Saturday, July 31, 2010

From Schumann to Sondheim: Birthdays & Anniversaries

Yesterday I wrote on my Opera blog (Vissi D'arte--there's a link on the right side of this page) about a new "theatrical song-cycle" by Ricky Ian Gordon for the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

Today I shall write about some of the many musical anniversaries of 2010.

The two biggest mainstream anniversaries are the Bicentennial birthday celebrations of the "poet of the piano" Frederic Chopin and the mad romantic genius, Robert Schumann.

After reading the writer Jean Paul, Schumann used the then en vogue device of the Doppelgänger (double personality). Unlike Paul, Stevenson (Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde), and Dostoyevsky (The Double), Schumann applied the Doppelgänger not to his work but to his self. Or selves.

"Florestan" represented his brash, heroic manly man-hood, and "Eusebius" referred to his poetic, sensitive, and artistic self. Both characters are present in his music. That they both appear in the same works might account for one of the reasons Schumann's "major" works are less performed than his miniatures. It's OK to have Florestan in the concert hall, but let's keep Eusebius out of the sun because his fair skin might burn. Bless his heart.

Another anniversary honoree more appreciated than performed is Hugo Wolf. Like Schumann, his brief life ended in madness. If Schumann inherited the mantle of great German lieder (art song) composer from Schubert (another "sensitive" soul), then Wolf inherited it from Schumann. Wolf's songs are more of an acquired taste, and are among the most colorful and sophisticated examples of the genre. His output in "major" genres (ie: orchestral music) is virtually nonexistent. Brahms and Beethoven--both of whom wrote wonderful songs--are the titans of 19th century concert music because of their symphonies.

Jean Paul's most famous novel is called Titan, and it inspired the next giant of the German symphony, Gustav Mahler. Mahler and Wolf were both born in 1860, were colleagues who both absorbed the influence of German romanticism from Beethoven to Wagner, and had polar opposite careers. Mahler was the greatest symphonist after Beethoven, and with Richard Strauss the master of the orchestral song. Mahler was one of the most important figures in the development of that central & enigmatic role, the conductor. As the century turned, Mahler was a pioneering impresario of opera production. Wolf, like Schubert, is known primarily for his songs. Bless his heart.

One of the most interesting facets of Wolf's career was his commitment to not choose poems for his own songs another composer had previously--and successfully--set. He did not set Der Erlkönig when he got around to choosing Goethe poems, for Schubert's setting of that song is the undisputed champ. He did set a number of Goethe poems that Schubert HAD set, which raises fascinating questions of why he thought Franz got it wrong on Ganymed and the three Harfenspieler Lieder (Harp-player Songs) from Wilhelm Meister. Wolf's settings have an otherworldly beauty and are perfumed with atmosphere. He worked obsessively on one poet at a time: Mörike, Eichendorff, Goethe, and then sets of Spanish and Italian folk poems.

Schumann worked obsessively on one genre at a time. In music history we are taught that 1840 was Schumann's "song year" (liederjahr) because it was. He wrote over 100 songs in that year alone. His troubled engagement to the brilliant young pianist and composer Clara Wieck (her father didn't want her to marry the mad composer, Robert) inspired a burst of creativity that brought to life some of the greatest song cycles of the repertoire. The bulk of his orchestral output was written in manic bursts of productivity in 1841.

Without being theatrical (like Ricky Ian Gordon's new cycle) Schumann's cycles are poetic AND dramatic, as the conflicts between Florestan and Eusebius propel the songs forward, regardless of whether they follow a narrative arch (as in Dichterliebe) or consist of independent vignettes (both of the Liederkreis sets).

If you don't know Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), then go listen to any number of great interpretations from Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (baritone) or the amazing Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley (one of the few singers alive whose name alone is reason enough to sell me).

