Friday, January 25, 2013

Langrée conducts Mozart in the Digital Concert Hall

Musical silences can cut like diamonds. Mozart marked several silences with fermatas in his overture to La Clemenza di Tito, and guest conductor Louis Langrée extended these moments to create the sense of wonderful strangeness in an all-Mozart concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker transmitted through the Digital Concert Hall.

The point of this strangeness connected with the extended silence just before the recapitulation; which then continued in reverse order; with the wind driven second theme group coming ahead of the dramatic fanfares which opened the work.

The Met has La Clemenza in its repertoire this season and fans have this entire opera ringing in their ears. It was welcome to hear the overture in this symphonic context because Mozart was so frequently concerned with blurring boundaries between orchestral music, sacred music, and opera. In the interval interview with Emmanuel Pahud, Langrée noted that one needs to balance concerns for pure structure in Mozart with concerns for the power and meaning drawn from the rich surfaces of the music itself. One "shouldn't interpret," said Langrée, "just balance the elements."

In an article specifically about Clemenza, I wrote about its underlying Dorian structure. Like Clemenza, the Davide Penitente K. 469 also begins and ends in C; but unlike Clemenza, shifts from the darkness of C minor into bright C major at its close. However, its deeper key structure shares a similar C dorian structure, with the key of its movements articulating various tones of the mode. This reading helps to explain the lovely impression created by the terzetto, which is set in E (which sounds like the brightened picardy third of the mode) but not E major...E minor: a darkened picardy.

Langrée connected the tenor aria (newly written for this specific work by Mozart) into the Chorus in G minor to form the central axis of the performance. The tenor aria also sought mercy (pietà perhaps rather than clemenza), rejoiced, and then followed a specially constructed transition directly into the chorus. It was in moments like these that make the impression created by this work vastly differed from the intention of the better known C minor mass from which most of the music was recycled (by Mozart himself).

Between these two works which could be brothers, the first half of the program closed with the late G minor symphony. In it one was drawn to counterpoint balanced with artistic care so that each part had meaning. When this concert arrives in the archive listen for the way that lines arced from one player to the next in the winds with elegant gracefulness. There was a dialog between clarinet and bassoon  near the end of the exposition where the colors sounded like two shades of a single instrument. As always the strings of the Berliner Philharmoniker played with burning colors that were particularly welcome on a cold winter day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Time to Hang-Out; Two Live Interviews by Sarah Willis Coming your Way

What is a live hang-out? It is an opportunity to join a group of people who span the globe who have tuned in to listen to Sarah Willis interview a cutting edge, and/or legendary classical musician. Willis has the knack for getting beyond quick-search information. She is able to bring out a wide range of colors and personality in the folks that she engages. She also takes a wide selection of questions from the live chat; so if you ask a good question it is likely to be asked! I have made it a habit to tune in and each interview has been worthwhile. Coming up this week:

Frøydis Ree Wekre January 24th 8am NYC (2pm Berlin). Frøydis is a legendary horn player who is best known for her work with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra over a 30 year period ending in 1991. On the lighter side of her long list of honors: She was the recipient of a wonderful surprise birthday greeting from the Hornisten der Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2011 that is on YouTube and is filled with good cheer (and good groove).

On Saturday Jan 26th 8am NYC (2pm Berlin) Barbara Hannigan will talk about “Performing Onstage and Music Communication.” Hannigan is well represented in the archive of the digital concert hall with three performances; most recently one of the “Late Night Series” where she performed the Henze’s work “Being Beauteous,” and the Walton Façade. She is a charismatic performer but I have never heard her interviewed so I look forward to this hang-out.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Listening to Maria Stuarda; Met Live in HD

They say that truth is stranger than fiction; but it is not stranger than opera. Opera frequently changes historical truth to be truer to human emotion.

Donizetti’s opera “Maria Stuarda” is centered on a confrontation of two queens; Elizabeth I and Mary Stuarda. The first part of the opera anticipates an explosive meeting between the two, and the final act works through its aftermath. The meeting of the queens was not historical reality, but became expressed as a dramatic inevitability in a play written by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) which was the source for Donizetti’s libretto.

Historical Information Relevant to this Opera

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She came to the throne in spite of continued debate about female succession in the monarchy. England was also divided by those who wished for the country to remain Catholic and those who advocated an independent Church of England. Her mother became associated with the new church as a means of providing Henry VIII legal divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth attempted to resolve this division in 1559 with the “Elizabethan Religious Settlement” which articulated the idea that the church was both “Catholic” and “Reformed.”

