Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Meditation on April by Tchaikovsky, Nicholas Breton, and Daniela Negrini

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

April was nicknamed after after the flower called "snowdrops" which are grown from bulbs and appear quickly in the spring, not long after real snowdrops disappear. But Tchaikovsky's April seems a juxtaposition of an exterior and interior expressions. It is music that obsesses and occasionally gets stuck in its own patterns. It is a delight:

The exterior quality of the music is expressed in the first phrase as the bass and treble lines push away from one another in gentle contrary motion. Watch carefully as Daniela's hand slowly drift apart during the first twelve seconds of this video. She instinctively pulls her hands off the keyboard.

Now the music turns inward. Literally. The melody [0:14] emerges from the thumbs as is set within the harmony. Eccentric melodic gaps are developed from the octaves that cadenced the first phrase. These gaps are windows. They allow the music from one phrase to see, and almost touch the music from the other. At [0:26] music from the second phrase is repeated creating a song-like [ABB] structure.

The English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626) did not include conflicted ideas when he wrote about April in his book "The Twelve Moneths."

"It is now April," wrote Breton, "and the nightengale begins to tune her throat against May: the sunny showers perfume the aire, and the bees begin to goe abroad for honey."

He writes of the "Shepheards pipe [that] entertaines the Princesse of Arcadia." Maybe Tchaikovsky imagined a similar pipe in the central section of April [0:39]. The music oscillates between G minor and D minor over eight measures before further expanding upon the characteristic gaps [0:52] that are so much a part of the sound of this movement.

"Faith and troth make the true lovers knot," writes Breton, " and the youthfull cheeks are as red as a cherry: It were a world to set downe the worth of this moneth: But in summe, I thus conclude, I hold it the Heavens blessing, and the Earths comfort. Farewell."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Program Notes, April 16, 2011

A Concert Version of Aida
Program Notes by Jeffrey Johnson

According to the Metopera database, Aida has been performed 1,115 times at the Met in the 125 years since it was first played there. This is twice as many performances as the most frequently performed opera by Mozart (Don Giovanni), and is second only to La Bohème, which has had only 100 performances more than Aida at the Met.

These statistics are surprising when one considers the monumental cost and effort required to stage a production of Aida, which is a four act opera with a typical run-time of four hours including two intermissions. Full productions require huge sets, massive crowd scenes, and enough animals onstage to populate a small zoo. It an opera of spectacles.

But there are many operas based on spectacle. What makes Aida special?

The storyline of Aida is much more elemental than lavish productions make it seem. It is a love triangle set across an explosive political divide. It is the power and grace of its story, set in unforgettable music, which is the central force in its popularity

This concert version of Aida is an alternative pathway through the opera that focuses on aspects of interaction among the three central characters. It compresses the run-time of the opera to the standard two-hour format (including one intermission) of a symphonic concert.

In a concert opera the musicians and the singers perform together onstage. This makes the music itself even more apparent and present than when it comes from the opera pit. Concert opera allows us to rediscover how intrinsic the music itself is to the impression that the singers make.

The quiet and elusive music with which this opera opens is the sonic fingerprint of Aida. It is music that strives and pushes out at boundaries. Subtle surprises continually deflect its course of motion. We learn important things about Aida through this melody before any singing takes place.

After a frozen F-sharp major chord a contrasting tune is heard. It is the opposite of Aida’s music. Its contour falls and it is presented in imitative entries that invoke the learned style. It is the processional music of the priests.

The two themes are built to combine, and as they do we hear the complex interaction between one individual and the society in which she lives.

Act I
Romanza; Celesta Aida
Rademès dreams of being the warrior who will lead Egypt to victory over the Ethiopian forces that threaten them. But he is already in love with Aida, who is a captured slave from Ethiopia in the service of the woman he is expected to marry.

