Toi Toi Opera
Barber – Knoxville Summer of 1915; A Hand of Bridge; Bernstein – Trouble in Tahiti
Director: Matthew Kereama Musical Director: Rachel Fuller
Singers: Matilda Wickbom – John Bayne – Emma Gilkison – Nigel Withington – Alex Robinson – Katherine Doig – Helen Acheson
In February last year, we, the opera stalwarts of Christchurch, headed along to The Great Hall of the Christchurch Arts Centre for the debut production of a new local company – Toi Toi Opera. Billed as Suor Angelica (Puccini) and Elegies (Britten, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams), it rather surprised us with its innovative, thought-provoking and imaginative approach to opera presentation. With its high production values, along with a well-chosen cast and creative team, it projected a considerable emotional and artistic punch.
In this new double bill those same qualities abound. The concept emerges, not so much as a double bill, but as an integrated and cleverly matched combination of three American pieces in which Toi Toi’s creative team have played as much a part as the composers and librettists. All three works share a domestic intimacy and a degree of commentary, sometimes overt, sometimes implied, on the elusiveness of the American (human?) dream.
Samuel Barber’s 1938 lyric rhapsody Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is one of the great masterpieces of American music and, in Toi Toi’s ingenious realisation and Emma Gilkison’s convincing performance, it proves a logical and effective prologue to the same composer’s ten-minute 1959 opera A Hand of Bridge in which the two couples (Helen Acheson, Nigel Withington, Katherine Doig, Alex Robinson) despairingly and, in the context of theatrical subterfuge, humorously reveal their supressed dreams and desires as they live out their somewhat routine and unfulfilled lives.
All five singers in this first part of the programme portray their characters with persuasive commitment and vocal distinction and, while Katherine Doig stands out for her willingness to communicate a more forthright and characterful projection of both voice and character, the others have a tendency to restrain their projection, perhaps as a way of conveying the characters’ repressed aspirations. In particular, in Knoxville, I would have welcomed a more expressive and opulent expansion of the higher, arching phrases from Emma Gilkison, where she has a tendency to pull back. At times her projection and diction are so restrained that the emotional flow of the music loses a degree of its impact. A slightly more fluid tempo might also highlight the dramatic contrasts of the piece, especially in the transition into the magical episode where the singer describes the family lying on quilts on the grass.
That same restraint is noticeable in the Greek-chorus-like trio commentary in Bernstein’s 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. It’s not just a matter of volume, but of projecting the spirit of the musical and dramatic style of this feature of the score. Bernstein’s writing is full of subtle dynamic swells and falls for this ensemble (Emma Gilkison, Nigel Withington, Alex Robinson), but here everything is subdued and, although it seems to be a deliberate musical decision, it needs just a bit more . . . well . . . oomph! But it’s beautifully sung – the blend of the three voices, intonation, stylistic accord, and physical vitality and coordination are impressive and often very entertaining. The final scene where the trio represents the American dream peering in through the living room windows is particularly effective and dramatically compelling.
The two principal singers in this work embrace their roles with total conviction. John Bayne is a suitably self-opinionated Sam who has the requisite vocal and dramatic skills as well as the ideal physical attributes for the part. When dressed as the corporate businessman, Bayne tends to be a little wooden in his portrayal compared to his more liberated and amusing characterisation in the gym changing room. But he is always convincing in his representation of the husband in an increasingly dysfunctional marriage.
As his wife Dinah, Matilda Wickbom’s singing and acting makes her character the more sympathetic partner, although she too is not without flaws. Wickbom’s “I was Standing in a Garden” aria is, for me at least, the highlight of the evening – touchingly and beautifully done. And her contrasting “What a Movie” solo demonstrates an ability to find and communicate the diverse vocal and character facets of the part.
A superb onstage quintet of instrumentalists, led with vitality by musical director Rachel Fuller, supports the stage performances with pizzazz and subtlety as required, although they too, at times, are a little more subdued in their projection than I would have preferred.
Set, lighting and costumes are excellent – appropriate, but with just that inspired element of subtle caricature that highlights the stereotypes represented in the works themselves. Matthew Kereama’s direction ensures that the writers’ intentions are allowed to unfold without any meddlesome intervention, so that the music, acting and overall concept works superbly.
Toi Toi is certainly a company to watch – not only talented and professional, but innovative, imaginative and adventurous in a way that will surely develop a growing following as its reputation spreads.
The Strangest of Angels – Composer: Kenneth Young (with Anna Leese); Librettist: Georgia Jamieson Emms
New Zealand Opera – Anna Leese, Jayne Tankersley, Members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra
Conductor – Kenneth Young; Director – Eleanor Bishop
There comes a point – the interlude before the third and final scene of Kenneth Young’s new opera The Strangest of Angels – when at last the music sings and dances. The orchestra launches into what almost sounds like a reference to the Habanera from Carmen which then quickly evolves into a tango of distinctive originality and, musically at least, for the first time in this hour-long opera, real personality. Here at last is the composer of Dance (one of my favourite pieces by a New Zealand composer) and Virgen de la Esperanza. Then, as that final scene progresses the musical invention remains at a notably more significant level of importance than seems evident in the earlier scenes.
Until that point The Strangest of Angels is primarily about the plot, the characters (NZ writer Janet Frame and fictional Seacliff psychiatric nurse Katherine Baillie), the psychology and the stage performances, while the music, both instrumental and vocal, responds to the narrative rather than drives it. In the first two scenes it’s almost as if librettist Georgia Jamieson Emms has written a play that needs no music. Surely the art of the librettist is, to a large extent, to trust in the composer’s ability to drive the emotional and dramatic impetus of an opera; to know what to put into words and what to leave to the music? So, what we have for the most part is recitative-like, predominantly syllabic vocal parts underlined by an instrumental commentary that reflects what is already expressed in the text and the singers’ performances.