Mary Stuart [Mary Queen of Scots] (1542-1587) daughter of James V of Scotland, whose mother was Margaret Tudor (a daughter of Henry VII of England). Mary’s bloodline from Henry VII gave her a better claim to the English throne than Elizabeth had in the view of many contemporary thinkers. She represented catholic interests and was also therefore a threat to Elizabeth’s reforms.

 A bird’s eye view of the opera
The opera moves from fantasy toward truth; toward fact. There is a confessional scene the second act in which not only does the central character confess, but so does the opera itself…more on that later!

This opera is a fabulous introduction to the essential style of Italian opera. Italian opera prioritized the voice and the singer, and in this work the plot moves slowly until each singer is formally introduced through a multi-part aria. Duets are used to mark the close of larger sections of music, and to express the love triangle in vocal terms. Duets in act I are summations and use the tenor voice to frame the love triangle:

Act I
  • Brief Prelude (featuring clarinet) and scene setting opening chorus. The chorus is used as a framing device in this opera [the chorus appears again during the execution scene]
  • Double Aria introducing Queen Elizabeth (Soprano) (low register; unusual key
  • Double Aria introducing (Tenor) Leicester
  • Duet (set in double aria structure): Leicester and Elisabetta
  • Double Aria introducing Maria Stuarda
  • Duet (set in double aria structure): Leicester and Maria
  •  The Confrontation Scene (an extended finale); with middle section longer than the Larghetto (which is a canonic sextet) and stretta combined. Maris calls Elizabetta the “Figlia impura di Bolena Impure daughter of [Anne] Boleyn" then really goes over the top: “Profonato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè! The English throne is sullied, vile bastard, by your foot"
 Act II
  • Solo Aria → Duet →Trio [Elizabeth, Cecil, Leicester] as death warrant is signed
  • Confessional [Maria, Talbot]
  • The public execution scene: Chorus →Aria del Supplizio [Composed of two slow sections…which breaks formal norms for expressive purposes]→brief duet and final aria for Maria Stuarda.
During the confessional scene in Act II the opera itself confesses! Mary imagines that the ghost of Lord Darnley is in the room with her [Darnley was her second husband and father of her son James who succeeded Elizabeth I as James I of England. Darnley was murdered at age 22]. Talbot then mentions her “unity with” Babington. She responds "Ah! be silent; it was a fatal error", but then: "Yes, dying my heart affirms it." This moment refers to the “Babington Plot,” Anthony Babington [1561-1586] was convicted of conspiring against Elizabeth I and with Maria Stuarda. These fragments are among the actual reasons Maria Stuarda was executed.

A closer look at the style of Elizabetta’s entrance music:
Listen to how Elizabetta’s personality is captured in her entrance music: “Ah! Quando all’ara scorgemi” [Ah, when I see at the altar step]
  • The opening passage contrasts a Beethovenesque chord progression with a light-heated close
  • Elizabetta sings in the dark key of Gb major; she sings music embedded in dance styling
  • Embellishments of the bel canto style close each line of text and continually intensify.
  • Listen for the strangeness of her personality expressed by the lowest extremes of soprano range, then a middle section in the minor mode
  •  After an interruption by Cecil and Talbot the structure continues:
  • Cabaletta: "Ah, dal ciel descenda un raggio" — "May heaven send a ray of light."
  • A choral reaction forms the centerpiece, and then the cabaletta returns and has an expressive and elaborate solo/choral closing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sarah Willis to Interview Trumpet Virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger

The first live interview in 2013 in the continuing series hosted by Sarah Willis will happen tomorrow at 8am here on the US East Coast. Sarah will be speaking with the Swedish trumpet virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger live on her website. Hardenberger has extended the repertoire for the trumpet by inspiring works by composers like Arvo Pärt, Hans Werner Henze, and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. HK Gruber’s 1999 concerto "Aerial," also written for and performed by Hardenberger is showing up all over the place these days.

I have tuned-in these live interviews over the past month or so, and would strongly recommend them. The audience comments are warm and informative and Willis has significant skill in keeping topics on track and finding her way to topics that have broad appeal. Pass information to the folks you know in the new music crowd...the interview tomorrow figures to be one they will be happy to have discovered.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Program Notes for Bridgeport Symphony March 2013

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Capriccio Italien, opus 45
Instrumentation: 3 Flutes, 3 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 4 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, harp and strings

Souvenirs often reflect our own personality. They are things we seek to remember time away from ordinary routines and sights. But when Tchaikovsky found himself in Rome in early 1880 he was not vacationing; he was officially “wandering.”