In this famous aria Rademès imagines the divine character of Aida as a “mystic garland of light and flowers.” He imagines escaping with her to Ethiopia and, on a breathtaking high B-flat, he promises to build her a throne next to the sun.

Duetto and Terzetto
We meet Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, who is in love with Rademès. She enters singing compliments to him but the most beautiful melody in the texture is not scored for voice but is heard in the music played by the strings. The texture is like a musical mask that reveals Amneris as a dangerous lover.

“I was dreaming,” sings Rademès and thinks again of leading the army. Amneris asks if he has ever had a “sweeter and gentler dream.” The music becomes agitated as Rademès wonders if she knows of his secret love. His reaction instantly arouses her suspicion and a fiery duet is set in motion.

We hear the emblematic music that opens the preludio to signal the first appearance of Aida. “Come, my dear,” sings Amneris to Aida over march like rhythms in C major, “you are neither slave nor maid here, where I have called you sister.”

In Aida’s first phrase she expresses fear for her country, for herself and Amneris. Her vocal lines ascend and modulate from C to bright E major.

The agitated music resumes and a trio of asides is formed in which each character expresses a different point of view simultaneously. Amneris and Rademès alternate lines. She sings about betrayal, he wonders if his love for Aida has been exposed. Aida herself sings long notes that soar above the texture lamenting for her country and for a love that will cause destruction.

Scena; Ritorna vincitor!
Rademès has been named head of the army and leads them to war against Ethiopia. In this aria in five parts, Aida wonders if she should pray for the victory of her lover, which would mean destruction of her father and countrymen, or for the victory of her father, which would mean the destruction of her lover.

Section 1: Accompanied recitative where the music becomes increasingly chromatic. There is a sudden pause.
Section 2: “L’insana parola (insane talk)” is exotic and elusive with lines that rise in waves. The music becomes unstable and culminates on a high B-flat.
Section 3: “And my love?” The opening theme of the preludio returns as Aida meditates on her love for Rademès accompanied by a clarinet.
Section 4: “I sacri nomi di padre, d’amante (these sacred words father, and lover).” In A-flat minor Aida sings a lyrical passage about her confusion and of wanting to pray.
Section 5: “Numi, pietà (Have pity on my suffering, o gods!)” Aida asks the gods for mercy in a voice that remains quiet but increasingly resolved.

Act II
Introduction, scena coro.
In contrast to the way Aida contemplates Rademès, Amneris is the centerpiece of society and the women’s chorus and harps and trumpets are all focused on entertaining her.

“Fill me with rapture my love,” interjects Amneris twice, singing to a lover who is absent, who was never in love with her, and who has already committed his love for someone socially unattainable: her slave.

Scena e duetto (Aida and Amneris)
Aida’s theme indicates that she is near. Amneris wants to prove that Aida is in love with Rademès so she constructs a plan: “I am your friend,” she sings to Aida, “you shall have everything from me.” Aida answers in minor; she is concerned for her family. Amneris says that time and a powerful god will heal her.

A duet breaks forth, Aida singing the tune associated with her in a major key while Amneris sing lines that are punctuated and fragmentary to show her evil side that is starting to emerge. But first Amneris sings charming music as she cozies up to Aida to tell her that Rademès has been killed in battle. When Aida reacts, Amneris has the proof she has sought.

Amneris reveals her true face, she removes the musical mask she has worn and becomes strident and syncopated as she exposes the trap into which Aida has fallen. Aida responds with a heartbreaking melody in F minor “Pietà ti prenda (have pity for my sorrow!).” “Tremble, slave,” replies Amneris.

The chorus enters to the famous triumphal march and Amneris forces Aida to take part in the celebration. Aida recalls the last section of her aria from Act I: (Numi, pietà) and the scene fades away quietly.

This act opens with an evocation on moonlight on the banks of the Nile. The chorus chants prayers to Osiris, and Aida enters to the music of her signature theme. She imagines the Nile as a tomb and begins to seek both peace and oblivion in a heartbreaking falling line. The oboe entwines with her thoughts as she dreams again about a homeland that is forever lost to her (Oh, patria mia). In whisper quiet intensity Aida works her way to high C as this famous aria cadences.

