In this issue: Telemann’s Fantasia No. 7 performed by violinist Tessa Lark; Lin Hwai-min’s Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan; Brahms’ Final Movement from Symphony No. 4 in E minor performed by Bavarian State Orchestra; John Adams’ “Batter My Heart” from Doctor Atomic performed by baritone Gerald Finley and Netherlands Opera; and Handel’s “Da tempeste il legnoinfranto” from Giulio Cesare by soprano Danielle de Niese and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 40
The past is always with us—literally and figuratively. Time marches on, but certain conventions have a disarming way of swinging around to tap us on the shoulder. And although Faulkner tells us “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” I prefer to listen to Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager: “Everything old is new again!”
Telemann: Fantasia No. 7 in E-flat major, TWV 40:20
Tessa Lark, violin
If you know solo violin music, you’re certainly familiar with Bach’s towering set of six sonatas and partitas, which made a strong case for the instrument’s ability to communicate extremely large contrapuntal structures. You may be less aware, however, of the equally impressive contributions to the repertoire by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), whose approach to the solo violin comes off as more free-form and rhapsodic. Telemann was by far the more famous composer of his (and Bach’s) day, and the two were friends, with Bach even making Telemann the godfather and namesake to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel.
I’m delighted that the brilliant young violinist Tessa Lark will inaugurate the Fall 2020 Cal Performances at Home streaming series on Thursday evening, October 1. (The concert will also be available for on-demand viewing from October 2 through December 30.) I think this lovely performance by Lark is from 2016, about the time she won the Avery Fisher Career Grant. And it’s an entrancing preview for our first Cal Performances at Home concert. (For more information, please visit the Cal Performances at Home page).
Lin Hwai-min, choreographer Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
(If this video doesn’t begin at 53:22, please reset it.)
Another Baroque work for solo instrument, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor (BWV 1011)—as well as some extended periods of silence—provides the sonic backdrop for this section of this unforgettable work by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. (The company takes its name from the oldest known dance in China.)
The exquisite choreography by artistic director Lin Hwai-min (he ends his tenure this season after more than 45 years in the post) references the Chinese martial art of tai chi, and the precision with which the dancers execute these movements—sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes in something like a wave—leaves me awestruck each time I watch. Indeed, the fine-tuned muscle control seems even more impressive than the most athletic of leaps.
All of Moon Water, set to selected movements from Bach’s solo cello suites, is well worth watching and brings home just why Cloud Gate commands such respect and affection in the world of contemporary dance. But if you only have time for one section, pick this beautiful and meditative Sarabande (performed live onstage by cellist Mischa Maisky), the final section of the dance and one of Bach’s more mournful compositions. It’s a standout!
Brahms: Final Movement from Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Bavarian State Orchestra Carlos Kleiber, conductor
We’ve already encountered the great Carlos Kleiber in Issue 33 of Now, More than Ever, but he was in the orchestra pit for that Vienna State Opera performance of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, so it’s a treat to actually see him in action. Of course, there’s the music-making, but the visual also creates the artist. And in terms of concentration, determination, and clarity, few hold a candle to this legendary conductor.
This final movement from Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (Allegro energico e passionato) is a rare 19th-century example of the passacaglia, a Baroque musical form that originated in 17th-century Spain. Basically, it’s a theme and variations over a repeated bass. In Brahms’ days, few composers were writing passacaglias, so this is definitely referential.
Take a moment to enjoy the slowly building crescendo. Even when it’s soft and it seems to relax, from the beginning of the movement you know exactly where you’re heading—toward a burst of white-hot intensity that crowns the entire work.
John Adams: “Batter My Heart” from Doctor Atomic
Gerald Finley, baritone Netherlands Opera Lawrence Renes, conductor
I love the way Bay Area composer John Adams draws on the relationship between past and present in his music, and this aria from his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, which premiered at San Francisco Opera, is a perfect example.
At this moment in the piece, Robert Oppenheimer, the WWII head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and among those considered the “father of the atomic bomb,” stands alone on stage with his creation. He sings a setting of John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (one of the poet’s 19 Holy Sonnets of 1633, and an example of the apocalyptic texts heard throughout the opera). Oppenheimer is keenly aware of both his obsession and his greatest fear—that the genie he is about to uncork will never return to the bottle. This aria represents his struggle between what he fears he must do and what he believes (hopes?) will best serve the human race. Here, using ritornellos—recurring passages such as those employed to such memorable effect in the operas of Monteverdi—Adams harnesses Baroque compositional strategy to communicate the most contemporary of messages.
“Awe” is an overused word, but I think it’s the appropriate one to describe what emerges in this aria, one of the single most affecting moments in 21st-century music.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Handel: “Da tempeste il legno infranto” from Giulio Cesare
Danielle de Niese, soprano Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment William Christie, conductor
David McVicar’s 2005 production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare for Glyndebourne Opera—featuring dazzling choreography by Andrew George—was a revelation, not just for me but for many others as well. In a totally unanticipated way, McVicar took a work that is a masterpiece, but also quite long, and made the point that great art doesn’t have to be divorced from great entertainment. Audiences stampeded to the opera house in East Sussex, just one hour from London. “Don’t hate me because I’ve got a ticket,” pled the Guardian music critic.
This is one of Cleopatra’s seven arias from the work, and George’s playful choreography reflects the character’s happiness. But it’s also a bit of a “meta” moment, a staged performance “within” a staged performance that celebrates the artifice of the entire experience. (McVicar is playing with perspective, with how the audience sees the story.)
This is some of soprano Danielle de Niese’s best work, and she’s just perfect for the part. An incredible ham and a wonderful dancer, she virtually commands you to surrender to joy. Born in Australia to Sri Lankan parents, she grew up in Southern California, becoming the youngest singer ever admitted to the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. De Niese made her debut at the age of 19 in Jonathan Miller’s famous production of Le Nozze di Figaro, alongside Renée Fleming as the Countess, Cecilia Bartoli as Susanna, and Bryn Terfel as Figaro. Tough act to follow!
The wood battered by the storm,
if it should then arrive safe in port,
it does not know what more is to be desired.
Thus, my heart in pain and tears,
now that it finds its comfort,
will bring happiness to my spirit.