Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Golds and Silvers, from Korea with Love…

David J Brown

Though there were a few initial joking references from the platform about the Winter Olympics in Seoul, it was the wide range of music to be performed at the February Classical Crossroads “The Interludes” recital – from Germany, Poland, Russia, Bohemia, France, and finally their native Korea – that was the focus of attention, delivered by a group of splendidly gifted young performers who we must hope will become familiar to South Bay chamber music aficionados. 

These were the pianists So-Mang Jeagal (top left) and Beth Nam (below left), soprano Jungwon Choi (below right), and ‘cellist Kyung Eun Choi (top right), and to begin, the first and last played a pair of works for ‘cello and piano by the closely contemporary (born within a few months of each other in 1810) but otherwise highly contrasted early Romantic masters, Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin. Similarly, the former’s Adagio and Allegro Op.70 and the latter’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C major Op.3 – while having comparable durations and overall structure – are very different in style, instrumental writing, and overall effect. 

The two parts of the Schumann, a work of his late maturity dating from 1849, are virtually equal in duration, so that they could easily be heard as the latter two movements of a ‘cello sonata, with a lyrical slow movement (that constantly reminds one of how fine a song-composer he was) followed by a concise rondo finale. In both sections, the two instruments are very much equals in projecting the musical discourse and, a slight initial frailty in ‘cello intonation aside, Mr. Jeagal and Ms. Choi gave the piece a warm and loving performance. 

I did wonder whether they felt more thoroughly at home in the tightly-enwrapped beauties of Schumann’s maturity than with the florid ebullience of Chopin’s youthful Op.3 (he was only 19 when he wrote what he is said to have described to a friend as “nothing more than a brilliant drawing-room piece suitable for the ladies”). There’s a twinkling, thrown-off insouciance and sense of fantasy in his high-stepping Alla Polacca (just as a much a rondo as the Schumann, really, though its “Introduction” is much less of a separate and substantial item than its counterpart in the other work) that just eluded these performers, wonderfully fleet though Mr. Jeagal’s playing of Chopin’s teeming runs was. 

A rusalka (water-nymph), by Ivan Bilibin (1934).
Next up, a pair of Rachmaninoff songs: “A Dream”, the fifth of his early Six Songs Op.8, and “How Fair this Place”, No.7 of the 12 in Op.21 (1902), both brief and soulful, with melodic arcs underpinned by piano harmonies that instantly bespoke their composer. Jungwon Choi’s soprano voice is a rich and powerful instrument, arguably too much so not to feel a little uneasily constrained within the small-scale song-recital environment – as her third and final item tended to confirm. This was the very familiar “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, where one couldn’t help imagining her voice soaring over the orchestra in the opera house rather than the piano reduction, which felt compromised even under Beth Nam’s expert fingers. (A small niggle about this segment of the recital: in lieu of a program note, it would have been nice to have had a word from the performers on what the songs were about, and the point and position of the aria within the opera.) 

Ms. Nam was then joined by her fellow player for two four-hands-one-keyboard reductions of orchestral showpieces. Their performance of the “Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One” from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was almost good enough to make me wish I was hearing the whole work rather than just its final section, but it was Ravel’s La Valse that really sent the wattage soaring. Surprisingly, perhaps, given that unlike the Stravinsky this arrangement was not the work of its composer (if I’m reading aright the Google search-result), it really convinced as a viable version of Ravel’s poème chorégraphique, with quite as much choreography in the coordination and collision-avoidance of Ms. Nam’s and Mr. Jeagal’s four hands sweeping up and down virtually the full length of the keyboard as in Ravel’s retrospective waltz-phantasmagoria of the doomed pre-WW1 culture of Vienna. 

Of course, after this brought the Saturday afternoon First Lutheran audience cheeringly to its feet, there had to be an encore, with all four returning to perform “Arirang,” a Korean folk song that is often (thank you, Jim Eninger and Wikipedia!) considered the unofficial national anthem of Korea. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, February 17, 2018.
Photos: The performers: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc; Rusalka: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, February 12, 2018

USC Stars of Tomorrow play the “Trout”


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

The fact that the Quintet in A major D.667 – commonly known as the “Trout” due to its fourth movement being a set of variations on Schubert’s own song Die Forelle D.550 – is not generally regarded by Schubert mavens as being amongst his greatest chamber works has not dented in the slightest its great popularity, and a capacity audience duly turned out at RHUMC for the February “Second Sundays at Two” recital to hear it played by this year’s group of “USC Stars of Tomorrow”: So-Mang Jeagal, piano; Justin Woo, violin; Kevin Hsu, viola; Benjamin Lash, cello; and Kaelan Decman double bass. 

