Music News: Jan. 2, 2012
Henryk Ibsen is not just a favorite playwright, he is somewhat of a passion. So much so that back in university days, I took four semesters dealing with the great Norwegian's work with a famous literary scholar, Albert Gyergyai. And yet neither back then nor since have I been able to get a good grip on Ibsen's largest, most ambitious and difficult play, the 1867 Peer Gynt.
Unlike the laser-like focus and searing psychological insight into characters of A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck, An Enemy of the People, and other Ibsen masterpieces, Peer Gynt is inchoate, abstract, and works much better as poetry to be read than a play. After initial popularity in European theaters, it became a rarity, especially in the U.S. — with a few exceptions in the Bay Area and Ashland.
With a huge cast of characters, 40 scenes alternating in time and space, blending fantasy and realism, Peer Gynt is a daunting theatrical challenge. Grieg's 1876 incidental music, written at Ibsen's request and originally premiered with the play, is now usually performed in symphonic suites.
San Francisco Symphony is getting into Peer Gynt in a big way, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting three concerts, Jan. 17-19, featuring extensive excerpts from the Grieg score, along with music written for the play by Alfred Schnittke and Robin Holloway. Says MTT:
It is a gigantic, sprawling play, probably best known through Grieg’s music. I don’t think that people have an idea of what a challenging and provocative play it is — filled with questions about life, and love, and all of those things. Both Alfred Schnittke and Robin Holloway produced huge scores for Peer Gynt. This program is a wonderful opportunity to connect Ibsen’s play with these three composers. Given the vast length of the [original] play — four hours! — we can offer a musical and dramatic snapshot of both music and text [in a two-hour concert].
The semi-staged production is directed by James Darrah, with Adam Larsen's projections. Ben Huber appears in the title role, Joélle Harvey is Solveig (whose song is best known in the Grieg score, along with "Anitra's Song," "In the Hall of the Mountain King," and "Peer Gynt at the Statue of Memnon").
The SFS project originated with the success of other staged Symphony production, says John Mangum, SFS director of artistic planning:
The impetus for the project came out of our performances last season of Debussy's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian [also with Larsen's video]. We were all very pleased with how that turned out — we felt like we'd really explored new territory with the combination of music, visuals, dance, and staging.
We wanted to push that further with another musical-dramatic project — not necessarily a concert staging of an opera — the Debussy was incidental music, and the Ibsen had inspired not only Grieg's score, but also Schnittke's ballet (for me, one of his masterpieces), and a series of orchestral pieces by Robin Holloway.
The Holloway was on our mind because we'd been looking at those scores last fall, trying to figure out a way to do some of the music — it's this amazing, evocative set of pieces that Robin just wrote, and they've never been performed. What we've come up with combines scenes from Ibsen with the music by Grieg, Schnittke, and Holloway to create something that will feel all of a piece dramatically.
* Requiem at (not for) a construction site: Hamburg's amazing Herzog & de Meuron Elbphilharmonie (Philharmonic Hall on the Elbe River) is still incomplete, years and millions of euros beyond its planned opening. Still, hardy North Germans rallied on the site for a community performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem during the holidays.
Originally budgeted at 77 million euros, for completion in 2010, the hall is costing well over a half a billion euros and opening is hoped for in 2017 (by which time my bags will have been packed for a decade). A Deutsche Welle interview at the end of 2012 hinted at the possible final cost of 2 billion euros, probably in exasperation. The positive side: look at the Sydney Opera's similar agony in becoming a reality, but see its significance once done Hamburg may well end up with something similar.
* Preparations have been going on all month long for the upcoming Bay Area Youth Orchestra Festival, to be held in Green Music Center's Weill Hall, beginning at 3 p.m. on Jan. 20. BAYOF Hope, previously given in Davies Symphony Hall, will bring 400 young musicians from throughout the Bay Area to perform on one stage. Concert proceeds will go to the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS). Participating are Marin Symphony Youth Orchestra, Oakland Youth Orchestra, Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, and Young People's Symphony Orchestra of Berkeley.
The Very First Concerts series introduces classical music to babies, toddlers and older children. The semi-serious age suggestion is "0 to 6," not counting parents. Another Chamber Orchestra series consists of 45-minute family concerts, also free.
As all of the Chamber Orchestra's concerts, these events are free and open to all. Only 20 minutes long and in a children-friendly environment, the concerts offer both performances and participation in singing and dancing.
Turning 60 this year, Chamber Orchestra has employed professional musicians since its foundation by Edgar Braun and Adrian Sunshine, to provide free concerts; funding comes from membership dues, individual and foundation and NEA grants.
S.F. Chamber Orchestra music director Ben Simon encourages youngsters "to wriggle, squirm, and dance to first-rate classical music. We've designed this series for very young listeners, and to allow parents to escape the restrictions of a traditional concert hall." One of his favorite concerts was "Be a Conductor," with all the children imitating Simon, waving imaginary batons, everybody conducting.
Simon regards the project with a certain emotional gravity: "There is no classical music for children today. When I was growing up, there was music in schools, Leonard Bernstein's 'Young People's Concerts' on TV, San Francisco had three classical-music radio stations... and there is none of that today."
The conductor is famous for his informal, encouraging presentations, as far from the distant "maestro figure" as one can get. He has a great sense of humor, which he uses in preconcert lectures and interaction with children. He uses his black Macbook to play some excerpts of the program, and even demonstrates his cell phone ring.
The Very First series begin this month. Another Chamber Orchestra series consists of 45-minute family concerts, also free. The next event, in January, is "Music from the Mediterranean," with Kaila Flexer and Gari Hegedus, exploring the music of Turkey and Greece. The third family concert series, in March, is "Shall We Dance," with Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Youth Company.
An active CR chapter is in Portland, OR, Classical Revolution PDX, using the city's airport code.
Classical Voice's Jeff Kaliss spent the holidays in Portland and he went to "work" on Dec. 26, known as Boxing Day in the UK and Commonwealth countries, but Bachxing Day in the Oregon city, celebrated with a concert in the Someday Lounge in the city’s Old Town district:
Portland violist Mattie Kaiser, who founded a Classical Revolution chapter here some five years ago, served as the evening’s MC. She prompted the good-humored audience’s reflection on CR PDX’s year of expansion to some 300 members, (including professional and semi-pro musicians), its schedule of performances in informal, affordable venues, alternatives to pricey concert settings, and its acquisition of nonprofit status.
The member musicians, variously and mostly informally garbed, delivered a potpourri of delights from Bach’s extensive oeuvre. Their performances on a variety of instruments were earnest and well-received, even when not entirely true to score and pitch. The feeling of fun was bolstered by a costumed skit, "And Here’s Groucho!," in which the legendary comedian and TV host engaged Johann Sebastian in dialogue about his compositional and procreational output, with credit due Anna Magdalena.
Recordings of Bach were awarded in a Best Bach Pun competition and a session of bingo, with numbers matching various of the composer’s 15 two-part inventions, performed on a Yamaha keyboard by Christopher Corbell. Kaiser, who has guested with the Manchester, England and San Francisco chapters of Classical Revolution, proudly announced that her city’s Bachxing Day tradition has, for the first time this year, been adopted by the Chicago chapter, and that Portland will be hosting the next International Directors of Classical Revolution Conference, in June of 2013.
The Royal Opera House is holding an unprecedented 10-hour open house Monday, Jan. 7, streamed live, beginning at 2:30 a.m. Pacific Time. Admittedly, the starting time is not all that great for San Francisco, but the program runs through 12:30 p.m., certainly more convenient.
Similar to the Royal Ballet Live program early in 2012, Royal Opera Live will spend the entire day backstage one of the world's premiere opera houses. It will be broadcast on the Royal Opera House and the Guardian websites, plus on a new digital arts service, The Space.
Highlights of the day will include working rehearsals of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and of Kasper Holten’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a Royal Opera Chorus rehearsal for Verdi's Nabucco, and much more.
The program will conclude with the complete performance of Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Walküre, recorded earlier with 21 cameras.
After the recent round of theater showings, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance will be screened next week on PBS' American Masters series, including KQED stations.
The documentary combines archival footage with excerpts from many seminal Joffrey dances, tracing the history of the company, its financial struggles, and how the Joffrey reinvented itself time and again. Mandy Patinkin narrates.
While the KQED ch. 9 "flagship" is not showing the program, KQED Plus (Jan. 7, 10:30 p.m.; Jan. 8, 4:30 a.m. yes!) and KQED Life (Jan. 14, 7 p.m.; Jan. 15, 1 a.m.) will carry it.
Meanwhile, here are some online videos from the documentary, each preceded by a 20-second commercial, and linked to essays and interviews:
- The making of Astarte, Joffrey's first multimedia production, combining ballet and rock 'n' roll, dealing with hippies, sex, art, and politics.
- Excerpt from Parade, Robert Joffrey's landmark revival of Massine's 1917 Ballets Russes masterpiece with sets by Pablo Picasso.
> http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/joffrey/video-archive-the-green-table-rehearsal-1967/2373/ The Green Table rehearsal, a Joffrey specialty, the 1967 revival of Kurt Jooss' memorable 1932 antiwar statement.
"The title character in 'The Bald Soprano,' the absurdist Ionesco play, never shows up, but watch for her at the Metropolitan Opera," says Daniel J. Wakin in his New York Times feature about van den Heever going by way of G.I. Jane.
Another Merola product, Joyce DiDonato, sings the title role, and Matthew Polenzani is Leicester. David McVicar is the stage director, Maurizio Benini conducts.
A Classical Review report Tuesday of the premiere calls DiDonato's "at the peak of vocal and interpretive resplendence," but lowered the boom on van den Heever, saying "Her voice has a sure, sometimes fiery upper extension that won her loud applause, but it is underpowered in its lower reaches, and the verbal mush she spewed contrasted unfavorably with the more trenchant singing of DiDonato and other cast members."
The New York Times review hailed both singers. Anthony Tommasini called DiDonato "a model of singing in which all components of the art form technique, sound, color, nuance, diction come together in service to expression and eloquence."
Of van den Heever, the review speaks of "a vocally burnished and emotionally tempestuous Elizabeth. Her sound, with its earthy tinge and quick vibrato, is not conventionally beautiful. But her voice has penetrating depth and character. She turns flights of coloratura passagework into bursts of jealousy and defiance."
Just as I suspected, the director comes in for the lion's share of responsibility/blame for Elizabeth's shenanigans. Martin Bernheimer, in The Financial Times, has high praise for DiDonato, but condemns the staging:
For most impractical purposes David McVicar has (mis)directed the piece as a quirky ode to a very odd couple. Although much of her music is elegant and even graceful, Queen Elizabeth I is made to stagger and swagger awkwardly about the stage. Faithfully enacted by Elza van den Heever, she lurches and struts, stumbles and smirks nonstop. Her vocalism, though generous and apparently fearless, tends to shrillness at the top and breathiness at the bottom. Pathos teeters on the brink of caricature.
By contrast, McVicar makes Mary Stuart seem even more of a saintly martyr than tradition might dictate. She personifies life-size modesty, sweetness and purity. Her gestures remain small, her agonies internal. Joyce DiDonato makes her plight all the more compelling because, unlike her royal adversary, she resists excess. Most important, she treats the complex bel-canto flights as emotional expressions, never merely as bravura filigree. This is an exquisitely proportioned, remarkably sensitive performance.
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