of sharing performances of classical music, but it also creates new contexts in which to understand the music itself.

On the East Coast it was dark as we signed in to hear this concert. The first glimpses of sunrise began to happen just before the event itself, and as Mahler worked through this symphony often associated with goodbyes, blue color filled the skies and world awakened. On the east coast, this Mahler 9 opened in darkness and ended in daylight, instead of the other way around.

Though this performance had the same basic contours as the event broadcast from Berlin on November 5, there were enough subtle differences that I hope the Berliner Philharmoniker considers adding this performance to the archive.

The opening movement of this performance was particularly rich. The orchestra sounded at home in the hall very quickly, and procession of dark and light musics that comprise this movement seemed to dance.  Haunted passages, like the ghostly tune in G minor played muted celli during the development, or the mysterioso episode at the end of the recapitulation seemed particularly inspired.

It must have been challenging to fit this hall with cameras and to develop a plan for the high quality live images that mark performances in the digital concert hall, but the results were satisfying. A split-screen shot, not normally used in Berlin, appeared several times to frame simultaneous musics, like the horn solo and the line played by second violins just before the second theme group, or the horn and flute duet at the end of the recapitulation.

The orchestra brought joy to the second movement, and shared the humor of its gestures among themselves as they shared them with us. The complexity of the Rondo-Burleske, and the mocking atmosphere as the turn figure that shapes the final movement is first introduced, was engaging.

Rattle froze at the final gesture of the adagio and allowed silence to become part of the music at its close.

"From our hearts we thank you," said Rattle to an audience at the Taipei Arena about 20 minutes later. The event was transmitted to groups of listeners in several locations throughout Taiwan, and the pre and post celebration had the feel of Chinese New Year, with both male and female hosts and promoted audience chants that ranged from "Bravo Rattle," to "Rattle! Rattle! We love You."

It was six years ago the Berliner Philharmoniker first visited Taipei. In this return visit they brought us all with them. The event and the music both felt shared.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

An unexpected meeting of the Jay Hunter Morris Fan Club

Jay Hunter Morris

I was running late yesterday, meaning that I arrived at the Live in HD in Milford, CT about 45 minutes before Wagner's Siegfried was scheduled to begin. To my amazement, and only because this particular theater started showing Live in HD this season and folks around here do not know about it yet, there were only three people there at that time. I smiled at the couple who were seated in prime seating in the front row.

"Where are they?" I asked.

They both smiled and immediately engaged me. "Did you know," said the gentleman, "that Jay Hunter Morris sang at my son's wedding?" tell. It turned out that I had the opportunity to meet Morris' former mother-in-law and three close friends, all of whom are long-time Connecticut residents. They had come to hear someone they knew and cared about sing on the silver screen.

People did show up. The opera began. Siegfried, played by Morris, entered singing and brought a bear to scare Mime. "There he is!" said a group of folks behind me. At intermission I introduced myself to them. It turned out that they are personal friends of Morris, and that Jay's kids had stayed with them to trick-or-treat Connecticut style this year. They had come to hear a friend they cared about sing on the silver screen.

His meteoric rise from working the opera circuit to starring at the Met was documented during Live in HD in a short film clip. As of today his wikipedia page is a one liner: "Jay Hunter Morris is a Texas-born operatic tenor." It also includes a reference to a Newsday article from 1997. But the best documentation is his own website (click the "intro" tab).

"Now I’ll tell ya right off," he writes on his website, "I don’t have one of those voices, ya know, where I can just open up and be glorious. But I am stubborn and persistent, and one of these days just maybe I will."

Wikipedia, no, but persistence and stubbornness produced a very cool grassroots fan club here in Connecticut. Think of the people that anyone in the opera circuit would meet over the years, then multiply that by an intriguing personality factor, then multiply that number by the opportunity to share this experience in a movie theater. I'm sure that there were many cinemas yesterday where someone was poked:

"Hey, there he is!"

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review of Siegfried Live in HD; Long Live the Machine?

Jay Hunter Morris

Wow! The Met broadcast of Wagner's Siegfried, which was beamed to theaters worldwide as part of the Met Live in HD Series, was the most consistently entertaining production of Siegfried I have ever seen. Bar none.

I have been critical of the Lepage production of Das Rheingold and especially Die Walküre for the simple reason that "the machine" has distracted from great singing. In this event, the technology gave us new insights into what was possible in this opera. They were insights that harmonized with the singers; harmonized in a score where characters most often confront one another, and sing alone.

The opening transition showed us the underside of nature. For every beautiful tree there are worms crawling ominously underneath it. We discovered this, once again, in the Northeast last weekend during a sudden storm that turned our trees against us and left many of us without power.

Mime (Gerhard Siegel) and Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris), developed the first act in a setting enlivened by power. There were two small waterfalls and a stream, and the background against which the singers worked was in constant subtle motion. The water images of the first two acts countered the fire images of Act III. One wonders if the images of moving water inspired a particular kind of relaxed and fluid vocal performance. The music itself seemed to flow, free from the stagnant, ponderous segments that seem inevitable in other productions.

Siegel sang an inspired Mime. He accented many humorous strains in this dwarf, but turned evil at just the right times. Everyone was sorry to see him killed off. When asked by Fleming during an intermission interview where he gets ideas for the comic gestures of his Mime, he replied that he is given training every time he observes people on the sidewalks of NYC.

Morris has justifiably become a star by virtue of being given the chance to sing this role. He delivered. Though generally appreciated in all the reviews, I think that the grand tradition of Siegfried singers makes it harder to hear the uniqueness of the way Morris approached the part.

Siegfried is dangerous. The great singers have sung the part with ferocious simplicity, scary confidence, and monumental force. Singers like Max Lorenz, Gerhard Stolze or Lauritz Melchior defined the sound, the attitude, and the ideal. At least it was ideal for the 20th century. It is often very possible to dislike the character and what it represents. Maybe the 21st century would be wise to continue to develop other sides of Siegfried. Morris has a light voice and sang with finesse and agility. He could be powerful but was not powerful all the time. His voice had shimmer, and he worked through persuasion rather than force.

The character felt complex. Morris reacted to other singers and developed a wide variety of believable interactions. Few would have ever known he was not originally chosen for this production. Given the press spin on his newly found stardom, few also realize that Morris has paid his dues and came upon this opportunity through a rigorous preparation. Get used to this guy. He is a legitimate star.
The female voices in this opera emerge from sleep that symbolizes death. Patricia Bardon sang a chilling Erda, and Deborah Voigt had been asleep since last April when we saw her, Live in HD, being placed within the ring of fire. Voigt found both power and lyricism in warm colors.

Bryn Terfel impressed as the wanderer, his sound seemed to float with the calculated vageries of the delicious chords that are associated with the wanderer throughout the opera. Eric Owens never disappoints. Even though Alberich's music is limited in this opera, Owens made sure that Alberich had presence.