l-r: Kaelan Decman double bass, Justin Woo violin, So-Mang Jeagal piano, Benjamin Lash cello, Kevin Hsu viola.
The work originated in 1819 on a summer vacation enjoyed by Schubert with two friends at Steyr, Upper Austria; here they spent much time with Sylvester Paumgartner, a local businessman and keen amateur ‘cellist, who reportedly asked Schubert to write a piece that would both include variations on the song, which he loved, and be scored for piano, violin, viola, ‘cello, and double bass – this unusual combination to match the instrumentation of an arrangement, which the group likely played, of Hummel’s then-popular Septet in D minor

It’s worth noting, then, that for such an informal “commission” Schubert nonetheless produced a large-scale, multi-movement Classical structure – sonata-design first movement, slow movement, scherzo and fast finale, plus the additional “Trout” variation set – proving, if proof were needed, his comfort with the form. His first movement is one of those that seems to have a slow introduction but which is, in fact, illusory: the marking, a pretty fast Allegro vivace, is there from the outset, the illusion being caused by the long note-values in the first couple of dozen measures. 

The young Schubert, three years before the
composition of the song, Die Forelle,
and five years before the "Trout" Quintet.
The young stars of the USC did the work proud. The long first movement stayed airborne on the tight rhythmic rein of Mr. Jeagal’s spry, athletic pianism, so that its extended length from the observation of the exposition repeat was entirely welcome. The transparency of the playing overall enabled one to appreciate Schubert’s truly resourceful development, as well as the masterful nonchalance with which he elides back into his recapitulation. 

The relatively short Andante second movement was limpid and easeful, and followed by a scherzo as vigorous as its trio section was playful. When the group came to the again modestly-scaled theme-and-variations fourth movement, once more the dominant impression was of sheer liveliness and enthusiasm. They took a particularly fast tempo for the third variation, where for the first time I noticed that the double bass has his moment in the sun carrying the melody – smoothly taken by Mr. Decman – against dotted rhythmic support from his string colleagues and cascading treble figuration on the piano. 

In the Allegro giusto finale, for once I didn’t mind the omission of the main marked repeat (unless I was much mistaken, not having the score to hand), as even without it this movement – to be honest one of Schubert’s least substantial – has plenty of repetition. As a result, the group had the whole delightful performance done and dusted in a scant 40 minutes, their last measures so tight and emphatic, the final unison chords so smart and clipped, that for a moment the audience seemed wrong-footed that the conclusion had actually arrived! 


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, February 11, 2017.
Photos: USC Stars of Tomorrow: easyridernews; Schubert: portrait by Joseph Abel.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Spanish Night with Pepe Romero at Long Beach


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Carlos Surinach.
Relatively brief though it was, and scored for far smaller forces than any of the subsequent pieces, in some ways I was more impressed by the first item in the LBSO's “Spanish Night with Pepe Romero” program than anything that followed. This was the dance suite in three movements, Ritmo Jondo (“Flamenco rhythm”) by Carlos Surinach, Barcelona-born but a naturalized US citizen for the latter half of his long life (1915-1997). 

Scored in this version (there are two others with different instrumentation) for just trumpet, clarinet, timpani, side drum without snares, xylophone, and (crucially) three hand-clappers, the arrestingly gaunt timbres of Ritmo Jondo and its fascinating overlapping rhythms projected an effect of something alien and strangely bleak, even dangerous – an effect enhanced by the vibrant flamenco dancing of Arleen Hurtado, clad in black, not to mention the atmospheric deep red lighting effects with which the Terrace Theater stage was bathed. As a novice in the areas of Spanish and Catalan music, I have no idea how authentic the whole package really was, but I was hooked.

Eckart Preu.
Maybe I misunderstood, but in his pre-concert talk LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu had seemed to imply that native Spanish music may not be up to the standard of some “Spanish” works by non-Spanish composers, thus justifying the inclusion in this concert of a few of the most well-known latter.

I have to say that with the Surinach still fresh in my ears, it made for the wrong kind of jolt to move to the comfortable sounds of Chabrier’s familiar rhapsody España, which despite the French composer’s well-attested first-hand research into many aspects of Spanish music on a long tour of the country, projects an urbanely Parisian tourist’s-ear-view of it (which isn’t to say that España is not thoroughly enjoyable and indelibly memorable on its own terms). I’m sorry to say Rimsky-Korsakov’s equally familiar Capriccio espagnol Op.34, which opened the second half, again had me wishing I was listening instead to something authentically Spanish (ideally, perhaps, by the country’s greatest composer, Manuel de Falla). 

