La Scena Musicale

Monday, January 11, 2010

A World Premiere in Rome: Pappano Conducts Henze's Latest "Konzertoper"

By Giuseppe Pennisi

Much awaited in the international music world, Hans Werner Henze’s Opfergang had its debut on January 10th at the main 2832-seat Santa Cecilia auditorium of the Parco della Musica in Roma. There were about 80 music critics from ten countries at this world premiere.

Maestro Henze is the most frequently performed living contemporary musician. He has lived in Italy since the early 1950s, more specifically since the beginning of the 1960s in a magnificent villa near Rome. Yet Opfergang is the first musical composition commissioned by an Italian institution (the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia). Maestro Henze is 83 years old. His fans and the musical world in general thought that his last major work would have been “Upupa,” premiered at the 2003 Summer Salzburg Festival and, since them, performed in many countries (but not yet in Italy) as well as considered the first major opera of the 21st Century. Thereafter, for a long period, Maestro Henze was seriously ill. He was in a coma for five months and seemed to be about to die. After his recovery, he had to cope with the death of his life-long partner. Surprisingly, in the last few years a new Spring appears to have begun for him. A flow of new major compositions: Sebastiam in Traum in 2005, Gogo no eiko (from a text by Japanese writer Mishima) in 2006, Pheadra in 2007, Elegium Musicum Amatissimi Amici Nunc Remoti in 2008 and now Opfergang (Immolazione, or Holocaust in the Italian translation in the program, but more accurately Sacrificium, Sacrifice).

Opfergang is classified a Konzertopera by Maestro Henze himself. Like many other works of his (e.g. El Cimarron, Pheadra, Das Floss of Medusa) the composition maintains Maestro Henze’s very strong flair for dramatic action; most of his works are for the operatic stage or for movies. But it is conceived for a concert hall: a few solo singers and a chamber orchestra with no need for elaborate stage sets or costumes. Opfergang requires an oversized chamber orchestra with quite a few peculiar instruments, two main soloists (a Wagnerian baritone and a Schubertian tenor), a second baritone in a minor role and a chorus-like quarter of baritones and tenors. There is limited acting, but in this production, lighting is critical in providing the dramatic context and pulse.

The text is a dramatic poem of Franz Werfel, an expressionist writer and poet from Prague. He was a very close friend of Franz Kafka and the last of Alma Mahler’s three husbands. The plot is simple but disquieting. In the suburbs of a large European town, a man is on the run; in a monologue he tells us about his life and problems but never reveals the specifics of what he is escaping from. He is befriended by a small white and well-tendered dog, who has left the upper class villa where he was the pet-toy of a young girl. The man is violent, brutal. The dog is kind, gentle. They attempt to communicate, but when the police is getting at the man, in a moment of insane rage, he kills the dog. The man runs away but is left in abysmal desperation while the soul of the dog sings his affection for him. There is, of course, quite a bit of symbolism – a movement contemporary to expressionism. The man is Violence; the dog Innocence. With the Violence-Innocence contrast and an all-male cast, there is an immediate reference to Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd - of which Britten himself adapted the grand opéra version to a chamber music edition (with two pianos in lieu of the large orchestra). However, the man on-the-run is not the sadistic Glaggart of Billy Budd; rather he seems to be like the protagonist of Albert Camus’s L’Etranger; in the German text, he is a Fremd, a stranger. We feel almost empathy for him in spite of his troubled soul, for his escaping from something we do not know, and even of his gratuitous killing of the sweet little white dog. In short, the text leaves the audience with many questions about the meaning of life and of existence in an absurd world – another reference to Camus’s novel.

Musically, the overall framework is dodecaphonic. The 12-tone scale is utilized both horizontally and vertically to build an eclectic score with melodies and melismas. In this manner, once more Maestro Hence brings the 12-tone scale to a large audience, as he did nearly 55 years ago with his first operatic masterpiece Boulevard Solitude. After an agitato introduction (a man is on the run), the score is dominated by ethereal string measures, a large melody of the Heckelphon (a baritone oboe), the “a solo” of the piano to accompany the recitatives, a vague dance movement of the accordion and a Wagnerian leitmotiv in F sharp major and C major. The vocal score is a declamation sliding into ariosos and even includes two tender duets, with the counterpoint of the quartet. Ian Bostridge is a lied singer at this best, Sir John Tomlinson is a powerful, yet suffering Fremd; he reminds the audience of the many Wotan he sang in Bayreuth. Maestro Antonio Pappano conducts the Santa Cecilia orchestra and plays the piano in an exquisite manner.

The audience erupted in real accolades at the end of the performance, even if the 2,832-seat auditorium was perhaps too vast for such an intimate Konzertopera.

The Playbill
Antonio Pappano, Conductor and pianist

Ian Bostridge The white dog
Sir John Tomlinson The man-on-the-run
Roberto Valentini, The police inspector
Gian Paolo Fiocchi ,Maurizio Trementini, Anselmo Fabiani
Antonio MameliThe Chorus, The Policemen

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Friday, December 18, 2009

The OSR: A Successful Stand-Alone Experience in Continental Europe

By Giuseppe Pennisi

In its November iss
ue, the periodical GIG- International Arts Manager devoted two full pages to the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma (OSR), a comparatively new symphonic formation in the Italian and European landscape. The article is an important signal of the international attention received by a symphonic orchestra that started its operations only about eight years ago. Its creation was the outcome of a training course financed by the European Commission and organized by the Arts Academy, a non-profit but fully private music school. After the course, no employment was in sight for the young musicians. So the Arts Academy mastermind, the headstrong and highly experienced Maestro Francesco La Vecchia, decided to seek for funds to form an orchestra. Many thought he was a hopeless and helpless dreamer but he met another dreamer, the President of a charity. The dream became hard and solid reality.

The OSR has some important features:

a) It is the only fully private symphony orchestra in Italy and one of the very few in Continental Europe. It does not receive any State, Regional, Provincial or Municipal support – even though in 2009 it was given a € 10.000 (US$ 15.000) grant by the Ministry of Culture

b) It is financed mostly by the Fondazione Roma (a nonprofit registered charity with the mission of “the organization of social freedom”). The Fondazione Rome does not operate only or mainly in the field of music but runs a private museum and performs important activities in the fields of health, education, scientific research and aid to the under-privileged. The OSR is also helped by a few locally based small companies and by an Association of its subscribers and fans.

c) It has 90 permanent musicians (average age: 30), a budget which is less than one-fifth of that of the main symphony orchestra in the Italian capital (l’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia) and a low-priced ticket policy to attract young and old people with modest incomes (season tickets
for 30 concerts vary from € 260 to € 90 according to the category).

d) Its
music director and permanent conductor is Maestro Francesco La Vecchia, who is also principal guest conductor of the Berliner Symphoniker. La Vecchia has been music director of Opera Houses and symphony orchestras in Central Europe (Budapest), Latin America (Rio de Janeiro) and Portugal (Lisbon). He also often conducts in Shanghai's large concert hall.

In eight years, the OSR has also gained an important place in the international music scenes due to its tour of
Brazil, Russia, the UK, Spain, Germany, Poland and China. Tours are now slated for Austria and North America. More significantly, the OSR was chosen by the Austrian Government as the Italian symphony to participate in the May 31st 2009 celebrations for Haydn’s bicentenary. As many of our readers may know, the Austrian Ministry of Culture and the Committee for the Celebrations of Haydn’s Bicentenary had a brilliant idea: on May 31st, the day of the composer’s death, 20 symphony orchestras and/or Opera Houses performed one of his greatest and best known oratorios Die Schöpfung (The Creation). Because of different time-zones, Die Schöpfung day started in New Zealand and ended in Honolulu. An earnest radio listener could enjoy the different performances over 24 hours and appreciate the difference in conducting as well as in singing. Opera Houses were included because in certain countries (e.g. Germany) Die Schöpfung is also staged as a music drama: computer technology and animation are a superb support in depicting the initial chaos, the creation of the animals, of the flowers, of the lakes, of the rivers and of the mountain as well as the Garden of Eden with the passionate Adam and Eve duet. The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the “national” symphony, did not appreciate that the OSR was preferred and performed Die Schöpfung for its subscribers early in the Spring of 2009.

Two different
Italian economic think-tanks have recently shown interest in studying the OSR as a unique experiment of free market and liberal grants not only in Italy but also in most of Continental Europe: the Istituto Bruno Leoni-IBL (a staunchly libertarian den) and Astrid (a left-of-centre liberal association). These studies may help bring about reform of performing arts State and Regional Governments financing. GIG concluded that “All in all, one swallow does not make summer” and that “perhaps, the OSR is and will remain a stand-alone experiment of liberal economics applied to high musical culture.” A possibility would be to move, in Italy, from grants-in-aid on the basis of the proposals of the bureaucracy (as reviewed by a technical committee) to an Anglo-Saxon system of matching grants; this would promote completion and efficiency.

I have been a steady listener of OSR concerts, not only because they are set at a convenient time (5.30 p.m. on Sunday and 8.30 p.m. on Monday) in a pleasant 1,200 seat Auditorium just a few steps away from my home in Rome. They main reason is that they offer an innovative program (as compared with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia and other major orchestras in Italy): the OSR combines Nono with Schubert, Stravinsky with Bruckner, Casella with Brahms, Tchaikovsky with Mailipiero, Liszt with Shostakovich
. Until 20 years ago, such a blend was provided, in Italy, by the Italian public radio and television concerts, but these concerts were discontinued and the marvelous acoustically-perfect Roman auditorium was converted to a TV studio for mere entertainment and games. Also, I have accompanied the OSR on their February 2009 tour to Germany and Poland.

This 2009-2010 season started on October 17
th with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The program includes all of
Beethoven’s orchestral compositions to be performed in eight of the 30 concerts and also all of Bach’s Branderburg Concertos and all the suites (two concerts). The 20th Century is not forgotten: the OSR is recording all orchestral works by Martucci, Casella and Malipiero – some of them are in the 2009-2010 season – and offers two very rare and exquisite compositions by Respighi: “Poema autunnale” and “Vetrate di Chiesa.”

Finally, for a Christmas-New Year gift: a small blue and gold coffer with four Naxos CDs with all the most significant compositions of Giuseppe Marcucci (1856-1909) commemorating the centenary of his death. Nearly forgotten now, Marcucci was one of the few Italian composers specializing in symphonic music when melodrama was the main musical attraction. Toscanini had a veneration for him and in 1932 organized a series of concerts to play all his works. Wait for a review in
La Scena.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Rome: Four North Americans in Two Acts

By Giuseppe Pennisi

This article does do not deal with a Roman revival of Four Saints in Three Acts, the late 1920’s marvelous jewel by Virgil Thompso
n on a Gertrude Stein libretto. Neither does it review a two-act opera in any conventional sense. This December, four North American composers – three in their 70s and the “kid” about 55delighted Roman audiences with two different world premières: a 100-minute one-act children's opera by Philip Glass and a 60-minute tone poem by the MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva ensemble of live electronics, started in 1966 by Frederic Rzweski, Richard Teitelbaum and othersnow including also Alvin Curran). The Glass opera is titled Le Streghe di Venezia (The Witches of Venice) and will be a central feature of the Ravenna Festival next Summer; the opera may also travel to the US. The MEV tone poem is called Grande Raccordo Anulare (The Beltway) and will have concert performances in North America. The link between the opera and the tone poem is that they both mirror visions of Italy (as it was) by contemporary American composers.

Le Streghe di Venezia is based on a short novel by Beni Montresor, for several years a key figure of the New York City Opera. An opera-ballet version was presented at La Scala in December 1995, but the original composition was largely modified and not in line with Glass’ intentions. The Roman version is produced by Musica per Roma in the Parco della Musica and mirrors very closely what Glass wanted. The text can be read in several ways: an initiation process of two children to end up on Venice’s throne (e.g. a modern Mozart’s Magic Flute), a Christmas tale (such as Menotti’s Ahmal and the Night Visitors), the fatigue of an old king in a rapidly changing world (like in Berio’s Un Re in Ascolto), the intrigues of both the political and the performing arts’ environment (as in Strauss’ Capriccio). The final aria, by the chamber maid, is sad (La vita è difficile) but with glimmers of hope (un pò di vino rosso fa cantar): in short, life is difficult but a little red wine makes you sing happily. Le Streghe is quite interesting musically: Glass’ minimalism includes also quotations from Mozart and Rossini as well as a bit of live electronics.

The Roman production is also a joy for the eyes: in a small theatre for 700 seats, computerized projections, mimes, acrobats and glittering, colourful costumes make the audience feel that a feast is going on. The stage direction (Giorgio Barberio Corsetti) is fast: although the performance starts at 9 p.m. and ends at nearly 11 p.m., the many children in the audience followed the plot with interest and enjoyed the show. Among the voices, worth mentioning are Carmen Romeu, Anna Goryacheva and two children: Matteo Graziani and Francesco Passaretti alternate in the role of the boy and Maria Luisa Paglione and Daniela Sbrigoli in that of the girl. The Contemporanea Ensemble del Parco della Musica is of high quality.

MEV has a long history: the ensemble was begun one evening in the spring of 1966 by Alan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Jon Phetteplace, Carol Plantamura, Frederic Rzweski (pictured here), Richard Teitelbaum and Ivan Vandor in a room in Rome overlooking the Pantheon. At that time, the Italian capital was a major center for American musicians abroadmore important than Paris and London. To fully grasp the spirit of the time, it is useful to read Marjorie Whright's The Rise and Fall of a La Scala Diva (Janus Publishing Company Ltd, London 2007).

In 1971, when Frederic Rzweski moved into an apartment in New York, a box containing the MEV files was mistaken for trash and thrown into the incinerator chute. Though the group would never be able to play in this remarkable domed temple with a hole in its top, MEV's music right from the start was also totally open, allowing all and everything to come in and seek in every way to get out beyond the heartless conventions of contemporary music. Taking cue from Tudor and Cage, MEV began sticking contact mics to anything that sounded and amplified their raw sounds: bed springs, sheets of glass, tin cans, rubber bands, toy pianos, sex vibrators, and assorted metal junk; a crushed old trumpet, cello and tenor sax kept us within musical credibility, while a home-made synthesizer of some 48 oscillators along with the first Moog synthesizer in Europe gave our otherwise neo-primitive sound an inimitable edge. By 1969, MEV was known everywhere in the world's undergrounds and above ground, too. They had played hundreds of concerts in Europe, made two LPs and had collaborated with Jean-Jacques Lebel, The Living Theater, Pierre Clementi, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gianni Kounnelis, Simone Forti, members of the Chicago Art Ensemble, Cornelius Cardew's AMM group, the Scratch Orchestra, Nuova Consonanza, Vittorio Gelmetti, Giuseppe Chiari, Kosugi, Ashley, Behrman, Mumma and Lucier. MEV resists retirement and greatly enjoys its one gig a year. Its founding members have each gone on to develop very different but compatible music which in the anarchic MEV tradition stand in strong opposition to the aggressive demands of today's media and marketing moguls.

The initiators of MEV returned to Rome with this brand new Grande Raccordo Anulare – a live electronics tone poem full of nostalgia for Rome in the 60s, a heartfelt homage to the city where they started their unique adventure. It's generous and moving at the same time. It was performed in the auditorium of the Università “La Sapienza” to the enjoyment of young and not-so-young live electronics.

THE PLAY BILL of Le Streghe di Venezia
C. Romeo, A. Goraycheva, G. Bocchino, S. Alberti, M. Graziani, F. Passaretti, M.L. Paglione, D. Sbrigoli, Conductor Tonino Battista Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble, Stage direction and sets Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Costumes Marina Schindler, Lighting Gianluca Cappelletti, Choreography Julien Lambert, Video Angelo Longo Cantori del Coro Arcobaleno dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Libretto Beni Montresor , Acrobats. J.Lambert, E. Bettin, D. Sorisi, L. Trefiletti

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Contemporary Music in Rome

By Giuseppe Pennisi

Not even Italians know if Rome can still claim to be the capital of melodrama or of other types of opera, but it can instead claim to be – along with Berlin and Paris – one of today’s capitals of contemporary music such as electro-acoustic and live electronics. In 2009, the hours of contemporary music performed in Roman concert halls and opera houses rivaled the number performed in Berlin. There would have been even more contemporary music in the Italian than the German Capital, if it were not for the Teatro dell’Opera’s financial crisis; now under direct special management by the City, the number of modern operas scheduled to be performed in the smaller Teatro Nazionale had to be deferred to the next season or cancelled altogether.

Secretary General of the Japan Electronic Keyboard Society Suguru Agata, one of the major international specialists of electronic music, made a special trip to Rome to analyze how electronic music is performed at the Piccolo Lirico. This is a small – only 150 seats – wholly private opera house where Tosca and Madama Butterfly are shown re-arranged for live electronics. Five electronic keyboards are played by five professional pianists to simulate the sound of 60 instruments; accompanying them are young singers, computerized sets and live electronics. This production of Tosca has had over 400 performances. Mr. Agata has brought his mission’s results to the Showa Music University with a view to include them in the Open Research Project of new techniques in electronic music and electro-acoustics.

In the last few weeks of 2009, there has been a fervor of contemporary music initiatives. In November, in the Sala di Via dei Greci dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, the second EMUFest, a major International festival of electronic music and electro-acustics took place. It was a success for experimental composers from Italy (including Marcello Filotei and Nicola Sani), the USA (Larry Matthews Gaab), Argentinia (Jorge Luis Dad Levi) and many other countries. There was also an international ensemble, with a large American presence, performing at the essenzialmente Usa presenta of the Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti in a program titled MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva / Live Electronic Music) – Grande Raccordo Anulare (the Beltway).

At the Parco della Musica – a complex of three concert halls and a Studio Theatre – an international jazz festival is coming to completion; in early December the world premiere of Philip Glass’ latest opera Le Streghe di Venezia (The witches of Venice) is planned; another world premiere is scheduled (again at the Parco della Musica) in January, the last composition by Hans Werner Henze, Immolazione (Immolation). Glass, now 72, needs no introduction to the North American music audience. Henze, 82, is known as the prolific composer who made dodecaphonic music accessible to large audiences through his 16 operas (to date), 10 Symphonies and several chamber music and ballet compositions. Glass and Henze are quite different but they are both recognized authorities in contemporary music.

In the cozy Sala Casella in the garden of the Palazzina Vagnuzzi (the headquarters of the Accademia Filarmonica Romana), three new chamber operas by Italian young- and middle aged-composers will be unveiled in mid-December: one of them is staged by the German El Cimarron ensemble and due for a tour of the Iberian Peninsula. Check back here later for my review of the performance.

The real major event, however, is the 46th Nuova Consonanza Festival. Nuova Consonanza is one of the most important contemporary music associations in Europe. Its annual Festival attracts musicians from the five continents to Rome. This year, the Festival started November 18th in the Grand Salon of Villa Medici – the Roman Headquarters of the Académie de France. The opening program was titled Après Boulez and featured the music of Luciano Berio, Gerard Grisey, Patrizio Esposito and Yann Robin. Its last concert will be on December 21st and will feature Portrait by Salvatore Sciarrino, an internationally well known Italian contemporary composer. On November 21st, there was the now traditional marathon of live elecytronics and eletrco-acustics, a series of concerts from 4:30 pm to midnight in the Villa Aurelia al Gianicolo, one of the Romen “homes” of the American Academy in Rome; as it is the guest house of the fellow artists, it is seldom opened to the public. An uninterrupted flow of young musicians were attracted by the admission of just €10, with an additional €8 providing them with a full dinner.

Where are the roots of contemporary music in Rome? In his book L’Orchestra del Duce, the historian Stefano Bigazzi states that they grew in Fascist times. Benito Mussolini was a patron of the then contemporary avant-guarde musicians. Malipiero, Casella, Pizzetti, Dallapiccola were in and out of Palazzo Venezia, where the Duce had his office. He supported the Venice Contemporary Music Festival as a counterpart to the stuffy Salzburg Festival. He even had Berg’s Wozzeck performed in Rome in 1942 even though both the composer and the opera were forbidden as “degenerate” by his German allies. No one less than Igor Stravinsky publicly was said to “venerate” the Italian dictator for what he was doing for modern and experimental music.

If you come to Rome, please try to discover a musical side very few tourists are aware of: contemporary and electronic music.

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