In my tribute to Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Cesare Siepi earlier this week (see "Evening Stars" below) I mentioned the new-found joy of XM radio. Another joy of this time of the year are the daily broadcasts of the BBC Proms. If you are a classical music lover and don't know about the Proms, get thee to the BBC website! You can listen online free of charge (live in GMT daily--archived for at least one week afterwards). The Proms are celebrating the Schumann anniversary by playing all four of his symphonies, a welcome bit of programming to some of the most vivid and engaging "miniatures" in the genre (his symphonies are shorter--and less dense--than those of Brahms. Like Mendelssohn, they have a Mozartean airiness. There is also a tradition of re-orchestrating the Schumann symphonies, most infamously by Gustav Mahler, to make them sound fuller--more Florestan than Eusebius. The current wisdom is to take them just as they are, with Schumann's idiosyncratic & engaging personality/ies winning the day).

One of the last nights of the Proms is a 400th anniversary celebration of the prototype of the choral-orchestral masterwork, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. Mr Green Mountain's kaleidoscope work of Psalms, hymns and canticles written for the magnificent Basilica of St Mark's in Venice is rightfully being heard around the world. (The Chorale's planned performance of it is being held off for another season in the hopes we might coordinate with the Virginia Arts Festival to give the time and attention the great work deserves. Stay tuned.)

The famous "Last Night of the Proms" is not until September. This daily smorgasbord of music started earlier this month with a great performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, the 8th. Most of the 9 weeks-worth of concerts sell out, and it's wonderful to hear the buzz of several thousand people in the audience (the Royal Albert Hall holds c. 6,000). The "Prommers" (attendees who stand &/or "promenade" in the seatless front of the concert hall) will applaud whenever they dern-well please, so the stuffy, starchy atmosphere of the traditional concert hall is given a welcome break. I'm not a fan of perfunctory applause after every "song" in a concert or recital (especially when the performer is still "in character" trying to keep the audience engaged with the dramatic/musical flow). There is a difference, however, when the applause is spontaneous and an organic outpouring of appreciation following the laser-like precision of the execution of a Beethoven--or Schumann!--scherzo.

I haven't checked the programming yet to see if the BBC is honoring the Centennials of two great American composers. I bet Samuel Barber IS getting some airtime. Along with his ravishing Adagio for Strings, his orchestral output has a pair of engaging symphonies, a trio of orchestral "essays," a pair of overtures, and three great concerti--for violin, cello, and piano, respectively. William Schuman lived in the shadow of Barber and Copland (and was an important teacher and administrator as head of the Juilliard School) but his symphonies deserve to be heard. The most familiar (an oxymoron with so much 20th century music ) is, like Copland, his Third. There are a couple great Bernstein/New York Phil recordings on itunes. Check 'em out.

I mentioned Peter Pears in my Rolfe Johnson tribute, but I don't think I mentioned his centennial. The quintessential "English tenor" was born, like Barber & Schuman (and millions of people we're not remembering) in 1910.

And Sondheim turned 80 this year, and the awesome Welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel is singing Sweeney Todd (among others) live on the BBC right now. Ciao!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Evening Stars: Siepi & Rolfe Johnson

Last week I paid tribute to the pioneering conductor (and teacher) Sir Charles Mackerras. One week after Sir Charles died, the English tenor, Anthony Rolfe Johnson died, aged 69, after a protracted struggle with Alzheimer's disease. At the beginning of the month the dashing Italian bass, Cesare Siepi died, aged 87.

Siepi was a classic basso cantate (literally "singing" bass, as opposed to a "talking" bass. Actually, it's a category to distinguish one from a comic or "character" bass). Born in Milan, Siepi helped usher in the golden age of opera at the Met under impresario Rudolf Bing in 1950. He sang over 500 performances of 17 roles in his 23-year career at the Met, but was particularly noted for two of the Primo Basso roles in the repertory: the title character in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and King Philip in Verdi's grand masterpiece, Don Carlo.

In addition to finding an apartment in Roanoke and dividing our belongings into two residences, my new position with Opera Roanoke required new transportation (I had been driving a 10-year old fixer-upper with 250K miles--not a good candidate for cross-Commonwealth commuting). We found one of the last new Saturn's in Virginia, an Aura Hybrid whose perks include XM Radio. My dial has been tuned to Sirius XM 79, which is the Met's digital radio station. If you are an opera lover and spend copious amounts of time listening to the radio, I heartily recommend it (Opera Roanoke fans should take note that our own Steven White's Met debut conducting Angela Gheorghiu and Thomas Hampson in La Traviata will be encored Friday night, August 27, at 8 pm. You can sign up for a free online trial at

Both the 1950 Met Don Carlo (with Jussi Bjorling, Jerome Hines & Robert Merrill) and a 1973 Don Giovanni paid tribute to Siepi's artistry during the two weeks following his death in Atlanta (where he'd lived for two decades).

His Don Giovanni is available in a recent Decca "Heritage Masters" re-release (the complete 3-CD set for the price of 1). His elegant, beautifully sung interpretation is perfectly balanced by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic in this remastered classic from 1955 that features Lisa Della Casa, Fernando Corena and a young Walter Berry.

Siepi made his met debut at age 27. Anthony Rolfe Johnson began his career as a farmer in Sussex and did not begin pursuing musical studies until he was 30. A contemporary of the late Philip Langridge (see my "Musings" blog for a tribute to Langridge, who died in March), Rolfe Johnson was one of a handful of tenors who inherited the mantle of the classic "English Tenor" from Benjamin Britten's partner, Peter Pears.

Pears defined a style of singing in English noted for its refinement and purity, expressiveness & nuance. Detractors of this English style criticize a perceived "preciousness" of interpretation and unevenness of technique. The Italianate style of homogenizing the voice throughout the range--so that breaks and shifts of register are imperceivable to the listener--is cited as the ideal. I happen to like both "schools" of singing, and find they both have their place.

Ironically, Rolfe Johnson's Met debut came when he replaced none other than Luciano Pavarotti in the title role of (Sir Charles Mackerras' favorite) Mozart Opera, Idomeneo.

The classic English tenors--from Pears to Rolfe Johnson to those in their prime today (John Mark Ainsley, Ian Bostridge, and Mark Padmore)--typically specialize in the music of the Baroque & Classical periods, skip over the Bel Canto 19th century and attend to Britten and the company of the 20th century.

Rolfe Johnson's legacy is preserved in a number of recordings from all of these corners of the repertory. I first became acquainted with his colorful voice and highly expressive interpretations in the operas of Monteverdi and Passions of Bach in great recordings by the period instrument specialist John Eliot Gardiner. With Eliot Gardiner, he also recorded some of Mozart's great characters, like Idomeneo and the title role of La Clemenza di Tito. Rolfe Johnson was also a noted lieder singer, and recorded landmark recital disks with Graham Johnson. His interpretations of Britten's leading tenor roles rank alongside Philip Langridge's as benchmarks that rival (and in some cases, surpass) the creator of those roles, Peter Pears.

I wrote briefly of my experience in 2002 at the Britten-Pears school in my tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras. My first visit to Aldeburgh was scheduled for the late summer of 1996, where I was to study English song with Anthony Rolfe Johnson. My first teaching position, as Associate Director of Choral & Vocal Activities at Washington & Lee University, came after I'd been accepted into the Britten-Pears course. As the start of my first semester in Lexington conflicted with the workshop in Aldeburgh, I withdrew from it to take up my teaching post. While I regret having missed the chance to work with Rolfe Johnson, my brief tenure at W & L led to my association with Opera Roanoke, from which post I'm now writing this tribute.

Rolfe Johnson's recording of Schubert's underperformed Mayrhofer setting, Abendstern, makes his recital disc on the Hyperion Schubert Song Edition a must-have. The poem is beautiful on it's own, and an eloquent metaphor for the frequently solitary, "road less traveled" path taken by the artist:

Abendstern (Evening Star)

Why do you linger alone in the sky,
O beautiful star? You are so mild;
why does the sparkling crowd
of your brothers shun your sight?
"I am the star of true love,
and they keep far away from Love."

So you should go to them,
if you are love; do not delay!
Who could then withstand you,
you sweet but stubborn light?
"I sow, but see no shoot,
and so I remain here, mournful and still."

Artists like Cesare Siepi and Anthony Rolfe Johnson have sown beautiful shoots of music through their singing. The "sparkling crowd" of their interpretations live on in the memory and the recorded legacies of two distinct & distinguished singers.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

New Opera Blog

Just in case anyone here didn't get the memo, I am now the General and Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke.

So I've started a blog for the opera which you can link to from this page. From there (the opera blog, "Vissi d'arte"), you can check out Opera Roanoke's new website, too.

Last week I posted a tribute to the great conductor and teacher, Sir Charles Mackerras, who died July 14. I will also be posting a tribute to two great--but very different--singers, Cesare Siepi and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who died July 5 & 21, respectively.

This week I'm attending workshop rehearsals for Ricky Ian Gordon's newest piece, a Civil War era "theatrical song cycle" called Rappahannock County. It is set to premiere at the 2011 Virginia Arts Festival (in a co-production with Virginia Opera). I have been sitting in on some of the rehearsals with the cast and creators, in anticipation of a preview performance Thursday night. I'll write a bit about the whole experience then.

I will leave you with a quote from a short (and appropriately dense) biography of the composer Harrison Birtwistle by Jonathan Cross.

The composer understands "the function of the chorale: it clarifies, it illuminates, it accompanies moments of stillness, of revelation, of self-recognition."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Travel Journal: Art in Barcelona, II

The author recommends listening to colorful modern music, like the evocative scores of John Adams, while reading about modern art in Barcelona.

Our trip to the Fundacio Antoni Tapies was full of pleasant surprises. Spain's greatest living artist, Tapies was born in 1923.

The Foundation "takes a plural, interdisciplinary approach and aims to set up collaborations with experts in different fields of learning to contribute to a better understanding of contemporary art and culture." That description is not nearly as interesting as the work on display.

One of Tapies' large abstract-expressionist "matter" paintings is the subject of a documentary film from 1982 by Andre S. Labarthe. Since the artist reads poetry and excerpts from books like Zen in the Art of Archery in between work sessions on Gran nus (Large Knot), I wrote a series of Haiku inspired by the film and the four-paneled work that occasioned it.

I. Footprints in black paint
On marble-powdered panels
Streaks, swirls and drips

II. Tapies means "walls"
Lines in sand, calligraphy
Organs and kotos

III. Gamelans and glass
Harmonicas as four parts
Become one picture

An artist is an "alchemist of the spirit" according to Tapies,
"someone who can transform our inner selves beyond ourselves"
(as the foundation booklet puts it).

We were transfixed by the work of Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger, an artist and psychoanalyst and child of Holocaust survivors. Her work is an engaging study in connections, the alchemy of past and present, art and science, the metaphysical and corporeal.

"Traces from the interior and trains from sight change places and are changed. Even if nothing were connected, there would be at least these remains."

Ettinger's work enacts the world she describes and the mottos she espouses. "Discover, create ties, strings, tunnels."

Her mixed media canvases (painting/drawing/collage) tunnel through history and are charged with contemporary relevance. The series of Eurydice paintings appear at first glance to be post-impressionist abstractions in beautifully deep shades of red and purple. The appearance of Ophelia alongside the muse of feminism is revealing (compare Rilke's romantic Sonnets to Orpheus with Attwood's or Gluck's Eurydice poems to understand the chasm between the sexes in reading these mythic figures. I am grateful for each).

Speaking of tunnels, history and myth, Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony (inspired by his opera about a modern Prometheus, Robert Oppenheimer), just began playing on my ipod.

While Oppenheimer and co. were building "Trinity" in Los Alamos, Joan Miro was in the middle of his astonishing 60+ year career.

His artistic response to the horrors of the war-torn 20th-century was escape. Bird-like flight and freedom achieve transcendence in Miro's paintings that combine surrealist playfulness, cubist line, and fauvist color with a light touch.

The Fundacio Joan Miro is atop a hill in the Mont Juic neighborhood of Barcelona. The natural beauty of the setting harmonizes perfectly with the museum's contents.

Some of the most telling details about Miro and his museum are to be found in the lower galleries devoted to works dedicated to the artist by his peers. The list is a "who's who" of modern art. In the order they entered my notebook were pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Tanning, Pierre Alechinsky, Robert Motherwell, Andre Masson, Erwin Bechtold, Antoni Tapies (!), Albert Casamada, Antonio Saura, Richard Serra, Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, and Fernand Leger.

"The only purpose of easel painting is to produce poetry."

By that standard, Miro produced books-full. And the work of living artists he inspired--Tapies among them--attest to the fortuitous fact that poetry continues to flow.