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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)



Work of the Week – Gerald Barry: Day

On Wednesday 28 January, a new version of Gerald Barry’s Day for orchestra will receive its world premiere at the BBC Philharmonic Studio in Salford. The portrait concert is part of “Before the Road: The Music of Gerald Barry”, a two-day festival organised by the Royal Northern College of Music and BBC Philharmonic celebrating the work of the Irish composer. The BBC Philharmonic, who will premiere this new version under Clark Rundell, also performed the premiere of the original version of Day for string orchestra in 2006 with John Storgårds.

Day is music in the landscape. Watching, listening, standing still, all ears for every silence and sound. The winds have the same animal function as the orchestra in Kitty Lie Over Across From The Wall: an enormous creature suddenly appearing. – Gerald Barry

One of Barry’s earliest works, Kitty Lie Over Across From The Wall (1977) for piano and orchestra and written whilst studying under Mauricio Kagel, will also feature in the concert with pianist Nicolas Hodges. Barry’s Wiener Blut (2000), La Jalousie Taciturne (1996) and From The Intelligence Park (1986) complete the programme.

“Before the Road: The Music of Gerald Barry” takes place on 27 and 28 January. In addition to the BBC Philharmonic concert on 28 January, three chamber concerts and a ‘Conversation with Barry’ will be held at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.


Work of the week – Toshio Hosokawa: Blossoming II

Toshio Hosokawa’s orchestral work Blossoming II will be performed this week by two orchestras in four cities. As part of a short tour, the London Symphony Orchestra will perform the work under the baton of Robin Ticciati, travelling from the Austrian premiere in Vienna on 22 January via Linz on 23 January to London on 25 January. At the same time, Jun Maerkl and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will perform the work at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall on 22, 24 and 25 January.

Hosokawa’s string quartet Blossoming provides the groundwork for its successor, Blossoming II, which elaborates on the musical material and introduces new ideas. Blossoming II conjures the image of a lotus flower, slowly blooming and ascending towards the sun. The single sustained note rising out of silence in the beginning symbolizes the surface of a pond; any sounds below this note represent the world under the water, those that are higher portray the world above. Thus, a melody develops from below and rises higher and higher. A book about Buddhism and the blossoming of the lotus flower inspired this image, an important part of Japanese culture:

The deep roots of flowers in Japanese aesthetics and spirituality led me to them as the subject of this work. The flower and I are one; the blossoming of the flower represents my shedding of my skin, my self-discovery. – Toshio Hosokawa

Hosokawa intended to express a personal matter in Blossoming II: a critique of Japanese society’s great interest in Western culture that is gradually replacing its own ancient traditions. In writing his own music, Hosokawa aims to reverse this process and carve out a place for traditional Japanese aesthetics and music forms in the perception of culture in his home country.




Work of the Week – Ryan Wigglesworth: Études-Tableaux

On 16 January, Ryan Wigglesworth’s new orchestral work Études-Tableaux will have its world premiere performance at Severance Hall in Cleveland. Franz Welser-Möst will conduct the Cleveland Orchestra where Wigglesworth currently holds the position of Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow. The concert, which concludes with Mahler’s 6th Symphony, will receive a second performance on 17 January.

Wigglesworth drew inspiration for Études-Tableaux from aspects of material first conceived in 2009, redeveloping fragments from the original music in this new work. Throughout, Wigglesworth allows melodic and harmonic ideas to migrate and transform freely between sections. The central section is made up of several smaller episodes, all fast in tempo and crosscutting with a greater frequency. It is framed by chorale-like parts, a clarinet solo and sections that contrast slow with fast tempi.

My intention was to forge from these discrete panels a single arch-like shape, each section flowing into the next (sometimes with bridging material, sometimes not) without any hiatus. – Ryan Wigglesworth

The collaboration with the Cleveland Orchestra, commissioners of the new work, was made possible by the Young Composers Endowment Fund which previously supported Jörg Widmann during the 2010-11 season. The UK premiere of Études-Tableaux will take place on 6 February at London’s Barbican Hall, conducted by Wigglesworth.



Work of the week – Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Straussiana

The New Year’s Concert 2015 of Dresden’s State Operetta will be on 1, 3, 4, 8, and 9 January. It is titled after Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s work Straussiana and will equally be a homage to Johann Strauss. The Orchestra under the baton of Andreas Schüller will play other Strauss-adaptations by Korngold as well, and of course also original works of the Waltz-king.

Korngold, who had to emigrate in 1938 to the US, tried a comeback in Europe after the Second World War. He stayed in his home country Austria for some years but could not regain his former popularity. Finally he went back to Hollywood, where in 1953 he wrote his last orchestral work Straussiana, commissioned for America’s school orchestras. For the three sections “Polka – Mazurka – Waltz”, Korngold used some Melodies from rather unknown works of Johann Strauss like “Fürstin Ninetta”, “Cagliostro in Wien” and “Ritter Pasman”. Thus he created a charming and brilliantly orchestrated Potpourri. Since the 1920s, the composer committed himself to the operettas of Strauss and helped to perform forgotten works by adapting them carefully. Also his Geschichten von Strauss op. 21 for piano dates from this time. Korngold’s father Julius, a famous critic, wrote about his son’s devotion to Johann Strauss:

When he once had been asked to rehearse and perform a Strauss-operetta, he soon felt the urge to revive the receptivity for Strauss’ forgotten music. That is how Erich’s approach led to a kind of Strauss-renaissance. – Julius Korngold

After the experience of war and exile, the composer certainly felt a certain melancholy writing Straussiana, remembering the glorious past in his native city Vienna. Only four years later, he died in Hollywood at the age of sixty.