Thursday, September 29, 2016
Missy Mazzoli, a 36-year-old composer from Brooklyn, has created the most startling and moving new American opera in memory. This astonishing achievement—in collaboration with librettist Royce Vavrek—was part of the opening week at Opera Philadelphia, which had commissioned the work and staged its world premiere. The “industry audience” that was present of course expected to cheer the composer, a popular figure in New York’s new music circles. But the stunned silence when the curtain fell is not something that can be planned. Neither did the screaming ovation that followed sound like pro forma good will. Mazzoli found a way to dramatize in music the paradoxical falling/rising of a simple girl, Bess, who from the utmost degradation and a terrible death becomes a healing spirit of love affirmed against the odds, expressing a pure impurity. The story is set on the Isle of Skye, seaside, in the 1970’s. Bess—because of her love for her husband—defies conventional lower middle class morality, a venomously repressive life-denying Christian religion to become as one with the eternal feminine, a transcendent spirit of courageous joy and affirmation. Mazzoli used a fairly simple technique, falling and rising slides which sometimes become scales that ascend and descend, to make us continually aware of the fall/rise of this great spirit. Mazzoli proved that originality in music is not something literally never heard before but rather a combination of familiar techniques, some from the musical avant-garde of sixty years ago (what was then called musique concrete), some rooted in “serious” Western Music, some generated in the 1980’s (Minimalism). She wove them into an unexpected and rich tapestry, not heard before, not in this way and not to this effect. Vavrek’s handling of the story, based on Lars Von Trier’s disturbing 1996 film, evoked the operatic trope of woman as redemptive force, becoming a very contemporary version of Wagner’s “The Redemption of the World through Love” idea at the end of the Ring or his Senta (like Bess a redeemer by the sea) to a Lulu-like earth spirit who embodies the shocking and disturbing sexual power of women. But unlike that unfortunate, Bess transcends what society regards as a perversion to create in death a kind of miracle. Mazzoli is herself a performer. She began in music as an adolescent singer. She has an all-female “post-rock” band called Victoire, indeed in Breaking the Waves she uses an electric guitar as the voice of God; it had, she said “ambiguity and strangeness”. Singing was her first musical impulse in life, later refined by formidable training, and extensive experience writing “serious music.” It makes her a natural for opera. That she has a spontaneous love of music rooted in word, emotion, theater, supported by complex structures and high sophistication and a constant contact with the emotional states of characters allows her to create drama through music. In contrast to most academically trained composers, Mazzoli understands that performers are the lifeblood of opera. They must serve but also be served by the music. With tremendous skill, Mazzoli has made the role of her heroine, Bess, an equal of the great virtuoso roles in opera. And she found an astounding singer: Kiera Duffy, who gave one of the greatest performances I have seen in the opera house in the past 20 years, maybe more. Duffy rolled back time to become what great opera singers are supposed to be but usually aren’t now—an unforgettable embodiment of profound emotion through music. I doubt the audience at this world premiere understood that Duffy was giving an archetypal performance of tremendous authority, accomplishment, and profundity in something new. She was the great singer as both creator and servant without whom an opera can’t work. Like the opera itself, what she did was new because it is only possible now in this precise way yet ancient because it is what the greatest composers have always yearned for—a tremendous musical performer who could live in their work, whose soul, expressed through her voice, united with the composer’s truth to attain a soaring affirmation not only of a particular narrative but of the value and magic of the form itself. Duffy has a sweet crystalline high soprano. She is at ease over a very wide range. She was always precisely in tune and every word was clear even very high— in a Scottish accent no less! She is a superb musician, shaping phrases, allowing her voice to find the musical impulse at every second. She is also improbably brave for an operatic performer. She sang naked, was bare breasted often, and gave herself over to the sexual behavior of the character without even an instant of self-consciousness. What she did is very risky for a performer and she worked without a net, throwing herself into Bess and personifying this entire work. Breaking the Waves, like many recent operas uses a film as its basis, not the easiest task of adaptation. Most of the operas of the past were based on plays where the narrative—however much it had to be simplified and changed to accommodate music—had already been solved for the stage. But in a film, an entire universe can be delivered directly to the viewer’s brain, encompassing events impossible to depict in a live theater. Neither the horrifying accident that nearly kills Bess’s Norwegian husband, Jan nor her detailed sexual exploits with him and then a range of men at his request can even begin to be recreated on stage. The complex rig in the strange light of the island, the sound of waves, the dreary streets and the lives of the shadowy people who walk them can barely be hinted at on stage. Vavrek had to find a way to tell this story on a modest sized stage in a low- budget context where much of what happens and all the locations could only be suggested in simple ways. He needed to find text that established characters directly and simply but did not reduce them to cartoons. He had to dramatize with the most simple tools—words and stage actions—without signposting or “indicating” highly specific and often strange events. He accomplished this task admirably. There was nothing silly, inapt, over-general in what he wrote. His words are well chosen for music and sound natural when sung. The thrust of the story was maintained and never trivialized. Bess, a girl with a history of psychiatric problems (she “takes pills” for her difficulties), falls ecstatically in love with a Norwegian rig worker named Jan. She is drawn to him by the music he and the other foreigners have brought to the island. Despite the warnings of the church elders and her mother, she marries him. She suffers intense longing when he is away. To save a friend’s life he puts himself in danger and falls, shattering his body. He is left alive but paralyzed. The kind Dr. Richardson tells Bess “sometimes it’s better to die, life shouldn’t be preserved at any cost,” but aware of the life force in Jan, Bess refuses to listen. Jan asks her to have sex with other men and to tell him about it in detail. She is shocked at first but then agrees. Jan begins to heal slowly, apparently in response to her narratives. She begins to realize that life sometimes must be lived in fantasy, in narrative—in art. She abandons herself to all the men who approach her. She is killed. The Elders of her Church curse her soul. Her mother is shamed, her sister-in-law confronts them angrily but it is Jan—miraculously recovered—who rescues Bess’s body from their graveyard and carries her to the sea, where… well, something profoundly moving happens. One of my teachers, Dika Newlin (Schoenberg’s youngest pupil and according to him the only genius he taught in America), felt that ultimately “music” was organized and controlled noise, that sounds preceded the tune and harmony. She’d argue that the first “music” we hear are noises comforting or frightening and that when we hear them as we age they evoke delight, childish terrors, joy, sorrow, the most complex emotions. The child hears sound—the clock, the rain against the window, the wind at a distance, the cars in the street, voices distant and close in conversations with their own shapes and cadences, someone humming, a distant radio or TV, doors slamming. A sophisticated ear will create powerful sounds with these homely noises as a basic vocabulary. Mazzoli’s technique is founded in such sound. She harks back to the creators of electronically enhanced sound in an artistic context, and to timbres made by unusual objects. In her opera, Mazzoli uses glockenspiel, melodica, tam-tam, and car suspension spring, along with the electric guitar, standard instruments and taped sound. Mazzoli’s tinta (a musician’s fancy way of saying “color”) starts not with musical keys but with sounds that carry automatic associations, which summon concrete emotions. Mazzoli has mentioned Janacek and Britten as influences, but Britten looms especially large. Bess’s dying calls of Jan’s name echo Peter Grimes’ keening his own name at the end of his mad scene. Mazzoli also adopts the kind of lyrical “twelve-note” technique Britten uses in Death in Venice. Her “row” is inverted, played backward, transposed and makes up most of the chords she uses. It provides melodic fragments that are molded apparently effortlessly around the words and sometimes it evolves into more sustained “tunes”. When the Doctor reaches out to Bess, his line echoes Peter Quint’s in The Turn of the Screw when he summons Miles. That iteration of part of her row, recurring twice, and is familiar enough to pull someone who knows The Turn of the Screw