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Work of the Week – Fazıl Say: Chamber Symphony

On 11 April 2015 the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will perform the world premiere of Fazıl Say’s Chamber Symphony at Carnegie Hall, New York. The orchestra, made up of professional musicians from around the world and known for performing without a conductor, has commissioned Say to write a work about national identity – an issue close to the composer’s heart.

The result is a twenty-minute piece for string orchestra. Chamber Symphony is a work of contrasts, sometimes calm and contemplative, sometimes fast and dance-like. Say intends his music to emphasise the connections and divisions between East and West, traditional and contemporary. He employs extended techniques to create percussive effects from the conventionally classical orchestra, at times instructing the performers to strike their instruments with the wood of their bows and even their hands.

The work comprises three movements: Introduction, Nocturne and Finale. Referencing the composer’s Turkish heritage, the introduction is in 7/8 metre and the energetic final movement features an imitation of typical Roman-Turkish dances. Asked what home means to him, Say states:

Increasingly, home to me is music. I have always thought that a city is part of a country, a country is part of the world, the world is a planet and part of our solar system, and the solar system is part of the Milky Way. Everything is interconnected. – Fazıl Say

Following the premiere, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will tour Chamber Symphony throughout Europe to cities including Bologna, Cologne, Heidelberg, Berlin, Innsbruck and Budapest. Fazıl Say will accompany them on the tour as the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major.



Work of the Week – Michael Tippett: The Ice Break

On 3 April 2015 Michael Tippett’s fourth opera The Ice Break will be staged in a new production by Graham Vick and the Birmingham Opera Company. Andrew Gourlay will conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who appear alongside a chorus of 150 amateur singers from the Birmingham area.

Premiered in 1977 at the Royal Opera House in London, The Ice Break portrays four ethnically and socially diverse protagonists caught in the midst of an increasingly violent conflict between two rival gangs. The work is a study of human relationships and personal identity, and explores our duties to one another in society. Though the libretto – also written by Tippett – is often turbulent, fraught and bloody, the composer’s message is ultimately humanitarian:

Splintered and rich in reference as Tippett’s operas are, in their music and in their text, they carry at their heart a glowing confidence in the power of human beings to find a centre, and from that centre to sing. – Paul Griffiths

The Ice Break runs until 9 April at the B12 Warehouse in a promenade-style performance. On 9 April, Birmingham Opera Company Chorus are hosting a symposium ‘Breaking the Ice’ to discuss the role of social responsibility in the arts.

Photo: SIMBA /



Work of the Week – Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne (Ecclesiastical Action) is the composer’s final work, completed just five days before his death. Premiered in the concert hall in 1972, it will receive its first scenic performance on 27 March 2015 at the Oper am Dom, Cologne, with narrators Jörg Rätjen and Stephan Rehm, bass soloist Bo Skovhus and the Gürzenich Orchestra directed by Gabriel Feltz.

The work features material from two very different literary sources melded to create an auditory collage: verses from the Old Testament and excerpts from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”. Zimmermann’s pluralistic style is clearly displayed by the combination and confrontation of musical and narrative elements, an effect that is accentuated by his detailed performance instructions in the score:

Both speakers shout at random: Riches, self-destruction, extinguish each other. While shouting, they mime and express themselves with acrobatic motions. The percussion section beats wildly and chaotically on its instruments.

Unusually for Zimmermann the work contains only one musical quote, which appears at the end in the form of the Bach chorale “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort”. The line “It is enough: Lord, if it pleases You, then release me” connects this last work with his early Violin Concerto from 1950, which ends with the same passage. Here the text is particularly poignant given the imminence of the composer’s death.

Ecclesiastical Action will be performed four more times until 6 April, followed by performances with the same orchestra of the Violin Concerto from 17 to 19 May 2015 in the Cologne Philharmonie. Zimmermann’s centenary will be celebrated in 2018, with several major anniversary events already in production.


