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Benjamin Britten

Sunday, January 22, 2017

parterre box

January 7

Sea, no evil

parterre boxYears ago, then-Times critic Steve Smith made an impulsive prediction on twitter: “I’ve spotted Missy Mazzoli at the Met for From the House of the Dead. One day I’ll be here to hear her. Bank on it.” Well, now that her second opera, Breaking the Waves, has received its New York premiere as part of the Prototype Festival of new musical theater works, I can confess something: when I read those words, I sighed just a little at the hyperbole of over-optimistic classical music critics. I have always enjoyed Mazzoli’s uncanny and highly original music, and held out great hopes for her success—her first opera, the dreamlike Song from the Uproar, was a rich and effective work—but I just didn’t think of her as a composer of, for lack of a less insulting phrase, “real opera.” You know what I mean, right? Something more drama than ritual, something with a pit orchestra that you couldn’t fit into a station wagon—something, in other words, that you might hear at the Met. That’s no shade! She had demonstrated her mastery of the chamber-music-plus-electronics format that at the time was proving especially popular among composers of her generation, and who wants to write an opera with a plot nowadays anyway? Like, how often does that even work with the aesthetics of a genuinely innovative composer? Well, I can confess these misgivings to you now, dear reader, because now that I have seen Breaking the Waves, I can assure you that I was full of shit. I was 100% wrong, and Smith is starting to seem very, very right. Breaking the Waves is not only a “real opera,” it is an immensely powerful work of music drama. Based on Lars Von Trier‘s film, the plot operates where the conventions of moralistic melodrama, and its fixation on female purity, intersect with the conventions of pornography à la Sade. When her husband Jan (baritone John Moore) is horribly injured by an accident at an oil rig, the pathologically goodhearted Bess (soprano Kiera Duffy)—confused by the paralyzed Jan’s sexual fantasies and by her own guilt at his condition—is told by the voice of God that she can keep her husband alive by debasing herself sexually for strangers. The most perverse twist of all is that it works: when she drops dead after being sexually tortured by sailors, her husband rises from his hospital bed and walks. Mazzoli’s musical voice has always been bittersweet, its placid, lyrical surface troubled by uneasy lurches of harmony. Breaking the Waves proves that she is also capable of music of brutal force. Adam Rigg‘s brilliant set in this production resembles the massive shards of an ominous ruin, or of the frozen wastes of Caspar David Friedrich‘s painting The Sea of Ice, and that might be the best way to describe the score, too: not just troubled, its brittle surface is often shattered by violent upheavals. The pit band for Breaking the Waves is not terribly large, but Mazzoli’s writing for these 14 members of the NOVUS NY Orchestra, packed with luminaries from the local new-music scene, proved boundlessly varied—Taylor Levine played electric guitar; bassoonist Brad Balliett doubled on the contra; the tremendous percussionist Ian Rosenbaum scraped a metal brake drum and blew through a melodica. Music director Julian Wachner, of Trinity Church Wall Street, steered the soloists, chorus and orchestra fearlessly through the scores uneven rhythmic layers and shaped each sound deftly. There was no shortage of talent in the pit, but I hope you’ll forgive me for wondering what Mazzoli could do with the Met Orchestra. And can she write for singers? Oh, yes. Not only do Duffy and Moore—who, on top of their delicious vocal performances, look beautiful and act marvelously—get the prerequisite lyrical love duets and arias, the supporting roles are distinctively and flatteringly written. The doctor who treats the couple (Dominic Armstrong) gets tenor melismas reminiscent of Britten’s writing for Peter Pears, while baritone Marcus DeLoach, as Bess’s minister, gets to show off the full luster of his cello-like tone, and there’s even an exhilarating trio for Jan, the doctor, and Bess’s supportive sister-in-law Dodo (Eve Gigliotti). Perhaps most satisfying is Mazzoli’s writing for the men’s chorus that doubles as the oilworkers (in “Anvil Chorus”-like unison), the disapproving patriarchy of Bess’s church (in Lutheran chorales), and the creepy, disturbing voice of God (slipping, at times, into psychotic asynchrony). During the big, climactic chorus, when Bess is finally sacrificing herself completely, I got a rash of goosebumps all over my body that refused to subside. James Darrah‘s production, imported from the Philadelphia Opera, was appropriately grim, spare, and efficient. Under his direction, the entire cast offered utterly convincing portrayals, especially Duffy’s transformation from self-repression, to self-discovery, to self-destruction, and the sensational elements of the plot were staged for maximum emotional impact without seeming exploitative—has onstage nudity ever seemed so vulnerable? And Royce Vavrek‘s libretto was a model of the sort of structural clarity that opera demands, setting up musical moments and advancing the plot and then getting the heck out of the way. Mazzoli hasn’t made it to the stage of the Met quite yet. But if there wasn’t at least one impresario in the audience on Friday night who looked at the terrific resources she was working with, saw just how much she achieved with them, and didn’t then at least think, I wonder what she could do with twice that much, then there is no hope for the form. Photo: Nicholas Korkos

