Saturday, November 26, 2022

Holst’s “Planets” Illuminated at the Segerstrom




REVIEW

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa
DAVID J BROWN

Karen Kamensek.
The Pacific SO’s penultimate concert before the holiday season arrives to sweep everything before it, including serious music-making, gifted audiences over the second weekend in November with a program under the baton of guest conductor Karen Kamensek that had strong roots in Great Britain, but which in its second half breathtakingly opened out to the cosmos for a resplendent performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, with added visuals.

In the first half, Caledonian sounds were cunningly evoked without any Scottish composers actually contributing. London-born Anna Clyne (b. 1980) has a strong concert presence, including performances locally with the Long Beach Symphony (reviewed here and here), and for this Pacific Symphony concert the opener was her PIVOT (why all-caps?), for string quintet and small orchestra. This slightly Ivesian aural collage, pivoting indeed between reels and somewhat boozy laments, was “inspired by [her] experiences at the Edinburgh Festival” last year, and at just five minutes was good fun that didn’t outstay its welcome.

Anna Clyne.
There’s no denying that Stefan Jackiw is a remarkably gifted player, his ability to conjure the subtlest imaginable effects from his Guadagnini violin being apparent right from his initial entry in the first half’s main work, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy in E-flat major Op. 46. After a properly Grave statement of the introduction’s opening chorale by the Pacific Symphony brass, with the important harp part played by Principal Mindy Ball, it was simply impossible to pinpoint exactly where the ensuing silence ended and Jackiw’s quasi recitative began.

Max Bruch.
It forms a tribute to the memorability of Bruch’s themes and the inventiveness with which he deploys them across his expansive four-movement scheme that the work's 30+ minutes' duration hardly ever seemed over-extended, despite it having little of the internal contrast and tonal drama of a Romantic concerto or symphony. But though the virtuosic skill of this performance made it never less than enjoyable, Jackiw seemed somehow too refined a player for the work: this account of the Scottish Fantasy needed a little more—guts, heart, earthiness?—to come fully alive.

Stefan Jackiw.
As if underlining this, his choice of encore piece seemed more in keeping with his sensibilities: as unflamboyant in its delivery as it was unhackneyed in selection, Jackiw's account of the Largo third movement from J. S. Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 for solo violin had such a sense of innigkeit and butterfly-wing fragility that had any audience member dropped a pin during its course, you would have heard it.

In titling his mighty orchestral suite The Planets Op. 32, H. 125, Gustav Holst rather kept his cake and ate it too, given that while the overall title and individual movement names are firmly astronomical, the latter’s subtitles clearly reference the composer’s explicit intent for the music to express the astrological significance of each planet.

Maestra Kamensek’s tempo for the opening of Mars, the Bringer of War (Holst’s marking is simply Allegro) was judiciously mid-way between the composer’s own headlong tilt in his recordings made in the 1920s, and the inexorable ominousness of such classics as Karajan’s and the last of Sir Adrian Boult’s five, made in 1979 at the age of 90. And for his visuals projected on the big screen above the orchestra, Adrian Wyard’s choices of imagery—firmly going down the astronomical rather than the astrological route—immediately proved to be as scientifically apt as they were dramatically impactful.

Closing in from distant shots to orbital views around the Red Planet and thence to computer-enhanced flyovers of its mountains and canyons, Wyard’s treatment hit the perfect moment of enhancement as Mars’ huge fortissimo organ-underpinned central climax arrived with the touch-down of the Curiosity rover, the ensuing quiet, haunted wanderings of low woodwind and strings, tapped on by the side-drum, being played against slow pans across the planet’s desolate landscapes.

Panorama of the Martian landscape from the Curiosity rover.
With Holst’s huge forces spread across the entire width of the Segerstrom Concert Hall’s platform, Ms. Kamensek’s pacing and judgment of dynamics, and the orchestra’s playing, were exemplary, even managing to make the final chord of Mars as impactful as it needs to be, given that Holst’s scoring of it eschews the horns and all of the woodwind except the bassoons and contra-bassoon, and only includes the timpani (but two sets) out of his copious percussion line-up.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace delivered rather less of that commodity than usual. Perhaps because this movement can sometimes seem a bit of a snooze after the tumult of Mars, Ms. Kamensek both tightened its Adagio breadth and let Holst’s pervasive piano and pp dynamics frequently rise to nearer mezzo-forte levels. Thus the opening horn solo—both statements of which begin piano and then decrescendo, counter-intuitively, as they step upward—signaled instead of peace what felt like a further call to minatory awareness.

Montage of Jupiter with its moon Io.
Given that views of the planet Venus from space show mostly just uniform cloud-cover, and that the only images from its surface are gritty close-ups from short-lived Soviet landers, Wyard’s visual treatment was necessarily imaginative, with speculative but vivid colors added to the imagery.