Pepe Romero.
Immediately before the interval came a work that was – the Concierto de Málaga composed in 1981 by Celedonio Romero, father of the hugely popular guitarist Pepe Romero who was on hand to play it, to the delight of a full house of fans. This was a fall-back item: Señor Romero was originally slated to perform a concerto by another 20th-century Spanish flamenco composer and guitarist, Manolo Sanlúcar, but as Eckart Preu noted in his pre-concert talk, the performing material for it could not be located, leading to the late need for a replacement. 

The LBSO, though down to Classical orchestra size with reduced strings and a handful of wind, brass, and percussion, produced a big sound for the dramatic, rhapsodic opening to the first movement (with orchestration by Romero’s colleague Federico Torroba), and the introduction to the second movement was similarly striking, featuring a plangent English horn that to these Brit ears immediately recalled, of all composers, Frederick Delius. Once these preludes were done, however, the solo role dominated, Señor Romero’s guitar articulating with dazzling clarity the full spectrum of flamenco style. 

Celedonio Romero.
With the concerto over and cheered by the capacity audience, Pepe Romero returned for an encore – his father’s solo guitar piece Noche en Málaga – but only after an enchantingly discursive reminiscence of an earlier appearance with the LBSO all of 36 years ago, when his then four-year-old son, Pepe Jr, after being allowed into the rehearsal, had strongly objected to not being allowed to play in the concert! Today, Pepe Sr was, he said, playing a guitar that had been built by his son… who was in the audience (cue shout of “Up here Dad!” from the balcony when Pepe Sr peered out into the crowd to try and locate him). 

Georges Bizet.
The only downside to spending this extra quality time with a great player and great raconteur was that, along with the much longer duration for Ritmo Jondo than the six minutes given in the program book, it made for a very long concert, pushing the final close to the 10.30PM mark. However, that wasn’t the only reason why I was starting mentally to count off the numbers still to go during the final item(s), the Carmen Suites Nos.1 and 2. Bizet’s crowning masterpiece probably has more memorable numbers than any other repertoire opera, and his posthumous collaborator Ernest Guirard has earned the gratitude of untold music-lovers ever since in extracting a neat dozen of them and putting them into purely orchestral garb. But he did create two medium-length suites and not one very long one, and I think there’s a natural limit to what makes a coherent listening experience from collections of short items like these. 

Arleen Hurtado.
For me it would have been more satisfactory to have limited it to one or other of them –preferably Suite No.2, which is the more substantial and varied, and (marginally) less familiar. Nonetheless, after sounding a little reserved earlier on, particularly in the Chabrier, the LBSO was by now thoroughly warmed up. Roger Wilkie and Cécilia Tsan, principal violin and principal ‘cello respectively, made the atmospheric most of their respective solo passages, and piquant woodwind, crisp brass moments, and vigorous tuttis abounded. Arleen Hurtado, now in a blood-red dress, reappeared to grace one movement in Suite No. 2 and, in the final ‘Danse Bohème’, Eckart Preu’s very slow initial tempo and hushed dynamic enabled the build-up of a terrific head of steam into the Presto final section, and a truly tutta forza climax. Despite the late hour, the audience roared its approval. 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 3, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Carlos Surinach: F. Plaut; Eckart Preu: Courtesy LBSO; Pepe Romero: Courtesy LBSO; Celedonio Romero: Discogs; Bizet: Prabook; Arleen Hurtado: Flamenco LA.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

A rare outing for Strauss’s (and Tennyson’s) Enoch Arden


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The tragic homecoming of Enoch Arden, from “The Leisure Hour”, published in 1864.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, autographed
portrait by Elliott & Fry, 1860s.
Richard Strauss’s 1897 “monodrama for speaker and piano” Enoch Arden Op.38, TrV.181 is something of an oddity in his output. It dates from when his main focus was on the orchestral tone-poem (following Also Sprach Zarathustra and contemporary with Don Quixote), though these years also saw a considerable output of songs with piano accompaniment. It was written as a thank-you to the actor Ernst von Possart, who had helped Strauss gain the post of Chief Conductor at the Bavarian State Opera, and he and Possart toured together widely with the melodrama. 

On the rare occasions when Enoch Arden is performed today, it is programmed as a composition by Strauss, but in truth it is the spoken text of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s lengthy narrative poem that does the expressive heavy lifting, rather than the relatively sparse piano accompaniment. Thus it is the narrator rather than the player who bears the main burden in performance, and it is good to report that the actor Sherman Howard successfully held the February “First Friday” audience’s attention for almost an hour, duly supported by pianist David Kaplan. 

Sherman Howard.
This was an ambitious departure for concerts in this series from Classical Crossroads Inc., which usually comprise short instrumental recitals, but it was a welcome opportunity to experience live a work (as well as a genre) that’s largely vanished from concert-halls, though this piece has in fact been recorded several times, amongst the duos tackling it the most celebrated being Patrick Stewart and Emanuel Ax, and in former years Claude Rains with Glenn Gould. 