These on-stage performances are certainly vocally and dramatically convincing. Anna Leese in particular maintains a full-toned and richly coloured vocal presence and uses both her vocal powers and stage presence to project a convincing and sympathetic character. There are times when the tessitura of her role as nurse Katherine Baillie tends to sit for lengthy periods in the higher range, but that makes the splendour of her lower register all the more dramatically effective when required. The audience responds readily and audibly to her ability to shift quickly from authoritarian aloofness to sarcastic humour, and her attention to every nuance of the text is consistently fluid and detailed. It’s a performance that, in the end, draws us in and earns our sympathy even if the librettist’s characterisation is ambiguous to some degree. In the earlier scenes we are not always sure if she is more Nurse Ratched-like or more genuinely empathetic to Janet Frame’s predicament.
As real-life New Zealand writer Janet Frame, Jayne Tankersley is given fewer opportunities to develop a compelling character, particularly for anyone unfamiliar with Frame’s reputation and personal story. But she provides a convincing focus for the plot’s exploration of the social attitudes and medical approaches to mental illness in New Zealand in the early 1950s. Tankersley’s focused vocal quality is rather penetrating at times without the vibrato needed to vary her timbre, but perhaps this is the vocal colour that the composer and writer intended for this role.
Tone quality from both orchestra and singers is not helped by the acoustic. Christchurch’s performance venue, The Piano, is known for its opulent and helpful acoustics, but the set for The Strangest of Angels is a (deliberately?) claustrophobic front-stage box that somewhat cancels the spacious aural effect of the open wood-panelled stage. Although this relatively intimate venue was designed primarily for concert-style performances, I have seen several effective theatrical productions here. But with such an enclosed set, and with the fifteen-piece orchestra fitted into the floor space between the front row of seating, the overall acoustic effect emerges as rather dry. Even so, from a visual point-of-view, the set, with its implied electrotherapy lighting effects and its clever use of a revolving panel for scene changes, along with Eleanor Bishop’s supportive and unobtrusive direction, is very effective indeed.
The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra players respond to Kenneth Young’s kaleidoscopic instrumental music with flair and commitment. Young’s ear for sonority and texture is realised with playing of often virtuosic and dramatic impact, fearlessly attacked with impressive ensemble. I just wished for some moments of respite from the harrowing pain of the opera’s dramatic framework; something musically uplifting that gives us a sense of hope. At the end, when the hospital equipment is transformed into a typewriter, dramatically we see the light of the successful literary career that Frame pursued after this episode. Should this have also been an opportunity for the music to once again sing with more optimism?
Even so, as I leave the theatre I feel privileged to have witnessed the birth of this newest New Zealand opera, which features many moments to savour and even more for us to think about.
The mix of music and politics in the twentieth century got off to a blistering start with the première of Puccini’s Tosca in January 1900. Its turbulent background of politics and violence in 1800 Rome is a constant presence. The opera itself was the victim of political disturbances when a bomb threat delayed its première in Rome by a day. However, unlike the works and composers discussed in Part 1: 1700 – 1900 (see 16/3/2022 below), Puccini was far less interested in the politics than in the potential of his ‘shabby little shocker’ (as one reviewer called it) for theatrical melodrama. Even so, the issue of ‘Politics in Music’ is directly addressed in the opera’s Act II aria Vissi d’Arte (“I’ve Lived for Art”) in which Tosca, an opera singer, argues that she’s given her life to Art and to God, so why is He punishing her with all this blackmail, lechery and politics.
Nor are Richard Strauss’s two one-act operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) without political implications, although Strauss, like Puccini, was far more interested in their theatrical potential than their politics. Ironically, Strauss’s lack of direct interest in politics was the very cause of his political predicament during the Third Reich and after WWII. Strauss used his influence, as Germany’s most prominent composer, wherever possible to improve copyright law and the financial position of German musicians and composers; something that initially led him to support the Third Reich because of its support for cultural institutions. Despite remaining on generally good terms with the Nazi Party, Strauss resisted moves to blacklist Jewish musicians and was exonerated of any ties to the Nazi State during his denazification trial.
The need to remedy what the Nazis believed to be the degeneration of German music resulted in a ‘cleansing’ – partly racial, partly stylistic – which affected numerous living German composers as well as attitudes to several who were long dead, particularly Mendelssohn and Mahler. Of the living, several left the country in the turbulent anti-Jewish 1930s – including Berthold Goldschmidt, Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg, but many other Jewish composers such as Erwin Schulhoff and Pavel Haas, didn’t manage to escape the Holocaust and their surviving music became increasingly familiar as the century progressed.
Paul Hindemith, was initially very much in political favour during the Third Reich, but by 1935 his music was suppressed. The anti-fascist political message of his opera Mathis der Maler was all too clear to the Nazis, with a plot that describes the painter Matthias Grünewald’s struggle for artistic freedom of expression during the repressive climate of the German Peasants’ War in the early sixteenth century.
But the Nazis chose and promoted their own musical heroes and Hitler’s fixation with Richard Wagner’s music, ideology and personal characteristics is well-known. By association, Wagner came to represent the ideals of Naziism, a stigma that still remains to a degree, especially in the widespread public opposition to performances of his music in Israel, although the composer died almost half a century before the rise of the National Socialists. But Hitler distorted Wagner’s ideology to suit his own, just as hundreds of opera directors have done since the composer’s death. Hitler did the same with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice which, unlike anything in Wagner’s musical works, is quite specific in its characterisation of the Jew, Shylock, as a villain. On his website, Israeli pianist and leading Wagner conductor Daniel Barenboim gives a very well-considered and penetrating summary of the anti-Wagner issue in Israel – but more on that in Part 3.
If there is a single composer who can be identified as the leading exponent of the connection between music and politics, it’s surely Dmitri Shostakovich. Unlike almost every other Soviet Russian composer of real note among his contemporaries, Shostakovich remained a Russian resident throughout his life, while Stravinsky (before) and Rachmaninov (after) the 1917 Revolution, moved to Europe and then the USA. Although Prokofiev also left, returning in 1935, Shostakovich never considered leaving his homeland.
The youthful exuberance of Shostakovich’s First Symphony gave way to the state-commissioned Soviet propaganda of the Second and Third. The primal suffocating scream that opens the Fourth leads to an explosive, almost traumatic outpouring in an epic symphony which was withheld by the composer for twenty-five years for fear of retribution, followed by the ironic triumph of the Fifth. In the 1940s, Shostakovich’s experience of oppression from all sides was openly expressed in his chilling and turbulent ‘war’ symphonies – The Leningrad (Seventh) written in that city during its siege by the Nazis, followed by the grief-stricken despair of the Eighth with its jack-booted third movement, and the crushing (both physically and mentally) totalitarian Adagio section of its Finale.
In England, Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, unlike its Beethoven namesake, takes no delight in the beauty of the countryside, but, rather, laments the fallen WWI soldiers who now lie beneath the battlefields of Europe. And his Sixth Symphony’s violent and disturbing character is widely thought to express the composer’s reaction to the deployment of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even Vaughan Williams’ popular The Lark Ascending, begun before the war as an English county idyll, ended, in its 1920 orchestral form, as an elegy for a lost world and lost lives.
In 1943 Michael Tippet was imprisoned for his refusal to undertake even non-combatant war-related duties during WWII. However, his Oratorio A Child of Our Time expresses his reaction to the Nazi’s violent pogrom against Jews, although its inclusion of African-American spirituals protests against all forms of oppression, including his own imprisonment, and also underlines the subversive political motivation of the spirituals themselves.
Benjamin Britten’s political beliefs are well-known, particularly his total commitment to pacifism and the futility of War. His War Requiem, juxtaposing the text of the Latin mass with poems by Wilfred Owen, is among his finest works. And Britten’s 1970 opera Owen Wingrave further debates the morality of war; its subject was deliberately chosen as a protest against the Vietnam war. The musical protests of that time in popular music should also not be forgotten. Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez were among many singers and songwriters whose music had a profound effect on changing attitudes to war. Others, including John Lennon (Give Peace a Chance; Imagine) continued the anti-violence message which was taken up by many others in the last decades of the twentieth century. Sadly, their legacy seems to have wilted in the twenty-first century as, once again, aggression is seen as a valid means of repressing opposing ideologies.
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1961 string orchestra piece, originally titled 8’37”, was intended as an exploration of new sonorities as the composer developed his very personal musical language. After hearing the work performed, Penderecki became aware of its intense emotional charge and renamed it Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Then, in 1992, another Polish composer, Henryk Górecki, shot to fame when a new recording of his fifteen-year-old Symphony No. 3 – Symphony of Sorrowful Songs beat all sales records for a recording of symphonic music. The symphony comprises three ‘laments’ which reflect on the Holocaust, and particularly on the lives that were lost in the camps that were established by the Gestapo in the composer’s homeland.
Finally, the contemporary American minimalist John Adams’ music is full of political content. Among his many politically motivated works, three of his operas stand out for their radical reactions to relatively recent major historical events. Nixon in China (1987) analyses how mythology can be created through propaganda and accepted as truth; The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) remains Adams’ most controversial work and still draws misguided accusations of “catering to anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-bourgeois prejudices”, as well as being subjected to public protests every time it’s revived; and Doctor Atomic (2005) focuses on the extreme anxiety and stress of those involved in the lead-up to the testing of the first atomic bomb in 1945.
These examples of politics in music are by no means exhaustive, but they are proof enough against those who might suggest that politics has no place in music. Any such glib claim runs counter to the inherent artistic expression in music and other artforms.
For the last few weeks the music world has been quite a chaotic game of musical chairs since Russia started to invade Ukraine. Prominent Russian musicians have had their concerts and contracts cancelled in the west; the Ukrainian National Anthem has been performed before performances of Verdi’s Don Carlos at New York’s Metropolitan Opera; the Berlin Philharmonic dedicated their Mahler Resurrection Symphony performances to the people of Ukraine and projected the Ukrainian flag onto the wall of their concert hall; the body of the assassinated Siegfried in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung was enshrouded in the Ukraine flag during performances at Madrid’s Teatro Real; and Russian musical works have been replaced by other music in concerts and broadcasts in many places, including here in New Zealand.
Some say that “politics has no place in music”, but let’s think this through!
Political intervention from both church and state were certainly factors in every aspect of music before the eighteenth century, but let’s consider just a few of the many examples from the Baroque period onwards . . .
George Frideric Handel chose many of his opera subjects for their potential to exalt historical or legendary kings in support for England’s sometimes unpopular German-speaking monarchy; and that’s not to mention Handel’s many Coronation Anthems and other works designed to celebrate royal occasions and which also have political associations.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s choice of Beaumarchais’ play Le Mariage de Figaro as the subject for an opera represented the growing disillusionment with the ruling classes throughout Europe. In Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, Mozart convinces the censors that he has removed everything contentious from the plot and says that he hates politics. But Beaumarchais’ condemnation of aristocratic privilege has always been characterised as foreshadowing the French Revolution. Georges Danton, one of the Revolution’s leading figures, said that Beaumarchais’ play “killed off the nobility”, and Napoleon later referred to Le Mariage de Figaro as “The Revolution already in action”.
Other operas by Mozart explore similarly political ideas – think about the concept of ‘Droit du Seigneur’ in Don Giovanni.
Rossini used another Beaumarchais play, Le Barbier de Séville (to which Le Mariage de Figaro is the sequel), while Donizetti used similarly revolutionary and other political subjects by Walter Scott and Friedrich Schiller. And surely the obvious parallels with the situation in Italy, to the Swiss hero William Tell’s resistance to Austrian rule, are no coincidence in Rossini’s great final opera (1829).
Beethoven originally dedicated his Eroica Symphony to Napoleon, seeing him as the people’s liberator from the yoke of the old feudal world of aristocratic subjugation and, in Beethoven’s own case, from the servitude of court musicians. But the Eroica dedication on the symphony’s title page was unceremoniously scoured out by the composer when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor.
Many of Beethoven’s greatest works maintain a strong thematic trend expressing struggle against various forms of oppression and subjugation, leading to triumph at the end. The Eroica is a prime example of that, as are also the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, the opera Fidelio, the incidental music to Goethe’s play Egmont and much else.
Mention of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony reminds us that, despite it being a work by a German composer, its opening motif was used by Winston Churchill to introduce his WWII radio broadcasts. With the motif’s dit-dit-dit-dah being Morse code for ‘V’ (for Victory), Churchill replicated it visually in his famous ‘V’-shaped finger gesture at the time. At the end of 1944 that same Winston Churchill turned his focus of attack to the Greek partisans who had fought on Britain’s side in the war and who had succeeded in pushing the Nazis out of Greece. Apart from those killed at Britain’s hand in this campaign, a young composer and member of the Greek People’s Liberation Army, Iannis Xenakis, lost half his face in Churchill’s offensive. Some years later, musicologist Harry Halbreich, in reference to Xenakis’ now well-established reputation as a leading musical revolutionary, compared his music to Beethoven’s as being “austere, uncomfortable, and never sentimental” as well as being “highly expressive, courageous and energetic”.
Further political content can be attributed to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when we consider that the composer once commented that it expresses words written about murdered French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat “We swear, sword in hand, to die for the republic and for human rights”. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt says about the Fifth: "This is not music; it is political agitation. It is saying to us: the world we have is no good. Let us change it! Let's go!" And conductor and musicologist John Eliot Gardiner’s research has found that many of the themes in Beethoven’s symphonies are based on French revolutionary songs.
Giuseppe Verdi, even more so than Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti in the world of Italian opera, was an actively political animal. There can be little doubt that the famous prayer for freedom, the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, in his third opera Nabucco (1842), expressed his own deep desire to see the unification of Italy and the end of Austrian rule – “O mia patria, si bella e perduta” / "O my country, so beautiful, and lost”. The sentiments expressed in several of Verdi’s other operas – e.g. Attila, I Lombardi and Giovanna d’Arco – are even more obviously politically motivated. Chants of “Viva Verdi” both inside and outside Italian opera houses were hardly subtle in their true motive – the letters of Verdi’s name standing for “Vittorio Emmanuelle Re D’Italia”; and the Sardinian ruler, Victor Emmanuelle, did indeed become the first king of an independent and unified Italy in 1861, the same year that Verdi himself was elected to the first Italian parliament.
On the opposite side of the Austrian-Italian conflict, even Johann Strauss I needs mention for his most famous composition as his Radetzky March of 1848 was written to celebrate Austrian Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky’s victory in quashing an Italian uprising at the battle of Custoza.
Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi s’Amuse was banned for fifty years after its one and only performance because it was seen as a deliberate insult to Louis-Philippe, the French king of the time. When Verdi used Hugo’s play for his opera Rigoletto in 1851, he was forced by the censors to change the character of the French king into an Italian duke. Then, in 1859, further political censorship resulted in Verdi altering his opera Gustavo III about the real-life assassination in 1792 of the Swedish king, to become Un Ballo in Maschera about the assassination of a fictional governor in colonial Boston! And one of Verdi’s greatest operas, Aida, with its conflicts of personal vs. political loyalties and betrayals, has thought-provoking parallels with the dilemmas that Russian musicians must surely be facing this month.
Before we leave the nineteenth century, passing over numerous other politically motivated, or at least politically expressive musical works (let’s keep Richard Wagner for consideration in the twentieth century), there are two other obvious examples by great and well-known composers. Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 are both unashamed and partisan celebrations of significant battle victories that played a part in the political shaping of Europe. Then, as the nineteenth century progressed, the Nationalist Movement comprising non-Austro-Germanic composers (Chopin, Smetana, Dvořák, Grieg and others) stated their claims to cultural independence, and culminated in the 1890s with Sibelius’s political protests, in works such as Finlandia and Karelia, against Russian autocracy.
The announcement last year of the impending release of Steven Spielberg’s new movie version of West Side Story was an exceptionally exciting prospect which I keenly anticipated for several months. But, exciting as that prospect has been for me, this brilliantly reimagined movie has not yet realised a break-even financial return at the box-office. As I write this, we don’t yet know if it will make the Oscar nominations, but maybe if it gets an award or two it will surely repeat the success of Cabaret in 1972 when, in New Zealand at least, the original release passed by almost unnoticed until its haul of eight Oscars brought its immediate and hugely successful return to our screens.
I saw the new West Side Story at the start of January at Christchurch’s Academy Gold Cinema, one of the very few daytime showings in recent years when I’ve been in a movie theatre that was completely sold out. And, while I loved the movie as a whole, I was initially rather disappointed by the musical impact – or lack of it. The emotional clout of this great score just wasn’t there!
A few days later I listened to the music soundtrack at home on my own sound system and the experience was totally different. Everything, as my wife and I both agreed, was so much better. The singing was heartfelt, and the orchestral balance was much more immediate and powerful. What had seemed rather lame in the cinema, came fully to life in my living room. I can only presume that the Academy Gold didn’t have the volume level turned up high enough. A few days later, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth at the Lumière cinema in the Christchurch Arts Centre had all the audio impact one could wish for, which added so much power and atmosphere to that movie.
Although the 1961 West Side Story (Best Picture plus 9 other Academy Awards that year) remains a classic, nothing about this new 2021 version is inferior – and much is superior, further demonstrating that Shakespeare’s timeless masterpiece Romeo and Juliet (1595) via West Side Story (1957→1961→2021) remains as topical and relevant as ever. Spielberg’s movie fully communicates the profound humanity of the story – it has the rare quality of compelling our sympathy for every character and enabling us to understand the motivations of every side of the conflict. This is partly the result of setting the production in the reality of Manhattan’s Upper West Side slum clearances on San Juan Hill in the late 1950s, exactly at the time when West Side Story was first staged, and which displaced over 7000 families. Ironically (deliberately?), the world premiere of this new movie screened at Lincoln Centre’s Rose Theatre on the very site of the slum clearances where the movie is set.
As I listen again to that stunning new soundtrack, I hear so much more characterisation in every part than ever before; even single lines and phrases from individual ensemble characters are teeming with personality, expression and heart. Officer Krupke is the most obvious example with its wonderfully-conceived improvisatory beginning, but characterisation and individuality are equally to the fore in every ensemble piece from The Jet Song, to America, and from Cool to the ensemble sections of I Feel Pretty. If some of the orchestrations sound a bit homogenous as recorded (where are the all-important guitars in America that Bernstein was so insistent on hearing clearly in his own 1984 recording?), all the instrumental colours and originality of the composer’s and his assistants’ imaginations astonish anew; and the vocal rhythms and textural clarity of the five individual lines in the quintet version of Tonight are simply stunning.
As usual with movie musicals (although West Side Story is more than just a musical), much of the musical soundtrack was pre-recorded and used as playback during filming, but I found Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler (Tony and Maria) so convincing in their singing of One Hand, One Heart that a bit of research revealed that several songs (One Hand, One Heart; Somewhere; A Boy Like That/I Have a Love; parts of Maria) were indeed sung and recorded live on set during filming. And what a stroke of genius to make the store owner Doc into the Puerto Rican Valentina (played, incidentally, by Rita Moreno, the 1961 film’s Anita) – her performance of Somewhere brought a tear or two, even if, in 1961, she had a ghost voice for A Boy Like That.
For this new version, arranger David Newman has retained and respected the 1961 film’s superb original orchestration with a few adaptions and enhancements, all to positive effect. The order of the songs is slightly different from both the original stage score and the 1961 movie – the placements of Cool (here with its chilling undercurrent of commentary on America’s gun culture) and Officer Krupke both make convincing sense in 2021. America retains the Puerto Rican boy vs. girl of the 1961 movie as opposed to the less potent girls-only of the stage musical. And the addition of the Puerto Rican anthem La Borinqueña, sung by the Sharks in the opening sequence, gives them a sense of purpose, personality and validity that balances their status with the Jets in the following Jet Song.
The amount of untranslated Spanish in the movie gives the Puerto Rican characters new authenticity, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay brings the original rather stagey dialogue into the twenty-first century. Some of that dialogue restores one or two of the grittier elements of the stage script (“sperm to worm”) that were softened in the 1961 movie. Justin Peck’s choreography is also less stagey than in 1961 – the sizzling spectacles he provides with the help of equally spectacular cinematography in the Jet Song and the Dance at the Gym are exhilarating, and the way America races through the streets instead of being confined to a rooftop (1961) is electrifying!
I really need to see this movie again, but I also need to know that the cinema will give it the audio presentation that it deserves.
The anticipated excitement at seeing in the New Year proved so daunting that we decided to give it a miss in the hope that, even so, the following day would yet prove to be the first day of 2022 – and so it came to pass . . .
The day started early because, for me, 1 January 2022 began with the Berlin Philharmonic’s live stream of their 5.00pm New Year’s Eve Concert (5.00am on 1 January NZ time) on the Digital Concert Hall, and ended with the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day Concert at 11.15pm NZ time (ending at 1.45am in the morning of 2 January).
In between there was a lovely Christchurch summer day, which we made the most of with a walk over the hill, from our house at the bottom, to the top of Huntsbury, overlooking the Rapaki walking tracks on the next hill, and across to the estuary and sparkling Pacific Ocean; then down and home by a different route. Preparing dinner took up much of the afternoon for a lively New Year catch-up with friends in the evening before settling in to watch that keenly anticipated Vienna New Year Concert, where I couldn’t help noticing Christchurch-born violinist Ben Morrison on the second desk of the 1st Violins. Also of interest, at each end of this day, was the observation that the two well-known Ottensamer brothers were the principal clarinets in each of these two New Year concerts: Andreas in Berlin and Daniel in Vienna, where their father had also once been principal clarinet.
All of this was ‘live’ – exactly as it was happening in Europe, on the opposite side of the world in the wintery Northern Hemisphere! I couldn’t help thinking that, despite the travel restrictions of the current pandemic, we still have the world at our fingertips and, musically speaking, in such superb sonic and visual immediacy.
At the end of the previous edition of Troubleshooter I included a picture of my CD collection; every disc chosen with care after reading reviews, or hearing broadcast performances, or familiarity with the musicians’ previous performances, or recommendations from others. The batches of CDs that I buy always comprise a shortlist, reduced from a significantly longer wish list. The collection has continued to grow from the mid 1980s to early 2020 (not forgetting the hundreds of vinyl records accumulated before that), so that Ursula suddenly wondered if it was time to stop! She pointed out that the capacity of our wall of purpose-built shelving would soon prove finite; not to mention that she’d already begun to fill some of the small remaining spaces with items from her own impressive collection of equally-valued and carefully-and expertly-chosen ceramic pottery.
WHAT TO DO? I began to consider getting to grips with network and streaming technology. A visit to my favourite local audio showroom, as soon as lockdown restrictions allowed, quickly offered solutions. A home internet and network streamer connected to my sound system has proved simple and ideal. This particular unit has both hard drive storage and streaming capability, so the occasional download purchase (as opposed to acquiring a physical CD) along with a subscription to a high-quality streaming service (costing roughly the equivalent of one CD per month) has abruptly ended further additions to the CD shelves.
The collector’s mentality of owning tangible objects has quickly and comprehensively been replaced by the real motivation (which, all those years ago, had set the whole process in motion) of more easily being able to access the music itself. Now, not only is the whole long ‘wish list’ available, but an extended ‘luxury list’ of albums that I wouldn’t have previously considered for purchase has revealed some rather special discoveries that have already become favourites and, no doubt, contributed towards the artists’ incomes with so many repeated streamed playings.
Other advantages, especially with a significant proportion of my CD collection now stored digitally on the new network player, include the ability to select music and feed it to extension speakers in my study simply by means of an app on my phone, without having to go back to the player, select another CD, physically adjust the volume, etc. And creating a playlist of favourite songs from our youth also made quite a special contribution to ‘significant’ birthday events which we hosted at home this year.
Returning briefly to my New Year’s Day musical experiences – there’s been some debate on the ‘Save RNZ Concert’ Facebook group about the total absence of the annual Vienna New Year Concert on New Zealand radio and TV, even though the list of countries who take the Austrian live TV broadcast include Tonga, Fiji and other Pacific, African and South American countries. Let’s be clear – these concerts, featuring indisputable masterpieces of Viennese music, played by one of the world’s greatest orchestras and conducted from year-to-year by some of the world’s greatest conductors, are sanctuaries of unaffected artistic potency that help to unify nations, break down borders and blur the boundaries of musical genres that have been constructed and marketed by self-appointed guardians of art and culture.
Thankfully, with the ease of access to new technologies, we can now bypass these censors. For me, a year ago, and in audio only, it was BBC Radio 3 streamed via my new network player; this year it was Medici TV, free of charge to all countries whose artistic censorship prevented local coverage, that enabled us to experience the great Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in their full visual and audio glory – a positive and promising start to 2022.
The November 2021 issue of Gramophone magazine announces on its cover: “Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – We reveal the finest recordings”. In the featured article, the ‘Top Choice’, from Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (1982), is selected on some characteristically (it seems to me) British criteria, summarised thus: “nothing flashy or artificial [whatever that means] gets in the way” and a “thoughtful account [that] will best suit listeners who find rival versions (or even the music itself) prone to overstatement”. Interestingly, in the same article André Previn’s powerfully expressive 1965 recording is faintly praised for its similar qualities as being “essentially apolitical Shostakovich”.
Are we really in an age when Shostakovich’s music is still questioned as being possibly “prone to overstatement”? Such a declaration makes me wonder if these somewhat repressed British manners might have said the same about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony eighty-four years after its composition and first performance?
The article lists twenty-five selected recordings of the Shostakovich Symphony, nine of which are treasured volumes on my own CD shelves (along with three others – a second version from Valery Gergiev, as well as recordings from Yakov Kreizberg and Krzysztof Urbanski). None, including the Gramophone critic’s Top Choice, reveals all that is to be found in Shostakovich’s exhaustively rich and profoundly expressive work. Some (e.g. Vasily Petrenko’s glorious Liverpool recording, and Bernstein’s “famously histrionic” account) are, by implication, found wanting to a degree for following valid interpretive alternatives that don’t quite gel with the writer’s own ideas.
Each time I play a recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth, I deliberately choose a different recording to the one that I most recently played, and every time I find something new in the piece; that’s why no recording should ever be considered ‘the best’. I do have a tendency to frequently replay newly acquired recordings for a while but soon, however good the performance, its expressive power wears a little thin as each interpretive corner is turned and the performance becomes predictable in a way that the composer never intended.
Before beginning this November edition of Troubleshooter I listened to Gramophone’s recommended Top Choice and I look forward to hearing it again in order to try to discover more of its secrets which, for now, strike me as comparatively less overtly communicative or dynamically engaging than Shostakovich surely intended.
The works chosen for The Gramophone Collection each month do often reveal performances that have not previously come within my earshot. The recommendations in the October issue’s comparison of recordings of Verdi’s Rigoletto proved a revelation, even when I already have at least half-a-dozen carefully chosen sets on my shelves. But, here again, no version says it all, so, while my long-time favourite recording didn’t feature among Gramophone’s recommendations, it stubbornly remains my favourite; but so many other interpretations are well worth hearing and each certainly enriches the listening experience.
I’m reminded of a Gramophone review some years ago when the reviewer described a deeply passionate and truly charismatic live recording from the Salzburg Festival of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev as “not a performance to live with”. However, firstly, it sounds like one of those performances that will remain in the lifetime memory and life-changing experience of anyone lucky enough to have been there. And, secondly, there is no such thing as a performance that any nineteenth century composer could ever have intended (let alone imagined) would be one “to live with”. For Tchaikovsky, the only possible way of anyone being able to experience his music was in a live performance with the listener physically in attendance. And there are many fine recordings of this work, each one offering something fresh and revealing, even on repeated listenings provided it’s not repeated too often. The Gergiev VPO recording is one that I return to every two or three years, and it never fails to come up fresh every time.
So, the idea of a ‘Top Choice’ for a recording of any individual work is not only a foolish concept, but surely a rather arrogant one.
In the mid-1980s, when I decided to supplement, and eventually replace, my collection of several-hundred vinyl albums with CDs, I made the naïve decision to buy just one, top-recommended version of each major work that I wanted. It wasn’t long before that decision became impractical as conductors, instrumentalists, singers and ensembles young and old brought something newly fresh and creative to their interpretations, just as generations of great musicians have always done.
My September post considered some responses to a few very new musical works. I’ve also been reading some other posts about the merits (or not) of various styles of new ‘classical’ music. By ‘new’ the writers often include everything from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) and Schoenberg’s Erwartung (1924) right up to the present day. That’s rather interesting, given that one hundred years after the composition of works by composers of earlier centuries, their music would hardly still be considered ‘new’ or ‘modern’ or ‘difficult’ to listen to.
I’m not going to add more personal views or responses or insights to a debate which has generated numerous blogs, editorials, books, articles and other media sources on the topic. However, there are many interesting and informative opinions and explorations readily available such as a 2010 article in The Guardian by Alex Ross, or Colin Eatock’s “What’s Wrong with Classical Music? or discussion forums such as Trumpetherald.com or Talk Classical or Luke Muehlhauser’s A beginner’s guide to modern classical music, and many more.
Plato is credited with the idea that “Opinion is the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding.” So, while there’s no point in being dogmatic about our opinions on new classical music, as a reviewer I often find myself desperately looking for positive comments on new works, perhaps believing that I have no right to condemn a new piece after a single hearing. But occasionally, just occasionally, a new work totally blows me away. My previous post mentioned two such works which featured in last month’s Musikfest Berlin: Heiner Goebbels’ A House of Call and Ondřej Adámek’s Where are you? (Note that those two links are just trailers, although there is a complete audio-only recording of the latter on YouTube, but, for me, the visual element is an essential part of the work). There have been a few others during the last forty-or-so years, especially miniatures such as Henryk Gorecki’s Totus Tuus and major works like James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, particularly the 3rd movement – Verily I say unto You.
Many of the world’s composer community believe that the writing of, or attempting to write, masterpieces is no longer relevant or even possible. The word ‘elitist’ has often been applied to classical music, mostly by people who have not acquired the ability – emotional experience/growth – understanding – call-it-what-you-will. If that’s what makes any music elitist, then isn’t that the same as, say, rocket science or brain surgery being elitist? And why not, therefore, call some of the more esoteric styles of popular music elitist; there’s even a style called Esoteric Pop! Whatever the logic, let’s, at least, not use the word ‘elite’ to mean supercilious or condescending in a snobby sense..
Some commentators even go as far as calling classical music ‘racist’! Have a read of Lebanese Druze composer Nebal Maysaud’s articles on NewMusicBox, especially the most recent called It’s Time to let classical music die. The sixty comments by readers of the article also broaden, develop, or offer different insights into Maysaud’s perspectives, but the fact that comments are now closed is a bit suppressive in itself surely?
In the 18th and 19th centuries concert promoters and opera houses could not have survived without satisfying the public’s huge appetite for new works. One only has to read American writer Blanche Roosevelt’s account of the days that led up to the première of Verdi’s Otello in Milan and the première itself to understand the ‘Beatlemania’ frenzy that could be generated by a new classical music work.
So what’s happened? Why have classical audiences of the past hundred years been less willing to embrace new music? There are many reasons outlined in the material that I’ve referenced above . . . or maybe there is no rational answer . . . or should we even care? . . . To each his own?
And the debate goes on with superstar violinist Nigel Kennedy’s withdrawal from a recent Proms concert in London because the host radio station, Classic FM refused to allow him to play a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Kennedy’s comments a few days after the withdrawal also make interesting reading. Is the answer to all of the above to start pulling down the genre barriers that create such counterproductive mind-sets?
With the world of music now at our fingertips, and with Europe gradually easing covid restrictions, this month I’ve been attending daily live-streamed concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall at 6.00am (8.00pm the previous day Berlin time).
From 28 August to 20 September the Digital Concert Hall is streaming many of the performances from the MUSIKFEST BERLIN. Top orchestras, ensembles, conductors and soloists from all over Europe have been performing music from Carlo Gesualdo (16th century) to world premieres, with a focus on Stravinsky to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Really?? He was still very much alive when I was analysing Petrushka at university!
The unrelenting ‘modernism’ of some of the music being played over these three weeks, including several late works by Stravinsky, has been intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking, but rarely emotionally stirring. Could it be that many ‘classical’ composers today mistake impenetrability and complexity for originality, or are their aims more about ideas than expression? Did Stravinsky’s early inspirational and charismatic momentum fail him to an extent as his success and celebrity increased? His reputation and enduring popularity would certainly be different without The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring (and what an extraordinary performance of that we heard at the festival this morning (14 September) from Les Siècles and Francois-Xavier Roth)! Stravinsky’s agent and biographer, Lillian Libman, describes how she would listen at his studio door at his home in Beverly Hills during his last years as he tinkered on a piano searching for inspiration note-by-note (And Music at the Close, MacMillan 1972).
Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with musical complexity but, together with inspiration and genuine expression, it sheds its impenetrability. And there were two new major works performed during MUSIKFEST BERLIN that absolutely stunned me. The first was the festival’s opening concert (28 August 2021) devoted to the world première of Heiner Goebbels’ A House of Call, brilliantly played with commitment and fervour by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni. A House of Call is an uninterrupted 100-plus minutes “cycle in which the orchestra reacts to voices which the composer has preserved in an imaginary notebook . . . [more]”.
For an hour-and-three-quarters I sat glued to this livestream première, sharing that first audience’s unique opportunity. For me, most importantly, it worked as a musical experience, not just an intellectual one. Whatever its background, inspiration or conceptual rationale, it overwhelmed me and drew me in with its own artistic substance. The pre-recorded voices suggested myriad resonances from my own past encounters with history, politics, travel, social and cultural issues, and, of course, music; and the orchestral commentary heightened and intensified those resonances. Perhaps the audience in the hall had programme notes but, so often with modern music, programme notes tell us far more than the music itself; they frequently tell us what the music itself fails to communicate. That it worked without such explanation or ‘excuse’ made the experience all the more momentous. Everything, from the mastery of the conducting and playing to the lighting and orchestral layout, contributed to a truly riveting and memorable experience. The performance started while players were still coming on to the stage, and the coming-and-going of many of the musicians during the performance added to the spontaneity, fluidity and humanity of the music and the music-making.
If anything, Czech composer Ondřej Adámek’s orchestral song cycle Where are you? might be described as even more modern in terms of any comparisons with conventional musical language and manners. Premiered six months ago in Munich, this Berlin performance made such an impression that I’ve rarely been more tempted, since the deaths of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten in the 1970s, to label a major new work as a ‘masterpiece’ – I suppose time will tell. And I cannot imagine that any future performers will easily surpass the extraordinary electricity generated by mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle.
Where are you? begins with expressively silent gestures from the singer before any sound, vocal or instrumental, is heard. Then the first sounds are breathy and atmospheric from both singer and players as Human Life emerges, only to begin its quest to understand why?, before creating a god (God) from whom to seek the answer . . . if only (s)he can be found; hence the title. But Life’s voice remains unheard by the God it has created, and finally a megaphone is used to amplify its pleas. The answer, we are told in the festival's programme description, is found in nature, as is made evident in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony which followed Adámek’s new work – a nice idea.
Magdalena Kožená’s ‘modern art’ dress complemented the music perfectly. What a pity that the orchestra, like most major orchestras, is still tied to the outdated and stultifyingly dull formality of white tie and tails. The presence of the white megaphone on a stand beside the singer was a rather gimmicky distraction for most of the performance as we wondered when and how it would be used. In the event, its use was justified as a visually dramatic adjunct to the texts, which ranged from Czech and Moravian dialects to Spanish, English, Sanskrit and Aramaic.
At the end of the performance it was almost disappointing, when the composer came on stage to acknowledge the audience’s enthusiasm, to find that he is just an ordinary-looking and mortal forty-two-year-old. How lucky we are that we can’t have our minds’ images of, say, Bach or Beethoven, as immortalised in idealised portraits and statuary, reduced to mere reality.
Ondřej Adámek’s Where are you? has been haunting me now for over a week. But there’s a paradox: while I long to hear and see it again ('see' because no performance is complete without being able to see the opening and closing silent gestures), I’m fearful of being disappointed in trying to repeat a rare and remarkable experience.
And, if other new works by Olga Neuwirth, Rebecca Saunders, George Benjamin and others provided opportunities for me to further broaden my experience of today’s living composers, it was Heiner Goebbels and Ondřej Adámek who provided something more deeply moving and genuinely life-affecting.
Tony Ryan has reviewed Christchurch concerts, opera and music theatre productions and many other theatre performances since the mid 1990s.
Tony has presented live and written radio reviews of numerous concerts, opera and other musical events for RNZ Concert for many years. An archive of these reviews can be found at Radio New Zealand - Upbeat
His reviews of opera, music & straight theatre and numerous reviews of buskers and comedy festival performances are available at Theatreview
An archive of Tony’s chamber music reviews is held at Christopher’s Classics
He has also reviewed for The Press (Christchurch). Links to Tony's Press reviews are listed below:
A Barber and Bernstein Double Bill – Toi Toi Opera
The Strangest of Angels – NZOpera
Will King (Baritone) and David Codd (Piano) – Christopher's Classics
Ars Acustica – Free Theatre
Truly Madly Baroque – Red Priest
The Mousetrap – Lunchbox Theatre
Iconoclasts – cLoud
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
An Evening with Simon O’Neill NZSO
Catch Me If You Can – Blackboard Theatre
Brothers in Arms – CSO
Fear and Courage – CSO
Sin City – CSO
Don Giovanni – Narropera at Lansdowne
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Funatorium
Weave – NZTrio
Tosca – NZ Opera
Sister Act – Showbiz
Broadway to West End – Theatre Royal
Chicago – Court Theatre
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 – CSO
Homage – CSO
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
SOAR – NZTrio
Pianomania – NZSO
Rogers & Hammerstein – Showbiz
Songs for Nobodies – Ali Harper
The Beauty of Baroque – CSO
Travels in Italy – NZSO