17 Nov 2011
Tricks and Treats, New World Symphony
If this generation were to stake a claim to its own classical vocal music “Golden Age,” Christine Brewer presents a strong case.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
If this generation were to stake a claim to its own classical vocal music “Golden Age,” Christine Brewer presents a strong case.
To this listener, Brewer deserves the designation of Mastersinger, a small group and curious breed that occasionally contains in it a top lieder singer.
Lied is, in all cultures where “high-art” literature is transmuted into compilations of songs, made for the interpreter, for storytellers. Singers enter the culture of lied knowing full well it demands total subservience to telling the tale. As it is with the best of lieder interpreters (Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Christa Ludwig come to mind), Christine Brewer has a knack for this music that is partly inborn.
Lied history takes more formal shape in the 19 th century with the works of German composers; most prolific in the style was Franz Schubert; working in the style through the turn of the 20 th century was Hugo Wolf. Composers often set their lieder to a theme in a series, or cycle. The lieder singer is faced with the test of becoming as much a part of the background as they can possibly muster, coming in and out of the foreground to serve the music as indicated and in setting the poetry in high relief. The lieder singer further sets the tone for the theme and carries it through the cycle.
Michael Tilson Thomas [Photo by Chris Wahlberg]
Brewer makes this look easy. No one can qualify the Illinois native’s German as anything but romantic. She gets right to vowels, hanging on ever so lightly, giving consonants that snap that settles on the ear. Brewer exercises a judicious mix of vibrato treatments over a warm stream of sound and a tonal quality similar to Jessye Norman’s, with a more forward placement. The lower register is remarkably secure and round, climbing as that one proverbial “column of sound,” a sound that was born to soar. She reaches high-note territory (E, F and G) with ease; yet she builds phrases with sincerity and depth, which takes a tremendous amount of discipline. This is what she does; and it makes Brewer all the more special.
Billed as an evening of “Tricks and Treats,” New World Symphony (NWS) and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas hosted Brewer at the Knight Concert Hall on October 29th. The vocal portion of the concert consisted of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, what amounts to a serenade the composer created to the poems of his muse at the time, Mathilde Wesendonck, who is described as “one of the most significant women in Wagner’s life” in the program notes.
Even when Christine Brewer could let loose through Wagner’s five lied, she drew out plaintive tones that were an integral part of the story, saving her considerable powers for the articulation of German. Such was the case for “Der Engel,” where vocal control goes a long way in conveying how the selflessness of angels fills the hollowness of human existence. Brewer sang phrases that left one breathless, literally and figuratively.
Internal suffering was in full effect in “Im Treibhaus — Studie zu Tristan und Isolde,” where Brewer, Tilson Thomas and orchestra teamed for a moment of otherworldly waves of music, with violins playing off of one another in a way rarely heard. Brewer held a certain musical line while drafting steamy tones over the phrase “Malet Zeichen in die Luft,” where Wagner speaks to the horticulture of supernatural dispositions, asking nature to disclose its wonders.
“Schmerzen” brings more opportunity for vocal muscle, right from the first notes of the vocal line. Here still, Brewer created tones that came across as gentle acceptance of nature’s abiding relationship between life and death.
A conducting “Golden Age” for these times surely comes in the presence of Michael Tilson Thomas. He deserves the appellation Musikmeister. In NWS — America’s only full-time orchestral academy — he has a splendidly boundless and stimulating canvas with which to put to use and to share his inestimable experience and multitudinous skills. Michael Tilson Thomas and Christine Brewer are, individually, artists that bring a certain magic to everything they do. Together, Tilson Thomas and Brewer cause all aspects of a musical show to come into phase.
Tilson Thomas’ dancing with the New World Symphony is unison personified. In “Schmerzen,” where the descending scale of forte strings and winds calls for sudden passion and intra-instrument matching, the sound entered as if warmed up from a few bars back. The NWS conductor carries instrumentalists along with him — wrist rolls move bows and sway woodwinds; he revved up the baton to urge tempi, and brought horn players to the balls of their feet. It all happened at once. Tilson Thomas steps in the direction of a section, calling on them to build sound space, gesturing directions with his left hand, and pointing to have players attend to specific features. Thomas’ communication with Brewer was intense. He sought out her inflections and movements signaling different moods and changes in musical design.
The concert opened with Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and ended, after the Wagner lied, with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Strauss’ tone poem is an excellent vehicle to show off NWS. Its light beginning and exposed horn and long staccato violin stretches — all the way through the build up and Strauss’ playful winds and wide use of the percussion family — were played with nice contrasts, zinging accuracy and stamina to spare.
NWS showed versatility, power and pathos beyond their years in Merry Pranks and especially in the Brahms. The second movement was guided by Tilson Thomas as a soft hymn with hanging phrases of elegance and downward spins taken with care for keeping a joined soundscape. Improbable as it is, instrumentalists managed the most organic playing in the most demanding of Brahms’ orchestral drawings, the final movement. NWS took its shifts from driving chords to lush orchestral effects, creating a tightly held story right through to the ceremonial finish.
“Golden Age” or no, any night like this — pairing starry singer and starry conductor with a very hungry group of instrumentalists — ranks up there with any of the most vaunted classical musical moments, anywhere, anytime.
For more information about New World Symphony check www.nws.edu