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 Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.
Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
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.