out of the opera for a moment. (There’s nothing unusual in that—in Turandot, one of the other works Opera Philadelphia was offering in its opening weekend, Puccini lifts Mussorgsky’s Gopak for the Executioner, and some of Schoenberg’s Pierre Lunaire (written 1912) for the Ghost Voices (Eine blasse Wäscherin and Der kranke Mond) and that’s just for starters.) For a listener of my generation, one technique she uses, Minimalism, is a little less convincing. Philip Glass developed this style after years of intense study and practice at the highest intellectual level and several mystical trips to Bali and India. It was in him and of him and worked well in his earlier operas, but even he has moved on. John Adams used an aspect of Minimalism in the marvelous orchestral works her wrote just before Nixon in China, such as Harmonielehre. But in his operas, I’ve been unconvinced. I can understand the continued appeal of Minimalism to younger composers. Here it provides Mazzoli with a sure-footed shape and framework for her chords, but the impression of repetition (despite small variations) brings a kind of stasis, a slowness of movement, to a work which might have benefitted from a more volatile and eruptive impulse. That the second and third acts felt a little longer than ideal I think can be blamed on this technique. But these are minor quibbles. Opera Philadelphia gave the opera the strong production it deserved. The director, James Darrah, found simple but effective solutions to the narrative issues and worked with the cast wonderfully. The clear lines of the set (designed by Adam Rigg), atmospheric costumes both of the period and in the mood of the piece (by Chrisi Karvonides), beautiful lighting by Pablo Santiago and remarkable projections that evoked seascapes and the eerie allure of the beach by Adam Larsen added significantly to the impact of the evening. Steven Osgood conducted the superb cast sympathetically. Eve Gigliotti as Bess’s sister-in-law unleashed tremendous power in her rebuke of the vicious Church Elders, Patricia Schuman had compelling complexity as Bess’s mother—loving but narrow and frightened. Jon Moore, perfectly cast as Jan, has a rich baritone. Handsome enough to carry off a nude scene, he projected a powerful, sympathetic masculinity. David Portillo supplied a beautiful high tenor voice and tender sympathy as the doctor. The cast was effectively rounded out by Zachery James and Marcus DeLoach. The evening was unforgettable for Kiera Duffy and the stunning work itself. May Mazzoli continue to write operas of this power! Photos: Dominic M. Mercier
By Jacob Stockinger Two FREE and appealing but very different concerts are on tap this week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music: PRO ARTE QUARTET On Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer) will perform a program that features standard works as well as new music. The quartet will play the String Quartet in B-flat Major (1790), Op. 64, No. 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn ; and the String Quartet No, 10 (1809), Op. 74, called the “Harp” Quartet, by Ludwig van Beethoven. You can hear the first movement of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, performed by the Alban Berg Quartet , in a YouTube video at the bottom. Less well is the contemporary work “Fantasies on the Name of Sacher” (2012) by French composer Philippe Hersant . Here are program notes from Pro Arte cellist Parry Karp (below): “The Haydn and Hersant are new pieces for the Pro Arte and it has been a great pleasure to learn them. “The Haydn was written at the time that Haydn’s job as the court composer of the court of Esterhazy had come to an end. It is one of the “Tost” Quartets, named for the Hungarian violinist Johann Tost. Haydn dedicated the quartets to him to thank him for his performances and helping him get a publisher for the quartets. “The next piece on the program is the “Fantasies for String Quartet” by the French composer Philippe Versant (b. 1948, below). Here are the composer’s notes on this piece: “This piece has been in the works for years. First performed in 2008, the first version for string trio included on six fantasies. I added two the following year, then an additional instrument (second violin). This version for string quartet was commissioned for the Cully Classique Festival, where it was premiered in 2012. Finally, for the Grand Prix Lycéen for Composers, I imagined a version for string orchestra, commissioned by Musique Nouvelle en Liberté (2013). “The initial challenge was to write a series of pieces that were as different as possible, from a basic material that was very narrow. That common material is a short motif of 6 notes, which correspond (in Germanic notation) to the letters of Sacher’s name (with a few twists): S (E-flat) A C H(B) E R(D). “This motif has already been used by a number of composers (Henri Dutilleux, Pierre Boulez and Benjamin Britten) in their homages to Paul Sacher , the great patron and conductor. “Joined together by the omnipresence of these six notes, the eight fantasies offer strong contrasts in character and style:the first has a high-pitched, rarefied atmosphere a la Shostakovich; the second has a taunting and obsessional tone; there is a dramatic, tense ambience in the fourth …. Two others showcase the voices of the soloists: viola (lyrical) in the third and the cello (stormy) in the seventh. “Some quotations pepper the discourse: In the third fantasy an altered version of a passage from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, and the sixth combines motifs borrowed from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 , Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Dmitri Shostakovich. A falsely naive, short children’s song closes the set. “-P. H.” The last piece on the program, the String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, by Beethoven, was named the “Harp” Quartet by the first publisher of the work. It was so named because of the the unique use of pizzicato in the first movement of the piece. This string quartet is one of the great masterpieces of the quartet repertoire with a brilliant first movement, a profound slow movement which foreshadows Beethoven’s late period, a brilliant scherzo, and a classical style variation movement as the finale. TRIO UNPREPARED On Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Trio Unprepared will perform a FREE concert of improvised music. Here is the blurb from the UW-Madison School of Music’s website: Drawing from the vast resources of contemporary, jazz, classical and global music, the Unprepared Trio presents an evening of IMPROVISED music for piano and percussion. Ensemble members are Andre Gribou, piano, and Roger Braun and Anthony DiSanza on percussion. (DiSanza teaches at the UW-Madison and is a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra .) Trio Unprepared has performed globally in extraordinarily diverse musical settings and worked together in various configurations for many years. This concert — and the subsequent tour of Wisconsin — brings the trio back together for the first time since performing in Switzerland in July 2015. A master class will follow this concert, from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Tagged: arpeggio , Arts , B-Flat Major , Beethoven , Benjamin Britten , Cello , Chamber music , children , Classical music , Classical period (music) , Dmitri Shostakovich , Esterhazy , France , French music , global , Gustav Mahler , harp , Henri Dutilleux , Hungary , Igor Stravinsky , improvisation , improvise , Jacob Stockinger , Jazz , Joseph Haydn , Ludwig van Beethoven , Madison , Madison Symphony Orchestra , master class , masterpiece , Music , New Music , Opus number , Orchestra , Paul Sacher , percussion , Philippe Hersant , Piano , Piano Trio , Pierre Boulez , pizzicato , Pro Arte Quartet , Psalms , Public university , publisher , sing , song , Switzerland , symphony , Tost , trio , United States , university , University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music , University of Wisconsin–Madison , Viola , Violin , Wisconsin , workd music , YouTube
Ten Questions With... James Held, baritone Madison Opera Studio Artist 1. Where were you born / raised? Born and raised in Waukesha, Wisconsin. 2. If you weren't a singer, what profession would you be in? I would love to be a pilot. But unfortunately I don't have perfect vision! 3. The first opera I was ever in was... ...Albert Herring by Benjamin Britten. However, I didn't sing - it was an acting role only. The first opera I ever had a singing role in was a new chamber opera by Jerry Hui called Wired for Love, about an email scammer, his target, and the online avatars they created to fool one another. The first standard opera I had a singing role in was Puccini's La Bohème. 4. My favorite opera is... Engelbert Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. 5. My favorite pre/post-show meal is... A burger at Dotty Dumpling's Dowry in downtown Madison (if only I could get one anywhere in the world). 6. People would be surprised to know that... I recently married and my wife plays the oboe. We met in an opera. 7. A few of my favorite books are... The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. All of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss (I'm still eagerly waiting for the third book to come out). 8. If we were to turn on your music-listening device right now, what five artists/songs would we see on your recently-played list? Guster, Nat King Cole, Bryn Terfel, Switchfoot, Chris Thile. 