David Kaplan.
I did feel, however, something of a mismatch between the text and the music, or rather between poet and composer. Apparently Tennyson wrote and published his “Enoch Arden” (in 1864, ironically the year of Strauss’s birth) as part of a deliberate –and successful, to judge by sales figures – attempt to broaden his public appeal in true fulfillment of his role as England’s Poet Laureate.

This elaborately sentimental tale of tragic loss and noble self-denial chimed exactly with High Victorian taste, but one could argue that, a generation on in the fin-de-siècle 1890s and five years after Tennyson’s death at the age of 83, its emotional world had receded into remoteness from the most up-to-date sensibilities, as exemplified musically by the style – by turns maliciously witty, grandiose, and even savage – of the foremost young lion (still only 33) of Late Romanticism. One can imagine a more appropriate match with, say, the Arthur Sullivan of Lost Chord fame.

Richard Strauss.
Thus, to my ears, and despite the best advocacy of Mr. Kaplan, Strauss’s musical response to Tennyson’s tale seemed perfunctory, aside from some nicely rippling scene-setting at the start (the composer’s onomatopoeic skill for a marine effect here) and some hefty pointing-up of the main dramatic moments later on. As for the narration, I had feared we might be in for some over-strenuous actorly hectoring (with some awful recorded examples in mind), but Mr. Howard’s narration was a model of careful sensibility and articulate navigation through a lot of words (but which might have benefited in terms of clarity from a bit of discreet miking during the piano’s weightiest passages). Indeed, I felt he could have let rip a bit more at the most dramatic moments. 


“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February 2, 2018.
Photos: Enoch Arden: Wikimedia commons; Tennyson: Wikimedia commons; Strauss: The Guardian archive; Sherman Howard: Quantum Leap wiki; David Kaplan: Samantha West.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Harp rarities at “The Interludes”

David J Brown

Cristina Montes Mateo.
Self-portrait of
Louis Spohr.
The Spanish harpist Cristina Montes Mateo’s January recital in Classical Crossroads Inc.’s “The Interludes” series proved to be not only a fascinating tour of some 150 years of solo harp repertoire but also a mini-seminar on the instrument itself. After opening with Spohr’s 1807 Fantaisie in C minor Op.35, in which an affectingly lachrymose Adagio molto introduction leads to informal variations on an ear-catching little tune, full of half-smiles and shrugs (n.b.#1, to self: explore more Spohr), she briefly talked about the basic structure of her instrument. 

Jesús Guridi.
Then again, following the lilting “old dance” of Jesús Guridi’s Viejo Zortzico from 1949 (n.b.#2, to any reader: it’s well worth seeking out other works by Guridi – notably the Sinfonia Pirenaica), she went into more detail about both the functions of the harp’s seven pedals and the color-coding of its 47 strings to aid player navigation. 

The next two names on the composer roster were wholly unfamiliar; later online research made me reflect that probably nearly all instruments have their own coteries of composer-specialists who rarely if ever venture further. Thus you won’t, for example, see works in any other genre by the organ composer Flor Peeters decorating concert programs, and in checking out the Belgian Félix Godefroid (1818-1897) and Frenchman Marcel Grandjany (1891-1975), both proved to be harpists first, last, and all points between. 

Félix Godefroid.
The profusion of florid decoration in Godefroid’s Danse des Sylphes, composed in 1880, as well as its tripping main melody had, in addition to danceability, more than a touch of the bel canto aria about it, though I did feel that the piece had said all it had to say by about half-way through. The Rhapsodie by Grandjany, dating from 1921 and unsurprisingly somewhere downstream from Debussy harmonically – but none the worse for that – was more substantial, an extended meditation on a Gregorian chant, Salve festa dies.

Saint-Saens in 1893, the year he
wrote his Fantaisie for harp.
Ironically, the one truly great French composer in Ms. Monteo Mateo’s recital was Saint-Saëns, who was famously antipathetic to Debussy’s music (a dislike that was reciprocated), and who died in the year Grandjany wrote his Rhapsodie. Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie in A minor pour Harpe Op.95 was composed nearly three decades before (during one of his many stays in Algeria), though such was the length of his compositional career that it is very much a work of his maturity. Admittedly a minor chipping from the workbench of a master, it nonetheless effortlessly juggles and subtly varies across its nine-minute length no less than three memorable melodies – an easy-going waltz, a rhapsodic arioso, and what sounds a bit like but presumably isn’t a folk-tune. This work, for me, was definitely the highlight of the recital. 

