Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Return of 'The Bomb': Doctor Atomic at Santa Fe Opera

Cast of Doctor Atomic.

REVIEW: Doctor Atomic

Santa Fe Opera Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Reproduced in the Santa Fe Opera's program booklet this summer is a photo of the August 6, 1945 issue of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Its headline: “Los Alamos Secret Disclosed by Truman.” Los Alamos, the site of the hyper-secretive Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, is just 36 driving miles from New Mexico's capital, Santa Fe, even less from the Santa Fe Opera. After many years' delay, Doctor Atomic, the John Adams/Peter Sellars opera that explores the lives of those who developed the bomb, finally received its company premiere here.

The world premiere of Doctor Atomic had taken place in 2005 at the San Francisco Opera, across the Bay from Berkeley’s University of California, from where hailed many of the scientists who worked on the bomb. When he started on Doctor Atomic some years earlier, composer John Adams, also a Berkeley resident, had already created two path-finding operas, Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), whose libretti had been crafted by Alice Goodman. (These works came to be known as “CNN operas” due to their topicality in headline news.)

Having two successful libretti for Adams behind her, Goodman began writing Doctor Atomic. However, preliminary drafts reportedly took on the tone of comic-book satire (think Dr. Strangelove), diverging from the psychological realism Adams was aiming for. Goodman resigned the commission. Adams invited Peter Sellars, stage director for his first two operas and designated for this one, to write its libretto. Under time pressure, Sellars used contemporary documents of the actual protagonists, and the literature they liked, to create a series of psychological portraits, shaping them into a drama of the mind, where key characters contemplate what could have turned out for them to be the end of the world.

Audience reactions to the premiere of Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera were mixed. The opera has since been considered problematic, if also important. It has been revived, and in 2008 it reached the Metropolitan Opera. Coincident with this current revival at Santa Fe, Nonesuch has released a prestigious CD box, with an introductory essay by L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed, that makes a strong case for the opera. Adams and Sellars have rethought the work, and the staging of it here takes in aspects unique to the Santa Fe locale.

The opera centers on Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (who would for the rest of his life carry the moniker “Father of the A-Bomb”) and those close to him. A political liberal, “Oppie” (as he is called in the opera) faces down the moral dilemma of developing the bomb. The argument went that while a couple of swift bomb strikes would regrettably kill many Japanese civilians, it would avoid island-to-island warfare and save the lives of perhaps a million American and Japanese soldiers. Of significance, it would also end the costliest, most destructive war in history.

Oppie (McKinny) and Santa Fe Opera Chorus.
At the performance, the eye was drawn to the set’s singular focal point, a huge dangling and glinting metallic sphere, new for this production, whose symbolic intent will shift from that of an atomic neutron, to the bomb being tested (named “Trinity” by Oppie, after a poem by John Donne), to the anticipated explosion of same, and even probably also to the orb-shaped Earth.

The action is conversational, taking place in the 24-hour period before the first test was launched. It shifts between three locales: the work environment at Los Alamos, the nearby Oppenheimer home, and the Trinity test site. 

Adam’s semi-minimalist score is full of punchy phrases, nervous string figurations, ejaculatory brass exclamations, and pulsing bass lines. Vocalizations tend to be functional, avoiding all but a few lyrical flights. Most of the vocal phrases end on a note-drop of some degree in the musical scale. The pattern becomes as predictable, and annoying, as a nervous tick. But its coiled energy reflects an unrelenting agitation within the protagonists, heightening their tensions -- as explosive within them, it would seem, as the bomb itself. The internalized dialogues give the work environments and domestic locales a crabbed, panicky feel, like psychological prisons. (Although written in a completely different musical idiom, the anxiety depicted in this work unfolds not unlike the inexorably mounting tension of Britten's The Turn of the Screw.)

Plangent baritone Ryan McKinny’s Oppenheimer is at the center of the action. His character switches from conversations with his colleagues to intimacy with wife Kitty (rich-voiced soprano Julia Bullock). Various supernumeraries and dancers inhabit the stage, often it would seem to provide something for the eye to focus on while the cast members ruminate.

Oppie (McKinny) with General Groves (Okulitch).

Oppie is everywhere, calming a moral rebellion by his equally brilliant colleague, Edward Teller (sonorous bass Andrew Harris) and his protégé Robert Wilson (tenor Benjamin Bliss); developing a rapport with the cranky General Groves (deliciously blustering bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch) by chatting about the latter’s weight-reduction regimen and assuaging his authoritarian anger with meteorologist Frank Hubbard (baritone Tim Mix) over his failure to predict a threatening thunderstorm. (The bits between General Groves's comic-book depiction of a military man and Hubbard seemed like vestigial remnants of Goodman's surreal conception for these roles.)

More penetratingly, when alone, Oppie ponders the moral dilemma of the enterprise, reciting the words of the John Donne poem, “Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God.” The Hamlet-Like soliloquy, ostensibly about the Trinity, wonders whether the world we know will continue to be or not to be. Oppenheimer carries a moral choice he knows is consequential, but even his superior scientific mind knows not to what degree. He struggles at this moment to reconcile the unreconcilable. Coming at the end of Act I, it was, for this reviewer, the highlight of the opera.

Kitty (Julia Bullock).
During the second act, as innovation in the Santa Fe production, descendants of the actual Native American nations who lived near and were exposed to the first bomb (subsequently known as "Downwinders"), joined the cast as stand-ins for their forebears in ceremonial dances of foreboding. (Some controversy arose about their participation, supposing that the Santa Fe Opera might have been exploiting the native peoples by inviting them to take part. But just the opposite was the case; it was they who had approached the Opera.)

Julia Bullock’s moving portrayal of Kitty sings of her own concerns about war and death, first in an intimate scene with Oppie, then later, in the second act, at home with her children. The Tewa housekeeper Pasqualita (sonorous dark-voiced contralto Meredith Arwady), and Kitty add more forebodings. Particularly touching was Arwady's Native American earth-mother concern for the Oppenheimer boy she cares for. At home, Oppie emotionally unravels as the chorus gives a moving rendition of “At the sight of this,” his hallucinatory vision of Vishnu’s apocalyptic slate of terrors.

In the opera’s last uneasy scene of regrets -- this is still before the test bomb has exploded -- Bullock's Kitty urgently renders “We are hopes. You should have hoped us. We are dreams. You should have dreamed us.” It serves as Kitty's effective dramatic counterpart to the John Donne poem that Oppie had sung in the first act. It was the voice not just of a feminine protector, but of all who have no say in the consequential policies and actions of those who govern over them.

The opera ends at the test site, those who were to witness the test bomb lying down, peering toward the bomb (cast members at the edge of the stage, looking straight into the audience). Their fearful faces are lit at first with bright ochre tones. Later, after the test bomb’s implied explosion, those faces take on a sickly green reflection, a zombie-like look of death.

As they remain transfixed, the eerie recorded voice of a lone Japanese woman, speaking from the aftermath of either the later Hiroshima or Nagasaki explosion, pleads over and over for water. More water.

Then, darkness and silence. And time for thought.

Together but alone: Robert "Oppie" Oppenheimer (McKinny) and Kitty Oppenheimer (Bullock).


All above photo credits: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2018
Performance reviewed: July 27, 2018

Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

Monday, July 30, 2018

Crutchfield Builds a Fire with New Opera Enterprise

Will Crutchfield.

INTERVIEW: Will Crutchfield

Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, New York    

To characterize Will Crutchfield as a Renaissance Man would be an understatement in the extreme. The former music critic (the youngest in the history of The New York Times) wears multiple chapeaus as conductor, musicologist, and educator. Having held conducting posts with the Caramoor Festival, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Polish National Opera and guest conducted with Canadian Opera and Washington National Opera, he also has kept himself busy preparing critical editions of such operas as Rossini’s less frequently performed Aureliano in Palmira.

Notwithstanding his impressive CV, Crutchfield has found time for a new passion: Teatro Nuovo, a musical organization that premieres its semi-staged productions of 19th century opera on period instruments this week at The Performing Arts Center at the State University of New York's Purchase College. Teatro Nuovo will expand its operations to include a new permutation of the  "Bel Canto at Caramoor" training program for young up-and-coming singers. The opening week’s repertoire will include Rossini's Tancredi and Mayr's Medea in Corinto.

Erica Miner: Congratulations, Will, on your newly minted festival! How did you transition from your life as a music critic for The New York Times to that of an opera conductor?

Will Crutchfield: Before working for the paper I had done the usual apprentice-conductor things —playing for rehearsals, coaching singers, conducting backstage chorus, etc. — with small opera companies. So it was really just picking up an interrupted process, by conducting a few operas at conservatories, with student orchestras and singers. Those went well, so the transition to full-time conducting happened pretty naturally.

EM: When, how and with whom did you conceive of Teatro Nuovo and the Bel Canto Festival?

WC: Teatro Nuovo is both a radical new venture and a continuation of a long-standing program. It grows out of Bel Canto at Caramoor, which ran for 20 years and put on more than 40 operas. Along the way we started a training program for young singers which grew and grew, and it needed a new home to accommodate and continue that growth. By being in residence on a campus, we were able to double the teaching faculty and spend far more time helping the singers one-on-one to put the lessons we're teaching into practice in each singer's voice. We're teaching classic Italian vocal style and technique—something that used to pervade the whole opera world, but gradually faded from its central position. Bringing it back helps each singer reach his or her full potential. Almost everyone recognizes its importance, but our educational system has emphasized other things for so long that it needs a concentrated revival. That's what we are providing.

EM: How did you choose the repertoire?

WC: Our first season has two-and-a-half operas—meaning, two operas plus a very different version of one of them. Tancredi was chosen first because Tamara Mumford was born to sing the title role, and I have wanted to do the opera with her since the first time I heard her sing. Medea in Corinto was chosen because we wanted to bring back Jennifer Rowley, who got her first big break with us at Caramoor 10 years ago, and she has the dramatic stature to address this amazing character. So it was partly by chance that we wound up with two operas premiered in the same year (1813) and carried all over the world by the same singer (Giuditta Pasta, who later became the first Norma and Anna Bolena). Mayr is a composer I have always admired — not a minor figure, but a genius awaiting rediscovery.

Tancredi principals.
I have done Tancredi many times in other theaters. Every time, I have looked at the alternative music Rossini wrote for particular productions after the premiere and thought "this belongs on the stage!" So, now's the chance! It is the same opera in its framework, but eight of its 17 individual numbers are different. They deserve to be heard as part of the opera, and we're excited to be able to do that in what we are calling "Tancredi rifatto"—Tancredi re-made.

EM: You have stated your goal as having “an ensemble of players and singer who listen and react to each other every exciting second.” Can you expand on that?

WC: This is the most radical part of the project. In Italy for most of the 19th century, there was no conductor in the modern sense — the leadership was shared among the first violinist, the keyboardist who rehearsed with the singers, and the section leaders. This doesn't work for more modern music, but in the older music written for this system, it is transformative. It puts much more responsibility on the individual players, and the reward for that is that it also gives more scope to their individual talents and musicality. We just had the first performance of Tancredi, and it's the first time in my life I've performed an opera in which every single player knows the story of the opera and what every singer is saying in every aria. They know what to listen for on the stage. We discovered in rehearsal what needs to be "conducted" and what can be done simply by listening and interacting. Essential for this is a violinist who knows opera and voices intimately, who can hold in his head every word of the libretto and every note of the vocal parts, and who is also capable of leading an orchestra.

EM: As an opera violinist, I’ve always believed in knowing those details.

WC: That was the job description in the old Italian system. We couldn't have done it without someone like Jakob Lehmann, the phenomenal concertmaster from Berlin who has come over to co-direct both titles. Meanwhile the "maestro al cembalo" for Medea is Jonathan Brandani, from Puccini's hometown of Lucca, who has experience both in mainstream opera conducting and in playing keyboard continuo with "early music" groups — a perfect combination for our project.

EM: That sounds ideal.

Tancredi orchestra.
WC: We are using period instruments, which changes the sound-color and solves many of the balance problems that exist when more powerful modern instruments are used to interpret this music. And we are using a seating plan from the San Carlo theater of Naples (where Medea in Corinto had its premiere), which spreads the violas, cellos, and basses out from the far left to the far right of the orchestra—meaning they don't simply follow their section leader, who may be far away, but instead each player listens to all the other parts to interact with them. It makes an amazing difference in the cohesiveness of the sound and engages every player in a far more active way.

EM: How will you integrate the Festival’s performance aspects with its educational ones, its orchestral performance program and Teatro Nuovo’s summer training program?

WC: That integration happens naturally. "Education" in music is meaningless unless it relates directly to "how you sing and play." We make those connections everywhere — we don't really treat them as two different things.

EM: The Festival’s events include much more than opera performances. How would you describe the full schedule of a typical Festival day?

WC: We have many participants who don't have solos to sing or play in the mainstage operas. But we deal with each one as an individual musician with a contribution to make, so by having multiple concerts alongside the operas, we have the chance for as many as possible of them to be heard in solos or small ensembles. As for a typical day, they are very full from the beginning of the training program to the last performance — lectures, classes, individual lessons, rehearsals, performances, panel discussions, master classes… Also shared meals, movie nights, a lot of laughter, and a lot of individual connections. We learn an enormous amount informally from each other, because our format allows each participant's questions, interests, and past experiences to find their way into the mix.

EM: Do you plan to keep with bel canto in the future, or will you expand to later romantic operas? 

WC: Later romantic operas — if we're talking about Italy — are direct outgrowths of what we usually call bel canto. When Verdi wrote Aida in 1871, he was still using the forms defined by Rossini around 1813. So it is a bit arbitrary to say where bel canto ends. We definitely want to include Verdi in the future. But we might also reach backwards. Bel canto does not start with Rossini  — we are already showing that by including his older colleague Mayr. What we're dealing with here is a system that flourished for about three-and-a-quarter centuries, with changes in every generation but no sharp dividing lines. As far as I'm concerned, the kind of work we do is relevant to all of that music, and we'll see where future seasons take us.

EM: Many thanks, Will. I have no doubt that this festival will be a rousing success!

Medea principals.

Will Crutchfield's Teatro Nuovo Bel Canto Festival at Purchase College runs from July 28-August 5.


Photo credits: Will Crutchfield: Gabe Palacio; Tancredi and Medea productions: Steven Pisano.
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mary Elizabeth Williams Seeks Operatic Adventure

Mary Elizabeth Williams.

INTERVIEW: Mary Elizabeth Williams

McCaw Hall, Seattle

Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams has a career path that is so astonishingly varied that one is almost rendered breathless trying to follow her trajectory. The Milan, Italy-based artist has appeared nationally and internationally at numerous opera houses, from La Scala, Lille, Bonn and Stuttgart to Seattle, Dallas and Florida. She is known for her lush voice and compelling dramatic presence. 

Having taken part in Seattle Opera’s young artist program, Williams made her company debut as Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore in 2010, and also has performed here as Tosca, Elisabetta in Mary Stuart, Abigaille in Nabucco and Serena in the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. She returns to open the company’s 2018-2019 season this August, once again as Serena. With her degree in English literature, she has a wonderfully varied view of her work.

Erica Miner: Welcome back to Seattle, Mary Elizabeth!

Mary Elizabeth Williams: Thank you very much!

EM: I can’t wait to hear you in person. I actually played Porgy and Bess at the Met, an uncut version. It was a bit long. How would that compare to the one you’re doing here?

MEW: There certainly are cuts. They’ve done a very good job of keeping it under 3 hours. The epic quality of Gershwin’s original cover-to-cover version is just not reasonable for finances of today’s opera house.

EM: I agree. It works better dramatically to have some cuts.

MEW: All of it is beautiful music. But as (conductor) John DeMain said the first day of rehearsal, we tried to cut things that did not move the story forward. Unfortunately we had to take out some really good music that was connected to scenes that were not important enough to the overall arc of the story. I agree with that. I believe we should take a look at scores to figure out ways to make the story tighter, so we don’t lose modern audiences who have different attention spans than they did at the time of the piece’s writing. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for uncut and complete recordings and occasionally a live performance, but the reality is, people don’t want to come to the opera and spend 4 or 5 hours.

EM: The orchestra doesn’t want to, either. I can say that with absolute bias.

MEW: [Laughs]

EM: Would you define Porgy and Bess as opera or operetta?

Mary Elizabeth Williams, Damien Geter:
Photo Philip Newton.
MEW: Definitely opera. All of the recits are set to music, not just rolled chords underneath them, and the drama is driven in its best moments by the music. Just because the writing is approachable, memorable and jazzy doesn’t make it less of an opera. If that were true, we’d have to call Carmen an operetta.

EM: And because Porgy is 20th century, we have a different way of looking at and listening to it. 

MEW: It’s also confusing because Gershwin wrote so much for Broadway. But if you look at that versus what he wrote for films, if you compare those, he clearly was thinking in two different realms and not writing with the same pen. In his own brain he was writing an opera. I trust and respect his judgment enough to think of it as an opera.

EM: There’s an eternal debate about 20th century American music, because so much of it coincided with the Golden Age of Broadway musicals. People tend to think of something like Porgy or Bernstein’s Candide as either operetta or musical theatre. I think they’re as operatic as it gets.

MEW: In the American, or English language, repertoire, it’s all on the same spectrum. People like Gershwin, Bernstein, also Britten, were positively affected by all kinds of music. You can hear it in how they wrote. I think it serves the piece better to call Porgy an opera, where you demand a higher level of singing. That’s as it should be, especially for a piece like Porgy. It’s written in such a way that it needs good singers. It has large capabilities, both in tessitura and emotional expression. I also believe it works best as Gershwin wrote it, for acoustic performance without microphones. If you start out at the beginning stages of a production saying it’s an opera, you preserve Gershwin’s intent a whole lot better than if you say it’s a musical theatre piece. In the list of priorities as to who’s going to perform it, direct it, choreograph it—what’s going to be important—singing falls a bit down on the list. That worries me because vocally this is not a piece to be taken lightly.

EM: Leontyne Price certainly didn’t take it lightly.

MEW: Exactly. And Porgy is an incredibly difficult role. It requires uncommon breadth and stamina. You have to have someone who really knows their stuff—not only has respect for what Gershwin wanted, but also their own voice well enough to parse it out through the evening and save enough for that last scene, which is a killer. It’s high and long and requires breath control for days. A tour de force.

EM: What is it like for you to sing Serena again after doing it here in 2011?

Kevin Short, Williams: Photo Philip Newton.
MEW: My very first time singing Serena was in 2005, with Atlanta Opera. I had just finished my young artists program in Paris and was trying to figure out what to do with myself [Laughs]. Dennis Hanthorn, who ran the company, asked me to do Serena. I was thrilled. I had never sung Porgy and Bess. I knew all the tunes like everyone does but had never been up close to it.

I was very lucky to be part of a cast where I was the only person who’d never done their role before. I was given a lot of really important tips from people who’d sung their roles for many years and had been around some really wonderful Serenas. I learned from the generation before me. I always try to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained from 13 years of singing this role. I don’t sing it often. Unfortunately as a black singer that tends to limit one’s career. I avoid that by picking judiciously where I’m going to sing it. It’s not usually my modus operandi to sing a role in the same place. But I have a special relationship with Seattle. I love working here and I knew they would take the responsibility of presenting the piece seriously. So I had confidence that it was a good place to sing it.

EM: You were born in Philadelphia, as was the great Marian Anderson. Have you thought of her as a role model?

MEW: The black singer I’ve thought of more as a role model is Shirley Verrett, and more as a singing model. I listen a lot to her because I think we have similar talent. Our voices sit similarly. My voice has a warm and “ready” middle, but I also have access to the top like her. There’s a gravitas to her performing soprano roles that I think is similar to what I’d like to be able to offer.

EM: You’ve sung many of the same roles.

MEW: Yes. Aida, the Verdi Requiem, Macbeth. I never heard her live but watching her I could tell she was a no-nonsense, no drama singer. She did her work, was very well prepared, respectful of the process, and kept her drama on the stage. I always strive to be that way as well, to keep my emotional balance and remember that being a singer is just part of who I am and owe it to the rest of me to give equal energy to all parts of me. To comport myself in a way that is respectful, to people and to music. I think she did that very well. And of course Marian Anderson.

EM: I still find her story hugely inspiring. She was a beacon, an example of what she stood for. 

MEW: We don’t share the same repertoire, but as a young girl I read her autobiography and believed she had a fantastic inner grit. Her ability to stand firm and demand respect quietly, to get as much done as she did in a time when everything was working against her. Amazing. Lots of singers have overcome enormous problems and people trying to keep them from doing what was important to them. They moved past it, adapted and found places and ways to sing. The inner drive. Maria Callas was like that. All the singers who came before me, I learned something from.

EM: Your own voice has been described as everything from spinto to dramatic coloratura. Can you define your fach?

MEW: As a singer it’s my job to stretch my technical and artistic capabilities as far as they will go. I’ve always strived to sing as high, low, fast, slow, soft and loud as possible. To make sure I have as many colors on my palette available to me to use at any given moment. I can sing a lot of different roles. They may not sound the way people are accustomed to hearing them, but I think my voice and artistry have something to contribute to the overall fabric of opera. I never thought I’d have a chance to do Desdemona, for example. I did my first concert version with the Atlanta Symphony. It’s been cast lighter and lighter, more lyric, over the years. Historically it was sung by spintos. It requires a certain facility in the middle and low that’s hard for some lyric voices. When they offered it to me I said I’d probably not be what people are looking for but I wanted to try it and see what my voice could offer to the piece. I feel that way about most repertoire I accept. Last year I did Fledermaus in English, not something I typically would do with my voice.

EM: Not at all.

MEW: But I wanted to stretch myself. I said to the people who hired me, “I’m not sure if it’s going to be any good, but we can try.” And it was good, and funny, and good for me as an artist to learn to use my voice that way.

EM: It’s such a fun role, too.

MEW: Yes, and a wonderful break for me to be part of such an inconsequential story, to play around with different emotional journeys. Nobody died, there was no big über crisis [Laughs]. It was basically a bedroom comedy. I never get to do stuff like that. I’m always dead at the end, and if not, someone I care about is dead. I guess I could say I’m vocally a typical Verdian dramatic coloratura, but what I want my career to say is that I’m a soprano who does as much as I’m able and as far as I’m willing to risk to be able to tell a good story.

Williams: Photo Elise Bakketun (2011).
EM: Which repertoire do you most enjoy singing, and what would you like to sing in the future?

MEW: I enjoy French Grand Opera and would like to sing more. I’m going to dip my toe into the Wagner pool in 2020.

EM: Which Wagner?

MEW: I can’t tell you yet, but I can say it’s in the Ring. I’m excited about that. It’s good for me to try and see what happens. Overall, I’m more of the school of Verdi’s time. They didn’t really separate singers, they just said you’re a woman or a man [Laughs]. Sopranos often sang what we now consider mezzo repertoire and vice versa. If I can sing it and I can do justice to the part, then why not?

EM: What roles have you not yet sung that you would like to sing?

MEW: I’m pretty open. The goals I’ve set for myself I’ve pretty much achieved. I had great fun singing Norma. I’d like to do it again. I think I’d do it better now. I’d like to do Les Troyens, Hérodiade, maybe some Strauss. My interest in singing is not particularly linked to any role, but to the story. If I’m offered a role in a story I find interesting that I’m physically capable of singing, I’m interested, even an opera that hasn’t even been written yet. That might ultimately be my biggest joy. 

EM: That’s looking into the future in a wonderful way.

MEW: It’s important for me not to always look to the past, or challenges already conquered by others [Laughs]. We’re living in a time when opera, the art form, is changing and developing. They’re using more multimedia. I just came from a Nabucco in France that was simulcast and involved lots of camera work, pre-recorded dialogue. I can imagine a future where we might mix opera and art song, musical theatre, or poetry. If it’s done well, if we tell a story that engages the audience and it challenges me and makes me a better singer, I’m all for it.

EM: I like your sense of adventure.

MEW: Thank you!

Williams: Photo Elise Bakketun (2011).
EM: Aside from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the fall, what else is coming up for you?

MEW: In November I’ll be singing Nabucco again in Dijon, and touring with Welsh National Opera, Amelia in Un ballo in Maschera, in early 2019.

EM: Amelia should be perfect for you. Lots of dramatic coloratura, high notes, a strong middle. 

MEW: I’m really looking forward to revisiting it. In Basel it was not a great experience. The stage director was somewhat intimidated by my physical presence, at a loss. Amelia is quite a reactive character, not someone with a lot of power. Physically I’m someone who takes up a lot of space. This time I’m working with a director I know and love, whose vision I completely believe in, with whom I’ll find a multifaceted, complex telling of the story from Amelia’s perspective, that will allow me to sing with my voice in my body but also be true to the character and her predicament.

EM: It sounds wonderful. And I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing you in Porgy and Bess. Thanks so much, Mary Elizabeth, for a fabulous interview.

Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess runs from Aug. 11-25.


Photo credits: Philip Newton, Elise Bakketun
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Monday, July 16, 2018

Composer Seabourne Not Afraid to Speak his Mind

INTERVIEW: Peter Seabourne


British composer Peter Seabourne’s accomplishments are so many and so varied that one can only speculate when he has found time for so-called “normal” pursuits such as eating and sleeping. Small wonder that he felt obligated to take a 12-year hiatus in the late 1980s in the midst of his flurry of compositional activity. 

Since then the UK-based Seabourne has doubled his compositional efforts, garnering numerous commissions and awards in international competitions for his solo, chamber and orchestral works and song cycles. His compositions show a combination of late 20th century lyricism and Bergian dissonance: at times melodic, at times opening a window into the angst of a composer of our time. I recently caught up with him to find out more about his background and works. 

Erica Miner: What events in your childhood led to your passion for music and desire to compose? 

Peter Seabourne: I was born in 1960. At the age of ten I moved to a large farmhouse to live with my grandmother. Both the isolation and her support fostered my love of music and a passion for composing. In 1980 I won a place at Clare College, Cambridge, studying composition with Robin Holloway, an inspirational figure, who tragically seems to have been ignored and forgotten. This is quite shocking as he has been commissioned multiple times by the proms, English National Opera, San Francisco Symphony, LSO, CBSO with Rattle and more. He is also a journalist, writing a music column for The Spectator for 22 years, has written three books on music, and taught a whole generation of leading British composers as professor at Cambridge—Weir, Adès, Watkins, Benjamin and others. He is woefully under-recorded for a composer of his stature. 

EM: It sounds as if he was an enormous influence for you. 

PS: I owe him a huge amount, both compositionally and philosophically. Though initially there was little stylistic common ground, some of his idiosyncratic single-mindedness was already reflected in the student pieces I produced. Jabberwocky (1984) was the first success, given by the group Endymion at the Camden Festival. 

EM: What was your next step? 

PS: Completing my degree in Music, I took a DPhil in Composition at York University with David Blake. A great number of works, varied in style and approach, were produced. Imber Song was a joint winner of the RVW Composition Prize and Nocturnes was awarded 2nd place in the Britten Prize in 1986. Performances followed on London's South Bank, with many more in festivals across the country. Fragilitá, one of five pieces selected by the Society for the Promotion of New Music, was performed at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London in 1993. 

EM: How would you describe your compositional style and other influences? 

PS: I would say my work has roots in the neo-Romantic tradition. Among my major compositional influences are, first and foremost the works of Janáček, then Mahler, Ravel, Prokofiev, Sibelius, and of course Robin Holloway. There is some kinship with other living composers such as Fabian Müller, Ståle Kleiberg, Judith Weir and David Matthews. 

EM: That is quite a variety. I definitely can hear the influence of Janáček in your 3rd Symphony. But there are certain uniquely distinctive characteristics in your music as well. 

PS: Yes, especially rhythmically. In particular the piano is very dear to me. It was my route back into composing after I had fallen silent for 12 years—and indeed disowned everything written before that time. Since 2001 I have worked with many incredible pianists, which has been one of life’s great joys, and I have learnt so much from it, and them! Starting to write these little piano pieces back in 2001 helped me to find my musical persona and refine my way of thinking. 

EM: What is your take on composition vis-à-vis the avant garde

PS: Overall, I have a feeling of increasing disconnection from much of the mid-late 20th century avant garde. Though many composers have now emerged to find another way, this black hole still frames the mindsets of promoters and broadcasters. Do not misunderstand me: I am not arguing for either populism or stagnant ultra-conservativism. But the legacy of much of the 20th century has been terrible for present day composers, indeed serious music as a whole. A generation of performers and audiences has been totally disengaged from the music of its own age because of it; perhaps the first time in musical history that this has been so. Much of the arts establishment of my own country seems to demand that composers jump though politically correct hoops to write works that are doomed to a cycle of première and oblivion. Thank goodness there are still parts of Europe where culture runs deeper! In Finland, for example, one can still “just” write a symphony…and be paid for it! 

EM: Are you comfortable with acknowledging your admiration for composers that preceded you who are not part of the so-called contemporary scene? 

PS: I embrace my musical heritage, even bits that I am not supposed to like (try mentioning Poulenc or Rachmaninov in new music circles and still witness the same reaction!). For me, warmth and communication are not signs of “cowardice in the face of the enemy.” Ultimately, if any serious music is to survive, we are in the hands of future performers who will want to play it, and future audience members who will pay to hear it. I could go on…but beware of composers who talk too much! 

EM: I admire your commitment to your beliefs. 

PS: The great French painter Toulouse-Lautrec once said, “In our time there are many artists who do something because it is new…they see their value and their justification in this newness. They are deceiving themselves…novelty is seldom the essential. (My work) has to do with one thing only…making a subject better from its intrinsic nature.” 

EM: Can you describe your work process, your composer’s world? 

PS: I think Mozart expressed it best: “When I am completely myself, entirely alone, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how these come I know not.” I could not have described it better. 

EM: As a writer, I totally relate to that. What are some of your most recent works that you feel deserve mention? 

PS: My solo piano series Steps, which consists of six large volumes. Five are cycles, the other a collection. All except the new 6th are on CD with many excellent reviews in leading journals like Gramophone, Piano News, and International Piano and have been quite widely performed. The six Steps sets are a sort of backbone to my musical output. I call them my “traveling companion” and I see the project as having a long way yet to run. It has also seeded the rest of my output: five concerti, four symphonies, many chamber works and song sets. Symphony of Roses (inspired by Yeats poems) has been broadcast twice in Switzerland and also Estonia and Portugal. Also my Violin Concerto below and the shorter work Tu Sospiri? 

EM: What is coming up next for you? 

PS: Volume 6 of Steps will be recorded next year by the great Konstantin Lifschitz, for whom it was written, along with the Bach Toccatas. Prior to that my new horn/piano rhapsody, The Black Pegasus, will be premiered in Osaka by my great friend and champion Ondrej Vrabec. I have been commissioned to write a short viola/piano work by a concert society in Germany for premiere next year, and I believe I am about to be asked for a double concerto for cello, piano and strings, also in Germany. Also underway are a piano for Avant Trio, and my 3rd Piano Concerto. I have also “mentally begun” the next Steps cycle, No.7. My longer-term plan is to continue my symphony cycle, so I am pining to get on and write the 5th if somebody would like to commission it! I feel my voice and musical landscape is now quite settled. It’s a matter of finding the time to complete the long list of pieces I still have in me.

EM: I see the wheels continue to turn! Thanks so very much, Peter, for sharing your insights with us.

A list of Peter Seabourne’s works can be found on Wikipedia and videos on his website


Photo credits: courtesy of the artist
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

More Gifted Young iPalpiti Soloists at Rolling Hills

Duo de Ascaniis: Davide and Sara de Ascaniis.


Duo de Ascaniis, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

It is a paradox that, in a life as short and as crowded with compositional activity as was that of Franz Schubert, so many of the works produced in those few years, particularly the last two of them, are not only exceptionally spacious but also convey, in their harmonic and melodic processes, a sense of revealing potentially limitless expressive possibilities. 

This is certainly true of the opening Andante molto section of Schubert’s Fantasie in C major D.934, Op.159, written at the end of 1827 and notably headed “for pianoforte and violin” (rather than the other way around) when it was posthumously published. The complex tremolando-laden accompaniment to the almost static, hovering pianissimo violin line above certainly justifies this primacy, as does the piano part’s ongoing elaboration, both independently and when partnering the violin, throughout the work’s 20+ minutes’ duration. 

Schubert in 1825: Portrait by Wilhelm August Rieder.
Both elements in that opening were projected with the proper sense of suspended animation but quiet portent by siblings Davide and Sara de Ascaniis, two Italian members of this year's intake by iPalpiti of highly gifted young performers from many countries. Their performance of the work was the main item in the final “Second Sundays at Two” concert of RHUMC's 2017-2018 season.

Paradoxically again, though, this introduction for all its breadth is actually quite short, and after only 36 measures Schubert sideslips into the allegretto second section. This usually comes across as a lighthearted, almost teasing follow-on, but the Duo made its sprightliness unusually vehement, even angry, in tone, with some sacrifice of light and shade in its later stages. 

Again Schubert comes to a halt, more questioning this time, and then the third, Andantino, section arrives as a set of variations on the song Sei mir gegrüßt ("I greet you!") D.741, Op.20 No.1, dating from some six years earlier. Though only four in number, the variations are lengthy and include several repeats, which regrettably the Duo did not observe. For me this threw Schubert’s carefully weighted structure out of balance, and marred what continued otherwise to be a fine performance through the remaining three sections. 

Leos Janáček. 
Contrary to what was on the program leaflet, the Schubert was played second, not first, and with the change of order unannounced this made the abrupt violin sforzando from Signor de Ascaniis that opens the Con moto first movement of Janáček’s Violin Sonata JW.7/7, composed in 1914, even more of a shock than it would have been to an audience not expecting instead Schubert’s gentle piano oscillations.

This was also a fine performance – indeed I wonder whether Janáček’s unique, shrilly ecstatic, sound-world, in the hands of these fine performers sounding particularly spontaneous and improvisatory, did not suit them rather more than that of late Schubert – but even in a work as concise as this they did not see fit to observe the structurally important repeat in the first movement. Even with it the movement lasts less than five minutes, and the whole four-movement sonata not much more than 15, so its omission was simply inexplicable.

Igor Frolov.
Due partly to the loss of these repeats, the given program of just the two works was over inside of 40 minutes, so that after an on-stage interview by RHUMC Director of Music Charles Dickerson with Laura Schmieder, wife of iPalpiti founder Eduard Schmieder, the Duo still had time for a substantial encore.

Unfortunately, the Concert Fantasy on Themes from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Op.19, composed in 1991 by the Russian Igor Frolov (1937-2013), was for me not so much substantial as interminable. Highly virtuosic and demanding for both performers, it distorts and distends the familiar tunes unmercifully, and certainly did nothing to help my general aversion to Gershwin. However, judging by the enthusiastic applause this highly gifted duo received when the piece was finally over, no-one else in the audience felt the same about it. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, July 10 2018, 7.30 p.m.
Images: Duo de Ascaniis: Courtesy Fondazione Gioventù Musicale d’Italia; Schubert: Wikimedia CommonsJanáček: Robert Greenberg Music; Frolov: Classical Music Online.

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