Iron Tongue of Midnight


LA Chamber Orchestra 2017-18

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra celebrates its 50th birthday next season. They are also looking for their next music director; Jeffrey Kahane has left that position after quite a few years. Here's the season, which has a good helping of new music by interesting composers, including Andrew Norman: LOS ANGELES CHAMBER ORCHESTRA 2017-18 SEASON  ORCHESTRAL SERIES  Joshua Bell Plays Bernstein Saturday, September 30, 2017, 8 pm, Alex Theatre Sunday, October 1, 2017, 7 pm, Royce Hall             Jaime Martín, conductor Joshua Bell, violin MOZART                      Overture to the opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio BERNSTEIN                 Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium) for Violin and Orchestra BRAHMS                      Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11       Mozart in Focus: Symphony No. 40 Saturday, October 14, 2017, 8 pm, Alex Theatre Sunday, October 15, 2017, 7 pm, Royce Hall             Peter Oundjian, conductor Jennifer Koh, violin STRAVINSKY               Suite from the ballet, Pulcinella                                       ANDREW NORMAN     Violin Concerto (LACO Commission, World Premiere)   MOZART                      Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550                            Bach’s Brandenburgs! Saturday, December 9, 2017, 8 pm, Alex Theatre Sunday, December 10, 2017, 7 pm, Royce Hall Margaret Batjer, violin and leader Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord BACH                           The Six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051         Midweek Mozart (Mozart in Focus: Symphony No. 41) Tuesday, January 30, 2018, 8 pm, Alex Theatre Wednesday, January 31, 2018, 7 pm, Royce Hall             Thomas Dausgaard, conductor Menahem Pressler, piano BRAHMS                      Selected Dances             MOZART                      Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488             MOZART                      Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 550, “Jupiter”  Regal Classics Saturday, February 24, 2018, 8 pm, Alex Theatre Sunday, February 25, 2018, 7 pm, Royce Hall             Douglas Boyd, conductor Toby Spence, tenor ELLEN REID                 TBA (LACO Commission, World Premiere) BRITTEN                     Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31                                       HAYDN                        Symphony No. 104 in D Major, Hob.1:104, “London” Kahane Returns! Saturday, March 17, 2018, 8 pm, Alex Theatre Sunday, March 18, 2018, 7 pm, Royce Hall Jeffrey Kahane, conductor Margaret Batjer, violin RESPIGHI                    Three Botticelli Pictures  PIERRE JALBERT        Violin Concerto (LACO Co-Commission, West Coast Premiere) HAYDN                        Symphony No. 99 in E-Flat Major, Hob.1:99 Beethoven! Saturday, April 21, 2018, 8 pm, Alex Theatre Sunday, April 22, 2018, 7 pm, Royce Hall             Karina Canellakis, conductor David Fray, piano DAI FUJIKURA             Secret Forest MOZART                      Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491 BEETHOVEN               Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36                  Season Finale! (Mozart in Focus: Symphony No. 39) Saturday, May 19, 2018, 8 pm, Alex Theatre Sunday, May 20, 2018, 7 pm, Royce Hall             Sheku Kanneh-Mason, cello                                    VIVALDI                       Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Op. 3 #11 SHOSTAKOVICH         Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat Major, Op. 107                                       DERRICK SPIVA          From Here A Path        MOZART                      Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major, K. 543 BAROQUE CONVERSATIONS Thursdays, November 2, 2017, and January date TBA, March 1 and 22, and April 26, 2018, 7:30 pm, Zipper Hall, downtown Los Angeles MUSIC + DANCE (“Formerly “Westside Connections”)  Dates, programs and San Gabriel Valley venue TBA; and Ann and Jerry Moss Theater at The Herb Alpert Educational Village at New Roads School, Santa Monica.  


December 15

Protest and Dialogue

The other day, my beloved hometown orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, announced that it will be the latest in a long string of performers canceling their upcoming concerts on April 6 & 7 at the prestigious presenting series in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as a protest to the state's anti-LGBT law, HB2.  It's been interesting to see the various reactions amongst my colleagues and musical friends to this decision this week.  While there have been many praising the SFS for their decision to take a stand against this horribly discriminatory law, there have also been many who are disappointed that the orchestra will not travel to Chapel Hill and feel that the decision is tantamount to sealing off the liberal bubble that the Bay Area can be at times at the expense of maintaining a dialogue through cultural exchange. While I can appreciate both points of view, I must say that I am heartened, at a basic level, to see the SFS take a stand against bigotry and to engage in the general protest against what is basically government-sanctioned discrimination that is much wider-reaching and far more disturbing than specifying which bathroom people are to use, which the current reductive nicknames for the state law seem to imply.  I count myself lucky to be a part of a community of colleagues who understand the social responsibilities that come with our work and our public profile, and who understand the importance of saying no to bigotry, hate and discrimination in this great country. For that reason alone, I will feel extra pride when I appear with them for my 9th and 10th sets of performances with the orchestra this coming February and June. That said, I have my own performances scheduled in North Carolina coming up on April 7 & 8, right at the same time as the concerts that the SF Symphony just canceled.  I am scheduled to perform Britten's War Requiem with the North Carolina Symphony on those days, and I will definitely be performing those concerts. The current political and cultural discourse since the US presidential election in our own country seems increasingly more and more sharply divided, with people on both sides shouting more and more loudly into their respective echo chambers, and parties on every side seemingly both less empowered to and capable of hearing other points of view.  Specifically in North Carolina, things are so divided that only a handful of votes determined the outcome of the state's Gubernatorial election this year.  Tie that in with the atrocities being reported from Aleppo, reports of Russia's successful efforts to influence the US presidential election through cyber attacks and hacking, as well as the recent reports of China flying nuclear-capable bombers around the South China Sea to demonstrate their displeasure with the US President-elect's brazen foreign policy moves, and the times seem incredibly appropriate for a performance of the War Requiem. The piece is the pinnacle of Britten's pacifist expressions, and it is chilling - particularly at the end, in which he juxtaposes the traditional In paradisum section of the requiem mass with an eerily unsettling setting of Wilfred Owen's poem, Strange Meeting, which depicts the meeting in Hell of two soldiers who have killed each other.  Just after one of the dead soldiers says to the other, "I am the enemy you killed, my friend...", Britten overlaps the In paradisum text, which is a prayer for angels to lead the dead into paradise where they can enjoy eternal rest, with the very end of Owen's poem. While the overarching effect of Britten's musical setting as it reaches its climax is hopeful, transcendent and ethereal, implying that paradise is eventually reached - it is a powerful ending that is tinged with a slight sense of both uncertainty and warning. I am looking forward to April - it will be a privilege to perform this amazing piece, written by a pacifist and humanist who was a gay pioneer.  Its message is tragically timeless, and as the world seemingly spins more and more out of control with each passing day, it feels more and more imperative to perform it. Not just as a prayer for peace in extraordinarily troubled times,  but as well as way to insert a different, more healing and unifying set of voices into the cultural and political dialogue.  Hopefully, our own disparate and divided voices will not just find unity in Hell, like Owen's ill-fated soldiers, but perhaps beforehand while we are all still living on this beautiful Earth, as well. 

