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2020/09/21

Werk der Woche – Viktor Ullmann: Der Kaiser von Atlantis

Two new productions of Viktor Ullmann´s one-act chamber opera The Emperor of Atlantis or Death’s Refusal are opening in Germany this week. On 26 September the opera opens at Landestheater Neustrelitz, and on 27 September Deutsche Oper am Rhein will present a new production at Opernhaus Düsseldorf. With its compact cast of characters and instrumentation, as well as its timeless staggering subject matter, it is the piece of the hour. 

The opera is a parable of a cruel emperor, whose senseless war is claiming many lives. Death puts an end to the chaos by refusing his duty – now, everyone lives for eternity. The king becomes disempowered, but the people long for a release from the pain of life. Only the voluntary death of the emperor can restore death’s original purpose.

Ullmann wrote The Emperor of Atlantis while imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, based on a libretto by Peter Kien, a fellow prisoner. The opera was rehearsed by a chamber ensemble founded with the permission of the SS, but its performance was prohibited after the final rehearsal. Just before his deportation to Auschwitz in 1944, Ullmann handed the score and libretto to a friend who was able to save both manuscripts.

Viktor Ullmann – The Emperor of Atlantis: a theatrical memorial

I composed quite a lot of new music in Theresienstadt, mostly for satisfying the demands of conductors, directors, pianists, singers and thus for the leisure activities in the Ghetto […]. I need to emphasize that my musical work was encouraged and not inhibited by Theresienstadt. We were not merely succumbing to grief at Babylon’s streams, and our cultural will was equal to our will to live; and I am convinced that all those who have attempted to shape reluctant material in either life or art would agree with me. – Viktor Ullmann

There will be two further performances at Landestheater Neustrelitz with the last night being presented on 24 October. In Düsseldorf, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein will run for a further eight performances until 19 November. Several versions and manuscripts of the opera are available that show the work in various stages before and after its censorship. A new Eulenburg study score from Schott (ETP 8067) shows each version together in one edition.

photo: Deutsche Oper am Rhein / Hans Jörg Michel

2020/09/14

Work of the Week – Toshio Hosokawa: The Flood

On 16 September, Ensemble Intercontemporain directed by Matthias Pintscher presents the world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s The Flood at the Philharmonie de Paris. The work, which has been jointly commissioned by the ensemble and the Ojai Music Festival in California, was originally scheduled to premiere at the festival in June.

Continue reading “Work of the Week – Toshio Hosokawa: The Flood”

2020/09/07

Work of the Week – Jörg Widmann: Zeitensprünge

The Staatskappelle Berlin celebrates its impressive history as it marks its 450th anniversary this year. The earliest sources mentioning the orchestra date from 1570. On 11 September, the world premiere of a new work by Jörg Widmann commissioned specially for the occasion, Zeitensprünge (Leaps in time), will be given in a concert conducted by Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera House. 

The title Zeitensprünge is a pun about musical time-travel and stylistic escapades. Widmann explores the multiple stylistic periods through which the orchestra has lived during its long history, with the opening bars featuring an off-stage ensemble playing renaissance dances. Only when the musicians enter the stage does the idea of conducting start to take form, and a concert of today’s understanding commences. 

Jörg Widmann – Zeitensprünge: A Concerto for Orchestra in a nutshell

Though Zeitensprünge is a condensed 10-minute orchestral work of only 450 bars (one for each year of the Staatskapelle´s history), it nevertheless has everything a full-scale Concerto for Orchestra needs. There are solos from nearly every section of the orchestra, ensembles such as fanfares emerge from the texture, medieval winds and consorts play next to each other, and Widmann uses a variety of musical forms to lead to a brilliant final canon that symbolises many becoming one. 

“When I sit in front of a sheet of manuscript paper, I don’t keep thinking ‘you have to invent something new’. Not at all. My head is full of harmonies, connections and combinations that have never been heard before. My problem is to find forms for them. I am now in a stage of fighting to find these new forms.” – Jörg Widmann 

Photos:Marco Borggrve, Adobe Stock / spuno

2020/08/31

Work of the Week – Christian Jost: Concerto noir redux

2020 is the 200th anniversary of the Berlin Konzerthaus, a concert hall that started life as a theatre. In celebration of this anniversary as part of Musikfest Berlin, Christian Tetzlaff will perform the world premiere of a new violin concerto by Christian Jost on 6 September. The concerto, entitled Concerto noir redux, will be accompanied by Konzerthausorchester Berlin and conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. 

Concerto noir redux was originally intended to bear the same title as his opera Journey of Hope – Voyage of Despair. However, after the cancellation of the original premiere in March 2020, Jost chose instead to make changes to the music in response to recent events.

Christian Jost – Concerto noir redux: music from the lockdown

The result was not only a smaller orchestra, necessitated by social distancing, but a work that expresses a darker character and soundworld. Concerto noir redux is now one of two versions of the work Concerto noir, each with the same solo part.

Usually, I compose with a clear idea of the musical structure and of the sounds, and therefore of the course of the resulting work. But this time it was different. There was an initial thought for the opening in which the solo violin gradually separates from unison with the first violins. From this starting point the work should virtually compose itself. The resulting single-movement concerto with a single tempo (quarter = 76 espressivo) is driven by rhythmic ‘cells’. I completed the composition more or less simultaneously with the end of the lockdown, and since this had given rise to a work with predominantly dark shades of colour and sound, I considered Concerto noir to be a perfect title. Christian Jost

Photos: Adobe Stock / lakkot, Joe Quiao

2020/08/24

Work of the Week – Akiko Yamane: Arcade

On 26 August, Arcade, a new 20-minute orchestral work by Akiko Yamane will receive its world premiere at Suntory Hall, Tokyo. The concert, which is part of the 2020 Suntory Summer Festival will be given by the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yoichi Sugiyama.

Yamane describes Arcade as drawing on the idea of drone music that programmatically expresses a consumerist society where the needs and desires of the people are seemingly under control. Below the surface, however, their internal desires and contradictions become apparent. Arcade has been commissioned by the Suntory Arts Foundation. 

Akiko Yamane – Arcade: State of uncertainty within a fragile society

I seek to depict this idea with a quality of sound that a person can feel on their skin. The sound fluctuates according to subtle changes within the listener’s body, or in accordance with a particular place or space and so on. In this piece, I stop and turn my attention to the various layers of sound and focus on their essence. Akiko Yamane 

Photos: Adobe Stock / topntp, Coco

2020/08/10

Work of the Week – Pedro Halffter: Dalí and Beethoven

The world premiere of Pedro Halffter’s Dali and Beethoven will take place at the Arp Museum inside the former Rolandseck train station at Remagen in the German Middle Rhine Valley on 16 August as part of the Beethoven 250 anniversary festival, BTHVN2020. The first performance of Halffter’s piano quintet has been much anticipated after the original premiere in March needed to be postponed. 

Dalí and Beethoven forges a link between the two iconic artists referenced in its title, with Halffter expressing a special affinity towards Beethoven – regularly conducting the composer’s symphonies – and that his own family shares a personal connection to Dalí. In turn, Halffter has drawn influence for his composition from a number of the painter’s works including an early portrait of Beethoven.

The venue of the premiere is itself dedicated to surrealist and contemporary painters – a fitting setting for the quintet’s premiere performance. 

The music should be understood as a sensory walk through a typical Dalí landscape in which I imagined being able to touch the imaginative figures. A meditative and yet highly contrasted essence is created within a surreal world of sounds and thoughts. (Pedro Halffter)

Pedro Halffter – Dalí and Beethoven: a link between two exceptional artists

Dalí and Beethoven was commissioned by the academy Villa Musica Rheinland-Pfalz and will be performed by young musicians alongside cellist Alexander Hülshoff and the composer at the piano. 

Festival attendees will be able to see the premiere performance of the work in two concerts at 11am and 3pm. 

Illustration: Adobe Stock / krisana, Photo: realcirculodelabradores

2020/05/11

Work of the Week – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s penultimate dramatic composition was as ambitious as its exceedingly long title suggests. From 15 May, Dutch National Opera Amsterdam’s production of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, conducted by Marc Albrecht, will be available to watch on OperaVision. Director Dmitri Tcherniakov, who was also the stage designer for the production, created a visual language that is both realistic yet magical, and which was highly acclaimed by the international press. 

The four-act opera is set in the mythical city of Kitezh and is likely to be inspired by a thirteenth century duchy at the Volga River. Legend has it the city disappeared while under siege by enemy forces. Rimsky-Korsakov combined this Russian version of the Atlantis myth with a retelling of the invasion of the Mongol army  during the thirteenth century.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya – “A Russian Atlantis”

This war is the backdrop for a love story between the virtuous farmer’s daughter Fevroniya and the Duke of Vsevolod. Their marriage is prevented by the assault of the enemies during which Vsevolod is killed. In her grief, Fevroniya prays for help for the people of Kitezh and a golden fog surrounds the city rendering it invisible to the invaders. Ultimately, Fevroniya also dies but the spirit of her fiancé brings her back to the hidden city where the opera culminates in a Wagnerian ascension of the loving couple. 

Prior to the opera’s premiere, Rimsky-Korsakov faced his own personal Kitezh when in 1905, as riots against the Tsar spread throughout Russia, he supported protesting students and was suspended from his professorship. Only when public opinion shifted in his favor and he was reinstated could the first production of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya find its way to the stage. 

Marc Albrecht, conducting the ambitious and beautifully sounding Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest, was not only able to form an arc of tension over three long and unshortened acts  of the masterfully crafted score. He also miraculously balanced the epic inner act and the lyric framing acts in a way that the action on the stage and in the pit came to perfect harmony. The production, subsequently to be shown in Paris, Barcelona and Milan is an ambassador for the huge masterwork by Rimsky-Korsakov which hopefully leads to a general revival of his operas. – Uwe Schweikert (review in ‘Opernwelt’)

The production, which is also available on DVD and Blu-ray, will be available to stream on OperaVision until August. The performance material is available from M.P. Belaieff publishers, exclusively distributed by Schott Music. 

photo: Dutch National Opera / Monika Rittershaus

2020/04/13

Work of the Week – Krzysztof Penderecki: The Devils of Loudun

Composer Krzysztof Penderecki passed away recently at his home in Poland, aged 86. As a tribute to the legacy left by one of the world’s foremost composers, Hamburg State Opera have made their original production of Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun available to stream on demand for free from 13 April. This world premiere production from 1969 is part of a series of videos from the era of the legendary intendant Rolf Liebermann that the theatre is offering during its present shutdown. It was directed by Konrad Swinarski with costume and stage design by Lidia and Jerzy Skarzynski, and conducted by Henryk Czyz.

The opera is set in the small French town of Loudun, a showplace for sensational occurrences in 1633-34 that were extensively documented and gained renown around Europe, regarded with a mix of fervent repulsion and voyeurism. Urbain Grandier, the village priest of Loudun, was accused in 1633 of having bewitched the nuns, above all Prioress Jeanne of the newly founded Ursuline-Cloister. Under torture he admitted to regretting his lapsed lifestyle and having had relationships with two women – one of whom expected a child from him – but refused steadfastly to confess to his “Devil’s Work” despite “proofs” of the same. In the summer of 1634 he was burned at the stake. For years afterwards the obsessions of the nuns occupied doctors and exorcists, the events ending only as Cardinal Richelieu withdrew his financial support of the cloister.

Krzysztof Penderecki: The Devils of Loudun – an opera about tolerance

The trial against Urban Grandier was included in François de Pitaval’s collection of famous criminal cases. This source, along with the autobiographical recollections of Prioress Jeanne from 1644, and two reports of the trial from 1634 and 1693, were used by Aldous Huxley in 1952 as the basis for his non-fiction novel, The Devils of Loudun. Eight years later John Whiting dramatised Huxley’s writings, and this was the starting point for Penderecki’s libretto (translated into German by Erich Fried). 

For Penderecki, The Devils of Loudun is a work about tolerance and intolerance. Grandier was the victim of political intrigue, where even Jeanne was not really his enemy, but a victim of religious-political fanatics; her erotic neuroses exaggerated by Richelieu’s handiwork into a necessary possession by the Devil. – Wolfram Schwinger 

This world premiere production will be available on Hamburg State Opera’s streaming service until 27 April.

2020/04/06

Work of the Week – Toshio Hosokawa: Meditation to the victims of Tsunami (3.11)

+++ After the following story was published, we learned that the concert and live-streaming had to be cancelled as well. +++

On 11 April, the NHK Symphony Orchestra will perform Toshio Hosokawa’s Meditation to the victims of Tsunami (3.11) as part of a livestream concert conducted by Masaru Kumakura. The concert has been organised to replace the orchestra’s scheduled public performance in response to ongoing restrictions of COVID-19.  Continue reading “Work of the Week – Toshio Hosokawa: Meditation to the victims of Tsunami (3.11)”

2020/03/30

Work of the Week – György Ligeti: Kammerkonzert

Through the myriad compositional styles György Ligeti explored between the 1940s and the 2000s, the composer’s strict focus on form and instrumentation always remained at the forefront of his work. Among the best examples of this is undoubtedly his Kammerkonzert (Chamber Concerto) from the middle period of his output. Exactly 50 years ago, on 5 April 1970, Friedrich Cerha and his ensemble ‘die reihe’ premiered the first two movements of this work in Baltimore. The third movement followed shortly after, premiering that May in Vienna, and the concerto’s final movement was first performed the following October in Berlin. 

The scoring of Kammerkonzert for thirteen players sits at the midpoint between chamber music and a more symphonic texture. The work is highly varied, encompassing passages of extreme density and contrasting sections where individual instruments emerge from the ensemble with exposed melodic lines reminiscent of Schoenberg and Berg’s expressive twelve-note writing, or of virtuosic cadenzas.

György Ligeti – Kammerkonzert: from failure to standard repertoire

The four-movement work is a concerto in the sense that all 13 players are equal and have virtuoso solo tasks. Rather than frequent changes between soli and tutti, there is constant concerto-like cooperation. The parts always flow simultaneously but use different rhythmic configurations and tempi. […] The world premiere of the completed Chamber Concerto in 1970 was a complete failure. Critics wrote that this work massively fell behind my second string quartet, its predecessor. However, as time went by, more and more ensembles performed it multiple times. Nowadays, it is a standard repertoire work because its instrumentation is very fitting for groups like the Asko ensemble. All these things are impossible to anticipate for a composer. – György Ligeti

In advance of Ligetis centenary on 28 May 2023, we invite you to explore his music further. We’ve created an extensive playlist with detailed insights exploring Ligeti’s work follow the link below to find out more.