The next movement, Mercury, the Winged Messenger, also had less than a strictly scientific treatment, with the planet’s disc zipping back and forth across the screen like a lobbed tennis-ball. In terms of the music, though, the performance brought all the flickering delicacy and whiplash brilliance of Holst’s miraculous scoring into the sharpest focus.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, was simply thrilling, both aurally and visually. The layered richness and complexity of the score, bodied forth in the marvelous acoustic of the Segerstrom Concert Hall, counterpointed with the intricate beauty of Jupiter’s surface taken from NASA’s Cassini mission, flying past on its way to Saturn, with views of its moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto further enriching the mix. Best of all, musically, was Ms. Kamensek’s “de-sanctifying” of Holst’s great tune from later hymnodic connotations by keeping it moving and thus integrating it more effectively with the surrounding fast music.

Huygens' descent to the surface of Titan.
The colossal sweep of Saturn’s rings, photographed from the Cassini orbiter, was the inevitable and appropriate accompaniment to Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, and as for Jupiter, Wyard varied the imagery with shots of the planet’s moons Titan and Rhea.

Here again was another audio-visual tour de force, as the massive, grinding heart of the movement was played against unique film of the descent to Titan’s surface in 2005 by the Huygens lander, after being released from Cassini.

The final two outer planets, Uranus and Neptune, have only been visited once each by a spacecraft, Voyager 2 in 1986 and 1989 respectively, and thus Mr. Wyard needed again to enhance the visual treatment, with stars, nebulae, and galaxies as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as computer simulations, added respectively to views of grey-green Uranus with its ring system (emphasizing the near-vertical orientation of the planet's equator, unique in the solar system), and Neptune’s enigmatic cloud-enshrouded blue orb, accompanied by its largest moon, Triton.

As for the performances, Uranus, the Magician captured all the movement’s dangerous swagger and bumptiousness, the only—and surprising—disappointment being the failure of Holst’s climactic ffff organ glissando to slash, as it ideally should, like a lightning strike through the orchestral texture: it was there right enough, but just a little too discreetly integrated.


In common with the other slow movements, Venus and Saturn, Ms. Kamensek kept Neptune, the Mystic, moving in accordance with its Andante marking, but not neglecting the ethereality of its scoring, delicately flecked with celesta and harps, nor yet, in the movement’s later stages, the pungent insertions by the rare bass flute and bass oboe. Over all floated the sounds of the women of the Pacific Chorale, perfectly integrated into the celestial texture from their vantage out of sight behind the left-hand choir stalls, from where, in the final minutes, they could be heard to proceed across to the right and then slowly recede into cosmic silence. A memorable evening indeed. 

 ---ooo---

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday November 17, 2022, 8 p.m.
Images: Top collage: BBC Sky at Night Magazine; Karen Kamensek: Todd Rosenberg/conductor website; Anna Clyne: Christina Kernohan/artist website; Stefan Jackiw: artist website; Bruch & Holst: Wikimedia Commons; Mars & Jupiter: NASA; Huygens descent: ESA.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Chapela, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky at Long Beach




REVIEW

Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
DAVID J BROWN

The Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s last classical concert of 2022 already showed signs of the impending holiday season, at least in its second half. This was all Tchaikovsky, the first item after the interval being the suite prepared by unknown hands from his first full-length ballet, Swan Lake, Op. 20, and thus not more than a few pirouettes away from the perennial Christmas season favorite, The Nutcracker.

Tchaikovsky at the time he wrote 1812.
But July 4th was, rather, the holiday most likely to be suggested by the final item, The Year 1812, Solemn Overture, Op. 49, composed in 1882. This was a surprisingly rare opportunity to experience 1812 as a regular concert item, instead of the excuse that it usually is for wheeling on a local brass band and detonating batteries of fireworks during the last five minutes or so, and both the orchestra and Music Director Eckart Preu seized it with relish.

The richness and homogeneity of the divided cellos’ and violas’ delivery of the Russian Eastern Orthodox melody with which 1812 begins was cherishable, sounding prayerful but also premonitory of the conflict to come at maestro Preu’s suitably flowing treatment of its Largo marking. Though even his energetic conducting and the LBSO’s fervent response didn’t quite manage to disguise that Tchaikovsky perhaps delays the final conflagration once too often, when it finally arrived it lived up to expectations, with the (pre-recorded) cannon-shots delivering satisfying crumps without obliterating everything else or setting off any alarms.

The Swan Lake suite was almost as successful, with Preu responding throughout its six movements with degrees of rubato and dynamic flexibility that always recognized and served the music’s essential dance character. The opening scene was unleashed with fluent dramatic élan, the waltz swirled voluptuously, the cygnets pranced with just the right degree of perkiness, and in the great central tableau Marcia Dickstein’s elegantly rippling harp set the scene for radiant accounts of that movement’s violin and cello solos by Roger Wilkie, concertmaster, and Cécilia Tsan, section principal, respectively.

Rachmaninoff in later life.
The only criticism that could be leveled was that the noticeably reduced upper strings were simply not numerous enough to deliver the full romantic heft that Tchaikovsky’s great melodies demand to make their full effect. Hopefully this was just the result of vacancies in the ranks not yet being filled, rather than any policy decision, as it was also true of the other great Romantic work in the program—albeit from two generations later—Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, which he composed aged 61 in 1934. 