9. What is the best costume you've ever worn? The best costume I've ever worn was in high school when I was the Teen Angel in Grease. My mom handmade a white suit for me and I bought white high-top Converse Chuck Taylors to go with it. I felt so cool singing "Beauty School Dropout" and I still have the suit and the shoes! 10. Everyone should go to the opera because.... There are myriad reasons. As Wagner proclaimed, opera is a comprehensive artwork. It really is where all art forms collide. You have artists working on costumes and scenery, technicians working lighting and building sets, dancers, choreography, acting, a director, musicians in the orchestra and singing on the stage, and a conductor. The mastery it takes in each of these professions to put a complete production on stage is simply incredible. All of these elements come together to form these beautiful works of art that tell timeless stories of love, tragedy, comedy, politics, intrigue, fairy tales, adventure, etc. You name it, there's an opera about it (or someone will write an opera about it). The variety between composers is infinite, and their music is endlessly complex. One could study it for decades and still not know why it tugs at our heartstrings the way it does. That's why people should go to the opera. Bonus: One question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer): Q: How does one become an opera singer? A: Years of study and hard work. I've been training since I was 14 years old. We spend years honing our craft by taking lessons and learning hundreds of songs and arias before we even sing on a professional stage. We practice every day. We take classes in Italian, German, French, English, and other languages. We take classes in music history and music theory so we can understand the context and the construction of the music. We don't get "discovered" on America's Got Talent. The voice of an opera singer isn't fully mature until our late 20s or early 30s, sometimes later. Yes, it takes a certain amount of natural talent, but we spend countless hours learning music and improving our voices and ourselves so we can give our audience the best show possible and do justice to our art form. It doesn't happen overnight, but we put in the work because we love the art and can't imagine doing anything else. Don't miss the chance to see James all year long, on our mainstage and in our community. Visit madisonopera.org for more information.
Mozart’s death mask In its third and final Gardner concert devoted to pairing Mozart and Britten, Pacifica String Quartet this Sunday exploited the subtle connection between the drama of giving birth evoked in Mozart’s Quartet in D minor, K. 421, and the drama of dying in Britten’s String Quartet No. 3. In both cases, the foursome boldly focused on the creative process of gestation by giving remarkable attention to the importance of silence. D minor was for Mozart the key of fate and death, as in his Piano Concerto K. 466 and of course in his Requiem. The second of the Haydn quartets, K. 421, is his only mature string quartet in a minor key, and D minor gives it a special significance perhaps associated with Constanze’s pregnancy and the impending birth of their first child. Pacifica took the first movement molto moderato, as though to savor every emotional nuance and detail of Mozart’s virtuosic artistry, first violin Simin Ganatra highly emotive throughout. Composing, performing, listening, giving birth, are gestational processes that deserve a plenitude of attention. We heard clear, crisp phrasing, the instruments clearly differentiated, strong attacks and dramatic crescendo and deep shadows of brooding expectancy, especially in the development, like shifting from one part of the body’s resources to another. Tinged with a note of supplication, the coda suggesteed vulnerability. The andante A section felt stately and sober, emphasizing the Haydnesque, while the Trio took a dark turn, with stabbing pain and imminent danger. The return brought comfort by reminding us that beyond our immediate human drama a vast and serene nature pursues its own perennial purpose. In the third movement, Pacifica brought out a wonderful contrast between the wrenching, painful and emotional angst of the menuetto and the light, playful reverie of the Trio, like a daydream of a child’s magic love of wonder, making use of the Scottish snap and some judicious portamento. In the allegretto ma non troppo finale, the theme was stated perfectly, sweet and sad, all of life packed into the siciliana. The first variation was slow and gentle, but flowing from a place of great inner depth; the second, with its marvelous syncopation, was focused and determined, a bit wistful, marked by strong cello accents evoking life’s mad seduction. The third was retrospective, as though looking