Over the past week, I have witnessed three radically different performances that challenged the notion of classical music in each of their very particular ways.
First of all, the Opéra Lyrique production of “The Magic Flute”, Mozart’s last and utterly brilliant opera, is a story of love and death, cruelty and perseverance. It involves a multiplicity of personalities and at Lyric it comes fully dressed – and above all overwhelmed – with a very sophisticated and elaborate use of cutting edge 21st century animation. The work dates from 1791, also the year of Mozart’s death at the age of 35.
Next, a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert featuring exquisite classical works by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Mozart, with Robert Chen, the CSO’s master principal violinist since 1999, as the soloist of “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor ”by Bruch.
And finally, “Homecoming”, the latest entry in CSO’s MusicNOW series, was a showcase of the work of four contemporary composers who play fast and furiously with classical music forms.
Mozart composed 22 operas during his tragically short but brilliant life. The more you listen to all of Mozart’s music, whether for opera, symphony or other forms, the more you realize that everything he wrote is an extension of the emotional power of the human voice and its counterparts. instrumental.
Those who have seen the movie “Amadeus” may recall how the composer is seen transforming his wife’s shrill rant into the glorious, fiendishly difficult and angry aria coloratura for the Night Queen.
The queen of “The Magic Flute”, whose daughter, Pamina is the object of Prince Tamino’s love, is held captive by her rival, the elusive High Priest Sarastro, and his wicked executor, Monastatos. At the same time, Tamino’s companion, the unfortunate Papageno, bird catcher, is looking for a woman of his own.
This opera production, created by the London-based multimedia theater company called 1927, and first produced in 2012 at the Komische Oper in Berlin, was originally directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky, with Tobias Ribitzki directing his recovery. But it’s largely the brainchild of animation designer Paul Barritt. The fact that her work is an extremely ingenious and state-of-the-art visual experience, with components of both humor and horror – spiral musical notation and birds, giant black monsters, good women do, a noose hanging from a tree, and more – is undeniable. The same is true of the fact that the production could have been envisioned as a way of attracting a younger audience to opera. Donizetti’s nifty “The Elixir of Love” update earlier this fall showed that it can be done in a much more subtle way.
The relentless eye candy here, too, is immensely distracting, often overwhelming the singers, perching them in precarious positions and no doubt making their blockage something of a nightmare with their precise positioning on stage essential to the animation. In the process, much of Mozart’s music is “eclipsed”, as is the essential emotional exchange between the actual performers and their characters, despite the excellent musicians of the Lyric Orchestra and conductor Karen Jamensek.
The singers get a little less lost in the second act, or maybe it’s just a matter of finally getting used to all the electronic traffic. And in many cases, they even manage to soar, with baritone Huw Montague Rendall as Papageno easily engaging and comedic; the beautiful soprano Ying Fang, both vulnerable and unwavering as Pamina, the princess taken hostage; tenor Pavel Petrov as Prince Tamino, Pamina’s determined and honorable suitor; Lila Dufy as the fierce and angry Queen of the Night, who stops the show with her soaring coloratura; the impressive bass, Tareq Nazmi, as an easy-to-command high priest who oversees a series of heart-breaking trials for lovers; tenor Brenton Ryan as his truly demonic slave, Monostatos; Mathilda Edge, Katherine DeYoung and Kathleen Felty in the Three Ladies choir; Denis Velez as Papagena (whose name is a play on the German word for parrot), the answer to Papageno’s quest for a wife; and an excellent choir of men dressed in Abe Lincoln chimney hats.
“The Magic Flute” – an opera which, when left free, reinforces the idea that “music is the food of love” – will be performed on November 7, 11, 14, 17, 19 and 27. For tickets visit LyricOpera.org.
Thursday night’s CSO concert featured a trio of fine works, with guest conductor Marek Janowski, artistic director of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, working without a score. while conducting the final piece on the program – Mozart’s exuberant “Symphony No. 41 in C major (‘Jupiter’)”, performed with the usual orchestral brilliance.
