R-Rated Salieri at the Wiener Kammeroper

La scuola de’ gelosi

Dramma giocoso in two acts (1778/83)

Music by Antonio Salieri

Libretto by Caterino Mazzolà

In Italian with German surtitles

Cast and Production Team

 

What an interesting production! Salieri’s La scuola de’ gelosi — as the name implied — was all about the evils of jealousy in a relationship, and this rendition showed all the bawdy complicatedness therein. The production team knew their modern audience, so they incorporated many, dare I say, not safe for the work place interactions. Flirtatious glances were thrown, advances were not-so-subtly made, and yes, genitals were touched. Some in the audience definitely felt a tad uncomfortable. (One gentleman joked to me in the bathroom about “what’s going on on the stage tonight” at intermission.)

 

If I had to pick one funny moment that stood out from all the rest, “Frauen haben immer Recht,” would be it. Throughout the opera, the couples were engaged in a series of taunts. One of these involved a door placard. The men began the game by writing that they are better and stronger (or words to that effect — I couldn’t get a clean view of the exact wording from my seat). In response, the women wrote over the text with their proclamation (“women are always right.”) Comically, this placard was later used by one of the male singers to cover himself when he was in a, let’s say, compromising position.

 

I really liked how much this group did with such a small stage. The production utilized swinging panels — the walls — to great effect. At the start of one hilarious scene, a repairman — alone on the stage — drilled into one of these panels. This made me laugh a lot.

 

One aspect of the performance that I didn’t quite get was the mute, perpetually-dancing woman. I think she had some kind of atmospheric relevance, but with all the other blunt humor, it got lost in the shuffle (I tended to forget that she was even there.).

 

The plot of this opera made me think of a cross between Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. Since Salieri and Mozart were roughly contemporaries, their cultural milieu evidently influenced these operas.

 

Speaking of this infamous pairing, I feel bad that Salieri’s reputation was so badly tarnished by Amadeus. There were many times tonight that I asked myself if I could distinguish Salieri from Mozart. The answer was oftentimes no; Salieri has his own merits which I’m glad this production chose to explore.

 

Another recurring thought swirling in my head was whether a production could get away with this level of bawdiness in The States. Without a doubt, The Met would never dream of producing something this blasphemous (Robert Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier — complete with a rather risque third act — was met with quite a few boos in April.). It seems to me, then, that opera is given more creative license in Vienna. And, simultaneously, audiences more readily accept it (Tonight’s performance was thoroughly cheered.).

 

In regards to the music, I thought the harpsichordist and the singers maintained a cohesive dialogue. Their improvisations were pleasant and well-conceived. Overall, I thought the hall was perfect for the size of the performance. I truly wish that we could have more professional, smaller-scale opera companies in The States.

 

This show marked the end of my research in Vienna. Tschüss for now and bonjour Paris!

 

 

 

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Janáček and Post Offices

Vienna surprised me again. Well actually, twice.

 

After checking the Abendkasse for tickets, I sat down across the street, on some dirty — but nevertheless inviting — steps. Rather optimistically, I thought it would be nice if there was a post office right there, since I was searching for one earlier. I looked up, hoping that my wish would just suddenly appear across the street. Instead, Leoš Janáček popped out at me.

 

Curious, I walked over to him (actually a charcoaled plaque. But you get the idea.). This little monument advertised Janáček’s stay in the adjoining hotel during the first performance of Jenufa in Vienna. It’s pretty cool that there’s this tidbit of opera history here, right around the corner from the Wiener Kammeroper. The connection is especially interesting because Jenufa is considered by many to be a modern masterpiece.

 

After this mini-discovery, I crossed the street, back to my steps. To kill some time, I people-watched. Hungry Czechs brisked by. Pugs earnestly pulled their owners. A bicyclist glided into a bike stand. Wait a second. Does that bike stand say “Post” on it?!? I quickly pivoted and, sure enough, there was a post office right there — directly behind me all along!

 

I think I have a new — albeit mundane — superpower. I’ll use it for good, I promise.

 

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For a reflection on the opera performance that I saw afterwards, see here

One Jörg Widmann Sandwich, Bitte

Today I heard the Vienna Philharmonic perform in the Musikverein. Christian Thielemann conducted and Dieter Flury played Jörg Widmann’s flute concerto.

 

The program began with Brahms’s Akademische Festouvertüre. I thought it was a quick, breezy start to an afternoon of music-making. Tipping their metaphorical mugs, the orchestra played with hearty gusto at the final drinking song.

 

Next up, Widmann’s Flûte en suite, a set of dance movements for solo flute. A quick google search reveals that this piece — unlike many modern works — has been performed a good deal since its 2011 premiere.

 

I think Widmann does a great job of exploring the orchestra’s different sound worlds. His use of multiphonics was not contrived, rather a cohesive part of the whole.

 

At the same time, I question Widmann’s orchestration decisions. Two movements are scored essentially for flute quartet alone. Most of the other dances have a predominantly sparse texture. It sounds to me like this piece would be better suited for an ensemble smaller than a full orchestra.

 

The program concluded with a spectacular rendition of Brahms’s 4th Symphony.  The orchestra played with a sweet, lyrical tone quality throughout. They never overplayed, which allowed them to display incredible dynamic range.

 

During the first movement, I could distinctly picture a river rushing alongside a mountain village. The musicians’ fine attention to detail allowed them to create these images. 

 

Vocality took center stage at the chorale of the second movement. A smile rapidly spread across my face at this goosebump-inducing magic.

 

My one reservation is that their contained, unforced style sometimes came across as too soft, but that more likely had to do with my location (Stehplatz for €5 all the way in the back. Thank God I’m 6’1”.)

 

During this afternoon’s performance, I often felt that I was attending an orchestral church. Audience members (mostly) listened with rapt attention. After Flury’s solo, they wholeheartedly applauded, pulling him back onstage thrice. In contrast, Leonidas Kavakos’s virtuosic performance of Lera Auerbach’s Violin Concerto No. 4 at the NY Philharmonic in February was met with lackluster, deadened enthusiasm.

 

Music is ingrained in this city. From the Litfaßsäulen’s advertisements to the concert halls and music archives, it breathes in everything you see. As such, it demands respect. Here, if you say that you study music, you aren’t met with a skeptical glance or an alarmed response. I only have been here a few days, but I truly like what I have seen so far.

 

* IMPORTANT NOTE: the Vienna Philharmonic is still a boy’s club. I did not see any women in the winds or brass. Most female string players were hidden in the back of their sections. Since it’s been 20 years — it’s crazy that they only started admitting women in 1997!! — since the first full-time female member, I question why there have not been more visible strides. The principal flutist, Dieter Flury — today’s soloist — probably has something to do with this.

 

In 1996, Flury said that he “would have an uneasy feeling if a woman was to audition for the orchestra. He continued, saying that the philharmonic “would be gambling with the[ir] emotional unity.” Even though the organization changed its official policy in 1997, I would not be surprised if Flury still holds this viewpoint. It’s no wonder that the winds and brass still have few female musicians.

Plenty of Percussion

North Shore Symphony Orchestra Concert

Tonight I heard two modern works that I quite liked (yay for New Music!).

Alan Hankers’ Aura lived up to its title. I felt as if a mist somehow found its way into the concert hall.  The mysterious atmosphere sparkled when the timpani rolled. 

The other contemporary piece — No Longer There, But Here, by Nicholas Hall — was like a dogfight. Percussionists frantically ran around at the back of the stage, covering a wide array of instruments. Kettledrums volleyed abrasive hits to the bass drum, which rumbled in turn. All of Hall’s percussion choices added lively colors to his work.

Also on the program were two concertos and a Mozart symphony. Alexandra Woroniecka performed Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2. She displayed tremendous artistic taste throughout her performance.

The other solo was Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Christian Verfenstein played marvelously as well. Grieg’s concerto is one of my favorite works, and he made it shine.

Last on the docket was Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. The famously “back-heavy” work never fails to captivate its audience.

This was the North Shore Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of the season. I’m really grateful to have had the chance to write the program notes for every concert this year (check them out under “Published Works”!).

I’m looking forward to next season and will keep a ready eye for these composers and soloists in the future.

Columbia Undergraduate Composers Shine in Lerner C555

Ah, back in Lerner C555. A much-welcomed change for my classmates (previous concerts at nearby Broadway Presbyterian Church were flavored with passing taxis and buses). Enough could never be said about the symbolic importance of this musical space for the Columbia community.

 

It was great to see many of my friends’ pieces performed tonight. Highlights from the first half include Jasper’s vibrant combination of siren and bells (such a visceral sound), Gabe’s interesting use of the alto flute’s lowest register (he paired it with the soprano’s melody, creating an earthy sound), and the slips and slurps of the flute and clarinet in Brent’s Primordial Utterances. (I sadly neglected to take any notes during the first half of the concert because I wasn’t planning on writing anything. After hearing the concert, though, I just had to.)

 

The second half opened with Zak’s witty duet for soprano and flute. Quotes such as, “For not being female,” and, “He gets it off on a really massive scale and proves to the world that he is a man,” were downright hilarious. These comical statements were presented with an uncomfortably cheery flute (like a cheesy TV commercial from the 1950s).

 

The next piece on the docket was Dream by Sharon Hurvitz. I especially liked the interplay between the flute and voice in Sharon’s work. There was a point where the flutist echoed the soprano’s pitch and timbre; I briefly couldn’t tell the two instruments apart. Sharon was not afraid to include melodies: a prairie-like tune emerged after the opening minimalist texture. Her chordal writing sounded autumnal, an exploration of the instrumentation’s—clarinet, flute, violin, cello, and voice—sonic possibilities.

 

Conner began his work, A Carving Not a Kiss, with pulsing bells. A repeated rhythmic motif created a mysterious mood. At one point, the percussionist quickly drew a double bass bow across the vibraphone. The quavering overtones rang throughout the hall, a clarion call shining out of the ensemble’s texture.

 

Ben’s piece had a rather inopportune start. After about 20 seconds, the cellist asked to start the work over. At the time, I thought the false start was deliberate, given the work’s focus on the concept of motion. However, after the concert, Ben admitted to me that it was not written into the piece.

 

I found Ben’s textual games quite compelling. The soprano questioningly pleaded the word “and…” several times, building anticipation. After a few repetitions of “and,” Ben added the word “yet,” heightening tension. The bells softly concluded the section, signalling what I thought was the end of the piece. “And yet,” there was more; Ben’s linguistic trick works on multiple musical levels.

 

I was impressed by both the virtuosity and stamina of the TAK Ensemble. They played these new works, which teem with extended techniques and dense rhythmic textures, with an assured ease. Remarkably, the performers had only a couple of weeks to learn their parts. They also had only a few rehearsals with the composers (such is the necessarily unfortunate way of “New” Music I guess).

 

Tonight’s concert offered diverse musical styles. Each composer asserted their own voice, their own unique musical language. Professor Haas said it best by calling the group a “dishomogeneous” bunch. It was an exciting evening of music-making—a great way to kick off finals week.

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Music Uniting for Peace

Columbia University’s Musicians Stand Against the Executive Order

 

 

Tonight, in the ornate Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, the Columbia University Department of Music and Music Performance Program hosted a special event of music making. The program entitled, “Musicians Against the Executive Order,” was a fundraising concert for the American Civil Liberties Union to “support defenders of those barred entry to the United States by the Executive Order.”

The event was personal for the department of music. Ashkan Behzadi, a composition DMA student who I had the pleasure of having as a TA in my first-year Music Theory class, was almost affected by the new executive order. Because he is an Iranian-Canadian dual citizen, the department had doubts over whether he could return to Columbia. Luckily, this weekend, while in preparation for this concert featuring his music, the department learned that Behzadi can in fact return on account of his dual citizenship.

The concert was striking for its musical diversity. Spirituals, Schumann, and electronic music synchronized with lighting effects were performed by Columbia students and faculty. With their programming, the music department showed that if music from diverse cultural sources can exist in harmony in one concert, then so can the people who make it.

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The performance featured many heartfelt immigration stories. Emily Shyr and Cindy Liu, two Columbia College musicians who performed the first of Schumann’s Drei Romanzen for Oboe and Piano, shared their identities as daughters of immigrants. Both described the sacrifices their parents made and humbly thanked them for their support. Joseph Morag, a junior violinist in Columbia College, also expressed gratitude towards his parents, observing that he wouldn’t be on the Italian Academy stage without them. And Mario Diaz de Leon, a Core Lecturer in Music Humanities who received his DMA in Composition from Columbia in 2013, verbally dedicated the electronic improvisation he performed to his father, who emigrated from Mexico City forty years ago. By presenting their identities, these musicians infused their performances with gravitas and emotional weight.

Tonight, union despite diversity emerged through music making. The final performance by the Columbia Arab Music Ensemble epitomized this phenomenon. The group, directed by Taoufik Ben-Amor, consisted of musicians of different ages and ethnicities. Some played instruments like the oud and the tar while others performed on flutes, violins, cellos, and accordions. The synthesis of both traditional Arabic and Western instruments defied preconceived notions of who can play together. Through collaboration, the ensemble asserted a multicultural, international musical perspective.

Before their second song, Ben-Amor invited the audience to sing along with the refrain, “As-salamu alaykum,” which he explained as an expression of peace. Although the audience was timid at first – public singing at a concert?! – Ben-Amor’s happy demeanor and encouraging “Come-ons!” raised up a chorus of affirmative sound. In that moment, unity emerged through collective singing. Sounding together removed us from temporality, making us forget the painful order against acceptance we were all responding to.

The song ended with sustained, reflective applause. Ben-Amor’s young daughter (born in NYC to a Tunisian father and German mother, who Ben-Amor described as belonging here) rushed to her father and embraced him. Turning to us, she smiled. Hope danced throughout the hall, from one lightened face to another. Tonight, music united for peace.  

A Schoenbergian Überraschung

Surprise is better expressed in German

           Bookstores are the best kinds of friends. They have secret treasures to give and ask for nothing in return. They are the friends who you could walk with in silence for several minutes and everything will still feel quite peachy. A solitary, Aristotelian partnership.

           I visited seven of my downtown pals yesterday. The first on the docket: The StrandTM. Before going there I knew it could be rather intimidating (Yelpers bemoan of the staff’s less-than-cordial attitude). However, my trusted English teacher from high school recommended it to me and so I said, “Onwards!” 

           Walking up to the storefront, I was drawn to the used books nestled in three-tiered carts. My excitement grew when I turned the corner: rows of $1 hardcovers and paperbacks lined a half-block stretch, forming one of those monster-sized deli heroes I used to see at block parties as a kid (except here the turkey was books and the bread bookcarts). They all collectively shouted, “Come here!” and that’s exactly what I did.

           My hands determinedly flipped through the reams of cookbooks, Fodor’s travel guides, and haphazardly-sorted CDs. My dismissal process was simple. If the book didn’t fulfill one of my three search criteria (music, German texts, Wodehouse/Waugh), it was quickly brushed over—to lie in wait for another eager flipper to find it.

           I was starting to feel like an overseas Amazon package—disheveled and exhausted—when my eyes halted at the Arial-typefaced words “Arnold Schönberg.” A smile spread across my face. Perfecting the art of the Bookstore SquatTM was worth it after all. I had found Something.

           The Schoenbergian moniker headed a CD recording set, “Arnold Schönberg: Dear Miss Silvers Originaltonaufnahmen 1931-1951.” Carefully opening the item, I perused  the accompanying booklet to learn about what was inside. The set is comprised of recordings of Schoenberg’s radio interviews, academic lectures, and letter dictations (Schoenberg spoke into a recording device, given to him by Clara Silvers, one of the addresses of the letters, for his assistant to later transcribe. The cover of the CD set shows him sitting at said device).  

           Schoenberg sprung off the pages at me. Argumentative statements like, “Das ist Unsinn, reiner Unsinn” and “Ich denke, eine Definition der Melodie existiert überhaupt noch nicht,” affirm Schoenberg’s position as a radical thinker in music. (“This is nonsense, this is mere nonsense” and “I think what is melody has not yet been defined at all.”)

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Back cover of informational booklet. A Serious Schoenberg.

           Listening to the CDs, I was struck by Schoenberg’s subdued dry humor. During the testing for his interview with John Campbell of Caltech, Campbell tells Schoenberg they need to check the room’s acoustics, but before he finishes his sentence Schoenberg cuts in, “You mean I should speak now, a little, and this will come back?” Schoenberg, having used a recording device for his letter dictations in 1948, knew full well how these apparatuses worked at this point in time (1950).

And, in an earlier clip from a 1949 conversation, the conductor Karl Kritz asks Schoenberg to say anything, to which Schoenberg, with a humorous stagger in his voice, responds with a punningly-constructed answer built around the word “irgendwas” (anything): “Also, irgendwas ist immer viel schwer als etwas. Irgend was das muss man zuerst wissen. Ich weiss dass noch immer nicht” (Interestingly, only the test of the conversation is included in the CD, which means the recording company wanted its audience to listen to this part on its own.).

           My interest was piqued by the consistent use of German for the transcriptions in the adjoining booklet. I knew that Schoenberg had emigrated to the States (Los Angeles) sometime before WWII (1933), so it came across as odd that the interviews conducted while he was in America were written in German (it turns out the German transcriptions of these American interviews are translations. The CD set was meant for a German-speaking audience, which also explains the spelling of Schoenberg’s name as Schönberg.)

           After stumbling upon the Schoenbergian Surprise, my luck continued amongst the sea of musty books. I found a yellow-paged libretto from Paul Hindemith’s comic opera Neues vom Tage, a Dover Thrift Edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an informational booklet about Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin from a 2009 Wiener Staatsoper production, a complete set of Scriabin’s Sonatas played by Igor Zhukov, a BBC Music Guide to Maurice Ravel’s orchestral music, a collection of Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical works, a pocket map of Paris, and two French/English dictionaries (I couldn’t decide which was better, so, naturally, I got both). Content with my discoveries, I went into The StrandTM, where signs shouted “New Release!” and “Our Staff Picks!” at me.

           Standing in The StrandTM to stay warm, I took full-advantage of the Wi-Fi to map the rest of Expedition BookstoreTM. Setting out on my search, I ended up finding and making six more friends:

  • Mercer Street Books: I almost got Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in German.
  • McNally Jackson Books: a boasting Harvard student bragged about knowing John Eliot Gardiner; no used bookcarts in sight.
  • Housing Works Bookstore Cafe: used bookcarts! Found The Old Man and the Sea for a dollar.
  • Dashwood Books: eavesdropped on some Germans discussing youth culture and the difference between a longboard and a skateboard. Hint: one’s longer.
  • East Village Books: discount section out back in the “garden” (a little patch of stones). Also, check out this library thief story. I saw this owner while I was in the store.
  • Bluestockings: this self-described “radical bookstore” tasted like Earl Grey to my Chamomile predisposed palette; people who love Earl Grey, anarchist thought, and queer and gender studies, this one’s for you.

           I ended my day at Cafe Katja, where I received quizzical looks from the waiters (both for eating alone and for my order—“Just one pretzel please”). Navigating my way to the subway, I decided to take the long local train back. I had a lot of reading to do and a Schoenbergian Surprise to explore.

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The Strand

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Mercer Street Books

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McNally Jackson Books

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Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

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Dashwood Books (It’s below street level—I walked right by it when looking for it!)

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East Village Books

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Bluestockings

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Cafe Katja