Emphatically, though, lack of string weight was the only possible cavil about a performance that was otherwise as brilliant and mercurial as anyone could desire. The Moscow-born, New York-domiciled pianist Natasha Paremski’s account of the solo part was exceptionally elastic in tempo and expression, and the whole performance had a beguiling quasi-improvisatory quality equally shared by the conductor and orchestra.

l-r: Roger Goulette, Chair of LBSO Executive Committee; Natasha
Paremski; Kelly Ruggirello, LBSO President; Enrico Chapela; Eckart Preu.
The opening item was the one unfamiliar piece in the whole concert; indeed this was nothing less than a North American premiere, that of Rotor, written in 2017 by the Mexican composer Enrico Chapela

Señor Chapela was present for the performance and in a pre-concert conversation with Eckart Preu talked about some of the influences and wellsprings behind his 10-minute work, including jazz and heavy metal (his own rock band was also named Rotor).

Rotor constantly teased the ear with its kaleidoscope of percussive textures and overlapping, constantly changing rhythms, though the shadow of The Rite of Spring does loom over it, as it always does for any successor composition so based. In its metallic harshness Rotor also, to these ears, recalled some of the music associated with the Futurist movement of the 1910s and 1920s, such as George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique and Mosolov’s Iron Foundry—even in places bringing to the mind's eye images from Fritz Laing’s great film Metropolis.

It was nonetheless an unexpected and stimulating way to open a concert otherwise devoted to Russian Romanticism, and though a little more rehearsal time might have enabled the LBSO and maestro Preu to tighten and sharpen their performance even more, they negotiated Rotor’s unfamiliar complexities with skill and commitment, amongst them not least the valiant percussion team playing a multiplicity of instruments. 

---ooo---

Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Long Beach, Saturday, November 19, 2022, 8 p.m.
Images: Theater exterior/Orchestra: Todd Mason; Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff: Wikimedia Commons; VIPs: Long Beach Symphony.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Mozart and Beethoven Wind Quintets at the South Bay


The Thies Consort: l-r Jennifer Johnson Cullinan, Judith Farmer, Robert Thies, Laura Brenes,
Sérgio Coelho.

REVIEW

The Thies Consort, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes
DAVID J BROWN

Robert Thies.
In his introductory words to the performance of Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16 of 1796, which formed the climax to the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s last concert of 2022, the pianist Robert Thies drew attention to several similarities between this work and Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat major, K. 452, composed 12 years previously.

So far as is known, Mozart was the first composer to write for the combination of piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, and though it’s not certain whether Beethoven heard his work, or saw Mozart’s manuscript, the fact that his own quintet for this same, and still exceedingly rare, combination of instruments is in the same key and follows the same structural ground-plan argues strongly for some awareness on Beethoven’s part of its predecessor.

Mozart in 1782, painted
by Joseph Lange.
Both quintets are in three movements—a spaciously-conceived sonata structure with a slow introduction, then a similarly-paced central slow movement, and lastly a fast rondo-finale—but beyond that, as the strongly articulated and eloquent performances by the Thies Consort made clear, Beethoven’s work has a distinctive character of its own, different in many respects from the Mozart.

This is apparent from the very first measures. Mozart begins Largo with serene, widely separated woodwind chords supported by the piano, between which the piano alone muses on a seven-note figure, subtly altered each time. He then reverses the texture, so that the winds take over the seven-note figure. Beethoven, on the other hand (but at a similar Grave tempo), launches a dotted, downwards-stepping statement from all five instruments. Though marked piano, the effect is of quiet, assertive strength, intimating challenge and drama to come.

The young Beethoven.
This most certainly happens. Throughout, Beethoven’s significantly longer first movement (given added breadth here, as with the Mozart, by the observation of the exposition repeat) unfolds in the more dramatic and rhetorical manner, and whereas Mozart concludes with a neatly concise coda that underlines his movement’s basic combination of poised serenity and contained playfulness, Beethoven unexpectedly takes the drama up a significant notch by modulating into an extended coda with a real “Now what?!” effect—superbly dramatized by the performers.

This was a rare opportunity to “compare and contrast” side-by-side two apparently very similar but in fact strongly differing works, and it would be difficult to imagine performances that better demonstrated the qualities of each than those by the Thies Consort (Robert Thies, piano; Jennifer Johnson Cullinan, oboe; Sérgio Coelho, clarinet; Judith Farmer, bassoon; Laura Brenes, horn).

Gernot Wolfgang and Judith Farmer.
The Mozart filled the first half, and to begin the second we had the perfect “palate cleanser” between two such large and Classically constructed works in the form of Passing Through, for clarinet (or oboe) and bassoon (or bass clarinet), written in 2011 by the Austrian-born but locally-based composer Gernot Wolfgang, who was present to talk about the origin and nature of the piece.

This witty, jazz-inflected work lasts no longer than 10 minutes, and the insouciant inconsequentiality with which short phrases, and even single notes and pauses, were tossed back and forth between the players (Sérgio Coelho, clarinet, and Judith Farmer, bassoon) more than once raised amused and appreciative murmurs from the audience. To characterize its three brief movements one can do no better than to quote the composer directly, from an earlier program note:

Sérgio Coelho and Judith Farmer Passing Through.
The title, Passing Through, relates to the quick, random thoughts that I had while trying to name the individual movements. The thoughts seemed to spring out of nowhere and went as quickly as they came, almost without consequence.