The fire-scene was staged by the machine in a format that looked a little like a Hibachi I had when I was in college. But the production imparted a continuous fairy-tale quality that seemed central to the intention of the music itself. The production worked in the cinema. It became the "movie" version of Siegfried for which we never dared to ask. Finally the machine has risen to the level of the singing. Long live the machine? Don't get carried away.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Program Notes for November 2011 Concerts

By Jeffrey Johnson

An Evening of Mozart
When Mozart died on the 5th of December 1791, he was just two months short of his 36th birthday. You can measure this span against your own life if you were born during, or before, 1976. To many of us the year of the bicentennial celebration doesn’t seem that long ago.

This program allows us the opportunity to compare works written at the beginning, middle, and end of Mozart’s life. Unlike many composers, his compositional voice was immediately identifiable, and he wrote more than 636 works within his lifetime.

Compare the musical language heard in Symphony No. 23 with the music of the 5th Violin Concerto. The compositional style of the Violin Concerto, written at age 19 and two years after the Symphony, shows an ability to work within ever more sophisticated interrelationships. Fluency is evident in both works, but with each new work Mozart seemed ready to embrace a wider range of styles and a wider range of emotional experiences.

On the second half of the program we hear the greatest possible contrast in Mozart’s symphonic output: his 1st symphony (written in 1764) followed by his last (written in 1788). One of the important changes you will hear is in the size of the orchestra. Symphony No. 1 was written for a standard ensemble called á8, meaning there are eight different parts that need to be written (2 for the oboes, 2 for the horns, and one each for Violin I, Violin II, Viola, and Cello/Bass).

Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” is written for the orchestra that would become the new standard in the late 18th and early 19th century, with woodwinds in pairs, horns, in this case trumpets, timpani, and strings. Mozart uses only one flute in the “Jupiter” Symphony because 18th century flutes had a tendency not to blend well in ensembles.

The change in ensemble from Symphony No. 1 to No. 41 reflects a change in technology made possible by general shifts within society during the 24-year gap between the two works. We might better understand this transformation by thinking of it as being analogous to changes in computing technology over the last 24 years.

Mozart uses both technologies to their highest potential, but the biggest difference between the two works is the impact made by the experience of living. Symphony No. 1 speaks with the optimism and blatant force of a boy who has discovered a freakish and seemingly unlimited music talent. “Jupiter” speaks with a voice seasoned by disappointments, disillusions, and even of failures.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 –1791)
Symphony No. 23 K. 181/162b
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, and strings.
Completed: May 19, 1773 in Salzburg
Most Recent Performance by GBS: January 27, 2001

This is one of the last works that Mozart wrote in his birth house at 9 Getreidegasse in Salzburg. The family was planning a trip to Vienna that summer in search of work for Wolfgang. They returned to Salzburg in the fall and moved into a larger house, in which Leopold ran a music shop on the other side of the Salzach River.

In preparation for the trip to Vienna, Mozart wrote several pieces that would show his potential. To listen to this symphony is to be given a chance to peek into the compositional portfolio of a young composer who was looking for work; this work a sonic resumé. Translated from sound into language it might look like this:

Objective: To obtain employment in Vienna with strong career potential.

• Prior work experience in Italy: This brief symphony is cast in the form of a three-section Italian opera overture with sharply contrasted music played without break.

• Strong communication and organizational skills: The first movement is full of energy and juxtapositions. You will hear abrupt contrasts between loud and quiet, high register and low registers, major and minor inflections. The music follows a sophisticated narrative unfolding. It reveals strength in being articulate.

• Introduced new products: The central movement is a lyrical movement that features an extended oboe solo. The oboe being used in the role of a lyrical operatic soloist is a new element in Mozart’s symphonic style

• Managed cross-functional teams: The finale introduces rustic music into the formal environment of the symphony. He does this by finding ways to blend popular and courtly gestures, changing the way each of them functions. The music proceeds in an orderly succession of four stanzas each of which begins in the rustic style.

Based on this symphonic resume, would you hire this person? The response from Vienna: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Violin Concerto No. 5 K.219
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings.
Completed: 1775 in Salzburg
Most Recent Performance by GBS: October 16, 2010

Having just returned from Munich where he wrote his first six piano sonatas, Mozart settled back into life in Salzburg by composing his opera Il rè pastore, several Masses, and the five violin concertos.

Listen for the entrance of the solo violin in the first movement. After an introduction for orchestra alone during which several themes and gestures are offered, time seems to slow and almost to stop. The tempo changes and the soloist enters with music which speaks of ecstasy and a gentle and elegant flowing motion.

In a sudden awakening the music snaps back into focus and goes about the standard concerto game, with several new ideas and figurations, introduced by the soloist, separated by music first heard in the orchestral introduction. The soloist gets a short break from playing at the end of the exposition.

Like each of the five violin concertos by Mozart, the development section can be identified by an abrupt shift to minor. The harmony pivots instantly into minor as the development begins, and the soloist likewise needs to be able to shift, also transitioning from playfulness into music that is sorrowful and filled with operatic inflections.

With a few flourishes the music returns to playfulness.

Quick shifting between emotional states is one of the hallmarks of the classical style, but does this particular shift have a larger meaning? Is the cheerful music that follows this passage the forced cheerfulness of an entertainer? Are we meant to hear with a new perspective after the passionate exclamations of the development?

The second movement Adagio is a study in poise and tranquility. It opens with an unusual diatonic figure set with simple harmonies that will be repeated throughout the movement like a mantra. After the orchestral introduction the soloist will play ideas that float breathlessly. Follow the sequence of these ideas carefully as this whole passage returns to frame the close of the movement. The centerpiece is another unexpected voyage into minor keys, more meditative than in the first movement.

The third movement is presented as a series of dances in a schematic rondo form where the opening dance returns three times in orderly fashion. Then the surprise for which this violin concerto is famous: its sudden and surprising imitation of Janissary music, which was a cultural memory of the Viennese that went back to the time when Turkish forces almost reached the city walls in 1683.

The Janissary passage that was inserted into this finale was developed from ballet music that Mozart had written two years earlier called Le gelosie del seraglio (Jealosies of the Harem) K 135a. Originally this music had been performed in between two acts of his opera Lucio Silla when it was first played in Milan. The storm music was written especially for this concerto.

Symphony No. 1 K. 16
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings.
Completed: August-September 1764
Most Recent Performance by GBS: This is the first performance by our orchestra

It was at the house of the good Dr. Randal at 180 Ebury Street in Chelsea that Leopold Mozart took refuge during an illness that had life-threatening implications, having come upon him in a weakened state a little more than a year into the 3-year performing expedition with his family that has become known as the “Great Western Tour” (June 1763 – November 1766).

During the 51 days that the family spent with the Randals, the 8-year-old Wolfgang had the time to begin trying extended works, and completed his first two symphonies. “Remind me,” said Mozart to his sister Nannerl, “to give the horns plenty of good music.”

Leopold wrote to his landlord, Lorenz Hagenauer, in Salzburg to tell him of a performance of this symphony in London on February 21, 1965, and complained that he himself had to copy the score and created parts for the performance to avoid paying one shilling per sheet.

Wolfgang opened this symphony with an iconic figure: is a three-measure phrase set in octaves and punctuated by silence. It is a memorable gesture that immediately carved out a space in this world. Sudden quiet: two balanced phrases of classical suspensions pushed by hammer strokes in the bass that spring from a rest at the opening of each measure rather than at the end (as it was in the iconic fanfare).

Mozart repeats both the 3-measure fanfare and the two balanced phrases of suspensions before moving into a classical transition over a pulsing E-flat pedal in the bass. When the bass shifts we are in the key of B-flat major.

There is a cluster of themes in the dominant, an introductory gesture in falling, staccato scales, an active dance figure, and rising scales over tremolos in the violins. A clockwork cadence brings the first-half of the form to a close.

The second half of the work announces the 3-measure fanfare in B-flat, but when the opening sequence is repeated the music shifts into C minor. It seems like development, but this music will never reappear. The remainder of the events that we heard in the first half of the work are stated again, resolved into the fresh sounding key of E-flat major. This is a movement that stands on the very intersection between binary form and sonata structure.

The second movement Andante obsesses almost exclusively on a single texture with triplet repeated notes in the upper strings and a five-note figure in lower strings. Urgency is expressed through phrase lengths that are uneven—the first half of the movement being a 6-measure phrase followed by a 7-measure phrase and closing with a 9-measure phrase. If you listen carefully to the 1st oboe during the second phrase you will hear the notes [C, D, F, E] each sustained as a whole-note in cantus-firmus style. These same four pitches dominate the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony.” Coincidence?

The third movement is a festive rondo where the returning material sounds like a variation of the gesture that opened the first movement. Four-note descending patterns, balanced later in the movement by 4-note ascending patterns comprise much of the material in the rondo [B] sections.

Symphony No. 41 K. 551
Instrumentation: 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Completed: August 10, 1788 in Vienna
Most Recent Performance by GBS: March 4, 2006

If you remember one piece from your music appreciation class it is likely to be the “Jupiter Symphony,” which is one of the most analyzed works in the repertoire. Generations of musicians have been drawn to the prism-like patterns in this music, which seems able to move at will through authentic human emotions.

The nickname “Jupiter” did not come from Mozart himself, but most likely from Johann Peter Salomon, who is known to most musicians as the person who commissioned the twelve “London Symphonies” written by Haydn. Invoking the Olympian conception and scale of the work, the nickname became commonplace even in the early 19th century.

The “Jupiter” Symphony was composed during the seventeen days between July 25 and August 10 during 1788. It was composed in a set that also included the famous G minor symphony and Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major. Scholars believe that the three symphonies were written for the occasion of a performance in a new local casino.

C major was a key often associated with celebrations, and the “Jupiter” opens with a movement where celebratory marches alternate with quieter passages of entertainment, like the experience of walking through a fairground during carnival. The structure of the movement, with its false recapitulation and other unexpected harmonic deflections, speaks with the voice of a magician.

All is good. Well, maybe not. Listen for the moment, set off by an unexpected silence, when a loud C-minor chord appears. The startling sound is propelled by the timpani, as if Gustav Mahler had suddenly added a few measures to the score. Just as quickly the music shifts back to major and continues in celebration. But did we just glimpse the face behind the mask?

Moments later, another silence. Mozart introduces a new theme in opera buffo style – a self-quotation from an aria that Mozart had recently written called “Un bacio di mano” (K.581). “You are a little naive my beloved Don Pompeo,” sings the mature Monsieur Girò in the aria, “you need to figure out the ways of the world.”

The aria that Mozart quoted was written to be included in someone else’s opera. The aria was written to be included in “Le gelosie fortunate (Fortunate Jealousy)” by Pasquale Anfossi (1727-1797). Was Mozart addressing himself through this quotation? Though the tune is unmistakably cheery, perhaps the energy behind it was broken: Mozart picks up this tune again in the development section, where he eventually focuses on one fragment broken from the tune, pushing it through a maze of tonalities.

The second movement Andante Cantabile confronts the accelerated rate of speed of modern communication. Mozart opens with muted strings; a color that is subdued. He sings of innocence but is interrupted by loud chords and faster figuration. This movement further explores the outbursts of minor music from the first movement, and the unsettled quality of presentation lingers in the mind long after the music continues into major.

The Menuetto is a dance that shows how far the chromatic scale can lean before falling into place. The trio repeats a common progression of closing—over and over again. It says goodbye without actually leaving.

The infamous finale is built from a collection of themes that work like a crossword puzzle. Each theme is wonderful when heard alone, and as they combine they form new meanings. As each new idea appears, mark it in your mind. See if you can hear them as they return and begin to combine. During the final minutes of the movement five of the themes will combine and overlap several times, with each theme appearing at least once in each of the 5-voices into which the music will be divided.

(Dull) or (Don) Giovanni; (Old) or (New) School. Review of the Met Live in HD

The Michael Grandage production of Don Giovanni, broadcast today into cinemas by the Met Live in HD, seemed designed to draw battle lines. Does an opera require anything more than the very best ensemble cast?

The singers were all amazing. I can't imagine debate about that fact. Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna, Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira, and Mojca Erdmann as Zerlina were each able to present detailed musical performances and have a charismatic presence on the unfolding action. Ramón Vargas made Don Ottavio the kind of character with whom you would love to have a cup of coffee. Mariusz Kwiecien, who seemed in perfect health, as Don Giovanni and Luca Pisaroni as Leporello had strong chemistry, and even looked enough alike that the disguise scene seemed inevitable. More importantly Don Giovanni and Leporello were like separate aspects of the same consciousness. This cast has the potential to become a 21st century classic.

So what was the problem?

The first act seemed long. In Don Giovanni long means wrong.

A gradual awareness settled in that the set was dull and motionless. I expected to enjoy the lack of dazzle as a refreshing alternative to projection hangovers. But in fact, detail within the set drew attention to itself and away from the singers. We kept waiting for the structures onstage to be used and developed. It seemed as if the cast carried the weight of heavy shudders on their own shoulders.

The fight was on. Perfect music and great vocal and acting performance against the production.

The second act of Don Giovanni requires sudden shifts into a supernatural world, and Grandage was successful with these transitions. The final scene thrilled with arcs of fire. Kwiecien sang like a rockstar and was pulled underneath the stage with wonderful machinery. But there was not enough kinetic energy to support "Il mio tesoro" and "Mi tradi," and so stasis found its way into the second act also.

I liked the classical take on the costumes, gestures, and basic concept. I get that Peter Sellars had the day off. I just wish that the end result was the one that Grandage seemed to intend.

Connecticut Concert Opera brings Faust to West Hartford

Currently in its 20th season, Connecticut Concert Opera presented a semi-staged production of Gounod’s Faust at the Hoffman Auditorium at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford. For all its entertaining waltzes and endlessly memorable tunes this opera is a significant challenge. For one thing it is extremely long, even with standard cuts, and it requires singers who have endurance, concentration, and the ability to shift musical styles convincingly.

Artistic Director and Conductor Doris Lang Kosloff helped shape the content by grouping the opera into two “Acts,” with one central intermission. The first “Act” grouped the scene with Faust in his study, the Kermesse fair, and the Garden scene, the second collection grouped the traditional acts IV and V. Because there were no complicated set changes Kosloff was able to pull this off by simply leaning on tempos and moving action forward. She cut Marguerite’s spinning song but performed the church scene before the death of Valentin, as notated by Gounod but often performed in reverse order. She cut Walpurgis Night, which is standard, and trimmed back “Vin ou Bière,” but most music lovers would not have been able to detect any other cuts. This was a full-blooded Faust, and it transcended the sum of its details.

Soprano Jacqueline Quirk sang Marguerite mixed sweet and dark colors during the first “Act” but unleashed significant dramatic power after intermission. This vocal duality is unusual and gave us strong insight into her character (both Quirk’s and Marguerite’s). The first glimpse of this power was given during the Jewel Song—just after the extended trill when Quirk sang the scale that rises up to G-sharp. She accented the top with such intensity I actually saw several people in the audience flinch—both times! She could also sing gently with wonderfully floating lyricism. During the reminiscences of the prison scene, when Marguerite recalled the first time she met Faust, Quirk’s sound danced quietly with the orchestra in D major. She left the stage at the end of the evening to follow a stairway to heaven projected onto the back wall.

The props were simple, as appropriate in concert opera, but Quirk sang The King of Thule while seated at a most beautiful spinning wheel which I understand was an authentic early 19th century artifact from the Wood Memorial Library and Museum.

Tenor Michael-Paul Krubitzer improved throughout the evening as his voice warmed and opened. He seemed uncomfortable in his hooded headgear during the bargaining scene with Méphistophélès that opened the opera. At any rate the hood forced him to lift his head more than necessary and his sound was much better after his “youthful” transformation. Krubitzer developed fabulous presence with Quirk and their prison scene was memorable.

Graham Fandrei sang a confident Valentin. His ”O Sainte Medaille” was lush and tender. Mezzo soprano Sondra Kelly pleased with Martha. She also was able to sing the ensembles without becoming lost in the mix, which is no easy task in this opera.

I liked Erica Jeski as Siébel. Jeski had homefield advantage (on an evening when homefield won the World Series) because she was raised in West Hartford and is currently a student at the Hartt School. Jeski was able to project a very credible C major personality in Faites-lui mes aveux. She is talented and has significant potential.

But the evening belonged to Kirk Eichelberger who played Méphistophélès. Eichelberger’s resonant voice filled the hall with every sound. He was placed within the orchestra during his entrance to both “acts” and so his sound seemed to emerge from the instruments themselves. Eichelberger went to devil school. He was witty at all the right times, moved in all the right ways, and was just scary enough at all the right times. He is an amazing musician.

I was so persuaded by Eichelberger that as I left the Hoffman Auditorium I was actually noticeably younger. I am still not completely sure what that will cost me. I’ll worry about that later.

Connecticut Concert Opera will present Faust again at 2:00 on Sunday, October 30 at the Hoffman Auditorium at Saint Joseph College. For additional information click here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pablo Heras-Casado in the Digital Concert Hall; Fabulous Berio, but Mendelssohn?

Pablo Heras-Casado led a concert of extremes in his Digital Concert Hall debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He positioned extremely familiar works by Mendelssohn (the Hebrides Overture, and the Symphony No. 3) to begin and end the event, and he placed two infrequently heard pieces (Karol Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4, and Berio's Quatre dédicaces) just before and after intermission.

Like a good hard candy, it was the center which was most pleasantly surprising. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin joined the orchestra as soloist in the Szymanowski, which, though it could be mistaken for a piano concerto, is actually numbered among Szymanowski's symphonies, and is nicknamed »Symphonie concertante.«

Hamelin approached the work in a chamber style and blended into the orchestra during many passages. This conception made the most concerto-like elements, like the ringing figuration of the first movement cadenza, or the brief trilled cadenza of the andante molto sostenuto, seem freshly improvised. Hamlin was also soulful in the dancing central passage of the third movement where he was able to create the isolated vortex of someone who dances to both remember and forget.

The Mazurka that he announced from the stage as his encore was actually the Mazurka Op. 50 No. 6 and is recorded on the disc of complete Mazurka's by Szymanowski that Hamelin recorded for Hyperion.

After intermission Heras-Casado treated us to the Quatre dédicaces for orchestra by Luciano Berio. The Berliner Philharmoniker is exploring a series of works by Berio this season, and this performance of these four brief, festive pieces was impressive. Heras-Casado played the four movements in the Boulez ordering.

The Fanfara was given in a stately tempo, with incredible detail in the trumpet playing. Heras-Casado extended the final tone played by the clarinets which gave the movement a dramatic close. I loved the quivering richness of texture in the Entrada, and Festum was played as a celebration of simultaneous ideas. This performance of the final movement, Encore, could easily become required material for the study of virtuoso orchestral balances.

The Mendelssohn was ok. Hebrides had a few memorable moments, and the last three movements of the third symphony were often quite good. Heras-Casado took too much time between the first and second, and the second and third movements, allowing energy to dissipate at those important junctions. The first movement missed the mark. Heras-Casado could not get the orchestra to play quietly. Listen for instance, to the opening of the development, marked sempre pianissimo. It is already quite loud, then during the crescendo it reaches maximum volume well in advance of the fortissimo marking. The only place the orchestra played quietly was the repeat of the exposition, and arguably at the opening of the recap. The result was that the first movement sounded thick and many great subtleties within the movement, like that lovely clarinet line that shadows the opening violin tune one octave lower (at the beginning of the first theme group) was completely covered.

The LA Philharmonic bested this performance in both works by Mendelssohn during their LA Phil Live in HD performance on October 9, that I reviewed on this blog.

The inner and outer portions of the event didn't harmonize well as a program either. Both works by Mendelssohn came across unfairly as a programming afterthought. It might have worked to open with Berio followed by Szymanowski with Mendelssohn on the second half. But the messaging with Mendelssohn first and last seemed all wrong.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Anna Bolena in Sorrow and Rage; A Review of Met Live in HD

photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Anna Bolena is a study in contrasts. The music exposes clear distinctions between public and private faces, between fantasy and longing to recapture a sweetly imagined past and affairs, and intrigues and deceptions.

The 2011-2012 season of Live in HD transmissions from the Met opened with an old-school production of Anna Bolena centered around Anna Netrebko. This production by David McVicar added to the contrasts in the music itself. McVicar contrasted a traditional and simple presentation of characters onstage with sophisticated transitions between scenes involving quickly programmed, and elegantly conceived mechanicals.

While the old-school blocking of characters allowed us to focus on the beauty of the bel canto production of this excellent cast, there were times, especially early on, where the production became visually sleepy.

Conductor Marco Armiliato was criticized by Anthony Tommasini for "routine conducting" during the season opening concert on September 26. Tommasini felt that Armiliato needed to better "instill...intensity into the music." I heard that performance on MetRadio and felt it was fair criticism. This performance was noticeably different. Armiliato kept the music leaning forward and got a much edgier sound from the orchestra.

This cast ensemble proved that this opera is more than a diva machine. Tamara Mumford, as Mark Smeaton, was a pleasant surprise, and took the character through a sensational arc. Her understanding of the locket aria was centered on a contrast of its own--between the character Smeaton's ability to live in fantasy and his slowly dawning realization that he is outside of the opera listening in. Smeaton's sudden leap back into the opera, through the gory representation of his tortured confession served to remind us that brutal force was always lurking just below the surface throughout this opera.

Netrebko saturated Anna Bolena in sorrow and rage. The amazing close-ups that were possible through the Live in HD cameras created a surrealistic force in her portrayal. Though she absolved the King and his new bride before being led to her own execution, the force and intensity that Netrebko unleashed into the music made any forgiveness chilling.   

Sunday, October 9, 2011

LAPhil Live in HD Review: Mendelssohn "Like a Dark and Cold Wind"

The LAPhil Live in HD season returned to cinemas with a program of frequently played works by Mendelssohn. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel has been all over the news over the past week, being named "Musician of the Year" by Gramophone Magazine and with the announcement of two new music education with links to our side of the country.

This production looked markedly different from last season. There were many shots from within the orchestra; as if we were sitting in the string section, and many more close-ups of players. There was no host, and a host was not missed. The rehearsal footage alone made the event worth attending--Dudamel expressed fabulous insights into the Scottish symphony in particular.

The event opened with a dark and moody performance of the Hebrides Overture. Dudamel worked on the slower side and let lines surge and build with great skill. Given this context the famous clarinet statement of the second theme group in B major (with the editorial marking "tranquillo assai") seemed overly articulated and was played with a dotted 8th and 16th at the end of its first measure. Was this decision based on one of the new editions of the work? Still the work was a gorgeous and evocative way to open the event.

Dutch virtuoso Janine Jansen joined the orchestra as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Mark Swed raved about her playing on Thursday evening. This particular performance did not come into the cinema as effectively as the performance he described. Jansen never seemed fully comfortable during the first movement and seemed not to explore the stillness and silences of the cadenza that she described in the preconcert interview footage. There were lovely chamber-like moments in the second movement where she brought out a vulnerable quality in the music, and the finale was fabulous from start to stop. For her encore she played the sarabande from Bach's second partita in D minor.

After intermission we heard significant insights from Dudamel and great rehearsal footage. "Its like a cold and dark [wind]," said Dudamel of the opening gesture of the symphony. "The structure is very classical," he said of the symphony in general, "but with a nostalgic and Romantic soul."

Laughter erupted several times in the orchestra as he described the image of a queen, "who goes to the gym" taking part in the massive victory celebration at the end of the finale. And Dudamel kept looking for edges that would project a sense of warfare.

In my cinema "Real Steel" was playing next door. Some of that fighting spilled into our space, but I swear that Dudamel was so much in command that I could be persuaded he had willed it to be so. Dudamel's vision of the piece worked. The explosive sound as the finale opened was memorable, and textures throughout were rich and well-balanced. It was a performance that was detailed and expressive.

The next LAPhil Live in HD will be Mahler 8 in February...but that seems too far away. I would have loved at least one other event between now and then.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Magical Transitions and the Wisdom of Cutting Away the Superfluous in the Digital Concert Hall

Violinist Nikolaj Znaider mentioned "the wisdom of cutting away the superfluous" during his intermission interview with Berliner Philharmoniker violist Amihai Grosz in a concert broadcast through the Digital Concert Hall.

He was referring to a saying attributed to Michelangelo, but that particular wisdom was the single most striking aspect of his performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Unlike many soloists who have matched wits with this famous concerto, Znaider chose an understated almost conversational framework, choosing to "cut away" the idea that every note in the work must be played molto espressivo. This interpretation was refreshing, and it gave him more room to lift the slowly arcing intensity curves that shape the work. When the time came for passionate outbursts the sound was welcome.

Znaider delivered this performance on the 18th century Guarneri “del Gesu” that Fritz Kreisler played as his primary instrument from 1904-1919. The instrument had an amazingly rich and varied low register and seems to sing with a choir of musical ghosts.

Bernard Haitink was the scheduled conductor, but he needed to cancel due to illness, so the young Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha got the call. Valcuha projected confidence and led the orchestra with cerebral elegance throughout the evening.

Valcuha did have trouble holding the Philharmoniker back in several moments of the work, like the opening of the third movement, where the dynamic level was too loud and the sound was too heavy. But Valcuha and Znaider also chose to "cut away" the sense of parody in the finale that many interpretations seek. They played the music with a soulful and sexy dance energy and when the the great dark force that closes the movement swept through it seemed a culmination rather than a contradiction.

Valcuha was able to shift around the program that Haitink had planned, which included the Eroica Symphony. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 and Weber's Euryanthe Overture were tasty choices, and seemed much more interesting than the previously scheduled fare.

It became an evening of magical transitions.

The Euryanthe Overture opened its development with whispered music for 8 muted solo violins in colors that shifted with smoky edges through several minor keys. Somehow this passage seemed to speak directly to the retransition in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky symphony where an elemental and sparse pattern of syncopated intervals emerged from an otherwise logical development section.

The finale of the Tchaikovsky first symphony has an interpretive challenge. The introduction is long...and it returns at the end of the movement. But Valcuha led us perfectly from this return through another magical transition: rising chromatic lines that slowly pulled the music away, and pointed it with great skill toward the allegro vivo sprint that ended the work in breathless euphoria.

It was a program of works that harmonized. Listen again to the opening of the Sibelius concerto, and then the opening of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. Right?

Valcuha was not only confident onstage, through some clever concert programming he started his success even before he arrived. That was a magical transition in its own right.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mahler 1 in the Digital Concert Hall; Zubin Mehta and a Celebration of Intensities

Zubin Mehta led the Berliner Philharmoniker, on the 50th anniversary of the year of his debut as guest conductor with the orchestra, in a stunning program that was transmitted live over the Digital Concert Hall.

The event began with the Orchestermusik, Op. 9 written in 1948 by Gottfried von Einem (1918-1996). This was an attractive work punctuated by military gestures, but driven by long lines that were draped on inventive and engaging textures. It was music that spoke with an identifiable voice and made me eager to explore more of von Einem's music.
Next, cellist Johannes Moser joined the orchestra as soloist in the Cello Concerto by Robert Schumann. Moser is a cellist with ideas, and this event was the perfect platform for him to showcase the electrifying technical command and also the fluency of his musical thinking.

Moser embraced the rich fragments of style and intention that comprise the Schumann concerto. While many soloists try to join these contrasts, Moser let them collide and the results were impressive. It was in the development of the first movement that we were first able to hear the impact of this strategy. The Berliner Philharmoniker edged their gestures and kept the sound moving like a machine. Moser was able to use his lines to contrast and resist, pushing against and later becoming attracted by that very different sound. The movement became about poetic resistance to mechanization.

When the parallelism in the recapitulation was broken to move toward the second movement, one could not help but to hear the falling 5th played by Moser as a voiced invocation to Clara herself. It was easy to imagine the poet seeking haven through her spirit. Moser delighted in the intricacies of the third movement and seemed to amplify its rock & roll through the force of his own charisma.

Well received by the audience, Moser played a well chosen encore. He played the sarabande from the first Bach cello suite. This meditative dance was the perfect resolution for the concerto, as the spirit of Bach so often both followed and haunted Schumann.   

After intermission we heard Mahler's Symphony No. 1 performed with the Blumine movement that was discarded by Mahler during the process that bridged the composition of the work and led to its final published format. In fact, Mahler himself conducted this symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker at around the time that he first conceived of the work as a symphony instead of a symphonic poem. After Mahler's death the "Blumine" movement was lost, and it was not rediscovered until 1966. The movement was reintroduced to the 20th century just down the street from me, by the New Haven Symphony, in the Spring of 1968.

Mehta performed the work with the Blumine movement reattached. It was wonderful to hear the work this way, and I actually prefer it to the version we normally hear.

In the finale of the symphony there was a critical passage where a quotation from the introduction of the first movement falls from D-flat down to C and opens on a vista of quotations over a long C pedal. The second theme group from the Blumine movement was quoted there, as were many other moments in the symphony. With the Blumine intact it made everything seem plugged in again without loose ends.

Mehta was in great form. He is a master of economy, but when he moves the entire orchestra shines. The recapturing of D major as the work closed was a powerful moment, writ large over the course of more than an hour through a summation of details, a celebration of intensities.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bychkov wins in the Digital Concert Hall

Conductor Semyon Bychkov returned to lead the Berliner Philharmoniker in a tasty program transmitted through the Digital Concert Hall. This is the fourth event that Bychkov has conducted that will enter the permanent archives of the orchestra, making Bychkov and Bernard Haitink the most frequently represented guest conductors in the collection of over 100 concerts.

Bychkov gets a remarkable sound from the orchestra. What is it about the way that Bychkov conducts that makes this sound? Perhaps the combination of practical gestures and transparent sincerity in his visual contact with the orchestra. Whatever it is, he won the day.

The program opened with "Rendering" by Luciano Berio. The work is a meditation on the fragments of a tenth symphony that Schubert left behind at his death. Schubert's ghost couldn't have orchestrated these fragments any better than Berio. And Berio left the fragments as they were without trying to finish them.

During the gaps Berio composed and inserted whimsical music that sounds the whispered celestial distances from our world to Schubert's. It was these passages that made the deepest impression in this performance. Led by Bychkov, the Berliner Philharmoniker explored the riches within these interludes and focused many shifting and intricate streams of sound.

It is common to hear orchestras phase out during these passages and simply present a single quiet tableau of undifferentiated sound. When that happens the differences between the Schubert style and the interlude style sounds inorganic and false.

Too much has been made of any similarity between the opening tune of the second movement in "Rendering" and the distorted music of the third movement of Mahler I. There is more difference than similarity. And oboist Albrecht Mayer played the lyrical tune from Berio/Schubert with a rich and full sounding lyricism that made this distinction clear.

The contrast between the broken fragility of the second movement and the playful joy of the third movement was something that Bychkov was great at communicating. The shift of attitudes was powerful.

Mayer returned to the stage by himself after intermission to perform Berio's Sequenza VII for solo oboe. This performance used a live (instead of recorded) drone on the pitch [B] which was played from the wings above the stage. Normally one only hears this work on chamber concerts and it was refreshing to hear it performed by an orchestral specialist in a huge space. Mayer successfully moved between the fixed and improvisatory sections that are woven into the music fabric of this work and produced richly colored multiphonics. Mayer is so musical he makes you wonder why everyone doesn't choose to play the oboe.

The performance concluded with William Walton's Symphony No. 1. During the interlude Sarah Willis talked with Bychkov about the differences between playing this work with an English orchestra and a German orchestra, many members of which had never played the work. Bychkov said that there were different kinds of challenges with all orchestras.

What he meant by that became more obvious when he started conducting the work. Bychkov has a very distinct sonic conception of this symphony--it does not sound like an unknown symphony by Sibelius in his hands. Bychkov seemed to inspire the musicians to rely on the lyrical qualities in the work, and to allow them to make the same rich but clear textures that won the day in Berio/Schubert. Surprisingly the rhythmic vitality of the work did not need to be compromised, but we often made progress through great spans of music in ways that almost seemed unfamiliar and new. Bychkov certainly knows where all the hallways lead in the haunted mansion that is the Walton first symphony.

 I can see why the Berliner Philharmoniker loves Bychkov. Bring him back soon!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mahler 8 in the Digital Concert Hall

The Berliner Philharmoniker took on Mahler's Symphony No. 8, for only the seventh time in its history, in a performance that was transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall. It was an event of significant magnitude that brought together a bewildering confluence of forces and efforts both in performance and in transmition.

Conductor Simon Rattle prefaced the symphony with two choral works, the Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti, and the infamous 40-part motet "Spem in alium" by Thomas Tallis. While these works felt a little elbowed-out of place by the massive opening movement of the Mahler Symphony, they served two important functions. First, their 15 minute combined duration made an intermission in between movements of the Mahler symphony seem workable. Secondly, they represented texts from the sacred tradition set within a sacred context.

This context was important. In Mahler 8, the first movement explores the secular implications of personal creativity within a sacred text, and the second movement treats a secular text with sacred implications.

Rattle produced a performance with clear goals. The lift into E major in the opening section "Accende lumen sensibus" had the energy and had the optimism of encoded aesthetic realization. Rattle prolonged the intensity of this section with terrific authority, through the marches, the double fugue, the parenthetical interlude of soloists in D-flat major, and landed back with perfect force back in E-flat major. This kind of lift and subsequent directional goals made the second movement feel increasingly operatic.

The combined forces of the MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig and the Rundfunkchor Berlin sounded great. They were particularly impressive during the awakening chorus & echoes of their second movement entrance. Often one hears only staccato sound from singers during this passage, but these choirs created a resonant, ringing sound that made the text seem divine rather than spooky.

The soloists blended effectively in ensemble. Of the soloists, Bass John Relyea gave a vibrant and carefully conceived performance as Pater Profundus. He made us both consider, and luxuriate in, music that can sound transitional.

There were moments where the special chamber music qualities of this work came through. Examples include the music for solo strings in both movements, and that wonderful passage in E major where the harps and sectional violins take us to a different realm (just before the choir sings Dir, der Unberührbaren). But there were also moments, as with the passages for mandolin, where the sound did not carry over the wires as one would have hoped.

The chorus mysticus gave me chills. "Alles Vergängliche," whispered the choir, "ist nur ein Gleichnis." The digital age has given us new possibilities for permanence. The combined effort and spirit of this performance might well teach us to think in new ways.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Program Notes, October 2011

by Jeffrey Johnson

Throughout 2011-2012 we celebrate Maestro Gustav Meier’s 40 years as our Music Director. We open our season with a near reprise of the very first program that conductor Gustav Meier performed with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony in 1971.

For this concert, three of the four pieces are identical. The 1971 program also included a newly composed work. Because Maestro Meier is known for his commitment to high-quality new music, this program will also feature a recently composed work; a symphony by Robert Sirota called “212.”

This program is organized in sonic symmetry—a single movement work followed by a symphony, then after intermission a symphony followed by a single movement work. It is a design built without the use of chorus, without soloists, and without a concerto.

The Debussy Prelude and the Tchaikovsky Fantasie-Overture on Romeo & Juliet launched their young and still unknown composers into international acclaim. The symphonies at the center of the program feature composers who were well known within the musical community at the time the works were written. Both symphonies contemplate memory. The Schumann Symphony No. 4 is saturated with self-memory. It is the testament of a composer who was beginning to drown in a complex inner-state. “212” is a work that contemplates the memory of a place (Manhattan), and of a person who made that place come alive.

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
(Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)

World Premiere: December 22, 1894 in Paris
Most Recent Performance by GBS: April 25, 1998

This “faune” was no fawn. The mythological faune that inspired this work was a forest spirit, a human head with goat horns—all goat from the waist down to the feet. The faune inhabits a poem written by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) from which the work derives its title.

The poem is a monolog spoken directly by the faune to himself. It speaks in a language of hazy symbols, and there is never a plot without the presence of contradiction.

This faune was a musician. Like Pan, he cut reeds from a marsh to play upon the pipes. The poem describes how the Faune’s breath passed through the instrument to produce music that became part of nature itself: “Le visible et serein souffle artificiel / De l’inspiration, qui regagne le ciel (the visible and serene artificial breath / which regains the sky.)” This imagery helps explain the distinctive sound world of Debussy’s orchestration.

Debussy loved this poem. He transformed its musical qualities into one of the most iconic openings ever written—a single flute playing an elusive chromatic tune “doux et expressif (quietly and espressively),” while outlining a tritone; the most dissonant, yet symmetrical, interval.

Listen as four settings of this opening tune are played by the flute, each shaded differently. The fluid, almost improvisational quality of the music comes from notation that is detailed and complex. The challenge for any orchestra is to make its elusiveness sound effortless.

A richly contoured transition lasting several minutes escalates the intensity of expression, and then subsides as the music locks into D-flat major. A lyrical tune unfolds in winds, then full strings, and finally on solo violin.

Four new settings of the opening tune follow to close the work. We find our home in E major during the third statement of the theme (which is marked by the first use of antique cymbals). We are greeted there by the solo violin; an old friend.

Debussy began writing this Prelude in 1892 at the age of thirty, and put the finishing touches on it two years later. It was music that made him famous.

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Symphony No. 4

World Premiere: December 6, 1841, in Leipzig.
Revised version March 3, 1853, in Dusseldorf
Most Recent Performance by GBS: January 25, 1997

From 1830 to 1843 Robert Schumann wrote music with an almost single-minded approach to timbre. His first 23 published works were all for solo piano and they occupied him occupied him until the onset of his marriage to the internationally successful pianist Clara Wieck in 1840. During the first year of his marriage, often called the “Liederjahr (song-year)” he completed 168 songs in 365 days.

1841 was a year of symphonies. Having somehow completed his “Overture, Scherzo & Finale” during the Liederjahr, Schumann turned to the symphonic form by writing his first symphony (nicknamed the “Spring Symphony”), and then writing the first version of the symphony that would become known as his fourth.

On a Saturday evening, May 29, 1841, Schumann noted in his personal diary that he had received inspiration in a sudden flash and was ready to write this symphony. He completed the work in 103 days, finishing in early September. Parts were copied and the work was premiered in December. But Schumann delayed publication of the work for ten years and gave it a complete overhaul before publishing it as op. 120. In the interim the second and third symphonies had been published, so op. 120 became known as the Symphony No. 4.

The most significant changes involved a thickening of textures. Schumann sought a burdened sound. The music also explored the premise that any particular musical idea need not reside in only one movement, but that ideas could resurface in unexpected locations throughout the symphony. It is this technique that gives the work its sense of remembering; of exploring thoughts whose significance changes with new contexts.

All four movements of this symphony are directly connected. But in spite of the lack of breaks between movements, the symphony has the prototypical symphonic shape, where an expansive opening movement gives way to a slow movement, a dance, and then a finale.

Remember the music you hear in the introduction to the opening movement, it will reappear in the central section of the slow movement beneath arabesques played by the solo violin. It will also appear again, twice, in the third movement where it acts as a trio.

You would be correct to expect the galloping theme that opens that exposition of the first movement to return in a recapitulation, but it does not. Instead Schumann explores the dramatic potentials of lyrical melodies set against restlessness music, and ends the movement without a complete resolution of his materials. There are many other tricks, and many other connections, listen for places where things seem strangely familiar. This is a symphony of déjà vu.

Robert Sirota  (October 13, 1949)
212: Symphony No. 1

World Premiere: January 2008, Manhattan School of Music
This is the first performance of the work by the GBS

Internationally recognized composer Robert Sirota was born in New York City and has been the President of Manhattan School of Music since 2005. His portfolio includes six other works for orchestra including In the Fullness of Time, for organ and orchestra, which has been played with increasing frequency, and three concertos. He has written numerous works for chorus and symphonic band, three short operas, a full-length music theatre piece, and a varied assortment of chamber works.

“212” is the classic telephone area code for Manhattan. The numbers were assigned in 1947. Manhattan was intentionally given preferential treatment—it was the quickest possible number for an area code that could be dialed using the old rotary phones. The influx of cell-phones made 917 and even 646 resident on the island.

There is no sense of 917 or 646 in this “212,” which evokes images of classic Manhattan and was dedicated by the composer to the memory of his father who was, according to Sirota, “a truly great New Yorker.”