Iron Tongue of Midnight

December 13

Nominees and the Folly of It All

A friend asked me last year about the five greatest operas written in the last 50 years. Well, in some sense it's folly to even try; on the other hand, it's an entertaining questions to ask. Here's the big problem with this enterprise, though: Thierry Vagne's attempt at a comprehensive list of all postwar operas is...enormous. I asked on my blog, I asked on Twitter (more than once), and a fair number of people played. I didn't ask anyone to give me their criteria for "greatest," and that was a mistake, because in some of these cases, I'd really like to know. I mean, for my taste, Dead Man Walking got a shocking number of nominations, and I have never thought it very good, suffering from ostinatoitis and a general lack of memorable music. Anyway, here is the list of nominees from 2015, with apologies for taking a year to post it: Corigliano, Ghosts of VersaillesHeggie, Dead Man WalkingLigeti, Le Grand MacabreGlass, SatyagrahaAdams, Nixon in ChinaBenjamin, Written on SkinCatan, Florencia en el Amazonas Puts, Silent Night Heggie, Moby DickRautavaara, RasputinEscaich, ClaudeSaariaho, L'Amour de LoinDean, BlissChin, Alice in WonderlandAdesThe TempestPowder Her FaceMessiaen, St. FrancoisGolijov, AindanamarAdams, Nixon in ChinaBirtwistle GawainMask of OrpheusGlass, Einstein on the BeachLigeti, Le Grand MacabreBerg, Three-Act Lulu (YES I KNOW THIS IS CHEATING)Stockhausen, MitwochHenze, The BassaridsNono, Al gran sole carico d'amoreBrittenThe Burning Fiery FurnaceThe Prodigal SonDeath in VeniceI'm fascinated that the three composers more than one of whose operas was nominated are all English. My own favorites of Britten's operas, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Peter Grimes, don't make the 50 year cut. My candidates, which were echoed by many others, were St. Francois, Nixon in China, Einstein on the Beach, Gawain, and Le Grand Macabre. Note that I limited my nominees to those operas I've actually seen.