"Bounce refers to the bass line in 7/8 played by the bassoon at the beginning of the first movement. Evening Song resides within a tranquil, peaceful atmosphere. The Flea comments on the jumpiness and, at times, unpredictability of the third movement.

---ooo---

South Bay Chamber Music Society, LA Harbor College/ Pacific Unitarian Church, Friday/Sunday, 18/20 November, 2022.
Images: The performers: author; Robert Thies: artist website; Gernot Wolfgang: composer website; Mozart and Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Poles Not So Far Apart on November’s Second Sunday


Laurence Kayaleh and Bernadene Blaha play Żeleński and Noskowski at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.

REVIEW

Bernadene Blaha and Laurence Kayaleh, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
DAVID J BROWN

In November 2021 the duo of Laurence Kayaleh (violin) and Bernadene Blaha (piano) gave a fine recital of sonatas by Grieg and Franck in the 2021-22 season of this Classical Crossroads series, and a year less a day later they were back at RHUMC—as previously, in front of an invited audience suitably masked and inoculated, but this time simultaneously livestreamed—for another pairing of violin sonatas, considerably further off the beaten track and thus irresistible to this chaser-down of musical rarities.

My only previous experience of the music of the Polish composers Władysław Żeleński (1837-1921) and Zygmunt Noskowski (1846-1909) had been the former’s concert overture W Tatrach (In the Tatra Mountains) Op. 27 (not to be confused with the slightly better known, or less unknown, symphonic poem of the same title by Vítězslav Novák) and Noskowski’s symphonic poem Step (The Steppe) Op. 66, composed in 1870 and 1895 respectively.

In neither Żeleński’s Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 30 of 1879 nor Noskowski’s Violin Sonata in A minor, however, was there much evidence of any pictorial or Polish nationalistic inspiration; indeed both works, particularly in their first movements—out of three in each case—were pretty faithful examples of adherence to the prevailing Germanic academic forms for large-scale instrumental and orchestral music.

While the remarkable Violin Sonata in B minor by Amanda Maier heard at the previous Sunday’s Café Ludwig concert in Costa Mesa perhaps surpasses the Żeleński and Noskowski sonatas in immediacy and concision, the latter are richly melodic and expressively varied, as well as being finely, sometimes challengingly, conceived for the instruments—in places the pianist has to cope with positive shoals of notes, and the violinist with much writing in the highest register.

The two works are most alike in their first movements—sonata structures with repeated expositions in both cases (neither observed here, presumably to keep the recital length within bounds). The Żeleński opens Allegro non troppo with a long theme on violin over portentous repeated chords and then busy figuration on the piano, before descending misterioso to pp depths, above which a long-held high violin note seems to promise a highly contrasted second subject but instead devolves mostly into further elaboration of some of the first subject material.

It was a pity to omit the first movement exposition repeat—if only because it meant the loss of a quite long and elaborate lead-back passage—and the compactness of the development and somewhat truncated recapitulation meant that the whole movement lasted not much more than seven minutes, effectively throwing the work’s “center of gravity” firmly towards the much more extensive finale.

After the amiable Allegretto middle movement—essentially an ABABA scherzo, with the Poco più mosso “trio” sections introduced by some rustically stomping piano chords—the molto sostenuto opening of the finale immediately broadens the expressive range of the whole sonata with a portentous, even tragic, weight that seems to herald a full-scale slow movement.

After some three minutes, however, what proves to have been an  introduction segues suddenly into an Allegro con molto brio that agilely evolves into a large-scale sonata-rondo structure, with fugato elements spicing the mix and a 12-measure call-back to the molto sostenuto opening immediately before the final dash to the finish. Altogether, Żeleński’s Violin Sonata was a real find, played with whole-hearted commitment and skill by the Kayaleh/Blaha duo.

Zygmunt Noskowski’s Violin Sonata in A minor seems to be oddly absent from what are otherwise seemingly comprehensive on-line lists of his works (the one dating I could find was, ambiguously, “before 1875,” making it a very early work in a prolific career), and the fact that one unsympathetic English reviewer of its only recording called the sonata “inflated, overblown, diffuse” made one a little apprehensive that here might be a musical turkey for which not too many thanks would be given.

But no fear—the first movement, after what feels like a brief unison “slow introduction” though the tempo is Allegro con brio from the outset, settles down to a busy, slightly Mendelssohnian main theme before executing a 90˚ turn into a gloriously romantic second subject melody on the violin than inhabits an even more Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninoff sound-world when it is immediately repeated by the piano—octaves surging and leaping in the right hand against rolling arpeggiated chords in the left.

To hear all this for a second time I for one would happily have had this first movement stretched out to the near-quarter-hour needed were the duo to have observed the marked exposition repeat; as it was, though, we got the “big tune” again in all its fulsome splendor due to the young Noskowski’s structural observances leading him to a recapitulation as literal as was that of his older countryman.

Both the second and third movements are in complete contrast to their equivalents in the Żeleński. In place of the latter’s relatively brief, intermezzo-like Allegretto, Noskowski provides an extensive theme with four elaborate and inventively contrasted variations, replete with internal repeats, followed by a coda that returns to the gentle molto andante of the opening theme.

