03 Aug 2013
Coleridge Taylor: The Song of Hiawatha, Three Choirs Festival
The Song of Hiawatha, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor at Gloucester Cathedral, highlight of this year's Three Choirs Festival.
On February 21, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s last composition, Falstaff, at the Civic Theater. Although this was the second performance in the run and the 21st was a Tuesday, there were no empty seats to be seen. General Director David Bennett assembled a stellar international cast that included baritone Roberto de Candia in the title role and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti singing her first Mistress Quickly.
In Neil Armfield’s new production of Die Zauberflöte at Lyric Opera of Chicago the work is performed as entertainment on a summer’s night staged by neighborhood children in a suburban setting. The action takes place in the backyard of a traditional house, talented performers collaborate with neighborhood denizens, and the concept of an onstage audience watching this play yields a fresh perspective on staging Mozart’s opera.
Patricia Racette’s Salome is an impetuous teenage princess who interrupts the royal routine on a cloudy night by demanding to see her stepfather’s famous prisoner. Racette’s interpretation makes her Salome younger than the characters portrayed by many of her famous colleagues of the past. This princess plays mental games with Jochanaan and with Herod. Later, she plays a physical game with the gruesome, natural-looking head of the prophet.
On February 17, 2017 Pacific Opera Project performed Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at the Ebell Club in Los Angeles. After that night, it can be said that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stay this company from putting on a fine show. Earlier in the day the Los Angeles area was deluged with heavy rain that dropped up to an inch of water per hour. That evening, because of a blown transformer, there was no electricity in the Ebell Club area.
There has been much reconstruction of Marseille’s magnificent Opera Municipal since it opened in 1787. Most recently a huge fire in 1919 provoked a major, five-year renovation of the hall and stage that reopened in 1924.
With her irresistible cocktail of spontaneity and virtuosity, Cecilia Bartoli is a beloved favourite of Amsterdam audiences. In triple celebratory mode, the Italian mezzo-soprano chose Rossini’s La Cenerentola, whose bicentenary is this year, to mark twenty years of performing at the Concertgebouw, and her twenty-fifth performance at its Main Hall.
Matthew Rose and Gary Matthewman Winterreise: a Parallel Journey at the Wigmore Hall, a recital with extras. Schubert's winter journey reflects the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, where images act as signposts mapping the protagonist's psychological journey.
Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, composed in 1830, didn’t make it to Lisbon until 1843 when there were 14 performances at its magnificent Teatro São Carlos (opened 1793), and there were 17 more performances spread over the next two decades. The entire twentieth century saw but three (3) performances in this European capital.
It is difficult to know where to begin to praise the stunning achievement of Opera San Jose’s West Coast premiere of Silent Night.
Like Carmen, Billy Budd is an operatic personage of such breadth and depth that he becomes unique to everyone. This signals that there is no Billy Budd (or Carmen) who will satisfy everyone. And like Carmen, Billy Budd may be indestructible because the opera will always mean something to someone.
American composer John Adams turns 70 this year. By way of celebration no less than seven concerts in this season’s NTR ZaterdagMatinee series feature works by Adams, including this concert version of his first opera, Nixon in China.
Despite the freshness, passion and directness, and occasional wry quirkiness, of many of the works which formed this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall - given by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, pianist James Baillieu and viola player Guy Pomeroy - a shadow lingered over the quiet nostalgia and pastoral eloquence of the quintessentially ‘English’ works performed.
'Nobody does Gilbert and Sullivan anymore.’ This was the comment from many of my friends when I mentioned the revival of Mike Leigh's 2015 production of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera (ENO). Whilst not completely true (English Touring Opera is doing Patience next month), this reflects the way performances of G&S have rather dropped out of the mainstream. That Leigh's production takes the opera on its own terms and does not try to send it up, made it doubly welcome.
On Feb 3, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s dramatic opera Madama Butterfly. Sandra Lopez was the naive fifteen-year-old who falls hopelessly in love with the American Naval Officer.
In the last of my three day adventure, I headed to Vienna for the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein (my first time!) for Mahler and Brahms.
In Amsterdam legend Janine Jansen and the seventh Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw, Daniele Gatti, came together for their first engagement in a ravishing performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto.
I extravagantly scheduled hearing the Berliner, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Wiener Philharmoniker, to hear these three top orchestra perform their series programmes opening the New Year.
There is no bigger or more prestigious name in avant-garde French theater than Romeo Castellucci (b. 1960), the Italian metteur en scène of this revival of Arthur Honegger’s mystère lyrique, Joan of Arc at the Stake (1938) at the Opéra Nouvel in Lyon.
On January 28, 2017, Los Angeles Opera premiered James Robinson’s nineteen twenties production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which places the story on the Orient Express. Since Abduction is a work with spoken dialogue like The Magic Flute, the cast sang their music in German and spoke their lines in English.
Fecund Jason, father of his wife Isifile’s twins and as well father of his seductress Medea’s twins, does indeed have a problem — he prefers to sleep with and wed Medea. In this resurrection of the most famous opera of the seventeenth century he evidently also sleeps with Hercules.