His work at the Moscow Conservatory had come to an end, but several of his works (including his fourth symphony, the violin concerto, and the opera Eugene Onegin) had established a significant international reputation. He was receiving a regular allowance from Nadezhda von Meck; his mysterious and wealthy patroness for the next ten years. His marriage had dissolved; and it became time for that “wandering” that was the Romantic poetic ideal.

One might best hear this work as a presentation of memories from this time in Rome; with Tchaikovsky guiding us from one sonic photograph to the next; sometimes returning to a previous slide to add or develop another memory or forgotten association.

His brother Modest wrote that the opening trumpet call was transcribed from actual bugle music played by an Italian cavalry regiment stationed near his hotel. Other segments of these musical souvenirs reflect the exotic and rustic qualities of life in Italy as observed by Tchaikovsky. Near the end of the work he launches into a Tarentella; a characteristic southern Italian dance.

For advanced listeners: observe how the final four notes of the opening trumpet call are isolated by Tchaikovsky into a fate motive. Immediately after the opening fanfare there are four echoes of these four notes each differently scored in the orchestra. The accompaniment of the next passages uses a four-note figure (in much faster rhythmic articulations) also stated four times before the melody begins in the strings.

Giacomo Puccini

Capriccio sinfonico
Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings

“I felt inspired,” wrote Puccini about the composition of his Capriccio sinfonico, “and composed it at home, in the street, in class, at the Osteria Aida or at the Excelsior of good old Signore Gigi where one ate without the silly pretense of being able to pay for it; I wrote on odd sheets, bits of paper and the margin of newspapers.” 

The work came at the end of a great turning point in Puccini’s life. He presented it formally as part of the graduation requirements for a degree from the Milan Conservatory, on Monday July 16, 1883, at the age of 25.

Puccini had come to Milan to study three years prior. A stipend from a relative and a scholarship from the Conservatory afforded him the opportunity to study in an operatic town that boasted the presence of La Scala. During his studies he worked with the composer Amilcare Ponchielli (best known for his opera La Gioconda). 

The sense of what the Bohemian life was like was something Puccini learned during his college days.
Listening to the Capriccio sinfonico can give us an autobiographical glimpse into this connection. In spite of the title “sinfonico,” the work is best heard as an introduction, a sequence of instrumental “scenes” and a coda. The second of these “scenes” (about four minutes into the work), is music that was extracted by Puccini to open his most famous opera La bohème. The music is immediately recognizable if you know the opera, and the direct connection to his bohemian student days through this thesis composition is irresistible.

Gioachino Rossini  
Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings 

Rossini’s L'Italiana in Algeri was written in 1813 when the composer was 21 years old. It was one of four operas he wrote that year (Tancredi was another of the four). It was the 11th of Rossini’s 39 completed operas. The libretto was written by Angelo Anelli, but the same libretto was set in 1808 by the composer Luigi Mosca for La Scala.

The opera itself explored new ways to revitalize the comic opera tradition, and its solutions would give new life to the genre. From this point forward there would be no turning back. Rossini became famous.  He would influence and alter the course of operatic history and made enough money that he could retire at age 39. He lived in relaxed style in Paris for many years while giving advice, when he felt like it, on topics ranging from music to cooking.

This overture reveals the exotic setting for the opera by imitating textures that were considered “Turkish” in the early 19th century. In this case it involves the use of bells (originally supported on an instrument called a “Turkish crescent”) and several extended solos for the oboe.

The slow introduction begins with pizzicato strings but is centered on an extended oboe solo. The allegro music is fast and celebratory and after a sparkling transition the oboe returns as a featured solo instrument of the second theme group.

Listen carefully for a passage of gradual intensification that culminates in a brilliant display of colorful sound. This technique was so characteristic of the composer, in both instrumental and operatic vocal ensembles, that it became known as a “Rossini Crescendo.” 

There is no independent development section and, typical of operatic overtures from this time, after the Rossini crescendo the recapitulation begins immediately, recasting and balancing all the music sounded after the slow introduction.

Samuel Barber

Medea's Meditation & Dance Op.23a
Instrumentation: 3 Flutes, 3 Oboes, 4 Clarinets, 3 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, harp, piano and strings

The ballet from which this work was derived was created for Martha Graham, commissioned by the Diston Fund of Columbia University, and premiered in the spring of 1946. Graham’s title was “Cave of the Heart,” but Barber specifically named the legendary sorceress in his adaptations from the ballet: his Medea suite (op.23) and in this Meditation and Dance op.23a.

The Jason/Medea legend is not portrayed with any intention of being literal. “These mythical figures,” wrote Barber, “served rather to project psychological states of jealously and vengeance which are timeless.” Barber intended for us to catch the ancient origins of these emotional states, but as the musical tension and conflict increases, for the characters to “step out of their legendary roles and become modern man and woman…caught in the nets of jealousy and destructive love.”

The dance begins with music that unfolds over an extended drone in the bass. A broken sounding gesture in the xylophone overlays lyrical but discordant wind music. As it progresses the personality of the music moves further away from consonance and stretches into simultaneous but conflicting tonalities. The gestures then become isolated and staccato in a pointillistic development of the idea originally stated in the xylophone.

The entrance of a military sounding snare drum introduces a march which leads inexorably to a dark fanfare and then into the Dance of Vengeance. The dance is strangely jazzy; led by an ostinato in the piano. The music surges further and further out of control pausing occasionally to gather itself, but ending in fury.

Ottorino Respighi
(1879 –1936)

Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, (6 buccine), timpani, harp, celesta, piano, organ and strings.

Respighi spent the first half of his life as a performer (he played both viola and violin), and the second half as a teacher of musical composition in Rome. There were two important and colorful excursions he took; one during each of the “halves” of his life.  At the age of 20 he spent a season in St. Petersburg where he was principal violist for the Italian Opera series of the Russian Imperial Theatre. This experience allowed him to study with Rimsky-Korsakov; one of the greatest masters of orchestral writing of his generation. A trip to Rio de Janerio colored his later life.

Respighi was born in Bologna, but lived in Rome beginning in 1913 when he was appointed to teach composition in the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. He soon began a series of three now famous works that celebrate Rome: The Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928).

The “Pines of Rome” is divided into four sections played without breaks between the movements. The four movements are designed to provide maximum contrast from one to the next. The first movement, “I pini di Villa Borghese” (Pines of the Villa Borghese), evokes the sound of children laughing and playing. The trees provide protection and shade for this energetic scene.

This is contrasted by the “Pini presso una catacomb” (Pines Near a Catacomb). Now we descend into the darkness of catacombs with the sound of deep divided strings alternating with chant-like music in the brass. We are treated to otherworldly images and occasionally guided by the harp.

From the world of the dead we emerge in the third movement to meditate on the evening sky. “I pini del Gianicolo” (Pines of the Janiculum), is set on a hilltop, looking up to mediate on the evening sky as the light fades from it. The entrance of piano figuration marks the beginning of this section of the work, and it ends with a recording of blackbirds whistling and singing that will be played over the Klein’s sound system. The orchestra continues to play and to interact with these recorded birds; Respighi carefully constructed the passage and notated them all into the score.

The final movement, “I pini della Via Appia” (Pines of the Appian Way), moves us back into the real-world evoked in the first movement; this time the music is a steady march that intensifies as the procession grows closer and closer to us. The work ends with one of the finest extended loud passages for orchestra written in the 20th century.

Jeffrey Johnson
University of Bridgeport

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Peace and Enchantment Surround Us;" Les Troyens in first Live-in-HD "3."

Photo by KEN HOWARD / Metropolitan Opera

 At last it felt like the start of a year ending in a 3: Les Troyens has been at the Met every year ending in "3" since 1973. This season marked the first Live-in-HD "3."

 As with any ten-year homecoming there was much to measure. Deborah Voigt was cast once again as Cassandre. She looked great and was often convincing in the role. But the color of her voice remained discordant with the intentions of the part, which was scored for mezzo-soprano. Granted that Berlioz wrote for voices in ways that are very individualized, and that the writing for Cassandre lies high in the mezzo range. But he was always very particular about the choice of instruments; even if he chose to explore unique shades of the instrument.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was tenor Bryan Hymel who was a simply awesome Aeneas; an unexpected delight, and a perfect vocal match for the part. He replaced Marcello Giordani who "retired the role" from his repertoire midway through this run. Hymel was an upgrade. He was confident, young, vocally strong, and remained engaging throughout the performance.

One of the best indicators of the strange match between his voice and this role was in Énée’s Narration from the first act where Aeneas described the ingestion of the priest Laocoön by a sea serpent, after warning the Trojans to get rid of that damn wooden horse. Alas.

Hymel was able to carry the gradual register shift in this narration in a single carefully unfolding line, and reached the very highest part of his voice without the presence of any obvious registeral breaks. His chemistry with Susan Graham also made for good opera.

Graham embodied Dido. She could hear the influences of Gluck in this role; yet was also able to wring the mystical, futuristic side of the part with equal enchantment. She was completely believable.

"Peace and enchantment surround us," sang seven principle characters in a choral interlude just before the end of the fourth act. In the opera, peace was an island between the foreboding of Cassandre and the heartbreak of Dido.  Francesca Zambello's 2003 production allowed us to savor this peaceful moment, and the HD cameras brought it to us with intimate and tender expression.
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