Work of the Week – Peter Eötvös: Paradise Reloaded (Lilith)

While working on his opera Die Tragödie des Teufels (2009), Peter Eötvös became increasingly interested in the character of Lilith, Adam’s alleged first wife. It is from this work that the idea of Lilith as protagonist originated, which grew to become the opera Paradise Reloaded (Lilith). Completed in 2013, the work will receive its German premiere on 21 March 2015 at Theater Chemnitz in a production by Helen Malkowsky and directed by Frank Beermann.

As well as providing the idea for Paradise Reloaded (Lilith), Die Tragödie des Teufels also formed the basis of the libretto, with additional text by Eötvös, his wife Mari Mazei and the librettist Albert Ostermaier. After being banished from paradise, Lilith makes a pact with the devil to win back Adam and destroy Eve. The two women are dichotomous: Eve as Adam’s caring and subordinate wife, Lilith striving for independence and equality with him. Although the idea of emancipation is closely associated with the Lilith myth, Eötvös takes a more philosophical approach to the narrative:

My opera is not about equal rights of men and women, but the development of society and civilization with Lilith, instead of Eve, as its starting point. – Peter Eötvös

Paradise Reloaded (Lilith) will run at Theater Chemnitz until the end of April. Following immediately on from this, Eötvös’ new one-act opera Senza sangue will receive its world premiere on 1 May 2015 at Cologne Philharmonie, performed by the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert.

Photo: Neue Oper Wien / Armin Bardel



Werk der Woche – Julian Anderson: In lieblicher Bläue

“She easily combines passion with subtlety, takes the liberty of playing with utmost restraint as well as plunging head-on into the material,” commented the judging panel as the exceptional violinist Carolin Widmann received the Schneider-Schott-Music-Award in 2014. Widmann’s frequent performances of contemporary music benefit from these virtues, as with Julian Anderson’s In lieblicher Bläue. The London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski will join Carolin Widmann for the world premiere on 14 March 2015 at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

In lieblicher Bläue is based on a poem of the same name by Friedrich Hölderlin that Anderson came across by accident while at school in 1980. Anderson describes his work as a poem for violin and orchestra, rather than a concerto, due to the contemplative nature of the music and its ethereal form. It is a work structured by mood rather than any formal template, allowing the personality of both violin and violinist to be expressed without constraint.

Anderson questions the traditional soloist-orchestra relationship through dramatic staging of the violinist, who begins her performance off-stage, then moving to the periphery of the orchestra before taking her place in the soloist’s position. For the final movement she stands with her back to the audience, as a physical representation of Hölderlin’s isolation in his later life. Beyond the role of the soloist, though, Anderson is keen to avoid direct and literal parallels being drawn between the music and text, being more concerned with the emotional state of the narrator:

Without being too programmatic about things, the violin represents the poet with all his various thoughts, feelings and impulses. The orchestra can provide a context for those thoughts – a context which may be radiantly luminous and supportive, or else indifferent, puzzled, quizzical or even hostile. – Julian Anderson

In lieblicher Bläue was jointly commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The work will be performed again in a concert series running from 11 to 14 June 2015 by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Ludovic Morlot, and the German premiere in Berlin is scheduled for 2016.



Work of the Week – Christian Jost: Rote Laterne

Christian Jost’s new opera Rote Laterne (“Red Lantern”) will receive its world premiere on 8 March 2015 at Opera Zurich in a production directed by Nadja Loschky. The opera, with a libretto written by Jost himself, is based on the Chinese writer Su Tong’s novel “Wives and Concubines” depicting a girl broken down by the concubine system in 1930s China. The novel was turned into a successful film of the same name.