The Song of Hiawatha, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor at Gloucester Cathedral, highlight of this year's Three Choirs Festival.
The Three Choirs Festival is the world's oldest music festival. For over three hundred years, the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester have been coming together to sing.
In many ways, British music was defined by the Three Choirs Festival well into the mid 20th century: it is the epicentre of a grand tradition. Hearing Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha in Gloucester Cathedral was significant, because the Festival was instrumental in bringing the composer to prominence. While still a student, Coleridge-Taylor came to the attention of Alfred Jaeger and Edward Elgar. The Three Choirs Festival gave him his first big commission in 1897, on the express recommendation of Elgar. Hiawatha's Wedding Feast followed soon after, then the full Song of Hiawatha we were privileged to hear. By the age of 25, Coleridge-Taylor was a resounding success.
Coleridge-Taylor is sometimes called "The Black Mahler" but it's a silly marketing gimmick. It's musically illiterate. Coleridge-Taylor didn't conduct opera and didn't write symphonies. The Song of Hiawatha sits firmly in the oratorio tradition. If anything, Coleridge-Taylor was the "Black Elgar". The Three Choirs Chorus sang with such fervour that the Elgarian aspects of the score shone with great conviction, even if the words were a little indistinct. But what joy it must have been for them to tackle this strange, almost hypnotic chant, and words like Pau-puk-Keewis, Chibiabos, Shaugodaya, Kuntassoo and Iagoo! Hiawatha is a Grand Sing and needs to be done on this grand scale.
The soloists stand forth from the chorus. Twenty years ago, Bryn Terfel sang the baritone part for the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, under William Alwyn. He was brilliant, defining the whole piece with his presence, all the more striking because he sounded so young, No-one could compare, though Benedict Nelson did his best. Robin Tritschler sang the tenor part, negotiating the cruelly high cry "Awake ! my beloved" with ease. Hye-Youn Lee sang the soprano part with exceptional freshness and vitality. She's a singer we should be hearing a lot more of.
Orchestrally, The Song of Hiawatha is rousing. London's Philharmonia Orchestra played for Peter Nardone as if they were playing grand opera. The horn call that introduces the piece and runs throughout suggested Wagner. Both Siegfried and Hiawatha are Noble Savages, setting out on voyages of discovery. The pounding timpani, however, suggest the type of drums white people assumed Red Indians would play. They also anchor the orchestra in a way percussion would not perhaps control symphonic form for many years to come. The Song of Hiawatha is oratorio, but also influenced by new European influences. Englishmen didn't really write opera until Peter Grimes in 1948. The Philharmonia were much livelier and more vivid than the WNO Orchestra on the recording.
Although Hiawatha hands his people over to missionaries to be civilized, it doesn't sit well with the pious religious values of its time. Even Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, completed two years after Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, was considered racy in many circles because of its Catholic connections. But Hiawatha is important, not just for its exotic subject. Coleridge-Taylor may have chosen Longfellow's text because of its unique syntax, imitating the repetitive chant of oral traditions. "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, by the shining Big Sea Water". Even the strange names come over like incantation. For a musician, this syntax translates into musical form. Coleridge-Taylor adapts the syntax into short rhythmic cells. Coleridge is experimenting, tentatively, with new form. How he would have responded to Stravinsky, to Picasso, to Diaghilev and to Ravel!
There are lyrical passages in Hiawatha that evoke the freshness and wonder of Dvorák's Symphony From the New World, written only five years before, and definitely "new" music. Yet Coleridge-Taylor's style is distinctively his own. At this stage, Vaughan Williams, though slightly older, was still under the thumb of Charles Villiers Stanford and Delius was yet to find himself. Unlike, say, Granville Bantock, whose exoticism operated like fancy dress costume, Coleridge-Taylor absorbed alien ideas into his very artistic core. He listened to Black American music and adapted to create something original. Years later Bartók would turn to Hungarian folk music to create new music, but Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way earlier. Perhaps he was attracted to Black music as a kind of atavistic quest for identity, since he never knew his father. But every time he looked in the mirror he must have been reminded that part of who he was remained a mystery. Vaughan Williams's later discovery of English folk song seems very tame in comparison.
When Coleridge-Taylor collapsed and later died, on Croydon Railway Station in 1912, aged only 37, British music lost a true original, perhaps, even, its greatest hope after Elgar. Although he should not be judged by the colour of his skin, it's an inescapable part of what he means to us today in multicultural Britain. He's probably also influential in the United States where he was welcomed into the White House by the President, at a time when blacks entered only by the back door. When Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875, being illegitimate was scandalous. Even though he wasn't "deprived", and there weren't enough Black people around for prejudice to develop beyond curiosity, Coleridge-Taylor would have had to live with other people's stereotypes, however veiled. So I hope we'll be able to get away from the British music ghetto and the "Black Mahler" cliché and respect Coleridge-Taylor in a wider music and social history context.
Coleridge-Taylor's The Song of Hiawatha from The Three Choirs Festival will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in September.