The concert opened with “The Hebrides Overture” by Mendelssohn, a work I had never heard live before. Completely lovely piece, barely ten minutes long, it takes you to sea. It vividly captures the feeling of the wild waves that break around the isolated Scottish islands of its title with its feverish use of ropes, winds. and brass, its melodic beauty and its stormy but always lyrical urgency. A brief but exquisite work.
Next comes Bruch’s “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor”, an ideal showcase for Robert Chen and his honey-toned Stradivarius. It is announced by a brief and muffled sound of the timpani, then the initial sound of the violin, and a subtle pinching of the basses and cellos. There is a beautiful fluidity and warmth to Chen’s playing, and he and his fellow musicians easily captured a sense of the composer’s inner landscape, with the sound of French horns and other brass adding a sense of grandeur.
Chen was back in the chair of the first violin for Mozart’s Symphony, a work of great energy that soars to the composer’s genius to capture both the individual voices of the orchestra and their interplay. It was also a vivid reminder of how Mozart’s music still has a singing quality – the human voice has grown and glorified. A different form of opera in a way, and in this case a powerful reminder that its music is naturally lively and does not need animation or other enhancement.
Finally, the CSO’s MusicNOW program is hosted by Jessie Montgomery who has presented several of her rhythmically fascinating works, including “Strum” and “Coincident Dances”, performed by the CSO over the past few months. For the next three seasons, Montgomery will be the composer in residence of OSC Mead. This one-night-only concert, performed by musicians from the CSO, showed just how much what we call “classical music” can be pushed, pulled, fragmented, reinvented and even noted.
With “new music” it is really necessary to listen to a work several times before fully grasping it, in part because the structure can be so unfamiliar. But here are some first impressions, accompanied by this note: Michael Lewanski, the conductor of the program, had to face a slew of new musical languages, a test no doubt formidable, but which he handled with an impressive aplomb. , just like the different musicians involved.
The concert opened with “Scions of an Atlas” by Elijah Daniel Smith, a work of crazy syncopations, dissonances and numerous sound experiences involving strings, winds and brass, with unusual accents thanks to the percussions of Ian Ding and Mio. Nakamura at the piano. It culminated with a great crescendo and then a powerful silence.
Montgomery’s contributions come in the form of two songs performed by richly voiced soprano Whitney Morrison who needed greater clarity in her diction. The lyrics to the first song, “Loisaida, My Love” – whose title is a play in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan where Montgomery grew up – are the work of Bimbo Rivas, a poet of Puerto Rican descent. who was also a force in the development of affordable housing projects in this dilapidated neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s.
The second piece, “Lunar Song”, with lyrics by J. Mae Barizo, was written as an ASCAP commission to celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s centenary in 2019. I wish Montgomery had delved deeper into eclecticism Bernstein’s musical in the play.
Next comes the intriguing “Seen” by Nathalie Joachim, a woodwind quintet superbly performed by musicians Emma Gerstein on flute, Anne Bach on oboe, John Bruce Yeh on clarinet, Keith Buncke on bassoon and David Griffin on horn. The play’s five brief sections were inspired by artist Whitfield Lovell’s portraits of five unknown African Americans and everyday objects to which they might or might not feel connected. And while I doubt I would have guessed that was the underlying storyline, the shifting moods – a bit of during his Copland-esque lifetime, then a softer tone, a bit of syncope, and more – were variously reminiscent of a kite in the wind, a broken doll and a spinning reel. It’s a job that I need to hear again.
The last and most complex work on the program was Ted Hearne’s “Authority”, no doubt a mind-boggling challenge for his 12 musicians and Lewanski. Lewanski clearly had to invent a new sign language to signal them. Composed for winds, harp, piano, electric guitar, keyboard and strings, “Authority” is a cacophonous work with complex layers of immense rhythmic chaos and turmoil, with overlapping instrumental voices and frenzied rhythmic bursts. And I can’t begin to imagine how the score was marked. Hearne said “Authority” was an abstract attempt to suggest how we deal with views that are not our own. “
All the composers were present at the concert and made short and charming personal statements about their work.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic