Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Liszt and Vianna da Motta at Rolling Hills


Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro.

REVIEW

Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
DAVID J BROWN

Last month, a Debussyan picture-gallery with local keyboard virtuoso Robert Thies as guide; this month, extracts from Lisztian travelogues from the distinguished Portuguese pianist Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro plus a couple of music-pictures from his native country: RHUMC’s series “Second Sundays at Two” has certainly kicked off its 2018-19 season with a feast of illustratable pianism. 

If you were to draw a fanciful analogy between the sizes of output of some composers and various types of land-mass, then Liszt’s vast corpus would correspond to a veritable continent—and one that remains largely unexplored even by most knowledgeable music-lovers. Across this Lisztian continent are several particularly prominent mountain-ranges, among them being that of the solo piano music, and within which the three Années de pèlerinage (“Years of Travel”) visit some of the most thoroughly explored peaks. 

The current William Tell Chapel on Lake Uri, Switzerland,
photographed in 1885, a few years after its construction.
I guess that some pianists with a taste for marathons have given the complete published cycle in concert (a very long evening though equaled, amongst Liszt’s choral/orchestral works for example, by his mammoth oratorio Christus), but normally the 26 individual pieces that comprise Années de pèlerinage 1-3 form a rich resource from which recitalists are able to pick and choose.

Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro selected a nicely contrasted sequence: “The Chapel of William Tell”, the initial item from the First Year Switzerland S.160; “Sonnet 123 by Petrarch”, the penultimate piece from the Second Year Italy S.161; and the brief “Sursum Corda”, which concludes the Third Année de pèlerinage S.163

The earliest known
photograph of Liszt,
dating from 1843.
He further welded the three into a single suite, leaving very short pauses and thus maintaining concentration to meet fully the wide range of Liszt’s technical and expressive demands: in turn, the solemn majesty of Tell’s Chapel (and giving a more than usually dramatic treatment to the Allegro vivace central section); the contrasting limpid beauty of the Sonnet 123—appropriate to the poem’s subject of angelic grief at the world’s woes; and finally the rather theatrically prayerful uplift of “Sursum Corda”. 

Statue of Vianna da
Motta in the Jardim
do Torel, Lisbon.
Then came a complete change of pace, mood, and location, with two short pieces by one of the central figures of Portuguese musical Romanticism, José Vianna da Motta. There were nice links here: Vianna da Motta is said to have been, at his death in 1948 at the age of 80, the last surviving pupil of Franz Liszt. The youthful Portuguese composer studied with the master in Weimar all of 63 years earlier in 1885, a year before Liszt himself died, and much later went on to teach Helena Sá e Costa, who was Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s teacher. 

If Liszt’s 1000+ compositions form a continent of music, then Vianna da Motta’s compact output of around 30 each of solo piano pieces and songs, plus small numbers of nonetheless substantial chamber and orchestral works, is more like a large and somewhat remote island—one mostly unknown to music-lovers outside Portugal itself. ArkivMusic, for example, lists a bare half-dozen CDs devoted to his music. The nostalgically romantic Barcarola No. 1 Op. 1 and the cheerful dance “Chula”, second of the 3 Scenas Portugezas Op. 9, were brief enough to be, in Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s affectionate accounts, merely enticing tasters for Vianna da Motta’s music. 

Oscar Lorenzo Fernández.
After this we were treated to one more Lisztian extravaganza, a lengthy virtuoso showpiece incorporating the widest range of pianistic challenges. This was the 12th of the 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies S.244, and Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro proved himself totally its master, moving from playfulness to aristocratic wryness to rhetorical thunder as the music demanded.

Finally, after a brief chat about his forthcoming CDs with host Jim Eninger, he delivered a brief but wildly dynamic encore, “Jongo”, the third and final dance from the Suite brasileira No. 3 by Oscar Lorenzo Fernández (1897-1948). I wonder what Fernández’s symphonies are like? 

---ooo---

Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, October 14 2018, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro: Rita Carmo, courtesy performer website; William Tell Chapel: Courtesy Summit Post; Liszt: Wikimedia Commons; Vianna da Motta statue: Manuel Correia, Wikimedia CommonsFernández: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Pair of Masterworks at the Summit


l-r: Sarah Thornblade, Ambroise Aubrun, Cécilia Tsan, Andrew Duckles.

REVIEW

Schubert and Debussy string quartets, Mount Wilson Observatory
DAVID J BROWN

The last of this year’s Sunday afternoon concerts in the 100-inch telescope dome at Mount Wilson Observatory comprised two chamber masterpieces: one latish Schubert, the String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, Op. 29 D.804 from 1824, and one earlyish Debussy, his sole String Quartet in G minor Op. 10 L.91, completed in 1893 (at the same age at which Schubert died). The performers were Ambroise Aubrun and Sarah Thornblade, violins; Andrew Duckles, viola; and Cécilia Tsan, ‘cello, who has also been the artistic mastermind behind both last year’s and this year’s series.

Mist enshrouding the 100-inch telescope dome.
Waiting for the doors to open for admittance, the abrupt chill cast by the thick drifting banks of mountain mist that kept obscuring the October sun struck me as a not altogether fanciful metaphor for the major/minor oscillations that constantly occur in Schubert’s later music, where warmth and optimism are suddenly shadowed as if by doubt.

Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 is so prevailingly somber, however, that the opposite might be said to be the case. Apart from the Allegro moderato finale which is decisively in A major, for the remainder of the work the major-key shifts form passing lightenings of the overall gloom. This is particularly so in the long first movement whose foreboding opening—a bleak ostinato on second violin against a juddering rhythm from viola and ‘cello, above which a long-breathed and haunting melody is unspooled downwards by the first violin—casts a long shadow over the remainder of the work.

Schubert in 1825: Watercolor
by Wilhelm August Rieder.
The external chill permeated into the dome to the extent that it reached the performers’ fingers, which had audible difficulty in articulating this opening clearly. But by the end of the long first movement exposition (which sadly was not repeated, doubtless due to time constraints), their playing had arrived and remained at a model blend of clarity, insight and passion.

The bitter exultancy that climaxes the first movement development rang around the steel interior, which must have an acoustic decay time of several seconds, like a colossal distant bell being struck. Most listeners in any regularly shaped auditorium are seated some distance from the players, and if the building, be it cathedral or hall, has that much resonance then the music can be fatally drowned in enveloping echoes. In the Mount Wilson dome, however, simple proximity makes this extreme resonance not just bearable but positively thrilling for the audience.

The doughnut shape of the viewing platform where the concerts are held (the telescope itself projecting up through the whole in the center) necessitates audience and players being grouped together on one side. Even at the tips of the resulting crescent moon-shaped seating layout, there are only four rows of seats, while most listeners are in the center in just two rows. The players are thus extremely close, but the music is saved from oppressiveness and enhanced by the aural halo bouncing back from the surrounding metal interior. It is a unique sound, in my experience, and must be heard to be believed.

Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 is commonly nicknamed “Rosamunde”, because the main theme of the second movement is borrowed from the Act 3 Entr’acte in that incidental music, composed the previous year. Interestingly, after identical (apart from instrumentation) statements of that theme, the music in each diverges sharply, with the quartet version maintaining a far more purposeful tread than the dreamy musings of the Entr’acte.

Then before the finale, there is one of the least joyous Menuettos in all music, led off and permeated throughout by a long-held low ‘cello note that in this measured performance was intoned by Ms. Tsan’s instrument with an almost Norn-like sense of foreboding and solemnity. The finale does at last maintain a relatively positive momentum, though this account seemed to underline those Schubertian major/minor shifts, signaling that all is never going to be well for very long.

Debussy playing the piano at the home of the Chausson family, 1893.
Debussy’s String Quartet predates his other three major chamber works by over 20 years, and stands at a crossroads between the classically influenced styles of Franck and Fauré and his own imminent breaking free from harmonic and structural constraints. Its Animé et très décidé first movement in this performance was powerful indeed, with Debussy’s muscular, close-packed harmonies energetically projected and climaxed with double-stopped ff chords from all four players of almost shocking impact.

The second movement, marked Assez vif et bien rythmé and a scherzo in all but name, is in the greatest possible textural contrast to the first, with teeming pizzicati that in this account went pinging around the dome like audible fireflies. Following the traditional four-movement layout, but eschewing tradition in much else, the slow third movement was marked by some truly other-worldly muted pianissimo playing towards its close by Ms. Thornblade, who had swopped the first and second violin roles with M. Aubrun between the two works.

After a slow introduction that includes some of the most chromatic writing in the whole piece, the main body of the finale returns to the close-packed tension of the first movement, and only in its last few pages achieves a sense of struggle exuberantly overcome. Such was the energy generated here that it seemed even to have warmed the air in the dome!

In his introduction before the musicians came on to perform, Mount Wilson Observatory Trustee Dan Kohne commented on how these concerts in this place embrace and combine the best that humans can achieve, the quest for knowledge and the profundity of great art. Never a truer word… and long may both continue on this particular mountaintop. Previous concerts at Mount Wilson were reviewed here, here, here, and here.


---ooo---


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 7 October 2018,
3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performers: the author; Mount Wilson: Courtesy Mount Wilson Observatory; Schubert: PinterestDebussy: DEA/G. Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images; Cello: Cécilia Tsan.

Monday, October 8, 2018

“American Fusions” open Long Beach Symphony's season


Eckart Preu and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.

REVIEW

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

The American melting-pot, the seeking of new forms of expression, and the way some American composers have sought to synthesize disparate genres to embrace popular appeal, were the themes behind LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu’s ambitious opening concert for the orchestra’s 2018-19 season. In his pre-concert talk he noted that all four composers in the program had used blends between “classical” and various popular idioms: for Frank Zappa it had been rock, for George Gershwin jazz, for Mason Bates technopop and electronica, and for Leonard Bernstein the Broadway musical among others.

