In this issue: Shostakovich’s The Nose performed by The Royal Opera; an excerpt from Rebel’s Les Éléments performed by Musica Antiqua Köln; violinist Vijay Gupta performing an excerpt from Reena Esmail’s Darshan; Dvořák’s Poco Adagio from Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65 performed by Vienna Piano Trio; R. Strauss’s “Allerseelen” performed by Dame Margaret Price; a number from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel performed by Golda Schultz at BBC Proms 2020
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 38
Today’s issue of Now, More than Ever is a bit of a musical grab bag that features something totally unexpected from a 20th-century Russian master, “cutting edge” 18th-century music of the French Baroque, a contemporary violin solo informed by Indian and Western classical traditions, timeless 19th-century chamber music, art song from a legendary soprano, and a moving musical response to the pandemic from London.
As we were preparing this list for publication, I learned of the passing of Ann Getty, one of Cal Perfomances’ and UC Berkeley’s most enthusiastic and generous supporters. At first I thought of dedicating today’s Dvořák, Strauss, and Rodgers and Hammerstein selections to her memory, but the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that the breadth of all of the works represented here mirrors Ann’s boundless curiosity and passion for humanity in its many guises.
We at Cal Performances express our profoundest sympathies to her family—most of all, her devoted husband, Gordon.
Shostakovich: The Nose
The Royal Opera
Otto Pichler, choreographer
We don’t have time to consider the entirety of Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, and to be honest, it’s not the composer’s best work. But as a document of young Dmitri’s developing musical language (he wrote this piece at the age of 22), it’s still worth the attention—if only for its eccentric sense of the ridiculous and… well… its rebellious nose-thumbing-ness.
The opera itself concerns a young Communist officer who wakes one morning to find that his nose has gone AWOL. Tracking down the lost appendage, he then proceeds to watch in disbelief as the nose grows larger and more adventurous and begins to take on increased responsibility within the party. As you can well imagine, it’s all rather hard to stage. Just how do you portray a nose?
The South African artist William Kentridge directed and designed a memorable and visually dazzling production for the Met in 2010, but I find Australian director Barrie Kosky’s 2016 production for the Royal Opera, featuring designs by Klaus Grünberg and costumes by Buki Shiff, perhaps better suited to the absurdity of the piece.
It’s worth mentioning that this opera contains one of the most notorious voice-wrecking roles, the Police Inspector, a tenor who sings very high and very loud… and for a very long time. As for the music, the composer himself said of a 1929 concert performance presented against his wishes, “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action…. It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it.”
That being the case… bring on the tap-dancing noses (a video excerpt that, alas, features no actual music from the opera)!
Rebel: “Le chaos” from Les Éléments
Musica Antiqua Köln
Reinhard Goebel, conductor
Continuing our interest in the “Bad Boys of the French Baroque” (which began with Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer’s Vertigo in Issue 35 of Now, More than Ever), here’s something that might, at first, truly shock you—the opening section of the bold and innovative Les Éléments by composer and violinist Jean-Féry Rebel (1666–1747). Indeed, you may at first find it hard to believe this was written in 1737.
We begin with what might very well be the first tone cluster in all of classical music, an outburst intended to depict the primordial chaos of the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire—fighting each other for supremacy. Earth is represented by slurred bass notes, water by ascending and descending flute cascades, air by long sustained notes and trills from the piccolos, fire by bravura violin passages.
This recording by Reinhard Goebel and his magnificent Musica Antiqua Köln is—hands down—my favorite recording of this piece. It may scare you at first, but stick with it!
Reena Esmail: “Charukeshi” from Darshan
Vijay Gupta, violin
Indian-American composer Reena Esmail studied at Juilliard and Yale, lives in Los Angeles, and works between the worlds of Indian and Western classical music. This piece, composed in Charukeshi, a raga in Carnatic music, is the first movement in a planned five-part work scheduled for completion in 2024. (Esmail will write one movement each year.) In her program note, the composer states:
“Darshan” means “seeing” in Hindi. In the Hindu religion, to give “darshan” is to see and worship God. As Vijay and I worked… together over three years, we began to see the divine in one another. [This music] explores grief, in its many facets and forms.
I’m indebted to composer Andrew Norman, who brought this piece to my attention through the recent New York Times article “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Violin.” Wrote Norman:
This solo violin piece… really blew me away when I first heard it. Like much of [Esmail’s] work, it inhabits an intensely lyrical space informed by both Indian and Western classical musics. In Vijay Gupta’s gripping performance, I hear sounds, colors and expressions simultaneously familiar and fresh, intimate and epic, grounded and aloft.
Of course, it’s impossible to consider solo violin music without thinking of Bach, and even if the musical vocabulary is different, you really sense the presence of the German master here. Esmail has said that the sarangi, a bowed string instrument commonly used in the Hindustani musical tradition, deeply inspired this music.
Dvořák: Poco Adagio from Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65
Vienna Piano Trio
Try to ignore the distracting and overly busy camerawork that accompanies this exquisite performance of one of the supreme slow movements in all of chamber music. On its own, the music can’t be beat and the group itself forms quite the A Team, including, as it does, Clemens Hagen, a founding member of the elite Hagen Quartet and an fine soloist in his own right. There are many moments to savor, including one at 4:26, when violinist David McCarroll, a native of Santa Rosa and an alumnus of Berkeley’s Crowden School, reaches that high B-natural.
Taken as a whole, this music is so extraordinarily deep and profound, it’s hard to get through it all without becoming a little misty. Whatever tale Dvořák is telling here, he recounts it beautifully.
R. Strauss: “Allerseelen”
Dame Margaret Price, soprano
James Lockhart, piano
A few weeks ago, we took a look at a few videos of Margaret Price and mentioned her love of song. For additional proof, look no further than this recording of “All Soul’s Day”—an art song composed by Strauss in 1885 and set to a poem by the Austrian Hermann von Gilm from his collection Letzte Blätter (Last Pages). This bittersweet portrait of a love preserved and enshrined in memory is as sincere and touching as Price’s timeless performance.
All Souls’ Day
Set on the table the fragrant mignonettes,
Bring in the last red asters,
And let us talk of love again
As once in May.
Give me your hand to press in secret,
And if people see, I do not care,
Give me but one of your sweet glances
As once in May.
Each grave today has flowers and is fragrant,
One day each year is devoted to the dead;
Come to my heart and so be mine again,
As once in May.
—translation © Richard Stokes
Rodgers and Hammerstein: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel
Golda Schultz, soprano
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers
Dalia Stasevska, conductor
Years from now, I would like to think that this recording from the UK’s “Last Night at the Proms 2020” will be singled-out as an important historical document, moving evidence of a country’s communal response to the great coronavirus pandemic. The lyrics of the song certainly speak to the moment, but the setting—the sight of the immense Royal Albert Hall emptied of its traditional audience of more than 5,000, the socially distanced orchestra barely filling the stage, and the equally reduced chorus singing from the stalls—speaks eloquently of the challenges of our brave new world and our determination to face the future with both clear-headedness and optimism.
South African soprano Golda Schultz, one of the most promising and classy artists of her generation, sings this beloved number to incredible effect. But it’s the dark and nearly empty hall—alive with the sounds of these hope-filled artists—that will live in my memory.
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