Friday, March 24, 2017
Christoph von Dohnanyi, who has been unwell since the start of the year, has called off next month’s Pittsburgh date. But here’s the surprise: his replacement is Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil music director, who hardly ever conducts any other US orchestra. Among many unanswered questions, how can the deficit-dragging Pittsburgh Symphony afford so expensive a substitute? And what’s Dude’s game? It’s a bread-an-butter concert (prog below). Where’s the beefsteak? Strauss: Don Juan, Opus 20 Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67
The older composer essentially told Brahms that the younger composer would be nowhere without him. And, despite the many issues, "Wagner is so ingrained into our classical musical landscape ... that it’s impossible to listen to him and not feel a deep sense of familiarity. For all of his snark towards Brahms for 'making him what he was,' be it direct or indirect, Wagner did kind of shape classical music in a world beyond Beethoven."
Royal Opera House, London; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester Musical excellence wins out as Kasper Holten bids farewell to Covent Garden on a distractingly grand scale. And Mark Elder and the Hallé soarA myriad of concertina folds, fluted facades and slatted wood, the set for the Royal Opera’s new Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, stole the show or rather, nearly killed it. Had musical standards, under the supreme baton of Antonio Pappano and starring the bass baritone Bryn Terfel as the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, not been so bristling, alive and compelling, it might have succeeded. No toy-town medievalism here for Wagner’s troubled comedy. This Meistersinger has the look of an airless art deco mausoleum, a place in which to bury obsolete traditions with maximum ritual and, if you have the courage, face up to change. Kasper Holten’s final production as director of opera at Covent Garden made a statement, not always comprehensible or sensible but undeniably grand.After an insecure prelude, the orchestra settled into a magnificent performance, beautifully paced by Pappano, with the musicians seemingly tireless across the five hours’ duration. They never overwhelmed the singers. What a communal effort. Choruses resounded, the great quintet blazed, the Prize Song deserved that winning title. But who are the characters, where are they, what story are they telling? If a staging answers these questions, there is hope that the audience will follow. By Act 2, long before the riot which closes that act, the compass was spinning. By the third and last, the set was revolving too, albeit in very slo-mo. Tradition by now is an empty husk, the song contest central to the plot mere pageantry. Holten thinks hard and with care. His time at the Royal Opera has been an exhilarating gallop. His seriousness and amiability are not in doubt. There are moments in this Meistersinger of such integrity that the insuperable problems of the staging almost retreat. Almost. Continue reading...
The cast of Turandot © ROH/Tristram Kenton, 2013 Traditional music has always featured in classical works, from ballad opera ’s popular songs to the Croatian tunes in Haydn ’s string quartets. But it was from the 19th century onwards that opera composers developed a particular interest in national and folk music, using it both to explore other cultures and to celebrate their own countries’ traditions. For the 19th-century Russian composers known as the ‘Mighty Handful’ , traditional music was a vital part of the new style of opera they planned to create, celebrating their country’s history and folklore. Musorgsky expresses the Russian people’s loyalty through the popular folksong ‘Slava Bogu’ in Boris Godunov ’s Coronation Scene . In Prince Igor , Borodin quotes a vast array of Russian folk tunes; he also consulted a Hungarian traveller on how to make the opera’s Polovtsian scenes sound appropriately ‘Eastern’. Rimsky-Korsakov meanwhile collected more than a hundred Russian folksongs, mastering their style so well that the original ones he wrote for his operas were sometimes mistaken for authentic traditional songs. Nineteenth-century German composers also explored their country’s popular musical traditions. Wagner ’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg does not contain any authentic German folk music, but numbers such as Hans Sachs’s Act II Cobbling Song and Act III’s chorale (to a text by the real Sachs) pay tribute respectively to German folksong and Lutheran chorales . Wagner went still further in Parsifal , where the traditional ‘Dresden Amen’ is of major musical and dramatic importance . Traditional German culture meant much to him, as it did to his one-time assistant Humperdinck , who celebrated German popular song in his original folksongs for Hänsel und Gretel . In Carmen , Bizet uses traditional music to a different end – not to celebrate his own culture, but to depict a mysterious foreign one, associated almost entirely with the gypsy heroine. Carmen’s opening Habanera (based on a popular 19th-century Spanish song that Bizet wrongly believed to be a folk tune), vibrant Seguidilla and exuberant ‘Danse Bohémienne’ use melodies spiced with chromatic twists and lively Spanish dance rhythms to characterize her as sensual, exotic – and very different from the other characters, who sing in a more conventional operatic style. Puccini went further in Madama Butterfly , using traditional Japanese music – ten songs in all, sourced from a book of Japanese folk music – to depict not only his vulnerable heroine but also her environment . However, his main focus is always on Butterfly, and the conflict between East and West embodied in her ‘marriage’ to Pinkerton. He highlights the couple’s differences from their first appearances: while Pinkerton enters with a forthright, ‘Western’-sounding aria that includes a quote from ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, Butterfly arrives to a delicate setting of the Japanese folksong ‘The Lion of Echigo Province’. As the opera progresses and Butterfly’s situation worsens Japanese music increasingly dominates the score, culminating in Act III’s ritual suicide. Puccini returned to Eastern traditional music some twenty years later with Turandot , sourcing Chinese music from a musical box and a book of traditional songs. In this opera, however, national music is used to create an exotic fairytale ambience rather than depict a personal tragedy. It is also primarily associated with ritual: Turandot arrives in Act I to the Chinese folksong ‘Mo Li Hua’ (Jasmine Flower), while Emperor Altoum makes a grand entrance in Act II to the Ancient Imperial Hymn. The opera composer perhaps most associated with traditional and folk music is Janáček . A dedicated folklorist, he used his studies of the traditional music of Moravia (now the Czech Republic) to create original versions of Moravian folk music for operas such as Jenůfa with its dances and wedding songs, and The Cunning Little Vixen with its rustic animal rituals. Nor did he limit himself to his native country’s music. His two ‘Russian’ operas draw movingly on traditional Slavic music, from the playfully amorous folksongs of the young lovers Varvara and Kudrjáš in Kát’a Kabanová to the exquisite orchestral folksongs expressing the prisoners’ nostalgia for their past lives and the outside world in From the House of the Dead . Janáček’s wonderful operas show what a rich source of operatic inspiration folk music can be, both in the depiction of individual characters and in the creation of vivid environments. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg runs 11–31 March 2017. Tickets are still available. The production is a co-production with National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing , and Opera Australia , and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Dr Genevieve Davies, Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Maggie Copus, Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Malcolm Herring, The Metherell Family, Die Meistersinger Production Syndicate and the Wagner Circle . Madama Butterfly runs 20 March–25 April 2017. Tickets are still available. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 30 March 2017. Find your nearest cinema. The production is a co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona , and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Spindrift Al Swaidi, Mrs Philip Kan and the Maestro's Circle . Turandot runs 5–16 July 2017. Tickets go on general sale 28 March 2017.
Engraving of Hans Sachs (1494–1576) In 2002 I was travelling through Germany and landed up in Rothenburg ob der Tauber , a wood-framed medieval town in Bavaria that miraculously survived World War II. The town celebrates its past with a season of Festival plays written by the 16th-century cobbler and Meistersinger Hans Sachs – the hero of Wagner ’s operatic comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg . The night I was there the Town Hall was advertising Sachs’s play Das böse Weib (The Shrewish Wife). It was a great piece, nothing but fisticuffs, bad jokes and political incorrectness. I came back to London resolved to look into the entire Sachs output – and one glance at the British Library catalogue told me the thing was impossible. Sachs himself estimated that he wrote 4,275 works – tales, farces, poems, plays and songs. His dramatic works alone include 61 tragedies, 65 comedies and 85 Festival plays. (When did he ever find time to cobble?) The show I’d seen was a Carnival play, which explained its knockabout humour. It would have been played to an uproarious crowd and was stuffed with local jokes, local quarrels and local people. Looking through some other Carnival plays, I felt that, though perhaps they relied a little too heavily on the comic possibilities of horse piss, you couldn’t get over the novelty, the sheer freshness of Sachs’s invention. As I leafed through the plays I was struck by the almost Monty Python-esque humour. The situations may be late medieval, the casts made up of wandering friars, horse thieves, dim-witted peasants and suicidal calves (always falling down wells), but the storyline is cloud cuckoo land. There’s the peasant who climbs a tree and manages to knock his head off. His friends gather round the corpse. ‘Where’s Hans put his head?’, says one. ‘Was he wearing his head this morning?’, asks another. His wife is totally baffled. ‘Well’, she says, ‘I washed his hair last Sunday, he certainly had it then.’ Hans is followed by the peasant who – having lost yet another calf – determines to hatch a new one by sitting on a round of cheese. He spends the whole play clucking. But the undertow of these plays is generous. What do you do when your wife beats you up? When your husband is so stupid that he lets a neighbour sell him his own pig? Nothing, apparently. The rogues usually win. But only superficially. These plays are for Carnival time, the one time of year when you forget what a pest your neighbour is and have a drink with him. All Sachs’s play end with a cheerful admonition to accept life as it is, as you ‘pile the sausages up in stacks/And drink some wine with good Hans Sachs’. It’s on a less exalted plane than Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but recognizably the same world. Sachs wrote thousands of mastersongs – mostly on sacred subjects – other Lieds and metrical psalms. He was a member of the Nuremberg Mastersingers’ guild and his name is on the list Wagner used for the famous roll call of Masters in Act I. The government was oligarchic and – unusually for its time – deeply antipathetic to trade guilds. Yet they rated their Mastersingers and Sachs himself was honoured by his contemporaries. And it’s in this sense that Sachs was the real thing, the ordinary German artist that was so dear to the German Romantics. Goethe never lost his admiration for Sachs after reading his lyrics as a preparation for Faust. ‘Hans Sachs’, he wrote, ‘was a true master-poet… a genuine talent… and a simple-minded middle-class person, which is what also I boasted of being.’ His poem on Sachs begins with the master in his cobbler’s shop, surrounded by the tools of his trade one fine Sunday morning: for all the world like the opening of Act III of Die Meistersinger. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg runs until 31 March 2017. Tickets are still available. The production is a co-production with National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing, and Opera Australia and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Dr Genevieve Davies, Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Maggie Copus, Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Malcolm Herring, The Metherell Family, Die Meistersinger Production Syndicate and the Wagner Circle.
Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 - 13 February 1883) was a German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist, primarily known for his operas (or "music dramas", as they were later called). Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works such as The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser which were in the romantic traditions of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner transformed operatic thought through his concept of the "total work of art". This would achieve the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, and was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised this concept most fully in the first half of the monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music. He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed today in an annual festival run by his descendants.
Great composers of classical music