As for the finale, he plunges with the merest preamble into a headlong Prestissimo that the Kayaleh/Blaha duo made into a real moto perpetuo thrill ride, though I suppose with such an extreme marking it could conceivably go even faster. Noskowski can’t resist showing off his academic cred with some fugato writing built into the tumult, and it has to be said that he indulges perhaps once too often his habit of making a rhetorical slowing-down before charging forward again.

Nonetheless, Laurence Kayaleh and Bernadene Blaha thoroughly justified their choice of this rare repertoire for an entire recital rather than cozying audience ears with something more familiar, and it is good news indeed that they are going on to record this pair of almost-forgotten 19th century violin sonatas by two fine Polish composers for Naxos. In the meantime, the present concert can be enjoyed here.

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"Second Sundays at Two," Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, November 13, 2022, 2.00 p.m. 
Images: The performer: Classical Crossroads; the composers: Wikimedia Commons.

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Sunday, November 13, 2022

Hagen Explores Good, Evil and Reaching for the Light

 


INTERVIEW: Daron Hagen

New York City, Chicago

ERICA MINER  

Versatile doesn’t begin to describe the creativity of Renaissance Man of Music Daron Hagen. The Milwaukee-born award-winning composer, conductor, director, and all-around auteur has received commissions from top US orchestras. He has composed in almost every genre, including operatic roles and song cycles for some of the world’s leading vocal artists. His music has been performed worldwide. And he shows no sign of slowing down. 

ERICA MINER: Congratulations, Daron, on your big news of the moment: Peermusic Classical’s just-announced publishing deal with Burning Sled Media to publish some 150 of your works!  How are you feeling about that? 

DARON HAGEN: It was time to concentrate entirely on the work. At a certain point a person realizes they have fewer years in front of them than they have behind them. One begins to think of legacy. I wanted to make sure things were properly represented after I passed, and that my wife, Gilda Lyons, herself a very successful composer, wasn't saddled with servicing my catalogue, that it continued to create income for my children.
Gilda Lyons

EM: It makes perfect sense. What could be more exciting than to announce this news?

DH: It’s a mixture of excitement and relief. Excitement about the new adventures we can have—it’s always fun to have a new collaborator, right? — but also very comforting knowing my works will be taken care of. Inspiring and very humbling. Peermusic is a heck of a catalogue. They represent Ives and Tania León. I’m very honored to be in that company.
EM: You are, and so are they.

DH: [Laughs] Thank you, ma’am.

EM: Your body of work is glorious, also overwhelming, but I’d like to focus on your operas and operafilm, since that’s my area of expertise as a former Met Opera violinist.

DH: Yes, that’s a wonderful, simpatico place to start.

EM: First of all, Bandanna. What inspired you to join the ranks of opera composers who have set Shakespeare’s plays for the opera stage, in this case Othello?

'Bandanna'
DH: That is quite a question, particularly from someone who knows the repertoire. It must strike you as hubris of me to have even attempted that particular story. The Venetian play is an incredibly durable piece of work, dramaturgically. I took it on for very personal reasons, not because Verdi did it but because I was coming out of a divorce. The idea of toxic relationships was much on my mind. The psychological situation, that distrust and self-loathing, all the things that come up when you’re going through such a terrible time. The ability to explore those feelings, to exorcise them through the work, inspired me to take on that subject. I had spent time as composer-in-residence at Baylor University in Waco and had gotten immersed in border issues. I felt strongly about the idea of setting Othello on the American-Mexican border as a way to indirectly talk about issues I cared a lot about. When it came to how to execute black and white, a binary understanding of good and evil is so limited.

EM: In this powerful operatic drama, you made a dramatic and philosophical decision, executed by your librettist Paul Muldoon, to “split evil into two forms: first, Jake (Iago) whose actual intentions were good, but whose effect was bad; and Kane, who was simply evil because, as Shakespeare explained, ‘because he could be.’ It requires a contemporary understanding of evil…Kane represents an excellent contemplation on people like Trump in our society.” Given the current perception that our democracy teeters on the edge, could you elaborate on this perspective?

DH: One of the things Shakespeare gave me by writing the play was a profound admonishment not to indulge in zeros and ones, that life is about the grey area between good and evil, decadence and innocence, trust and distrust. The human experience, the search for the divine, is a reaching out of the dark toward the light. These metaphors, going back 100s of years, are terribly fraught. They’re not fair. That we should call darkness a bad thing, light a good thing, but for lack of a better way to talk about it. We spend our lives, as Rilke said, the grey reaching for the light. That appealed to me. I constructed a piece all about unifying opposites. The highly literate language of the soul, coming out of Paul, expressed the articulate feelings of people who were inarticulate in their expressions in daily life. That’s the wonderful thing about opera—that a person who may be as poorly spoken as the wonderful Marlon Brando character in On the Waterfront, who, when he sings, can be as articulate as Shakespeare. That’s what opera can do. I wanted to give those people a voice that was profoundly articulate and yet jarringly in opposition to their lives. Feelings were profound and beautiful, but the circumstances in which they found themselves were perceived by the world as coarse. A longish answer, but that’s why I took it on. Illegal immigration and distrust, that there is no such thing as owning a person or land. This sounds very seditious, doesn’t it? I wrote the piece 20+ years ago, but I still care passionately about those issues.

EM: In some ways, they’re even timelier today. You’ve said, “The premiere of Bandanna was, of course, a disaster. The commissioners had no idea of what they had been given, and the production itself was terrible.” Would you care to comment?

DH: [Laughs] Only that I was a headstrong young man who wrote the piece I wanted to write instead of one that would have been appropriate for the occasion. That’s what I learned. Toscanini once kept yelling at a clarinet player and the player said, “Maestro, the clarinet player who can play that isn’t here today.” You don’t stage the perfect Rigoletto. You stage it for the people in the pit and on the stage that night. I didn’t write the perfect piece for that situation. I think you have to. I was singing so loudly, I was not listening.

EM: Yet the piece is very powerful. A youthful voice is also an effective one.

DH: Thank you.

EM: The European semi-staged premiere of Bandanna took place last June. It’s being revived in Italy? 

'Bandanna'
DH: In Italian, in Sicily no less, which is going to be really neat (six cities, planned for June 2023.) I’m very excited about that. Sicilians get that story! [Laughs] I’m very blessed to see the piece at least wear shoes, if not get some legs. You’re right, it is a passionate, youthful piece, written for 3 big, strong men who sing high all the time.

EM: Like Rossini’s version.

DH: Yes! Because of their machismo! The Bella Figura. Well and good, but that cuts down on the number of performances [Laughs]. It’s hard to find men that big.

EM: It didn’t stop Rossini, or you. You also said, “This is not my revival.” Somebody else is producing it. Will you be there?

DH: Yes. I have an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old. At the point where the revival takes place in a year and a half, my wife and I will go to Italy and have our first vacation together since starting a family, to see the show.

EM: Did someone approach you spontaneously and ask to do it?

DH: Not at all. I met Maestro Lorenzo Della Fonte when I was in residence at the Bellagio Center 20 years ago when I’d just written the piece. He was interested in it and never forgot it. He’s been trying to get this Italian premiere together ever since. It’s a tribute to him, his persistence and faith. There was a good portion of hubris in my taking on that subject, for a premiere in Austin, Texas. Finally, after 20+ years, succumbing to the humility of the maestro’s dedication to the work is another lesson to be taken as a composer from the experience.

EM: You are an amazingly prolific composer with a body of work that is astonishing in its scope, much of it described as, “Conceived, Composed, Directed, & Edited by Daron Hagen.” Let’s talk about your two latest operatic works in the emergent genre of composer-auteur operafilm. How do you define “operafilm?”

DH: Operafilm is neither an opera that has been filmed nor a film with people singing. As I am pursuing it personally right now, it is a work that issues from the composer’s visual and aural imagination manifested in film editing and sound design that mirror initial musical compositional impulses. When you experience it as an audience member, the beautiful collaborative result of great sound designer, director, editor, composer—all that beautiful team, can jell into a great film. But if that film is taken from the auteur, the Truffaut standpoint of issuing from someone’s own central vision and executed that way, it comes from the inside out. The inside vision collaborates with the people in the production and closes back in to open up on the screen, as opposed to a whole bunch of people centering on one document, trying to turn it into something else. Not better than staged opera— nothing will ever supplant staged opera and theater in my mind—but I’ve always thought visually, felt with words and music and looked at film critically. For me it wasn’t a leap to take a whack at it myself as Truffaut or Godard might. Ultimately operafilm is a very craft oriented, intimate thing, coming at the operafilm from the inside out as the opera composer rather than other people documenting what you’ve done from the outside in. I’m still working it out.

EM: It’s very profound, and a lot to unpack. Your Orson Rehearsed (2018), a multi-media “dream” opera, has won multiple awards and was named “Opera News’ Critic's Choice” for August 2021. You’ve written: “Orson Welles’ heart has just stopped. We enter his mind in this moment, on the threshold between life and death…In the bardo Orson’s thoughts unspool as a stream of consciousness that loops back on itself, like a Möbius strip… he shuffles through his memories, loves, regrets, like a magician preparing for one last magic trick. Is he ready for what comes next?” That is certainly an enticing lead-in. What evoked these profound words?

DH: I grew up in the area where Orson Welles did, southeastern Wisconsin. I cotton to the way he was brought up. He represented an auteur whose brilliance I admired. The tragedy of his inability to play well with others doomed him to play alone. I found that profoundly moving. He was never a hero of mine. But among tragic artists he had a magnificent life, a life fully lived in the full swashbuckling sense. If you go inside the mind of a person teeming with ideas, you can be as teeming as want to be. Anything is possible in a mind that creative. The idea was to place the film in his head, which was the inside of a theater. His thoughts were in the nature of a live performance. I’ve been criticized by very intelligent opera producers who have said, well, that’s not a film because it contains elements of live performance. But a person who spent their life in the world of live performance, having seen the dream of a lifetime, wouldn’t they see their own thoughts as live performances?

EM: That would be a resounding yes.

'Orson Rehearsed'
DH: A work like this becomes a Rorschach test for the way people think of what art and what consciousness are. The moment. A couple of years ago I was surprised to learn I had a congenital heart defect, and my aortic valve was deteriorating. I freaked out. I started thinking I should address this the same way that with Bandanna, the failed marriage, those are the issues I wanted to come to terms with. What would I think about if I knew I was dying? Because Welles died of a heart attack. What is the bardo like, that transitional place that Bandanna also spends a lot of time in, where you have to decide between whether you’re ready to go or not. That was the specific life event that inspired me to take on the project. Things I wanted to say before I no longer had another opportunity to do so.

EM: That fits right in with your definition of opera film.

DH: Yes, absolutely. What is the inside of theater but the inside of a mass collective conscious. You warm up in the pit of the Met and suddenly you are part of something bigger than all of us. Summoned, not by the genius of Verdi but the fact that he understood how to create a McGuffin, an excuse for us all to come together in a non-religious activity that was not Pagan. A pan-theocratic experience, more Platonic, more like what is outside in the dark, the things we see just the shadows of. We’re all afraid of the dark. Verdi went out into the dark, came back in and said, “You know there are monsters out there, they look like this,” and we’re all around our fire sitting in the Met and going, “Yeah, those are monsters, and he told us what they’re like. Maybe monsters are not quite so scary as we thought.” It’s the hero’s journey, Joseph Campbell. Can you think of anything more noble?

EM: Or immortal. It brings us all together on that plane. What is the premise of your most recent operafilm, 9/10: Love Before the Fall, (2021), which premiered just last year?

DH: It takes place the night before the Twin Towers. 4 people are having dinner in Little Italy. They all work in the towers. The next day they’re all going to die. The fall is the fall from the towers and the fall from grace, the Garden of Eden.

EM: And a literal fall.

'9/10: Love Before the Fall'
DH: Yes. It’s 4 “I am, I want” arias followed by a double proposal by 2 of the partners who’ve gotten together to propose to their partners on this special evening. They say yes and walk out into the night. At this restaurant is a bartender named Orfeo. On the radio is a woman named Eurydice, singing, and a violinist who works there named Charon who, as they’re about to leave, puts his hand out to each. They begin to realize they’re giving him more than a tip for the playing. And that’s where it ends.

EM: Staggering. I can hardly imagine the impact of everything you’ve brought together in that premise. 

DH: Thank you. We filmed the restaurant sequences in April at an Italian restaurant in Chicago. We shot the cutaways at the bar. 4 cameras, a live performance. Like My Dinner with Andre crossed with Umbrellas of Cherbourg but more intense, as shot by Cassavetes. All the shots are very close in to these 4 people, framed by Charon coming up out of the subway, walking down Mulberry Street to work. He comes up out of hell. At the end, after he’s gotten his money, the people all go off to have a beautiful night, he walks down Mulberry Street and goes back down to hell.

EM: The next day dawns, and…

DH: They die. 

EM: I can’t wait to see it.

DH: With Orson Rehearsed there were all sorts of interesting technical problems, a big theater. For this soundtrack, I was tired of fighting with the film guys and decided to loop the whole thing [Laughs]. So, I have all my singers looped to themselves. They feel absolutely secure having given their finest.

EM: It sounds brilliant. I’m dying to see what you’re cooking up next. Meanwhile, this has been a delight. Thank you so much, Daron. 

Photo credits: Karen Pearson



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                                   Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, November 11, 2022

A Human Legacy Honored at Pacific SO’s Café Ludwig


The Café Ludwig audience prepares for the concert.

REVIEW

“Clara Schumann’s Legacy,” Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
DAVID J BROWN

Under the radar indeed! As the pianist Orli Shaham (right) noted in her introduction to the first of the season’s Café Ludwig chamber concerts at the Segerstrom Center’s Samueli Theater, this is the series’ 15th year with her as curator, and on the basis of what we heard on the first Sunday in November (and with a very special additional circumstance, of which more later), Café Ludwig is one of the unsung treasures of music-making in Orange County.

But while the intimate informal atmosphere—audience members seated four-to-a-table for the consumption of coffee and treats while listening—certainly contributes to the sense of specialness, it’s the music-making which is key, and Ms. Shaham, with section-Principal colleagues from the Pacific Symphony, under whose auspices the Café Ludwig series is presented, had devised a program that was as inventively conceived around the theme of “Clara Schumann’s Legacy” as it was vividly performed.

Clara Schumann  in 1838,
painted by Andreas Staub.
That legacy, eloquently outlined by Ms. Shaham, was manifold and far-reaching. Clara’s six-decade career as a keyboard virtuoso permanently reshaped both the nature of piano recital content and how it was delivered, while her teaching of playing technique and expressive intent went on to influence deeply subsequent generations of performers. Alongside all this, her equally life-long devotion to promoting her husband Robert’s music ensured its enshrining as a core element of 19th century repertoire.

All this variously curtailed and overshadowed Clara’s own composing activities (of which her diaries show her to be almost distressingly self-deprecatory). To illuminate this third strand of her legacy, therefore, Ms. Shaham began with one of Clara Schumann’s own works, the Three Romances, Op. 22, composed in 1853 (and thus one of her last compositions). Originally written for violin and piano, it was presented in a new transcription for cello, in which Ms. Shaham was joined by Warren Hagerty, Principal Cellist of the Pacific Symphony (below).

Reviewing a previous performance of the Romances, I found them “not hugely differentiated in mood and pace.” This time, however, they seemed much more varied, perhaps due to a closer observance of the initial tempo indications: Andante molto, Allegretto, and Leidenschaftlich schnell—a sequence of fairly slow / fairly quick / passionately fast that added up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Also, maybe due to the dark ochre tones of the cello replacing the lighter timbres of the violin, the Romances this time seemed to embody a greater emotional richness that belied their brief duration. 

Joseph Joachim.
Joseph Joachim earned his place on the program due to his long-term violin/piano recital partnership and close friendship with Clara, and as with her, his celebrity as a platform virtuoso has overshadowed his achievements as a composer. For Joachim’s Hebrew Melodies Op. 9 for viola and piano, Pacific Symphony Principal Meredith Crawford took Mr. Hagerty’s place on the platform, but any thought that the smaller instrument might bring a lightening of expression and texture was quickly belied.

Meredith Crawford.
She and Ms. Shaham played only two of the three Melodies. No. 1, a richly measured Sostenuto, would stand perfectly well on its own, as indeed would the longer and weightier Grave that succeeds it, but without the gentler Andante cantabile that concludes the set the pair formed an unrelievedly somber and somewhat unbalanced duo, particularly as the performers gave full measure to both the tempo and expressive implications of No. 2’s Grave marking.

Given the closeness of both the Schumanns and Joachim with Johannes Brahms, it would have been an easy repertoire choice to follow this with one of the latter's violin sonatas, but Ms. Shaham’s program took a far more imaginative route—and for me, the storming performance by her and Pacific Symphony Concertmaster Dennis Kim of Amanda Maier’s Violin Sonata in B minor was the musical highlight of the afternoon.

Amanda Maier and Julius Röntgen (1885-1932),
who became one of the most prolific, though
little-known, symphonists of the 20th century.
Who? The violinist Amanda Maier (1853-1894) was celebrated, particularly in her native Sweden, both as a performer and composer until her marriage in 1880 to Julius Röntgen, the son of her violin teacher Engelbert Röntgen. The couple settled in Amsterdam, where they frequently hosted musical gatherings, where their guests sometimes included Brahms and Clara Schumann. Their marriage, and Amanda’s declining health, brought her touring career to an end but she continued to compose, though some of her works have been lost.

Orli Shaham’s enthusiasm for this Violin Sonata (1873, rev 1878) was unbounded, and fully justified by the performance. The first movement Allegro immediately engages the ear with a climbing, striving main theme on the violin over rippling piano arpeggios. A sharply contrasted five-note, arch-shaped motif, un poco tranquillo, soon appears, followed by the lyrical second subject proper, and Maier adeptly evolves a large-scale structure from these elements.

Dennis Kim.
The second movement Andantino sets off with a rocking, lullaby-like melody but soon the music moves into a faster central section before returning to the opening theme, giving the effect of enclosing a miniature scherzo within a slow movement. The finale, Allegro molto vivace, is positively Beethovenian in its propulsive energy, but with more than a touch of Brahmsian Hungarian Dance to further flavor the mix. 

The end comes with a hectic cadential pile-up, executed with hair-raising virtuosity by Shaham and Kim that brought the audience cheering to its feet. My only regret about the performance was that time constraints (presumably) prevented the repeat of the first movement’s exposition—with music as fine and memorable as this, the more you can hear of it, the better!

After the interval, all four players delivered an equally fine performance of Robert Schumann’s great Piano Quartet in E-flat major Op. 47, composed in 1842 under Clara’s ever-watchful, loving eye—in numerous performances of which she played in the years and decades to come. Equally impressive were the flavors of late Beethoven in the hymn-like opening to the first movement, the shadowy, somewhat Mendelssohnian scurrying of the scherzo, the glorious lyricism of the Andante cantabile, and the volatile, cascading unpredictability of the finale.

Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet comes to a triumphant conclusion.

This, however, was not the end of the afternoon. What elevated the concert into a unique occasion was the presence in the audience of one of the Schumanns’ great-great-grandchildren.

Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield (left)—a long-time resident of Orange County—is the granddaughter of Felix Schumann, who emigrated to New York in the early 1900s, and who was himself the son of Ferdinand, Robert and Clara Schumann’s sixth child and their second son to survive beyond infancy. A poignant family footnote is that the aging Clara took Ferdinand’s family under her wing after his early death in 1891.

Clara Schumann in 1878.
Ms. Schumann Brumfield joined Orla Shaham on the platform for a conversation; naturally, she said, she had always been aware of the family history, but she had only recently come to realize that Clara, alongside all her other achievements and formidable resourcefulness, had been a composer of considerable quality, to say the least, and she now looked forward to discovering more about this aspect of her great ancestor’s work.

In conclusion, she eloquently summarized the value of a life like that of Clara Schumann, which enriched in so many ways those who surrounded her, from her immediate family, to her many musical friends, partners and collaborators, and outwards to the innumerable audience members whose musical experience was enriched by hearing her play. And that enrichment has continued to our time, with audiences rediscovering her legacy through concerts such as we had just heard. In our fractured world the human and humane value of such a musical and personal legacy could not be overstated. 


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Orli Shaham and friends, Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, Sunday, November 6, 2022, 3 p.m.
Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; the composers: Wikimedia Commons.

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