The Boston Musical Intelligencer

December 12

Shalin Liu Witnessed Dover’s Expressive Nuance

The sparkle of a crisp winter evening set the tone for the concert by the Dover Quartet (violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw) on Friday evening at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. Steeped as the players are in the traditions of their acknowledged mentors, the Guarnieri, Cleveland, and Vermeer Quartets, the Dovers brought a youthful freshness combined with confident musicianship and fine-tuned expressive nuance to favorite works by Mozart, Britten, and Beethoven. Seeking a wider exposure for his music, Mozart journeyed in the spring of 1789 to the major cities of Prussia: Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin. Although he came away with a commission for six new string quartets from Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, an enthusiastic amateur cellist, he completed only three of them. In severe financial straits at the time, he never sent the promised quartets to the king, but sold them instead in 1790 to the Viennese publisher Artaria, who finally announced their publication shortly after his death in December 1791. Friday night’s program opened with the second of the so-called “Prussian” quartets, K. 589 in B-flat major, composed in May 1790, after the highly successful premiere in January of Così fan tutte. Sweetly lyrical playing of the opening theme by the Dover violins was enriched by hints of imitation in the viola and cello. In the development section, that sweetness gave way to wide leaps, incisive offbeat accents, and chromatic enhancement, culminating in a cadenza-like rush of triplets in the first violin, only to slither into a re-scored reprise of the opening. The second movement, Larghetto, gave special prominence to the king’s instrument. Camden Shaw introduced both of the principal themes with muted lyricism, always balanced by beautifully coordinated ensemble. The Menuetto, a delightful mixture of courtly and rustic modes, found the Dover players showing a keen awareness of stylistic contrasts. In the Trio, hurdy-gurdy noodling in the first section preceded a ghostly and perversely accented half-step motive in the second section before the return of the rustic theme in the first violin. The richly scored Finale in a rollicking 6/8 went by like the wind, its air of innocence belying a greatly expanded pattern of varied repetitions offset by offbeat excursions and unexpected harmonic twists. As recounted by violist van de Stadt, Benjamin Britten’s Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Opus 36 was written in 1945 just after the composer and violinist Yehudi Menuhin returned from a tour of Germany, where they played for concentration camp survivors. The premiere took place on November 21, 1945, the 250th anniversary of the death of the English composer Henry Purcell, an observance that seems to have provided an additional emotional anchor to the quartet. With the viola playing a drone, the first movement opened with a gradually-evolving C major chord outlined in the other instruments before introducing more pungent harmonies and stridently dissonant passages, only to return at the end to a calm but sorrowful C major over percussive pizzicato in the cello. The Vivace that followed opened on a repeated-note figure and continued in perpetual motion, with all four strings muted. Homage to Purcell was embodied in the third movement, Chacony, in the choice of both title and technique. The nine-bar chaconne bass theme was introduced at the opening and followed by twenty-one variations that thickened the harmonic and rhythmic texture with strident chords punctuated by solo cadenzas, but returned at the end to a triumphant C major. Energetic and virtuosic playing demonstrated the Dover’s passionate commitment to this work. Dover Quartet (file photo) The Andante con moto introduction to Beethoven’s C Major Quartet, Opus 59, No. 3, played after the intermission, opens with a search for harmonic clarity reminiscent of the off-key introduction of his own first symphony, but even more strongly of Haydn’s depiction of chaos in the introduction to The Creation. The first chord, a diminished seventh built on F sharp in the cello, belongs to no key at all. As the cello moves gradually downward, the first violin rises, bringing the voices farther and farther apart, until they finally land on the dominant. Now a strong resolution is expected, but instead Beethoven opens the Allegro with two tentative statements of a violin theme before all four instruments come crashing down 14 measures later to establish both key and tempo with a downbeat C major chord, forte, reinforced with double stops and pounding eighth-notes in the cello. The Dover players handled the gradual evolution from chaos to order in this passage with carefully controlled restraint, maintaining a suspenseful atmosphere throughout. After the development, the return of the Allegro is heralded by harmonies borrowed from the conclusion of the introduction, then launches into an ornamented version of the violin theme that functions almost like a cadenza leading to the emphatic C major downbeat. Here again the players captured the feeling of suspense we experienced earlier in the movement. In the second movement, Andante con moto quasi Allegretto, they maintained the lyrical 6/8 pace of the exotic-sounding melody over cello pizzicato, conveying nostalgia but never sentimentality, the mood darkening at the end in the pianissimo cello conclusion. There was plenty of virtuosic passage work passed from one instrument to the other in the Menuetto and its syncopated Trio, all executed with sure-footed panache. The Coda brought more harmonic mystery, ending on a dominant seventh that barely prepared us for the headlong rush (attacca subito) of the Allegro molto fugal opening. Although the fugal texture is sporadic, the running eighth notes almost never stop. When they do, the effect is dramatic, as when they introduce the return of the fugue, now with a new counter-theme in staccato half-notes. What made the Dover’s performance so convincing was their absolute control of rhythm and dynamics through multiple shifts in phrasing and texture right up to the madcap fortissimo skirmish of the coda. We’re eager to hear more from this accomplished quartet, whose debut CD, containing Mozart’s Prussian Quartets in B-flat and F Major along with his Quintet in C Minor with violist Michael Tree has just been issued. Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music. The post Shalin Liu Witnessed Dover’s Expressive Nuance appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .

Benjamin Britten
(1913 – 1976)

Benjamin Britten (22 November 1913 - 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. Showing prodigious talent from an early age – he composed his Quatre Chansons françaises for soprano and orchestra at the age of fourteen – he first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy Was Born. With the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes in 1945 Britten leapt to international fame, and for the next fifteen years he devoted much of his compositional attention to writing operas, several of which now appear regularly on international stages. Britten's interests as a composer were wide-ranging; he produced important music in such varied genres as orchestral, choral, solo vocal (much of it written for the tenor Peter Pears), chamber and instrumental, as well as film music. Britten also took a great interest in writing music for children and amateur performers, and was considered a fine pianist and conductor.

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