Mercoledi Musicale

I had my first class of a ten week course on opera with my friend David Nice on Monday. The first five weeks are devoted to Beethoven’s only opera(s) – Leonore (1805) and its subsequent revision/reincarnation as what we know today as Fidelio (1814). It is a work that is definitely in my top ten list and I have been privileged to see several remarkable performances of it.

Now I may be wrong on this, and I hope David will correct me if I am, but though Beethoven revered Mozart he was not all that fond of his operas. However he did compose variations on music from Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Zauberflöte. The Nozze variation was composed in 1793 when Beethoven was 22 years old and first living in Vienna. It is dedicated to Elenore von Breuning, one of his students, with whom, it is said, he was infatuated. The “tendresse” was not returned – as often seemed to be the case with poor Ludwig. However they were to remain friends.

Rather unusually Beethoven introduces the original theme – Figaro’s Act I aria Se vuol ballare – picked out in pizzicato by the violin with a very unassuming accompaniment by the piano. However what follows in the 12 variations is a challenge for both violinist and pianist.

In writing about the piece in 1794 Beethoven said:
‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.

The word for January 13th is:
Variation /ˌverēˈāSH(ə)n/: [noun]
1.1 A change or difference in condition, amount, or level, typically with certain limits.
1.2 A different or distinct form or version of something.
Late Middle English (denoting variance or conflict): from Old French, or from Latin variatio(n- ), from the verb variare.

The Colours of Music – II

Chagall’s Murals at the Metropolitan

The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center with Chagall’s two monumental tributes to the power of music.

In a comment on Thursday’s post my ether friend Walter at Inquietudes spoke of the Chagall murals that greet you as enter the Metropolitan Opera from the Josie Robertson Plaza.  During the intermission on his visits to the MET he said “I’d stare at the colors and swirls and lose myself in them.”  And he has not been alone in that – for over fifty years they have drawn people in from the Plaza and invited them to celebrate the Source and Triumph of Music.

Chagall painting the “To Russian Music” figures on The Triumph of Music mural.

Chagall painted the two allegories in his Paris studio and had them shipped to New York.  Each canvas is 9.15 metres by 11 metres (30 by 36 feet) and is ripe with figures and symbols familiar from many of his previous works amidst those swirls of colours that captivate Walter and so many of the rest of us.  Chagall was often criticized for overusing many of those fantastical floating figures and beasts.  His defence was simple:  A poet always uses the same vocabulary but he still writes new poems.  And they are indeed poems to music, the arts and artists it has and continues to inspire; to the music of the city of New York and to the city itself.  And Chagall wasn’t shy about including tributes to his good friend Rudolf Bing as well as portraits of himself and his beloved wife Vava.

The Source of Music – with the central King David/Orpheus figure surrounded by figures representing Beethoven, Fidelio, Bach and Sacred Music, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, an Homage to Verdi, New York and the Angel of Mozart bearing figures from the Magic Flute.

Chagall had consulted with architect Wallace Harrison and the design committee and they had decided that yellow would be the dominant colour for the south panel and red for the north.  The artist felt that “Source” should then lead to “Triumph” with eye travelling from left to right – the source of music would flow into the opera house and the triumph of music would go out into the world.  When he arrived from Paris to oversee the installation he was astounded, and angered, to see that “Triumph” had already been mounted in the wrong location.  The artist maintained that his screams could be heard all over Lincoln Center.  However the ever persuasive Bing was use to handling all manner of prima donnas and resolved the issue by convincing Chagall that the new arrangement was an equally effective message.  “Why,” he asked, “do you want the music to go out of the theatre and into the world?  Perhaps destiny was behind the error, and the heralding angels should play for the people who have come to the opera house, because they do love music.”   Chagall eventually agreed that Bing had a point and perhaps the error had indeed been serendipity.

The Triumph of Music – Surrounded by musicians, singers, and dancers the Angel heralds The Song of the Peoples.  Chagall slips in sly little tributes to Rudolf Bing (the Essex House were Bing and his wife Nina lived) and to himself and his wife Vera.

Chagall was also concerned that there would never be a good vantage point to take in a complete mural – the view from the Plazas is broken up by the panes of the archway windows and the Grand Tier Promenade is too narrow to allow viewing from an adequate distance.  And though seeing them as Chagall envisioned them is next to impossible it has been suggested that the two works are the most seen – if not the most observed – pieces of modern 20th century art in New York City.  And they have become one of the enduring symbols of the Metropolitan Opera House along with the iconic starburst ceiling fixtures and the great gold curtain.  When the Met celebrated its 125th anniversary on March 15, 2009 the Triumph of Music was prominently featured in a stunning piece of animation set to the music of Chagall’s favourite composer and opera – the Overture to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Using many of Chagall’s initial sketches as well as the finish work the animators at 59 Productions reconstructed not only the mural but also the activity behind the scenes as sets from various productions are assembled (including a brief reference to the David Hockney Zauberflöte that replaced Chagall’s).  Lincoln Center, Harrison’s opera house, those ascending starbursts, the great gold curtain and finally the iconic proscenium at the old Met form and reform.  Surely much of the applause at the end is for Chagall’s great tribute to the magic of flutes, drums, sopranos, basses, composers, artists and everything under the sun that creates music.

Though I have embeded the video in this post I would suggest that for a closer look that you follow the link below for a larger version.

This animation was directed by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer
The lead animator was Peter Stenhouse

The Magic Flute – Chagall Animation from 59 Productions on Vimeo.

On this day in 1941: February strike: In occupied Amsterdam, a general strike is declared in response to increasing anti-Jewish measures instituted by the Nazis.

The Second Sunday in Advent


Out of Sion hath God appeared: in perfect beauty.
℣. Gather my saints together unto me: those that have made a covenant with me with sacrifice. Alleluia, alleluia.
℣. I was glad when they said unto me: we will go into the house of the Lord. Alleluia.

Gradual for the Second Sunday in Advent
A Manual of Catholic Devotion
The Church Union – 1969

It’s safe to say that there is no “definitive” version of Handel’s Messiah –
the composer himself tinkered with it continually after its first performance in 1742.  For those early Dublin performances he had a small orchestra comprised of strings, two trumpets, timpani and his own organ that had been shipped over from England. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber. The chorus was made up of 16 boys and 16 men from the two Dublin cathedral choirs with several of the choristers singing the alto, tenor, and bass solos.   In preparation for the Covent Garden performances in 1743 he added arias and recitatives to accommodate new singers and an expanded orchestra.  He was to made further changes in 1745 and again in 1749 – he had set the work aside in the intervening years – for  performances at Covent Garden and to please his librettist Charles Jennsens, who was less than happy with the earlier versions.  In 1750 Handel began the annual charity performances for the Foundling Hospital and rescored the work, again for different voices and a larger orchestra.  The score for these performances is favoured for many performances that are considered “authentic” today.

After Handel’s death – on April 14, 1759 eight days after he had attended Messiah at Covent Garden – performances were given in England with ever increasing forces;  a 1784 performance at Westminster Abbey had a compliment of 525 vocalists and instrumentalist.  The fad for Monster-Messiahs was to reach its zenith in an 1857 presentation at the Crystal Palace in London where a chorus 2000 strong hymned the Glory of the Lord and assured all and sundry that sheep could safely – if not softly – graze.

The Handel Festival in 1857 at the Crystal Palace in London.  An orchestra of 500 and a chorus of 2000 gave a resounding “Hallelujah”.

On the Continent the changes were more drastic – major revisions were made to the orchestration to suit the move away from the Baroque towards the Classical.  One of those re-orchestrations was a commission, in 1789,  to Wolfgang Mozart from Baron Gottfried van Swieten.  Van Seieten encouraged Mozart to look at the Baroque masters – he had a remarkable library of original Bach and Handel manuscripts – and had previously commissioned a reworking of Acis and Galatea from the composer.  Unlike the English editions Mozart’s transcription was on small scale but reflect the changes to the make up of an orchestra in the 48 years between the premiere of Handel’s oratorio and Mozart’s transcription.  The work was presented in a salon in the Palffy Palace in Vienna, the residence of Count Johann Baptist  Esterházy von Galántha.  Mozart conducted the four soloists, a choir of twelve and an orchestra which included flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns however as the salon had no organ he simply omitted Handel’s organ continuo.