back at life with longing and lucidity; in the fourth we heard acceptance and joy. The coda was spectacular, with the Haydnesque surprise element transformed into a crashing dissonance, then to simultaneous D major and minor, resolving to a tierce de Piccardie, heralding both birth and death indivisibly intertwined. “The third quartet, then, is where Britten officially takes his leave … this is the moment where he gives up his soul.” So wrote Brian Hogwood of Britten’s last major work, one premiered by the Amadeus Quartet two weeks after Britten’s death. In five movements following an arch, patterned like Beethoven’s Op. 132, the work ends with a valedictory passacaglia that takes Britten across the water to the other side. Pacifica gave us a full-bodied, multi-dimensional first movement, evoking the soul adrift on the water with itself. Rostad’s viola led a marvelously threatening B section, like a sudden chill in the evening wind. In the A section repeat, soul and self sought to stabilize—most imploringly in the first violin, with an attempted flight—but for the other instruments, soul remained moored in dark shifting eddies. If the first movement evoked the soul, the ensuing Ostinato movement evoked the body, with a march-like, forceful, impelled urgency, followed by a dreamy interlude, a moment of relief but still tinged with dread. The cacophony of physical breakdown returned, ending with an attempt at rescue. Benjamin Britten The central movement marked “Solo. Very calm” returned us to the soul and to piercing beauty. Ganatra’s violin called out to the cosmos, while Vamos’s mournful cello evoked the body’s sadness that it can’t go where the soul goes. The call was answered: an outburst of sparkles, a canticle of creatures, a community of living souls, responded from a multitude of faraway worlds. With the return of the A section, we felt that the soul had breathed the pure ether of the cosmos and recovered hope. The ensuing brief Burlesque was played as a Shostakovich-like regime of terror, a diabolical dance, the middle section an astral version, the soul tempted to join the body’s rebellion, the return becoming a mad Totentanz. But then, in the marvelous finale, La Serenissima, Pacifica made the recitative a dialogue between the soul and a creative, spiritual Death that is transformation and gestation, the cello urging that the time has come, authoritative and resolute. As the passacaglia unfolded, we heard the soul give form to its own exit, compose its own swan song, express the sorrow of leaving and show us that the artist does find perfection, form, eternal youth and life’s essential elegance by receding backward into darkness, looking back tenderly until he is assumed into the light of another shore. La Serenissima! In this last quartet Britten added an epilogue to his opera Death in Venice and answered Thomas Mann: through love and loyalty to Art the artist becomes the eternal youth against the sunlight for which he reaches. Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years. The post Pacifica Savors Gestation appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
On this day in 1954 Britten’s Turn of the Screw premiered in Venice. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VRB8lklo3c Born on this day in 1885 conductor and composer Vittorio Gui. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=omQ7-Tg9glQ Born on this day in 1896 tenor José Mojica. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXLHL68XTVM Born on this day in 1910 composer and administrator Rolf Liebermann. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2A4cJjRcWs Born on this day in 1910 composer and conductor Lehman Engel. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiEVXOlIWk8 Born on this day in 1919 commentator, writer and musicologist Deryck Cooke. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4iUROyetEc Born on this day in 1933 singer/actor Harve Presnell. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByqYEzugleE Happy 81st birthday tenor Toni Krämer. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pypv6WxRvdE Happy 66th birthday tenor Raúl Giménez. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=Co-VsHDqWGw
The 37-year-old has led Northern Ireland Opera for the past six years; Antonio Pappano hails his ‘genuine passion for the art form’Oliver Mears, the artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera who once staged Britten Noye’s Fludde in Belfast zoo as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, is to be the new director of opera at Covent Garden.The Royal Opera House announced that 37-year-old Mears will succeed Kasper Holten, who leaves London in March 2017. Continue reading...
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.
Great composers of classical music