The listed program concluded with two shorter items by 20th century Spanish composers: Apunte bético by Gerardo Gombau (1906-1972), who seems to be very little-known beyond his native country, and the thoroughly familiar “Spanish Dance No.1” from Manuel de Falla’s opera La Vida Breve, transcribed for the harp by Grandjany. Not content with this very full program for a nominally short afternoon recital, Ms. Monteo-Mateo had an encore ready. This shifted decisively north from the main French/Spanish axis to Russia, as tucked away in Prokofiev’s early 10 pieces for piano Op.12, is one item for piano or harp, the No.7 Prélude

It was the perfect conclusion to a recital in which even the slightest of these eight works was illuminated and made alive by Ms. Montes Mateo’s deliciously subtle and pointed playing (what is it about the sound of a harp that almost sends one into a trance?), as well as her illuminating discussion of the instrument itself, and her graceful stage presence. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, January 20, 2018.
Photos: Cristina Montes Mateo: website; Spohr: Wikimedia Commons; Guridi: Eresbil; Godefroid: Marie-Alexandre Alophe; Saint-Saëns: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Ludovic Morlot, Part 2: The Next Chapter

Lisa Marie Mazzucco
INTERVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall

Erica Miner: With regard to the Seattle Symphony, I’m so sad that you’re leaving us. 

Ludovic Morlot: I just felt it was the right timing. It’s hard, a few years ahead of time, to decide what that is going to be. I always had in my mind, coming in, the kind of journey I wanted to have with the orchestra. I thought by the time we reach 8 years it will feel very good about what’s been happening. I wanted them to keep being challenged at the best possible level. The same for me. It was a beautiful chapter and I prefer to leave it with that kind of feeling. When all feel we are growing together, it’s amazing that it can inspire the next chapter as well. With Thomas (conductor designate Dausgaard) they’re now all engaged in what they want to learn and be better every day. If that’s a part of my legacy it’s a beautiful one. Inevitably at some point the journey can start fading. I didn’t want to reach that, but instead to leave it on a high level. 

EM: Can you talk about your next chapter? 

LM: Not really, but I can tell you that making music in Europe is important for me. I’ll be 45 when I leave the Seattle Symphony next year. It’s a good time for me to be spending more time in Europe. I’m now in a place in my life where I’m in no rush. I want the next thing to be right - feel right. I’m not anymore in that space where I want to jump on any opportunity. I want to take the time, sit back, contemplate what that would mean for me and for my life, and then make a move. I guess it’s my “middle period” coming up. 

EM: You don’t feel the need to take on another music directorship yet? 

LM: Artistically it would be a beautiful thing. You can have a vision, grow week after week with the same instrument, same orchestra. By the same token, you want to make sure all the players - and I’m not only talking with me on the stage - are people you can work with and everybody is on the same page. This is also what I’m looking for. Somewhere I can have a team that is completely supportive, collaborating. That’s as much a priority as the level of the orchestra. It’s the whole picture, part of the environment where you can be the best musician you possibly can be. It can be difficult to find, but that’s what I’m trying to create for myself. It’s not so much about the prestige of the move - prestigious is nice, but for me it’s more important to see what kind of journey I can have. As far as opportunities, I hope I can make the right call. 

EM: Change is exciting, but also scary. 

LM: It is. Feeling comfortable is the enemy of music. When I was in Berlin with the Philharmonic in May, I worked with the concertmaster, Daishin Kashimoto, on a documentary from Japan. He kept saying that phrase that is so simple but true: No risk, no fun. The minute you go to work as an artist and it feels a little bit of comfort, something is not quite right. 

EM: That’s why musicians have to be so brave. 

LM: Sure. You start learning about yourself when you get out of the comfort zone. You don't want to be completely vulnerable all the time, but you want to allow yourself to open some windows to vulnerability so you can learn. That’s why I find it fun to collaborate with musicians of different genres; completely out of my comfort zone, and we learn something along the way. It adds layers - not only musicianship but to our beings, and that makes us better artists. My decision to move on next season is part of that dynamic. Still feeling on the edge and in danger. I think my performances will be enhanced by that feeling. 

EM: After Béatrice et Bénédict here in Seattle, do you anticipate doing more opera in the future?

Benedict costume Deborah Trout

LM: I love opera. it’s always been very important to me. In the same way, I think a musician is only complete when he plays onstage, in the pit, chamber music, it’s valid for us, too, as conductors. Working with the voice is very constructive and enjoyable. But I sometimes feel a little frustrated by working with an opera production, that it can take more time than is needed to do justice to the music and the play or whatever it is. I think there’s a future for me doing more opera in the context where either the productions are very simple and the main focus remains on the music and the story. Or even in concert performances. I have a great time doing those. First of all, you rehearse in a much more thorough, intense way musically. And the performance is more satisfying musically; the singers are right there and there is real collaboration between the dialogue, the music and the voice. 

EM: Does that apply to which productions you’ll choose? 

LM: I think I’ll be more careful about what productions I’ll embark on because I want the music to remain the thing that drives it, not the production itself, the theatrical part of it. I have to find a balance that sometimes has been misbalanced. I find many companies now are more interested in what people will say about the production than creating a beautiful environment for the music. I’ll be careful with committing to productions where the director has his focus on the right place. It’s not always the case. That’s become something more important to me, having done productions that have gone in all directions. I only felt happy working in the pit when the director really was working alongside me and the music, not like two different bodies trying to compromise on everything; that happens too often. But I love opera very much, so I’d be very sad if that dynamic prevents me from being involved with that repertoire. 

EM: Is there any particular repertoire that you would opt for?

Brandon Patoc
LM: I’m quite fussy when it comes to opera repertoire. I’m not a bel canto guy. As much as I enjoy it, I don’t feel I have to perform it. I would love to conduct Wagner in my life - Tristan, of course, but also Lohengrin and Parsifal are very important works for me. A few Verdi would be nice. Falstaff, Don Carlos, Otello. I love conducting in the language I understand, so French opera is very important for me. I’ve done Pelléas but would love to do it again. Ravel, Massenet. Chabrier is a composer I’m very interested in. He wrote a lot of operas that are never played. Then some of the Slavic repertoire - I love Janáček. I’ve done Jenůfa but I’d love to do Cunning Little Vixen, which I’m doing a suite of here, House of the Dead, Katya - any Janáček really works for me. Martinů wrote 14 operas - The Greek Passion, Julietta. In concert I’m thinking Bluebeard, Erwartung. And always Mozart. 

EM: Any Strauss? 

LM: I’m a little more on the edge with Strauss. I would love to do Elektra. I like Rosenkavalier very much. I have more difficulty with Salome. For me sometimes Strauss is a bit too schizophrenic. I’m not eager to do Capriccio or Frau Ohne Schatten. It’s wonderful music but not for me. I like to do something I really feel a connection to. I like Berg. I would love to do Wozzeck and Lulu, especially Wozzeck

EM: Wozzeck is more accessible. And Lulu is so hard to play. I really feel sorry for anyone who has to sing it. Or conduct it. 

LM: [Laughs] I get very moved by Wozzeck. It’s such beautiful craft; the form of each of the scenes is so perfect. It feels like a real joy to me to study the score. I love Puccini, I’m a good audience for it, but I’m not dying to be in the pit for that. 

EM: Puccini affects me deeply, but Verdi I can’t love enough. On a musical level, nothing compares. Don Carlo, Falstaff… 

LM: And Otello is amazing. Very dramatic. I love Traviata but I’d be okay if I didn’t perform it. Don Carlos is one of those I’d have something to say about. And of course, I must not forget Berlioz. I hope I can find a place to do Les Troyens, Cellini and more. I really would love to do the big Berlioz. The language gives me another reason to do it. 

EM: That makes perfect sense. All the Italian conductors who came through the Met were organically one with that repertoire. Like Pavarotti was. 

LM: The mastering of the language. I love Czech music and feel a real affinity with it, but I don’t know the language. When I did Jenůfa I surrounded myself with a team of Czech speakers, so it worked out, and I had a wonderful time. But doing it I always felt a little short of mastering the language, that maybe I wasn’t the best person to be doing it. So, it’s a bit problematic for me. 

EM: Do you feel the same about the Russian repertoire? 

LM: I think it’s a little easier. Usually you just go with Russian singers. It’s also true for the Czech. If you have the right singers, you can survive. But some languages I would stay away from the repertoire just because I have no relationship with the language.

Brandon Patoc
EM: How would you explain your affinity for Janáček? 

LM: What I like with Janáček and I’ve learned from spending time with those speaking it, the rhythms are so complex because they’re the rhythm of the language. Spoken Czech sounds very much like the music. It actually changed my mind about how to play Dvořák. At first, I was taken by his beautiful melodies but actually it’s really fashioned after the Czech language, too, just like Janáček and Martinů. The big lesson for me was when I conducted the Czech Philharmonic in Dvorak’s 7th Symphony. They played it like they speak it, with such articulation that it changed my perspective of this music. It was really fascinating. One of my teachers, Charles Mackerras, adored this music. He got me the bug for it. When you see him doing Cunning Little Vixen - it’s such a world of fantasy. So, unique. That’s my feel for it. We’re doing some Janáček next year. I’m going to do a big focus on Debussy, for the century, and Wagner and Janáček around that idea. In the same way, Pelléas is difficult if you don’t speak the language. It’s so full of subtleties, theatre, poetry. The rhythms in Pelléas are so natural to the French spoken language. I think Janáček is as well. Once you get into that with Janáček and you understand exactly how the text is being spoken, it makes complete sense. 

EM: I look forward to hearing that. It’s fairly rare to hear just orchestral Janáček. 

LM: We’ll do the suite from Cunning Little Vixen and a beautiful piece with solo violin that I adore, The Eternal Gospel. The notation is very difficult in Janáček. That’s what I learned doing Jenůfa. Once I had people speaking the text to me, I found my own understanding of the notation. It’s not like, triple-dotted-16th and 64th, it’s [emphasizes syllables], kind of two different things. It’s about what story he’s telling. 

EM: It goes back to what you were saying about not being in your comfort zone. You can’t play Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets forever. 

LM: Well you can, but when you do you should never feel you’re in your comfort zone. It’s what I tell my students when I do Beethoven’s 5th. I try to remain very open to something I hadn’t thought of yet. There’s nothing wrong with playing the same repertoire over and over, as long as you push the envelope every single time. What I don’t like is, “Oh, another Beethoven’s 5th.” It should feel like a gift, an opportunity. That’s very important, as a musician. To have the curiosity of trying to see another perspective. 

EM: I know that feeling. Thank you so much, Maestro. 


Photo credits: Liza Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc, Deborah Trout 
Erica can be reached at:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Ludovic Morlot, Part 1: The Importance of Being Berlioz

Brandon Patoc

INTERVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall

On Feb. 24, 2018, Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot will make his Seattle Opera debut in Berlioz’s rarely performed comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Shakespeare’s delightful comic romp Much Ado About Nothing. Written relatively late in Berlioz’s career, the so-called “feather-light one-act divertissement - a caprice written with the point of a needle” embodies the composer’s love for the Bard. Morlot had much to say about his relationship with this French music master.

Erica Miner: Congratulations, Maestro, on your Seattle Opera conducting debut!

Ludovic Morlot: Thank you. It’s not for lack of trying. With Speight (Jenkins) we tried many times, we had many ideas. He made it very clear to me, which I really appreciated, that he wanted artists to be there from day one of the production, so the schedule was a challenge. We tried again with Aidan (Lang) and finally we could find that window of time, in a year when I really wanted to focus on the music of Berlioz, and the anniversary of Shakespeare throughout town.

EM: So, you chose Béatrice et Bénédict because of the Shakespeare connection?

LM: Yes, in part, but I love Berlioz as you know. With the Symphony we wanted to focus on his earlier works. We started with his Requiem, Symphonie Fantastique and Les Nuits d’été, all music from under the age of 30, really. We’ve had opportunities in the last few years to do the middle stuff - Damnation, Roméo. Béatrice et Bénédict is one of the last things he wrote. I felt in my last season it was a nice way to find that balance between very young and visionary. Not only innovative, but a revolutionary voice. He started being ambitious with new ideas like Beethoven was at the end of his life. Beethoven came to that in maturity. Berlioz goes back to something classical in Béatrice - an orchestra smaller than he ever used before, and a play that’s centuries old, a classic and a comedy. It’s very funny that he would go that way. Very interesting arc.

EM: You have a special relationship with Berlioz.

LM: For me Berlioz has always been a more important composer than people give him credit for. He did so many new things that opened the way to Romanticism in the symphony. The fact that he writes for different groups in different parts of the hall is a very new idea. The use of the space, like in the Requiem, Troyens, it’s everywhere. Symphonie Fantastique with the distant oboe - that’s actually where Mahler takes it from. I don’t think Mahler invented this, I think it’s just by reading the orchestration treatise of Berlioz and getting the idea. And of course, the literary inspiration, Byron, Shakespeare, Goethe - this is a very 19th century idea, that Schumann, Liszt and Mendelssohn adopted. In some ways for me Berlioz is as much of an innovator as Beethoven was, for many different things. Not so much the harmonic language, which is a world of its own, but more for this kind of invention - the influences and inspirations that would be reproduced by his fellow composers.

Lisa Marie Mazzucco
EM: Béatrice started as a kind of divertissement. I love the overture, but I’ve never heard the whole opera. He wrote it in French, based on Shakespeare, but then it was performed in Germany. Why is it done so infrequently?

LM: [Laughs] It’s good you mentioned that, because this is the one point that made me agree to do it in English. At first, I was contemplating the singing in French and the dialogue in English because we’re having actors as well. But then I thought, he was fine with the performances in German, and it was a great success, and it’s Shakespeare after all. There are enough historic points to validate doing it in English. We decided to rewrite the dialogue, because the Berlioz dialogue is quite weak.

EM: Because of the language?

LM: Because of the translation, mostly. The dialogue is a problem. He was a great writer but I think he might have done this a little quickly, so I’m glad we’re going back to the Shakespeare play, which I think will make it more appealing. Also, you think Berlioz and you think big -Troyens and Cellini. Béatrice is much more intimate. We don’t associate that with Berlioz. That makes it appealing to me, especially that it comes at the end of his life. There are so many subtle touches. I also find it very difficult. It’s one of the reasons it’s not done very often. And rhythmically quite complex. Vocally it can be uncomfortable to sing Berlioz, because the instrument would try to replicate the voice and in that case it’s often the reverse. It’s written for a very virtuoso orchestra, and sometimes not as rewarding in the pit. Even the overture is very challenging, not done often.

EM: A lot of stops and starts, great delicacy.

LM: It’s a scherzo. Nothing more difficult to play than music in one, you know? A lot of the musical numbers have that rhythmic complexity that sometimes singers are not that skilled to embrace the rhythmic challenges. I think that’s why some singers stay away from it. In the pit, we are always confronting different kinds of issues when it comes to ensemble. When you stage a comedy, you want a lot of action and rhythm onstage so that makes it even harder to synchronize. When I worked with (director) John Langs we decided to give a little more depth to some of the characters. We added a few numbers, in some ways very controversial, but I feel good about those because we borrowed from Berlioz’s earlier works. Cellini - a whole new revenge aria for Claudio - then from Damnation of Faust we added a little aria for Somarone, "Voici des roses" on the text, "Sigh no more," and a number for the chorus from L’enfance du Christ. I think it gives more depth to those little roles. 

EM: That will make the actors very happy.

LM: True. We worked a lot to find the right addition to the music underscoring the dialogue. What’s not so successful about doing it as Berlioz wrote it - it becomes like a “number” opera, which can be fun but with Shakespeare we needed more continuity. I underscore the music with dialogue, or start the music as the dialogue is ending. At the very end of the first act, when Hero is caught in a kind of sinful act, whenever in the dialogue you have Don John and Borachio being bad, I reemphasize that music; even if it’s not conscious, you have that memory.

Béatrice costume, Deborah Trout
EM: It’s very subtle. I hope the audience gets it.

LM: I think they will. Our aural memory is quite strong. It will be quite interesting to have those little reminiscences of the music linking back to the story.

EM: Can you possibly compare Béatrice to Berlioz’s other three big operas?

LM: Not at all. Every one of these pieces is a different universe. I wouldn’t even put Cellini and Troyens in the same bag, though they’re big and based on legends from the past and somewhat the same part of the world. For me Damnation and Roméo et Juliette are more like concert works. He called Damnation "légende dramatique" and Roméo "symphonie dramatique." Something dramatic about it, theatrical, but I don’t think they are visual enough to be staged.

EM: What about the vocal writing in Troyens and Cellini? They’re both pretty heavy.

LM: I find his writing for the voice very instrumental. He treats the voice the same way he writes for the violin. So many melodies we find again in the operas are actually in the overtures; Roman Carnival with the cor Anglais you find sung by Cellini. Instead of the instrument trying to replicate the voice, in Béatrice it’s often the reverse. You think of Berlioz as a great orchestrator but he didn’t play any of the orchestra instruments. He played guitar skillfully and flute very badly, and never had any interest in learning any others - not piano, not violin. It’s a curious combination, and what makes him so unique. Yet everybody was reading his orchestration treatise. Quite fascinating. Vocally it can be uncomfortable to sing Berlioz. Beethoven as well. Missa Solemnis, even the 9th, impossible to sing.

EM: Not to mention Fidelio, Florestan’s aria.

LM: I think both Beethoven and Berlioz didn’t really care about how it would sit on the voice. The Missa Solemnis is a big question mark for me. The piece is great but I’m lost with it. How the soprano can sing this, I still don’t understand. I don’t know any singers that get pleasure from it. Vocally impossible and not very rewarding. The big violin solo - so hard, yet quite unrewarding.

EM: Wagner certainly didn’t care. Look how he tortured both singers and orchestra.

LM: The argument was that they wrote for posterity. People, especially 200 years ago, weren’t able to play it anyway. It’s a good thing they weren’t satisfied with what people were able to play at the time. It would be very unchallenging today. They had this vision of posterity. I think that’s remarkable.

Next, Part 2: The Next Chapter

Seattle Opera’s Béatrice et Bénédict will be performed at McCaw Hall from Feb. 24 through Mar. 10 (


Photo credits: Brandon Patoc, Lisa Marie Mazzucco, Deborah Trout
Erica can be reached at: