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Work of the Week: Krzysztof Penderecki – Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott

May 22nd, 2017

For the 500th anniversary of the year that priest and scholar Martin Luther made his new theses public there is no shortage of performances commemorating the Protestant Reformation. On 26 May, the Staatskapelle Weimar and Chor des Deutschen Nationaltheaters will perform Krzysztof Penderecki’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott at the Nationaltheater Weimar under the baton of Kirill Karabits. The title translates as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and is based on Luther’s hymn of the same name.

Composed in 2010 for mixed choir, brass, percussion and string orchestra, Penderecki’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott is a relatively short work that was written to mark the 1200th anniversary of the city Cieszyn in Poland, Penderecki’s native country. There is a tradition of composers setting Luther’s text and in the past Mendelssohn, Reger and Handel have all written works based on the hymn. One of the best known adaptations is J.S. Bach’s chorale cantata BWV 80, a work which Penderecki quotes in the final chord.

The orchestration of the work is carefully considered with no woodwind; instead the brass instruments are the focus of the piece and open the work. Initially the music is solemn but as more brass followed by percussion join, the music develops a strong, romantic and celebratory character, highlighting the festivity of the anniversary for which it was composed. Finally the strings and choir are added to start the hymn.

“I have spent decades searching for and discovering new sounds. At the same time, I have closely studied the forms, styles and harmonies of past eras. I have continued to adhere to both principles … my current creative output is a synthesis.” – Krzysztof Penderecki

Further performances take place at the Nationaltheater Weimar on 4 and 30 June.


Photo: © Marek Beblot (Krzysztof Penderecki)

Work of the Week: Thomas Larcher – A Padmore Cycle

May 15th, 2017

Thomas Larcher’s A Padmore Cycle for tenor and orchestra receives its German premiere at the Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, on 18 May performed by Mark Padmore (Photo) and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with conductor Mariss Jansons. Originally written for tenor and prepared piano in 2010-2011, Larcher orchestrated the work in 2014 for Padmore and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner.

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Work of the week – Peter Eötvös: Alle vittime senza nome

May 8th, 2017

Peter Eötvös’ new orchestral work Alle vittime senza nome is a memorial for refugees from Middle Eastern and African countries who have drowned in the Mediterranean. It receives its world premiere on 8 May at Teatro alla Scala in Milan with the Filarmonica della Scala conducted by the composer.

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Work of the week – Karl-Birger Blomdahl: Aniara

May 1st, 2017

Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s opera Aniara opens on 6 May at Malmö Opera. The new production will be directed by Stefan Johannson and conducted by Tobias Ringborg with choreography by Patrik Sörling. This production is a true rarity: Aniara was last seen on stage in 1994 in Gothenburg.

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Work of the week – Toshio Hosokawa: Umarmung

April 24th, 2017

The world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s Umarmung (Embrace) for organ and orchestra takes place on 27 April with organist Christian Schmitt, to whom the work is dedicated, Bamberger Symphoniker and conductor Jakub Hrůša. The work is a co-commission between Bamberger Symphoniker, Philharmonie Luxembourg, Wiener Konzerthaus and Kölner Philharmonie.

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Work of the week – Chaya Czernowin: Infinite now

April 17th, 2017

Chaya Czernowin’s new opera Infinite Now premieres on 18 April at Vlaamse Opera Ghent directed by Luk Perceval and with conductor Titus Engel. The opera is a co-production with the Nationaltheater Mannheim, Vlaamse Opera and IRCAM Paris.

Czernowin and Perceval worked together to construct the libretto based on a short story by Chinese writer Can Xue, Homecoming, and Perceval’s own play, Front, a dramatisation of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Both texts enact a suspension: in Front, soldiers are in the trenches, locked in never-ending fighting. They move some kilometres forward only to return back to their former position. In Homecoming, a woman attempts to pass through a house along her journey but gradually realises that it is impossible to leave. The two seemingly distant worlds fuse in Infinite Now in a search for the will to continue and find hope in the simplest elements of life.

Czernowin’s Infinite Now: Existence here and now

Infinite Now revolves around repeating and growing structures. Each act begins with the sound of an iron gate, often hardly recognisable, and this is followed by an orchestral interlude before the singing starts. The six singers are separated into two trios; the first trio sings material from Front and is comprised of a soprano, alto and bass. The second trio takes on Homecoming with mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor and baritone. The alto and countertenor take the lead roles, and when singing together, they blend into a single androgynous voice.

The opera is about more than Homecoming or the First World War. It is about our existence here and now. How we survive, how we are destined to survive and how even the smallest element of vitality suggests survival and with it, perhaps hope. – Chaya Czernowin

Further performances of Infinite Now follow in Ghent on 20, 22 and 23 April, and in Antwerp on 30 April and 3, 5 and 6 May. The German premiere will take place on 26 April at the Nationaltheater Mannheim followed by the French premiere on 14 June at the Cité de la Musique in Paris.


Photo: Early Infinite Now sketches by composer Chaya Czernowin

Work of the week – Paul Hindemith: Symphonie “Mathis der Maler”

April 10th, 2017

The Symphonie “Mathis der Maler” (“Matthias the Painter”) was conceived whilst Paul Hindemith was working on his opera of the same name, and its musical material forms the opera’s orchestral interludes. The piece relates to German renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald and his masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece. An essential work of the 20th century, the symphony will receive three performances over the Easter period by the Filharmonica della Scala and Daniele Gatti (10 April), Philharmonie des Nordharzer Städtebundes and Johannes Rieger (14 and 15 April), and Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Wilson (15 April).

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Work of the week – Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

April 3rd, 2017

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the fairytale opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”). A new production of this major work by the composer-librettist duo Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal will be presented at the Staatsoper Berlin, opening on 9 April directed by Claus Guth and conducted by Zubin Metha, and in co-production with Teatro alla Scala di Milano and the Royal Opera House. A separate new production at Staatsoper Hamburg follows just one week later, with director Andreas Kriegenburgs and conductor Kent Nagano.

The imperial couple at the centre of the story face a problem. The empress – originally from the spirit realm – is without a shadow (representing her inability to bear children) and must gain one within one year or be forced to return to the spirit world and see the emperor turned to stone. In the world of the common people, a dyer named Barak and his wife are also unhappy. Appearing in disguise, the empress’ nurse offers the wife a deal: wealth and beauty in exchange for her shadow and fertility. She agrees, but the empress is torn – she is worried for her husband, but also for the dyers whose lives she will endanger.

Barak’s wife confesses the deal to her husband, who, furious after seeing her without a shadow, attempts to kill her. The empress cannot bring herself to take the now available shadow, and so refuses, saving the dyers and seemingly dooming herself. However, her benevolence results in her gaining a shadow from the spirit world, and she and her husband are set free.

Two worlds, two couples, two conflicts

Die Frau ohne Schatten is considered one of Strauss’ most technically demanding operas. The symphony orchestra is extended to include organ, glass harmonica and percussion with a thunder and wind machine. The work is characterised by the leitmotif representing the empress, which uses the “pure” intervals of fourths, fifths and octaves to give it tonal ambiguity, leaving the music in limbo – just like the empress who is only half human.

Taking inspiration from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Hofmannsthal created two contrasting couples and strong morals behind the story. His libretto was also shaped by current affairs, including the rise of psychoanalysis and the First World War. Strauss found Hofmannsthal’s text remarkable:

“Hofmannsthal has just left, and he presented a beautiful new subject, the finest of the fine, gallant, fantastic. You will be delighted” Richard Strauss to his wife Pauline Strauss-de Ahna

Die Frau ohne Schatten will be performed in Berlin on 13 and 16 April as part of the Festtage 2017, and in Hamburg from 16 April until 7 May.

Photo: Brescia/Amisano (Coproduction of the Teatro alla Scala di Milano 2012)

Work of the week – Fazil Say: Istanbul Symphony

March 27th, 2017

Fazil Say’s momentous Istanbul Symphony opens and closes with sounds of the sea. In between, Say creates a portrait of the city in seven contrasting movements. On 29 March, Say’s Symphony can be heard in Stuttgart with the SWR Symphonieorchester and conductor Gregor Mayrhofer.

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Work of the week – Richard Ayres: The Cricket Recovers

March 20th, 2017

Richard Ayres’ acclaimed chamber opera No. 39: The Cricket Recovers receives its Swiss premiere at Theater Basel on 22 March directed by Daniela Kranz with conductor Stephen Delaney. Premiered at the 2005 Aldeburgh Festival, it has since been presented throughout Europe by the likes of Staatsoper Stuttgart and the Holland Festival.

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