Sirota’s work opens with a movement called “Approaches” that invokes the massive skyscrapers encountered when approaching the island from almost any of its bridges. The raw intensity of the opening focuses into an ethereal “shimmering” central section where distilled solos pass from solo trumpet, to clarinet, and finally to solo violin before the passage begins to retrace its steps, finding once again the intensity of the opening.

“The end of the first movement,” wrote Sirota, “is interrupted by a subway train (specifically, the Number 2 express rumbling through the 59th Street station) which dissolves, without pause, into the second movement, “Do Not Hold Doors.”

Sirota based the musical scoring of the second movement on an unexpected feature of this common piece of subway advice. “I liked the fact that its four words contain, consecutively, two, three, four, and five letters, wrote Sirota. “The primary theme, introduced by a quartet of saxophones, is a syncopated four-chord tune in which the chords consist, respectively, of two, three, four, and five notes.” The second movement may begin in the subway, but there is a jazz club right above it; and we are going in!

The third movement is an invocation of Ground Zero. Sirota crafted this music from the central movement of his string quartet called “Triptych,” which was originally composed in 2002.

The finale, called “O Manhattan” is set around a big tune played for the first time by offstage horns. “This finale is a hymn to our Manhattan,” wrote Sirota, “more precious and hopeful than ever.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  (1840–1893)
Overture-Fantasy on Romeo and Juliet

World Premiere: March 16, 1870, in Moscow.
Final Version: May 1, 1886, in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Most Recent Performance by GBS: November 4, 2006

In the spring of 1868 the twenty-eight year old Tchaikovsky met, and developed a collegial relationship with, the composer Mily Balakirev who was conductor of the Russian Musical Society Orchestra in Saint Petersburg. Balakirev suggested the idea of writing a work for the RMS based on Romeo and Juliet and even brainstormed various structural strategies with Tchaikovsky.

The work was completed, dedicated to Balakirev, and premiered in the spring of 1870. Because of the particular way in which this music encoded a dramatic arc into classical sonata form, it needed two cycles of revision before it found its final form in 1886. As a result of this extended genesis the work never received an opus number.

Prior to reaching its final form in 1886 the work was slow to catch fire with the public, but since then it has become of the most frequently performed of all Tchaikovsky’s works. It is famous for the unforgettable sweep of its love music, a passage that maintains its impressivenss in spite of being used in advertisements, cartoons, and parodies since the advent of modern media.

This love music is set against fighting music that represents the clash of families and outbreak of violence in the original play. But it was the introduction and coda that encase this conflict that gave Tchaikovsky the most trouble. He needed a way to set the atmosphere for this story, and an effective way to comment on the significance of the action after it had taken place.

The solution for the introduction centered on two parallel panels of music, the second echoed a half-step lower than the first. The music has a narrative quality that feels confessional, quietly singing to us, and focusing our attention and preparing for an imaginary rise of the curtain.

The coda is recognizable in the pulsing of the timpani as the cellos unfold a minor-key version of music that sounds like a hymn. Soon the strings voice a transformation of the love theme with the harp strumming in the background in a texture that suggests a heavenly context. Perhaps Tchaikovsky meant to suggest that the love of Romeo and Juliet transcended mortality and survived in an eternal plane of reality.

A loud roll on the timpani and several short fanfare articulations from the orchestra shake us from this dream world back into the present.

For additional information,
contact the Greater Bridgeport Symphony.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Digital Morgenkonzerte on the East Coast; Nelsons Conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker

Around 1772 Mozart started a series of early morning concerts in the Garden Hall of the Palais Augarten in Vienna. Later this series was taken over by the great violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who premiered many late Beethoven string quartets.

It is rare to have the opportunity to review live music that begins at 5:00 am on the east coast, but this event transmitted over the Digital Concert Hall was actually an afternoon concert in Berlin. Over here it was dark when Andris Nelsons took the podium to conduct Pfitzner and Kaminski, but after intermission the sun rose during a work by Wolfgang Rihm, which gave that work an extra dimension. The concert ended with the Rosenkavalier Suite.

Andris Nelsons is best known in the US for his Met performances. He conducted Turandot in a run from October through January 2010, and most recently he conducted Queen of Spades last March. But he has also conducted at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Wiener Staatsoper, and he conducted Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival in the summer of 2010.

Nelsons bubbles with smiles. He has the most cheerful countenance of any conductor I recall having seen. His spirit is good for an orchestra with the intensity of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and this joyfulness came across most clearly in the Rosenkavalier Suite that closed the program.

We know that the waltz sequence in Rosenkavalier is a parody; that the waltzes represent the use of refinement as a weapon to control people's actions and life trajectories. They are dances that reflect the crumbling of the waltz idiom. Nelsons nevertheless smiled all the way through them, accenting their charm, and the wit and humor of their parody. Unlike the opera, the suite ends with a boisterous coda that gives us once last chance to roast Baron Ochs. Nelsons made the sound itself laugh.

The program began with the second act prelude to the opera Palestrina by Pfitzner. Nelsons took a quick tempo and angled the energy of the opening toward the ominous and grand music in G minor marked "Rhythmus von je 3 Takten" in the score. The work had a convincing sweep, though the concert ending, with its explicit reference to the music at the opening was a disappointment. It would have been better to end the prelude as it ends in the opera; slightly off-balance and unresolved. The prelude represents a moment in the opera Palestrina where things could have gone in any direction.

The centerpiece of this event presented two tasty works.

We seldom get to hear music by Heinrich Kaminski (1886-1946) in the States, so his Dorian Music was welcome. Cast in three movements, Dorian Music is guided by a curious logic that is a mixture of styles and compositional attitudes. The work has a concerto grosso feel and was built around a string trio. The trio, and especially violist Amihai Grosz, played with rich inflections and quiet elegance. Nelsons was able to integrate the complex banding in this work to produce a coherent whole.

After intermission we heard the concerto for trumpet and percussionist called Marsyas by Wolfgang Rihm, who was in attendance. Marsyas was the figure in Greek Mythology who challenged Apollo to a musical contest. He lost both the contest and his life. Hmmm. Just goes to show ya.

Trumpeter Gábor Tarkövi and percussionist Jan Schlichte joined the orchestra as soloists. Rihm's work requires amazing endurance from the trumpet soloist who remains almost constantly engaged throughout the 15-minute concerto.

The music is filled with ghosts and echos. Its textures often sounds as if eternal return had thickened the events of the myth into a sounding shadow that followed the events even as they first happened. Schlichte shifted from marimba to 7 side drums as the music progressed into the sounding of the competition itself. The closing of the work shifts suddenly into a parody of jazz that quickly dissolves into a questioning ending.

This morgenkonzerte was refreshing. I can see why the original Mozart series was such a success--it is a great time of day to hear great music.
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