The subject of Asia has been a recurrent theme in Jost’s compositional career. He has long-established connections with Chinese orchestras and more recently was Composer in Residence in Taipei during their 2012-13 season. In several of his works Western musical training is merged with his passion for Eastern musical traditions – with Rote Laterne a prime example. The work is part of an opera trilogy together with Die arabische Nacht and Rumor, and in a theme common to Jost’s operatic output, the key role is played by a young woman typified by her modernity.

Song-Lian is the opera’s protagonist who marries into the traditional Chinese household of Master Chen as his fourth wife. In this remote and competitive house the ultimate goal is to be favoured by the Master, a status signified by the red lantern. Each time the lantern shines in front of one of the wives’ rooms, she climbs one step higher in the hierarchy of the house. Song-Lian however, refuses to accept a life where her sole aim is waiting for the lantern:

Song-Lian has more ambitious aims than merely succumbing to the finely spun web of intrigue and passion of Master Chen. The year she spends with him becomes a nightmare in which the seasons alter as they please and lust and jealousy dictate the hours of the day. As if in a dream she falls into a sequence of events, realising that the secret to her world lies at the bottom of a well. – Christian Jost

Later in March another work by Christian Jost will receive its world premiere: his BerlinSymphonie performed by the Konzerthausorchester under the baton of Iván Fischer on 20 and 21 March 2015 at the Berlin Konzerthaus.

Photo: Opera Zurich / Monika Rittershaus



Work of the Week – Hans Werner Henze: Pollicino

Hans Werner Henze’s children’s opera Pollicino opens at the Teatro Goldoni in Florence on 24 February 2015, conducted by Alessandro Cadario with the Orchestra del Conservatorio L. Cherubini di Firenze and the Coro di voci bianche Associazione Landini.

Based on a libretto by Giuseppe Di Leva, the idea for Henze’s Pollicino came from the most innocent of sources: the energy and playfulness of a group of children, the young ensemble “Concentus Politianus”. He wrote the opera for this group, who performed the world premiere in 1980 in their hometown of Montepulciano, Italy. Though the plot is reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, Henze also incorporates elements of political theatre and the resulting opera, performed by children for children, is intended to both teach and entertain. There are very few adult vocal parts, and in the orchestra pit children play recorders, guitars, violins and Orff instruments. The music itself, however, is far from childish, featuring several forms of aria, ensemble parts and orchestral interludes such as the march, waltz and tango. This stylistic range requires considerable understanding of musical form from the children, and learning to achieve this is at the centre of the opera.

When children act, sing and make music, they create and listen to sounds that they will encounter time and time again in their musical lives. They accept the sounds of the music when they play it, when many adults would disregard them as odd. Children aren’t aware of the judgements adults instate onto contemporary music. – Hans Werner Henze

Henze worked closely with the children in his composition of Pollicino, tailoring it to their musical skills and incorporating their ideas. In this way the opera treats its young performers very seriously: one of the main reasons for its ongoing success. Pollicino will run at the Teatro Goldoni until 28 February 2015.

Photo: National Theatre Weimar / Anke Neugebauer



Work of the Week – Peter Eötvös: Angels in America

This month, the University Theatre in Boston, MA will stage Peter Eötvös’ opera Angels in America in a production by Jim Petosa and directed by William Lumpkin, running from 19 to 22 February 2015.

Angels in America received its world premiere in 2004 in Paris, around twenty years after the events depicted in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of the same name on which the opera is based. The story explores the hysteria surrounding AIDS in mid-1980s America through the lives of a group of flawed, interconnected characters. Though Kushner’s script comments heavily on the politics of the time, Eötvös’ version is far more concerned with the fantastical elements of the play: his original attraction to the material was based on the omnipresent visions and hallucinations of the protagonists. These visions become central to the opera and its depiction of the emotional turbulence of the characters and their relationships.

In search of suitable musical material for the opera Eötvös and his wife Mari Mezei, who wrote the libretto, watched several Broadway performances – the showtunes were a huge influence on the sound of the opera, to which Eötvös added jazz and rock elements, references to Jewish music and recordings of everyday sounds. The resultant score is actively antithetical to the drama of the libretto and the severity of the plot:

It could have been indigestible were it not for Eötvös’ intelligently constructed hybrid of musical theatre and opera. Of course one can imagine the narrative’s disillusioned existentialism with matching music. But the longer you listen, the more pleasing Eötvös’ musical effect becomes: his clever, ironic way of playing and toying around, rather than throwing the music in your face. – Hans-Jürgen Linke (Frankfurter Rundschau)

Another of Eötvös’ operas Paradise reloaded (Lilith) will receive its German premiere at Theater Chemnitz under the baton of Frank Beermann on 21 March 2015.

Photo: Frankfurt Opera / Monika Rittershaus



Work of the Week – György Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre

On 14 February 2015, a new production of György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre will receive its premiere at Aalto-Musiktheater in Essen, Germany, directed by Mariame Clément and with music conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk.

Le Grand Macabre received its world premiere in 1978 in Stockholm. Ligeti himself called it an “anti-anti-opera”, referring to his simultaneous adherence to and distancing from operatic conventions. He does in some ways obey the rules of opera writing: the text can be clearly understood and the plot is defined within scenic limitations. However, Ligeti also consciously advocated the concept of breaking with opera’s traditions:

I was thinking schematically about creating comic events on stage, and the music was also supposed to be immediate, ridiculous, exaggerated, colourful and insane. The novelty of this music theatre shouldn’t manifest itself in the formalities of the production, but in the inner core of the music. – György Ligeti

Ligeti plunges into creating his vision from the outset: the opening prelude for twelve car horns shows what kind of musical excesses the audience can expect from Le Grand Macabre. The music accompanies and catalyses the events on stage, resulting in a celebratory overload of the senses. However, the anarchy in the orchestra pit is not simply a means to an end. Ligeti never loses track of the narrative plot of the opera, an approaching apocalypse in the fantasy world of Breughelland:

It is the calculating artistry that keeps the Grand Macabre with all its different ingredients in check. Transparency is created by consciously incorporating the details into the bigger picture. It allows us to realize the remarkable, macabre gravity of the situation that is part of the hilarious ambiguity of the opera. In the end, it leaves us with not only delight, but also an unpleasant feeling. – Ulrich Dibelius

Following the premiere, Le Grand Macabre will run in Essen until the 20 March. More information about the work and other opera heavyweights is available in the current issue of schott aktuell: Giants of 20th Century Opera.

Photo: Graz Opera / Dimo Dimov



Work of the Week – Stewart Wallace: Harvey Milk

On 7 and 8 February 2015, Stewart Wallace’s opera Harvey Milk will receive its Australian premiere at St Kilda Town Hall in Melbourne in a concert performance by the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus under the direction of Kathleen McGuire. The performance is part of the Midsumma Festival, an annual three-week celebration of LGBT culture that was established in 1989.

The opera, based on Michael Korie’s libretto, follows the life of Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay public official elected in 1977. It was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera, and received its world premiere in Houston in 1995. Ultimately the price of Milk’s commitment to equality was his life. After his death, schools and squares were named in his honour, and Sean Penn paid tribute to his career in the Oscar-winning movie “Milk” in 2008.

Wallace composed a score drenched in contemporary styles of music including jazz, rock and Broadway showtunes. His music does not shy away from harsh dissonances either, which are meant to draw attention towards a subject which is as important now as it was then. The response of the press showed he was right to take the risk:

Harvey Milk contains moments that are touching and zany and contemporary in ways that we are used to on the stage but hardly ever encounter in the opera house. And as it reaches its tragic conclusion, the opera suddenly feels both wrenching in its pain and heroic in its politics. At these moments Harvey Milk seems to open possibilities for a vital, risk-taking musical theater, free from the oppressions of tradition, good taste, and Masterpiece Theater restorationism. – David Schiff (New York Times)