Scene e duetto
Rademès and Aida are rejoined. The love that Rademès articulates sounds awash in the military, and Aida distances herself from him because she thinks he will marry Amneris.

Rademès sings in E minor to a military accompaniment that the Ethiopian people are ready for a new war, and he will surrender the Egyptian army—then they can have a life together. Aida responds in C minor. She fears the vengeance of Amneris. Her plan is to flee. Accompanied again by the solo oboe, she sings about leaving their old lives and finding a new paradise together.

Rademès can not imagine leaving his homeland, but Aida continues to persuade. Finally he agrees; and in an allegro assai vivo they decide to flee to the desert and make a heaven of love.

Act IV
Scene e duetto

Amneris contemplates what has happened between scenes: Rademès unknowingly gave information on the location of the Egyptian army to Aida’s father Amonsasto. When Amneris and the priests arrived Amonsasto and Aida escaped, but Rademès decided to stay and face his punishment.

In a reminiscence of her Act I entrance, Amneris confesses that she will always love Rademès. She calls the guards and asks that Rademès is brought before her.

In E-flat minor she sings an aria offering him pardon if he repents. He does not feel guilty, but wishes to die. But in a series of quick exchanges it is established that Aida is alive and that Rademès will live if he renounces her.

Amneris becomes angry and finally disconnects from Rademès singing “Chi ti salva, sciagurato, (Who will save you wretch!).” She shows her true face in C minor.

Rademès responds with a new thought: “È la morte un ben supremo” Death is the greatest good if I die for her). He and Amneris sing together for the first time in this scene and then a chromatic pulsing music brings this section to a quick close.

Judgment Scene
Amneris sings a solo aria: “Ohimè! morir mi sento! (Alas, who will save him?)”
The orchestra plays the music of the priests heard in the central section of the preludio from Act One. The orchestra seems independent of Amneris as the priests enter the underground prison to speak with Rademès.

The Priests intone a chant: “Spirto del nume, sovra noi discendi! (Divine spirit descend upon us)” Amneris once again asks who it is that will save him.

A half-step higher the priests read the charge against Rademès. Amneris reacts. A second charge is read to him. “He is innocent,” sings Amneris, “save him!”

With even more tension created by moving another half-step higher a third charge is read with reaction by Amneris. The verdict is chanted in unison by the chorus: Rademès will die a traitor’s death by being buried alive in a tomb. Amneris charges the priests: they are the ones who have committed a crime.

Scena e duetto finale ultimo
Rademès awakens in the tomb. He sings of his realization on a single pitch, but soon discovers that Aida has chosen to share his fate and join him in the tomb.

“I wished to die in your arms,” sings Aida in her famous aria “Presago il core della tua condanna (I sensed your fate and entered this tomb).” Aida soon sees the angel of death approaching. They overhear the priestesses singing. “Terra addio (Goodbye Earth)” they sing in a haunted tune of unexpected vocal leaps.

The opera ends with sounds of the outside world coming into the tomb and being overheard. Among the world of commerce, Amneris is outside the tomb praying for peace as the opera closes.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Met Live in HD Review; Natalie Dessay as Lucia--Hey we're not the bad guys!

Image from the Metropolitan Opera with Natalie Dessay as Lucia and Joseph Calleja as Edgardo.

In a review published in the New York Times on February 25, Zachary Woolfe found soprano Natalie Dessay's performance as Lucia "almost entirely blank." He wondered if part of the reason was that her gestures seemed directed at the HD audience rather than the audience in the Met itself.

The Live in HD production was not intrusive in the way that Woolfe feared. Those of us who find these productions engaging are not the villains.

The first act was simply dull. Even the carefully choreographed rhythms of the Live in HD machinery could not lift energy into it. Dessay seemed tired and her voice was rough. Her performance was significantly better in the second act and strengthened again in the third.

It was not just Dessay that weighed down Act One. The opening scene needed to express the deterioration of the Ravenswood Castle through edgy juxtapositions of marches, trios and that strange pastorale that the chorus sings in B-flat major. There was a stagnant somewhat sluggish quality in the transitions, and even though the singing was often quite engaging it was not enough to pull the drama together.

On the positive side this production included the scenes that are frequently cut--the interaction between Lucia and Raimondo, played by Kwangchul Youn, and the Wolf's Crag Scene at the opening of Act III, where we had yet another opportunity to be blown away by Joseph Calleja as Edgardo.

Calleja was particularly impressive in his Act III arias: “Fra poco a me ricovero" and "Tu che a spiegasti l’ali" where his grand style vowel colors and elaborate phrasing brought the opera to a powerful close.

Mary Zimmerman's production made ghosts visible. A dancer dressed all in white appeared during the fountain scene, and again at the opening of the second act. Lucia herself appeared as a ghost in act three, urging Eduardo, and then assisting him, to commit suicide. These ghosts were not high-tech, and like the rest of the production, they produced a quasi-Victorian impression.

By the time Dessay improvised her cadenza--without flute--she had completely drawn us back in. She was not vacant. Not even when she was a ghost.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Deep Crazy;" Review of The LA Phil Live in HD

“For Hamlet,” said conductor Gustavo Dudamel, “you have to feel DEEP CRAZY.”

Dudamel was talking about the fantasy overture, the last of three written by Tchaikovsky--all inspired by Shakespearean plays. But "deep crazy" might have just as easily been used to describe the concept of programming all three works on a single event...played without intermission.

It worked.

Before any music was sounded we heard Matthew Rhys recite two welded monologues as Hamlet. Rhys set a breathtaking energy in motion that led us naturally into sound as the enigmatic fantasy overture began.

"The silence is so important," said Dudamel in preconcert footage, "it is always the feeling of...WHY?"

The orchestra focused on these silences, and each the 8th rests in the strange figure that falls away after the very first presentation of the opening fate motive seemed carefully sculpted. As the performance unfolded it became clear that Dudamel was shaping the score like a work by Mahler; shaping lines and twists to edge the philosophical.

Ok, now for more deep crazy: follow the Hamlet overture in F minor with another overture by Tchaikovsky (also in F minor): The Symphonic Fantasia on the Tempest. As if by the magic that powers the tempest this worked also.

There was no applause that separated the works, and with only a brief narration we were set upon the waters that open Tchaikovsky's Tempest. It worked because it felt like a developmental continuation of Hamlet.

In this early work, Dudamel found and voiced the non-Shakespearean influences that moved Tchaikovsky--a mixture of exact opposites combined in a single work--the style of Wagner and the style of Mendelssohn. The attitudes of both composers felt blended and almost reconciled in this elegant but dramatic performance.

Cheers to the section strings for the 21st century clarity in the rhythmic interplay of the opening texture. The precise frictions of this passage generated a platform to launch this second of the three overtures.

Orlando Bloom (as Romeo) and Anika Noni Rose (as Juliet) gave us a narrative blend that harmonized with the musical blend in the final work of the event: the famous Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture.

This production had a technical elegance in the camera angles that was lacking in the first transmission last January. The preconcert footage was informative and colorful. Only the post-concert questions came up short--we just wanted to decompress and, if anything, talk with the folks who had just performed. The questions were banal and distracting in this context.

But this was it. This event realized some of the massive potential in this new medium. I am already looking forward to the next transmission on June 5.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

LA Phil Live in HD: Balakirev's Ice-Cream and Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasia on Hamlet

Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasia on Hamlet is a work that many have unfairly dismissed. "Hamlet pays Ophelia compliments," wrote Russian composer Mily Balakirev in the margin of his own copy of the score, "then hands her an ice-cream."

Gustavo Dudamel will conduct this infrequently played work, along with the two Tchaikovsky other overtures inspired by in the next LA Phil Live in HD transmission into movie theaters on Sunday March 13. But with a map that charts the trajectory of this restless Overture-Fantasia, you will soon hear that there is more to this work than compliments and ice-cream:

This is a work of contradictions. It has no separate development section but is prefaced by an intensely developmental introduction that spans almost five minutes. The music opens with a presentation, then three developmental restatements of a passage often called the Fate theme, separated by parallel sequential interludes:

[0:05]: Fate Theme
[0:40]: Fate Theme with tail motive developed and extended
[1:18]: Interlude I
[1:43]: Fate Theme further developed
[2:17]: Interlude II
[2:43]: Fate Theme developed with figuration from the interlude

[3:27]: A memorable passage in which the hour of midnight is symbolically tolled. Twelve times in regular succession the stopped horns toll an octave G.

[4:17-4:51] After a loud articulation on the tam-tam, the fate motive is played by trombones with a rich background of triplets. Many writers have heard this passage as representing the interaction of Hamlet and the ghost of his father. The passage dissolves in triplets and fragmented gestures and ends in total silence.

[4:52] The exposition begins with a theme in F minor with a rising contour that contradicts the primary shape of the fate theme. The theme is presented again in sequence [5:05].

[5:24] The transition opens in the bassoons and is further articulated by brass and cymbals. The music becomes obsessed with chromatic melodic motion until it blurs and dissolves into another separative silence.

[6:49] Solo oboe articulates the second theme group, which begins in the key of B Minor; a tritone away from the F minor in which the first theme group is set. This is the passage that most writers have associated with Ophelia. Far from paying her "compliments," this is music that shows her character to be isolated and set apart.

[0:00] This second part of the YouTube video opens with the famous "ice-cream" passage to which Balakirev referred. In a style that Tchaikovsky mastered, D major is articulated without ever being present in root position, largely through the insistence of a ringing octave A that saturates the entire passage.

[0:28] The tune shifts to the strings and [0:56] a developmental passage marked "Animando poco a poco" shifts the music around corners.

[1:17] On a G pedal we hear a grotesque march that intensifies until a retransition is made from the opening tune of the first theme group.

[1:50] The recapitulation begins as an intensification. The transition [2:20] jumps immediately to the music of chromatic blur and bypasses the passage played by bassoons in the exposition.

[3:07] There is no pause. The Ophelia music is heard in B-flat minor in a clever texture into which several developmental ideas are woven. Even when Ophelia interacts with other ideas her music remains remote and unresolved.

[4:39] A grand pause is heard just before this presentation of the lyrical music that continues the second theme group; this time in D-flat major.

[5:42] The texture breaks suddenly and the music intensifies until [6:17] the fate theme from the introduction is played several times by the trombones.

[6:38]Parallelism with the exposition is re-established as the grotesque march is heard over a C pedal. This passage is sequenced higher in chromatic motion and leads to a fanfare based on the Fate theme.

[7:25] The coda, marked Poco più animato, begins with a development from the rising motive of the first theme group. There is a fermata on a fffff chord scored low in winds…certainly one of the most intense chords in all of Tchaikovsky's music.

[7:52] The interlude from the introduction appears again and a falling cello line [8:15] marks the closing gestures of the work. Muted cellos sing [8:37] the opening fate theme in a passage that sounds like a funeral march in F minor.

The process of contemplating even the simplest description of the events in this piece allows one sympathy for those who got lost along the way. The overture-fantasia is filled with tensions, broken sequences, and lyrical episodes that float outside norms. Balakirev's ice-cream fantasy is funny, but its impatience shows us how easy it is to give up on complexities worth hearing.

This is not music that panders to the masses. I will be happy to hear what Dudamel does with this work of contradictions on Sunday...
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