He also rearranged many of the voice parts and gave several of the choral passages to the soloists.  There appears to be some difference as to if But Who Can Abide was first sung by a bass or a contralto – certainly by the time it reached London the aria was sung by Mrs Cibber, the contralto who had also sung at those first Irish performances.  Mozart assigns it to the bass soloist and the first stanza of  He Shall Purify is given the the soloists as a quartet that is taken up by the chorus.

Malachi 3:2
But who can endure (abide) the day of His coming?
And who can stand when He appears?
For He is like a refiner’s fire
(And like launderers’ soap).

Malachi 3:3
(He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;)
He will purify the sons of Levi,
(And purge them as gold and silver,)
That they may offer to the Lord
An offering in righteousness.

Mozart was not to be the last composer/arranger to adapt Handel’s work; from the romantic to the grandiose to even to the jazz Messiah has been transcribed to fit the temper of the times.

On this day in 1897: London becomes the world’s first city to host licensed taxicabs.

Salzburger Zeitung – Betulia Twice Liberated – Part I

As has become the tradition of the past few years the PfingstFestspiele began with an opera conducted by Riccardo Muti. The first two years were opera buffa (comic operas) last year an opera seria (tragic opera) and this an Azione sacre (Sacred Theatre piece) – all in the Napoletano style.

Azione sacre was a particularly genre of opera meant for the period of Lent when the theatres theoretically were closed but the impresarios still had singers under contracts and seats to fill. A Biblical subject would be chosen, preferably one with a good moral message and set to music that was often so similar to that heard in opera that there was really very little difference. The azione sacre often included more chorus work as most of those uplifting religious subjects involved crowds praying, imploring or if they were horrid Babylonians cavorting so a choir was needed. And the work was seen in a simplified staging but often with some scenery and costumes. It was a crafty work-round the religious restrictions of the season.

Pietro Metastasio, the great Italian librettist, considered Betulia liberta (Bethulia Liberated) to be his finest azione sacre and it is easy to see why. His take on the apocryphal story of the widow Judith and her victory over the Assyrians is unusual for the subject – it was normal to accentuate the erotic end of things with the beautiful but pious widow seducing the foreign commander but in this case Holofernes never appears. Metastasio centres his story around the inhabitants of the town of Bethulia and their faith under fire during the siege. The seduction and beheading is only described by Guiditta (Judith) in a passage of recitative which is perhaps one of the most powerful descriptions of a murder I have ever heard. And the second act includes a dialogue between Ozia, the Prince of Bethulia and his captive the Assyrian Achior that is a masterpiece of Christian rhetoric and was often cited in theological discussions. It is a solid, concentrated piece of theatre with a clear message of the Power of God through faith – just the message wanted for the Lenten period.

It is thought that Metastasio’s work was set to music on at least 40 occasions and for this year’s Festival Muti decided to perform two version with music composed at different periods by two composers at very different periods in their artistic lives.

Italo Grassi’s model for a scene from Act I of Betulia Liberata – an interesting trio of semi-circular walls revolved around each other. It was an effective use of abstract forms to convey locale and, with Marco Filibeck’s lighting, mood.

In 1771 during a tour through Italy a 15-year old Wolfgang Mozart was commissioned to set the libretto by a rich patron in Padua and it was to be presented there during Lent in 1772. For some reason it was never performed then nor during Mozart’s lifetime. It is obviously the work of a young composer – Mozart did not have the confidence, or his patron’s leave, at that point to so much as change or omit a word of the libretto – but the music that accompanies Guiditta’s retelling of her act is intensely dramatic and matches the power of Metastasio’s words. And as performed by Alisa Kolosova became, rightly, the centre piece of the work. Theatrically it was stunning as words, music and performance.

It is telling that as a conductor Muti seemed to give a much importance to the recitative throughout the performance as he did to the big arias and choral moments. Speranza Scappucci’s provided a pointed continuo that kept the story moving without that often mindless plunking and plucking when everyone wants to just get through it and on to the next big aria.

Though big arias there are: as can be expected some are very formula – a young man writing what is expected of him; while others show the undeniable talent that was forming. All follow the AABA format of the period i.e. Section A is sung, then repeated, Section B (often a contrasting text or emotion) is sung, then Section A repeated with variations. However often the arias are bracketed by the chorus – this is particularly true of the music for Guiditta and Ozia to heighten the emotional impact. It is a well crafted work by any composer, exceptional when you think it was written by a teenager.

With the exception of Maria Grazia Schiavo the young singers in the cast were all new to me. Schiavo appeared in last year’s opera at Whitsun and this year after a slightly unsteady start – I may be wrong but I believe she was pregnant unless it was a costume decision to heighten the effect of her pleas on behalf of the besieged people of Bethulia – she delivered her arias with an honest intensity and some lovely but subtle ornamentation. It should be noted that though Muti allows his singers to ornament the da capo section of most arias it is always within certain boundaries of taste. Michael Spyres (left with Alisa Kolosova) sang the strenuous tenor lines of Ozia, the Prince of Betulia, with a fine lyric sense of style and his handling of the theological duologue with Nahuel Di Pierro’s fine bass Achior was a model of recitative singing. Di Pierro brought power to his final aria as the foreign Prince recognizes and accepts the power of the God of the Jews.

Amital (Maria Grazia Schiavo) rejoices as Achior (Nahuel Di Pierro) praises Jehovah, the one god as Ozia (Spyres) and Giuditta (Kolosova) look on.

The production by Italian director Marco Gandini was a simple clear telling of the story within Italo Grassi austre setting of three revolving semi circular walls. The chorus – the remarkable Philharmonia Chor Wien – were treated as individuals and the direction of the soloists pointed up the tensions in a group under siege, the people, their leaders and the brave woman who saves them. Gabriella Pescucci’s costumes were subdued and vaguely oriental in style with only Giuditta bringing any colour onto the scene – a deep marine blue gown as she adorned herself for her mission and for her triumph a red dress almost the colour of the blood she had shed to liberate her community.

Giuditta (Alisa Kolosova) describes her beheading of the drunken Olfernes in a powerful accompanied recitative that is the pivotal point in both Metastasio’s libretto and Mozart’s score.

If the costuming kept Giuditta as the focus of the piece so did Kolosova’s performance. The young Russian mezzo has only recently appeared on the international scene and appears to have taken a path through various Young Singers projects to her current position with the Atelier Lyrique at the Paris Opera. Muti may have been taking a chance on casting her in the title rule of the centre piece of the Festival but it was a chance that paid off. As I mentioned her handling of the “azione” recitative was riveting and her arias showed a rich voice which promises much for the future.

Muti’s Mozart may be a bit old-fashioned but it suits this particular work well. I am always astounded by how he is able to communicate his incredible musicality to his singers and the orchestra. His Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini is, of course, the “house band” for the festival and play beautifully under his command. The key to anything that has been presented here since he took over four years ago has been the thorough preparation that goes into what is being presented.

The entire team behind Betulia Liberata – production team, conductor, soloists, chorus and orchestra – take their final curtain call at the end of the first performance.

This may have been “minor” Mozart but as always with Muti and his troupe it was a “major” performance. It was going to be interesting to see how the older and more famous – at the time – Niccolo Jommelli handled the same subject in 1743.

All photos by Silvia Lelli for the Salzburg Festival who graciously allows free use of them.

06 giugno – San Norberto di Premontre

Mercoledi Musicale – Late

I am really getting late with these Mercoledi posts – I might have to reconsider the name but not sure how snappy a title I can work out of Giovedi?????

As I’ve mentioned more than once, lately a smell, a word or a snatch of music seems to trigger memories from the past. I suppose it an age factor though I would prefer to think of it as the Proust factor – the old smell of madeleines dipped in tea:

She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…

In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: Swann’s Way

I heard a snatch of this piece on the radio the other day – very briefly I was on my way out and it brought back a memory from a trip to France in the mid-1970s.

It was a very warm July evening in Aix-en-Provence and it was the last concert during our stay. I honestly can’t remember the venue other than it was one of the many romantic courtyards in one of the many hotel de ville throughout that beautiful town. Josef Krips was conducting and Jean-Pierre Rampal was the flautist. As they launched into the Adantino movement from Mozart’s Concerto for flute and harp there was a blackout. As we sat in the dark, under the clear, starry Provencal sky Rampal and the harpist (whose name I completely forget)continued on for several minutes. Those few minutes were magic – the darkness, the stars, the perfume from the courtyard vines, the summer heat radiating off the stone walls and Mozart!

What is that old saying: The Angels play Bach for God but Mozart for their own enjoyment. Lucky angels!

14 gennaio – San Felice di Nola