Micha Hamel on his opera Caruso a Cuba: ‘Caruso is trapped in his star status’

(c) Petrovsky & Ramone, Origithing Photography

It all started at a book market during a holiday in Berlin, with the book Wo Aida Caruso fand. This German translation of Como un mensajero tuyo (As Your Messenger) of the Cuban author Mayra Montero at once triggered Micha Hamel’s interest: ‘The title made my antenna crackle. It was clever of the publisher not to choose a literal translation but to refer to the main characters: the historical figure Caruso and the opera heroine Aida’. Hamel read the book in one go and decided to turn it into an opera, Caruso a Cuba. It will be premiered on Sunday 3 March as part of the Opera Forward Festival, Otto Tausk conducting the Nederlands Kamerorkest.

The libretto starts from a historical fact – the bomb that exploded in the theatre of Havana while Caruso sang the role of Radamès in Aida in 1920 – the rest is fiction. ‘I had been talking to Pierre Audi for quite some time about a new production and now I knew: this story is an opera. Love and fate are the themes, it’s about opera and plays in an opera house.’ Hamel decided to deepen his bond with the opera tradition and at the same time write a work about unfulfilled love. ‘A difficult subject, which I have never worked out before in music theatre.’

Belcanto

From a very young age Hamel was inspired by the love for the belcanto of composers such as Verdi and Puccini: ‘My parents played a lot of recordings of opera, and I started composing after seeing the film Amadeus, I was fourteen years old. When the new venue of the Dutch National Opera opened I immediately took out a subscription. I visited all productions, until I went to study at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.’ Thanks to a Neapolitan lover he also learned to speak Italian fluently, the language of the libretto, which he wrote himself.

Act of love

The spirit of Verdi and Puccini can be heard in the score: ‘Without imitating I try to make my music sound as I hear theirs. Composing is always an act of love, an homage to the existing body of music that mankind has developed. For example, the orchestra plays a few bars from the Aida overture when the performance begins, and via audio fragments we twice hear the real Caruso as Radamès. There are also some style quotations, but with their own, contemporary colours.’

Musically, Hamel follows the story closely: ‘The protagonist Enrico Caruso arrives in Havana majestically and confidently, intent on shining as a star there. Towards the end he is completely wrecked and disillusioned, abandoned by all and every. My music starts melodiously and traditionally, but ends in grim atmospheres, with atonal fragments and radio noise.’

Baritonal tenor

The voice of Caruso still attracts admiration, also from Micha Hamel. ‘He does not really sound like a tenor but full and broad, also in the higher registers, more like a baritone. In his early years he even had trouble with the high notes, but when he mastered them technically, his career went fast. He always sings from the character, with small glissandi, sobs, accelerations and decelerations that logically sprout from the meaning of music and text, from what his character feels at that particular moment.’

In the tenor Airam Hernandez Hamel has found the ideal Caruso. ‘That role is quite a challenge because of the gigantic reputation of the historical Enrico Caruso. Also in terms of physical and appearance, the singer must be able to carry the role. As soon as I heard Hernandez sing I adapted my first sketches and I sculpted the rest of the part to his possibilities. He seems to love high notes, I love that.’

Doomed love

Hamel himself considers his chamber opera as one spun-out duet between Caruso and Aida. Their doomed love forms the dramatic core, around which the other figures circle. Aida’s mother and her godfather, the priest Calazán, try to turn fate away with rituals from their Lukumi religion. They represent the spiritual dimension. At some more distance there is Caruso’s manager Zirato, who also tries to protect him from evil.’

‘Caruso’s tragedy is that he is a world star, and is trapped in this role. He has no choice but to sing and earn money. He is obsessed with himself, he is the hero of his own life story. The explosion of the bomb may serve as a liberation: he escapes from his life and finds a great love. At the same time, raw reality knocks at the door: the mafia, his ailing health, the fact that he is married, even though his wife lives in New York.’

Caruso disrupts relationships

‘Aida’s tragedy is that she feels Caruso is her great love, but has to release him because he must return to New York. Spurred on by her love she helps him escape from the mafia, but at the same time she helps him escape Cuba – and her. She carries his child, but knows there will never be another man in her life. In a metaphorical sense, Caruso himself is a bomb: wherever he goes, he disrupts personal relationships. In this I see a similarity with Pasolini’s Teorema, in which the human is treated as a primal force that confronts us with our insignificance.’

‘It remains unclear whether the story actually takes place, or only in Caruso’s feverish dreams, floating between life and death. The opera is told from his perspective, his head is full of memories. When he sings we often hear a Neapolitan mandolin, as a melancholic touch. Moreover, an out of tune piano sounds. This reminds him of his youth, but also of the rehearsal room when praciticing an opera role.’

Death in Naples

Hamel once uses an Aida trumpetthe instrument Verdi had especially built for the triumphal march of this opera. It sounds during the ritual in which Caruso is immersed in a lagoon, to alleviate the chaos that his presence in Havana has created. Hamel:  ‘This forms the centre of the piece: in a vision Caruso sees his hometown of Naples; Calazán foresees that Caruso will die there – the latter is also historical.’

Towards the end of the opera, more and more noises creep into the sound image, via percussion and electronic soundscapes. ‘At a certain point there are no longer any stable chords, everything seems to happen randomly and accidentally. Rhythms get stuck, chords only consist of two notes. Caruso a Cuba ends with a high whistling tone. Perhaps this depicts the screaming sound of the falling bomb that Caruso relives in his head, or the tinnitus that the explosion gave him. Tinnitus, the death sentence of every musician…’

Caruso a Cuba runs from 3-9 March, info and tickets here.

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Composer Kate Moore presents soulmates in Muziekgebouw

Kate Moore’s career is soaring. In 2017 she was the first woman ever to be awarded the prestigious Matthijs Vermeulenprijs, in 2018 she was composer in residence at November Music, for which she composed the grand requiem Lux Aeterna. In the season 2018-19 she is moreover ‘soulmate’ of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. In this capacity she stages several concerts, featuring not only her own music but also that of kindred spirits.

Kate Moore + Thea Derks at a concert introduction in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, 2015

On February 7, 2019 Moore presents an adventurous concert with her own Herz Ensemble titled x gen x, in which not one note of herself will sound. This seems typical for Moore – and perhaps her generation – for rather than stressing the differences between personalities and nationalities, she prefers to focus on what we have in common. – As she powerfully illustrated in 2017 in her oratorio Sacred Environments, in which she links a virtual trip to the sacred grounds of the Australian Wonnarua and Darkinjung tribes to Western Requiem music.

For the concert x gen x Moore chose ‘connection’ as its central theme: ‘In a time of unprecedented social and technological transformation, the featured composers see possibilities instead of boundaries’ states the web text. President Trump and other alt-right leaders may wish to build walls to keep foreigners out, in the arts borders and barriers seem to have become irrelevant. Moore is of Dutch-Australian heritage and studied both in Australia and the Netherlands, where she has made her home. The same goes for her colleagues Lam Lai (Hong Kong) and Marie Guilleary (France).

The Dutch Jobina Tinnemans, on the other land, moved from Holland to a peninsula in Wales, where she has lived in self-sufficiency and isolation for ten years now. Her piece Fell was inspired by natural phenomena such as wind and the movement of tectonic plates, and how these affect our physique. The Irish Linda Buckly lives in Glasgow. In Haza she honours the Hungarian Bela Bartók, who spent the last years of his life in the United States.

The American Andrew Norman was inspired by Italian churches in The Companion Guide to Rome. Lachlan Skipworth zooms in on different conceptions of musical time, ranging from Japan to ancient Greece and the original inhabitants of Australia in his Piano Quartet. The Israeli-Dutch Karmit Fadael just finished her bachelor at the Royal Conservatoire. Her piece Blanco simply focusses on musical parameters such as colour, time and space.

I’m really curious to hear this motley collection of pieces!

The concert will be repeated in Korzo Theater The Hague on 14 February.

Aad van Nieuwkerk interviewed Kate Moore in his programme “Vrije Geluiden” on Radio 4. Listen here.

 

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Willem Jeths: ‘Goede muziek neemt de luisteraar bij de hand’

Thea Derks + Willem Jeths, 16-3-2015

Het zal u niet ontgaan zijn: 40 jaar geleden werd Muziekcentrum Vredenburg geopend. Edo de Waart leidde het Utrechts Symfonie Orkest in de Vierde Symfonie van Johannes Brahms. Otto Ketting dirigeerde zijn speciaal voor de gelegenheid gecomponeerde liederencyclus The Light of the Sun. Het concert werd op Hilversum 4 uitgezonden en vormde de opmaat voor vier decennia succesvolle omroepseries vanuit Utrecht.

Sindsdien is er veel veranderd. Het Utrechts Symfonie Orkest viel in 1985 ten prooi aan de bezuinigingswoede van minister van cultuur Elco Brinkman. Noodgedwongen fuseerde het met het Amsterdams Philharmonisch Orkest en het Nederlands Kamerorkest tot het huidige Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Ook Vredenburg bleef niet zelfstandig, maar ging samen met popcentrum Tivoli. Na een zeven jaar durende verbouwing opende het nieuwe TivoliVredenburg zijn deuren in 2014. Hilversum 4 heet tegenwoordig NPO Radio4, Otto Ketting overleed in 2012.

‘Anfang und Ende, immer fort dasselbe’ dichtte Goethe begin 19e eeuw. Want ook al zijn dingen eindig, veel blijft desondanks hetzelfde. Nog altijd vormt TivoliVredenburg het hart van het AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert, met vaste bespelers Radio Filharmonisch Orkest en Groot Omroepkoor. Edo de Waart dirigeerde het orkest op 25 januari in de Derde Symfonie van Brahms en leidt vrijdag 8 februari de wereldpremière van Du bist älter, Du bist neuer. Willem Jeths componeerde dit werk voor koor en orkest speciaal voor het 40-jarig jubileum. Uiteraard zijn de concerten (terug) te beluisteren op NPO Radio4.

‘Ik dacht onmiddellijk aan het gedicht Unbegrenzt van Goethe toen ik de opdracht kreeg’, vertelt Willem Jeths enthousiast. ‘Dat beschrijft de cyclus van leven en sterven, waarbij elk einde ook een nieuw begin betekent. Ik koos de slotzin als titel, omdat deze de thematiek van het jubileum in het hart treft: “Du bist älter, Du bist neuer”. De omroepseries bestaan tenslotte al veertig jaar – zijn dus al wat älter – maar gaan onverminderd door. Ze zijn ook neuer, want ze blijven zich vernieuwen en presenteren niet enkel het standaardrepertoire, maar ook eigentijdse muziek.’

Het verzoek om een jubileumcompositie kwam als geroepen. ‘Ik had Unbegrenzt al in mijn Eerste Symfonie gezet voor mezzosopraan en orkest, samen met Selige Sehnsucht, maar wilde die solopartij altijd al eens omwerken voor koor. Beide gedichten komen uit Goethes bundel West-östlicher Divan, die tussen 1814-19 ontstond. Hij was toen erg geïnspireerd door de Perzische dichter Hafiz, ze hebben een bespiegelend karakter. Het eerste gedicht bezingt de cyclus van het leven, het tweede is persoonlijker van toon.

Selige Sehnsucht beschrijft een vlinder die zijn vleugels verbrandt als hij te dicht bij de zon komt, het Icarusthema. Toch moet je volgens Goethe die vlucht juist wél aangaan, want wie niet streeft naar het hogere is slechts ‘ein trüber Gast auf dieser dunklen Erde’. Dan ben je een armzalig mens op een sombere, donkere aarde. Het beeld van een vlinder die hoopvol naar de zon vliegt vind ik zó ongelooflijk mooi en raak getroffen.’

Maar hoe vertaal je een mezzosopraanpartij naar een meerstemmig koor? ‘Eigenlijk moet je helemaal opnieuw beginnen’, zegt Jeths. ‘Een mezzo heeft maar één bepaalde stemomvang, nu werk je met vier verschillende stemtypes. Dat vergt een heroverweging van wat je wilt zeggen en hoe je dat aanpakt. De teneur van het origineel is overigens niet veranderd.’

Jeths zette daarbij bewust in op welluidendheid: ‘Daar rustte na de Tweede Wereldoorlog een taboe op maar we leven nu in andere tijden en hebben het modernistische juk afgeschud. Bij de koorpartijen heb ik er sterk op gelet dat alles zingbaar en toegankelijk blijft. Je kunt wel iets schrijven dat er op papier prachtig uitziet, maar je hebt niks aan Augenmusik. Zwaar dissonante samenklanken worden in een koor gauw lelijk. Alleen als zangers hun klank een zekere kwaliteit mee kunnen geven, kun je werken aan muzikaliteit. Daarom gebruik ik veel tertsen, dat geeft mooie harmonieën.’

‘Voor het orkest heb ik deels materiaal van het origineel hergebruikt. De twee liederen klinken in principe attacca, dus zonder pauze ertussen. Daar heb ik namelijk een hekel aan, want mensen gaan dan kuchen en hoesten. Ze landen even op aarde, terwijl de bedoeling is dat ze in de muziek blijven – zelfs in mijn soloconcerten gaan de delen zonder pauze in elkaar over. In Du bist älter, Du bist neuer heb ik daarom een orkestrale brug gemaakt tussen het eerste en het tweede lied. In die overgang klinken al wat motieven die ik verder uitdiep in het tweede deel.’

Het koor zingt veelal vierstemmig, behalve op de frase “Anfang und Ende, immer fort dasselbe”. Jeths: ‘Dat is een spiegelmoment in het stuk, daar heb ik de tekst letterlijk muzikaal vertaald. Ik gebruik namelijk een retrograde, de muzikale equivalent van een palindroom, waarbij een zin in omgekeerde volgorde hetzelfde blijft. Zoals in Ein Neger mit Gazelle zagt im Regen nie. Dat was trouwens een heel gepuzzel, want wat stijgend was wordt dalend en vice versa, waardoor de muziek een heel andere lading krijgt. Maar het is me gelukt! Het orkest wordt dichter en voller en zwijgt dan, waarop het koor uitwaaiert over 12 stemmen. Daarna wordt het koor langzaam weer kleiner en keert ook het orkest terug.’ Trots: ‘Ik heb niet gesjoemeld.’

Niet zomaar een opmerking, want Jeths hecht aan vakwerk. ‘Als je iets doet, moet je het goed doen. Ik zing bijvoorbeeld ook alle partijen zelf door. Mijn partner wordt daar wel eens gek van, want een goeie zanger ben ik niet.’ Hij citeert met instemming zijn docent Tristan Keuris. ‘Die zei altijd: je moet niet je muzikale neus achternalopen, maar je materiaal zo ordenen dat het familie blijft. Oftewel: je moet elke gedachte volledig uitwerken, anders overvoer je de luisteraar met informatie. Dat wordt op den duur gratuit. Goede muziek moet je bij de hand nemen, je door het stuk loodsen. Als je dat niet kunt, ben je geen goede componist.’ 

Thea Derks maakt voor de live uitzending van het AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert op 8-2-2019 een reportage van het repetitieproces.
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest + Groot Omroepkoor / Edo de Waart
Tristan Keuris: Sinfonia
Willem Jeths: Du bist älter, Du bist neuer (WP)
Anton Bruckner: Derde Mis in f
Info en kaarten voor het concert vind je hier
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De vlag uit voor ‘Een os op het dak’!

“De welhaast meest onbegrepen muziek in zo’n honderd pagina’s helder en enthousiast uitleggen? Ja dat kan.”

Dit schrijft Kees Bals op de website De leesclub van alles. Hij vervolgt:

“De vlag mag uit voor dit kort, helder en enthousiasmerend overzicht van een rumoerige en vaak te weinig gewaardeerde ruime eeuw muziekgeschiedenis.”

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Maandag 28 januari ben ik om 15.00 uur te gast in het programma Springvossen van Robert van Altena. Hij interviewt mij bij Boekhandel Scheltema aan het Rokin; ons gesprek wordt live uitgezonden op AmsterdamFM.

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Op maandag 18 februari vertel ik vanaf 20.00 uur over mijn boek in Huis de Pinto, St. Antoniesbreestraat Amsterdam. Pianist Marcel Worms speelt de muziekvoorbeelden.

Ook in 2019 kost Een os op het dak maar € 14,95. Ik neem de kosten van de BTW-verhoging voor eigen rekening.

Graag tot ziens en als je nog moet beginnen in mijn boekje, wens ik je alvast veel leesplezier! Via onderstaande button krijg je per omgaande een gesigneerd exemplaar thuisgestuurd.

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George Benjamin: ‘I appreciate detail and spontaneous incursion’

Just out: ‘Een os op het dak: moderne muzizek na 1900 in vogelvlucht’. Despite VAT increase still available for € 14,95.

Amsterdam School of Architecture: Museum Het Schip (photo from own website)

In 2015 George Benjamin, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, female singers of the Dutch Chamber Choir and countertenor Bejun Mehta brought the world premiere of Dream of the Song. On 17 and 18 January this highly successful song cycle sounds again. Now it forms part of a programme around the idealistic architecture that was initiated in 1919 by Gaudí in Spain and the Amsterdam School in the Netherlands. Benjamin was kind enough to answer some questions.

What, to you, is the relationship between architecture and music – if any?

In essence, they could not be more different. Architecture works with physical materials within space, while in music intangible sound passes through time. Yet architecture is often used as a metaphor for music. And indeed, musical structures need foundations – deep rhythmic and harmonic underpinning – to function; some modern music requires something akin to scaffolding in order to be realized. If you look at it on a formal scale, the proportions in music are not far removed from those of architecture. So there are many analogies, but also vast differences.

How important is architecture in your own work? Do the structures arise intuitively or do you make a design in advance that you ‘fill in’ with notes?

For me, architecture is essential. Indeed, even the most beautiful musical invention is worthless if it is presented within a flawed global structure. I will never simply design prefabricated structures and ‘fill up’ them with music. This is an idea contrary to my nature, although several composers I highly respect have worked along these lines. The crucial concern here is what precisely the pre-designed model involves, and with what attitude (and liberty) it is applied.

Personally I appreciate too much the potential of detail, the spontaneity of invention and the element of surprise to let myself be imprisoned within too rigid a frame. Equally, I don’t simply grope my way forward into a piece, merely improvising from moment to moment. I need a fairly detailed conception of the nature of a composition – above all on a technical level – before I can actually start composing. Perhaps a good analogy to my own personal procedure is this: I invent a musical ‘organism’ without having accurately defined far in advance how it will behave.

A hundred years ago, both the Catalan Antoni Gaudí and the architects of the Amsterdam School developed a new architecture with the aim of providing workers with better living conditions. What do you think of their architecture?

I admire both schools for their eccentricity and exceptional individuality. In Gaudí’s work I’m also touched by the way the study of nature has tangibly influenced and inspired his work. When I was in Amsterdam last summer for my opera Lessons in Love & Violence, I was taken to Museum Het Schip, dedicated to the Amsterdam School. I was very charmed by the building’s sense of fantasy, both in detail and in the overall scale. Especially the brickwork exudes a capricious sense of delight, humour and charm. – Characteristics that I would not necessarily expect from a twentieth-century building with such utopian social ambitions.

Oliver Harrison designed images to be shown along with ‘Dream of the Song’. Are they related to Gaudí and/or the Amsterdam School?

No, the visuals around the Amsterdam School are tailored to Christiaan Richter’s new composition, Wendingen. Oliver Harrison’s work is related to my own piece and is in a different direction altogether. Harrison plays with calligraphy in highly imaginative and playful ways. He deconstructs and multiplies individual letters, exploiting them as mere particles and regrouping them in ways that evoke figurative images in a semi-abstract way. This relates in particular to the first song in my score, ‘The Pen’, which is about calligraphy.

What do you expect from the interaction between the images and the music?

It simply depends on how it is done. Music that sounds simultaneously with song, dance and play has achieved universal acclaim over centuries, so why not music with animation? It remains such a fresh and fascinating art form – as it happens my passion for classical music was triggered when I saw the film Fantasia as a young child.

In Dream of the Song the animation functions as a frame. The visuals only appear in the interstices between movements, announcing the titles of the individual songs with a flourish of intricate calligraphy. Except for one single moment, the images never coincide with the singing. So hopefully they will not detract from the rapport between our great soloist Bejun Mehta and the audience.

On Friday 18 January I’ll give a pre concert talk from 7.15-7.50 pm, in which I’ll also speak with Christiaan Richter, whose commissioned piece ‘Wendingen’ will be premiered, and to Blai Soler, whose ‘Sol’ will be performed in Holland for the first time. Info and tickets via this link.

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Early work of Galina Ustvolskaya in Concertgebouw: no ‘lady with the hammer’

Galina Ustvolskaya (c) Leendert Jansen

On Saturday 12 January Vasily Petrenko conducts the Dutch Radio Philharnonic Orchestra in three works by Brahms, Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya as part of the NTRZaterdagMatinee series in Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Despite their very different backgrounds, there are some similarities. The two Russian composers suffered under the repressive regime of the communists, the German Brahms was accused of writing old-fashioned music that lacked Beethoven’s ‘social-forming’ power.

‘Lady with the hammer’

Galina Ustvolskaya was dubbed ‘the lady with the hammer’ because of her relentless style, but she did not always compose drastic music that excels in extremes. Under the wings of Dmitri Shostakovich she first trod more traditional paths as a composer. She destroyed most of her early works, but spared the symphonic poem The Dream of Stepan Razin for baritone and orchestra that will get a rare performance in NTRZaterdagMatinee.

Ustvolskaya was born in Petrograd in 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution. In the same year Dmitri Shostakovich started studying piano and composition there. Ustvolskaya would remain in the city all her life, which was renamed Leningrad in 1924 in memory of the hero of the revolution and only regained its original name St. Petersburg in 1992.

Just like Shostakovich, she was confronted with an increasingly strict and repressive Soviet regime. Nevertheless – or precisely because of this – Ustvolskaya developed into one of the most elusive and idiosyncratic composers of our time. She studied composition at the Leningrad Conservatoire, being the only female student admitted to Shostakovich’s composition class in 1939.

He soon recognised her exceptional qualities and predicted her ‘worldwide recognition of everyone who is concerned with truthfulness in music’. Bravely he defended her music in the Composers’ Union, and it is rumoured he even proposed marriage to her. He asked her to review his own scores and incorporated one of her themes in his Fifth String Quartet and the Michelangelo Suite.

‘Formalism’

Shostakovich courteously wrote to her: ‘You are not influenced by me, it is rather the other way round.’ It is all the more distressing to read how fiercely Ustvolskaya later rejected her mentor and former friend. In a letter to her publishers she wrote: ‘Then, just like now, I resolutely rejected his music. (….) One thing is certain: a seemingly eminent figure like Shostakovich is not at all eminent to me; on the contrary, he burdened my life and killed my best feelings.

In any case, just like Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya was accused of writing ‘formalist’ music. In order to earn a living she composed film scores and ‘music for the people’. This resulted in a number of works in the prescribed ‘social-realistic’ style, which she later withdrew. An exception is The Dream of Stepan Razin, which she composed in 1949 on a text from Russian folk poetry. This is an ode to the Cossack leader Stenka Razin (1630-1671) who rebelled against the Russian landed gentry that exploited and repressed the common people.

‘Truly national art’

This early work is full of lyrical melodies, heroic fanfares and rousing Cossack rhythms. To top it off there’s a soaring solo part sung by a baritone, who gives a lively description of how Stepan Razin envisions his impending execution. The apparatchiks were so pleased that the piece was chosen for the opening of the new season of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in 1949.

Tichon Chrennikov, secretary of the Composers’ Union, even recommended The Dream of Stepan Razin to other composers, as ‘an ideal example of a truly national art’. The composition was even nominated for a Stalin Prize. The hyper-romantic music is a far cry from the radicalism of Ustvolskaya’s later compositions. Thus it fits well with Brahms’s First Symphony and Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto that are also on the programme. The concert is broadcast live on Radio4.

NTR ZaterdagMatinee, 12 January 2 pm Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasili Petrenko; Alina Ibragimova, violin; Anatoli Sivko, baritone
Ustvolskaya (1919-2006): The Dream of Stepan Razin (1949)
Shostakovich (1906-1975): Violin concert no. 2 in c-sharp minor op.129 (1967)
Brahms (1833-1897): Symphony no. 1 in c minor op.68 (1876)
More info and tickets via this link
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Rozalie Hirs: ‘A song is no longer poetry, it is music’

Just out: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht:
Rozalie Hirs (1965) is multi-talented. She has made a name for herself as a poet and as a composer. For Dreams of Airs she wrote the poems as well as the instrumental and electronic music. The cycle is inspired by the physical phenomenon of binaural beating: when your left and right ears are offered two almost identical tones, your brain creates a third (phantom) tone that consists of the difference in frequency between the two. This creates an ultra-low tone, which can evoke different moods. Dreams of Airs was premiered in November Music in 2018, and will be again performed in TivoliVredenburg on Sunday 6 January.

Hirs was born in Gouda and studied chemistry at the University of Twente and composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, with,Diderik Wagenaar and Louis Andriessen. In New York she continued her studies with the French spectralist Tristan Murail at Columbia University. In 2007 she obtained the ‘Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)’ there with her dissertation on spectral composition techniques and the composition Platonic ID.

She published six collections of poems, verses from which were included in several anthologies of best Dutch poetry. She also writes in English and German, and in 2017 her multilingual collection gestammelte werke appeared at the German publisher KOOKbooks. Her poetry and music are both lyrical and experimental. She often combines traditional instruments with electronic sounds and collaborates with visual artists and graphic designers.

Though Hirs regularly recites her own poems, whether or not embedded in music, Dreams of Airs is her first full-length poetry/music cycle. The title has an ambiguous meaning. “When Irish people pronounce my surname, it sounds like ‘airs’, so it’s about ‘dreams of Hirs’. On the other hand ‘air’ is the English word for song or melody, so at the same time it concerns ‘dreams of melodies’. This refers to the memory of melodies, of which only the text and the rhythm remain. For me, a song is no longer poetry, it has become music because of the composer’s interpretation. With spoken language you stay closer to the original poetry. You show the rhythm of language, which has not yet become singing.

This time Hirs does not speak her verses herself, they are recited by Nora Fischer. “In the thirty years that I have been reciting poetry, I have developed my own speech melody. It has taken me years to translate my typical intonation and speech rhythm into a notation, so that my piece can be performed even when I am no longer around. The funny thing is that at the premiere my mother had the feeling that I was on stage myself, so the notation had truly captured the essence of my voice.”

The speech melody, the rhythm and the intonation are all fully composed. “But because I didn’t want to force Nora to imitate my voice, I indicate the pitches with crosses. It sounds natural and simple, but at the same time it is very specific, because I have my own conception of tonality. All tones are connected to each other and are always present to a greater or lesser extent, only the centres of gravity shift. Nora must stay true to the overall form – the Gestalt – but may transpose it to her own root tone. The dreaming from the title refers not only to the meditative, contemplative way in which the poems are expressed, but also to their content and the way they are treated musically.

Most of the texts are in Dutch, but there are also German and English verses. “The libretto begins with an emerging day and ends with an apotheosis, a philosophical reflection on love, based on an idea of Erasmus. I see Dreams of Airs as a Manifesto for Europe, for expressing oneself in different languages is a first step in communication. It is humanistic and idealistic, it is about the freedom of imagination, about inner seeing and hearing. I look at it from the individual’s perspective. You can reach out to another person by speaking their language. This includes not only the melody and the meaning, but also the sound itself. – Speaking that is, not singing.

The binaural beatings function as sound spaces that bring the listener into a certain state of mind. The left and right loudspeakers have slightly different tones. If there are also differences in timing, you get a spatial sound. In my piece, both an electronic spatiality and a feeling of pulse are created. To enhance the latter effect I insert extra electronic pulses. My intention is that as soon as your brain creates such a binaural beating, this frequency evokes states of mind such as meditation, alertness, creativity, dreams or flow.

The cycle has seven movements, in which only a few times the full ensemble plays. “I built the piece from the fifth movement, Infinity Stairs, a trio for flute, bass clarinet and electric guitar. That’s the only movement in which the voice doesn’t participate, so the listener gets some rest. This trio is about ascending and descending, just like the infinite ascending and descending steps in the famous etching of Maurits Escher. I have tried to translate this optical illusion into an auditory illusion – tones you think you hear but that don’t actually sound.

The other movements were shaped around this. “It opens with bird twittering, a solo flute and solo voice, in the second movement the voice comes together with a number of instruments. The third is a tutti about an encounter with death, it is an ode to life. The fourth movement is for solo voice and describes the physical desire. Part six is about the sea, and the concluding poem is a hymn to love, in which all instruments come together with the voice. In essence, Dreams of Airs is one big daydream about imagination, how language arises, while speaking and dreaming.”

6 January 2019, 8 pm: Rozalie Hirs Dreams of Airs, TivoliVredenburg Spectra Enaemble & Nora Fischer / Filip Rathé; visuals by Boris Tellegen and  Geert Jan Mulder. I’ll moderate an interactive talk with Hirs after the concert.

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Petra Stump-Linshalm advocates contrabass clarinet on ‘Fantasy Studies’

Just out: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht:

The bass clarinet is no longer the odd one out as a solo instrument. The Dutch pioneer Harry Sparnaay convinced many a composer of its versatility, immense variation of colours and expression. The merits of the contrabass clarinet, however, are a completely different matter. On her cd Fantasy Studies the Austrian clarinettist and composer Petra Stump-Linshalm puts it in the limelight in her cycle Uisge Beatha – A Guide to Flavours.

From the first prototype developed at the beginning of the 19th century the contrabass clarinet didn’t find its final form until the turn of the 20th century. In 1909 Schoenberg put its dark, resonant sound to good use in his Five Orchestral Pieces, discarding the contrabass clarinet however in the revised version he made forty years later. Messiaen used the instrument in his opera St. François and his orchestral piece Eclairs sur l’Au-Delà, Varèse employed it in his ground breaking Amériques.

Thus the contrabass clarinet was mainly used to add extra colour and poignancy to the overall texture. The only famous solo performer is the jazz musician Anthony Braxton, and contemporary composers such as Franco Donatoni, Gérard Grisey and Gerard Brophy wrote solo works for it. Stump-Linshalm seems to challenge both composers and performers worldwide by opening her cd with a cycle of eight studies entirely dedicated to the contrabass clarinet, performed by her husband Heinz-Peter Linshalm.

Uisge Beatha is the Irish word for whiskey, meaning ‘water of life’. In the cd-booklet Stump-Linshalm explains that in her piece ‘different whiskey aromas are described in sounds, and the taste experience of liquid gold is transformed into a listening experience. I recommend enjoying an appropriately selected whiskey with each movement!’ –  Since eight glasses of alcohol might somewhat hamper an impartial opinion, I decided to listen to the music with a clear head.

Stump-Linshalm takes her time and only gradually unveils the possibilities of the contrabass clarinet. In the first movements of Uisge Beatha we hear long held notes, soft murmurings and breathy pulsating sounds in the lowest registers, creating a meditative atmosphere. The music becomes more lively when small flourishes and burgeoning melodies are interspersed with the odd shriek in the highest registers. Almost unnoticed Stump-Linshalm moves forward into bolder territory, rattling the keys and firing loud slaps that sound like gunshots.

In Peat Monster, the final and longest movement, darkly grumbling sounds and hoarse whisperings vie with tormented outcries, ominous harmonics, percussive hootings and hesitant melodies that are roughly broken off before coming to bloom. The music becomes more and more lively and varied, and the textures grow so complex we seem to be hearing at least two instruments at once. Is Linshalm using circular breathing here, is he playing along with a pre-recorded tape?

The cd also features music for other instruments, ending with the cycle Fantasy Studies after which it is named. This is scored for flute (piccolo and alto flute), clarinet (E-flat and bass clarinet), soprano saxophone and spring drum, recorder (soprano, tenor, bass recorder), triangle, and violoncello. In seven movements the studies become ever more rhythmical, with elaborate lines developing into intricate, virtuoso patterns, though the music never loses its transparency.

All the works are excellently performed. It is the cycle for contrabass clarinet however that lingers longest in one’s mind. Stump-Linshalm proves to be a strong and convincing advocate of this somewhat disregarded instrument. Surely this cd will help other clarinettists to discover its many qualities. The cd appeared on Orlando Records and can be ordered here.

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Why it is good that Nederlandse Reisopera tours with Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt

Die tote Stadt (c) Marco Borggreve

In 1920 Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) triumphed with his psychological opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). At the time the work was performed in more than eighty cities, and the reviews were unanimously positive. The opera then disappeared from the stage for a long time, but is nowadays sporadically performed again. So it’s good that the Dutch Reisopera is bringing this almost forgotten piece back on stage. I wonder why we have ignored this flamboyant score full of scorching notes for so long.

For a long time we knew Korngold mainly as a composer of film music. He won Oscars with his scores for Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse, but his orchestral works were dismissed as kitsch. Over the last decade, however, his music has been rediscovered and he has received the appreciation he lacked for so long. His Violin Concerto in particular is frequently performed, almost to the point of being annoying. Beautiful piece, but there is danger in excess.

Mahler’s blessing

At the beginning of the previous century Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the acclaimed heir of Mozart, to whom he owes one of his first names. Just like his predecessor, he was strongly promoted by his father. Rumour even had it that his genius music was written by others. Born in 1897 in Brno, the capital of Moravia, he initially had everything going for him. His parents descended fom a Viennese family of wealthy wine merchants, and his father Julius was one of the most powerful music critics of his time.

Although Julius had studied with Anton Bruckner, he had not become a composer. – Perhaps that is why he so fervently promoted the talent of his son, who composed his first pieces at the age of six. With unceasing zeal daddy brought these to the attention of his many illustrious friends. When Erich Wolfgang played his cantata Gold to Gustav Mahler at the age of nine(!), this sparked his enthusiasm. Mahler called the precocious youngster a ‘genius’ and advised his father not to send him to the conservatory, but to the influential Alexander von Zemlinsky. Soon after, Korngold’s compositions were widely performed and published by the prestigious publishing house Universal.

From child prodigy to ‘kitsch composer’

The star of Korngold continued to rise uncessantly. At the age of nineteen he drew the attention with two one-acters, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, staged in Munich and Vienna. But Korngold experienced his greatest triumph with Die tote Stadt, which he completed in 1920. The sizzling, late-Romantic score took the world by storm. Within a short period of time the opera was performed in in over eighty cities, including New York.

Critics wrote rave reviews. One of them noted: ‘The music flows so powerfully from the text that it determines the meaning of the work and makes it one of the most important operas written over a long period of time.’ But the times, they were a-changing. Gradually Korngold’s late-romanticism was eclipsed by Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone music and the ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ of Hindemith and Weill.

There were also major social upheavals. In 1934 the Jewish Korngold left for America, where he began a new career as a film composer. After the war his independent orchestral works were dismissed as ‘filmic kitsch’; in 1957 he died disillusioned in Hollywood. Unfortunately, he has not been able to witness the renewed interest in his Violin Concerto and the opera Die tote Stadt.

Together with his father Korngold wrote the libretto of Die tote Stadt, which takes place in Bruges. This city breathes a deadly atmosphere ‘because of its grey buildings, quiet waters and sombre churches’, Korngold opined. He based his libretto on the novel Bruges-la-morte by the Wallonian author Georges Rodenbach.

Sinister mourning process

The young Paul cherishes the memory of his deceased wife Marie in a sombre room, filled with memorabilia. When the dancer Marietta comes into his life, he recognizes his former wife in her. To his dismay, however, she has a completely different character, with which he cannot cope. Eventually he strangles her with Marie’s braid.

Only then does he awaken from his sinister mourning process and realize that you cannot live in the past. The music brims with compelling vocal lines and heartrending orchestral sounds, reminiscent of both early Schönberg and late Strauss. Moreover, the psychological drama perfectly suited the spirit of the times, which also contributed to the success of Die tote Stadt.

The opera was released on CD/DVD several times by renowned ensembles and singers, yet is rarely heard live in our country. Most recently in 2005, in a well received production by Dutch National Opera. Now the Nederlandse Reisopera is venturing into a new interpretation by director Jakob Peters-Messer, in a coproduction with Theater Magdeburg Germany.

Those who were interested had to travel to Amsterdam in 2005, but now ‘the Reisopera will bring Die tote Stadt to you’, as artistic director Nicolas Manfield subtly remarked during his presentation of the new season. – And, indeed, we can count ourselves lucky with this initiative.

Korngold: Die tote Stadt, 8 December 2018 through 9 April 2019, info and tickets here.

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‘Alsof het er in de muziek om gaat wie het verste kan plassen’ – interview over Een os op het dak

De Os bij Albersen Muziek Den Haag

Muziekpublicist Maarten Brandt interviewde mij over Een os op het dak voor de website Opusklassiek.

“Een naslagwerk over eigentijdse muziek. Het is een schaars artikel. Zeker in Nederland. Dit in tegenstelling tot publicaties over de alom geaccepteerde klassieke muziek uit de canon van weleer. Maar daar is onlangs verandering in gekomen door het verschijnen van het zeer toegankelijke Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht van musicoloog Thea Derks, indertijd veel in het nieuws vanwege haar spraakmakende biografie van Reinbert de Leeuw. De titel van het boekje is geïnspireerd op het ballet Le boeuf sur le toit van Darius Milhaud. Een gesprek met een auteur die er geen doekjes om windt wat haar tot het vervaardigen van deze uitgave heeft aangezet. Lees verder… Continue reading

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