Frank Zappa.
Zappa’s public reputation has probably been for outrage as much as anything, but behind the gigs and the stunts was a gifted polymath who in his teens had been captivated as much by Edgard Varèse and Stravinsky as by R&B and doo-wop, and whose notated concert works were loved, and recorded, by Pierre Boulez. (In Paris the love affair continues—on the evening following this LBSO concert, the Philharmonie de Paris put on an elaborate production of Zappa’s magnum opus 200 Motels, complete with the Strasbourg Philharmonic and many other musicians, multiple video feeds from cellphones, a Zappa marionette onstage, and a bathrobe-and-towel clad Zappa lookalike interjecting from the audience.) 

Long Beach was content with G-Spot Tornado, a four-minute firecracker scherzo which, after a drum tattoo, is driven by a ferocious ostinato figure that spreads like a virus through the large ensemble of winds, brass, guitars, pitched and unpitched percussion, keyboards, and string quartet, metamorphosing constantly in rhythmic shape and timbral quality, and overlain by fragmentary melodic blasts from the brass. All this was delivered conscientiously by the orchestra, directed by Maestro Preu with his characteristic fervor, though I think a bit more familiarity is needed for them to play the work with the full defiant abandon coiled in its DNA. 

Terrence Wilson.
In the pre-concert talk, Preu had brought on stage pianist Terrence Wilson, the soloist in George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and his far less well-known Second Rhapsody composed seven years later; the latter preceded its famous sibling in the program, the two together filling the first half after the Zappa.

Both maestros lauded the virtues of the Second Rhapsody, which they agreed had been hobbled by its mundane, functional title—perhaps it should have been left as “Rhapsody in Rivets”, one of several labels it went through in its course from movie-music origins to final concert-hall form. 

Jayce Keane’s admirably readable program notes came clean that Rhapsody in Blue “had been hastily thrown together”, which I confess is how the piece has always struck me. Nonetheless it succeeds due to its unforgettable opening clarinet glissando (successfully wailed in this performance by LBSO Principal Gary Bovyer), memorable tunes, and sheer unpredictability and verve.

George Gershwin.
It’s easy to conclude that in the Second Rhapsody, though seemingly a more through-composed piece, Gershwin strove but failed to achieve the same effect, with climax after climax building up effortfully only to collapse in disarray. However, while it’s always risky to pin the apparent emotional climate of a work on external circumstances, I wonder whether something in their differences at least reflects the contrast between 1931’s Depression-era zeitgeist and that of the Roaring Twenties, of which Rhapsody in Blue remains a key musical signature.

Wherever the truth lies, Mr. Wilson played both works not only with affectionate brilliance but also an engagingly improvisatory manner, which Maestro Preu and the orchestra faithfully followed through every twist and turn. Rhapsody in Blue was performed in Ferde Grofé’s orchestration of 1942, the Second Rhapsody as re-orchestrated by Robert McBride in 1951. It would be interesting in some future concert to hear Gershwin’s recently restored original orchestration. 

Mason Bates.
Mason Bates’ work Mothership opened the second half, and I confess that after it I remained on the outside looking in at the phenomenon of this reputedly most-performed American composer of his generation. I respect my LA Opus friend and colleague Rodney Punt’s high opinion of Bates’ Steve Jobs opera at Santa Fe this year, but for me Mothership was no more interesting than my one previous experience of his music live at Hartford, CT, a few years ago—the “symphony” Alternative Energy, a tedious exploitation of a thin gimmick (used car parts as percussion). 

In Mothership, Bates “imagines the orchestra [being] ‘docked’ by several visiting soloists, who offer brief but virtuosic riffs on the work’s thematic materials over action-packed electro-acoustic orchestral figuration.” The trouble is that these contributions are as unmemorable as they are brief, while the subminimalist orchestral background and rhythmic underpinning are simply dull—nothing here to compare with Zappa’s defiant resourcefulness, to look no further. Bates’ use of electronica seems similarly mundane when seen against the long history of electronic music, of which Varèse was perhaps the most significant founding-father. 

One could hardly imagine a more pointful contrast than Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, whose rhythmic and textural variety and sheer melodic richness burst out in a brilliant performance from the LBSO and Maestro Eckart who, after what looked like a fairly metronomic task piloting the Mothership, was galvanized by this last performance of the evening, his tall figure constantly mobile, seemingly everywhere at once with his orchestra, coaxing from them playing that was as impactful and subtle as the music demanded. 

l-r: Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal.
While it’s at least arguable that more than a little of the impact and brilliance of the Symphonic Dances is owed to the full orchestral score prepared in 1960-61 by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, there’s no doubting Bernstein’s genius, at least in West Side Story, as was acknowledged 30 years later by Ramin in his touching prefatory note to the published score: 

“It was an orchestrator's dream to work with Leonard Bernstein; Lenny, lrwin Kostal and I discussed every note in every bar of the score at great length [and] it's no wonder that we hoped someday to be able to re-orchestrate this very inventive and difficult music… Somehow, the Symphonic Dances manage to be both ‘serious’ and ‘popular.’ This suite brings music of Broadway into the concert hall, orchestrating with symphonic character the music every theater-goer loves. Miraculously, Lenny could do it all. I'll always consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have been one of his devoted helpers.” 

 ---ooo--- 

Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, September 29, 2018, 8 p.m.
Photos: LBSO and Eckart Preu: Caught in the Moment, courtesy Long Beach Post; Frank Zappa: Courtesy BBC Music; Terrence Wilson: Courtesy LBSO; George Gershwin: Courtesy CMUSE; Mason Bates: Ryan Schude/composer website; Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal: Courtesy SecondHandSongs.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

A Bouquet of Forget Me Nots on First Friday


REVIEW

First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya.
What makes a melody truly memorable? This thought came to mind during most of the items in this recital by the Japanese violinist/ violist Ken Aiso and Ukrainian pianist Valeria Morgovskaya, the second in  Classical Crossroads Inc.’s Friday lunchtime series. Google the question and you’ll get more answers than you could ever be bothered to read through: one that I quite liked involved achieving, in the melody’s progress, a balance between repetition and non-repetition, and between predictable and unpredictable elements.

For me this certainly fits the pairs of falling 2nds and 5ths followed by upward scales, hesitant and imploring, that herald “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, played here in an arrangement for viola and piano that suffered nothing in its translation from the original’s ‘cello and two pianos. The close rapport between Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept it cool and up to the Andantino grazioso marking, no drawn-out Pavlovan “dying swan” effect here. 

Another recipe for memorable melody I came across was that they often move mostly in single scale steps. This is certainly true of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”—the last of his 14 Romances Op. 34 originally written for high voice and piano—which like “The Swan” has been given many arrangements. The performers again chose the one for viola and piano, and here I wondered at first whether their playing of this often lachrymal piece needed a little more overt emotion. However, their carefully graduated turning up of the flame as they approached its single ff climax in the central section proved me wrong. 

Elgar and Caroline Alice,
shortly after their marriage.
Yet a third short piece with an unforgettable main melody followed, and one within which all the above ingredients for earworming can be found. Elgar’s Salut d’amour has probably been arranged for as many different combinations of instruments as the Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninoff pieces, but here we had it in its original form for violin and piano, as composed in 1888 by Elgar as an engagement present for his fiancée, and once again the lack of swooning in Mr. Aiso’s playing was all gain—a legacy perhaps of his years with London’s premiere period-instrument band, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose programs were high on my list of must-listens when I lived there.

Koichi Kishi (1909-1937).
Entirely new to me were both the next piece, Dance of the Dragon for violin and piano, and its composer Koichi Kishi. Thank you as ever, Wikipedia, for outlining Kishi’s humbling range of achievements in his short life of only 28 years… not only as a violinist, composer and conductor (of his own works, with the Berlin Philharmonic, no less!), but even as a film director.

The brief Dance of the Dragon was an explosive change of mood before yet another of those ineradicable melodies—and one whose its predominance of wide leaps largely undermines recipe #2 above. This was the “Meditation” from Massenet’s opera Thaïs of 1894, and all of Mr. Aiso’s virtues of discreet vibrato, spot-on intonation, and judicious choice of tempi were once again on full display.

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908).
Then came the final and biggest piece in the listed program, and one that really allowed him to show off his virtuoso credentials. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen Op. 20—this time in the composer’s own arrangement for violin and piano from his orchestrated original composed in 1878—is a 10-minute, four-part fantasy on “Gypsy Airs”, and for the violinist full of fearsome challenges.

These, whether fast double-stops, seamless spiccato runs, ringing pizzicato chords, or high harmonics of other-worldly eeriness, were  all negotiated by Mr. Aiso without the slightest ruffling of the aplomb he displayed throughout the recital. All this got a deserved standing ovation from the fortunate audience in First Lutheran, after which Bach’s famous “Air on the G String” as encore formed the perfect return to earth. 

---ooo--- 

“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 4, 2018. Photos: The performers: Courtesy Loyola Marymount University; Elgar: Medium website

Koichi Kishi: YouTube; Sarasate: Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The PSO’s Ambitious 40th Season Makes a Starry Start



REVIEW

Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
DAVID J BROWN

Where’s the rest of me?” Reagan’s famous filmic cri de coeur came unbidden to mind while listening to Frank Ticheli’s Shooting Stars, the opener in the lengthy first concert of the Pacific Symphony’s highly ambitious 40th anniversary season. In fact, I rather wish I’d not known in advance (thanks to the program book) that it also functions as the first movement of his Symphony No. 2, so that innocent ears could have encountered Shooting Stars as a standalone item with no allied pondering as to whether it worked as a satisfactory whole when shorn of its companion movements. 

Frank Ticheli.
But this wasn't quite the case, as was clarified in an interval chat with Mr. Ticheli which clarified the relationship. In 2003 simultaneous commissions had arrived from the PSO for a short orchestral work to celebrate its then 25th anniversary, and from Florida State University for a piece to honor its retiring Director of Bands, Dr. James E. Croft. The solution was to craft the music so that the first movement of Florida’s wind band symphony could also transfer to full orchestra for the PSO’s 25th (the other two movements of the symphony remain in concert band form only). Now, to buff up the work for the 40th anniversary celebrations, he had replaced the original six measures of Shooting Stars’ conclusion with 50 new measures for a more spectacular ending, lengthening it by around 80 seconds. 

After prior audition on YouTube of the (admittedly poorly recorded) wind band version, hearing the PSO blaze away in the Segerstrom Hall’s wonderful acoustic was like going from 16mm film to IMAX, a scintillating panoply of orchestral color dominated by multifarious pitched and unpitched percussion, though not to the point of drowning out trenchant motifs in the rest of the orchestra. So does it work as a standalone piece? Not enough! Let’s have the other two movements reworked and the whole symphony played by the PSO… how about a commission of that for the 50th anniversary?

Rachmaninoff in 1909, the year he
composed the Third Piano Concerto.
Regular PSO host Alan Chapman in his pre-concert talk got a good laugh by quoting from the 1954Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians: “The enormous popular success some few of Rakhmaninov's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor. The third pianoforte Concerto was on the whole liked by the public only because of its close resemblance to the second…” —not Grove V editor/annotator/polemicist Eric Blom’s most prescient moment.

The performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 by the Russian pianist Olga Kern and the PSO under Music Director Carl St. Clair, the main item in the concert’s first half, in fact underlined how different it is from Piano Concerto No. 2—monumental and granitic where its predecessor is fulsome and heart-on-sleeve, much more structurally complex, and also with parallel moments in each handled in hugely dissimilar ways (like the beginnings and ends of the respective first movements). 

In a video thoughtfully posted by the PSO on Facebook, Ms. Kern called it a “symphony for orchestra and piano”, and it’s easy to agree. In this half-hour exposition from the keyboard, she averred that she prefers the longer and (even) more difficult version of the first movement cadenza, which she regards as the crucial climax in the whole work. 

In the packed Segerstrom Hall, the useful video feed above the players showed that even in this passage of surpassing complexity she did not lose the contained and apparently relaxed posture that characterized her whole performance: no extravagant theatrics, just liquidly pliable wrists and fingers maintaining crystalline articulation which nonetheless was of great flexibility, from romantic expansiveness as in her treatment of the first movement’s second subject, to the headlong dynamism with which she lit into the Alla breve finale. 

Olga Kern, Carl St. Clair, and the Pacific Symphony in action.
In all this she was devotedly partnered by Maestro St. Clair and the orchestra, which both collectively and individually stayed on message to a remarkable extent considering the extremes of romantic rubato to which they were subjected. Only in the final pages of the last movement, where Rachmaninoff lays on a plethora of tempi adjustments and expressive marks in a perhaps over-anxious attempt to give the climax every last erg of energy, did I feel that the performance, in trying to follow them all to the letter, became a little over-studied and unspontaneous. Nonetheless, overall it was a triumphant account of a towering work (pace the shade of Mr. Blom). 

Mozart in c.1780.
Fine though this was, however, for me the performance after the interval of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major K.364 for Violin and Viola was even more memorable. In contrast to the standard Romantic wind and brass forces Rachmaninoff employs, the Sinfonia Concertante is remarkably economical in its scoring for Mozart in a mature large-scale orchestral work from 1779, with just pairs of oboes and horns as well as the strings. The latter, though also scaled down, were still relatively numerous, at around 10-8-7-5-3 (I couldn’t be sure from where I was sitting), and under Maestro St. Clair’s expansive direction, produced a rich, warm sound. 

What made the performance so special, however, were the soloists Dennis Kim and Meredith Crawford, respectively the PSO’s new Concertmaster and viola section Principal. Searching around for a metaphor to describe their playing and interaction, to me they seemed perhaps like a pair of probably new but already very good friends, enthusiastically exploring and discussing an inexhaustible range of ideas in common, and finding nothing to disagree about. 

Their playing was muscular, joyful, quietly plangent by turns as the mood of the music demanded, both players always acutely aware of and responding to what the other was doing. It was a performance to treasure.

I wonder if they might consider giving us others in the (admittedly limited) repertoire of concertos for these instruments: the Bruch Double Concerto in E minor, say, or perhaps the Arthur Benjamin Romantic Fantasy.

Ravel in 1928, the year
he composed Boléro.
However much the prospect might seem wearying of once more hearing Ravel’s Boléro uncoil itself from the tiny snare-drum taps at the start to the conclusion’s tumultuous tonal side-slips, in a performance as devoted and focused as that with which the PSO and Maestro St. Clair concluded this concert the magic worked yet again, and one was left with that tune as an earworm that wouldn’t depart for days! And I guess that is the secret of the piece: that tune is just so damned good and such a gift to each and every player that no-one is ever going to sound bored and lackluster as their turn with it comes around. 

This performance came with visual accompaniment—a video show of 40 years of PSO history that, while intermittently interesting (“I didn’t know that he had ever conducted the orchestra”, etc.) seemed a bit superfluous or at least out of place, a misguided concern that Ravel's “orchestral tissue without music” somehow needed eye-candy to hold the interest. No, it didn’t; indeed I shut mine from time to time just to concentrate on what was music by any definition, superbly played by a fine orchestra. 

 ---ooo--- 

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Friday, September 28, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Performance photos: Doug Gifford, courtesy Pacific Symphony; Frank Ticheli: Charlie Grosso, courtesy composer website; Rachmaninoff: portrait by Robert Sterl, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; Mozart: detail a from painting of Mozart and his family by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; Ravel: Bibliothèque nationale de France, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Kazaras Brings Britten’s Ghostly Battle to Seattle Stage

Peter Kazaras, courtesy of the Artist 


INTERVIEW: Peter Kazaras

McCaw Hall, Seattle   
ERICA MINER

From young Harvard opera hopeful (when he and I first met) to New York lawyer to Metropolitan Opera tenor to director of operas on the international stage, Peter Kazaras boasts a background that is unique among opera professionals. 

Kazaras, who currently holds the post of Director of Opera UCLA, Professor of Music,  brings his expertise, honed over a lifetime of operatic experience, to the Seattle Opera stage as director of their upcoming production of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera, The Turn of the Screw. The opera’s ghostly, supernatural themes, adapted by librettist Myfanwy Piper from a novella by Henry James, seem perfectly suited as a prelude to the Halloween season. 

Having fulfilled roles with the company of operatic tenor, teacher, director and head of the Young Artists Program, Kazaras is also familiar with Seattle audiences from his previous stagings in such operas as Norma (his 2003 SO directing debut), Tristan und IsoldeAn American Dream, The Consul and Falstaff. He also sang the key role of Quint in SO’s 1993 premiere production of The Turn of the Screw. Company members and audiences alike are excited to welcome him back to direct this psychological thriller.

Erica Miner: You sang the role of Quint here in  the Seattle premiere of The Turn of the Screw.

Peter Kazaras:  It was a very interesting production that had premiered at Glimmerglass—inventive, colorful, with a very strong point of view about the Governess, that she was obviously and seriously disturbed, not just anxious. To me it went down the rabbit hole of what can be a problem with productions of this opera—the issue of, is it all in the Governess’s head, are there really ghosts. Henry James, to the end of his life, maintained the ambiguity. I recently found out doing some research that Britten and Myfanwy Piper both wanted to preserve the ambiguity. Some people think Britten, by giving voice to the ghosts, wanted to say of course they’re real. I think that actually is not the case. But it’s very interesting when people say, “Well, is she crazy or not?” Look around at our world and see how some people absolutely believe things they hear on television that you think are completely insane. Are all those people crazy? Stupid? Misguided? Or do they just believe differently from you? I don’t have an answer for that. I think the ambiguity at the core of this opera ultimately makes it a rewarding journey but no one is complacent at the end. If you’re able to say, “That woman is just crazy,” then that’s not a successful production. The former production was fantastically beautiful, very imaginative, but it was obvious from the very beginning that the Governess was out of her mind. I thought as I was doing it that it was not the way I would do it if I ever directed the show. 

EM: So maintaining the ambiguity is the key. 

PK: Essential. 

EM: It’s the perennial debate. Are the ghosts real, are they in her mind, is she insane? 

PK: When people came up to Henry James at parties and said, “Are the ghosts real?” he would say, “Do you believe in ghosts?” Most people will say no. But if you ask among your friends if they’ve had any experience with things like that, you will find a startling number of people have, including me. 

EM: I admit that I have. 

PK: I personally believe in 50 or 100 years people might say, “Oh, yeah, that’s just the R37 enzyme that everyone knows still exists in electrical current form for 6 months after somebody dies.” We’ll know there is something. Some people might call that the soul, the spirit, the ghost. In terms of the show, we also know that James, in writing this, was obsessive in his use of English— correcting small dashes to Em dashes and such—completely wild, and amazing to think about. But he really wanted to make sure everything the Governess says, even though it’s a quote from her diary, is open to interpretation.

Elizabeth Caballero as the Governess
Photo, Elise Bakketun
EM: Are the children possessed, do they really see the ghosts? 

PK: Good question. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. 

EM: Is it also ambiguous? 

PK: Here’s the thing. I am lucky that I don’t think of myself as an abused child. However, I know some abused children who have grown up into adults. I can assure you they carry the scars of that forever. So is that possession? Trauma? PTSD? Are they all the same thing? 

EM: It depends how those scars manifest. If it’s in visions of apparitions, that’s different. 

PK: In the show it’s clear that the kids do not see the visions. It’s sort of written in the score. But it is clear that the children HEAR the ghosts. What the children are responding to is an inner voice or vibration. A lot of what Quint says is not seen by Miles. Flora does not look at Miss Jessel when she first appears, but the Governess is absolutely convinced that Flora does see her and doesn’t say anything. What do you make of that? 

EM: Again, it’s in the mind of the Governess. 

PK: Or not. 

EM: There have been so many different interpretations of the novella. Would you construe the story as a psychological study, a supernatural tale, a suspense thriller? None or all of the above? Something else? 

PK: To me the death of art is reductivism. Whatever your decision or belief about this story, you are left with the fact that at the end you have one severely damaged child and one dead child. How about 13 kids being held captive in their house in California for 20 years. Whose fault is it? No neighbor saw that there were children who vanished? No one said anything? No one called the police? It took until one of them was old and strong enough to get out and run away, call for help for someone to do something? Is it that the parents were monsters, which is kind of easy to believe, or is it as a society we’re all in a sense culpable for lack of involvement and empathy? That’s why I say when people ask the question, it’s really the wrong questions to ask. Because you ask that in order to get yourself off the hook. They’re ghosts, or it’s all in the woman’s mind, so there’s nothing we can do. To which my answer is, there’s a dead boy, and a completely messed up girl. What is your responsibility for that? There’s a guardian who says, “You have to take care of them. Never write me, don’t get in touch with me, I don’t have time.” 

EM: That aspect of the story has never sat well with me. 

PK: English parents often send their boys away. 

EM: They do but do they specifically say, “Don’t ever contact me.”? 

PK: The decision is, they won’t be contacted. Unless the boy dies, or is sent home from school. 

EM: But it’s implied, yes? 

PK: It’s not quite as extreme as that. It takes a certain British upper-class thing and magnifies it. It takes a vibration in the chord and makes it dominant. I had some friends who were trying to get their kid into a prestigious school on the Upper East Side of New York. The people there said, “Here’s the deal. You entrust the girls to us. We will educate them better than anyplace in the country. You drop them off at the beginning of the day, take them home at the end of the day. We don’t want to see you. No parent-teacher conferences except as scheduled, no notes about why there’s too much homework. We take care of it all.” For the people who want that, it’s great. Others find it puzzling. It’s just another way of saying that in this story you take a normal thing and you give it a little “Turn of the Screw.” All of a sudden you’re saying, “What is that?” The uncle is not the kids’ parent, he’s the guardian. For an uncle to say, “Don’t contact me” is not weird. What’s weird is that he doesn’t exactly vet the Governess. We know from the book there were others who applied for the job and turned it down because they thought it was too weird. What is there about her that wanted to do it? She even takes a couple of days to think about it and says yes, I can do this. Utterly weird. 

EM: Whatever her reasons, if she doesn’t say yes, there’s no story. The fact that the uncle divests himself from the kids—is it also a social commentary? 

PK: I don’t think so. James went to great lengths to say he was just writing a potboiler, faux modesty about it. “Oh, it’s nothing much, it’s just a sensational bit of fluff.” It ended up being a huge success, but I don’t think he was making a social commentary. I am interested in the ramifications of what happens when children are hurt. 

EM: Psychologically? 

PK: Yes. And physically. Children go to the hospital and say, “A bookcase fell on us,” as they have been coached to do by their parents. 

EM: About your staging both real and ghostly aspects to the story. How do you maintain a balance? 

PK: I don’t. My Governess, the first time said, “Is this really happening?” I said, “I don’t know, what do you think?” I think everything is really happening, but it’s in the eye of the beholder that the issue arises. There aren’t any straight answers. I don’t believe that’s what you need for a production of this opera. You need confusion and ambiguity. In this production, we’re using the set from the old Don Giovanni, basically a big black wall on which are projected amazing, wonderful images from this genius projection designer Adam Larsen. Sometimes you’re going to look at it and think, there’s a house onstage…no, a train station…no, a forest…no, that’s sky. Because it looks so real. Other times there will be hallucinogenic images which are like something that’s going on inside the Governess’s head. 

EM: That’s the beauty of projections. When done brilliantly, you can do anything. 

PK: That’s right. 

EM: What are the particular challenges of working with children in an opera? 

PK: In this one, Britten knew what he was doing. He made it so it could be easily encompassed by a boy soprano, especially with some training. We have two boys and a cover, all able to sing the role and very different, which is also interesting. One of ours is the BBC boy’s chorister of the year, a real heavy hitter. Equally gifted is the American kid who’s doing it. Neither is particularly experienced in stage productions as opposed to being in choruses. Part of the challenge is that most boy sopranos, you have to encourage them to actually go there, especially with this role, which demands that the kid be psychically crushed to death onstage, at the end of his rope, by the end. That’s not something a typical 13-year-old feels comfortable sharing in public, right? 

EM: I wouldn’t think so.

Photo, Philip Newton
PK: Yesterday one of the kids was trying something, one of the spoken lines, just sounding angelic. I finally had to challenge him. I sat at my desk and pounded, making louder and louder noises. He finally in desperation screamed back at me. I said, “Yes, that’s what you need to do.” He was like, “Wow.” But I’m just doing my job there. We have to find a way in for both of the boys and they’re very different—physically, emotionally, and what they bring to the role. That’s not different from what you would do in any double-cast situation, if you’re doing it right. You actually deal with the people in front of you. Miles himself, a lot of what he does is ambiguous. In the book he’s described as being even more angelic than his sister, and physically beautiful. Sweet, smiling. Eventually the way the Governess views that, changes. She starts to find it horrifying, evidence of his collusion with the ghosts, the “Others.” Every now and then he’ll say something like, you trust no one, but [sings] “You think of us, my dear, and of the Others. Does my uncle think what you think?” And off he goes. The Governess quite rationally says, it was a challenge. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe he was just saying, what do you think is going on here? Miles, in everything he does, is ambiguous, or should be. If he looks like a demon all the time, actually demonically possessed, I think it’s a wrong way to go with the show. He’s just a kid being a kid and what a 13-year-old might do occasionally might be devilish. I think it’s better. That’s what we’re going for. 

EM: What are some of the unique challenges of staging this opera? 

PK: The boy, what to do with him. In the production I did here for the Young Artists, we used a countertenor who was maybe 23 but looked 15. That was really interesting. We could really talk frankly about all the things that are going on. With young boys in the room, some of what I say is just private. These boys are not dumb, they’re smart and aware of the world. Not that I have to keep secrets, but one watches what one is saying. We also have a 25-cent penalty for bad language. 

EM: Seriously? 

PK: It’s more ignored than observed. It’s very funny. You try not to drop a certain “bomb” if there are 13-year-olds in the room. I sometimes make a penalty for saying “I’m sorry.” That’s what people say most in rehearsals, which is the worst waste of time of anything. Just keep going, I don’t care if you make a mistake. This show is emotionally challenging, especially for the Governess. Most Governesses I’ve worked with have gone through a period of not sleeping well and having a breakdown in rehearsals. That’s normal for this piece. You have to learn how to navigate the intense emotional demands. It’s constructed into the piece because of what is happening with the music and with the chords, a clash with tonalities. By the final scene, there’s an unrelenting passacaglia underneath, and the Governess is singing in A major and Quint in A-flat. It’s not difficult to hear, but there’s a lot of tension. Working again on this score I feel like, how much of it is about tension leading to release, and not a nice kind of release but getting you into further trouble. At the end, Quint wins, in a way, even though the Governess thinks she’s won, the boy’s dead. It’s not a warm fuzzy feeling at the end of this opera if you’re a performer. Does the person who’s doing something bad always feel good about it, or does he or she sometimes feel shame? That concept of shame is really interesting for this piece. According to Britten’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter there were some unnamed childhood incidents which I think must have caused some issues. This notion of growing with shame and dealing with it in a long-term situation is very important, something that’s at the heart of this piece. I’ve actually tried to bring a bit more of it into the piece than I have in prior incarnations.

Ben Bliss (Quint)
Photo, Dario Acosta
EM: The ending leaves the audience with questions. Also the performers. 

PK: The performers have been dealing with the questions for months by the time of the performances. all performers are different. Some stay in the mood of what they’ve done for hours afterward, for others it’s easy to drop what’s going on. It depends on the performer. It requires an immense amount of concentration. It’s a perfectly constructed piece musically. You have to do what’s really on the page, not something like it. Not that we don’t try to do that in everything, but there’s a bit more leeway in some pieces. Not in this. 

EM: For me it’s emotionally draining, jarring, disarming and disturbing. 

PK: It’s up to the audience what they want to feel, but after a successful production of this I’d think they should leave the theatre confused, angry, upset. It’s not Rosenkavalier or Falstaff or Elixir of Love. How do you leave Wozzeck? Do you think, “Well, that was fun,” or do you think, “It’s terrible what people do to each other”? We tend to forget that, if we’re focusing on ghosts and crazy women, this opera is a tragedy. At the end there are two kids who have been annihilated. That’s tragic. Especially if you think they were annihilated with the best conceivable intentions. 

EM: What attracts you most about this opera? 

PK: It speaks to aspects of the human condition that are among the most difficult questions we have to grapple with. What is responsibility for others, what is caring for others. That’s one of the odd lessons about this piece. What happens to the kids is the ultimate answer to, “Is it all in her mind or are they real ghosts.” The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Look at the children. 

EM: Whether or not the ghosts are real, the end result is tragedy. 

PK: Right. I love working on The Turn of the Screw, it’s one of my favorite pieces. 

EM: And I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with it. 

PK: Thank you for taking the time to do this, Erica. I appreciate your interest. 

EM: Thank you, Peter, for taking the time. I’m looking forward to Oct. 13! 

Seattle Opera’s The Turn of the Screw runs from Oct. 13-27.

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Photo credits: courtesy of the Artist, Elise Bakketun, Dario Acosta, Philip Newton 
Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com